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Lightning and Thunder Gods and Goddesses
Photo courtesy of greek-islands.us.
The ancient Greeks believed that lightning came from the god Zeus, ruler of the sky.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In Norse mythology, lightning came from Thor, the god of war.
Photo courtesy of Thunderbird and Killer Whale Totem Pole & Killer Whale by Jimmy Joseph, Canadian Indian Art, Inc.
The thunderbird, seen at the top of this modern totem pole from the Squamish Indians, was believed to produce thunder and lightning.
Lightning is scary. Lightning is awesome. A bold explosion of light and sound appears suddenly overhead, in a looming, dark sky on a massive scale. Suppose you had little or no scientific idea of how and why it happens. Suppose your only clue came from what you saw and what you imagined. How would you explain it? Do you fear it or admire its power—or both?
Since early in human history, people have sought to make sense of this frequent and frightening phenomenon by weaving it into a broader mythology of how the world works. In the stories from various ancient cultures, mythical beings create lightning and thunder for various reasons, both evil and good.
The ancient Egyptian god of storms and chaos was Set (or Seth). In one story, this crude, beastly figure murders his brother Osiris. In another story, Set wields his mighty power with unflinching bravery to protect Ra, the Sun god.
In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, ruler of the sky, hurls bolts from the sky when he gets angry. But he also uses them skillfully as weapons to defeat his enemies, the Titans, and become the god of gods. A hymn describes Zeus’s bolts in terms of both fear and awe: “mighty, holy, splendid, light, aerial, dreadful-sounding, fiery-bright, flaming, ethereal [airy or barely there] light, with angry voice, lighting through lucid [clear] clouds with crashing noise.”
Like Zeus (and his Roman counterpart, Jupiter), the Indian god of storms, Indra, is also the king of gods. This red-and-gold-colored deity throws his thunderbolt both to kill enemies and to revive slain allies. He destroys demons and serpents, but he also helps create life by bringing light and water to the world.
The Vikings associated thunder and lightning even more closely with their god Thor, a hot-tempered, red-bearded warrior whose eyes flashed brightly. According to Norse mythology, Thor rode his goat-drawn chariot across the heavens during storms, creating lightning and thunder by throwing his hammer. He was revered as a war hero.
The Chinese thunder god, Lei Gong (or Lei Kung), creates thunder with a drum and a mallet. His gorgeous and colorful wife, Dian Mu (or Tian Mu), carries a pair of mirrors for flashing lightning bolts. Lei Gong, in contrast to his wife, looks old and ugly, with claws, wings, and blue skin. Yet his mission is an honorable one of justice. He strikes down criminals who have escaped earthly law.
In some mythologies, the lightning and thunder themselves are personified as living beings. A surprising range of Native American cultures, spread geographically far and wide, have stories that center on a Thunderbird or thunderbirds. In general, this supernatural beast flashes lightning by winking its eyes and booms with thunder by flapping its wings. Its counterpart is the serpent, and the two opposing beings keep each other in check. One Menomini story advises listeners to fear calm days, when serpents bask in the Sun, and to embrace stormy days, when thunderbirds chase away these dangerous serpents!