In the legends of native North Americans, the
thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird.
Lightning flashes from its beak, and the beating of its wings is creates
It is often portrayed with an extra head on its abdomen. The majestic
often accompanied by lesser bird spirits, frequently in the form of
eagles or falcons.
The thunderbird petroglyph symbol has been found across Canada and
the United States.
Evidence of similar figures has been found throughout Africa, Asia,
The following was written by Steve Mizrach
Thunderbird and Trickster
The Thunderbird is one of the few cross-cultural
elements of Native North American mythology.
He is found not just among Plains Indians, but also among Pacific
and Northeastern tribes. He has also become quite a bit of an icon
since he has also had the honor of having automobiles, liquors, and
even a United States Air Force
squadron named after him. Totems bearing his representation can be
found all over the continent.
There have been a number of curious theories about the origins of
the Thunderbird myth - ones
which I will show are probably wrongheaded.
In this paper, moreover, I want to examine
how the myths and legends of the Thunderbird
tie into the sacred clowning/trickster ritual complex of Plains tribes
such as the Lakota.
I will show how the Thunderbird is intimately connected to this complex,
to explain why. It is the intimate association between these two traditions
that may help explain
some features of Plains culture and folklore. Aspects of the Thunderbird
myth only make
sense in light of these associations.
Plains Indians myth and folklore
In order to understand Plains Indians folklore,
we have to realize that their myths were not just
"just-so" stories to entertain, divert, or make inadequate efforts
at naturalistic explanation.
Rather, Indian myth functioned in religious, pedagogical, and initiatory
ways, to help socialize
young people and illuminate the various religious and other roles
in society. Indian myth was always
fluid, and grounded in the present, which is what might be expected
of societies which largely lacked
static, written traditions. Storytelling was an art which was maintained
by the medicine people with
great fidelity, because it was used to explain the development of
certain rituals and elements of society.
Some have looked at the Thunderbird myths
through the same lens of understanding applied to
European mythology. The Thunderbird is like the Indo-European dragon
or ogre or Leviathan,
a huge monster who kidnaps virginal maidens, and who must be slain
by the brave hero. Or the
Thunderbird is simply treated as some kind of fantastic oddity, like
the mythical unicorn or
mermaid - an impossible construction borne from the extremes of the
imagination. Both these attempts
at explaining myth lose the important point of seeing Thunderbird
as a personification of energies
in nature - those found in violent thunderstorms and such - and his
crucial dual nature.
Still, the Indians were not merely "mythmaking"
in the pejorative sense. They no more literally believed
in a giant bird generating storms through the beating of its wings,
then Christians today literally believe
in their divine being as an old man with a beard sitting on a marble
throne. Thunderbird is an
allegory; his conflicts with other forces in nature are then an attempt
to allegorize relationships
observed in the natural order, such as the changing of the weather.
Like other Thunder Beings,
he is essentially an attempt to represent the patterns of activity
of a powerful, mysterious force
in a way that can be understood simply and easily - sort of the way
in which a weather
map functions today. (Edmonds and Clark 1989)
The Plains Indians believed that everything
that was found in nature had a human representative
in microcosm. Everything in nature often contained its own opposite
polarity, hence the expected
existence of beings such as contraries, women warriors, and berdaches.
Thunderbird in particular represented this mysterious dual aspect
of nature, manifest through
the primordial power of thunderstorms, it is not surprising that his
representatives were the
heyoka or sacred clowns, who displayed wisdom through seemingly foolhardy
Western thinking has prevented us from seeing the reasons why Indians
perceived this connection.
Few anthropologists have sought to locate how Thunderbird may have
linked to Trickster.
The Nature of Thunderbird
In Plains tribes, the Thunderbird is sometimes
known as Wakinyan, from the Dakota word kinyan
meaning "winged." Others suggest the word links the Thunderbird to
wakan, or sacred power.
In many stories, the Thunderbird is thought of as a great Eagle, who
produces thunder from the
beating of his wings and flashes lightning from his eyes. (Descriptions
are vague because it is
thought Thunderbird is always surrounded by thick, rolling clouds
which prevent him from being seen.)
Further, there were a variety of beliefs about Thunderbird, which
suggest a somewhat complicated
picture. Usually, his role is to challenge some other great power
and protect the Indians - such as
White Owl Woman, the bringer of winter storms; the malevolent Unktehi,
or water oxen who
plague mankind; the horned serpents; Wochowsen, the enemy bird; or
Waziya, the killing North Wind.
But in some other legends (not so much in the Plains), Thunderbird
is himself malevolent, carrying
off people (or reindeer or whales) to their doom, or slaying people
who seek to cross his
sacred mountain. (Erdoes and Ortiz 1984)
Many Plains Indians claim there are in fact
four colors (varieties) of Thunderbirds (the blue
ones are said, strangely, to have no ears or eyes), sometimes associated
with the four
cardinal directions, but also sometimes only with the west and the
western wind. (According to
the medicine man Lame Deer, there were four, one at each compass point,
but the western one
was the Greatest and most senior.) (Fire and Erdoes 1972)
The fact that they are sometimes known as "grandfathers"
suggest they are held in considerable
reverence and awe. It is supposed to be very dangerous to approach
a Thunderbird nest,
and many are supposed to have died in the attempt, swept away by ferocious
The symbol of Thunderbird is the red zig-zag, lightning-bolt design,
which some people mistakenly
think represents a stairway. Most tribes feel he and the other Thunder
beings were the first to
appear in the Creation, and that they have an especially close connection
to wakan tanka,
the Great Mysterious. (Gill and Sullivan 1992)
The fact that Thunderbird sometimes appears
as something that terrorizes and plagues Indians,
and sometimes as their protector and liberator (in some myths, he
was once an Indian himself)
is said to reflect the way thunderstorms and violent weather are seen
by Plains people. On the
one hand, they bring life-giving rain (Thunderbird is said to be the
creator of 'wild rice' and
other Plains Indians crops); on the other hand, they bring hail, flood,
and lightning and fire. It is not
clear where with them worship and awe end, and fear and terror begin.
Some Indians claim
that there are good and bad Thunderbirds, and that these beings are
at war with each other.
Others claim that the large predatory birds which are said to kidnap
hunters and livestock
are not Thunderbirds at all. Largely, I suspect that this dual nature
of the Thunderbird ties it to
the Trickster figure in Indian belief: like the Trickster, the harm
the Thunderbird causes is mostly
because it is so large and powerful and primeval.
Origins of the Thunderbird
Myth Cryptozoologists like Mark A. Hall, having
studied the Thunderbird myths
of numerous tribes, and compared them to (mostly folkloric) accounts
of unusually large
birds in modern times, as well as large birds (like the Roc) in other
mythic traditions, suggest
that there may well be a surviving species of large avians in America
- big enough, apparently,
to fly off carrying small animals or children, as has been claimed
in some accounts. (Hall
suggests the wingspan of such a species would be several feet longer
known birds - certainly bigger than that of the turkey vulture or
North American species.) (Hall 1988) Such researchers feel the Thunderbird
myth may have
originated from sightings of a real-life flesh-and-blood avian which
might be an atavism
from earlier epochs (a quasi-pterodactyl or teratorn, perhaps.)
However, the big problem with this theory is
that most ornithologists consider it to be
quite farfetched. If such a species existed (a situation akin to the
folkloric Sasquatch), it would
be amazing that to this point it has remained unidentified and uncatalogued.
A species of birds
that big, unless it consisted of an extremely small number of members,
would find it hard to avoid
detection for long. Hall does suggest the possibility that maybe,
like the mastodon, these large
birds were hunted to extinction prior to the arrival of Europeans
on the North American continent.
Still, the other problem with his theory is that it ignores what Indians
themselves have to say
about the Thunderbird.
They describe the Thunderbird as a spiritual,
not just physical, being. It is not seen as just
a large, fearsome predatory bird that people tell stories about. Rather,
it's an integral part
of Plains Indians religion and ritual. Only by ignoring this fact
could we put our Western
ethnocentric biases into effect, and reduce it to a zoological curiosity.
The Thunderbird is
much more than that; the Indian attitude toward it comes from more
than just the
mere fact that it is supposed to be really big. To understand the
origins of Thunderbird myths,
it's necessary to see how they connect with other elements of Indian
ceremony - especially the Trickster complex - and see how they fit
into the structure
of Plains Indian myth as a whole.
Clowning around in Plains Indian culture
Clowning, like the icon of the Thunderbird,
could be found in almost every North American
Indian society. In every case, it involved ridiculous behavior, but
on the Plains it especially
exhibited inversion and reversal as elements of satire. There were
four types of clown
societies on the Plains - age-graded societies, military societies,
the northern plains type, and
the heyoka shamanistic societies. The behaviors of all sorts of clowns
revolved around a
few basic themes or attributes: burlesque, mocking the sacred, playing
pranks or practical
jokes, making obscene jokes or gestures, caricature of others, exhibiting
gross gluttony or
extreme appetite, strange acts of self-mortification or self-deprecation,
of enemies or strangers. (Steward 1991)
The age-graded clown societies primarily consisted
of older people who had been inducted into
their ranks - groups such as the Gros Ventre Crazy Lodge or the Hidatsa
Dog Society. These
clowns were assumed to simply be playing a role appropriate to their
than receiving some sort of supernatural inspiration. They carried
out certain expected ritual
performances on proscribed days, such as the Crazy Dance or the imitation
In contrast, the military clown societies such as the Cheyenne Inverted
Bow String Warriors,
often carried comical or ridiculous weapons, but were also expected
to show absurd
bravery in battle, provoking the enemy into giving up its discipline
and cohesion with
taunts and insults. Not surprisingly, they sometimes rode their horses
backwards into battle.
The northern plains clowns, found among tribes
such as the Ojibway, wore masks which
made them appear to be two-faced, and costumes of rags which made
them appear comical.
All of these three types of clown societies practiced a sort of conventionalized
or patterned sort
of anti-natural behavior. That is, they might do something which seemed
strange or contrary, but
under somewhat regular conditions. You knew when they might do something
weird - and
there were times when they were forbidden to perform their antics.
Further, they might often
"give up" the clowning way of life, and return to a non-contrary state
by marrying and engaging
in a more normal mode of existence.
The heyoka were different in three primary
ways from the other sorts of clowns.
They were truly unpredictable, and could do the unexpected or tasteless
even during the
most solemn of occasions. Moreso than other clowns, they really seemed
to be insane.
Also, they were thought to be more inspired by trans-human supernatural
(as individuals driven by spirits rather than group conventions),
and to have a
closer link to wakan or power than other clowns. And lastly, they
kept their role for
life - it was a sacred calling which could not be given up without
performing an agonizing
ritual of expiation. Not surprisingly, these unique differences were
seen as the result of their
having visions of Thunderbird, a unique and transforming experience.
Testimony of Black Elk: the heyoka and
The Oglala Indian Black Elk had some interesting
things to say about the heyoka ceremony,
which he himself participated in. Black Elk describes the "dog in
boiling water" ceremony
in some detail. He also describes the bizarre items he had to carry
as a heyoka,
and the crazy antics he had to perform with his companions. He also
attempts to explain
the link between the contrary trickster nature of heyokas with that
"When a vision comes from the thunder beings
of the West, it comes with terror like a
thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world
and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world,
it is like a rain. The world,
you see, is happier after the terror of the storm... you have noticed
that truth comes into
this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other
laughs; but it is the
same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair,
maybe the laughing
is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of
being safe, maybe
the weeping face is better. And so I think this is what the heyoka
ceremony is for ... the dog
had to be killed quickly and without making any scar, as lightning
kills, for it is the
power of lightning that heyokas have." (quoted in Neihardt 1959:
Today, of course, Western physicists describe
the dual nature of electricity. An object can
carry a positive or negative electric charge. The electron is simultaneously
a wave and a particle.
Electricity and magnetism are thought to be aspects of the same force,
and as is well know with
magnetism, it comes in polarities, with opposite poles (north and
south) attracting. Though the Indians
did not have access to our modern scientific instruments, they are
likely to have observed some
of the same properties in lightning. Thus it would have been intuitive
to link the dual spiritual nature
of the heyoka (tragicomedy - solemn joking - joy united with pain)
with the dual nature of electricity.
Thunderbird and Heyoka, the Sacred Clown
It was believed among the Lakota and other
tribes that if you had a dream or vision of birds,
you were destined to be a medicine man; but if you had a vision of
it was your destiny to become something else; heyoka, or sacred clown.
the heyoka were at once feared and held in reverence. They were supposed
easily at the first sound of thunder or first sight of lightning.
inspired the "contrariness" of the heyoka through his own contrary
nature. He alternates
strong winds with calm ones. While all things in nature move clockwise,
is said to move counterclockwise. Thunderbird is said to have sharp
teeth, but no
mouth; sharp claws, but no limbs; huge wings, but no body. All of
these things suggest
Thunderbird (and the heyoka) have a curious, paradoxical, contrary
could become heyoka through a vision of the Thunderbird, or just of
a formidable winged being of power. (Steiger 1974)
While clown societies were found throughout
the Plains, the heyoka, or sacred
clowns, were usually few in number, but were found in almost every
were contraries, often speaking and walking backwards. They acted
obscene, and comical ways, especially during sacred ceremonies. They
to be fearless and painless, able to seize a piece of meat out of
of boiling water. They often dressed in a bizarre and ludicrous manner,
conical hats, red paint, a bladder over the head (to simulate baldness),
earrings. The heyoka was thought to usually carry various sacred items
- a deer
hoof rattle, a colored bow, a flute, or drum. His "anti-natural" nature
to be shamanistic in origin -- and as a contrary, he was expected
to act silly and
foolhardy during battle (although this was found more among warrior
clown societies such as the Cheyenne Inverted Warriors.)
However insulting or sacrilegious heyoka actions
might be, they were tolerated, since
it was assumed they were acting on the higher and more inscrutable
imperatives of the
Great Mystery. Heyoka were freed from all the ordinary constraints
of life, and thus
were usually not expected to marry, have children, or participate
in the work of the tribe.
Despite their bizarre acts (such as dressing in warm clothes during
summer or wearing
things inside out), they were trusted as healers, interpreters of
dreams, and people
of great medicine. Whenever they interrupted the solemnity of a ceremony,
it as an admonition to see beyond the literalness of the ritual and
into the deeper
mysteries of the sacred. Like the flash of lightning, the heyoka's
and disturbances were thought to be the keys to enlightenment - much
absurd acts of Zen masters in Japan. (Hultkrantz 1987)
Thunderbird and Trickster
Part of the link between heyoka and Thunderbird
comes from Iktomi, the Trickster
figure. Iktomi is said to be heyoka because he has seen and talked
Iktomi is the first-born son of Inyan (rock), and is said to speak
with rocks and stones.
Like Coyote and other Trickster figures, Iktomi likes to pull pranks
on people, but is just
as often the victim of tricks and misfortunes. This makes him at once
a culture hero, and a
figure to be feared and avoided. Iktomi was thought to be a hypersexual
predator, one who
frequently pursued winchinchalas (young virgins) who bathed in streams,
methods of deceit. Yet his pursuits and antics often wound up with
getting hurt or winding up in trouble.
Paul Radin suggests that Iktomi and other Trickster
figures are akin to the
Great Fool or Wild Man of European folklore, who often shows up in
of Fools and other ceremonies where the social order is turned topsy-turvy.
Jung, following his lead, claims the Trickster as an archetypal part
of the collective
unconscious; and his "crazy wisdom" as emblematic of humankind's earlier,
unindividuated consciousness. Iktomi and other tricksters seem to
be at the constant
mercy of their desires; yet their blind luck always seems to protect
them from the
consequences of their missteps. He is dangerous primarily because
he is so powerful,
yet so rarely has the forethought or good judgment to use his power
and others proclaim him the representative of untamed, unpredictably
wild nature, within the confines of culture.
In other cultural traditions, thunder and
lightning are connected with the unexpected.
We talk about a "bolt out of the blue." In American folk culture,
there are a
host of legendary stories of mysterious cures or transformations wrought
being struck by lightning. It's at once dangerous, and a symbol of
revelation and inspiration. It's also the primary weapon in most pantheons
of the chief
sky god (such as Zeus in Greek mythology.) For the Plains Indians,
thunder and lightning
symbolized the vast, uncontrollable energy of nature. It's not surprising,
the Thunderbird is connected with the strange, uncontrollable force
Trickster figure, and his avatar, the heyoka.
Significance of the Trickster Figure
and "Contrariness" in Plains Society
Psychological anthropologists, especially those
oriented toward psychoanalytic
theory and depth psychology, point to the Trickster figure as a sort
of important cultural
"release valve." He represents the "return of the repressed," the
of life only temporarily held in abeyance by the Apollonian forces
of civilization. The carnivals
and feasts held in honor of fools in Europe, suggest some anthropologists,
allowing people to invert the social order temporarily as a way of
promoting its continuity in the
long run (avoiding its ultimate collapse.) The ruler is dressed in
peasants' clothes, and some
ignorant serf is crowned king. Symbols of authority normally held
reverence are mocked and desecrated.
Clowns and contraries in Plains societies do
not just come out once a year, however.
They are permanent parts of the society, and are seen as continual
the contingency and arbitrariness of the social order. Long before
came on the scene, the heyoka was reminding his own people about the
construction of reality. By doing everything backwards, the heyoka
in a way is
carrying out a constant experiment in ethnomethodology, showing people
own expectations limit their behavior. Like a good performance artist,
behavior of the heyoka is supposed to confront people and make them
they may have arbitrarily accepted as normal. It's to "jolt" them
out of their
ordinary frames of mind. (Steward 1991)
More importantly, as a representative of Thunderbird
and Trickster, the heyoka
reminds his people that the primordial energy of nature is beyond
good and evil.
It doesn't correspond to human categories of right and wrong. It doesn't
our preconceptions of what is expected and proper. It doesn't really
care about our
human woes and concerns. Like electricity, it can be deadly dangerous,
for great uses. If we're too narrow or parochial in trying to understand
it, it will
zap us in the middle of the night. Like any good trickster, the heyoka
on others in his culture not to make them feel embarrassed and stupid,
but to show them ways they could start being more smart.
The Account of John (Fire) Lame Deer:
Heyoka and ASC
Lame Deer calls the heyoka the "upside-down,
forward-backward, icy-hot contrary."
He describes in detail one particular heyoka trick which may give
some clues to
the nature of their antics. Apparently, they would grab pieces of
dog meat out of
a pot of boiling water, and fling them at a crowd of people, without
being burned or
harmed in any way. (Why dog meat? Lame Deer gives a clue when he says,
heyoka, he says god when he means dog, and dog when he means god.")
suggests before doing this they chewed a grayish moss called tapejuta.
that heyoka were able to perform this feat through going into trance,
an altered state
of consciousness, by utilizing this and other psychotropic plants
More importantly, I think they induced trance
in others through their contrary
behavior. Psychologists have noted that trance does not always occur
rhythmic repetition. Another way in which it occurs (the "paradoxical
state") is through
a sudden shock to the nervous system. Ethnomethodologists have often
noted the blank,
glassy stares and strange states produced by violating peoples' expectations
for example, getting into an elevator and facing the other people
in it. It's in such
"paradoxical states" that people often may assimilate new information
without filtering. They also may be able to "abreact" psychological
trauma. For these
reasons, the heyoka may have been seen as a source of wisdom and healing.
Lame Deer seems to suggest the power of trance
is connected to the power of Thunderbird.
As a paradoxical state of consciousness, it ties into the paradoxical
energy of thunder
and lightning. The crash of thunder can startle us and wake us up
out of dreaming sleep.
The trance of the heyoka comes from sacred power. He ties it all together
way that's fairly succinct:
" These Thunderbirds are part of the Great
Spirit. Theirs is about the greatest power in the
whole universe. It is the power of the hot and the cold clashing above
It is blue lightning from the sun. It is like atomic power. The thunder
and destroys. It is good and bad; the great winged power. We draw
the lightning as a
forked zigzag, because lightning branches out into a good and bad
part... In our Indian
belief, the clown has a power which comes from the thunder beings,
not from the
animals or the Earth. He has more power than the atom bomb, he could
blow off the
dome of the Capitol. Being a clown gives you honor, but also shame.
It brings you power,
but you have to pay for it."
(quoted in Erdoes 1972: 251)
The Thunderbird's association with heyoka
clowns is not simply serendipitous. The fact
that the Thunderbird displays many paradoxical and contradictory attributes
to Trickster figures and to the contraries of Plains Indians culture.
This culture complex
probably resulted from Indian beliefs about nature and the ways in
which thunder and lightning
exemplified the manners in which it could be at once capricious, beneficent,
destructive. The Thunderbird's own link to the original Great Mystery
suggests that the
role of the sacred clown was seen as one of the highest in Plains
society - like wandering
fools in Europe, they were thought to be touched by the Divine power
Thunderbird himself, the heyoka was thought to be a conduit to forces
comprehension, and by his absurd, backwards behavior he was merely
the ironic, mysterious dualities that existed within the universe
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of the Winds: Native American Legends, Facts on File, New York, 1989.
Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso, eds.,
American Indian Myths and Legends, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.
Fire, John, and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer:
Seeker of Visions, Washington Square Press, New York, 1972.
Gill, Sam D., and Sullivan, Irene F., Dictionary
of Native American Mythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, 1992.
Hall, Mark A., Thunderbirds: The Living Legend
of Giant Birds, Fortean Publications, Minneapolis, 1988.
Hines, Donald M., Ghost Voices: Indian Myths,
Legends, Humor, and Hunting Stories, Great Eagle Publishing, Issaquah,
Hultkrantz, Ake, Native Religions of North
America, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1987.
Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks, Simon
& Schuster, New York, 1959.
Radin, Paul, The Trickster: a Study in American
Indian Mythology, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1956.
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Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1974.
Steward, Julian Haynes, The Clown in Native
North America, Garland Publishing, New York, 1991.