Thunderbolts of the Gods
By David Talbott
"It is the thunderbolt that steers the universe!"
These are the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, living in
the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. To our ears today, the words
are quite meaningless and easy to dismiss along with a thousand
other "superstitions" of the ancient world. But in truth they
point to an archaic teaching which, were it comprehended in our
time, would overturn modern cosmology and transform our
understanding of the human past.
Cross-cultural analysis will show that the mythic thunderbolt held
a most prominent place in the imagination of all early
civilizations. But this awesome weapon of the gods is only
indirectly connected to the "lightning" familiar to us today.
Typically, the ancient stories describe the gods hurling their
weapon not against humanity, but against each other, thereby
throwing the heavens into turmoil. Universally, the thunderbolt
is a symbol of cosmic upheaval - events powerful enough to re-
arrange the heavens and change the course of human history. That,
at least, is the way the ancient poets and historians remember it.
The flaming weapon is most familiar to us in the images of the
Greek Zeus (Jupiter), who hurls his bolt across the sky. It is
this fiery weapon which proves decisive in the god's
confrontations with such chaos powers as the dragon Typhon or the
The god Yahweh, in Hebrew accounts, brandishes his lightning bolt
against Rahab or Leviathan, the dragon of the deep, as the whole
world trembles. Similarly, it is with lighting that the Babylonian
Marduk blasts the dragon Tiamat, whose attack threatened to
As we trace such images back to their earliest sources, we find
that the feared thunderbolt really has nothing to do with local
storms or regional events. When the world falls out of control, a
sovereign god employs the weapon on behalf of "order" or renewal
of the world after devastating catastrophe. When we examine the
accounts systematically and in their specific details we see how
clearly they exclude the popular interpretations given in our own
As the ancient chroniclers tell it, even the gods themselves are
"scarred" or "wounded" by blasts of lightning. Lightning streaks
along the world axis, presenting the form of a luminous pillar in
the sky. Repeatedly, we find popular warrior-gods taking the form
of the lightning-weapon, while numerous mother goddesses are
"impregnated" by the same fiery bolt. Or the lightning-weapon is
hurled as a spiraling sphere trailing fire. Among numerous
ancient cultures we find thunderbolts appearing as symmetrically
arranged "arrows" launched toward the four quarters of the
heavens, represented pictographically by a cross of light.
Everything about the mythic lightning bolt is enigmatic, as if
utterly divorced from natural experience. And yet the symbolism
consistently points back to archetypal forms and events. Why was
lightning, in the first astronomies, wielded by gods who are
identified as planets? Why was the fiery bolt itself often
presented with a twisted or corkscrew form? And how do we account
for the famous "sulfurous stench" said to accompany the lightning-
stroke? Or the universal claim that meteorites or stones
("thunderstones") fell with the lightning of the gods?
A modern reader is easily desensitized to such "make believe."
Were not all early races the victims of ignorance and wild
imagination? All too frequently we grow so accustomed to the
fantastic aspects of their accounts that we lose interest in the
details. Or worse, we fail to notice the recurring patterns, the
most vital keys to discovery. The thunderbolt will illustrate the
extent of this dilemma while carrying us well beyond the
particular symbol. As we intend to demonstrate, the patterns of
ancient memory are simply too powerful, too detailed, and too
consistent to be explained in the usual way.
UNSTABLE SOLAR SYSTEM
Much of the emphasis of this book will be on the dynamic and
unpredictable roles of planets and moons, when they moved through
highly active electrical fields. Planetary motions observed today
are not a reliable guide to solar system history. But it seems
that over many centuries observational science came increasingly
under the spell of a predictable and uneventful planetary
arrangement, and now certain questions are rarely if ever asked.
How stable is the solar system? Have the planets always moved on
their present courses?
For many years, a principle called uniformitarianism has ruled the
sciences. The principle says that evolutionary processes
occurring in the past can be deduced from processes observed now.
It is assumed, for example, that by noting uniform natural
processes today, an observer can deduce how long it took the crust
of the earth to shift and mountains to rise, for wind and water
erosion to occur, and for lava flows and regional floods to sculpt
the Earth's unique surface features.
With the arrival of the space age, the same principles were
applied to the natural events shaping the surfaces of planets and
moons. As our probes sent back vivid images of planetary surfaces
and the surfaces of the remote moons of Jupiter and Saturn,
geologists drew primarily on a count of craters to "date" the
surfaces. They simply projected theoretical impact rates
backwards across great spans of time, and the results were the
presumed "dates" for different surfaces, typically ranging from
millions to billions of years.
Such suppositions as these have guided data analyses throughout
the space age. But are these suppositions really justified?
Suffice it to say, if their assumption of uniformity is incorrect,
planetary scientists have directed many billions of dollars toward
asking the wrong questions.
From the nineteenth century onward, the uniformity principle
remained unchallenged. Undoubtedly that underlying supposition
constrained the thinking of historians as they began to explore
the world of our early ancestors and to offer translations of
previously unknown ancient texts.
Antiquarians—ethnologists, archaeologists, and students of the
archaic languages—assumed without question that the celestial
forms celebrated in the great "sky religions" answer to the Sun
and Moon and other bodies as they appear in our sky today. But
what would happen to our understanding of the myth-making age if
we set this supposition aside just long enough to ask the
question: What were the sky-worshippers seeing in the heavens
when they invoked the prodigious forms of the gods? And what did
they mean by the gods' awe-inspiring weapons of fire and stone?
We would be remiss if we failed to make clear that both authors of
this volume were independently inspired by the work of Immanuel
Velikovsky, one of the most innovative and controversial theorists
of the 20th century. In 1950, Velikovsky's bestseller, Worlds in
Collision, presented evidence for global catastrophes in
historical times. He wrote that only a few thousand years ago
planets moved on erratic courses and more than once the Earth
itself was disturbed by errant planets. These upheavals,
according to Velikovsky, were memorialized around the world in
myth, art, ritual, language, and architecture.
Three principles were paramount in Velikovsky's hypothesis:
1. Unstable motions and near-collisions of planets have produced
large-scale terrestrial catastrophes on the earth.
2. Ancient cultures preserved massive records of these catastrophes.
3. Taken as a whole, historical records suggest a vital role of
electricity: In catastrophic episodes, great bolts of lightning
passed between planets.
Velikovsky's approach was interdisciplinary. He used the
insights of a professional psychoanalyst and the methods of a
trained historian to investigate the astronomical, mythical, and
religious traditions of diverse cultures. He discerned deeply
rooted themes which others had failed to see. These cultural
records told the story of traumatic events, apparently experienced
on a global scale. Using a comparative method, he pieced together
a coherent story.
In support of his reconstruction he found physical evidence from
geology, paleontology, and archeology. He also formulated a series
of predictions-consistent with his hypothesis, but unexpected by
previous theories. He predicted that the planet Jupiter would
emit radio signals; that the planet Venus would be much hotter
than astronomers expected; and that craters on the moon would
reveal remanent magnetism and radioactive hot spots. Velikovsky's
ability to anticipate scientific discovery produced a surprising
statement from the renowned geologist Harry Hess (in an open
letter to Velikovsky in 1963):
"Some of these predictions were said to be impossible when you
made them. All of them were predicted long before proof that they
were correct came to hand. Conversely I do not know of any
specific prediction you made that has since been proven to be
false. I suspect the merit lies in that you have a good basic
background in the natural sciences and you are quite uninhibited
by the prejudices and probability taboos which confine the
thinking of most of us."
For ourselves, the authors of this work believe that Velikovsky
was incorrect on many details of his reconstruction. But his
place among the great pioneers of science will be secure if he was
merely correct on the underlying tenets of his work: an unstable
solar system in geologically recent times; close encounters of
planets marked by interplanetary electrical discharges;
catastrophic disturbances of the Earth; and human witnesses to
these events; all with the most profound effects on human
imagination and on the collective activity of early civilizations.
In the 50 years since Worlds in Collision was published, the
viewpoint of orthodox science has changed dramatically, leading
some to say that the only mistake Velikovsky made was presenting
his theory at the wrong historical time. Over the intervening
decades various innovators began to investigate catastrophic
possibilities previously ignored.
One of the milestones in this trend was the hypothesis of Leo and
Walter Alvarez, claiming dinosaur extinction by asteroidal impact.
While the initial response of official science was ridicule, over
time the hypothesis began to gain general acceptance within the
scientific community. Soon thereafter, the respected biologist
Stephen Jay Gould acknowledged the occasional catastrophe in a
theory of "punctuated equilibrium." And the British astronomers
Victor Clube and William Napier opened the door even further by
postulating cometary or asteroidal disasters so recent as to have
inspired vivid human stories (myths) of these events.
Then several other astronomers, astrophysicists, and geologists
added support to such speculations. Among these theorists are the
eminent astronomers Fred Hoyle and Tom Van Flandern. According to
the latter theorist, an "exploding planet" devastated the surfaces
of Mars and other bodies in the solar system, perhaps leaving its
scars on human imagination as well.
And now, a half century after Worlds in Collision, a few well-
accredited catastrophists, including dendrochronologist Mike
Baillie, are beginning to admit a debt to Velikovsky, usually with
the disclaimer that of course he was wrong about unstable planets
being involved in these events. This general assessment of
Velikovsky is shared openly by the popular science and science
fiction writer, Jerry Pournelle, on his website
"Taken as a whole, Velikovsky's specific hypotheses are, in my
judgment, quite beyond belief. On the other hand, his general
hypothesis, that there were astronomical terrors in the Bronze Age
and memories of them have come down to us in myths and legends,
has always seemed to me to be well worth taking seriously and is
in fact very probably true."
We want to make it clear at the outset that the authors of this
upcoming book stand with Velikovsky—if not on all the details of
his reconstruction, then certainly on the general principles.
When it comes to solar system stability we believe that Velikovsky
was fundamentally correct, though it is certainly understandable
that many intelligent writers find the errant planets of Worlds in
Collision "quite beyond belief."
Indeed, belief itself may be the greatest obstacle to objective
investigation on this subject, given the inertia of prior
assumptions. The very idea that wandering planets could quickly
settle into their present highly uniform and predictable orbits is
simply too much to countenance under accepted principles of
Newtonian gravity and energy conservation.
But in fact, the issue can be resolved dispassionately. The belief
in uniform planetary motions over millions of years, though
understandable, is just a belief. Placed within a wider field of
evidence—a field ranging across the global testimony of ancient
cultures and into a vast library of space age data—the very
foundations of the belief will collapse.
Newton developed the concept of gravitation in 1666, eight decades
before Franklin flew his kite and more than two centuries before
Maxwell wrote his famous equations. Astronomy developed in the
gaslight era before electricity was known.
In this volume we intend to show that something is missing from
the standard treatments of planetary history and celestial
dynamics. That missing component is electricity.