I was reading an old book, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, because I’m a nerd. But if you read this blog, you already know that. But then I saw the title to Book II, Chapter 56: Objects Which Are Never Struck by Lightning
And, well… how could I resist. This is what I found:
Among the productions of the earth, thunder never strikes the laurel [tree], nor does it descend more than five feet into the earth. Those, therefore, who are timid consider the deepest caves as the most safe; or tents made of the skins of the animal called the sea-calf [or, the seal], since this is the only marine animal which is never struck; as is the case, among birds, with the eagle; on this account it is represented as the bearer of this weapon. In Italy, between Terracina and the temple of Feronia, the people have left off building towers in time of war, every one of them having been destroyed by thunderbolts.
So, what do we learn? Seals, Eagles, and a particular type of tree are never struck by lightning. Also: Lightning does not descend more than five feet into the earth. Cool. Cool. Nice, but what relevance does this have today? Well, you’d be surprised…
I don’t care what the real scientific truth is about lightning. That’s not what this is about. This post is about what ancient people ACTUALLY believed. The thing I’d like to illustrate is that ancient beliefs about lightning have a lasting effect on our beliefs and practices, even after the underlying beliefs are gone.
Lightning and Roman History
Pliny the Elder was a Roman who died in the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. His book “Natural History” is essentially the Roman encyclopedia. Regardless of your opinion or disdain of his work, you must realize this: People actually believed it.
For example, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote “The Twelve Caesars” in which he gives a biography of several of Rome’s early emperors. He tells the following story about “Octavius,” (who later changed his name to “Augustus”) that gave him a particular fear of lightning:
He built many public works, in particular the following: his forum with the temple of Mars the Avenger, the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, and the fane of Jupiter the Thunderer on the Capitol. His reason for building the forum was the increase in the number of the people and of cases at law, which seemed to call for a third forum, since two were no longer adequate. Therefore it was opened to the public with some haste, before the temple of Mars was finished, and it was provided that the public prosecutions be held there apart from the rest, as well as the selection of jurors by lot. He had made a vow to build the temple of Mars in the war of Philippi, which he undertook to avenge his father; accordingly he decreed that in it the senate should consider wars and claims for triumphs, from it those who were on their way to the provinces with military commands should be escorted, and to it victors on their return should bear the tokens of their triumphs. He reared the temple of Apollo in that part of his house on the Palatine for which the soothsayers declared that the god had shown his desire by striking it with lightning. He joined to it colonnades with Latin and Greek libraries, and when he was getting to be an old man he often held meetings of the senate there as well, and revised the lists of jurors. He dedicated the shrine to Jupiter the Thunderer because of a narrow escape; for on his Cantabrian expedition during a march by night, a flash of lightning grazed his litter and struck the slave dead who was carrying a torch before him. (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 29.1-3)
This goes right back to what Pliny the Elder said about people who are “timid” who seek “tents made of the animal called the sea calf” because of the following detail we get later in his biography:
He was somewhat weak in his fear of thunder and lightning, for he always carried a seal-skin about with him everywhere as a protection, and at any sign of a violent storm took refuge in an underground vaulted room; for as I have said, he was once badly frightened by a narrow escape from lightning during a journey by night. (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 90.1)
We also get the following detail about the adoptive father of Caesar Augustus: Julius Caesar. In it, we get a description of how Caesar dressed and kept himself, which also includes another detail about one of those things never struck by lightning:
He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes; sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness42 during his campaigns. He was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out, as some have charged; while his baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward his scanty locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 45:1-2)
The Laurel Wreath is like the thing you see in ancient movies and Olympic games (though that’s an olive wreath, because “the Greeks”) and movies about Romans and stuff:
What’s the big deal about that?
Well, if you look at most commentary on this passage, they will say that Julius Caesar wore a laurel wreath at all times to cover his baldness. And though technically this is true, it misses the point. You don’t need the senate and the people to vote you an honor to cover your baldness.
The real question is why wearing this thing on your head an “honor”? The answer comes from Pliny the Elder: The Laurel Tree is never struck by lightning. Get it?
Okay… so maybe you don’t get it.
Okay, so maybe that’s not so easy. I’ll break it down. Let’s talk about the religious beliefs of this man and the temples Augustus built.
First, he built a Temple to MARS, after he won a WAR. See the connection?
Second, he built the Temple of Apollo Palatinus on the Palantine hill. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was a big deal. There was already a temple to Apollo called the Temple to Apollo Sosianus, which was outside the city of Rome. Apollo had “medicine and healing” in his repertoire, and this first temple was built by a Roman in 431 BC because he survived a plague. But this temple to Apollo had to be built outside of the pomerium of Rome, which was the border of the city, because Apollo was an “outside” god.
But Augustus constructed a temple to Apollo — a GREEK god — after his victory over Mark Antony at Actium (a city in Greece) in 31 BC. The temple was finished in 28 BC, on the site where lightning struck his property. Why? Because that lightning strike was a religiously significant event.
Third, we need to remember that the chief God of the Greek and Roman pantheons is Jupiter. And for WHATEVER REASON, lightning comes from Jupiter:
It is not generally known, what has been discovered by men who are the most eminent for their learning, in consequence of their assiduous observations of the heavens, that the fires which fall upon the earth, and receive the name of thunder-bolts, proceed from the three superior stars, but principally from the one which is situated in the middle. It may perhaps depend on the superabundance of moisture from the superior orbit communicating with the heat from the inferior, which are expelled in this manner; and hence it is commonly said, the thunder-bolts are darted by Jupiter. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book II, Chapter 18)
So here’s the general rule:
Lightning is a DIVINE sign, and when it ends in death, it is DIVINE JUDGMENT. This is why even today, people joke that after saying something terrible, heretical, or blasphemous, we might be “struck by lightning.”
As a RELIGIOUS Roman, Caesar Augustus built a temple to Jupiter THE THUNDERER after he narrowly escaped the DIVINE JUDGEMENT of lightning.
This is why only the Senate can confer an honor of wearing a laurel wreath, and only a person like Julius Caesar could wear a laurel wreath “at all times.”
Since lightning is divine judgment, wearing something that is “immune” from lightning on your head is to both symbolize and create IMMUNITY FROM DIVINE JUDGEMENT. It’s a VERY big deal.
Other Things “Immune from Divine Judgement”
That might seem like a random detail that has absolutely no effect on life today. Except… notice: How far down are people buried underground? Six feet.
If you search for why people are to be buried six feet underground, you’ll see that it actually is NOT true that they are always buried six feet underground, and nobody knows where that distance comes from.
But do you see how far down lightning (or “divine judgement”) penetrates into the Earth? Only five feet.
Scripture and “Things Not Struck By Lightning”
These “things not struck by lightning” beliefs are obviously ancient, so it is worth looking at an ancient book to see how it matches up. Notice the following excerpt from Psalm 37, which is about not fearing the wicked.
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.
What does it mean that a wicked and ruthless man is “spreading himself like a green laurel tree”? To us today, it means nothing.
But when you have these ancient beliefs in your mind, we see that this ancient psalm means an evil man is acting as if he is totally immune from divine judgment. But guess what? He’s dead. I even checked, and yep: he’s nowhere to be found. Divine judgment still comes!
We’ve got more. Take the following passage from Isaiah:
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Why do those who wait on the Lord mount up with wings like “eagles”? Why not some migratory bird like a goose or a duck or an albatross? They don’t grow weary, either. This description is also strange, because as we read in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, the eagle is an “unclean” bird that cannot be eaten.
But only eagles are “immune from divine judgment.”
Additionally, we see the following description of the Exodus:
The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19:3-4)
This is a rather strange description, because we saw a lot of things in the previous chapters in Exodus. We saw frogs and flies and locusts and hail and plague and all kinds of things. We saw the final plague where the firstborn of Egypt were killed, which finally caused Pharaoh to let Israel go. But eagles? Nope. No eagles.
But what we did see is divine judgment on Egypt and immunity from that judgment on Israel:
For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12-13)
Also, in Exodus, we can remember that the nation of Israel encountered the presence of God on Mount Sinai, and we were told that NO ONE should come near to it. We read the following in Exodus:
the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ (Exodus 19:10-13)
In contrast, we see the following about the tabernacle that God instructed Moses to construct:
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. (Exodus 33:7-10)
Why the difference? I wonder if there was any specific “immune from divine judgment” material on the tabernacle.
Well, reading from the ASV, we see the following description about what was the outside layer of the tabernacle:
And he made a covering for the tent of rams’ skins dyed red, and a covering of sealskins above. (Exodus 36:19)
That passage about “things never struck by lightning” was written in 70 AD. Our scientific knowledge about lightning has obviously progressed to something different.
The point about lightning is not “It is true.” The point is that “It was believed.” Whether the reader is ancient or modern, the point is to offer tangible proof that God was with his people, and proved himself with acceptable signs in easily accessible language and symbols.
In fact, not long after that work by Pliny the Elder was written in 70 AD, Josephus wrote the following around 93 AD:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.3)
Also around the same time, John wrote the following at the end of his gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)