Zeus Is Laughing

Zeus Is Laughing

During a great thunderstorm over England in July 1923 more than 6,000 lightning flashes were recorded in London alone, which included forty—seven in one minute. Perhaps 1923 was a special year, because on Christmas Day of that year a storm over Pretoria, South Africa, produced about a hundred flashed per minute for more than an hour.

Such frequencies of lightening should not be surprising. In the few seconds it takes the reader to peruse this paragraph, lightning will have struck the earth 700 times. This rough estimate of one hundred discharges per second worldwide represents more than four billion kilowatts of continuos power!

Lightning is one of the most powerful forces of nature, causing almost incalculable damage — and too often death. In the midst of death and destruction this heavenly electricity often produces unusual and even comical events. If the ancient historians were to review some of these phenomena, they would probably say, "Zeus is laughing."

This would be understandable, because the ancient Greeks believed that bolts of lightning were hurled by the god Zeus, and they actually worshiped the ground where it struck. They often built fences around the burned area and looked on it as a religious shrine. Guards were posted around large strike areas to make sure passersby would worship the shrine properly. Disrespect for Zeus was dealt with harshly.

The divination of lightning did not stop with the ancient Greeks but became part of the Roman religion and continued into the Middle Ages. As late as the eighteenth century a thunderstorm was the signal for a furious outbreak of bell ringing that was supposed to have a soothing effect on the gods of the storm. Medieval bells were frequently inscribed FULGURA FRANGO — meaning "I break the lightning." Bell ringing became an honored but dangerous occupation. When a storm approached, the honoree had to ascend the church tower and furiously ring the tower bells. A number of men gave their all for the cause; many times lightning would strike the church tower, and the bell ringer would be the first casualty.

Some of the freak events resulting from bolts of lightning seem to suggest strongly that Zeus is at play and having a ball. Some years ago in Idaho several lightning bolts struck a field of potatoes and burned the stalks to cinders. But the potatoes underneath were cooked to a turn, just as if they had been cooked beneath hot ashes! They retained their heat for a while and were soon served up as baked potatoes.

This must have pleased Zeus, because in 1943 a solider on maneuvers retired for the night into his sleeping bag. A sudden bolt of lightning struck the zipper of the bag and completely welded the soldier inside. The man was frightened and scorched but otherwise unharmed. When cut from the bag, he is said to have remarked, "Now I know what a baked potato feels like."

In another incident lightning set fire to a building. But the same bolt bounced off and struck a nearby fire alarm, thus calling out the fire brigade to fight the very blaze it had started. This was a lightning bolt with a conscience. In the same storm lightning struck a chain maker's shop, causing several chains to become solid bars of iron.

And then there was the time Zeus decided to play golf. On August 10, 1977, a sixteen—year—old boy playing a Florida golf course was caught in the open during a violent thunderstorm. While he ran for cover, a bolt of lightning struck the golf umbrella he was holding. The umbrella was shredded along with the boy's shoes, and he was rendered unconscious. The doctors who attended him stated that his pulse rate had increased to 200 beats per minute! However, Zeus was only playing, and the boy recovered.

Zeus did not neglect the shoemaker. In France some years ago lightning struck a cobbler's shop. This affected the craftsman's tools in such a manner that his hammer, pincers, knife, nails, and other metal implements became magnetized and were constantly sticking together. So unnerved was the shoemaker that, being a religious man, he brought the local priest to his shop and demanded it be exorcised.

In many instances lightning has been known to magnetize objects so powerfully that they are capable of holding three times their own weight.

Recently a number of stories of Zeus at play have come to light — many are probably somewhat exaggerated or distorted to provide a story with a message. There is a case of lightning striking a British warship at sea and melting the gold braid off the unpopular mate's uniform. In Argentina there is a record of lightning striking a man's bedsprings at night, so deftly that the man sagged to the floor without waking up. Perhaps the crowning story of Zeus at play concerns a brewery that was hit in such a manner that the beer was instantly aged, flavored, and ready to market. In a recent storm lightning caused a large electric clock to stop. Minutes later it started again, but the hand went backward at twice the normal speed! Lightning once struck a room where a girl was sitting at her sewing machine. In a brilliant flash of light the girl found herself sitting on top of the sewing machine, completely bewildered but unharmed.

At times Zeus seems to be toying with people. Men struck by lightning have sometimes found themselves unharmed but completely naked, their clothes scattered in fragments over a wide area. Recently two women were walking down the street during what seemed to be a mild storm in a midwestern American town. Their clothing was suddenly torn away by a lightning bolt, leaving them disrobed but clearly uninjured; their bodies were not even scratched. Zeus had foreseen this, and instead of leaving them completely naked, he left them both still wearing their shoes!

Despite these occasional tricks by the god of thunderbolts, a person struck by lightning is usually killed instantly; but some do survive and even beat the odds by being struck twice. A most phenomenal case on record concerns a Shenandoah National Park ranger who has actually been struck by lightning seven times. He is famous in Virginia and has naturally been dubbed "the human lightning rod."

The man bears scars on his right arm and leg from the first strike, which happened in April 1942 while he was fleeing a fire tower during a violent thunderstorm. When the man was struck the second time, in July 1969, his eyebrows were burned off His left shoulder was badly burned in July 1970 during the third strike. On the fourth occasion, in April 1972, the man's hair was set afire. The fifth strike was more violent; the man was knocked more than ten feet out of his car, and his hair was again set on fire. He was injured but survived his sixth strike in June 1976. In June 1977, while he was fishing, lightning struck the man for a seventh time and put him in the hospital with severe burns on his chest and stomach.

During a hospital interview he stated, "You can tell it's going to strike, but it's too late. You can smell sulfur in the air, and then your hair will stand up on end, and then it's going to get you."

Scientists cannot even come close to explaining why this phenomenon can happen to a single person so many times. Perhaps there is something in the park ranger's body chemistry that causes it to act as a lightning rod. What is even more phenomenal is that the man survived each strike. Zeus, in the middle of nowhere, must be snickering and remembering an adage from the ancients: "He whom the gods would destroy they first make mad."

This is probably hitting close to reality, for the man from Virginia must be at least apprehensive when caught in the open during a violent thunderstorm.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth