On a spiral arm of a galaxy called the Milky Way, nine planets move in peaceful, clock-like procession around a yellow dwarf star called the Sun. The planets move on highly predictable paths, and by all appearances nothing has changed in a billion years. The inhabitants of the third planet, the Earth, can see five of their celestial neighbors without the aid of telescopes. Surrounded by the background stars, these objects do little to distinguish themselves in the night sky. And few denizens of Earth today have learned to identify the five visible planets against the starry dome.

“It is the thunderbolt that steers the universe!”
Heraclitus, fifth century B.C.

Earlier cultures were not so complacent about the planets. They invoked these bodies with fear and reverence. In ancient Mesopotamia, astronomer-priests insisted that the planets determined the fate of the world. In their prayers to the planets they summoned memories of heaven-shattering catastrophe. What was it about these celestial objects that inspired this cultural anxiety? And why did so many ancient accounts insist that the movements of the planets once changed? That was Plato’s message more than 2300 years ago. The Babylonian chronicler Berossus said it too: the planets now move on different courses. But these are only two of the more familiar voices amidst a chorus of ancient witnesses.

In archaic texts the planetary gods were a quarrelsome lot. They were giants in the sky, wielding weapons of thunder, fire, and stone. Their wars not only disturbed the heavens but threatened to destroy the earth. Driven by reverence and fear, ancient cultures from Mesopotamia to China, from the Mediterranean to the Americas, honored the planets with pomp and zeal, seeking to placate these celestial powers through human sacrifice. The best English word for this cultural response is obsession.

From the Sun outward, the nine planets of our solar system are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Astronomers believe that the order of the planets has remained unchanged over the eons. But this uniquely modern belief rests on assumptions about gravity that predate the discovery of electricity and the arrival of the space age.

The authors of this book have each spent more than thirty years investigating the ancient message, and this has led us to question a pillar of theoretical science today—the "uneventful solar system." Following quite different research paths, we arrived at the same conclusion: the ancient sky was alive with activity. The evidence suggests that only a few thousand years ago planets moved close to the earth, producing electrical phenomena of intense beauty and terror. Ancient sky worshippers witnessed these celestial wonders, and far-flung cultures recorded the events in the great myths, symbols, and ritual practices of antiquity.

A costly misunderstanding of planetary history must now be corrected. The misunderstanding arose from fundamental errors within the field of cosmology, the "queen" of the theoretical sciences. Mainstream cosmologists, whether trained as physicists, mathematicians, or astronomers, consider gravity to be the controlling force in the heavens. From this assumption arose the doctrine of eons-long solar system stability—the belief that under the rule of gravity the nine planets have moved on their present courses since the birth of the solar system. Seen from this vantage point, the ancient fear of the planets can only appear ludicrous.

We challenge this modern belief. We contend that humans once saw planets suspended as huge spheres in the heavens. Immersed in the charged particles of a dense plasma, celestial bodies "spoke" electrically and plasma discharge produced heaven-spanning formations above the terrestrial witnesses. In the imagination of the ancient myth-makers, the planets were alive: they were the gods, the ruling powers of the sky—awe inspiring, often capricious, and at times wildly destructive.

Cosmic lightning evolved violently from one discharge configuration to another, following patterns observed in high-energy plasma experiments and only recently revealed in deep space as well. Around the world, our ancestors remembered these discharge configurations in apocalyptic terms. They called them the "thunderbolts of the gods."