"Eripuit Caelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis": The Political Iconography of Lightning in Europe and North America, 1750-1800

By Fuhrmeister, Christian | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

"Eripuit Caelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis": The Political Iconography of Lightning in Europe and North America, 1750-1800


Fuhrmeister, Christian, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


Introduction

THE LIGHTNING ROD HAS FREQUENTLY BEEN LABELED one of the most ingenious human answers to a threat posed by nature. Though now ubiquitous and unremarkable, this device is in fact a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, situated at the crossroads of cultural-intellectual history and history of the natural sciences. Hence, the lightning rod has been the subject of studies that stressed, to name just a few aspects, the circumstances of its invention, the sociocultural dimensions of its victory over superstition or its subsequent global distribution. Few authors, however, have attempted to link the manifold implications of this technical device to the larger horizon of the cultural meaning of lightning itself.

Even within the circles of Enlightenment philosophy and science, the rational explanation of thunder and lightning could not completely soothe the multiple fears instigated by and traditionally associated with them. Contrasting sharply with common narratives of unflagging scientific progress, many documents reveal the endurance of older beliefs and practices. As late as 1825, for instance, new church bells were inscribed Vivos voco. Mortuos piango. Fulgura frango ("I call the living.I mourn the dead. I break the lightning bolts."), demonstrating that bell ringing to distract lightning from hitting a church or a village was not at all as outmoded as late-eighteenth-century partisans of a consistent progress of mankind would have liked to have it.1

The sober scientific explanation that lightning is a discharge of electricity that can be safely channeled and controlled with technology- just as dike engineering can help to control stomi tides- did not necessarily lead to the disappearance of older ideas, metaphors, customs, and imageries. These persist and survive; they are able to govern individual narratives as well as collective and cultural memories for long periods of time ("longue durée"). Although the old representations - which illustrated certain forms of thought- get fewer and more subde, they partly maintain their former significations and partly acquire new meanings. Following concepts of cultural anthropologists or of art historians such as Aby M. Warburg, one has to acknowledge that lightning had actually become a very powerful symbol well before the Enlightenment. Condensing diverse theological, psychological, and cultural tensions, the motif of lightning in fact retained its former momentum in the second half of the eighteenth century. According to Warburg, it is a characteristic trait of such transformations that the energy that was once attached to a specific pictorial form can not only be transferred to different contexts but also employed for different purposes.

Based on the premise diat the full scope of the lightning rod can only be understood when we take into account the ideas associated with lightning itself, this essay seeks to demonstrate that the meanings that were attributed to lightning are intricately linked to longstanding traditions. Provided that both the former conventional and the new images of lightning are salient features accompanying the dawn of the lightning rod, this essay investigates in particular how the traditional iconography of lightning was quite suddenly overthrown in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Because this text studies but a very small episode of the vast cultural history of lightning, it neither addresses the diverse, worldwide dimensions of the topic nor the time span from antiquity to the present.2 Although limited in scope, this essay isolates one particularly interesting aspect of the cultural history of lightning- namely its political iconography, that is, the différent political meanings that were ascribed to lightning in different contexts during the late eighteenth century in western Europe as well as in North America (i.e., in the thirteen East Coast states that founded the United States). However, in accordance with the factual distribution, the majority of my examples are directly related to the French Revolution.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Eripuit Caelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis": The Political Iconography of Lightning in Europe and North America, 1750-1800
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.