Single Thunderbolt

Dhu ‘l Fakar



Fleur de lis

Double Thunderbolt

Greek and Roman Thunderbolt

Dorje vajra

Dorje Gyatum, 4-fold Thunderbolt

The Celtic Thunderbolt

No Thunderbolt





The thunderbolt is the weapon of heaven in the most literally sense of the word. In a narrower sense it is the arms or attribute of the supreme god or, when the armed authority is delegated to a lower god, of the god of war.

When used by human beings the thunderbolt is the symbol of armed authority.


As a symbol the thunderbolt doubtlessly is of Mesopotamian origin. There are different forms, the first consisting of a bident with two undulated points. This form is of Babylonian origin and is the attribute of the war-god Adad. Derived from this form of thunderbolt is the Sword of Ali, also called the Sword of Islam or Dhu ‘l Fakr.


The second form is a trident. This is probably of Hellenistic origin. In its most known form it is the attribute of the sea-god Poseidon / Neptune. This form has evoluated in Europe to the fleur de lys.

Also derived from the trident is the trisula, (= three points) the trident of the hindu destroyer-god Shiva.


The third form is a double trident. This form is of Assyrian origin. It is the prototype of the hellenistic thunderbolt in the west and the vajra or dorje in the east.


The fourth form is the four-fold trident or Dorje Gyatum. This form is evoluated in Tibet from the double trident.


For a gallery of pictures of the different thunderbolts see Trident et Foudre (in french).


Single Thunderbolt



Seal of the god Adad.

Babylon, 9th cent. B.C.

Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

The god is swinging a two-bladed knife or a thunderbolt




The Investiture of ‘Ali at Ghadir Khumm,

from the Kitab al-athar al-baquya ‘an al-qurun al-khaliya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), copied by Ibn al-Kutbi, northwestern Iran or northern Iraq, a.h. 707/ a.d. 1307-08. Fol. 162r; ink, colors, and gold on paper. Edinburgh University Library (MS Arab 161)

Dhu-‘l Fakar



Banner of the Bey of Tunis, 19th -20th Century


See my essay about Dhu-‘l Fakar




The trident is the attribute of the greek God Poseidon or Neptune.


Poseidon or Neptune is the son of the Titans, Cronus and Rhea, the brother of Zeus and Hades and one of the Olympian gods. Zeus gave him the task of reigning over the deep sea. His appearance is similar to his brother Zeus, except that he is depicted with a trident instead of a thunderbolt. His epithet is the Earth-shaker, for he is known to produce earthquakes. His chariot is driven by dolphins, but he is known for having created the horse.


Two tetradrachmons of Demetrios Poliorketes, King of Macedonia (294-287 BC)

minted in Salamis (300-295 B.C., left) and in Amphipolis (290-289 B.C., right).

The king armed with a trident. L.: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟΥ.


Octodrachme with the portrait of  Ptolemaios III Euergetes, king of Egypt (246-222 BC.)


Alexandrië 25304. Goud. Herkomst: nn. Begin regeringsperiode van Ptolemaios IV Philipator (222/1-205/04 v.C.) Op de voorzijde de portretbuste van Ptolemaios III Euergetes naar rechts. Op zijn hoofd een zonnekroon en achter hem boven zijn schouder uitstekend de bovenkant van een scepter in de vorm van een drietand, de middelste punt bezet met een kleine bol, mogelijk omvat door een wassenaar.

Op de keerzijde een hoorn van overvloed met erboven een stralende zon. L.: πτολεμαιου βασιλεωσ.

(Goden en Farao’s, n° 90.)


Trisula, the favourite weapon of Shiva.


‘Tri’ means three and ‘sula’ means point. It consists of a long wooden handle topped by three sharp metal pikes.

The Hindu-god Shiva has always been depicted with a trisula in his hand. The trident for that reason was often adopted by Hindu rulers as a symbol of their armed authority. Also it developed to and emblem of the Hindu armed force. 



Throne of King Bhumibol Adulej of Thailand.

Trísūla of the king before the imperial symbol of Thailand.


Fleur de Lis


The fleur the lis is a one-and-a-half thunderbolt, the lower part being smaller than the upper part.


See my essay about the fleur de lis


Double Thunderbolt


The three-pointed thunderbolt was doubled at an early stage to the double thunderbolt. This form can be seen on a Assyrian relief and is the weapon of the Assyrian god Ninurta from the 9th century B.C. This double trident is also known as the thunderbolt of Zeus / Jupiter and a relation between Ninurta and Zeus therefore seems to be obvious. 

Ninurta chases Imdugud.

Scene on a stone relief from the time of Assurnasirpal II (883-859) in the Ninurta temple in Kalhu (Nimrod).


Ninurta keeps two thunderbolts in his hands which are the prototypes of the Eastern as well as the Western thunderbolts.   


The Greek and the Roman Thunderbolt


Birth of Athena on a Greek vase

Zeus giving birt from his head, in his hand a thunderbolt, on the right a chief commander.


The Greek and Roman thunderbolts (the keraunos (κεραυνός) and the fulmen) do not differ from the Assyrian thunderbolt but in their artistic elaborations.

In the Hellenistic and Roman  world it was the attribute of Zeus/Jupiter.


Three staters from the Peloponesos, 420 - 400 BC.

On the reverse thunderbolts


Winged thunderbolt on a greek dish,

5th century BC. Museo Nazionale, Ferrara



Shield with eagle and thunderbolt

On the Monument of Bocchus, 1st c. BC.

Museo della Centrale Montemartini, inv. 2752


In the Imperium Romanum the thunderbolt was also the arms of heaven. The combination of the eagle of Jupiter, the emblem of rank of a king or consul, and a thundebolt in Rome meant “The armed force of the consul”. This consisted of the legions manned by Romans which bore the eagle-thunderbolt emblem on their standards after the reform of the army by Marius.  


The thunderbolt itself was the charge of the shields of the Pretorian Guard.

General of the Pretorian Guard

on a relief from the time of Antoninus Pius (161-180).

(Musée du Louvre)


The general bears a shield charged with a thunderbolt.





In the  7th century the roman example was followed in England. A thunderbolt almost Roman style was on the famous Sutton Hoo shield on which it was mounted as a grip extension at the back side. This shield has belonged to Bretwalda King Rædwald of East Anglia (600-624).

Reconstruction of the back-side of the Sutton Hoo shield

After Hauck: Herrschaftszeichen.[1]


12th and 13th century West-European shields suggest a continuity of the use of the emblem, the thunderbolt multiplied. In heraldry this figure is called a carbuncle. Only a few examples of it are known. The one on the left below may have been and early version of the arms of Kleve. [2]

The second is on the seal of the Count of Saarwerden and qualifies him as a bailiff of a ruler with the rank of a caesar.

The third, on a stained window in Strasburg Cathedral is probably of the bailiff of Jerusalem.

And the fourth is from the Wijnbergen Roll for “the king of Hungary” (?).




The idea was also adopted by Muslim warriors as this Sarracenic shield on a fresco in the Cathedral of Clermont Ferrand testifies. This fresco depicts a scene from the Crusade of St. Louis (1249). Probably the thunderbolt was the emblem of a connetable or bailiff, in this case the wali (military governor of Cairo). [3]


Foto H.d.V. 08. 2004

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Clermont Ferrand.

Mural paintings, absis 8. St. Georges Chapel.

Shield of the wali of Cairo. The pennon on the right is of the Marshal of the Templars, Renaud de Vichiers.


Dorje vajra


We may recognize the Assyrian thunderbolt in the hindu vajra, the weapon of the God Indra. The Buddhist dorje, a symbol frequently occurring in Mahayanism and Lamaism, is the Buddhist form of the vajra.


Vajra: The thunderbolt, the favourite weapon of Indra. [4]



This “thunderbolt” emblem first appeared in Indian Buddhism as the symbol of Vajrapani (“thunderbolt in hand”), the special protector of Shakyamuni, a direct borrowing of the trident weapon of the Vedic god Indra. In later Buddhism, Vajrapani became the chief deity of the powerful beings converted to Buddhism. The vajra thus symbolizes indestructibility and overwhelming power. The Tibetan word dorje can be translated “diamond” or “sovereign of stones”. Thus vajra/dorje is expressive of the adamantine (“diamond-hard”) quality of Buddha-mind. The vajra is seen in Tibetan art as the attribute of several deities who either hold it in one of their hands or have it placed near or on their body. The vajra is also used as an element in religious architecture and decoration, both in the single and crossed forms. This symbol  furthermore occurs in Tibet as a tool for ritual use. As such it is always paired with the bell (T. dril-bu; S. ghanta). The bell must match the vajra in size and have as its handle a half-vajra of similar form.

Mahayanist doctrine developed a scheme of pairing the vajra symbol, with is conceived of as “means” and masculine, with the lotus symbol, conceived of as “wisdom” and female. The union of vajra and lotus symbolizes the supreme truth. In Tibet the bell replaces the lotus as the female emblem of wisdom and is manipulated together with the vajra in rituals.


ï14th century Vajra from Jembrana (Bali)

(National Museum Djakarta)

Dorje Gyatum


Tibetan throne hanging


In Tibet and Bhutan the dorje is doubled again to a cross of lightning. Because of the martial and administrative aspects of the symbol it can be compared with the Christian cross-and-christogram symbol. A Dorje gyatum is on the throne hanging of the Dalai Lama and on his cushion. In the corners of the throne hanging are swastikas, symbols of the sun. It may be suspected that the dorje gyatum was introduced by the Fifth Lama (Ngawang Losang Gyatso (Blo bzang rgya mtsho) r.1642-‘82) but the oldest pieces known are from the 18th century. The dorje gyatum of Bhutan is also a symbol of secular power. Supported by two dragons it is the emblem of the royal government.


Royal Arms of Bhutan, 20th century


The Japanese Thunderbolt  


Lightning (inazuma)

This pattern is known to have been used in China during the Chou dynasty (eleventh to fifth centuries B.C.), although it is not clear when it became identified as a depiction of lightning. Its transition to Japan and use as a crest there is not well documented, but only a small number of families had adopted it as a family emblem by the Edo period (1603-1868). The martial connotations of the lightning emblem are unmistakable, and in all probability the pattern carried religious connotations as well. One of the religious implements used in the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which flourished in Japan , for example, is the vajra or symbolic thunderbolt. The very ideographs with which inazuma is written suggest a quasi religious dimension, for literally they mean “rice-plant wife,”suggesting fecundity and the basic forces of life. [5]


Japanese inazuma-mon


The Celtic Thunderbolt


The Celtic Thunderbolt is a globe- or ball-lightning.


On Pictish Stones and on Irish Royal portraits there is a special form of thunderbolt differing from all other designs of thunderbolts and apparently developed independently from continental designs.

The sources documenting the Pictish thunderbolts are the 6th to 7th century pictisch stones which can be found in the country of Angus and around Moray Firth.

The symbol consists of two connected whirls and a Z-shaped flash.


Two pendants with thunderbolts and dog’s heads

Length 90 mm. Function unknown.

Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Thunderbolt on the Aberlemno stone, Scotland


The Scottish version of the thunderbolt is on the sceptres of 8th century Scottish rulers in Ireland Portraits of those rulers are on some high-crosses and on a portrait of a scottish ruler in the Lichfield Gospels.


Thunderbolt on the sceptre of King Flaithbertach (728-734)

in the Lichfield Gospels fol. 218.


These thunderbolts consist of two whirls ending in points.


The fact that the Celtic thunderbolt is a globe-lightning may prove to be a solution for the queer so-called Petrie Crown.


Two-bladed Axe


It is sometimes claimed that the attribute of the German god Thor or Donar, his hammer Mjölnir, is a kind of thunderbolt because Thor was the God of Thunder. In fact the Thorshammer is the Germanic version of a bipennis or two-bladed axe. This was the emblem of  office of the Lydian and Etruscan kings. [6] It is not a thunderbolt because a two-bladed hammer and a thunderbolt can be in the hands of one and the same person. Also the Thorshammer has a strong resemblance with the bipennis.


Jupiter Dolichenus

about 200 AD

Museum Carnuntinum (Austria)

A bipennis in his right and a thunderbolt in his left hand [7]

Bipennis from Arklochori

Crete, 1550-1450 BC.

Silver Thorshammer from


Iron model of a bipennis

from the Etruscan city of  Velona

Thorshammer from Schonen




© Hubert de Vries 2011-08-11 Updated 2018-07-22




[1] The picture of the grip-extension from: Bruce-Mitford, R.: The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. London 1972.

[2] Gideon with the Fleece. Meuse region, about 1160-1170. Lille, Musée de Beaux-Arts, Inv. Nr. A 54.

[3] See for the attack on Cairo in 1249: Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades. p. 211

[4] Picture from: Rituels tibétains. Visions secrètes du Ve Dalai Lama. Patis, 2002. (n° 87)

[5] Dower, John W The Elements of Japanese Design. A Handbook of Familiy Crests, Heral­dry and Symbolism. Weatherhill Inc. New York/Tokyo, 1971. 170pp. ill. With over 2700 crests drawn by Kiyoshi Kawamoto.P. 40-41

[6] Versnel, H.S.: Triumphus, an inquiry into the origin, development and meaning of the Roman Triumph. Diss. Leiden, 1970

[7] The bipennis here is a replacement of a staff formerly kept in the right hand of a Roman general.