Thunderbird (mythology)

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Thunderbird on Totem Pole.jpg
A Northwest Coast styled Kwakiutl totem pole depicting a thunderbird.
Grouping Legendary creature
RegionNorth America

The thunderbird is a legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It is considered a supernatural being of power and strength.


Pacific NW (Haida) imagery of a double thunderbird Haida double thunderbird 1880.jpg
Pacific NW (Haida) imagery of a double thunderbird

It is especially important, and frequently depicted, in the art, songs and oral histories of many Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, but is also found in various forms among some peoples of the American Southwest, East Coast of the United States, Great Lakes, and Great Plains. In modern times it has achieved notoriety as a purported cryptid, similar to creatures such as Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

General description

The thunderbird is said to create thunder by flapping its wings (Algonquian [1] ), and lightning by flashing its eyes (Algonquian, Iroquois [2] ).


Grande Paix de Montreal 12 Signature des MISSISSAGUES.svg
Tribal signatures using thunderbirds on the Great Peace of Montreal

The thunderbird myth and motif is prevalent among Algonquian peoples in the "Northeast", i.e., Eastern Canada (Ontario, Quebec, and eastward) and Northeastern United States, and the Iroquois peoples (surrounding the Great Lakes). [3] The discussion of the "Northeast" region has included Algonquian-speaking people in the Lakes-bordering U.S. Midwest states (e.g., Ojibwe in Minnesota [4] ).

In Algonquian mythology, the thunderbird controls the upper world while the underworld is controlled by the underwater panther or Great Horned Serpent. The thunderbird creates not just thunder (with its wing-flapping), but lightning bolts, which it casts at the underworld creatures. [1]

Thunderbirds in this tradition may be depicted as a spread-eagled bird (wings horizontal head in profile), but also quite commonly with the head facing forward, thus presenting an X-shaped appearance overall [4] (see under §Iconography below).


Ojibwe shoulder pouch depicting two thunderbirds in quillwork, Peabody Museum Harvard Pouch, southeastern Ojibwa, with porcupine quills, from Boston Museum Collection - Native American collection - Peabody Museum, Harvard University - DSC05441.JPG
Ojibwe shoulder pouch depicting two thunderbirds in quillwork, Peabody Museum Harvard

The Ojibwe version of the myth states that the thunderbirds were created by Nanabozho for the purpose of fighting the underwater spirits. They were also used to punish humans who broke moral rules. The thunderbirds lived in the four directions and arrived with the other birds in the springtime. In the fall they migrated south after the ending of the underwater spirits' most dangerous season. [5]


Seal of the Menominee Nation featuring a thunderbird Flag of the Menominee Nation.png
Seal of the Menominee Nation featuring a thunderbird

The Menominee of Northern Wisconsin tell of a great mountain that floats in the western sky on which dwell the thunderbirds. They control the rain and hail and delight in fighting and deeds of greatness. They are the enemies of the great horned snakes (the Misikinubik) and have prevented these from overrunning the earth and devouring mankind. They are messengers of the Great Sun himself. [6]


Painting of a thunderbird from the Great Lakes region, likely pre-1800 Painted Skin representing the thunderbird.jpg
Painting of a thunderbird from the Great Lakes region, likely pre-1800

The thunderbird motif is also seen in Siouan-speaking peoples, which include tribes traditionally occupying areas around the Great Lakes.


Ho-Chunk tradition states that a man who has a vision of a thunderbird during a solitary fast will become a war chief of the people. [7]


Ethnographer George Amos Dorsey transcribed a tale from the Arikaras with the title The Boy who befriended the Thunderbirds and the Serpent: a boy named Antelope-Carrier finds a nest with four young thunderbirds; their mother comes and tells the human boy that a two-headed Serpent comes out of the lake to eat the young. [8]


Crest of the Anishinaabe Anishinabe.svg
Crest of the Anishinaabe


In Algonquian images, an X-shaped thunderbird is often used to depict the thunderbird with its wings alongside its body and the head facing forwards instead of in profile. [3]

The depiction may be stylized and simplified. A headless X-shaped thunderbird was found on an Ojibwe midewiwin disc dating to 1250–1400 CE. [9] In an 18th century manuscript (a "daybook" ledger) written by the namesake grandson of Governor Matthew Mayhew, the thunderbird pictograms varies from "recognizable birds to simply an incised X". [10]

Non-indigenous scientific interpretations

Thunderbirds carved in sandstone wall at Twin Bluff, Juneau County, Wisconsin, by prehistoric artist(s) ThunderBird Rock Carved Petroglyph at Twin Buffs.jpg
Thunderbirds carved in sandstone wall at Twin Bluff, Juneau County, Wisconsin, by prehistoric artist(s)

American science historian and folklorist Adrienne Mayor and British historian Tom Holland have both suggested that indigenous thunderbird stories are based on discoveries of pterosaur fossils by Native Americans. [11] [12] However, it has also been noted that,[ by whom? ] despite variations, the common design elements of the motif within different tribal groups across the continent appear distinct from the makeup of the suggested prehistoric flying reptile, such as eagle or raptor-like avian feathered wings and tail, along with a vastly different head shape, perhaps with the exception of some Pacific Northwest imagery.

In modern usage

Thunderbird at the top of the totem pole in front of Wawadit'la, a Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation big house built by Chief Mungo Martin in 1953, located at Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia Wawadit'la(Mungo Martin House) a Kwakwaka'wakw big house.jpg
Thunderbird at the top of the totem pole in front of Wawadit'la, a Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation big house built by Chief Mungo Martin in 1953, located at Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia

See also

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  1. 1 2 Cleland, Chute & Haltiner (1984), p. 240
  2. Lenik (2012), p. 163
  3. 1 2 Lenik (2012), p. 163.
  4. 1 2 Lenik (2012), p. 181.
  5. Vecsey, Christopher (1983). Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. Vol. 152. American Philosophical Society. p. 75. ISBN   9780871691521.
  6. Lankford, George E. (2011). Native American Legends of the Southeast: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and other Nations. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. p. 77. ISBN   9780817356897.
  7. Burlin, Nathalie C. (1907). The Indians' Book: An Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and Narrative, to Form a Record of the Songs and Legends of Their Race. Harper and Brothers.
  8. Dorsey, George Amos. Traditions of the Arikara . Washington: Carnegie institution of Washington, 1904. pp. 73-79, 187.
  9. Bouck & Richardson (2007) , p. 15, citing Cleland (1984), p. 240, figure 2C; Lenik (1985), p. 132, figure 5.
  10. Bouck & Richardson (2007), p. 15.
  11. Mayor, Adrienne (2005). Fossil Legends of the First Americans. ISBN   0691113459.
  12. "BBC Four - Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters".
  13. Thomas, Lowell (1925). The First World Flight . Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  14. "17 Pokemon based on real-world mythology". 4 February 2014.