Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reflections on Thunder Gods

Recently, there was a flurry of messages on mailing lists within the American Asatru community about a news story about lightning striking a 62 foot Jesus statue, known as "Touchdown Jesus" owing to the posture of the figure, outside the Solid Rock church in Monroe Ohio. (Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper, June 15th, 2010, http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100615/NEWS01/306150004/-Touchdown-Jesus-statue-at-Solid-Rock-Church-on-I-75-destroyed-by-lightning-fire ). There was much glee about this Christian icon being struck down and burnt to ashes by the power of nature associated with Thor in Norse tradition. "Hail Thor," said some. Considering the long and still continuing history of Christian oppression of Pagan religion, this bit of "schadenfreude" was certainly understandable.

I myself do not care for thanking or blaming gods for such stunning displays of the power of nature. If we are to thank Thor for blasting a Christian church, should we also "thank" him for the thunder storms, hurricanes and cyclones that cause death and destruction around the world on a regular basis? There is a "cherry-picking" tendency to associate actions we like with our gods and to dissociate when the actions are less pleasing. Should we thank the gods for the surprise storm that sent a tornado hurtling down the main street of Bridgeport, Connecticut last week? For myself, I don't mind joking a bit about Thor or other gods of thunder in other traditions throwing thunderbolts around, but I worry that some more fundamentalist Pagans might really take this kind of thing seriously, because they are using the same logic that was in the past used by missionaries to disprove Paganism, i.e., your god is only real if he can make real things happen. If the rain god cannot make it rain on demand, the rain god is false, etc. This is a very weak kind of logic because it does not allow that the gods may exist in other ways and serve other functions than to be errand boys or customer service representatives for their worshippers.

The incident did get me thinking about how the gods of thunder and lightning are often the preeminent gods in many Indo-European pantheons. To run down a partial list, Norse Thor, German Donnar, Greek Zeus, Roman Jupiter, Slavic Perun, Lithuanian Perkunas, Latvian Perkuns, Vedic (early Hindu) Indra, and probably quite a few others. These gods are generally not the creator figures in their respective mythospheres, but tend to displace the creator gods, who are often all-powerful sky gods in the earliest levels of tradition, to become the most popular gods, often associated with kingship and justice as well as the crackling power of storm and lightning. What then accounts for the rise of stature that these gods underwent within their respective traditions?

I have puzzled over this for many years, and now have an answer, or at least a hypothesis. The sky god rules the sky; the earth goddess sustains the earth. The thunder god connects them, representing the divine energy, in the form of the lightning, that reaches from the heavens to the earth. He brings divinity "down to earth," connecting earth and heaven, the human and divine realms, also bringing with him fertilizing, life-giving rain as well as lightning and thunder. He is likewise often associated with oak trees, the most majestic of trees that reach from earth to heaven. The thunder god therefore represents the pivot-point of the human-divine relationship, which accounts for his great importance.

This has analogies with other traditions outside the Indo-European spectrum. In Shinto, the god of the harvest is ritually summoned down from the mountain, to come to the field and bless the rice crop, and then returns to the mountain. He circulates from high to low and back again, bringing blessings. One of the chief decorations of Shinto shrines is a paper zig zag shape representing lightning. Though the highest god in the Shinto pantheon is the sun goddess Amaterasu, her brother Susano-no-Mikoto is a storm god, and a rival to her for supremacy in some Shinto traditions. The Hebrew god Yahweh is also a storm god, related to other storm gods of the region.

All of this brings me a new sense of the importance of the thunder god, as well as a new idea of how to direct my meditations and worship. I do not ask the thunder god to rain down destruction on my enemies or opponents. I ask him to bring me the divine intelligence down from the heavens to my humble and limited existence on this earth. I seek not brute force, but inspiration and wisdom, from the higher powers, whether they are "out there" or "in here" (pointing to head), and encourage you to consider this in your own spiritual activities and reflections.

14 comments:

Seeing Eye Chick said...

First of all, Lightning travels from the ground to the sky generally speaking. It looks like it doesnt, but there it is. The rest? Some people are attracted to Thor or similar gods because they might have become ultimate symbols of machismo. Personally I don't see Thor as being that kind of toxic presence. I always see him as an Outider. He's popular because he is friendly or perhaps others see him that way. He only seems beligerent in the face of beligerent beings. But how often do you read of him hurting people for fun? I have yet to read anything of him raping women either. And I loved the flyting of Loki, when he did not bow down to rumor regarding his wife's alleged activities. Most of the time, when I view modern depictions of Thor, they read mostly like Freudian projections. That reflects more on the type of follower than the entity, Thor, Himself.

Paolo said...

i experience the gods as very individualized beings with agendas of their own, so while Donnar might strike down a statue of jesus (regardless of anyone's opinion), he would be just as capable of sending a hurricane down a main street in Connecticut. as you said, the gods are not bound to our expectations and desires, they act entirely of their own accord.

Ananta Androscoggin said...

Some lightning strikes go from cloud to cloud as well.

If the earth is the Mother Goddess, then Deity is already down here, and does not need to be provided by a thunderer, such would be more of a messenger or conduit in some ways.

Maelstrom said...

Excellent point, Ananta. I hadn't thought of that. I still think that my explanation of the importance of the thunder god has merit, but it needs to be modified in response to the issue you raise of the earth ALREADY possessing spiritual power or divinity. Perhaps the special status of thunder gods shows an Indo-European bias toward sky gods, or perhaps it shows the need to connect earth and sky.

Neicie said...

http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/topic.php?uid=114748898565256&topic=123

Hey there,

I posted a question (inspired by your questioning) to my facebook group. I think it's good to ponder these things. Thanks.

Denise Bowen

Maelstrom said...

Thanks for the appreciation, Denise. It is nice when we can have a civil exchange of ideas without people jumping down each others' throats.

ianphanes said...

When I say "Hail Taranis!", I am acknowledging the awe I experience in response to a thunderstorm. For me, the storm is a theophany of Taranis--a manifestation of the numinous power of nature in which Taranis participates. I'm not worried about causality or responsibility, just awe.

Thus, I can acknowledge him in any thunderstorm, whether or not I appreciate the specific consequences.

Maelstrom said...

Ian, could you explain what pantheon Taranis comes from? Celtic perhaps?

sister*bluebird said...

Thor is a son of the Earth.

Just us - Just me said...

Hey! Sorry this is offtopic but I just found your blog tonight and read most of it. I agree with a lot of the things you say, even though I wouldn't call myself a lefty politically. Liberal yes, but I'm for private everything except healthcare and education, who should be socialised. That being said, I am more individualistic than society-focused. I feel that society takes many of our freedoms away and why should I give up time and money to help it?
I do qualify as liberal socially, I guess. I'm anti-militarism, pro-choice, anti-Nazi. Haven't decided on the gun thing.
I'm an Atheist, but interested in Paganism (particularly the Slavic path, without being able to claim a Slavic background myself) and I am extremely sorry to see racism is at its highest there. I can't see any reason for which religion should be connected to race, especially today. Frankly I don't think the pre-Christian Europeans had the notion of race, as we understand it today, nor did they have the same understanding of politics. It's quite ironic that the Recons, who try to live lives as similar to those of the pre-Christian Europeans as they can reconstruct are the ones who tie their religion to politics. I doubt any Viking could have made heads or tails of the way we define politics now. But the fact remains that if I go to Russia for a Kupala feast, I could get killed because I don't speak any Slavic language, which I hope to remedy very soon. Still, I stay away from Pagans until I can be sure they're not racist nutheads.

trumoonbear said...

I've been told that disagreeing with this blog results in deleted posts. Is that the case? Not talking about ad hominen attacks, just thoughtful on topic discussion.

Maelstrom said...

Hi Trumoon. I am not sure who told you that comments are "deleted." Almost all comments sent to this blog have been published. Just a few have been blocked when I felt they were disrepectful, abusive or otherwise not productive to a climate of respectful discussion. As I explain in the "about me" section of the blog, "My own political perspective is left-of-center liberal, and this colors and informs my postings on this blog. Others with different political perspectives are encouraged to add comments, and will not be censored or dismissed unless their comments are seen as off-topic, incoherent, disruptive or excessively rude." If you go back into the history of posts on this blog, you will see that many different opinions and perspectives have been published.

Anonymous said...

Trumoonbear is referring to something I said to him. I had been unable to find some comments I remembered making on this blog some time back and assumed they had been deleted. I have since found them, apparently I misremembered where I had made them. I have to apologize for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

Gerrit de Vries

ianphanes said...

Maelstrom,

Yes, Taranis is attested as an Iberian Celtic god whose name (like Thor's and Thunor's) is related to the word for "thunder".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taranis

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