As I write this column, I’m sitting next to my open patio doors and looking out into the garden on a very hot and humid day. Before the weekend, the Met Office had issued severe weather warnings for thunder, lightning, rain and floods for the whole of the UK for the coming Monday and Tuesday.
It’s Tuesday now, and the storms have not materialised. Although I am relieved to some extent, especially for those who have previously suffered flooding and lightning strikes, I had still felt the same sense of excitement at the possibility of a good storm that I used to feel as a child. In his column from 30th August 1980, Dad writes about one such storm that directly hit our village: ‘The children…sat at the windows entranced but a little afraid of the phenomenon being played out before them.’
The storm caused the power to cut out, which was very common in those days. It was quite thrilling to be plunged into darkness suddenly, and have to feel your way about the house in search of torches and, as in our house, oil lamps. It makes it sound like we were living in some kind of Victorian time warp, but it was not uncommon in the 1970s to keep oil lamps handy for just such an occasion. They were far more reliable than the torches which, because they were seldom used, had barely any battery life left in them by the time you actually needed them.
Today we know exactly what causes a thunderstorm, but in ancient times, such weather events were not understood, and so people believed they were how the gods displayed their anger. In ancient Greek mythology, the most powerful of them all was Zeus, god of the sky and thunder (also known as Jupiter in Roman times), and when a storm arrived, it was a sign that he was cross. So people would make offerings to him in the hope of it passing over without causing them harm. Other cultures came up with their own gods to explain unexplainable weather events. There is Thor in Norse mythology, the god Indra in Hinduism, and in Slavic culture it is Perun. All of them are considered the leaders of the gods, and possess similar traits, such as wisdom, strength and power.
Our pagan forefathers had their own beliefs and superstitions around storms. Some believed that if you pushed your bed into the centre of the room, then hid under the covers citing the Lord’s Prayer, you would be protected. Others thought that by opening all doors and windows, any passing bolt would simply come in one way and go out another. At the same time you had to cover all your mirrors and shiny objects, otherwise they might attract the lightning on its journey through your house. Another was that if you put an item made of iron into the fire, such as a poker or tongs, then it would protect the whole house from any danger.
There was also, especially in Yorkshire, the belief that if you spoke about or pointed to lightning, then you were tempting it to come your way. Stories were told of boys who had done this and as a result had had the seat of their shorts torn clean off. School children would provoke each other into mentioning lightning to see if it would actually happen.
Inn keepers felt the need to protect their beer in a storm, and would place an iron bar across all the barrels, which was supposed to stop their contents from going sour, which they believed was caused by the vibrations of the thunder claps. Similar steps were taken relating to milk too, and nursing mothers would not feed their babies until the bad weather had passed by.
However, not all lightning was considered a threatening event. Folklore popular among the farming community suggested that sheet lightning was sent to help with the crops. This account from Wiltshire in 1938 says: ‘An old lady living near to me was conversing with a neighbour during one of these displays and remarked that there was nothing to cause alarm, as sheet lightning was just sent to ripen the corn.’
I’m not sure that belief still persists, but I will keep my eye on the local cereal crops next time such a storm passes by.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th August and the Gazette & Herald on 26th August 2020