What was the common understanding of electric shocks caused by static electricity in the ancient world and middle ages? I'm talking about the shock when you touch something on a dry day for example.

Note that I'm not asking about the scientific understanding (which is detailed in the Wikipedia page). This is why I'm asking this here, and not in the history of science SE site.

I'm more interested in what would the average person think when they got the shock by touching something. Would they think God was angry (as was common with negative physical experiences before science)? Are there any references to this phenomenon by religious (monotheistic or pagan) texts?

Would they understand this is similar to a tiny lightning (on a dark night you can see the air arcing when this happens)?

The Wikipedia page mentions the ancient Egyptians were aware of electric eel and fish, and thus were given "supernatural" powers. Did people understand that a static electricity shock was a similar thing, even if it's not coming from an animal?

  • Attributing it to a God being angry would be dependant on their culture : some may, some may not...
    – Solar Mike
    Oct 14, 2018 at 6:47

1 Answer 1


This is a long answer, so here is a list of connections that the public could have made, in no particular order:

  • It was the work of the Gods and Goddesses
  • It was the manifestation of the spirit within the object
  • It was a form of magnetism
  • It was a miniaturised form of lightning
  • It was proof of hidden powers and magic of various kinds
  • It was some unexplainable and inexplicable phenomena

Read on for detailed explanations of each...

The idea of static electricity and its effects have been around for a very long time:

Already in the stone age our ancestors were fascinated by the mysterious phenomenon of static electricity.

Hellström S. (1998) The discovery of static electricity and its manifestation. In: ESD — The Scourge of Electronics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

However, in ancient times, so many things were uncertain that the phenomena of static electricity would have been relatively unremarkable. Voltaire wrote "On the Limits of the Human Mind" in the 1700s, describing phenomena after phenomena that no scientist or anyone else could explain. Static electricity in comparison to other questions of the time - such as why the mind could control the movement of an arm or a leg, or how the heart works, or logs change to embers - would have been a phenomenon of a lesser degree:

Has anyone ever been able to say precisely how a log is changed on the hearth into burning carbon, and by what mechanism lime is kindled by fresh water? Is the first principle of the movement of the heart in animals properly understood? does one know clearly how generation is accomplished? has one guessed what gives us sensations, ideas, memory? We do not understand the essence of matter any more than the children who touch its surface.

Who will teach us by what mechanism this grain of wheat that we throw into the ground rises again to produce a pipe laden with an ear of corn, and how the same soil produces an apple at the top of this tree, and a chestnut on its neighbour? Many teachers have said-'' What do I not know? " Montaigne used to say " What do I know? "

Ruthlessly trenchant fellow, wordy pedagogue, meddlesome theorist, you seek the limits of your mind. They are at the end of your nose.

Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Philosophical Dictionary by Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire: Limits Of The Human Mind. http://www.online-literature.com/voltaire/philosophical-dictionary/59/.

However, that is not to say that no efforts had been made to try and understand it:

Thales from Miletos (mathematician) described in 600 years B.C. how the material amber could become "animated" and attract dust and down.

Hellström S. (1998) The discovery of static electricity and its manifestation. In: ESD — The Scourge of Electronics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

Around the time of Thales - so 600 BC onwards, people thought that the static electricity force was connected to the rubbing process that caused it: this is what Thales thought, among others. Thales then made the connection between the spark and lightning, and this was one connection that the average layman would have made too.

If this average person was living in a society in which there was a god or goddess that was associated with lightning, it seems likely that they would have assumed that the small spark of electricity was the result of the actions of said gods. Indeed, some people did associate the attraction to hidden powers and magic.

Further, Thales was of the view that everything was full of Gods - that is to say, each and every inanimate object has a spirit. Perhaps it was of his opinion that this static electricity was an example of the manifestation of it, and it is possible that this leaked into the general populace's opinion too.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, a naturalist and natural philosopher, also mentioned this curious property of amber in his encyclopedia, describing it to be similar to magnetism. However, whether or not the public bought this explanation is unclear. It is more likely that in that religion-centric society it was just assumed to be the work of the gods, as previously described.

Later on, in the Middle Ages, this trend of people generally not bothering themselves with it continued: Michaelangelo may have used it as a metaphor for life in the Sistine Chapel, but he didn't believe it literally, and generally there was no formal study of it.

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