Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
Are these similarities mere coincidence? Possibly. It seems intuitive for premodern peoples to associate the natural phenomenon of thunder with a deity of the mighty warrior type. It seems equally intuitive, once hammer technology has been invented, to associate the crashing of thunder with this particular implement.
On the other hand, while the detail of the hammer may seem intuitive, deities associated with thunder, lightning, and storm in other cultures do not necessarily wield such a weapon. Zeus/Jupiter shoots lightning straight from his hands. The Hindu god Indra, a deity almost certainly related to Thor, wields a mace-like weapon called a “vajra” instead of a hammer.
Additionally, Thor is believed to derive ultimately from the ancient religion of Proto-Inod-Europeans, who in the aeons before recorded history had spread to the footsteps of China and obviously to India.
Compared to the ancient migrations of Proto-Indo-Europeans, attestations of both Thor and Leigong come relatively late. The earliest attestations of Thor come from Roman sources, who often referred to the gods of Germanic tribes using names of Roman gods of similar attributes. In his work Germannia, Tacitus describes the Suebi people as worshipping “Mercury” (Odin) as their chief god and “Hercules” (Thor) beside him. The earliest attestations of Leigong appear in the Warring States period (5th century BC to 221 BC). Neither tradition therefore seems able to elucidate any cultural exchange prior to about 500 BC that may explain the similarities between two deities of two cultures so vastly separately by geography.
One additional wrinkle fascinates me even as it may threaten to undermine my hypothesis as much as it contributes to it. One of the major myths of Proto-Indo-European religion is a battle between a storm or thunder god with a snake or dragon that dwells in water. (This tale is fascinating for another reason as well: although later European tradition associates dragons with fire, Chinese dragons have always been associated with water, an association that appears to prevail in Proto-Indo-European myth.) In the Vedas of Hinduism, for example, Indra slays the many-headed serpent Vritra. In Greek mythology, Heracles fights Hydra. And in Nordic mythology, Thor is prophesied to battle the sea serpent Jörmungandr to the death at Ragnarok.
There is no story about Leigong killing a dragon that I am aware of in Chinese tradition. However, the earliest attestations about him disagree drastically over his appearance. The Shan Hai Jing or Book of Mountains and Seas, a compendium of geography and mythology from the Warring States era, says: “In the thunder lake there is a thunder god, with the body of a dragon and the head of a man.” Other sources describe Leigong as having the form of a human warrior.
Can it be that the the author of the Shan Hai Jing mixed up the Proto-Indo-European myth that he heard? Instead of having the thunder god fight a dragon, he misunderstood the dragon itself as a thunder deity? I can do no more than speculate.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."