Friday, January 23, 2015

A Suicidal Thunder God?

Drawing at the end of Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.3326.

Showing this manuscript today to a group of visiting students, I was again struck by the strangeness of this figure and hope that someone might be able to provide an explanation or point to similar figures elsewhere.

The crude line drawing shows a figure dressed as a Chinese official with the label 電神 (Dianshen, thunder god) to the right and an apparent book title to the left — ending with 電經一卷 (Thunder Sutra, one roll). Most curious, however, are the drawn bow and arrow: the arrow is back to front, ie pointing towards the thunder god himself.

The image appears at the end of a very interesting — but also somewhat mysterious — manuscript which consists of two texts (translated for IDP by Imre Galambos). The first is a divination text based on cloud formations (nephelomancy). This is followed by a series of star charts. In a paper by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bideau and Francois Praderie on this manuscript, the authors showed the star charts to be very accurate: it is a scientific document. The paper is extremely fine but the writing and the graphics appear sketchy and are certainly not in a fine scribal hand. It is therefore possible that this was a working copy which used a master — and fine — copy of a star chart, perhaps even tracing from it, hence the accuracy of the stars' positions. But how did this end up in Dunhuang, 1500 miles from the Imperial Astronomy Bureau in Chang'an where it was almost certainly produced?

Although we will probably never have all the answers to these questions, I hope that the suicidal thunder god might yet have more to tell us.


  1. Indeed the arrow points in the right direction. While poorly sketched, I suggest it might represent a trident arrow, similar to "vajra" or jingang arrows well known from Tang era in mijiao iconography alluding to the lighting bolt itself (not so different from the thunderbolt of Jupiter/Vajrapani or similar deities).

    1. Trident arrow was my first thought also. The end does not look like fletching to me, but then the drawing is very poor. The trident arrow-head is not one mentioned, as I recall, in the Arthaśāstra, or in the early Buddhist references to types of arrow (which I explored in an article for JOCBS

    2. Many thanks for these suggestions. I'll look again at some of the contemporaneous drawing of tridents/thunderbolts and look forward to reading the article. It is an extraordinarily poor drawing - also curious.

    3. Of course the triśula/vajra arrow remains an hypothesis but given the context (the figure of Dianshen) an the subject of the text, I still think it's quite likely. Also, the arrow is not back to front, as stated above, so the drawing clearly represents some kind of specially designed arrow. While indic antecedents would be crucial, later chinese iconography is not always directly traceable in in indian sources. However, Tang era mijiao texts and manuals introduced a plethora of new "vajra" attributes and weapons for deities, which definitely includes "thunderbolt arrows". In this respect an ideal bridge between indian and chinese iconography would be the work attributed to Śubhakarasiṃha (Shanwuwei) about vajradhātu mandala (edited by L. Candra) but the examples proliferated, and actual weapons of this sort became part of chinese and later japanese panoplies.