How humans have perceived lightning through time

Imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within the clouds themselves, causes lightning, an electric shock. There are many types of lighting: ball and bead, forked and leaf, superbolts and rocket lightning, crown lightning and anvil crawler, staccato lightning, ribbon lightning and others.

The wonder of lightning has captivated and intrigued humans throughout history, often sparking theological and mythological interpretations. These interpretations took place long before science could answer some of the questions that kept humans in awe. Most might have wondered if a God didn’t produce storms, so what did?

In fear of lightning

In Judaism, it is customary to recite the blessing “Who does the work of creation” upon seeing a thunderbolt. In the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation refers to lightning as final judgment.

And in Islam, the Quran says, “Do you not see that Allah drives away the clouds? Then He brings them together; then He makes it a mass, and you see the rain coming out from within. And he sends down mountains from the sky [of clouds] in which there is hail, and he strikes whomever he wills with it and drives it away from whomever he wills. The flash of his lightning almost takes away the sight.”

Lightning also strikes the Hindu and Shinto religions, as well as the traditional religions of Bantu African tribes and other world religions.

We even see lightning in mythology. Lei Gong, the god of thunder in Chinese folklore, punished earthly mortals guilty of crimes when he was angry. He carried a drum and a mallet to produce thunder and he brandished a chisel to punish wrongdoers. His wife, Dianmu, was the goddess of lightning, who used mirrors to glowing light on the ground.

Others used lightning for protection, including Thunderbird, who controlled the upper world like an underwater jaguar controlled the underworld. Thunderbird flapped its wings, creating thunder to protect the upper world. Lightning also sprang from his eyes, hurling itself at the beastly monsters of the underworld.

Another character, Ukko, drove a chariot across the sky. It caused thunder. And the Finnish god had a hammer. When he used it, lightning would strike.

The science behind the strike

Scientists have finally learned that mythical birds or mighty hammers do not cause lightning. During a storm, the collision of liquid particles – rain, ice or snow – inside storm clouds increases the imbalance between the storm clouds and the ground, and often charges negatively the lower parts of these clouds. Objects on the ground, including trees, church steeples, or the Earth itself, become positively charged. To rectify the imbalance, nature passes a current, or lightning, between the two charges. Like any tall building, these church steeples are prone to lightning strikes. In medieval Europe, many churches on hills above small towns burned to the ground when lightning struck. Cities would suffer the loss. Even today, the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, seems incomplete with its only asymmetrical tower. In 1837, a lightning fire damaged it and they had to demolish a tower. The clergy began to fear lightning. They inscribed in the bells of the churches, for a time, the phrase “Fulgura Frango”, meaning “I break the lightning”. They believed that the ringing of church bells could ward off lightning strikes. Some thought it was a pious exercise to scatter the evil spirits of the storm.

Others believed that the chime of the bells would somehow alter the airflow, breaking the path of lightning to the church steeple. Both theories turned out to be wrong and fatal. In France, between 1753 and 1786, lightning killed 103 bell ringers during thunderstorms. In many cases, they clung to wet strings, ringing of bells. At that time, the science of lightning was in its infancy and in slow motion. In Sir Isaac Newton’s day in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the science of electricity was all about observing static charge. It was simply “electric magic”.

In 1743, the Scottish lecturer Archibald Spencer gave a presentation in Boston on this electrical magic. It aroused the interest of a young person who was present: benjamin franklin. And it was Benjamin Franklin – with his kite and his key experiments from 1752 to 1753 – who concluded lightning was electricity. He soon invented the lightning rod, which surely saved the lives of many bell ringers. Regardless of those electrical charges in the clouds or the work of the gods, the power of thunderstorms will always dazzle humans.