- The Meaning Behind the 13-point Lightning Bolt -
Since our humble beginnings selling tie-dyes in the lots at Dead shows, you could say that here at the Hippie Shop, we’re pretty big deadheads. As the first band to utilize trippy, brilliantly designed show posters and psychedelic light displays during their shows, from their inception, the Grateful Dead have expressed their unique message just as much through their visuals as through their sound.
From the classic Steal Your Face to the terrapin to the dancing bears, there is a vast archive of artwork associated with the band, but today we’re starting with the first symbol to enter the Dead’s iconography: the 13-point lightning bolt. Curious about the creation of the Dead's first symbol? Then keep on reading.
Bear & the Birth of the Bolt
As fans of the band, you’ve probably heard of the group’s sound engineer and longtime friend, Owsley “Bear” Stanley. While on tour with the band in 1969, Owsley realized that they needed an identifiable symbol to spray paint on the band’s equipment so that it would be easily discernible when jammed next to other band’s gear backstage. Inspired by the shape and bold markings of a dual-colored freeway sign he passed on the road, Owsley teamed up with a friend and graphic designer named Bob Thomas. Together, they brought his vision of a round visually striking logo with red and blue separated by a lightning strike to life... and the bolt was born!
Not only was he credited with conceptualizing the band’s first symbol, Owsley was also known as the King of LSD, a notorious and beloved hallucinatory chemist, whose extremely pure “Monterey Purple” blew the minds of Haight-Ashbury hippies before and throughout the Summer of Love.
A few years later in 1973, the 13-point lightning bolt joined the classic skull to create one of the band’s most identifiable symbols: The Steal Your Face! The album, titled History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (and nicknamed Bear's Choice), honors the band’s beloved soundman and chemist by featuring his favorite live tracks and the symbol he had a hand in creating as the cover art.
The Point of the Points
While the original purpose of the bolt was purely functional, theories of the meaning behind the symbol have been swirling around during deadheads’ heady conversations since its inception into the band’s vast iconography. Even we’re a little curious about why Owsley chose to make the bolt with 13 distinct points.
One theory is that the 13 points represent the original 13 American colonies. This could make sense, since it is in line with the patriotic red, white, and blue color scheme as well as another one of the band’s famous symbols: the Uncle Sam skeleton, which is referred to in the song U.S. Blues. Being that Bear was the King of LSD, another popular theory is that the 13 points represent some aspect of the LSD molecule or the 13 steps involved in the chemical process of creating the trippy and transcendent drug. Some say it could refer to the Sumerian Zodiac which used 13 constellations. Or it could even be a reference to the 13th Tarot card: Death. Perhaps the number of points didn’t matter at all and the lightning bolt signifies enlightenment, transformation, and the raw powers of nature. Like much of the Dead’s music, maybe the message is more about discovering what you personally take away from it.
No matter which roadie tour stories or message board rumors you choose to subscribe to, keep your love of the dead alive with the coolest officially licensed merch around!
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