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Black spherules produced by an electric discharge (18 April 2010).
Courtesy of: Vemasat Research Institute, Colleyville, Texas, United States of America.


The Eggs of the Thunderbird
Dec 03, 2010

That lightning can leave lasting impressions in the landscape is well known. Fulgurites – also familiar as ‘petrified lightning’ – are amorphous, sometimes tubular structures formed when quartz sand is fused under the influence of a lightning strike. Can atmospheric plasma produce similar transformations on the surface of other material than sand?

An affirmative answer is suggested by recent experiments conducted by the American plasma physicist, C. J. Ransom, and the Australian physicist, Wallace Thornhill. The pair discovered that spherules are often created when an electrical discharge is unleashed upon materials as diverse as a piece of iron oxide, carbonates, manganese dioxide, aluminium, magnesium silicate, rutile, perlite, diatomaceous earth, and hematite.

Although these experiments have only scratched the surface of a phenomenon almost entirely new to science, patterns are already beginning to emerge that link the intensity and duration of the discharge, coupled with the chemical composition of the affected metal or mineral, to specific qualities of the spherules that are formed – their quantity, size and distribution, their relationship to craters, whether they are hollow, and so on. For example, it appears that hematite impacted by an electric discharge tends to produce hollow spherules with relatively thick walls.

While the potential impact of these findings on geology may be considerable, the fledgling sub-discipline of geomythology is likely to reap benefits, too. A large set of superstitions and mythical traditions worldwide are concerned with ‘eggs’ and ‘boulders’ deposited on occasion of lightning flashes or other luminous transient events in the atmosphere. Such traditions typically do not belong to the framework of creation mythology, but exist in isolation as a type of ‘proto-scientific’ folklore. The following Korean legend allegedly describes events taking place during the first century BCE:

'Suddenly there was a lightning-flash, and an auspicious rainbow stretched down from heaven and touched the earth in the south by the well called Najŏng in the direction of Mt. Yang, where a white horse was seen kneeling and bowing to something. … the white horse neighed loudly and flew up to heaven on the rising veil of the rainbow, leaving behind a large red egg (some say a blue egg) lying on a giant rock near the well'.

Another tale from the Korean peninsula relays how 'a purple ribbon with six round eggs came down from heaven' in the region of Gimhae, northwest of Busan, in the year 42 CE: 'Lo! The heavens opened and a purple rope descended to the earth, with a golden bowl wrapped in a red cloth tied to the end of it. When the cloth was removed the bowl was found to contain six golden eggs, round like the sun. The people worshipped the eggs …' Or again: 'Spirits descended to place eggs in the mountains, hiding themselves in the mist. In the darkness a voice was heard but noone was to be seen. The gathering crowd responded to the voice with dance and song. After seven days the wind blew hard and the clouds cleared, and from the blue heavens six round eggs descended at the end of a purple string'.

Illyeon, the 13th-century chronicler of these beliefs, dismissively judged that 'these stories are too fantastic to believe, although they have traditionally been accepted by the populace as facts'. Nevertheless, the operation of some genuine natural event is suggested by cross-cultural parallels. A legend from the Balkar people of the northern Caucasus testifies to the formation of a crater around a sky-fallen rock:

The primordial blacksmith Debet saw 'an enormous star with a tail flying in the middle of the sky, and it was brightly lighting up the whole world'. On approaching the place where it had landed, he saw: 'a huge hole, and in the middle of it was a large dark blue stone, which had split in two'.

The possibility that this concerned a meteorite fall rather than the forging of a spherule does not apply to striking parallels furnished by the Zulu, of South Africa, who conceived of lightning as the hen Inyoni Yezulu, or else as a bird called Impundulu or Intakezulu. One informant, Umpengula Mbanda, dwelled on the physical traces this creature leaves behind:

'… for where the lightning strikes the ground, the doctors say there is something resembling the shank of an assagai, which remains in the earth, and this thing is called a thunderbolt; they dig till they find it, and use it as a heaven-medicine; and so they say that the courage which they possess of contending with the heaven is that thunderbolt, which is found where the lightning has struck'.

As in the Korean account, the treasure is only discerned once a 'fog' has cleared: 'But as regards that bird, there are many who have seen it with their eyes. And especially doctors, and those persons who have seen it when it thunders and the lightning strikes the ground; the bird remains where the ground was struck. If there is any one near that place, he sees it in the fog on the ground, and goes and kills it. … he sees that it is quite peculiar, for its feathers glisten. A man may think that it is red; again he sees that it is not so, it is green. But if he looks earnestly he may say, "No, it is something between the two colours, as I am looking at it”'.

Another Zulu report draws attention to the grooves cut into the surface when the lightning bird 'comes down to earth to lay its eggs':

'When coming to lay its eggs, it sweeps down over the earth, and in order to stop its speed it digs up a furrow in the earth. Where the furrow ends, there its eggs will be found'.

A disturbance of the ground is also implied by the claim that 'the Lightning-bird buries itself in the ground where it strikes'.

Similar beliefs occur elsewhere. Salish people, from the Pacific northwest coast of North America, would explain 'the large black stones found in the country' as the arrows of the Thunderbird, 'a small, red-plumaged creature which shoots arrows from his wing as from a bow, the rebound of the wing making the thunder, while the twinkling of his eyes is the lightning …'

Some of the Sioux, Dakota, 'imagined that the large boulders on the northern prairies were the spent ballistics of the Water Monsters, hurled up at the Thunder Birds who struck back with lightning'. Whereas the geomythologist, Adrienne Mayor, adduces kangi tame or 'bolts of lightning which have turned into black stones shaped like spear points', and explains these as pointed belemnites, such fossils are hardly large enough to qualify as 'large boulders'; a closer study of the Sioux tradition is desirable.

Be that as it may, it is tempting to relate such anecdotal reports of hollow ‘eggs’ and massive rocks discovered in the wake of lightning to the spherules recently generated by plasma under laboratory conditions. The comparison does leave a number of loose ends, however.

For example, the material cited from Korea and the Caucasus invariably adds that some heroic or royal ancestor hatched from the preternatural eggs – respectively Park Hyeokgeose, Kim Suro and the other kings of Gaya, and the Nart hero Yoruzmek.

As the study of these spherules is itself still in its infancy, however, it would be premature to dismiss the analogy with such accounts on this ground. Perhaps a lightning strike potent enough to generate a spherule on the ground would create a local magnetic field sparking hallucinations in the minds of sensitive observers – the discovery of diminutive beings inside the shells would then shade into similar aspects in the phenomenology of ball lightning and UFO lore.

Another factor to consider is that spheres of plasma, known as ‘plasmoids’, may also form along the z-pinch, or the path of discharge, itself, well above the actual surface material. Like spherules created on the ground, such plasmoids can also be identified in the traditional lore of different cultures – abundantly so – but they may need to be formally distinguished from the spherules produced in Ransom’s and Thornhill’s laboratories.

Ample fertile ground for exploration, but before such highly conjectural ideas should be addressed, scientists need to be on the ball insofar as the basic physics of plasma-generated spherules are concerned. This leaves the ball in the court of the geophysicists.

Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis


The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



“The Thunderbolt that Raised Olympus Mons”



"The Cosmic Thunderbolt"

YouTube video, first glimpses of Episode Two in the "Symbols of an Alien Sky" series.


And don't forget: "The Universe Electric"

Three ebooks in the Universe Electric series are now available. Consistently praised for easily understandable text and exquisite graphics.

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EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
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