Electrical Deities in the Americas
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Springtime brings rain, and with the rain come thunderstorms. As we told you last month, while in 2015 there is a perfectly logical and scientific explanation to what causes thunder and lightning, earlier societies thought these phenomena to be the work of gods. This notion that a man or a creature somehow controlled the skies and could form electricity when angry wasn’t just a part of European cultures; it was so widespread that it was a part of ancient civilizations in the Americas as well.

European cultures may have seen gods that were more human-like in appearance, but the Maya god of storms, rain and lightning, Chaac, was more of a wild card. Chaac may have had a human body, but he was more reptilian in appearance — though his snout resembled that of an elephant. Sometimes spelled Chac or Chaahk in Classic Mayan, this god was one of many the Maya worshipped. Chaac had a lightning axe (Sound like any Norse god we know?), which was sometimes drawn depicted like a serpent, that he would hit clouds with in order to produce rain. By hitting the clouds with his lightning axe, Chaac brought forth the rain that ensured crops would grow, giving the Maya people food for another season. In essence, this made Chaac a god of agriculture as well. This Mesoamerican civilization believed thunder and lightning to be Chaac’s way of announcing the rain was on its way.

Chaac, and other Maya gods, appeared to people as one and as many; there were four versions of this god, each corresponding with the four cardinal directions of the compass. Chaak Xib Chaac corresponded to the east and was red; Sak Xib Chaac corresponded to the north and was white; Ex Xib Chaac belonged to the west and corresponded to the color black; and Kan Xib Chaac belonged to the south and was yellow.

While Chaac was the rain god in parts of Mesoamerica, farther north in what would eventually be the United States, countless Native American tribes had not so much a god, but rather, a legendary creature known as the Thunderbird who controlled none other than — you guessed it! — thunder. In the mythologies of some tribes, the Thunderbird is said to have controlled lightning as well. The Thunderbird legend existed across several Native American tribes, but the story about this creature differed from tribe to tribe. Depending on which tribe worshipped Thunderbird, its powers, origin and the way it was depicted have had some similarities, but a few differentiations as well. In general though, the Thunderbird was a giant mystical bird that had such a large wingspan, it could carry a killer whale in its talons. Each time the Thunderbird flapped its wings, thunder rumbled, according to one of the legends.

Across many Native American cultures, it is said Thunderbird would create storms when it flapped its wings; clouds were pulled together by its wing beats; and it could create sheet lightning from its eyes each time it blinked. If this creature isn’t menacing enough for you yet, here’s the kicker: Thunderbird, in some mythologies/legends, created individual lightning bolts from the snakes it is said to have carried in its talons. Though not necessarily a god, Thunderbird was revered in multiple Native American tribes. Both singular and a species (depending on the tribe), Thunderbird was an all-powerful being that every tribe agreed one should not anger the creature that controlled thunder and lightning.

Though they all go by different names, these gods and legendary creatures all had the elements of lightning and thunder on their sides. Less human-like, even ancient civilizations and cultures on the American continents thought these phenomena were worth worshipping. Next time a storm rolls through, maybe you should be thanking Chaac or Thunderbird for the occurrence.

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