Thunder Bird

by Gerald Musinsky

The Thunder Bird myth is perhaps one of the most wide spread among the Native America. Thunder Bird lore can be categorized into two types: as a benevolent (or sometimes malicious) nature deity, or a type in which the bird is not spiritual but corporeal and co-extant with the aboriginal inhabitants of precolonial North America. The name Thunder Bird directly refers to a Native American spirit myth.

  • According to Winnebago tradition, "Thunder is a spirit, and it is an emblem of war; it is winged, mighty and awful and it is called the Thunder Bird."1
  • The Chippewa had a supreme bird, "The Birds eyes were fire, his glance was lightning, and the motions of his wings filled the air with thunder."2
  • Concerning the cause of thunderstorms, "The Mandan supposed that it was because the thunderbird broke through the clouds."3
  • Ancient Aztec priests had envisioned a new home where a gigantic eagle slays and devours a snake. "The legend tells that this vision became a reality... a motif identical to a myth known throughout North America: the thunderbird..."4
  • The Thunder Bird is a nature spirit shared by most if not all Algonquian tribes.5
  • The Thunder Bird in the vast majority of Native American myths is benevolent toward humans. "Thunder Bird... was a friend of man... a willing protector;... also a teacher and, at times, a creator."6
  • "It was the Thunderbird who taught the Kwakiutl how to build houses."7
  • An Assiniboin account claims, "... but the old Thunder, or big bird is wise and excellent, he never kills or injures anyone."8
  • This Comanche story differs, "... a hunter once shot a large bird... it was so large he was afraid to go near it alone..."9 The hunter believed he shot a Thunder Bird. When he returned with the Medicine Man and others from the village, the bird was gone, and the hunter was struck by lightning during the resulting storm.

Avian deities of fantastic proportions exist in cultures throughout the world. But in precolonial Native America other tales exist which identify a different type of bird and should not be confused with the Thunder Bird nature myth. Not a spirit but an enormous bird of prey, similar to but distinguished from eagles, possessing an appetite for human flesh. One such bird was the Piasa, a menace to the Illiniwek and Miami, "The Bird Who Devours Men."