On Thundergods and Thunderbolts
A storm-god (Marduk?) holding two double-forked tripartite lightning bolts (Zeus, Arthur Cook, 1925, Fig 728)
"To people of an earlier civilization, living in vulnerable houses of wood or in tents and caves, such a sight as this [a major thunderstorm] must have been terrifying indeed. It is not surprising then that thunder is visualized, in lands where storms are frequent, as the manifestation of divine power, and symbolized accordingly throughout the world."
The thundergod himself, according to this view, is an invisible Oz-like being acting behind the scenes to bring about the thunderstorm and its attendant visual and auditory phenomena. It is our opinion that such views are so wide of the mark as to be virtually worthless as a basis for understanding ancient myth and religion. In what follows we hope to offer a new interpretation of the thundergod as a visible planetary power. Aided by new discoveries in plasma physics, particularly as elucidated and reconstructed by Wal Thornhill and others, the curious mythology associated with the omnipresent thundergod suddenly begins to unravel, revealing a fascinating tale of interplanetary thunderbolts and apocalyptic cataclysm.
It would be impossible to do justice to the vast body of traditions surrounding the thundergod and his weapon in an article-format, and thus it will be necessary to confine our analysis to a few select examples of the various motifs. It should be understood that countless other motifs actually exist, many of which are equally fascinating and ultimately interrelated. It is hoped that the observations to follow, which should be viewed as preliminary in nature, will serve as a spark and help lay the foundation for further study.
The Electric Universe
For many years now, Wal Thornhill has been arguing that the universe is governed at a fundamental level by electromagnetic forces. Recently (September, 2000), at the annual Kronia conference, Thornhill presented an impressive body of evidence that various planets in the solar system had only recently experienced significant episodes of catastrophic scarring. The surfaces of Mars, Venus and Io in particular offer striking examples of extensive rilles, circular cratering, and "fretting" which Thornhill would interpret as the result of an electrical scarring process akin to machine-arcing.
Thornhill's theory, heavily influenced by the views of Ralph Juergens and Immanuel Velikovsky, has profound ramifications for our understanding of the recent history of the solar system. It also offers important insights for understanding of the physico-dynamical conditions that prevailed during the so-called polar configuration. In Thornhill's view, the polar configuration consisted of a number of planets moving together in a plasma sheath, the latter providing a balancing electrical force that acted with gravity to keep the planets in alignment but also to buffer the planets against catastrophic collision. A distinguishing characteristic of plasmas everywhere is the generation of so-called Bierkeland currents, named after Kristian Bierkeland, who discovered the phenomenon in 1905. Bierkeland currents are illustrated in figure one. As experiments have shown, plasma sheaths are regions of strong electric fields and therefore electric currents. The resulting Birkeland current filaments follow the magnetic field lines. So for planets in close proximity inside Saturn's plasma sheath, Bierkeland currents will flow between the planets along magnetic field lines to the polar regions, according to Thornhill.
As the various planets participating in the polar configuration moved relative to each other, or as the environment of the configuration as a whole fluctuated in response to the Sun's increasing influence, complex electrical effects would have been sure to follow. In addition to the possibility of an exchange of massive thunderbolts between the various planets, one can imagine unusual aurora-like effects associated with the periodic formation and excitation of the Birkeland currents moving along the polar axis.
What, then, does the mythical record reveal about the possible role of electrical forces? The abundant traditions involving the thundergod and the generation of lightning offer a particularly relevant test of the Saturn theory: will they conform with the stereotypical experience of thunderstorms in the current solar system, or will they point instead to the radically different conditions which formerly prevailed during the polar configuration?
A Universal Archetype
Virtually every culture has preserved memory of a "thundergod," a towering and tumultuous figure whose modus operandi is the generation of lightning and the hurling of death-dealing thunderbolts from the sky. A prominent character in ancient pantheons, shaman rites, and religious iconography, the thundergod often doubles as a god of war. The Inca god Illapa is a case in point:
"Lightning in Inca religion was the major theophany of the weather god, known as Ilyap'a, now usually hispanicized to Illapa…Illapa was also the god of war, of trade, and god of death. It was represented as a constellation outlining a man wielding a club in his left hand and a sling in his right."
One of the most popular gods in North America is the so-called Thunderbird, described as a towering bird spanning heaven. Numerous tribes preserve traditions of the bird that hurls lightning from heaven, bringing destruction and fire:
"The well-nigh universal American conception of the thunder is that it is caused by a bird or brood of birds—the Thunderbirds. Sometimes the Thunderbird is described as huge, carrying a lake of water on its back and flashing lightnings from his eyes; sometimes as small, like some ordinary bird in appearance and shy;even the humming-bird occurring as an analogy."
The Thunderbird is also common throughout South America. Indeed, as Hultkrantz argued, there is good reason to believe that such concepts were once widespread throughout the New World:
"The concept of the thunderbird exists in Gran Chaco, in Ecuador, and among the Caribbeans on the northern coast of the continent. Its range indicates a more extensive presence in earlier times than is now the case."
The Egyptian Min offers an early example of the thundergod, his defining symbol appearing already on predynastic pottery and rock art tracing to the fourth millennium BCE. In addition to serving as a god of storm and war, Min also featured prominently as an agent of fertility.
The ancient Semitic thundergod Hadad/Adad, whose name is thought to be cognate with Arabic haddat, "thunder," was likewise represented as a warrior. Illustrations of the long-haired and bearded god holding an axe and/or lightning are common throughout ancient Mesopotamia (see figure two). Early epithets of the god, including Bir-qu, Lugal-ri-ha-mun, and Mer-ta-i-mu, identify him as the lightning, King of the Hurricane, and thunderer respectively. Adad is elsewhere represented as a promoter of fertility, a pattern we will discover in other thundergods around the world. Thus, an Assyrian prayer invokes Adad as follows: "thunderer, splendid, mighty god, terror, doughty warrior, who wields lightning, master of the deluge…you make abundant greenery."
The most familiar example of the thundergod is the Greek Zeus, whose resemblance to Hadad was commonly acknowledged by the ancients themselves. Although the cult of Zeus was subject to profound evolution, often to the extent that his original nature was largely obscured, the portrait of the god offered by our earliest sources is consistent and it conforms to that of an agent of thunder, lightning, wind and rain. It would also appear likely that the archaic Zeus was a god of war. Burkert describes the Homeric Zeus as follows:
"Zeus, according to his Homeric epithets, is the cloud gatherer, the dark-clouded, the thunderer on high, and the hurler of thunderbolts; in colloquial speech one can say 'Zeus is raining' instead of 'it is raining'; in Imperial times children were still singing, 'Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, on the fields of the Athenians…A direct epiphany of Zeus is lightning; wherever it strikes, a sanctuary is set up to Zeus Descending, Kataibates. It was as a thunderbolt that Zeus laid his fatal embrace on Semele. The thunderbolt…is the weapon of Zeus which he alone commands; it is irresistible, even gods tremble before it, and enemies of the gods are utterly destroyed when it strikes; in the face of such a manifestation of divine energy, man stands powerless, terrified and yet marveling."
In ancient Europe the thundergod occupies a prominent place in early pantheons. The Norse Thor was both thunderer and warrior. The god's name, cognate with the OHG Donar and Anglo-Saxon Thunor, derives from proto-Germanic *Thunaraz and signifies "thunder." Words formed with the god's name signified the weapons hurled from heaven. In Swedish lore, for example, thunderbolts were known as thorvigg or thorkil.
The Finnish god Ukko shares numerous features in common with Thor. He, too, produces the thunder and lightning while controlling the weather. The word ukko, like its diminutive ukkonen, came to signify "thunder."
It has long been recognized that Thor finds a close parallel in the Lithuanian Perkunas/Latvian Perkons, the latter god described as riding across the sky in a fiery chariot. The parallels between the two thundergods extend to the finest details and confirm their fundamental affinity and likely common ancestry. Witness the expression "Perkons met savu milnu 'Perkons throws his mace." As Nagy points out, milna 'mace' is cognate with Old Norse mjöllnir, the word for Thor's hammer. The name of Thor's mother—Fjörgynn—is also cognate with Perkunas. And as Thor waged deadly combat with the Midgard serpent so, too, did Perkunas battle the Veles serpent.
The Slavic Perun offers an obvious cognate of Perkunas. Of the former god, it is known that his name came to signify a thunderbolt: "In Slavic, perunu designates both 'thunderbolt' and 'thunder-god'." Russian folklore describes Perun as a great dragon-slayer.
Parjanya, a thundergod of ancient India, offers yet another cognate to the Baltic Perkunas. The Rig Veda paints a terrifying picture of the god:
"He smites the trees apart, he slays the demons: all life fears him who wields the mighty weapon."
Parjanya is described as wheeling about in heaven in his chariot, dispensing the fertilizing rains:
"Forth burst the winds, down come the lightning-flashes: the plants shoot up, the realm of light is streaming…Come hither with this thunder while thou pourest the waters down, our heavenly Lord and Father. Thunder and roar: the germ of life deposit. Fly round us on thy chariot waterladen."
Parjanya is elsewhere identified with Indra (8:6:1), the prototypical example of the Indo-European thundergod. Indeed, the Vedic hymns describing Indra offer the most comprehensive portrait we have of the archaic thundergod. It is Indra who is said to have created the lightnings of heaven. The Divine Warrior's devastating thunderbolt is the subject of countless hymns in the Rig Veda. The following hymn is typical in this regard:
"I will declare the manly deeds of Indra, the first that he achieved, the Thunder-wielder. He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents. He slew the Dragon lying on the mountain; his heavenly bolt of thunder Tvastr fashioned."
This association of the thundergod with the slaying of a giant serpent threatening to destroy the world forms a recurring and apparently universal motif. The Norse Thor was known as orms einbani, "sole slayer of the serpent." The Iroquois thundergod is described as "having slain the great Serpent of the waters, which was devouring mankind." The same idea is attested in South America: "Among the Arawak, Uitoto, and some other tribes in various parts of South America, it is said that a host of birds successfully killed the great water snake."
The dragon combat plays a prominent element in many ancient cosmogonies, as we have elsewhere documented, generally serving as a prelude to Creation. Indra's battle with Vritra is a case in point, being central to ancient Indian ideas of cosmogony.
Glorious deeds aside, there are clear indications that Indra also had a darker side. Witness the following hymn: "And men have faith in Indra, the resplendent one, what time he hurleth down his bolt, his dart of death." Countless hymns describe the destruction caused by Indra's bolts. Indeed, heaven itself reeled under Indra's onslaught: "Yea, even that heaven itself of old bent backward before thy bolt, in terror of its anger, when Indra, life of every living creature, smote down within his lair the assailing dragon." In addition to shaking heaven and earth, terrifying sound effects accompanied Indra's hurling of the thunderbolt:
"Then both the heaven and earth trembled in terror at the strong hero's thunder when he bellowed. Loud roared the mighty Hero's bolt of thunder, when he, the friend of man, burnt up the monster [Vritra]."
Scholars have long puzzled over Indra's original nature. Herman Lommel summarized the futility of previous efforts as follows:
"Indra is the most celebrated and the most important god of the Vedas. Of all the ancient Indian gods his character has the largest number of facets and therefore his character is the most difficult to understand. If anybody understood it, he would have understood the major part of the Veda."
In our previous studies on Indra, we argued that the Vedic thundergod is to be identified with the planet Mars based upon his fundamental affinity with Heracles, Verethragna, and Vahagn, each of whom was identified with the red planet by their respective cultures. The identification with Mars, although surprising at first sight, is actually the key to deciphering the multifaceted mythology surrounding the thundergod, as virtually every characteristic of Indra's finds a close analogue in ancient conceptions associated with Mars.
The Lightning-hurling eye
One of the more curious beliefs surrounding the lightning holds that it emanates from the region of the sun or, more specifically, from a sky-god's eye. This idea is well attested in ancient Greece, where it was believed that Zeus could produce lightning from his eye. Aeschylus, for example, wrote as follows of the Greek thundergod: "The jealous eye of God hurls the lightning down." The same conception is implicit in Euripedes' Bacchae: "Unveil the Lightning's eye."
Numerous scholars have observed that the image of Zeus casting lightning from his eye corresponds to a widespread belief. In Hindu tradition, for example, Shiva was said to have been capable of throwing lightning from his third eye, located in the center of his head.
Various cultures in Africa hold that lightning emanates from the sky-god's eye. The Masai, for example, describe lightning as the "dreadful glance" of Ngai's eye.
Similar beliefs are attested amongst native peoples in North America. The Pawnee of the Nebraskan plains identify lightning with the "glance" of the thundergod Paruksti. In Iroquois lore, it is said that when Thunder gets angry lightning flashes from his eye. Other tribes, such as the Cree and Tlingit, describe the Thunderbird as capable of sending forth "lightnings from his eyes." The Chumash Indians of Northern California report analogous traditions: there the twin gods known as the Thunderers shoot lightning from their eyes. As to the popularity of this motif, Frazer remarks that "it is a common notion with the American Indians that thunder and lightning are caused by the flapping of the wings and the flashing of the eyes of a gigantic bird."
Similar beliefs are also to be found amongst aboriginal peoples of South America. Thus, the Desana of the Colombian rain forest hold that lightning is "a glance the Sun casts upon the earth."
How are we to understand this widespread belief whereby lighting is thought to emanate from a celestial eye? The aforementioned Desana tradition offers an important clue: for strange as it must appear to the modern mind, lightning is intimately connected with the ancient sun-god, as we will discover. But why should this be? In the current solar system, needless to say, lightning does not emanate from the sun.
That cultures around the world associated the ancient sun-god with an "eye" is well known. In a recent study of the sun in ancient rock art, Miranda Green documented the prevalence of this motif: "In Egypt, Greece and many other literate cultures of the ancient world, the all-seeing role of the sun gave it an association with the eye."
It is instructive at this point to review the evidence from prehistoric rock art. Consider the pictograph shown in figure three. As we have documented, this image was commonly thought to depict the sun-god's "eye." This very image, in fact, is depicted on countless cylinder seals from ancient Mesopotamia, where it serves to symbolize Shamash, the Semitic sun-god. Closely related forms are depicted in figure four. Here the inner "eye" of the ancient sun-god is associated with a number of radiating filaments. The first image in figure four is particularly relevant here. Notice the wavy nature of the radiating spokes, suggesting streaming or radiant energy of some sort. It stands to reason that the widespread traditions of ophthalmic lightning have some reference to the pictographs in question and to the celestial phenomenon depicted therein, however we are to understand the "lightning" from a physical or energetic standpoint.
The Sign of the Four
As Talbott and I have documented, the aforementioned "sun" pictographs commemorate a particular phase in the polar configuration's history, one that gave rise to a host of mythical interpretations. One of the most common interpretations viewed the central orb and radiating streamers as four streams watering the primordial paradise. The same scenario was alternately viewed as four winds or four pillars. An early example of this motif finds the Akkadian Shamash described as ruler of the four pillars: "From the high-point of Heaven you support pillars of the land (the four World angles)."
In keeping with the reconstruction offered by the Saturn theory, literary and pictorial traditions from around the world represent the ancient sun-god as associated with a four-fold pattern of streamers. Figure five provides examples of this motif from North America and Old Europe.
Essential to understanding the mythical imagery in question is the fact that the objective celestial reference was a series of planets in alignment, with Venus forming the "eye" or "heart" of the ancient sun-god and Mars forming the "pupil" of the Venusian eye. To the terrestrial skywatchers, the four-fold pattern of streamers appeared to emanate outwards from Venus/Mars and across the disc of the ancient sun-god.
It is probable that this celestial scenario contributed to the widespread tradition of four lightnings. The latter motif is aptly illustrated in Navaho tradition, where the lightnings are expressly related to the war-god:
"In Navajo mythology the war-god, Nayanezgani, is clad all in flint, and from the joints of his flint armor flash the four lightnings, hurling his enemies down into the earth."
Among the god's enemies is included a giant monster which threatened to destroy the world.
The pictograph in figure four presents a cross-like form set in the center of the so-called "sun." Significantly, a cross was also associated with the thundergod in ancient Europe. This was the case with the Norse Thor, for example: "An equal-armed cross was already in use as a symbol in the heathen period, and seems to have been associated with Thor."
Similar conceptions surround the Vedic thundergod. Thus, Indra's thunderbolt was described as "four-edged": "Bull, hurler of the four-edged rain producer." We will return to the four-fold form of the thunderbolt below.
In addition to being likened to a cross, Thor's thunderbolt was elsewhere represented with a swastika-like form on ancient monuments. Davidson offered the following thoughts on this aspect of the thunderbolt's iconography:
"Primarily it [swastika] appears to have had connection with light and fire, and to have been linked with the sun-wheel. It may have been on account of Thor's association with the lightning that this sign was used as an alternative to the hammer, for it is found on memorial stones in Scandinavia beside inscriptions to Thor."
Davidson's association of the swastika with the sun-wheel is right on target, Thor's weapon elsewhere being described as a fiery wheel (see below). Yet Davidson's hypothesis ignores the unfortunate fact that the current sun never presents a swastika-like form. Such realities of the modern heavens notwithstanding, the connection between the (ancient) sun and the swastika is universal in scope. The following tradition from the Ofo Indians of Florida is a case in point: "The Ofo called the swastika design ila tata, or 'Sun middle.'" Clearly the Ofo, like other peoples, believed that a swastika-like form was to be found in the center of the sun. While this tradition is difficult to understand by reference to the current sun's appearance or behavior, it accords perfectly with descriptions of the ancient sun-god. In the ancient cylinder seal shown in figure six, for example, the wavy streamers of the "sun" present a swastika-like form.
It is our opinion that the polar configuration alone provides the key for understanding ancient references to the lightning/thunderbolt as a swastika-like form. Thus, as Cardona has documented, there is a wealth of evidence that a swastika appeared during a particular phase of the polar configuration, the rotation of the four undulating streamers producing the appearance of a fiery swastika centered on the sun. Citing experiments by the physicist C.J. Ransom, Cardona suggested a possible physical basis for the memorable celestial forms. Ransom obtained his results when ionized gases created in a glass cylinder were subjected to a magnetic squeeze:
"As the field frequency and intensity was increased the plasma began to rotate. At one point, if the field was held constant, a three-armed figure appeared, seemingly radiating from the center of the plasma. Then, if the frequency were increased linearly this figure commenced to rotate at an exponential rate until it was a blur. Of a sudden, the plasma seemed to cease rotating and a four-armed figure appeared, with each arm curving away from the center like a stylized fylfot or swastika. This too began to rotate increasingly with greater field intensity until it also was a blur, and then a five-armed pattern would emerge. Curiously, two-armed and multiple-armed figures have been observed, but the most common were those with three or four branches."
If the imagery of the swastika originated in spectacular events associated with the polar configuration, it stands to reason that the symbol would be associated both with the thundergod himself and with the ancient sun-god. That this is indeed the case is obvious from what has already been cited. It also stands to reason that the swastika would be intimately related to the various mythical interpretations of the wavy forms emanating from the central orb; i.e., streams of water, wind, pillars, hair, arrows, etc. Thus, it is most significant to find that the Maya knew the swastika as the "cross of four winds." A survey of the relevant literature would doubtless find similar associations between the swastika and the other mythical interpretations of the Venusian outflow.
The thundergod's wheel
A closely related conception views the lightning as generated from the "wheel" of the ancient sun-god. The Lithuanian Perkunas, for example, is said to have obtained his terrible weapon in the following manner: "The source of the lightning is the sun, the heavenly fire: the Thunder-god gets fire from the solar wheel by rotating his lightning-club in the nave of the solar wheel."
Once again we are presented with a tradition which emphasizes the indissoluble link between the ancient sun-god and lightning—in striking contradiction to the currently prevailing meteorological state of affairs. Also noteworthy is the fact that Perkunas' lightning, like the aforementioned swastika-forms, originates in the center of the sun. This Baltic tradition finds a remarkable parallel in ancient Greek lore, where Prometheus is said to have first obtained fire for man by ascending to heaven and "kindling a torch at the sun's fiery wheel." Servius describes this event as follows: "It is said that Prometheus…ascended by the help of Minerva into the sky, and, applying a small torch to the wheel of the sun, stole fire."
Thundergods are frequently linked to wheel-like objects in ancient art and ritual. A krater from Lecce shows Zeus set next to a wheel (see figure seven). In addition to his thunderbolt, the Latin Jupiter was frequently depicted together with a wheel in Celtic iconography. The Celtic Taranis, whose name signifying "thunder" is cognate with that of the Norse Thor, is likewise pictured together with a wheel, prompting Green to state with respect to Celtic iconography that "the thunderbolt was a recurrent associate of the wheel-sign."
Also relevant here is a fact noted earlier: that Thor's thunderbolt was expressly compared to a fiery wheel. Thus, Jacob Grimm described the curious rites that were still being practiced as late as 1779 in Europe:
"The latter ceremony [the so-called 'wheel-rolling' near Trier], mentioned first in 1550 and last in 1779, took place thus. On the Thursday in Shrove-week an oak was set up on the Marxberg (Donnersberg, Dummersberg), also a wheel. On Invocavit Sunday the tree was cut down, the wheel set on fire and rolled into the Moselle. A wheel, especially a flaming one, is the symbol of thunder, of Donar."
Prehistoric rock art once again serves to illuminate these widespread traditions linking thundergods with flaming wheels. As we have documented, the "wheel" of the ancient sun-god is depicted in figure eight, a common image in prehistoric rock art. Grant the possibility that such an image was once visible in the northern polar skies, and the widespread traditions of a "solar wheel" no longer appear fantastic in nature. Instead such traditions suddenly appear self-evident and perfectly rational. Equally important, however, is the acknowledged resemblance of figure eight to figure three. Indeed, the only difference between the two symbols is that in the former figure the inner orb has sprouted "rays" or radiating "spokes," thereby presenting the image of a four or eight-spoked wheel. (That the wheel-like image is likely the result of an electrical/plasmatic discharge has been argued by Wal Thornhill and Dave Talbott.)
In the Saturn model, each of the planets participating in the polar configuration plays a distinctive role with respect to the wheel-like phase. If the radiating streamers of the Venus-star represent the "spokes" of the wheel, the conjoined orbs of Venus and Mars constitute the "nave." Mars itself forms the "axle" of the sun-centered wheel. As we have documented, various warrior heroes identified with Mars are said to reside at the "nave," where they "move" or otherwise govern the "axle" of the solar wheel. Indra, for example, was invoked as follows:
"Thou movest…Bold One, the axle of the car. Satakratu [Indra], thou…stirrest the axle with thy strength."
Indra's "stirring" of the wheel's axle offers a striking mythical analogue to Perkunas' rotating his lightning-club in the nave of the solar wheel.
The World Pillar
In order to understand the mytho-historical context and multivalent imagery of the thundergod and his weapon, it is necessary to consider the dynamic history of the polar configuration. As the polar configuration evolved through time, the various planets moved up and down the axis, alternately growing larger and smaller while moving in and out of conjunction with each other. At various times Venus and Mars became displaced from their axial location, thereby producing a kaleidoscopic montage of celestial forms for terrestrial skywatchers and mythmakers. It is also likely that the plasma enveloping the various planets underwent dramatic changes in form and structure, thereby producing spectacular lightning-like discharges and iridescent aurora-like effects (more on which later). The planet Mars, for example, assumed a number of different positions within the polar configuration during distinct phases in the configuration's history. Insofar as Mars was identified with the thundergod, it follows that the symbolism attached to the thundergod and his weapon would reflect this evolving history. A case in point is the lightning/thunderbolt's intimate connection with ancient conceptions of the axis mundi.
In the Saturn model, a spectacular episode finds the planet Mars leaving the central "eye" of Saturn and descending to a position closer to Earth. Astronomically, the "descent" of Mars was apparently the result of its elliptical orbit, which brought it alternately close to Venus at the apex of its orbit and closer to Earth (and thus beneath Saturn and Venus) during its descent along the shared polar axis.
A widespread theme associated with the descent of the warrior-hero was the formation of the World Pillar, the latter conceived as a visual column of ethereal material stretching between Mars and Earth and appearing to support the ancient sun-god. As various war-gods identifiable with the planet Mars are celebrated for upholding the heavens in pillar-like fashion—Shu, Apollo, Rudra, *Tiwas—so too does the same hold true of the thundergod. In Vedic lore, for example, Indra was said to support heaven like a pillar:
"He who, just born…Who measured out the air's wide middle region and gave the heaven support, He, men, is Indra."
Ancient Indian rituals, in an attempt to commemorate this prototypical act, invoked Indra in the form of a pole or tree, and scholars investigating these ritual practices have long acknowledged the fundamental identity of the Indra-pillar with the World Pillar or axis mundi. Thus Gonda concludes: "It should however be borne in mind that the Indra tree like the sacrificial post (yupa) and similar stakes and other objects might be considered a representative of the great cosmic tree, and of the axis mundi."
The Greek Zeus was likewise intimately associated with the World Pillar. Cook summarizes the evidence surrounding the Italian cult of Zeus at Tarentum as follows:
"Sacrifices were offered on pillars to the lightning-god Zeus Kataibates—a practice which, as we saw, had probably been inherited from 'Minoan' times. Apulian and Campanian vases, also, represent Zeus fulminant on the top of a pillar. Altogether, it looks as though there were in south Italy an old belief that Zeus with his lightnings dwelt on high above an obvious tangible pillar, his vehicle and support."
The intimate connection between the solar wheel and axis mundi would appear to explain the fact that the latter is occasionally described as having eight angles or corners. This idea forms a prominent theme in the literature and architecture of ancient India, as Coomaraswamy has documented: "The Axis of the Universe according to the texts as represented is usually cylindrical or four or eight-angled: early Indian pillars are usually either cylindrical or eight-angled."
A vestige of such archaic conceptions, perhaps, is to be found in certain rites practiced in the late Middle Ages, wherein youths celebrated a scapegoat-like rite around a Jupiter column described as "eight-cornered." According to Grimm's summary of the ritual, the central scene involved the burning of the Jupiter column: "The schoolboys dressed it in a cloak and crown, and attacked the Jupiter as they then called it, by throwing stones first from one side, then from the other, and at last they burnt it."
Why the axis mundi would be regarded as four or eight angled is difficult to understand apart from the thesis defended here, which views the axis mundi as a luminous pillar-like form descending from the solar wheel. The solar "wheel" itself, as we have seen, is alternately presented with either four or eight "spokes" or "angles."
A related conception finds the thunderbolt being ascribed an octagonal shape. The following tradition from the Aitareya Brahmana describing the sacrificial pillar is of interest here:
"The post is a thunderbolt; it should be made of eight corners; the bolt is eight-cornered."
The Descent of Mars
In addition to forming a pivotal event in the biography of the warrior hero, the cataclysmic descent of Mars is of paramount importance for a proper understanding of the mythology surrounding the thundergod and his fiery weapon. As Blinkenberg documents at great length, lightning is thought to fall down from heaven as a stone:
"The thunderstone falls down from the sky in thunderstorms or, more accurately, whenever the lightning strikes. The stroke of the lightning, according to this view, consists in the descent of the stone; the flash and the thunder-clap are mere after-effects or secondary phenomena."
Meteors, in accordance with this belief, were identified with thunderstones throughout the ancient world. As a testament to the durability of these archetypal traditions, Blinkenberg reports that: "In modern times meteors have in several places been looked upon as thunderstones."
It is doubtless in keeping with these widespread traditions identifying thunderbolts with meteorites that thundergods everywhere are described by epithets signifying "stone thrower." The Yoruba thundergod Shango, to take but one of countless examples, was also known as Jakuta, "the stone thrower." So, too, is Indra's thunderbolt compared to a rock hurled from heaven. Here Gonda observes: "Although Indra's weapon is usually explicitly designated by the term vajra, and vajra is generally described as metallic (ayasa), it is incidentally spoken of as a rock (parvata) or 'stone of, or: from, the heavens' (divo asmanam)." No ordinary rock, Indra's thunderbolt is described as "whirling down from the misty realm of the sun (Surya)."
Similar conceptions are apparent in the traditions surrounding the Greek Zeus. The epithet Kataibates signifies "the descender" or "he who comes down." As Farnell noted, this epithet appears to hark back to an archaic form of thought in which the god and his weapon were not yet distinguished:
"The descending Zeus is the Zeus that descends in the rain or lightning…This naïve belief that the god himself came down in the lightning or the meteor is illustrated by the story which Pausanias found in the neighborhood of Gythium about a sacred stone, a lithos argos…There is much to be said for the view that the term means 'the falling god,' …We are here touching on a stratum of thought infinitely older than the Homeric."
It is probable that such traditions have their original point of reference in the spectacular appearance of the red planet as it descended from Saturn/Venus towards Earth, as if it were a gigantic boulder or bolide hurled from on high. That the fall of Martian meteorites accompanied this event is possible and likely contributed to the mythical imagery as well. Certainly it is no accident that a universal motif finds Martian heroes being hurled or otherwise cast from heaven for one crime or another. The traditions surrounding Helel ben Shahar (Lucifer), Tezcatlipoca, and Phaethon are exemplary here and could be multiplied ad infinitum.
Lightning as fire from heaven
In our essay on the sacred marriage rite, we documented that a recurring theme around the world viewed the drilling of fire as a cosmogonical act, commemorating the primeval union of male and female powers. In Pawnee lore such ideas were specifically connected to the planets Mars and Venus. Thus, a primary motif in the Pawnee account of the Creation holds that Mars first approached and then overcame Venus, whereupon he succeeded in impregnating her and insuring fertility for the world in the process. In addition to rites designed specifically to commemorate this primeval union of male and female powers, the Pawnee believed that they were celebrating the marriage of Venus and Mars every time they generated a fire, the drilling stick representing the male Mars and the horizontal stick the female power.
Martian gods and heroes are everywhere celebrated for "drilling" the first fire. Prominent examples of this motif include Indra, Tezcatlipoca, and Maui. In Vedic lore, for example, Indra creates the fire by rubbing two stones together. Thus, the thundergod is described as having "begat the fire between the two stones." In the Satapatha Brahmana Indra is invoked as the "Kindler."
The Greek hero Prometheus, whom Servius described as obtaining his fire from the sun's wheel, was said by Diodorus to have been the "inventor of the fire-sticks, from which fire is kindled." Arthur Cook, while disavowing previous attempts to link the Greek hero's name to the Sanskrit term pramantha, "fire drill," would nevertheless relate the latter term to an epithet of Zeus's: "it is highly probable that pramantha the 'fire-drill' does explain Promantheus, a title under which Zeus was worshipped at Thourioi."
That many ancient peoples identified the planet Mars as the "fire-star" is well-documented. So, too, do numerous thundergods double as "fire" gods. In the Lithuanian cult of Perkunas, for example, a sacred fire was kept. If for some reason the fire was allowed to go out, the priest in charge was put to death. A sacred fire is also attested in Thor's cult. Thus, the Kjalnesinga Saga describes the thundergod's altar as follows:
"This was the place for the fire which was never allowed to go out. This they called the sacred fire."
It is also interesting to note the Lappish custom of using images of Thor to strike fire. A text from the seventeenth century describes the god's idol as follows: "Into his head they drive a nail of iron or steel, and a small piece of flint to strike fire with, if he hath a mind to do it."
Mars was also deemed to be an agent promoting fertility and sexual prowess. The Australian Waijungari offers a primary illustration of this motif. Expressly identified with the red planet, it was said that the warrior-hero had an insatiable sexual appetite and personified sexual activity and fertility.
The sacred marriage and New Fire rites provide the essential background for understanding certain peculiar traditions surrounding the thundergod. The aforementioned tradition wherein Perkunas generates fire by rotating his lightning club is a case in point: "The source of the lightning is the sun, the heavenly fire: the Thunder-god gets fire from the solar wheel by rotating his lightning-club in the nave of the solar wheel."
The rotary action of Perkunas' "club" in the nave of the solar wheel offers a precise mythical parallel to the Martian hero's drilling of fire that, in turn, offers a precise parallel to Mars' cavorting with Venus. Each of these mythical interpretations, in our view, has reference to Mars' behavior while in conjunction with Venus. Indeed, the Martian hero's "drilling" or "boring" is an endlessly recurring motif, the Homeric account of Odysseus' boring out of the Cyclops' eye being perhaps the most famous example. That Odysseus' "eye-drilling" has often been compared to the drilling of fire ought to surprise no one familiar with the lore surrounding the warrior-hero.
The thunderbolt as mill-stone
A recurring tradition makes the thunderbolt a crushing instrument of some sort. This idea is apparent in the name of Thor's bolt, mjöllnir, which signifies "the crusher" or "pulverizer." According to Montelius, the word "refers to the terrible power of the hammer to crush whatever it encountered." Cognate with words signifying "lightning" in various languages (Russian molnija, for example), the Norse mjöllnir is also an apparent cognate of the Old Norse mala, "grind" and molva, "crush."
Other cultures also preserved traditions linking the thundergod with grinding. Thus, a central rite in the Hittite New Year's celebration honoring the thundergod involved the breaking of a sacred pithos and the grinding and milling of its contents. A semantic link between thunderstones and "grindstones" is also discernable in Inca lore. Russian peasant lore, which transferred Perun's mythology to St. Ilia with the onset of Christianity, preserves a curious link between the rambling of the thundergod's chariot and "grinding": there thunder is alternately ascribed to St. Ilia's driving his chariot or "grinding his corn."
It is probable that the "grinding" motion associated with the thunderbolt is intimately related to its function as a driller of fire, as both activities rely on friction. Originally, of course, fire was generated by rubbing two rocks or sticks together. In Vedic lore, as we have seen, Indra creates the fire by rubbing two stones together.
The Finnish god Ukko was especially associated with the striking of fire and those stones, such as quartz, which were thought to produce fire. Thus, the name ukonkivi, "thunderstone," came to signify quartz. Here, too, scholars have recognized an intimate connection between the ancient thundergod and the generation of fire: "The name may be derived from the fact that pieces of quartz flare up if they are rubbed or struck together."
The Norse word mjöllnir is also related to the English word miller, and scholars have long recognized a relationship between Thor's thunderbolt and millstones. With reference to the Vedic passage wherein Indra rubs stones together in order to generate "fire" or lightning, it is significant to find the Slavic Perun described as generating thunder and fire by grinding together two giant millstones. Equally significant, however, is a modern proverb likening thunder to the fiery wheeling of Perun's chariot: "God is coming—the wheels are striking fire." Here we recognize a subtle variation upon the aforementioned tradition surrounding St. Ilia, yet instead of thunder being ascribed to Ilia's "grinding," it is here compared to Perun's gnashing "wheels."
It is also relevant to remember that various Martian heroes are said to have participated in milling activities. The Hebrew Samson offers the classic example of this motif. Thus it is that the Hebrew strongman, upon being blinded by his Philistine captors, was forced to grind away at the mill like a common slave.
As Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend showed in Hamlet's Mill, mythological traditions regarding a magical mill—said to grind out peace and happiness—are intimately related to ancient conceptions surrounding the polar region and axis mundi. Rather than being a veiled reference to sophisticated astronomical concepts such as the precession of the equinoxes, as per the opinion of those two authors, traditions involving a celestial mill are best understood as nature-allegories describing cataclysmic events associated with the polar configuration.
The Thunderbolt as Fructifier of the Earth
A universal belief finds the thunderbolt (or lightning) regarded as a fertilizing force. Indeed, the idea is so common in ancient myth and modern folklore that it is usually taken for granted as if it somehow makes sense in terms of the customary behavior of lightning. The thunderbolt's striking the earth, together with the accompanying rain, is thought to "fertilize" or "inseminate" the earth.
The Desana Indians of Colombia, for example, hold that "lightning…is a fertilizing force that impregnates the earth with its crystal-semen." More precisely, the lightning is regarded as the Sun's ejaculation or semen or, with specific reference to the latter's eye, as a "fertilizing glance."
Every Old World thundergod worth his salt doubles as an agent of fertility. Marija Gimbutas described the Lithuanian Perkunas as follows: "The earth is barren until the Thunder strikes her in the springtime—until in his epiphany of thunder Perkunas weds the Mother Earth, Zemyna." Such beliefs, according to Gimbutas, "are universal [among the Balts and Slavs] and certainly stem from very early times."
Of the Latvian thundergod, Biezais has written: "The function of Perkons is clearly defined: he is a fertility god." The Indian Parjanya was also deemed an agent of fertility. Witness the following prayer from the Rig Veda:
"May this my song to Sovran Lord Parjanya come near unto his heart and give him pleasure. May we obtain the showers that bring enjoyment, and God-protected plants with goodly fruitage. He is the Bull of all, and their impregner."
Similar conceptions prevailed with respect to the Norse Thor. Thus, Adam of Bremen described Thor as follows: "They say he rules the air which controls the thunder and the lightning, the winds and the showers, the fair weather and the fruits of the earth." In Thrym's Song, or "The Fetching of the Hammer," there appears a curious scene wherein Thor disguises himself as Freya in order to regain his thunderbolt, which had earlier been stolen by the giant Thrym. There it is said:
"Bring the hammer the bride to wed, place Mjöllnir in the maiden's lap."
As Davidson points out, such ideas hark back to ancient conceptions of the thunderbolt as fecundator or impregner, some of which survived well into modern times. Thus it is that Thor was frequently invoked at weddings, the god's thunderbolts forming a prominent feature of many a bridegroom's attire: "In certain parts of Norway and Sweden, it continued to be the custom for a bridegroom to bear an axe at the wedding long after Thor was forgotten; the weapon was said to give him mastery, and also to ensure a fruitful union."
Analogous ideas surround the Lithuanian thundergod. Thus, Perkunas' axes were commonly regarded as promoters of fertility:
"In Lithuania, the axe as a life-stimulating symbol, is laid under the bed of a woman in labor; on the sill to be crossed by the newly-wedded couple…During sowing, axes were thrown onto the field."
Strikingly similar conceptions are widely attested throughout Africa. The Yoruba identify stone axes with thunderstones hurled by Shango and, believing they lead to a good harvest, place them amongst the seeds.
As thunderstones were thought to promote fertility, so too were they deemed capable of sparking the flames of passion. Witness the curious set of beliefs attached to the Inca thundergod known as Apocatequil:
"He it was, they thought, who produced the thunder and lightning by hurling stones with his sling; and the thunderbolts that fall, said they, are his children. Few villages were willing to be without one of these. They were in appearance small, round, smooth stones, but had the admirable properties of securing fertility to the fields, protecting from lightning, and, by a transition easy to understand, were also adored as gods of the Fire, as well material of the passions, and were capable of kindling the dangerous flames of desire in the most frigid bosom. Therefore they were in great esteem as love charms."
Here, in one figure, are united the various motifs of the thundergod as a hurler of stones; meteorite; agent of fertility; and God of Fire.
The Finnish god Ukko was apparently involved in a hieros gamos of sorts, designed to facilitate the fertility of the land. In a poem written in 1551, Agricola refers to these ancient practices in somewhat veiled language:
"And when the spring sowing was done, then the old man's [Ukko] toast was drunk. For this was Ukko's wooden vessel fetched, and the girl and the wife got drunk. Then were shameful things done there, as was both heard and seen. When Rauni Ukko's woman huffed, greatly puffed Ukko from the depths. Thus it gave weather and the new crop."
Like his Inca counterpart, Apocatequil, Ukko was intimately associated with elliptical "fire" stones. In a monograph exploring the evolution of Ukko's cult, Salo offered the following summary:
"His functions included assuring the fertility of the soil, the growth of crops and the yearly harvest. This took place in the holy marriage of Ukko and his spouse: in flashes of lightning, the rumble of thunder and thundery rain. Ukko may have celebrated such holy marriages from his very arrival but no firm evidence of them appears until the Iron Age with the coming of elliptical fire stones (ca. 50-700) and the elliptical rimmed fire steels that followed them. Since the use of these continued from Merovingian times (550-800) until the advent of matches it is understandable that the hieros gamos myth was still a living folk belief during Agricola's time. Similar beliefs were also preserved among the Swedish-speaking population of Ostrobothnia until recent times, apparently as a tradition going back to their medieval arrival in Finland. The symbolic shapes of the fire stones and fire steels indicate that the secular striking of fire was looked upon as a rite repeating the myth of the origin of celestial fire."
Such traditions raise a host of questions. Why would thunderstones be regarded as promoters of fertility? Why would lightning be compared to a "fertilizing glance"? The orthodox claim that these beliefs have reference to the fertilizing properties of the thunderstorm does not provide a ready reference for the glancing "eye" nor does it account for the stone itself or for its curious "crushing" behavior. The key to understanding such traditions is Mars' conjunction with Venus: it was the conjunction of these two planets that provided the celestial prototype for the sacred marriage of male and female powers. As Mars ascended the polar column and "penetrated" Venus, it was viewed to have impregnated the celestial embodiment of the fertile "earth." Hence the thundergod's reputation as an "impregner." Insofar as the Martian thundergod is identifiable with his "weapon," we can understand the fertilizing powers ascribed to lightning and "thunderstones." Especially important to understanding the symbolism in question is the fact that the conjunction of Mars and Venus initiated a series of dramatic changes in the appearance of the two celestial bodies, recalled as the "greening of the world" and Creation.
Yet the conjoined bodies of Mars and Venus also formed the central "eye" of the ancient sun-god. It was from this "eye" that lightning appeared to emanate to the four corners of heaven. Given the fact that lightning was witnessed to proceed from the "eye" enclosing the thundergod (Mars), it only stands to reason that it would be compared to a "glance" emanating from a celestial "eye."
The thundergod as unerring marksman
Of Thor's weapon, it was said: "If he threw the hammer, it would never miss the mark and never go too far to return again to his hand." In this tradition we recognize the universal theme of the unerring marksman.
In addition to Thor, Heracles, Rudra, Murukan, and countless other divine "Champions" are said to be unerring marksmen. The Tamil Murukan, known as the "killer of serpents," was famed for his "javelin which never misses its mark" and, when thrown, always returns to his hand. Of Skanda's spear, it was said that "it never misses the mark but, once thrown, returns to him." Yet Skanda was explicitly identified with the planet Mars.
Of Rudra's fiery arrow, it was said that "it never misses its target." Yet Rudra himself was known as Sarva, "arrow;" in fact, the Vedic war-god is virtually indistinguishable from his heaven-hurled weapon. As "the red boar of heaven," Rudra is to be identified with the planet Mars.
As the traditions surrounding Rudra, Skanda, and Murukan attest, the unerring marksman forms a recurring theme in ancient Indian lore. The scholar that has done the most to elucidate its mythical significance is Ananda Coomaraswamy, who notes that a wealth of symbolism pertaining to the axis mundi surrounds the unerring marksman (Sanskrit akkhana-vedhin). As to the etymology of the phrase, Coomaraswamy writes as follows:
"The etymology of the word akkhana has been disputed: as PTS remarks, "We should expect either an etym. bearing on the meaning 'hitting the center of the target' [i.e., its 'eye'; cf. Eng. bull's eye]…or an etym. like 'hitting without mishap.' It is evident, in fact, that the connection of akkhana is with Skr. aks, to 'reach' or 'penetrate,' the source of aksa and aksam, 'eye' and akhana, 'butt' or 'target' and in fact 'bull's eye.'…Aksa is also 'axis' and 'axle-tree' (distinguished only by accent from aksa, 'eye'), and Benfey was evidently near the mark when he suggested that aksa as axle tree was so-called as forming the 'eye' in the hub of the wheel which it penetrates…Akkhana-vedhin is then 'one who pierces the eye,' or 'one whose arrow penetrates the bull's eye': in the present context it would scarcely be too much to say 'pierces the center of the disc of the Sun' or 'hits the solar and macrocosmic bull's eye."
Although such traditions have no obvious point of reference in the current solar system, they make perfect sense from the vantage-point of the Saturn theory. The attested connection between eye, axle, and axis mundi stems from the fact that the ancient sun-god had a centrally located "eye" which served as the nave or hub for the spokes of the solar "wheel" as also for the descending axis mundi connecting heaven and earth. As the Martian thundergod moved up along the axis mundi, it "penetrated" the "eye" of Venus set "in the center of the disc of the sun."
As Talbott has pointed out, the motif of the unerring marksman is most likely to be explained by reference to Mars' habit of climbing the axis mundi and "penetrating" Venus. Given the physical dynamics that governed the workings of the polar configuration, it was inevitable that Mars would succeed in reaching its "target"—i.e., Venus. Given the sexual symbolism associated with Mars' penetration of Venus, it follows that the unerring marksman motif is simply a variation upon the widespread theme of Mars as the paramour of Venus.
The Thundergod and the Heart of Heaven
A widespread tradition locates the thundergod at the center or "heart" of heaven. Thus, the Semitic thunderer Adad was said to roar in "the heart of heaven," the latter site being that wherein the ancient sun-god both "rose" and "set." Similar ideas are apparent in the Finnish cult of Ukko. An interesting epithet of the god's was "navel of the sky," thought to link the thundergod with the polar region or Pole star itself.
The Navaho thundergod Nayanezgani is likewise said to have lived in the center of the world. So, too, is the Vedic Parjanya, described as follows in the Rig Veda: "Parjanya is the Father of the Mighty Bird: on mountains, in earth's centre hath he made his home."
The Quiche thundergod Jurakan was called by the epithet U C'ux Caj, "Heart of the Sky." Jurakan was the highest deity in the Quiche pantheon and he was credited with being the "source of all energy and life in the universe." Indeed, it was his union with the earth that initiated Creation.
Cognate deities are found elsewhere in Central America and along the South American coast. Tedlock writes as follows regarding the popularity of the thundergod: "Throughout the East Indies and along the north coast of South America, especially among Carib and Arawakan peoples, there is a god of the hurricane and thunderbolt whose name is cognate with hurakan."
The English word hurricane derives from a Taino (Arawakan) name of the thundergod. As Preuss has documented, the language associated with hurricanes and analogous meteorological phenomena involving extreme winds leads to a host of interesting connections, several of which are relevant for an accurate understanding of the ancient thundergod:
"The philology of the terms used for the various types of winds is of great importance in the development of the theme of Jurakan. As can be seen by these definitions, these winds indicate a circular motion and a gyration about a center or eye. For the indigenous mind, these factors hold a religious significance as they are comparable in form to the sacred center from which creative and destructive power emanates…for example, the word huracan, a Carib word, means 'a tropical cyclone with winds of 73 miles per hour or greater, but rarely exceeding 150 miles per hour, is usually accompanied by rain, thunder, and lightning…The cyclone, a term that originated from the Greek kyklos, meaning 'wheel' or 'circle', and was modified to kykloma that signifies 'wheel' or 'coil of a snake', is defined as 'a storm or system of winds that rotates about a center of low atmospheric pressure clockwise in the Southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the North…The tornado, from Latin: tornare, 'to turn in a lathe', and also influenced by the Spanish words tornado: 'turned' or 'returned' and tronada: 'thunderstorm', is a 'violent destructive whirlwind accompanied by a funnel-shaped cloud…"
Most significant is the intimate relationship between the whirling winds and an "eye-like" or "wheel-like" form, reminiscent of our earlier discussion of swastika-forms.
Preuss, together with previous scholars, called attention to Juracan's intimate connection with the pole and axis mundi. Somewhat hesitantly, she would identify the god with Ursa Minor: "The one-legged and rotating god in the sky is Ursa Minor whirling around the Pole Star or Ursa Major or both constellations spinning around the world axis." The winding, whirling nature of the axis mundi is a universal motif and has been documented by other scholars, both orthodox and Saturnian.
Jurakan, like the other thundergods described as living at the
"heart of heaven," is best understood as a personification of the planet Mars which formerly resided at the Pole, the latter deemed to be the sacred center whence emanated the primeval winds and prototypical lightning.
The Celestial Ladder and Related Forms
As Talbott and I have documented, the form of the axis mundi evolved during the history of the polar configuration. In addition to presenting a pillar-like form or universalis columna, as in figure nine, a closely related phase saw the axis mundi assuming a spiraling form, commonly interpreted as an undulating serpent or rope stretching across the sky.
The axis mundi elsewhere presented a ladder-like form. Figure ten depicts an example of this widespread motif. Traditions of a luminous ladder spanning heaven will be found around the world.
A closely related form depicts what would appear to be horizontal dashes or "rungs" leading to the ancient sun-god, as in figure eleven. The resemblance to a spinal column with vertebrae is striking.
In our essay on the "Milky Way," we argued that ancient traditions describing a fiery pillar, undulating serpent, luminous river, or ladder-like object spanning the heavens trace to the axis mundi associated with the ancient sun-god. With the disappearance of the Saturnian appendage, the traditions surrounding the original "Milky Way" were transferred its modern namesake, thereby fooling modern scholars into believing that this pale imitation could inspire such specific and complex myths as that of the celestial ladder along which transmigrating souls might pass to the celestial otherworld. Comparative analysis of the numerous mythological themes associated with the "Milky Way" will confirm this statement at every turn. Such an analysis will also provide important clues for the thundergod's former stomping grounds.
It is a striking fact that each of the aforementioned forms of the axis mundi is reflected in ancient epithets and traditions surrounding the Milky Way. That the Milky Way was often compared to a pillar-like form is well-documented. Thus, the Iraku of Africa call the Milky Way mugamba gwa ilunde: "the beam of the sky."
Numerous cultures compared the Milky Way to a giant serpent winding across the sky. The natives of the Nyassaland in Africa hold that the celestial band of stars is a great python. The Maya compared the Milky Way to a Fer-de-lance. The Australian aborigines likewise described the Milky Way as serpentine in nature.
Other cultures compared the Milky Way to a ladder spanning heaven. Such ideas are attested in the New World among the Navaho:
"In Acoma sandpaintings the Milky Way appears as a ladder, for it is thought that these stars form a bridge to the heavens. In the Acoma creation myth, the roof beams of the first kiva represent the Milky Way."
The same idea is attested in ancient and medieval Europe, as Cook has documented with his usual thoroughness.
A very widespread idea compared the Milky Way to the "backbone" of heaven. The Shoshone call the Milky Way the "Backbone of the Sky." The Chumash call it "Night's Backbone." The Tipai of California knew the Milky Way as "Sky-Its-Backbone." The Tewa speaking Pueblo called the Milky Way "Backbone of the Universe." The Assiniboin of Minnesota and Winnipeg describe the celestial river as the "Backbone of the Sky."
The same idea is to be found in Africa. Thus, the San peoples of Northern Namibia call the Milky Way "night's backbone."
A remarkable fact, hitherto unnoticed so far I'm aware, is that thundergods everywhere are described as residing or moving in close proximity to the Milky Way, yet another tradition that finds little rationale in the current solar system but accords perfectly with the interpretation offered here, whereby the thundergod is identified with Mars and intimately associated with the axis mundi. Thus, Ovid describes the Milky Way as follows:
"There is a lofty road, plain to see in a clear sky; it has the name 'milky', and is famous for its brilliance. This is the way taken by Those Above to the roofs and royal house of the great Thunderer."
Among the Sotho of South Africa, the "Milky Way" is known as molala-tladi, "the roosting place of the tladi bird." Yet Tladi himself was the African equivalent of the Thunderbird, the bringer of lightning. Most significant, perhaps, in light of what has been said previously with respect to the Milky Way as a World Pillar, is the Sotho belief that the molala-tladi "supports the sky to prevent it from falling on the earth."
The Incan thundergod Illapa, according to the Franciscan friar Cobo, formerly moved along the Milky Way:
"They say that he passed across a very large river in the middle of the sky. They indicated that this river was the white band that we see down here called the Milky Way. Regarding this matter, they made up a great deal of foolishness that would be too detailed to include here."
In Chorti lore, the Milky Way is known as the "Road of Santiago," after their thundergod. Santiago also doubles as a god of war and is identified with the "Morning Star."
Similar traditions surround various mythical heroes identified with the planet Mars, as we have elsewhere documented. The Australian warrior-hero Waijungare, expressly identified with the red planet, is said to live in the Milky Way. The Aztec Tezcatlipoca, also identified with the "Morning Star," was described as living along the Milky Way.
As we documented in "The Stairway to Heaven," ancient myths from the New World as well as the Old describe the planet Mars as intimately associated with a celestial ladder. In Assyrian lore, for example, Nergal/Mars is described as mounting the celestial ladder and ascending to heaven. The Makirtare Indians, a people living along the banks of the Orinoco river in what is now Venezuela, report a similar tradition: the planet Mars, they say, "built the ladder in space."
Numerous mythical traditions credit Martian heroes with the ability to freely ascend or descend the axis mundi. The Aztec war-god Tezcatlipoca, for example, is described as having once descended to earth along a giant rope spanning heaven. It is our opinion that such traditions confirm Mars' intimate relationship to the axis mundi and likely reflect that planet's elliptical orbit during various stages of the polar configuration.
Here it is significant to note that ancient descriptions of the Milky Way dovetail at various points with descriptions of the behavior of lightning and thunderbolts. The Pima Indians of New Mexico, for example, share the widespread belief that the lightning moves in zigzag fashion. Yet they also ascribe a zigzagging form to the Milky Way:
"I believe that the 'crooked (jujul ) trail going west' is a metaphor for the Milky Way in its aspect as the trail to the land of the dead. The Piman word jujul also means 'zigzag'; in one of the Rain Songs it is used to describe the behavior of lightning: 'lightning moving very zig-zag, roaring beautifully…Perhaps 'crooked trail' is also a metaphor for lightning trail. The shaman's ladder to the sky is also known as the zigzag ladder."
If we now turn to the image represented in figure twelve, which depicts the "Milky Way" in Navaho art—the Navaho being close neighbors of the Pima—the celestial reference for the zigzagging form will be readily apparent.
Various other phases in the history of the polar configuration can be reconstructed as well, the axis mundi alternately assuming the appearance of a chain of wedges or arrows, often compared to a ladder; a towering pile of serpent-like coils; and a pyramidal or ziggurat-like form. A detailed analysis of these respective forms would be impossible here, but the problem deserves careful study insofar as the forms reconstructed from comparative mythical analysis and depicted in rock art resemble forms seen during certain laboratory experiments involving high-energy plasma discharges. Here ancient lore and modern science appear to converge at a level of detail difficult to explain as mere coincidence. For the first time in history, perhaps, the physical sciences are in a position to illuminate prominent mythical themes. Be this as it may, an accurate reconstruction of the various forms assumed by the axis mundi is certain to tell us a great deal about ancient myth in general and the biography of the thundergod in particular.
While Saturnists have typically assumed the axis mundi to be composed of gaseous atmospheric efflux and asteroidal debris, it is equally likely that plasmatic phenomena like Birkeland currents played a prominent role in its physical form and visual appearance. If so, it stands to reason that Birkeland currents and related phenomena would be reflected in the sacred iconography surrounding the axis mundi.
In figure thirteen, Adad's lightning/thunderbolt assumes the very position otherwise associated with the axis mundi or World Pillar—as a support for the ancient sun-god. Note also that the lightning/thunderbolt is represented as a zigzagging form, thereby conforming to a universal conception.
A certain parallel to the Mesopotamian cylinder seal is offered by an American Indian representation of the Thunderbird (see figure fourteen). Here, too, the zigzagging form of the thunderbolt is a point of emphasis. Also interesting is the fact that the lightning is believed to emanate from the "heart" of the Thunderbird, the latter represented as an orb-like object.
To sum up our survey of thundergod lore to this point: the thundergod is inextricably associated with the ancient sun-god, in ancient myth as well as in sacred iconography. The god's lightning is said to emanate from the region of the sun or from a celestial eye. We are not the first to notice this connection between the sun and the thundergod. Morris Jastrow, the great Assyriologist, observed that: "In many mythologies the sun and lightning are regarded as correlated forces." Arthur Cook, similarly, concluded: "The sun-god has much in common with the thunder-god."
The answer as to why this should be the case, although perfectly obvious once the relevant evidence is brought forward, has escaped previous scholars because they were conditioned to seek an explanation by reference to the current skies and familiar meteorological effects. Yet one will never explain the specific traditions surrounding the ancient thundergods by reference to the current skies and commonplace meteorological phenomena. The true story is much more exciting and cataclysmic from start to finish. For the ancient thundergod was the planet Mars and the prototypical "lightning" an interplanetary discharge of stupendous proportion. The archetypal thundergod formerly resided at the "heart of heaven" or, more specifically, in the middle of the ancient sun-god. There, nestled inside the planet Venus, he presided over the sacred heavenly fire while kindling his paramour's passion.
As an apparent product of the various interactions between Mars and Venus, lightning itself was everywhere associated with the center of the ancient sun-god and thus came to share many of the mythical motifs associated with that sacred region. It stands to reason that ancient languages will also preserve this archetypal relation between the celestial lightning and its place of origin in the heart or "eye" of the Sun/Venus. Not being a linguist myself, I'll leave the documentation of this claim to others more capable of properly assessing the evidence. Yet a few hints are in order by way of introduction to the goldmine that likely awaits the diligent researcher. One should look for connections between "lightning" words and words signifying "sun," "center," "star," "eye," "glance," Venus, "Morning Star," etc. A Greek word for lightning, asterope, for example, is likely related to aster, "star," the latter word itself tracing to the centrally located Venus-star (actually Venus and Mars in conjunction). The German word blitzen is thought to derive from the root bhleig, "glanzen," from which also derives the Middle German blic, "glance, lightning." The Latin word for lightning, fulgur, is derived from the root bhleg. Among the other words derived from the same root is the Middle Irish imblissiu, "eye-star."
The future is bright, it would appear, for those who will follow the mythical lightning to its original source.