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The Thunderbolt as Myth and Symbol
by David Talbott

A thunderstorm is a remarkable, often terrifying event. So it's not surprising that few scholars have paused to wonder about the prominent role of lightning in ancient mythology. Archaic images of huge lightning gods roaring in the heavens, or of celestial armies hurling lightning across the sky will appear perfectly "understandable." Thus, students of folklore assure us that, through the primitive logic of the lightning myths, our early ancestors sought to describe one of the more frightening aspects of everyday life.

This common supposition is unfortunate, however, because it has prevented even the most discerning comparative mythologists from seeing the underlying patterns, none of which describes the phenomenon familiar to us. As strange as it may seem, all of the most common lightning motifs speak of things never observed in our time.

Our comparative investigation has identified hundreds of recurring themes of myth, including numerous global images of lightning. The disconnection of these images from the observed behavior of lightning is an impressive anomaly. The usual tendency will be to look for what is intelligible under the tests of common experience. If, however, "UNCOMMON experience" is the basis of the global imagery, then this very habit must be confronted as a prime obstruction to discovery.

The lightning gods of old have a story to tell, and that story, when traced to its substructure, points to extraordinary natural events. The prime requirement for investigators in this field is an independent attitude, free from theoretical prejudice and eager to consider all patterns of ancient memory, even when the mythic themes make no sense under prevailing assumptions.


The interpretation offered here will add new opportunities for interdisciplinary exploration. Stunning revelations of plasma physics must be studied alongside ancient memories of the divine thunderbolt. Laboratory demonstrations will find a place next to prehistoric rock art. Ancient tales of prodigious gods battling in the sky must be compared with the massive scars on planets and moons, now revealed by space age probes. And recent telescopic images, revealing new worlds in space, must be considered on the same page with ancient astronomical traditions describing the thunderbolt as a weapon launched by PLANETARY gods.

Our ancestors lived beneath an alien sky, a world so different from what we experience today that historical descriptions required a vast complex of analogies to make sense of it. That is precisely what the lightning symbols give us. Great spectacles in the sky produced an explosion of human imagination--a myth-making epoch that had no counterpart in later times.

Let us begin, therefore, with the most common ancient symbols of the divine thunderbolt. All of the unusual motifs listed below find wide distribution in the ancient world--

Motif #1: Lightning takes the form of a frightful weapon--a sword, arrow, mace, club, spear, axe, or hammer.

Motif #2: Lightning is an ancestral warrior, the hero god who defeated chaos monsters in primeval times. Lightning-hero and lightning-weapon are frequently synonymous.

Motif #3: Lightning appears as a great bird or "thunderbird" with heaven-spanning wings.

Motif #4: Lightning is the flash of an "eye" in heaven. It is the destructive power of the "evil eye," destroying opposition.

Motif #5: Lightning is launched from a great wheel turning in the sky, the "chariot" of the gods.

Motif #6: Lightning is accompanied by falling stones or "thunderstones."

Motif #7: Lightning is the messenger of a central sun that ruled the sky before the present sun.

Motif #8: Lighting streaks along the world axis, acquiring the form of a towering column, the axis mundi. It is the pillar of the sky which, at the beginning of time, "separated heaven and earth."

Motif #9: Lightning is a generative, masculine pillar. It impregnates goddesses.

Motif #10: Lighting is a "chain of arrows" launched skyward by a great warrior or hero.

Motif #11: Lighting appears as a ladder or backbone of the sky, whose steps were ascended by an ancestral hero.

Motif #12: Lightning spirals, twists, or whirls across the heavens. It is a whorl, swastika, or triskeleon.

Motif #13: Lighting appears as an undulating, fiery serpent.

Motif #14: Lightning takes the form of twins, two brothers, or two companions, each viewed as the alter ego of the other.

Motif #15: Lightning is two serpentine or rope-like filaments wound around a central axis (caduceus motif)

Motif #16: Lightning appears as an equal-limbed cross; it explodes as luminous streamers, dividing the home of the gods into equal quarters.

Motif #17: Lighting "blossoms" as a flower, the celebrated plant of life.

Motif #18: Lightning is fire and brimstone (sulfur). The lightning of the gods gives rise to a sulfurous stench.

Motif #19: In their violent wars, the gods blast each other with lightning. Chaos monsters are destroyed by lightning.

Motif #20: Lightning leaves its mark on celestial heroes and chaos monsters, who are "lightning scarred," or "thunderstruck."

Motif #21: The lightning-scar or wound of the warrior-hero is the mark by which he is identified or recognized.


There is one more lightning motif that must be mentioned. This theme is perhaps the most enigmatic of all, and it traces to the earliest astronomical traditions. It seems that, amongst many ancient peoples, the owners of the lightning bolt were PLANETS, when the planets were claimed to have ruled the world. All of us are familiar with the ancient Greek images of Zeus, the bearer of the thunderbolt, wielding his weapon against the powers of darkness. Zeus is, of course, the Latin Jupiter, and classical images were strongly influenced by the Akkadian images of Marduk, the king of gods, the planet Jupiter, famous for the thunderbolt by which he assumed celestial sovereignty.

It was Immanuel Velikovsky who, in Worlds in Collision, drew our attention to the ancient memory of lightning passing between planets. The historian Pliny, for example, wrote: "Most men are not acquainted with a truth known to the founders of the science from their arduous study of the heavens." Thunderbolts, Pliny wrote, "are the fires of the three upper planets."

A vivid description of an interplanetary discharge was also given by Pliny: "Heavenly fire is spit forth by the planet as crackling charcoal flies from a burning log." When such a discharge falls on the earth, he reported, "it is accompanied by a very great disturbance of the air," produced "by the birth-pangs, so to speak, of the planet in travail." Pliny also referred to an ancient Etruscan tradition describing a bolt from the planet Mars that fell on Bolsena--"the city was entirely burned up by this bolt."

Similarly, Pliny's contemporary, the naturalist Seneca, distinguished the "lesser bolts" of the local storm from the vastly more powerful bolts of the planet Jupiter, "by which the threefold mass of mountains fell."


I've said it before, but the surface of world mythology is a madhouse, and on the matter of the thunderbolt we have a particularly telling example. It is as if the mythmakers took special pleasure in defying all experience, including direct and unassailable observation. The myths have no integrity. They insult our intelligence. How could a rational, feet-on-the-ground investigator see more than random fiction in these tales?

It is the recurring themes, the ARCHETYPES, that rescue us from such skepticism, enabling us to distinguish the substratum of human memory from the carnival of fragmentation and elaboration over time. An archetype is an irreducible first form--it cannot be reduced to a more elementary statement. And as far as can be determined from historical investigation, it has no precedent.

Archetypes as a whole are the keys to our understanding of ancient mythmaking imagination. In the remembered age of the gods, our sky presented to terrestrial witnesses a stupendous display of light, form, color, and sound, associated with concrete bodies in the heavens, evolving through well-defined stages. Sometimes exquisite, sometimes terrifying, these forms were, in the imagination of the sky gazers, divine and awe-inspiring gods. Thus the myths themselves insist that nothing comparable ever occurred over subsequent millennia.


A productive investigation of the archetypes will require three overriding principles:

1) The investigation must focus exclusively on common mythical, symbolic, or ritual themes: including all points of agreement between far-flung cultures.

2) Each verifiable theme must be traced to its earliest instances.

3) All common cultural expressions of the themes must be considered as evidence. Pictures illuminate ancient storytelling. Ritual celebrations give context to the pictures. Myths add crucial background to the rites.

Certain extraordinary facts can now be stated concerning the archetypes, and these facts challenge all prior explanations or theories of myth.

Fact #1: No archetype finds its natural reference in our familiar sky. All common themes of myth point to events that do not occur in our time.

Fact #2: All archetypes are inseparably connected to each other. No isolated archetype can be found. It is this stunning fact that encourages the investigator to seek out a unified explanation of the archetypes.

Fact #3: All archetypes trace to the beginnings of recorded human history. Following the flowering of ancient civilizations, it does not appear that any new archetypes arose.

We further claim that no comprehension of world mythology is possible apart from the memory of PLANETS extremely close to the earth, accompanied by earth-shaking electrical activity. It was not that long ago that heaven was alive with electricity as planets moved through a rich plasma environment. Ambient electrical activity gave rise to unearthly sights and sounds for which natural experience today can only provide the faintest reminder. In the wake of these events, cultures around the world strove to reckon with the forces unleashed, to interpret the meaning of cosmic catastrophe, and to REMEMBER.

>From this new vantage point, it is now possible for the serious student to follow the progression of the symbolic language from first form, or archetype, through later elaboration. The "Saturn model," about which we have spoken so frequently in this newsletter, is based on rigorous cross-cultural comparison. Hundreds of archetypes, traced to their prehistoric roots, provide the concrete basis for a series of "snapshots" showing an evolving planetary configuration as seen from the earth. Many of these first glimpses have been presented at seminars and conferences, and more will be presented at the upcoming conference, July 6-9. An introduction will be offered in the forthcoming book, Thunderbolts of the Gods (co-author is Wal Thornhill.)


As for the implications of the Saturn model, there can be little ambiguity. The model is both unique and highly specific. Moreover, our rules of investigation preclude selective perception, focusing entirely on an undisputed field of evidence: the verifiable themes, the archetypes. When measured against the known patterns of human memory, does the model meet the test of a good theory?

The role of electricity is crucial, and I must confess that I did not realize the full import of electricity until the meeting with Wal Thornhill late in 1996. For thirty days, Wal camped out in my office helping us prepare for the January' 1997 world conference. During that time he convinced me that the celestial images I had reconstructed were plasma discharge phenomena. This revelation proved to be a critical turn in the historical investigation.

For many years I had insisted that electromagnetism would have to be considered if we were to account for the remembered dynamics of the ancient Saturnian system. From the beginning I was convinced (following Velikovsky's lead) that lightning bolts had passed between planets. And I had identified the Valles Marineris on Mars as the lightning scar, wound, or disfiguring mark on the celestial warriors of mythology (the "Scarface" motif about which I've spoken elsewhere).

But prior to Wal Thornhill's arrival in Portland, I didn't even know what a Birkeland Current is, and I knew nothing about the unique configurations taken by plasma discharges.


While I've experienced many breakthroughs over more than a quarter century, this one exceeded all others. It was the first indication that, at a level of explicit detail, a convergence of myth and science may be possible. This, then, inspired me to reconsider the mythic thunderbolt in terms far more concrete than I had previously envisioned. Until then, I had treated the thunderbolt as a secondary symbol, a meteorological signpost only generally directing our attention to the sights and sounds of primordial times. I had not zeroed in on lightning as a core mythical motif, one inspired by the ELECTRICAL attributes of the planetary configuration itself. What you do not recognize you do not see.

Wal's revelations encouraged me to reconsider the thunderbolt from the ground up. Applying the principles of the historical reconstruction, I abstracted from my files a summary of the archaic forms taken by "lightning" in ancient texts and art. The conclusion was startling. The recurring patterns of lightning symbolism turn out to be nothing else than the extraordinary forms taken by the planetary configuration. When considered in their ancient contexts, not one of these archetypal forms is either logical or expected under our familiar sky. Hence, an entirely new level of evidence came into the picture.


There is more. Those who have seen some of the "snapshots" of the Polar Configuration will recall that the reconstructed images involve certain filamentary streamers radiating from planets or stretching between planets. In human imagination these were seen most commonly as braided hair, entwining ropes, streaming feathers, or undulating, twisting serpentine forms. Here the interactions of Venus and Mars within the configuration are most prominent, illuminating the global myths of the goddess and warrior-hero. (Several examples will be given in future installments in this series.)

One of the forms I will present at the upcoming conference is that of the far-famed caduceus. Another is the so-called "winged disk" and its many variants in the ancient world. Since these highly unusual forms answer to nothing in nature as we know it today, they must be included among the acid tests of the model.

But for now I must simply state the punchline--



This surprising picture emerged only in the past year. In my earlier reconstruction, I had followed the connections between an undulating, upward-spiraling, serpentine form and two powerful mythical motifs--the "chain of arrows" and the "ladder of heaven." Gathered around these motifs in texts and art are numerous other themes, including: backbone of the sky, tower of heaven, flared skirt of the mother goddess, pyramid or steps of ascent, bound serpent or dragon, severed limbs of the serpent or dragon, and more. In the course of assimilating this material, it became clear to me that a simple evolutionary sequence explained the full range of symbolic connections, if one allows for the three-dimensional perspective of an observer on earth.

At the heart of this evolutionary sequence is the "chain of arrows" event, a global theme so preposterous as to mock every attempt of comparative mythologists to understand it. In this theme an ancestral warrior or hero launches arrows toward the sky, and each arrowhead embeds itself in the one above it. The chain of arrows then becomes a ladder by which the hero ascends to heaven. Numerous examples of the theme will be found in the Americas alone, but other examples occur from Africa and India to the South Pacific. In the Kathlamet legend of a hero named "Many Swans," this great ancestor launches a stream of arrows heavenward, these forming a ladder of ascent to the sky. In the Hindu _Ramayana_ the arrows of Arjuna form a bridge capable of carrying the mighty Hanuman, the traveler between worlds.

>From a systematic examination of ancient pictographs, I had concluded that the chain of arrows involved a series of toroids stacked along a central spine and that these toroidal forms had evolved violently from a luminous filament spiraling up the polar axis. Additionally, since Wal Thornhill had persuaded me that the unique phases of the polar configuration involved plasma discharging, I became increasingly aware of the vital links between the arrow-chain and the mythical "lightning" of the gods. In 1997 I had sketched out the unique form of the arrow-chain for Wal. He replied that this configuration must indeed have its explanation in plasma behavior. He agreed to look into it.


Then came one of the great surprises in the history of the research. It occurred only last September, when Tony Peratt, one of the world's most accomplished plasma theorists, described the violent evolution of a plasma discharge form that he had documented over more than two decades. In plasma science this configuration is named after Tony--it is called the "Peratt Instability." From the moment of this revelation, nothing has been the same. The correspondence between the global pictographic record, our reconstruction based on historical testimony, and the extraordinary forms of the evolving discharge in the laboratory is simply "too specific and too precise to be due to accident" (not my words, but the words of plasma experts).

The result of this new information is that the "chain of arrows," one of the most perplexing archetypes, is no longer seeking an explanation. Moreover, these revelations will bring us into direct liaison with leading experts in plasma science, and the convergence appears to be more powerful than anything we had previously hoped for.

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