Story type: Essay
The subject of thunderbolts is a very fascinating one, and all the more so because there are no such things in existence at all as thunderbolts of any sort. Like the snakes of Iceland, their whole history might, from the positive point of view at least, be summed up in the simple statement of their utter nonentity. But does that do away in the least, I should like to know, with their intrinsic interest and importance? Not a bit of it. It only adds to the mystery and charm of the whole subject. Does anyone feel as keenly interested in any real living cobra or anaconda as in the non-existent great sea-serpent? Are ghosts and vampires less attractive objects of popular study than cats and donkeys? Can the present King of Abyssinia, interviewed by our own correspondent, equal the romantic charm of Prester John, or the butcher in the next street rival the personality of Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, Baronet? No, the real fact is this: if there were thunderbolts, the question of their nature and action would be a wholly dull, scientific, and priggish one; it is their unreality alone that invests them with all the mysterious weirdness of pure fiction. Lightning, now, is a common thing that one reads about wearily in the books on electricity, a mere ordinary matter of positive and negative, density and potential, to be measured in ohms (whatever they may be), and partially imitated with Leyden jars and red sealing-wax apparatus. Why, did not Benjamin Franklin, a fat old gentleman in ill-fitting small clothes, bring it down from the clouds with a simple door-key, somewhere near Philadelphia? and does not Mr. Robert Scott (of the Meteorological Office) calmly predict its probable occurrence within the next twenty-four hours in his daily report, as published regularly in the morning papers? This is lightning, mere vulgar lightning, a simple result of electrical conditions in the upper atmosphere, inconveniently connected with algebraical formulas in x, y, z, with horrid symbols interspersed in Greek letters. But the real thunderbolts of Jove, the weapons that the angry Zeus, or Thor, or Indra hurls down upon the head of the trembling malefactor–how infinitely grander, more fearsome, and more mysterious!
And yet even nowadays, I believe, there are a large number of well-informed people, who have passed the sixth standard, taken prizes at the Oxford Local, and attended the dullest lectures of the Society for University Extension, but who nevertheless in some vague and dim corner of their consciousness retain somehow a lingering faith in the existence of thunderbolts. They have not yet grasped in its entirety the simple truth that lightning is the reality of which thunderbolts are the mythical, or fanciful, or verbal representation. We all of us know now that lightning is a mere flash of electric light and heat; that it has no solid existence or core of any sort; in short, that it is dynamical rather than material, a state or movement rather than a body or thing. To be sure, local newspapers still talk with much show of learning about ‘the electric fluid’ which did such remarkable damage last week upon the slated steeple of Peddlington Torpida Church; but the well-crammed schoolboy of the present day has long since learned that the electric fluid is an exploded fallacy, and that the lightning which pulled the ten slates off the steeple in question was nothing more in its real nature than a very big immaterial spark. However, the word thunderbolt has survived to us from the days when people still believed that the thing which did the damage during a thunderstorm was really and truly a gigantic white-hot bolt or arrow; and, as there is a natural tendency in human nature to fit an existence to every word, people even now continue to imagine that there must be actually something or other somewhere called a thunderbolt. They don’t figure this thing to themselves as being identical with the lightning; on the contrary, they seem to regard it as something infinitely rarer, more terrible, and more mystic; but they firmly hold that thunderbolts do exist in real life, and even sometimes assert that they themselves have positively seen them.
But, if seeing is believing, it is equally true, as all who have looked into the phenomena of spiritualism and ‘psychical research’ (modern English for ghost-hunting) know too well, that believing is seeing also. The origin of the faith in thunderbolts must be looked for (like the origin of the faith in ghosts and ‘psychical phenomena’) far back in the history of our race. The noble savage, at that early period when wild in woods he ran, naturally noticed the existence of thunder and lightning, because thunder and lightning are things that forcibly obtrude themselves upon the attention of the observer, however little he may by nature be scientifically inclined. Indeed, the noble savage, sleeping naked on the bare ground, in tropical countries where thunder occurs almost every night on an average, was sure to be pretty often awaked from his peaceful slumbers by the torrents of rain that habitually accompany thunderstorms in the happy realms of everlasting dog-days. Primitive man was thereupon compelled to do a little philosophising on his own account as to the cause and origin of the rumbling and flashing which he saw so constantly around him. Naturally enough, he concluded that the sound must be the voice of somebody; and that the fiery shaft, whose effects he sometimes noted upon trees, animals, and his fellow-man, must be the somebody’s arrow. It is immaterial from this point of view whether, as the scientific anthropologists hold, he was led to his conception of these supernatural personages from his prior belief in ghosts and spirits, or whether, as Professor Max Mueller will have it, he felt a deep yearning in his primitive savage breast toward the Infinite and the Unknowable (which he would doubtless have spelt, like the Professor, with a capital initial, had he been acquainted with the intricacies of the yet uninvented alphabet); but this much at least is pretty certain, that he looked upon the thunder and the lightning as in some sense the voice and the arrows of an aerial god.
Now, this idea about the arrows is itself very significant of the mental attitude of primitive man, and of the way that mental attitude has coloured all subsequent thinking and superstition upon this very subject. Curiously enough, to the present day the conception of the thunderbolt is essentially one of a bolt–that is to say, an arrow, or at least an arrowhead. All existing thunderbolts (and there are plenty of them lying about casually in country houses and local museums) are more or less arrow-like in shape and appearance; some of them, indeed, as we shall see by-and-by, are the actual stone arrowheads of primitive man himself in person. Of course the noble savage was himself in the constant habit of shooting at animals and enemies with a bow and arrow. When, then, he tried to figure to himself the angry god, seated in the storm-clouds, who spoke with such a loud rumbling voice, and killed those who displeased him with his fiery darts, he naturally thought of him as using in his cloudy home the familiar bow and arrow of this nether planet. To us nowadays, if we were to begin forming the idea for ourselves all over again de novo, it would be far more natural to think of the thunder as the noise of a big gun, of the lightning as the flash of the powder, and of the supposed ‘bolt’ as a shell or bullet. There is really a ridiculous resemblance between a thunderstorm and a discharge of artillery. But the old conception derived from so many generations of primitive men has held its own against such mere modern devices as gunpowder and rifle balls; and none of the objects commonly shown as thunderbolts are ever round: they are distinguished, whatever their origin, by the common peculiarity that they more or less closely resemble a dart or arrowhead.
Let us begin, then, by clearly disembarrassing our minds of any lingering belief in the existence of thunderbolts. There are absolutely no such things known to science. The two real phenomena that underlie the fable are simply thunder and lightning. A thunderstorm is merely a series of electrical discharges between one cloud and another, or between clouds and the earth; and these discharges manifest themselves to our senses under two forms–to the eye as lightning, to the ear as thunder. All that passes in each case is a huge spark–a commotion, not a material object. It is in principle just like the spark from an electrical machine; but while the most powerful machine of human construction will only send a spark for three feet, the enormous electrical apparatus provided for us by nature will send one for four, five, or even ten miles. Though lightning when it touches the earth always seems to us to come from the clouds to the ground, it is by no means certain that the real course may not at least occasionally be in the opposite direction. All we know is that sometimes there is an instantaneous discharge between one cloud and another, and sometimes an instantaneous discharge between a cloud and the earth.
But this idea of a mere passage of highly concentrated energy from one point to another was far too abstract, of course, for primitive man, and is far too abstract even now for nine out of ten of our fellow-creatures. Those who don’t still believe in the bodily thunderbolt, a fearsome aerial weapon which buries itself deep in the bosom of the earth, look upon lightning as at least an embodiment of the electric fluid, a long spout or line of molten fire, which is usually conceived of as striking the ground and then proceeding to hide itself under the roots of a tree or beneath the foundations of a tottering house. Primitive man naturally took to the grosser and more material conception. He figured to himself the thunderbolt as a barbed arrowhead; and the forked zigzag character of the visible flash, as it darts rapidly from point to point, seemed almost inevitably to suggest to him the barbs, as one sees them represented on all the Greek and Roman gems, in the red right hand of the angry Jupiter.
The thunderbolt being thus an accepted fact, it followed naturally that whenever any dart-like object of unknown origin was dug up out of the ground, it was at once set down as being a thunderbolt; and, on the other hand, the frequent occurrence of such dart-like objects, precisely where one might expect to find them in accordance with the theory, necessarily strengthened the belief itself. So commonly are thunderbolts picked up to the present day that to disbelieve in them seems to many country people a piece of ridiculous and stubborn scepticism. Why, they’ve ploughed up dozens of them themselves in their time, and just about the very place where the thunderbolt struck the old elm-tree two years ago, too.
The most favourite form of thunderbolt is the polished stone hatchet or ‘celt’ of the newer stone age men. I have never heard the very rude chipped and unpolished axes of the older drift men or cave men described as thunderbolts: they are too rough and shapeless ever to attract attention from any except professed archaeologists. Indeed, the wicked have been known to scoff at them freely as mere accidental lumps of broken flint, and to deride the notion of their being due in any way to deliberate human handicraft. These are the sort of people who would regard a grand piano as a fortuitous concourse of atoms. But the shapely stone hatchet of the later neolithic farmer and herdsman is usually a beautifully polished wedge-shaped piece of solid greenstone; and its edge has been ground to such a delicate smoothness that it seems rather like a bit of nature’s exquisite workmanship than a simple relic of prehistoric man. There is something very fascinating about the naif belief that the neolithic axe is a genuine unadulterated thunderbolt. You dig it up in the ground exactly where you would expect a thunderbolt (if there were such things) to be. It is heavy, smooth, well shaped, and neatly pointed at one end. If it could really descend in a red-hot state from the depths of the sky, launched forth like a cannon-ball by some fierce discharge of heavenly artillery, it would certainly prove a very formidable weapon indeed; and one could easily imagine it scoring the bark of some aged oak, or tearing off the tiles from a projecting turret, exactly as the lightning is so well known to do in this prosaic workaday world of ours. In short, there is really nothing on earth against the theory of the stone axe being a true thunderbolt, except the fact that it unfortunately happens to be a neolithic hatchet.
But the course of reasoning by which we discover the true nature of the stone axe is not one that would in any case appeal strongly to the fancy or the intelligence of the British farmer. It is no use telling him that whenever one opens a barrow of the stone age one is pretty sure to find a neolithic axe and a few broken pieces of pottery beside the mouldering skeleton of the old nameless chief who lies there buried. The British farmer will doubtless stolidly retort that thunderbolts often strike the tops of hills, which are just the places where barrows and tumuli (tumps, he calls them) most do congregate; and that as to the skeleton, isn’t it just as likely that the man was killed by the thunderbolt as that the thunderbolt was made by a man? Ay, and a sight likelier, too.
All the world over, this simple and easy belief, that the buried stone axe is a thunderbolt, exists among Europeans and savages alike. In the West of England, the labourers will tell you that the thunder-axes they dig up fell from the sky. In Brittany, says Mr. Tylor, the old man who mends umbrellas at Carnac, beside the mysterious stone avenues of that great French Stonehenge, inquires on his rounds for pierres de tonnerre, which of course are found with suspicious frequency in the immediate neighbourhood of prehistoric remains. In the Chinese Encyclopaedia we are told that the ‘lightning stones’ have sometimes the shape of a hatchet, sometimes that of a knife, and sometimes that of a mallet. And then, by a curious misapprehension, the sapient author of that work goes on to observe that these lightning stones are used by the wandering Mongols instead of copper and steel. It never seems to have struck his celestial intelligence that the Mongols made the lightning stones instead of digging them up out of the earth. So deeply had the idea of the thunderbolt buried itself in the recesses of his soul, that though a neighbouring people were still actually manufacturing stone axes almost under his very eyes, he reversed mentally the entire process, and supposed they dug up the thunderbolts which he saw them using, and employed them as common hatchets. This is one of the finest instances on record of the popular figure which grammarians call the hysteron proteron, and ordinary folk describe as putting the cart before the horse. Just so, while in some parts of Brazil the Indians are still laboriously polishing their stone hatchets, in other parts the planters are digging up the precisely similar stone hatchets of earlier generations, and religiously preserving them in their houses as undoubted thunderbolts. I have myself had pressed upon my attention as genuine lightning stones, in the West Indies, the exquisitely polished greenstone tomahawks of the old Carib marauders. But then, in this matter, I am pretty much in the position of that philosophic sceptic who, when he was asked by a lady whether he believed in ghosts, answered wisely, ‘No, madam, I have seen by far too many of them.’
One of the finest accounts ever given of the nature of thunderbolts is that mentioned by Adrianus Tollius in his edition of ‘Boethius on Gems.’ He gives illustrations of some neolithic axes and hammers, and then proceeds to state that in the opinion of philosophers they are generated in the sky by a fulgureous exhalation (whatever that may look like) conglobed in a cloud by a circumfixed humour, and baked hard, as it were, by intense heat. The weapon, it seems, then becomes pointed by the damp mixed with it flying from the dry part, and leaving the other end denser; while the exhalations press it so hard that it breaks out through the cloud, and makes thunder and lightning. A very lucid explanation certainly, but rendered a little difficult of apprehension by the effort necessary for realising in a mental picture the conglobation of a fulgureous exhalation by a circumfixed humour.
One would like to see a drawing of the process, though the sketch would probably much resemble the picture of a muchness, so admirably described by the mock turtle. The excellent Tollius himself, however, while demurring on the whole to this hypothesis of the philosophers, bases his objection mainly on the ground that, if this were so, then it is odd the thunderbolts are not round, but wedge-shaped, and that they have holes in them, and those holes not equal throughout, but widest at the ends. As a matter of fact, Tollius has here hit the right nail on the head quite accidentally; for the holes are really there, of course, to receive the haft of the axe or hammer. But if they were truly thunderbolts, and if the bolts were shafted, then the holes would have been lengthwise, as in an arrowhead, not crosswise, as in an axe or hammer. Which is a complete reductio ad absurdum of the philosophic opinion.
Some of the cerauniae, says Pliny, are like hatchets. He would have been nearer the mark if he had said ‘are hatchets’ outright. But this apercu, which was to Pliny merely a stray suggestion, became to the northern peoples a firm article of belief, and caused them to represent to themselves their god Thor or Thunor as armed, not with a bolt, but with an axe or hammer. Etymologically Thor, Thunor, and thunder are the self-same word; but while the southern races looked upon Zeus or Indra as wielding his forked darts in his red right hand, the northern races looked upon the Thunder-god as hurling down an angry hammer from his seat in the clouds. There can be but little doubt that the very notion of Thor’s hammer itself was derived from the shape of the supposed thunderbolt, which the Scandinavians and Teutons rightly saw at once to be an axe or mallet, not an arrowhead. The ‘fiery axe’ of Thunor is a common metaphor in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Thus, Thor’s hammer is itself merely the picture which our northern ancestors formed to themselves, by compounding the idea of thunder and lightning with the idea of the polished stone hatchets they dug up among the fields and meadows.
Flint arrowheads of the stone age are less often taken for thunderbolts, no doubt because they are so much smaller that they look quite too insignificant for the weapons of an angry god. They are more frequently described as fairy-darts or fairy-bolts. Still, I have known even arrowheads regarded as thunderbolts, and preserved superstitiously under that belief. In Finland, stone arrows are universally so viewed; and the rainbow is looked upon as the bow of Tiermes, the thunder-god, who shoots with it the guilty sorcerers.
But why should thunderbolts, whether stone axes or flint arrowheads, be preserved, not merely as curiosities, but from motives of superstition? The reason is a simple one. Everybody knows that in all magical ceremonies it is necessary to have something belonging to the person you wish to conjure against, in order to make your spells effectual. A bone, be it but a joint of the little finger, is sufficient to raise the ghost to which it once belonged; cuttings of hair or clippings of nails are enough to put their owner magically in your power; and that is the reason why, if you are a prudent person, you will always burn all such off-castings of your body, lest haply an enemy should get hold of them, and cast the evil eye upon you with their potent aid. In the same way, if you can lay hands upon anything that once belonged to an elf, such as a fairy-bolt or flint arrowhead, you can get its former possessor to do anything you wish by simply rubbing it and calling upon him to appear. This is the secret of half the charms and amulets in existence, most of which are either real old arrowheads, or carnelians cut in the same shape, which has now mostly degenerated from the barb to the conventional heart, and been mistakenly associated with the idea of love. This is the secret, too, of all the rings, lamps, gems, and boxes, possession of which gives a man power over fairies, spirits, gnomes, and genii. All magic proceeds upon the prime belief that you must possess something belonging to the person you wish to control, constrain, or injure. And, failing anything else, you must at least have a wax image of him, which you call by his name, and use as his substitute in your incantations.
On this primitive principle, possession of a thunderbolt gives you some sort of hold, as it were, over the thunder-god himself in person. If you keep a thunderbolt in your house it will never be struck by lightning. In Shetland, stone axes are religiously preserved in every cottage as a cheap and simple substitute for lightning-rods. In Cornwall, the stone hatchets and arrowheads not only guard the house from thunder, but also act as magical barometers, changing colour with the changes of the weather, as if in sympathy with the temper of the thunder-god. In Germany, the house where a thunderbolt is kept is safe from the storm; and the bolt itself begins to sweat on the approach of lightning-clouds. Nay, so potent is the protection afforded by a thunderbolt that where the lightning has once struck it never strikes again; the bolt already buried in the soil seems to preserve the surrounding place from the anger of the deity. Old and pagan in their nature as are these beliefs, they yet survive so thoroughly into Christian times that I have seen a stone hatchet built into the steeple of a church to protect it from lightning. Indeed, steeples have always of course attracted the electric discharge to a singular degree by their height and tapering form, especially before the introduction of lighting-rods; and it was a sore trial of faith to mediaeval reasoners to understand why heaven should hurl its angry darts so often against the towers of its very own churches. In the Abruzzi the flint axe has actually been Christianised into St. Paul’s arrows–saetti de San Paolo. Families hand down the miraculous stones from father to son as a precious legacy; and mothers hang them on their children’s necks side by side with medals of saints and madonnas, which themselves are hardly so highly prized as the stones that fall from heaven.
Another and very different form of thunderbolt is the belemnite, a common English fossil often preserved in houses in the west country with the same superstitious reverence as the neolithic hatchets. The very form of the belemnite at once suggests the notion of a dart or lance-head, which has gained for it its scientific name. At the present day, when all our girls go to Girton and enter for the classical tripos, I need hardly translate the word belemnite ‘for the benefit of the ladies,’ as people used to do in the dark and unemancipated eighteenth century; but as our boys have left off learning Greek just as their sisters are beginning to act the ‘Antigone’ at private theatricals, I may perhaps be pardoned if I explain, ‘for the benefit of the gentlemen,’ that the word is practically equivalent to javelin-fossil. The belemnites are the internal shells of a sort of cuttle-fish which swam about in enormous numbers in the seas whose sediment forms our modern lias, oolite, and gault. A great many different species are known and have acquired charming names in very doubtful Attic at the hands of profoundly learned geological investigators, but almost all are equally good representatives of the mythical thunderbolt. The finest specimens are long, thick, cylindrical, and gradually tapering, with a hole at one end as if on purpose to receive the shaft. Sometimes they have petrified into iron pyrites or copper compounds, shining like gold, and then they make very noble thunderbolts indeed, heavy as lead, and capable of doing profound mischief if properly directed. At other times they have crystallised in transparent spar, and then they form very beautiful objects, as smooth and polished as the best lapidary could possibly make them. Belemnites are generally found in immense numbers together, especially in the marlstone quarries of the Midlands, and in the lias cliffs of Dorsetshire. Yet the quarrymen who find them never seem to have their faith shaken in the least by the enormous quantities of thunderbolts that would appear to have struck a single spot with such extraordinary frequency This little fact also tells rather hardly against the theory that the lightning never falls twice upon the same place.
Only the largest and heaviest belemnites are known as thunder stones; the smaller ones are more commonly described as agate pencils. In Shakespeare’s country their connection with thunder is well known, so that in all probability a belemnite is the original of the beautiful lines in ‘Cymbeline’:–
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone,
where the distinction between the lightning and the thunderbolt is particularly well indicated. In every part of Europe belemnites and stone hatchets are alike regarded as thunderbolts; so that we have the curious result that people confuse under a single name a natural fossil of immense antiquity and a human product of comparatively recent but still prehistoric date. Indeed, I have had two thunderbolts shown me at once, one of which was a large belemnite, and the other a modern Indian tomahawk. Curiously enough, English sailors still call the nearest surviving relatives of the belemnites, the squids or calamaries of the Atlantic, by the appropriate name of sea-arrows.
Many other natural or artificial objects have added their tittle to the belief in thunderbolts. In the Himalayas, for example, where awful thunderstorms are always occurring as common objects of the country, the torrents which follow them tear out of the loose soil fossil bones and tusks and teeth, which are universally looked upon as lightning-stones. The nodules of pyrites, often picked up on beaches, with their false appearance of having been melted by intense heat, pass muster easily with children and sailor folk for the genuine thunderbolts. But the grand upholder of the belief, the one true undeniable reality which has kept alive the thunderbolt even in a wicked and sceptical age, is, beyond all question, the occasional falling of meteoric stones. Your meteor is an incontrovertible fact; there is no getting over him; in the British Museum itself you will find him duly classified and labelled and catalogued. Here, surely, we have the ultimate substratum of the thunderbolt myth. To be sure, meteors have no kind of natural connection with thunderstorms; they may fall anywhere and at any time; but to object thus is to be hypercritical. A stone that falls from heaven, no matter how or when, is quite good enough to be considered as a thunderbolt.
Meteors, indeed, might very easily be confounded with lightning, especially by people who already have the full-blown conception of a thunderbolt floating about vaguely in their brains. The meteor leaps upon the earth suddenly with a rushing noise; it is usually red-hot when it falls, by friction against the air; it is mostly composed of native iron and other heavy metallic bodies; and it does its best to bury itself in the ground in the most orthodox and respectable manner. The man who sees this parlous monster come whizzing through the clouds from planetary space, making a fiery track like a great dragon as it moves rapidly across the sky, and finally ploughing its way into the earth in his own back garden, may well be excused for regarding it as a fine specimen of the true antique thunderbolt. The same virtues which belong to the buried stone are in some other places claimed for meteoric iron, small pieces of which are worn as charms, specially useful in protecting the wearer against thunder, lightning, and evil incantations. In many cases miraculous images have been hewn out of the stones that have fallen from heaven; and in others the meteorite itself is carefully preserved or worshipped as the actual representative of god or goddess, saint or madonna. The image that fell down from Jupiter may itself have been a mass of meteoric iron.
Both meteorites and stone hatchets, as well as all other forms of thunderbolt, are in excellent repute as amulets, not only against lightning, but against the evil eye generally. In Italy they protect the owner from thunder, epidemics, and cattle disease, the last two of which are well known to be caused by witchcraft; while Prospero in the ‘Tempest’ is a surviving proof how thunderstorms, too, can be magically produced. The tongues of sheep-bells ought to be made of meteoric iron or of elf-bolts, in order to insure the animals against foot-and-mouth disease or death by storm. Built into walls or placed on the threshold of stables, thunderbolts are capital preventives of fire or other damage, though not perhaps in this respect quite equal to a rusty horseshoe from a prehistoric battlefield. Thrown into a well they purify the water; and boiled in the drink of diseased sheep they render a cure positively certain. In Cornwall thunderbolts are a sovereign remedy for rheumatism; and in the popular pharmacopoeia of Ireland they have been employed with success for ophthalmia, pleurisy, and many other painful diseases. If finely powdered and swallowed piecemeal, they render the person who swallows them invulnerable for the rest of his lifetime. But they cannot conscientiously be recommended for dyspepsia and other forms of indigestion.
As if on purpose to confuse our already very vague ideas about thunderbolts, there is one special kind of lightning which really seems intentionally to simulate a meteorite, and that is the kind known as fire-balls or (more scientifically) globular lightning. A fire-ball generally appears as a sphere of light, sometimes only as big as a Dutch cheese, sometimes as large as three feet in diameter. It moves along very slowly and demurely through the air, remaining visible for a whole minute or two together; and in the end it generally bursts up with great violence, as if it were a London railway station being experimented upon by Irish patriots. At Milan one day a fire-ball of this description walked down one of the streets so slowly that a small crowd walked after it admiringly, to see where it was going. It made straight for a church steeple, after the common but sacrilegious fashion of all lightning, struck the gilded cross on the topmost pinnacle, and then immediately vanished, like a Virgilian apparition, into thin air.
A few years ago, too, Dr. Tripe was watching a very severe thunderstorm, when he saw a fire-ball come quietly gliding up to him, apparently rising from the earth rather than falling towards it. Instead of running away, like a practical man, the intrepid doctor held his ground quietly and observed the fiery monster with scientific nonchalance. After continuing its course for some time in a peaceful and regular fashion, however, without attempting to assault him, it finally darted off at a tangent in another direction, and turned apparently into forked lightning. A fire-ball, noticed among the Glendowan Mountains in Donegal, behaved even more eccentrically, as might be expected from its Irish antecedents. It first skirted the earth in a leisurely way for several hundred yards like a cannon-ball; then it struck the ground, ricochetted, and once more bounded along for another short spell; after which it disappeared in the boggy soil, as if it were completely finished and done for. But in another moment it rose again, nothing daunted, with Celtic irrepressibility, several yards away, pursued its ghostly course across a running stream (which shows, at least, there could have been no witchcraft in it), and finally ran to earth for good in the opposite bank, leaving a round hole in the sloping peat at the spot where it buried itself. Where it first struck, it cut up the peat as if with a knife, and made a broad deep trench which remained afterwards as a witness of its eccentric conduct. If the person who observed it had been of a superstitious turn of mind we should have had here one of the finest and most terrifying ghost stories on the entire record, which would have made an exceptionally splendid show in the ‘Transactions of the Society for Psychical Research.’ Unfortunately, however, he was only a man of science, ungifted with the precious dower of poetical imagination; so he stupidly called it a remarkable fire-ball, measured the ground carefully like a common engineer, and sent an account of the phenomenon to that far more prosaic periodical, the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Meteorological Society.’ Another splendid apparition thrown away recklessly, for ever!
There is a curious form of electrical discharge, somewhat similar to the fire-ball but on a smaller scale, which may be regarded as the exact opposite of the thunderbolt, inasmuch as it is always quite harmless. This is St. Elmo’s fire, a brush of lambent light, which plays around the masts of ships and the tops of trees, when clouds are low and tension great. It is, in fact, the equivalent in nature of the brush discharge from an electric machine. The Greeks and Romans looked upon this lambent display as a sign of the presence of Castor and Pollux, ‘fratres Helenae, lucida sidera,’ and held that its appearance was an omen of safety, as everybody who has read the ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ must surely remember. The modern name, St. Elmo’s fire, is itself a curiously twisted and perversely Christianised reminiscence of the great twin brethren; for St. Elmo is merely a corruption of Helena, made masculine and canonised by the grateful sailors. It was as Helen’s brothers that they best knew the Dioscuri in the good old days of the upper empire; and when the new religion forbade them any longer to worship those vain heathen deities, they managed to hand over the flames at the masthead to an imaginary St. Elmo, whose protection stood them in just as good stead as that of the original alternate immortals.
Finally, the effects of lightning itself are sometimes such as to produce upon the mind of an impartial but unscientific beholder the firm idea that a bodily thunderbolt must necessarily have descended from heaven. In sand or rock, where lightning has struck, it often forms long hollow tubes, known to the calmly discriminating geological intelligence as fulgurites, and looking for all the world like gigantic drills such as quarrymen make for putting in a blast. They are produced, of course, by the melting of the rock under the terrific heat of the electric spark; and they grow narrower and narrower as they descend till they finally disappear. But to a casual observer, they irresistibly suggest the notion that a material weapon has struck the ground, and buried itself at the bottom of the hole. The summit of Little Ararat, that weather-beaten and many-fabled peak (where an enterprising journalist not long ago discovered the remains of Noah’s Ark), has been riddled through and through by frequent lightnings, till the rock is now a mere honeycombed mass of drills and tubes, like an old target at the end of a long day’s constant rifle practice. Pieces of the red trachyte from the summit, a foot long, have been brought to Europe, perforated all over with these natural bullet marks, each of them lined with black glass, due to the fusion of the rock by the passage of the spark. Specimens of such thunder-drilled rock may be seen in most geological museums. On some which Humboldt collected from a peak in Mexico, the fused slag from the wall of the tube has overflowed on to the surrounding surface, thus conclusively proving (if proof were necessary) that the holes are due to melting heat alone, and not to the passage of any solid thunderbolt.
But it was the introduction and general employment of lightning-rods that dealt a final deathblow to the thunderbolt theory. A lightning-conductor consists essentially of a long piece of metal, pointed at the end whose business it is, not so much (as most people imagine) to carry off the flash of lightning harmlessly, should it happen to strike the house to which the conductor is attached, but rather to prevent the occurrence of a flash at all, by gradually and gently drawing off the electricity as fast as it gathers before it has had time to collect in sufficient force for a destructive discharge. It resembles in effect an overflow pipe which drains off the surplus water of a pond as soon as it runs in, in such a manner as to prevent the possibility of an inundation, which might occur if the water were allowed to collect in force behind a dam or embankment. It is a flood-gate, not a moat: it carries away the electricity of the air quietly to the ground, without allowing it to gather in sufficient amount to produce a flash of lightning. It might thus be better called a lightning-preventer than a lightning-conductor: it conducts electricity, but it prevents lightning. At first, all lightning-rods used to be made with knobs on the top, and then the electricity used to collect at the surface until the electric force was sufficient to cause a spark. In those happy days, you had the pleasure of seeing that the lightning was actually being drawn off from your neighbourhood piecemeal. Knobs, it was held, must be the best things, because you could incontestably see the sparks striking them with your own eyes. But as time went on, electricians discovered that if you fixed a fine metal point to the conductor of an electric machine it was impossible to get up any appreciable charge because the electricity kept always leaking out by means of the point. Then it was seen that if you made your lightning-rods pointed at the end, you would be able in the same way to dissipate your electricity before it ever had time to come to a head in the shape of lightning. From that moment the thunderbolt was safely dead and buried. It was urged, indeed, that the attempt thus to rob Heaven of its thunders was wicked and impious; but the common-sense of mankind refused to believe that absolute omnipotence could be sensibly defied by twenty yards of cylindrical iron tubing. Thenceforth the thunderbolt ceased to exist, save in poetry, country houses, and the most rural circles; even the electric fluid was generally relegated to the provincial press, where it still keeps company harmoniously with caloric, the devouring element, nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum, and many other like philosophical fossils: while lightning itself, shorn of its former glories, could no longer wage impious war against cathedral towers, but was compelled to restrict itself to blasting a solitary rider now and again in the open fields, or drilling more holes in the already crumbling summit of Mount Ararat. Yet it will be a thousand years more, in all probability, before the last thunderbolt ceases to be shown as a curiosity here and there to marvelling visitors, and takes its proper place in some village museum as a belemnite, a meteoric stone, or a polished axe-head of our neolithic ancestors. Even then, no doubt, the original bolt will still survive as a recognised property in the stock-in-trade of every well-equipped poet.