Top News

The Journal Pioneer

SARAH POKO: The wonders of thunder

Aaron Sentner took this photo of a domineering cloud front in West Cape, P.E.I. on May 30th. He said it didn't rain but the front moved fairly quickly from North to South.
Aaron Sentner took this photo of a domineering cloud front in West Cape, P.E.I. on May 30th. He said it didn't rain but the front moved fairly quickly from North to South. - contributed

As I learn more about the magical world of weather, I often find myself being questioned by friends.  

Questions ranging from, “Is it going to rain on Sunday?” to “Will winter be super cold this year?” are rampant. I usually remind them that I am not a meteorologist and refer them to Cindy Day’s weather forecast.   

My sister is no different. She has a deep hatred for thunder and lightning, and after a particularly rainy day, she asked, “Why are thunderclaps so loud? They don’t even have any hands!”  

This question made me pause. Indeed, thunder doesn’t have hands, however, I’m sure there is a myth or legend out there that could explain why we use “clap” to describe it.   

But first, science!   

According to SaltWire Network meteorologist, Cindy Day, thunder is created when the heat from lightning – which can get as hot as 27,000 degrees Celsius - causes the air to expand and contract very quickly around the lightning’s path. The sudden expansion creates a sonic boom or shock wave that we know as a thunderclap.  

Of course, thunder, just like any other weather phenomenon, has been happening since the dawn of time. While, Day leans more towards the scientific explanations, I tend to be drawn to the historical aspect of it. As the last of post-tropical storm Teddy wobbles away from Atlantic Canada, I figured what better time is there to talk about thunder.   

Growing up in a Nigerian Christian home, I used to believe thunderclaps were a sign of God and His angels giving a standing ovation. However, followers of traditional Yoruba religion would look at me funny, and say it was the easily-angered god of thunder, Shango, using his thunderstones – possibly an explanation for ball lightning - to punish those who offend him.  

If you move further east, some in Japan would say thunder is caused by Raijin-Sama, the thunder god. With a beat of his drums, he creates thunder and lightning. He is usually accompanied by Raiju, a thunder demon, that enjoys sleeping in people’s belly buttons (don’t ask why). Raijin would wake up the demon by shooting lightning arrows at it, and in turn, harm the poor human in the process. Because of this, superstitious Japanese households would sleep on their stomachs during thunderstorms.  

My former roommate from Japan told me the custom of sleeping on stomachs during bad weather has faded, but said children are warned not to go outside during rainstorms or Raijin would take their belly buttons away. This was a way to deter curious children from going outside during storms.  

My favourite explanation of thunder and lightning is the Chinese myth of Dianmu and Leigong. The story goes that a woman, Dianmu, was throwing out rice husks because it was too hard for her mother to eat.  Leigong, the god of thunder, sees this and kills her, thinking she is wasting food.   

The Jade Emperor – one of the first gods – admonishes Leigong for killing the innocent woman and demands he take responsibility for her. Dianmu is then transformed into the goddess of lightning and marries Leigong. She uses mirrors to shine light onto the Earth so Leigong can see where his thunder hits to avoid killing any more innocent people. This is why lightning comes first.   

I’m still looking for a myth that explains the “clap” in a thunderclap, but it is important to note that before science and meteorology, many unexplained weather phenomena were often personified as gods, spirits or otherworldly creatures doing things. Thunderclap may have just been the word that stuck. Either way, my search continues.   

Feel free to send your stories to Weathermail@WeatherbyDay.ca.  

Recent Stories