Lightning / History
by Claudia Hetze

In the Bible thunder is declared as the voice of God (Joh. 12,19).

According to Nordic mythology, the Celtic godfather Donar or Thor caused the phenomena in the sky, especially lightning and thunder. According to this, Thor swung the thunderstorm-hammer Mjöllnir. Thus, Roman writers compared him with Jupiter, the thrower of lightning.

Celts and Germanics considered the thunderstorm phenomena to be the noise of a battle caused by Thor fighting the enemies of mankind. The atmospheric phenomena which normally caused terror and fear were here considered as useful.

Greek mythology associates thunderstorms with lightning and thunder with godfather Zeus, son of Kronos. Zeus was also called "the one who thunders above". In the "Theogony" poetry by Hesiod (at about 700 b.C.) which represents the genesis of the regimen of the Gods, tells about Zeus: "Commanding the thunder, he thrones in heaven, sending flaming lightning since he powerfully defeated father Kronos." (Verse 71-73)

The world of the Roman gods is in many points equal to the one of the Greek. Instead of the Greek Zeus, Jupiter reigned the empire of the gods, being responsible for all the phenomena in the sky, especially for thunderstorms. The things or places struck by lightning were considered Jupiter´s property and thus were holy. Also a man struck by lightning, who survived, was considered as someone the gods did a favour to.

The predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, exactly observed the thunderstorm phenomena, especially lightning. They split the sky up into 16 parts in order to determine the meaning of the lightning. Lightning moving from west to north was considered disastrous, and lightning to the left hand of the observer was considered to be fortunate. Sometimes they thought that lightning fell as a stone or as sulphur. Many people believed in lightning and thunder stones, what is even provable in the medieval.

Anaximander (about 611 to 547 b.C.) and Anaximenes (585-540 b.C.), both scholars of the Greek philosopher and mathematician Thales developed a first theory on the formation of a thunderstorm. They considered the wind to be the reason. To them, thunder was air being pressed against and through the clouds. According to their opinion, the latter one caused the ignition of lightning.

Anaxagoras (499-427 b.C.), an Ionic nature philosopher, supposed an element called "fire in the clouds", the "ether" in the upper atmosphere and above. This "fire" enters the lower layers of air, and when it crosses the clouds it causes lightning and after that thunder, which comes up as a hissing sound and noise when the fire gets extinguished. This opinion has to be stressed especially because in antique meteorology thunder was considered to be the reason and lightning to be the effect.

The atomists Leukippos (about 440 b.C.) and Demokritos (about 420 b.C.), with only fragments and reports on their work having been transmitted, say: "Leukippos says that the escaping of fire having been enclosed in thick clouds causes heavy thunder." (Aetios 3,3,10). They also say: "Demokrit says thunder is caused by an inhomogenuous composition which violently forces its way downward…lightning forms when fire-causing matter forces its way from more pure and lighter homogenuous and - as he himself writes - solid compositions." (Aetios 3,3,11).

The poet Aristophanes (445-386 b.C.), treated meteorological questions in his comedy "The Clouds", where he constructs a dialogue between Sokrates and his rural scholar Strepsiades. Sokrates here declares the formation of lightning as a "dry wind" quenched in the clouds, which goes up in flames and burns out as it escapes.

Theoprat (371-287 b.C.), a scholar of Aristoteles, describes the phenomenon of lightning and thunder in a very detailed way. He gives seven reasons for thunder, explained in form of practical examples like the clapping of hands, the bursting of a bubble filled with air, the friction of millstones against each other, and others. The reason for lightning is explained in a similarly practical way: first by the sparking of stones, second by the ignition of sticks grinded in order to make fire, and third by iron that goes up in flames when it gets tempered. As a fourth reason he names the traditional opinion of Aristoteles that clouds are pressed and torn . With concern to the sequence of lightning and thunder, Theoprat leaves Aristoteles´ opinion:"…But lightning preceeds thunder for two reasons: because the fire leaves the cloud especially rapidly or because lightning and thunder happen at the same time: but lightning becomes visible very soon while the thunder is to be heard slower.. ." (Syrian excerpt from Theoprat´s meteorology 351b, 13-16). Again the philosopher supports his argumentation by a practical example by hinting to the observation of the splitting of wood seen from far, when you first see the hit and then hear the sound.

The sun and the moon (as a sister of the sun) were the main godnesses of the Incas. The King himself, the Inca, was considered a god and represented the sun. Lightning and thunder were the servants of the sun and were adored in special temples.


Did you see that Allah steers the clouds … and he sends mountains (of clouds) down from the sky, filled with hail, and with this he hits whoever he wants… The brightness of his lightning almost blinds the eye.
(Koran, 24th sure, verse 43)