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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 54

THUNDER-GODS

As a class, the deities usually called thunder-gods present a peculiarly involved mythological problem, as they almost invariably possess agricultural or military significance. The animistic conception of the thunder is instanced in such myths as those of the tribes of the Andes, who imagine the thunder to reside on the summit of a mountain, surrounded by clouds, through the canopy of which the fire-red limbs of the personified[Pg 123] storm-spirits can ever and anon be seen. Other tribes symbolize the thunder as a bird, the flapping of whose pinions causes the reverberation of the storm, and this conception is found among primitive peoples both in the American and Australian continents. In passing it may be profitable to compare such a myth with the Greek tale of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Heaven for human use. Regarding the original bird form of Prometheus there can be little doubt. Other forms of the myth, in America, Australia, and elsewhere, tell of a hero who in bird form stole the celestial fire, and it is obvious that to reach Heaven Prometheus must have been provided with the means of flight. There appears to be a distinct connexion between the fire-stealing myth and that of the thunder-bird. These animistic conceptions of the thunder prepared the way for an anthropomorphic presentation of the deity who wielded the bolts of Heaven, or launched the lightning spear; and if we examine the attributes of certain thunder-gods in the state of transition between the animal and the human form, we shall find that they retain evidences of their bird-like origin. Thus Uitzilopochtli, the great lightning-and war-god of the Aztecs, bears a name signifying that in primitive Aztec legend he was regarded as a bird pure and simple. Going farther afield in America, we find that Yetl, the thunder-god of the Thlinkeets, borrowed the wings of a supernatural crane, with which he flew about, as did Odin and Sin in Scandinavian and Haida in Indian myth. In Vancouver the thunder is represented by a bird, Tootah. The Hindu thunder-god, Indra, not only steals the heavenly liquor, as do many bird-gods, but in order to procure it he takes the shape of a quail. In other mythologies, in those of Greece and Scandinavia, for example, Zeus and Thor, who wield the thunder, have become too greatly humanized, if such a term may be employed, to display any original bird-like characteristics, if they ever possessed them. In passing it may be well to note briefly the apparatus of the thunder-god, the machinery by which he creates the noise of thunder. As has been said, the thunder-bird among the North American Indians effects this by the beating of his wings. Another American thunder-god[Pg 124] causes the noise by beating a sheet of metal. The thunder of Thor is produced either by the blows of his mighty hammer or the rumbling of the wheels of his chariot drawn by goats. The reverberation of Jupiter's thunder proceeds from bolts forged for him by the Titans in the bowels of Mount Etna.


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