thunder and lightning


thunder and lightning
   There are numerous traditional beliefs and significations attached to thunder and lightning, although, according to the available evidence, earlier people were more worried about the effects of thunder than of lightning, although they must have been aware of the real danger of lightning strikes. Certain trees were believed prone to lightning, while others were apparently immune. It was clearly a good idea to plant some of the latter near a building, or to know which to shelter under in a storm:
   Beware of an oak
   It draws the stroke
   Avoid an ash
   It courts the flash
   Creep under the thorn
   It can save you from harm
   (from Sussex: Folk-Lore Record 1 (1878), 43, similar rhyme in N&Q 168 (1935), 457)
   A long-standing belief regarded the *bay tree as particularly safe . . . reach the bays
   I'll tie a garland here about his head 'Twill keep my boy from lightning (Webster, White Devil (1612)) while others swore by the *elder, laurel, or the *holly.
   It was believed that a particular problem in storms was that thunder would spoil stored liquor unless prevented. John Aubrey (1686: 22) reported as a practice to protect beer 'they lay a piece of iron on the barrell to keepe it from sowring', but according to the more scientifically minded editor of The Agreeable Companion (1742), 42, the 'violent motion and unnatural fermentation' could be prevented by any weight.
   For some, the day of the week mattered: A Prognostication Everlasting of Ryght Good Effecte, of 1556, gives a list of the days and those whose death the thunder prognosticated (quoted by N&Q 12s:11 (1922), 24-5, which also gives more elaborate verses from a Yorkshire farmer in 1875).
   A widely reported and long-standing protection for a house against lightning was to place some houseleek in the roof, quoted from 1562 and 1962 and often in between (Vickery, 1995; 197-8; Porter, 1969: 69). Porter also reports a number of other widespread items of storm-lore, collected in the 1960s: for example, leave the doors open so that any lightning or thunderbolt will 'pass through the house', and cover shiny metal objects and *mirrors in case they attract the lightning. If a thunderstorm occurred during a marriage ceremony the couple would have no children, and nursing mothers should never suckle their babies during a thunderstorm as their milk would be tainted with brimstone and sulphur. Opie and Tatem report three more thunder/lightning beliefs. It was considered unlucky to point to, or otherwise draw particular attention to thunder or lightning. This is reported as far back as Pliny (Natural History (ad 77), ii. 55) and several times in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The interpretation of thunder and lightning as the voice or weapon of God is also quoted from Pliny and Tacitus and in Britain since at least the 16th century.
   From at least the 15th to the 17th centuries it was common to ring church bells to make thunderstorms go away. Aubrey (1686: 22) mentions St Anselm's bell at Malmesbury Abbey in this context, and Camp (1988: 87) records a reference to bell-ringers at Sandwich (Kent), in 1464, being paid for ringing at 'the great thuderying'. From Wiltshire and Lincolnshire, and probably elsewhere, the belief is reported that sheet-lightning helps to ripen the corn (N&Q 175 (1938), 172, 214). It was also firmly believed at one time that swans' eggs cannot hatch without the help of thunder (N&Q 162 (1932), 252-6, quoting a source published in 1583).
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 405-6; Lean, 1903: esp. ii. 415-17; Hazlitt, 1905: 622-6.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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