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    9. Thunderbolts

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    Chapter 10
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    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 Müller 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 aërial 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 aërial 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 archæologists. 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 naïf
    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
    Encyclopædia 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

    Some of the cerauniæ, says Pliny, are like hatchets. He would have been
    nearer the mark if he had said 'are hatchets' outright. But this
    _aperçu_, 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

    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 mediæval 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

    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

    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 Helenæ, 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.
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