Thunderbird (mythology)

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.

Thunderbird on Totem Pole.jpg
A Northwest Coast styled Kwakiutl totem pole depicting a thunderbird.
GroupingLegendary creature
RegionNorth America
Pacific Northwest (Haida people) imagery of a double thunderbird
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, along the likes of Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

General descriptionEdit

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


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

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

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

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]


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.[8] 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".[9]

Non-indigenous scientific interpretationsEdit

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.[10][11] 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 usageEdit

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
  • The Pokémon Zapdos is based on First Nations folklore surrounding the Thunderbird.[13]

See alsoEdit

Explanatory notesEdit


  1. ^ a b Cleland, Chute & Haltiner (1984), p. 240
  2. ^ Lenik (2012), p. 163
  3. ^ a b Lenik (2012), p. 163.
  4. ^ a b Lenik (2012), p. 181.
  5. ^ Vecsey, Christopher (1983). Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. 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. ^ Bouck & Richardson (2007), p. 15, citing Cleland (1984), p. 240, figure 2C; Lenik (1985), p. 132, figure 5.
  9. ^ Bouck & Richardson (2007), p. 15.
  10. ^ Fossil Legends of the First Americans
  11. ^ BBC Four - Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters
  12. ^ Thomas, Lowell (1925). The First World Flight. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  13. ^
  • Bouck, Jill; Richardson, James B., III (2007). "Enduring Icon: A Wampanoag Thunderbird on an Eighteenth Century English Manuscript From Martha's Vineyard". Archaeology of Eastern North America. 35: 11–19. JSTOR 40914506.
  • Cleland, Charles E.; Chute, Richard D.; Haltiner, Robert E. (1984). "NAUB-COW-ZO-WIN Discs from Northern Michigan". Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. 9 (2): 235–249. JSTOR 20707933.
  • Lenik, Edward J. (2012). "The Thunderbird Motif in Northeastern Indian Art". Archaeology of Eastern North America. 40: 163–185. JSTOR 23265141.

External linksEdit