Beyond History Blog


Andrea Bentschneider - 09. July 2015 - General, Old Customs, Professions, Traditions

The heat wave that currently traverses Europe often causes severe weather and thunderstorms. The fear of thunderstorms is called Astraphobia and it has a long history - which is understandable when we take into account that while we today are startled by thunder and lightning our ancestors not even had an explanation for this natural spectacle...

Although he was considered the protector of families and homes people in ancient Greece were convinced that it was Zeus on Olympus who cast thunderbolts to earth. In Northern mythology it was Thor (also Donar = Thunder) throwing his stone hammer and thus caused thunder while thunderbolts dashed from his eyes.

The explanation that colliding clouds produce thunder goes back to the philosophical school of the Stoics. Another attempt to explain events was that fumes in the air ignited and led to thunderstorms. Even in 1805, people were advised not to sweat too much in summer because perspiration is combustible.

If there was a thunderstorm despite these precautions, bell-ringing seemed to be an appropriate remedy. The sound of sanctified bells should avert evil powers and bad weather. Thus it was that sextons climbed the church towers at the first sign of a coming thunderstorm and started ringing the bells. As may be imagined this measure not only was an uncomfortable work but it was also dangerous to life.

How did I get onto this subject after all?

Not long ago I found a church book entry from Bavaria in which "ringing churchbells to avert a thunderstorm" was registered as the cause of death; this at first seems strange but it was less rare than we think. After all, apparently 103 people were killed in 33 years through so-called "Wetterläuten" (literal translation "weather ringing") with "only" 186 lightning strikes.

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning arrester and therewith proved that thunderbolts consist of electric charge. In Hamburg, the first lightning arrester was installed very soon afterwards. Mathias Andreas Mettlerkamp climbed the tower of the St. Jacob church to mount the new implement there in 1769. By way of comparison: in Bavaria it took until 1784 before "weather ringing" was prohibited by Elector Karl Theodor.

On that note, I wish you a nice day, hopefully without rain and thunderstorms!

PS: For all who suffer from Astraphobia it can be said that the probability to die from a lightning strike is very low. Around 1950, there were about 100 deaths per year, today only 3-10 people per year die from lightning strikes.

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