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For thousands of years, thunder and lightning were mysterious events, personified as gods to be worshipped or considered the acts of certain angry gods. During the Neolithic Period, thunder cults became prominent in Western Europe. Since lightning was often considered a manifestation of the gods, locations struck by lightning were regarded as sacred, and many temples were often built at these sites. Here’s a look at popular thunder and lightning gods in different cultures and mythologies.
The supreme deity in Greek religion, Zeus was the god of thunder and lightning. He’s commonly represented as a bearded man holding a thunderbolt but is sometimes depicted with an eagle when he doesn’t have his weapon. It was believed that he gave signs to mortals though thunder and lightning, as well as punished evildoers, and controlled the weather.
In 776 BCE, Zeus was built a sanctuary at Olympia, where Olympic Games were held every four years, and sacrifices were offered to him at the end of each game. He was regarded as the king of the Olympian gods, and the most powerful of the Greek pantheon of gods.
In ancient Roman religion, Jupiter was the chief god associated with thunder, lightning and storms. His Latin name luppiter is derived from Dyeu-pater that translates as Day-Father. The term Dyeu is etymologically identical with Zeus, whose name is derived from the Latin word for god – deus. Like the Greek god, he was also associated with the natural phenomena of the sky.
The Romans regarded the flint stone or pebble as the symbol of lightning, so Jupiter was represented with such a stone in his hand instead of a thunderbolt. By the time of the rise of the Republic, he was established as the greatest of all the gods, and a temple dedicated to him was built at the Capitoline Hill in 509 BCE. When the country wanted rain, his help was sought by a sacrifice called aquilicium.
Jupiter was worshipped using many titles, such as Triumphator, Imperator and Invictus, and represented the fearlessness of the Roman army. The Ludi Romani, or Roman Games, was a festival observed in honor of him. The worship of Jupiter declined after the death of Julius Caesar, when Romans started the worship of the emperor as a god—and later the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Empire in 5th century CE.
The thunder god of Baltic religion, Pērkons is also associated with the Slavic Perun, Germanic Thor, and Greek Zeus. In Baltic languages, his name means thunderer and thunder god. He’s often represented as a bearded man holding an ax and is believed to direct his thunderbolts to discipline other gods, evil spirits, and men. The oak was sacred to him, as the tree is most often struck by lightning.
In Latvian folklore, Pērkons is depicted with weapons such as a golden whip, a sword, or an iron rod. In an ancient tradition, the thunderbolts or the bullets of Pērkons—flint or any object struck by lightning—were used as a talisman for protection. Ancient, sharpened stone axes were also worn on the clothing, as they were believed to be the symbol of the god and could supposedly cure illnesses.
The Celtic god of thunder, Taranis was represented by the lightning flash and the wheel. In votive inscriptions, his name is also spelled Taranucnus or Taranucus. He’s part of a sacred triad mentioned by Roman poet Lucan in his poem Pharsalia. He was worshipped primarily in Gaul, Ireland and Britain. According to historians, his worship included sacrificial victims, which were burned in a hollow tree or wooden vessel.
The most popular deity of the Norse pantheon, Thor was the god of thunder and the sky, and developed from the earlier Germanic god Donar. His name comes from the Germanic word for thunder. He’s commonly depicted with his hammer Mjolnir and was invoked for victory in the battle and for protection during voyages.
In England and Scandinavia, Thor was worshipped by peasants because he brought fair weather and crops. In the Saxon areas in England, he was known as Thunor. During the Viking Age, his popularity reached its height and his hammer was worn as charms and amulets. However, the cult of Thor was replaced by Christianity by the 12th century CE.
Also spelled Tarhunna, Tarhun was the god of storms and the king of Hittite gods. He was known to the Hurrian people as Teshub, while the Hattians called him Taru. His symbol was a three-pronged thunderbolt, commonly depicted in one hand. In the other hand, he holds another weapon. He’s mentioned in Hittite and Assyrian records, and played a huge part in mythology.
An early Semitic god of thunder and storms, Hadad was the chief god of the Amorites, and later the Canaanites and Aramaeans. He was depicted as a bearded deity with a horned headdress, holding a thunderbolt and a club. Also spelled Haddu or Hadda, his name probably means thunderer. He was worshipped in North Syria, along the Euphrates River and Phoenician coast.
In Mesopotamian religion, Marduk was the god of thunderstorms, and the chief god of Babylon. He’s commonly represented as a human in royal robes, holding a thunderbolt, a bow, or a triangular spade. The poem Enuma Elish, dating from the reign of Nebuchadrezzar I, says that he was a god of 50 names. He was later known as Bel, which comes from the Semitic term baal that means lord.
Marduk became popular in Babylon during the reign of Hammurabi, around 1792 to 1750 BCE. His temples were the Esagila and the Etemenanki. Since he was a national god, his statue was destroyed by the Persian king Xerxes when the city revolted against the Persian rule in 485 BCE. By 141 BCE, the Parthian Empire ruled the region, and Babylon was a deserted ruin, so Marduk was also forgotten.
Also known as Lei Shen, Lei Gong is the Chinese god of thunder. He carries a mallet and a drum, which produce thunder, as well as a chisel to punish evildoers. He’s believed to hurl thunderbolts at anyone who wasted food. The thunder god is usually depicted as a fearsome creature with a blue body, bat wings, and claws. While sanctuaries built for him are rare, some people still honor him, in hopes that the god will take revenge on their enemies.
Raijin is the Japanese god associated with thunderstorms, and is worshipped in Daoism, Shintoism, and Buddhism. He’s often portrayed with a monstrous appearance, and referred to as an oni, a Japanese demon, due to his mischievous nature. In painting and sculpture, he’s depicted holding a hammer and surrounded by drums, which produce thunder and lightning. The Japanese believe that the thunder god is responsible for a bountiful harvest, so Raijin is still worshipped and prayed to.
One of the most important gods in Vedic religion, Indra is the god of thunder and storms. In paintings, he’s commonly depicted holding a thunderbolt, a chisel, and a sword, while riding his white elephant Airāvata. In early religious texts, he plays a variety of roles, from being a bringer of rains to being depicted as a great warrior, and a king. He was even worshipped and invoked in times of war.
Indra is one of the main gods of the Rigveda, but later became a major figure in Hinduism. Some traditions even transformed him into a mythological figure, especially in Jain and Buddhist mythologies of India. In Chinese tradition, he’s identified with the god Ti-shi, but in Cambodia, he’s known as Pah En. In later Buddhism, his thunderbolt becomes a diamond scepter called the Vajrayana.
The Aztec god of lightning, sunset, and death, Xolotl was a dog-headed god who was believed to be responsible for the creation of humans. The Aztec, Tarascan, and Maya even thought that dogs in general could travel between worlds and guide the souls of the dead. In ancient Mexico, they were a loyal companion even after death. In fact, burials in Mesoamerica have been found with statues of dogs, and some of them were even sacrificed to be buried with their owners.
In Inca religion, Illapa was the thunder god who had control over the weather. He was envisioned as a warrior in the heavens dressed in silver robes. While lightning was thought to come from the flashing of his robes, thunder was produced from his sling. During the times of drought, the Incas prayed to him for protection and rain.
In North American Indian mythology, the thunderbird is one of the main gods of the sky. The mythological bird was believed to create lightning from its beak, and thunder from its wings. However, different tribes have their own stories about the thunderbird.
While the Algonquian people regard it as the ancestor of humans, the Lakota people thought it to be the grandson of a sky spirit. In a Winnebago tradition, it’s an emblem of war. As an embodiment of the thunderstorm, it’s generally associated with power and protection.
Engravings of the thunderbird have been found in the archeological sites in Dong Son, Vietnam; Dodona, Greece; and North Peru. It’s often depicted on the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, as well as in art of the Sioux and Navajo.
Thunder and lightning were regarded as powerful divine events and were associated with various deities. There are different local traditions and beliefs about these thunder and lightning gods, but they were generally seen as protectors from the forces of nature, givers of bountiful harvests, and the ones who fought alongside warriors during times of war.