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Jan 03, 2021
Man has long been fascinated by lightning. Before our collective knowledge advanced to the point that we've explained nearly all of magic in the world away, our ancestors must have looked up into the sky with both fear and fascination when thunder roared and lightning filled the sky.
It's no wonder that lightning was almost universally attributed to the gods.
One of the most well known of these portrayals is the Greed god Zeus. When Zeus was at war with Cronus and the titans, he released his brothers, Hades and Poseidon, along with the cyclopes. In turn, the cyclopes gifted Zeus the thunderbolt as his weapon.
In Slavic mythology, the highest god of the pantheon is Perun, the god of thunder and lightning.
Pērkons/Perkūnas is the common Baltic god of thunder, one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon. In both Latvian and Lithuanian mythology, he is the god of tender, rain, mountains, oak trees, and the sky.
In Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder. When Thor wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, thunder crashes and lightning fills the sky.
In Finnish mythology, Ukko is the god of thunder, sky, and weather. The Finnish word fo thunder is ukkonen, derived from the god's name.
In India, the Hindu god Indra is considered the god of rains and lightning and the king of the devas.
In Japan, the Shinto god Raijin is considered the god of lightning and thunder. He is depicted as a demon who strikes a drum to create lightning.
In the traditional religion of the African Bantu tribes, such as the Baganda and Banyoro of Uganda, lightning is a sign of the ire of the gods. The Baganda specifically attribute lightning to the god Kiwanuka, one of the main trio in the Lubaale gods of the sea or lake. Kiwanuka starts wild fires and strikes trees and other tall buildings. A number of shrines are established in the hills, mountains, and plains to stay in this favor. Lightning can also be invoked upon one's enemies by uttering chants and prayers and by making sacrifices.
I drove over 3000 miles in the course of seven days chasing storms and lightning, hoping to capture a shot like this. Although, these days a perfectly sound scientific explanation is immediately available to explain what we see and hear during a storm like this, I prefer to let my mind wander back to the days when we were terrified and awed by the power of the gods.
I was in the southwestern United States when I captured this image. So, I imagine the early Native Americans watching the sky explode and hearing the thunder roll and found myself wondering how they explained it. So, here's at least one myth that explained what they were hearing and seeing.
Long ago, a young man learned the secrets of the plants and animals. He knew which could be used to cure illness, which could purify the body and spirit, and which could help the People clearly see their thoughts and dreams. He came to be knows as Medicine Man.
Medicine Man loved a young girl named Clay Pot Woman, and she loved him. Soon they were married and they built a grass house outside the village.
One winter later, Clay Pot Woman was going to have a baby, but she grew ill and the birth was going to be difficult for her. Medicine Man went and gathered all the good herbs and plants to make the strongest medicine he could for both body and spirit. He burned some of the other plants to purify the air in the house. Other plants he placed at the head of Clay Pot Woman's bedding, to give her spirit comfort and strength.
After a difficult birth, Clay Pot Woman presented to Medicine Man with a son. Medicine Man gathered all the plants, the bedding, and the things left over from the birth and threw them on the midden pile. The medicine mixed with the things left over from birth and a magic event occurred, up from the midden pile spring another baby boy. Because the medicine was strong, the second boy was larger and seemed older. According to the People's custom, this would make him the older brother. Because he was not born in the grass house, he ran away into the woods and grew up with the wild animals.
Many winters passed and the young boy born in the hut grew up. His parents loved him and taught him well. He was still known by a boyhood name and he longed for the day when he would become a hunter and a warrior and earn a man's name. To prepare for that day, Medicine Man made him a strong bow and many straight arrows.
One day, Medicine Man went hunting and Clay Pot Woman went to the nearby river to get water for the day. Eventually, Medicine Man came home, but Clay Pot Woman did not. Fearing for his wife's safety, Medicine Man took his son to the river's edge. There they found her broken pot lying by the riverbank and two sets of footprints that went into the river. No footprints came back out.
Medicine Man knelt in the clay at the river's edge and wept. "The ogres from across the river have come and taken her away," he said. "The tribe of creatures that lives over there east people for supper. My wife, your mother, is gone forever." They boy knelt and wept with his father.
Medicine Man and his son mourned for six days. On the seventh day, Medicine Man went hunting. The boy was shooting arrows into a wooden target when, suddenly, another boy stepped out of the forest and greeted him. The other boy was taller and stronger and appeared older than the younger son of Medicine Man. He resembled their father and looked very much like the younger boy's reflection in the water. His hair was wild and unkempt and he wore no clothes at all.
They laughed and joked and shot the bow in turn. They became fast friends. At last, the wild boy revealed his secret. "I am your older brother," he said, "born out of father's magic. But you must not tell father about me. I choose to live in the forest."
As the sun was setting, wild boy left quickly before Medicine Man came home for supper. For four days it was the same and each night, missing the companionship of his brother, the younger son moped around and stared vacantly into the cooking fire. His father noticed and asked what was troubling him. The boy, who would never lie to his father, told him all about the wild boy.
"We must capture him," said Medicine Man joyfully, "and bring him into our house to become part of our family! When you see him tomorrow, tie four knots in the hank of his hair. By this magic we will capture him. I will transform myself into an insect and hid in the grass nearby." The next day, wild boy came. "Where is our father?" he asked, suspiciously. "He is not here," said the younger brother. "Then who is that man on the blade of grass?" asked the wild boy, and he ran back into the forest.
Four more times they tried to fool the wild boy. Medicine Man became a bird, he became a dog, he became a crawling bug and hid behind the fire. Every time, the wild boy saw him. Finally, the father told the younger boy, "Today I must go hunting, but if your brother should come, try to tie the magic knots anyway."
Medicine Man took his bow and arrows, but a short walk away from the yard he stopped and hung his weapon on a tree limb. He transformed himself into an insect and returned without his younger son's knowledge. The wild boy came again. "Where is our father?" he asked. "He is not here," said the younger boy. The wild boy smiled, came into the yard and they played together.
"Brother," said the younger boy, "you have a bug in your hair. I will take it out." With that, he tied four knots in the hank of the long hair. Just then, Medicine Man became himself again and led the wild boy into their home.
Medicine Man cut the wild boy's hair like the boys of the village wore it and gave him a robe made of buffalo calf skin. To show the wild boy that he was welcome in the family, Medicine Man presented him with a very special arrow, blackened from the smoke of herbs burned in the medicine fire. To show his love for his younger son, Medicine Man gave his younger son a blue arrow, painted with the juice and oil of many medicinal plants.
The brothers grew stronger and taller as the winters came and went. One day, in the spring, while their father was away for many days, wild boy said to his brother, "the time has come for us to take our manhood names. Let us go on a long journey." Each took his own bow, and his arrows, and parched corn to eat on the journey. Wild boy also carried his black arrow, the special gift from his father.
The young men walked the path deep into the forest. Wild boy led the way and they left the path to go into the dense woods. There, they met a great squirrel, larger than a dog, who was a friend of wild boy. The great squirrel gave the twins two pecans that had unusual power within them. The great squirrel told wild boy that his many friends in the forest remembered him and missed him. This gift was a remembrance from the animals and birds deep in the woods.
When night came, the twins made camp and planted one of the pecans in the soft earth. When they awoke the next morning, a great pecan tree had grown overnight. It was so tall that its upper branches were among the clouds, up in the world of dreams. Wild boy explained to his younger brother, "The Great Father above has special gifts to give us as we reach manhood. He promised me the gifts when I was a very little boy living in the forest. Now I will climb high in this tree and see a vision, a dream. All my bones will drop out of my body and fall to the ground. The head bone will fall last of all. You will think the I am dead, but it will not be so. Take my bones and put them in a pile, with the head bone on top. Cover the pile with my buffalo robe and shoot the black arrow into the air. Then call out to me, 'Look out brother, the arrow is coming straight toward you!'"
The younger brother was afraid to look up as wild boy climbed. Just as he had said, soon his bones began to fall, the head bone last of all. He gathered the bones, covered them, and shot the arrow. He called out, "Look out, brother, for the arrow is coming straight toward you!" Wild boy ran out from under the robe whole and healthy as ever, just before the arrow struck the buffalo hide. "Now," wild boy said, "you must also climb up and see your vision, your dream, and receive the powers the Great Father above has reserved for you. I shall do as you did for me, and we will meet here below afterwards."
The younger boy was fearful as he climbed into the clouds, but soon he felt warm and comfortable, as if he were asleep, and he saw a vision of power. He felt no pain as he fell out of the cloud and struck the earth.
But he did hear his brother call to him, and he ran out from under the buffalo robe, whole and healthy as ever. The arrow struck the hide and trembled upright. "What gift did you receive?" asked the older brother. "Listen," said the younger brother, delighted. He opened his mouth and spoke a word the rumbled like an earthquake and echoed off the trees and rocks.
"We will call you by the name Thunder," said the older brother. "What powers did you receive?" asked Thunder. "Look," said the older boy, and he opened his mouth and spoke a word that lashed out of his mouth like a snake's tongue, and flashed like flames reaching across the sky. "We will call you by the name Lightning," said Thunder.
The long day was ending, but strengthened by their new powers and their new manhood names, Lightning and Thunder walked together to the edge of the great river that ran past their village. As they laid down to sleep, they planted the second pecan. By daybreak, another great pecan tree and grown overnight. It's long branches drooped across the river, giving them a way to pass over. Lightning and Thunder climbed up the second great pecan tree and walked down its drooping branches to the opposite side of the river. There, after walking only a short distance, they came to the village of the ogres, creatures that eat people for supper and they saw piles of bones here and there in the grass.
"Look!" cried Lightning, pointing at a pile of bones. "These are the bones of our mother!" How he knew this, Thunder could not imagine, but he trusted his brother's wisdom. Quickly they piled all the bones in a heap, the head bone last of all. They put the buffalo robe over the bones and Lightning shot the black arrow into the air. "Look out mother," called Thunder, "for the arrow is coming toward you!"
The black arrow flew higher and higher into the sky, shot by all the strength Lighting could gather. Finally, it turned slowly and fell to earth, faster and faster. Suddenly, Clay Pot Woman ran out from under the robe. The black arrow struck the ground so hard it pierced deep through the buffalo robe and shattered into splinters. Despite the many years she had been gone from among the People, Clay Pot Woman knew both her sons the moment she saw them.
The great chief of the ogres came from his house nearby. He was very ugly and very cruel. As he approached, Thunder drew his blue arrow and notched it into his bow string. Somehow he know that this was the ogre that had taken their mother so long ago. Taking aim, Thunder sent the blue arrow at its target and the great beast-man fell dead.
Before the rest of the ogre village was roused, the three people ran back to the pecan tree and crossed the river. As they were on the branches, the first of the ogre warriors came running out of the village throwing spears. Thunder turned back and spoke his word, and the great roaring rumbled out across the water and frightened the ogres from ever coming across the river. Once across the river, Lightning turned back and spoke his word. A great white bolt of lightning writhed out of his mouth and split the great pecan tree so that its drooping branches fell into the river and washed away.
Soon they were back at the village and greeted Medicine Man. He embraced them all and they were a family again. They lived happily for many year, but finally the day came when Medicine Man, old and having lived a good life, died quietly. Clay Pot Woman did not stay long in this world without her husband. She soon was also dead.
Lightning and Thunder, now grown men, took the bones of their mother and father, wrapped them in buffalo robes and buried the bundles as the People had always done. Then, no longer wanting to be in this world, Thunder and Lightning went back down the forest path they had travelled so many years before, climbed the great pecan tree, and stepped off into the clouds. The old tree fell away beneath them and became a long log in the forest.
Thunder and Lightning lived thereafter in the sky. They come and go with the winds and the storms and the People below look up and remember.
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