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Thunderbird (mythology)

For other uses of Thunderbird or Thunderbirds see Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a mythical creature common to Native American religion. Its name comes from that supposition that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. The Lakota name for the Thunderbird is "Wakinyan", a word formed from "kinyan", meaning "winged", and "wakan", "sacred". The Kwakiutl called him "Hohoq," and the Nootka called him "Kw-Uhnx-Wa." It is described as being two canoe-lengths from wingtip to wingtip, and it creates storms as it flies- clouds are pulled together by its wingbeats, the sound of thunder is its wings clapping, sheet lightning is the light flashing from its eyes when it blinks, and individual lightning bolts are glowing snakes that it carries with it. In masks, it is depicted as many-colored, with two curling horns, and sometimes with teeth within its beak.

Depending on the people telling the story, the Thunderbird is either a singular entity, or a species. In both cases, it is intelligent, powerful, and wrathful. All agree that you should go out of your way to keep from getting them angry.

The singular Thunderbird (as the Nootka believed) was said to reside on the top of a mountain, and was the servant of the Great Spirit. The Thunderbird only flew about to carry messages from one spirit to another.

The plural thunderbirds (as the Kwakiutl and Cowichan tribes believed) could take on human form by tilting back their beak as if it was only a mask, and by removing their feathers as if it was a feather-covered blanket. There are stories of thunderbirds in human form marrying into human families, who still trace their lineage to this. Families of thunderbirds who kept to themselves, but wore human form, lived along the northern tip of Vancouver Island- other tribes soon forgot the nature of one of these thunderbird families, and when one tribe tried to take them as slaves, the thunderbirds put on their feather blankets and transformed to take vengeance upon their foolish captors.

A famous story of the Thunderbird is "Thunderbird and Whale". The Thunderbird, if it exists, may be related to the Roc if not the same creature.

Contemporary sightings

There is a story that in April 1890, two cowboys in Arizona managed to shoot to death a giant birdlike creature with an enormous wingspan. It was said it had smooth skin, and featherless wings like a bat. Its face resembled an alligator. Interestingly, this description has more than a cursory similarity to the prehistoric pterodactyl. They dragged the carcass back to town, and it was pinned, wings outstretched across the entire length of a barn. There is supposed to be a picture of this event, that may or may not have been published in the local newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph. Despite numerous people who have claimed to have seen this photograph recently, no one has ever been able to produce a copy of the picture nor make historic corroboration that this event ever occurred, and it is most likely an urban legend.

There have also been thunderbird sightings more recently. In the 1960s and 1970s, sightings of a large bird the size of a Piper Cub airplane were made in Washington, Utah, and Idaho. On occasion, this was accompanied by large footprints or other purported evidence.

Some cryptozoologists have theorized the thunderbird myth to be based on sightings of a real animal that has dwindled in population of late. Initially this was scoffed at by skeptics saying a bird that large could not have flown. This is not outside the realm of possibility. The prehistoric vulture-like Teratornis incredibilis had a wingspan of anywhere from 5 m up to 7 m (16 to 24 ft) and is believed to have been capable of flight. Cryptozoologists also posit that the thunderbird was associated with storms because they followed the drafts to stay in flight, not unlike a modern eagle rides mountain upcurrents. Noted cryptozoologist John Keel claimed to have mapped several thunderbird sightings and found that they corresponded chronologically and geographically with storms moving across the United States.

In 2002, a new sighting in Alaska was announced.

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