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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.