Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Thunder on the Mountain

Some stories tell themselves.

In The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, Rolling Stone editor Randall Sullivan tells the story of the supposed Marian visionaries of Medjugorje, of the processes by which the Vatican authenticates (and de-authenticates) visions, and a personal tale of unbelief wrestling with belief.

But (to this reader, at least) the book's most intriguing story is its underlying pagan subtext.

To understand this story, you need to know that the greatest god of the Slavic-speaking peoples has always been (as among most Indo-European peoples) the Thunderer, known in the north as Perun and in the south as Grom.


Medjugorje (“between the mountains”) is a Roman Catholic, Croatian-speaking town in central Bosnia. It stands at the foot of the tallest and most dramatic of the Trtla Mountains, now generally known as Krizhevac, “Cross Mountain,” for the 40-foot cement cross erected there in 1933 to mark the supposed 1900th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ (70-1).

But before that the mountain was known as Grmljavinac: Thunder Mountain.

Its summit was long held to be the home of Gromnovik—Thunder—who, throughout the long centuries of conquest—Roman, Slav, Hungarian, Ottoman, Austrian, Serb—was clearly the original and permanent god of the place, worshiped there well into the 13th century (139).

Fierce thunderstorms crashed down (and still crash down) from Thunder Mountain, bringing both fertility and destruction. Especially feared were the crop-destroying hailstorms of summer—sometimes pounding crops with hailstones the size of a child's fist—and the lightning-kindled firestorms of autumn (137). You don't have to know Thunder well to know that he is a god to fear as well as to love, to appease as well as to worship. Even his mercy is terrible.

To appease the god and entreat his mercy, the people of the area would climb his mountain twice a year, chanting his praises and sprinkling water as they went. (The meaning of these lustrations will hardly be lost on anyone likely to be reading this.) In the spring, they offered him seedlings; in late summer, first-fruits. On the summit they would then sacrifice a goat—Thunder's favorite animal—and build bonfires (137).

The sacrifices were stamped out by missionary Franciscans during the late 13th century, after which the hailstorms and firestorms reportedly became even worse than they had been before.

Supposedly, their destructive power moderated after the mountain's triumphalist transformation from Thunder Mountain to Cross Mountain in 1933, recent thunderstorms of great ferocity notwithstanding (71-2).

The book's central religious experience, in which Sullivan finds himself unwillingly moving towards belief, takes place during his first ascent of the mountain (129-32).

In this most Catholic of towns, fueled by alleged Marian apparitions and the pilgrim trade, Sullivan's epiphany takes the form of a face-to-face encounter with the mountain's true and permanent god.

 He gets caught in a terrible thunderstorm as he approaches the mountain's summit, the old place of sacrifice.

Thunder on the Mountain.

In the course of human history, gods come and go.

Not the gods of nature, though. They were here before we were, they've been here all along, and they'll still be here when we're long gone.

Gods (of course) like Thunder.        


Randall Sullivan, The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions (2004). Atlantic Monthly Press.












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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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