Have you ever marveled at the sky during a thunderstorm and wondered what it would be like to be touched by lightning? I can tell you from experience that it is a truly transformative experience. In this blog, I share with you my story. After my encounter with lightning, I was inspired to research the meaning of these experiences and I briefly share how they are perceived and interpreted in my main study area, the Central Andes.
Lightning as an transformative force
Thunderstorms are a magnificent symphony of acoustics and light displays. Produced by cumulonimbus cloud, electrical storms come with gusty winds, rain and lightning. Lightning is a massive electro-static discharge. During this event, immense heat is generated causing the temperature to rise up to an incinerating 27,000 Celsius! Lightning is visible not only in storms, but also during volcanic eruptions, and very intense forest fires.
The current and the immense heat produced gives lightning its unique transformative power in particular. According to some scientific evidence, the high temperatures generated can change elements into compounds within organisms (1). Perhaps the best example to illustrate lightning’s power is how it affects the human body and in particular, the brain. In cases where the current and heat enters the brain, the electricity cooks cells and can result in major trauma and changes, including memory loss and even personality changes, if the person survives.
Electrical storms have captured the human imagination through the ages. Many cultures perceive thunder and lightning as a divine creative act: the rumbling claps and light displays are the gods striking drums, hammering or hurling electrical bolts as weapons. In the Inka world, lightning and thunder was a major god called Illapa, who created storms by hurling his slingshot. Meanwhile, in my principal field area, there was a regional cult devoted to their thunder and lightning god known as Libiac.
My encounter with Lightning
The rate of lightning strikes is more common than you may think. In Australia, it is estimated that one in 12,000 people is struck every year. In 2005, the National Geographic reported that lightning was one of the leading causes of injury and death in the United States.
I was struck over ten years ago in Canberra. I was at a social gathering in a public square, sitting near a large tree. The storm came over very quickly. As the rain set in, a friend was holding an umbrella and I offered to hold it for them. A few moments later, I heard a loud clap. Time and space was suspended for a moment as a wave of intense warm energy surged up my right arm and through my body and then exited through my feet. My friends who witnessed the strike claim they saw a spectacular display of green and blue light caused when lightning hit the plasma rod of the umbrella.
There are different types of strikes and mine was a contact strike. This occurs when an object that a person is touching has been struck, and in my case, the umbrella. Other types include direct strikes, and side splashes, which are when lightning hits a taller object and a portion of the current jumps and the nearby person acts as the short circuit, where the energy is discharged.
Life after contact
The immediate effects of lightning strikes are fairly well documented. Survivors suffer a range of symptoms, including burns, internal bleeding and multi-organ dysfunction (2). I fortunately was not burnt. However, I went into shock: I became pale, cold and clammy and experienced heart palpitations.
After the event, many survivors continue to experience subtle long-term effects. Some of these changes are debilitating. In addition to personality changes, memory loss, and depression, there is research, which suggests that survivors are more susceptible to heart conditions later in life.
For years after my encounter, I experienced migraines, dizziness, nerve twitching and chronic pain. One of the most difficult and frustrating changes was the lack of clarity of thought: at times, I found myself incapable of getting my brain and mouth to connect.
I also experience from time to time other strange effects. One includes the ability to sense a storm brewing before it comes. According to other survivor stories, I am not alone, although there is currently no scientific evidence to link this phenomenon directly with the lightning strike (3).
To support my recovery, I had chiropractic work, and started to practice yoga, meditation and painting on a regular basis. Over time, I believe all of these holistic practices reduced significantly the effects.
Lightning in the Andes
While in our culture lightning strike survivors are treated as medical anomalies, in certain religious and spiritual traditions around the world, the event is interpreted as a portent, at times a negative one.
Depending on the circumstances, when a person survives a strike in the Andes, it is interpreted as a sign that Apu, mountain gods, have chosen the survivor to serve them and follow the ‘holy path’ (4). However, the rules for the selection can vary from community to community. Importantly, the candidate needs to be recognised by a ritual practitioner, who then agrees to make them their apprentice. The nature of the encounter is also important. While working on an excavation in Cusco, a colleague, who was from a local Quechua speaking community, told me that a person had to be struck twice before they were considered a candidate. In other communities, however, candidates are not always struck, but simply witness lightning hit the ground.
In Quechua medicine, when a person is struck by lightning, it is thought that their ‘self’ has been ‘dissolved’. I think this is an eloquent way to describe what it means to survive a lightning strike. At times, it can feel like ‘the old you’ is gone and you have become someone else. As David Gade has noted, paqos, who are survivors, value their scars because these are a sign of their special status, while others who display mental and emotional imbalances or neurological changes claim these as evidence that they can practice ‘magic’ (5).
Places, objects and animals struck by lightning are also treated with upmost care. In Cusco, for example, corn touched by lightning is stored and used in the curing rite, Qhaqya Sara. This rite is performed at the place of contact when the survivor is susceptible to malevolent forces. It involves rubbing a corn ear struck by lightning over the survivor’s body, while the practitioner commands the malicious spirits to leave (6).
Whether viewed as negative or auspicious, my contact with lightning certainly impacted my life. After this event, I was christened with a new name: today, I am known by many friends and family as ‘Lightning Lisa’, or ‘Dr Lightning’, serving as a long-lasting reminder that I am a child of lightning and thunder.
Photograph Credit: Anita Stefan