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.