Saturday, December 03, 2005
I had an interesting dicussion last week with a colleague who has published a book on the River Niger. He described to me the different genies which are believed in by the tribes from the regions around the Niger. One of these genies, the genie of the thunder, is thought to throw stones from the sky which strike down humans. On inspection, these stones turn out to be stone age axes which have been unearthed from the sand. When I look up the word genie, I see that it is the name for an earth spirit, mentioned in the koran, which are believed by muslims to influence mankind by appearing in human form. My colleague described to me how certain people of these regions become possessed by a genie during religious ceremonies.
It is thought that if someone is struck by lightning, it is necessary to dig around in the earth at the place where they were struck in order to locate the offending instrument. Once found, the stone has to be 'cooled' in order to lessen the anger of the genie who threw it and thereby to return the victim to health. If the stone is not found after a search, it will return to the surface by itself after seven years. This, I imagine, explains why stones may be found occasionally at the surface.
Searching on the internet for thunder-stones, something I had not heard of before, I discovered a very interesting site which includes the text of a very learned book by Andrew Dickson White called: "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom". White was a professor at Cornell University and his book was published in 1898. It documents the various areas in which church doctrine held sway up until roughly the middle of the 19th century when the development of science began to undermine the church's pronouncements on practically all aspects of life.
White devotes a fair-sized section of his book to thunder-stones, but does not mention the beliefs of West African peoples. He does say however, that thunder-stones, considered as thunderbolts, were built into the walls of temples in Chaldea (southern Babylonia) and hung round the necks of the dead in Egypt. In India, they are found upon altars, receiving prayers and sacrifices.
He says: "These beliefs (about the origin of thunder-stones) were brought into the Christian mythology and adapted to it. During the Middle Ages many of these well-wrought stones were venerated as weapons, which during the "war in heaven" had been used in driving forth Satan and his hosts; hence... in the twelfth century a Bishop of Rennes asserted the value of thunder-stones as a divinely-appointed means of securing success in battle, safety on the sea, security against thunder, and immunity from unpleasant dreams."
Thunder-stones, like many other phenomena, were taken up by the church as evidence of supernatural goings on in the heavens. The interpretation of the Middle Age bishop is somewhat different to that of the tribespeople in Mali, the Mali story being rather more venerating and suspicious of the object, the church version ascribing value to the stone, making it into a resource.
The first real evidence that started to undermine such theories was the discovery, in 1715, of a large pointed weapon of black flint which was found in contact with the bones of an elephant, in a gravel bed near Gray's Inn Lane, in London. At the time, this did not make any great impact, but it was the first of many discoveries which came to establish a direct link between the bones of ancient men, 'thunder-stones' and animals such as mammoths which were now extinct. Geological and archaeological discoveries through the next century and a half created huge interest and debate. Eventually, even geologists such as Lyell who had been brought up in a Christian tradition realised the antiquity of man and was converted to the new theory.
Nowadays, we hardly blink at news of the antiquity of man. The stone axe at the top of the page is made from andesite, a volcanic rock named after the Andes mountains, and is thought to be around 500,000 years old. It was found in the UK and is on display in Warwick Museum. Discoveries in Africa trace hominids even further back to 3,5 million years ago.
According to White, 'thunder-stones' represent just one phenomenon among many which the Christian church used to support a view of mystical intervention. Others included: madness (possession by the devil); storms (work of the devil, "prince of the powers of the air"); variety of language (why doesn't every one speak the same way: the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel and similar stories in many other cultures were dreamt up to explain why); plagues and diseases (the devil's work); and finally theories of astronomy (heaven, earth and hell in the systems of Aquinas and Dante as opposed to a non-earth centred universe in the work of Copernicus and Galileo).
In a sense, the church would have been forced to make pronouncements on all these areas, since any 'authority' would have been expected to provide answers. The discovery of artifacts such as 'thunder-stones' in particular, present very substantial and real problem which require explanation. I am interested by the scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the debates that took place, but there is also something attractive about the myths surrounding such objects. They answer something in us that craves answers to questions such as: why did the lightining hit me and not him?