Thunderstones and Shooting Stars: Meteors and Meteorites in Folklore

Many ancient peoples attributed meteorites to the same god as the one which caused lightning and thunder. Meteorites, lightning struck stones and prehistoric stone axes found in the Earth were all thought to be objects hurled from heaven when thunder crashed.

Iron meteorites provided iron for people to use for tools and weapons before the art of smelting was known. Finding such meteorites was rare and the ancients did understand the meteorites connection with sky. This was evidenced in the names given them. The ancient Egyptians called meteorites the "stone of heaven." The oldest Sumerian word for iron meant "sky" and "fire." The Hittites, one of the first to use weapons from smelted terrestrial iron, called the metal "fire from heaven." The Assyrians too, extracted iron from ore and called it "fragment from heaven."

Sometimes with meteor showers you will see bolides, particularly bright meteors which have a long trail and end in an explosion. Bolide is a Greek word meaning "thrown spear." Meditteranean cultures and the Chinese thought they were dragons, or messengers sent from the heavens.

In Siberian legends, the sky was a dome of sewn hides through which the gods would occasionally peer, exposing a flash of the radiance beyond. Several Native American tribes thought meteors were fragments of lunar material and called them "children of the moon."

Many cultures saw meteors as something either very good, or something very bad. For centuries, in the UK it was customary to say that a child had been born each time a meteor appeared, perhaps with the story of the Star of Bethlehem in mind. But in other parts of the UK, it was believed that the sight of a meteor meant that someone had died. As the RMS Titanic was sinking in the frigid Atlantic water, the survivors mentioned seeing an abnormal amount of meteors and some believed it to be their beloved husbands (left aboard the sinking ship,) souls passing to heaven. It happened that just as Titanic was sinking, the Lyriad meteor shower was peaking.

Most children today know the old saying about wishing on a shooting star, as meteors are so often incorrectly called. The problem with that little saying, of course, is that generally meteors appear and disappear so quickly, it is much faster than you can get a thought in. Clearly, one has to be very succinct!

In King Richard the Second, Shakespeare has a Welsh captain warn the Earl of Salisbury, "And meteors fright the fixed star of heaven.....These signs forerun the death or fall of kings."

In legends of central Asia, meteors were fire serpents coursing traveling across the sky. Sometimes these serpents brought problem and sometimes they brought hordes of treasure and riches. To the folks from the Andaman Islands, meteors were torches carried by evil spirits of the forest as they hunted for men.

Asteroids and Comets: Proud Parents of Meteors

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