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by H. Crosthwaite



THIS chapter is devoted to examples of meteors and thunderbolts, and intervention by deities. It also deals with the question of the Greek prutanis, and the Etruscan lightning-averter.

In the archery contest at the funeral games for Anchises, the arrow shot by Acestes caught fire and marked its path with flames until it was burnt up and disappeared. It was like those stars which often come loose in the sky and cross it, drawing their tresses after them in their flight. Vergil, Aeneid V: 522ff..

Homer, Iliad VIII: 133 ff.: Zeus saves the Trojans by thundering and sending a terrible shining bolt. He sends it to earth in front of Diomedes' horses. There rises a great flame of burning sulphur.

Iliad XIV: 412 ff.: Telamonian Ajax picks up a stone and throws it at Hector, making him spin round like a top. He falls, just as an oak tree falls under the attack of father Zeus, and a great smell of sulphur comes from it.

Note: rhombos, a top; also strombos. Vergil, Aeneid V: 319: fulminis alis: Nisus, in the race, is swifter than the wings of a thunderbolt.

Aeneid VIII: 524: Evander promises help to Aeneas, and Venus thunders and lightens. Weapons are seen in the sky, and trumpets sound. Pausanias V: 11: 9: When Pheidias had finished his statue of Zeus, he prayed for a sign of approval. A bolt struck the pavement. (A bronze urn was still there when Pausanias visited the place).

Hesiod, Catalogue of Women: Zeus laid low Eetion with a flaming bolt because he tried to seize Demeter.

Frazer, The Golden Bough, mentions the name "thunder besom," given to mistletoe, and suggests that Balder was killed by lightning.

Lucretius V: 745: "Auster fulmine pollens," South Wind mighty with the thunderbolt. In III: 1034, he refers to one of the Scipios, conquerors of Carthage, as fulmen belli, a thunderbolt of war.

Odyssey V: 128: Calypso tells Odysseus that Zeus killed Iasion by striking him with a shining thunderbolt; arges, shining, not psoloeis, smoky.

The Greek for a flash of lightning is sterope, asterope, astrape; Latin fulgur.

Zeus is Prytanis (Lord) of lightnings and thunderbolts. The word prytanis in classical times at Athens meant the President, one of a committee of fifty deputies who formed part of the Boule or Council of Five Hundred.

It used to be thought that prytanis came from proteros, and protos, words that mean priority. It is much more likely that we are dealing with pyr, fire, tanuo, stretch, and tinasso, shake or brandish.

Iliad XIII: 243: asteropen tinoxen, he hurled lightning; Iliad XVII: 5ff: aigida tinaxen, he brandished the aegis. Aeschylus, Prometheus Vinctus 917: to brandish in his two hands the fire-breathing bolt. I suggest that the prytanis was originally he who tended the fire, the stoker for the sacred fire of Hestia, Latin Vesta.

The Greek keraunos is the thunderbolt, Latin fulmen. Bronte is thunder, Latin tonitrus. Frontac is the Etruscan for thunderer. The Greek skeptos means a thunderbolt, also a squall from above, with thunder. The verb skepto is used of lightning striking, Aeschylus, Agamemnon: 302,310.

Zeus struck Odysseus's swift ship with a smoky thunderbolt. Aithon means fiery, of lightning; also of metal, flashing. It is applied to tripods, Iliad IX: 123; XXIV: 233.

Cicero mentions the Torch of Apollo, Phoebi fax (De Divinatione I: XI).

The Greek lailaps is a storm, especially a whirlwind sweeping upwards. Elijah and Romulus are both described as having been taken up into the sky.

A link between sound, oracles, and lightning is illustrated by the resemblance between the Hebrew ne'um, oracle, and na'am to murmur. The humming and buzzing sound, caused by electricity, was interpreted as an indication of the presence of the god.

The sound could be heard in the sky as well as in a temple or physics laboratory. Edward Whymper, in his Scrambles Amongst the Alps, writes of an electrical storm:

"The respective parties seem to have been highly electrified on each occasion. Forbes says his fingers 'yielded a fizzing sound', and Watson says that his 'hair stood on end in an uncomfortable but very amusing manner, ' and that 'the veil on the wide-awake of one of the party stood upright in the air. '" Farther on, in Appendix B, 'Struck by lightning on the Matterhorn', he mentions injuries, a long sore on the arm, and a leg weak and swollen next day. Being struck resembled a shock from a galvanic battery. (The date of the expedition was 1869) Lucretius, VI: 1166, mentions ulcers as coming from sacer ignis, holy fire.

The above passage might be a description of an encounter with Apollo. He was the god of music, of healing and of plague, and he struck from afar.

The French guide R. Frison Roche, in his book First on The Rope, 1940, describes an electrical storm high up on one of the Aiguilles of Mont Blanc. There were violent gusts of wind, thunder, then silence and calm. Mist gathered. The statue of the Virgin on the summit was wrapped in flickering blue flame, her head surrounded with an aureole of fire. Invisible hands seemed to be pulling at their hair. His companion, Jean Servettaz, said: "Les abeilles bourdonnent," the bees are buzzing, "get down quickly, lightning's going to strike!" They climbed down from the ridge and took shelter under an overhang just as lightning shattered the rocks on the ridge.

This description of the approach of an electrical storm has points in common with the accounts of the theophanies in The Bacchae of Euripides and in the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles. Perhaps when we see a hieroglyph or relief of an animal with tail pointing straight up, as in the case of the Egyptian god Set, we should think of the veil on the wide awake standing upright in the air, of the buzzing sound of an imminent thunderbolt, and of the bees that tended the infant Zeus in the cave in Crete.

'Arseverse' is an Etruscan incantation to avert lightning. It appears in an inscription at Cortina addressed to Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire. 'Ar' is Etruscan for fire from the sky; 'ara' is Latin for an altar, the place to which divine fire is enticed. Latin 'verto' means I turn; severto, I turn aside.

There was a temple at Rome, the Bidental, or Fulminar, dedicated to lightning. It may have been named after forked lightning. In Greece, a place struck by lightning was enelusios. At Rome, a curb, puteal, was put round the spot in the Comitium where Attus Navius split the whetstone with a razor.


III: 375: Menelaus fights with Paris, gets hold of his helmet and would have hauled him away, had not Aphrodite broken the leather helmet strap under his chin.

381: Aphrodite then surrounds Paris with mist, carries him to his perfumed bedroom, and goes off to summon Helen.

IV: 127: Athene, in disguise, urges the Trojan Pandarus to shoot Menelaus, thereby breaking the truce. Athene wards off the arrow from the flesh and guides it to the buckle of his belt, so that the wound is only a scratch.

V: 311: Aphrodite rescues her son Aeneas, who has been struck by a huge stone hurled by Diomedes. She puts her arms round him and veils him in a fold of her gleaming peplos.

V: 340: Diomedes pursues Aphrodite, wounds her in the hand, and ichor flows out, ichor which flows in the veins of the immortal gods. They do not eat food or drink fiery wine, so are bloodless and are called immortal. Aphrodite gives a great cry, and lets go her son. Phoebus Apollo picks him up and saves him with a dark cloud. Aphrodite borrows Ares's chariot to drive home to Olympus.

X1: 690: Nestor recalls his youth, when he drove back the Eleans and took their cattle in revenge. He went to Pylos, which had few men left to defend it since Herakles had attacked it, and the best had been killed.

XIII: 242: Idomeneus emerges from his hut clad in armour. He looks like the lightning that the Son of Kronos brandishes from shining Olympus, giving a sign to mortals. Thus the bronze flashed on the breast of Idomeneus as he ran. XV: 262: Apollo inspires Hector. "Speaking thus he breathed menos into the general." Menos may be translated here as ardour.

XV: 308: As Hector led the Trojans forward, Phoebus Apollo went in front, his shoulders clad in mist, holding the aegis with its tasselled fringe, which Hephaestus gave Zeus for striking fear into men.

XVIII: 202 ff.: Upon the death of Patroclus, Achilles emerges, stands on the rampart and shouts at the Trojans. Athene lays her aegis over his shoulders and sheds a golden mist round his head. His body emits a blaze of light.

XVIII: 223 ff.: The horses with the beautiful hair backed away on their chariots, scenting trouble, and the charioteers were amazed when they saw the steady fire burning on the head of the valiant son of Peleus. The bright-eyed goddess Athene kept the fire burning.

XVIII: 239: "Ox-eyed Hera sent the tireless sun unwillingly into the streams of Ocean." Unwillingly, because she was shortening the day. Compare Odyssey XXIII: 243: Athene kept the night waiting at its furthest limit, and she held back Dawn of the Golden Throne at the edge of Ocean, and did not allow the swift steeds to be yoked, which bring daylight to men, Lampos and Phaethon, the colts that draw the Dawn.

Note: Only here does Dawn have a chariot. XX: 321: When Achilles prepares to kill Aeneas, Poseidon goes down to the battlefield. He spreads mist before Achilles's eyes, and carries Aeneas up into the air so that he flies over the ranks of men and lands in another part of the battlefield.

XIII: 59: Poseidon encourages the two Aiantes. He touches each of them with his staff and fills them with strength and resolution. Ajax the son of Oileus realises afterwards that it was Poseidon, looking like Kalchas, who had encouraged them. He recognised him by his ichnia, footprints, and knemai, legs. The word here for staff is skepanion, similar to skeptron. XVI: 458: Zeus sends a shower of bloody rain to the earth (eraze), before the death of Sarpedon. Cf. Hebrew eretz, land.

Cf. XI: 53: When Agamemnon arms himself, Zeus sends drops of bloody rain from the aither, because he is going to hurl many brave men down to Hades.

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