Thunderbirds or Thunders (Wakąja, "The Divine Ones")
by Richard L. Dieterle
Thunderbirds are powerful and warlike avian spirits who animate the gray clouds with thunder and lightning.1 Together with the Waterspirits, they were the first spirits that Earthmaker created.2 Their name, Wakąja, means, "Divine Ones." On the model of other tribes, they are conventionally called "Thunder(bird)s," since they alone possess lightning. Their basic somatic form runs the gamut of several species of birds, the hawk and the eagle being the most common. However, they are far stronger in build and have polychrome plumage that gives them a magnificent appearance unrivaled by the birds of earth. Their voices are like the sounds of flutes, recalling both the whistle of wind and the voices of raptors. Thus they once blessed Kerexų́saka with a flute, but this sacred object was so powerful that he declined to accept it.3 Like birds, they hatch from eggs. Thunderbirds have created such eggs by merely rubbing a Thunderbird feather between their palms, and in one case even turned a human into a Thunderbird egg by the same process.4 Nevertheless, when they appear before humans, they usually assume the form of bald men crowned with wreaths of cedar, either juiniper or arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) [inset], and carrying the Thunderbird Warclub.5 The baldheadedness may derive from a curious assonance between the word čapara, "baldheaded," and čąpara, jąpara, "lightning." Foster was informed that "The Thunders are people like us, but with wings on their shoulders, and they have each a club, and are always ready for war."6 The Thunders are of two sorts, the Good Thunderbirds (led by Wakąja?), and the Bad Thunderbirds who, under the command of Wonáǧire Wąkšik, cause the rain to fall.7 (see Thunderbird Genealogy) Snow is caused to fall by the one called "White Thunder."8 The whole Thunder tribe is ruled over by Great Black Hawk,9 whose daughter Yųgiwi ("Princess") owns a blanket of many shades of red which she loans to Sun when he sets near the Thunderbird spirit village.10 Although they live in the west, the Thunders intermarry with the Nightspirits who live where the sun rises. Superficially, it is a puzzle why the Thunders, who contain within themselves the luminous lightning, would marry the Nightspirits, who are responsible for darkness. The reason is to be found in the fact that the Thunderbirds have an esoteric identity with clouds. In this role they occlude the sun and thereby themselves create darkness. So they do have a profound affinity to the Nightspirits.
When the Thunders first met the Nights, they had to protect themselves from the extreme cold generated by a hostile and cannibalistic female Night. This was achieved by a mortal and his Thunderbird friend who both had the birdlike power to swallow stones. However, these were not ordinary stones since they had been heated until they were red hot. This human was given flying feathers and became one of the Thunderbirds.11 Thunderbirds, by their very nature, contain numerous hot stones, which they shoot from the pupils of their eyes as the fiery projectiles that we see as lightning.12 These are commonly known as "thunder stones" or "lightning stones" (for which see the Commentary to "Mąznį’ąbera"). This conception may be partly influenced by the practice of using hot stones to create the clouds of steam used in sweat baths, but more essentially it seems to derive from the firing of the arrow out of the bow, which launches a stone projectile (an arrowhead) seemingly from the eye of the archer. The character of the lightning tells the observer something about the Thunders who issued it:
Fox's Bluff, an eminence on the north shore of the same beautiful lake [Lake Mendota], was in those days known by the Winnebago to be a roosting place of the Thunderbirds, or Thunderers, on their long flights from their nesting places on the high mountains on the shore of Lake Superior. Their presence on this hilltop was known to the Indians, living on the other shores of the lake, by the bright flashes of the lightning that could be seen in that direction. By counting these the redmen knew about how many Thunderers there were in that particular flight. These lightning flashes came and went as the birds opened and shut their eyes. When the entire sky was lighted at the same time it was a sign that all of the Thunderers were awake. This hill was also a place of sanctity, and only a few Indians dared to approach it.13
Some say that when Thunderbirds strike the clouds with their wings, it rains; and the flapping sound of their wings is the thunder.14 This is analogous to the bow, whose action resembles the flapping of a bird's wings. When a Thunderbird is in trouble he will often use thunder as a signal for help.15 Deep rumbling thunder occurs under water or beneath the ground in subterranean caves where the Thunders attack their eternal enemies, the Waterspirits.16 This war apparently started in primordial times when the Thunders shot lightning at everything, including the Waterspirits who lived under the earth.17 In a great battle between the Thunders and the Waterspirits at Devil's Lake, the Thunders bombarded their enemies with eggs so powerful that they broke giants boulders from the rocky cliffs, boulders which are now strewn over the lakeshore's landscape.18 Once, when a Thunderbird struck a great rock with lightning, it turned into a frog, a creature belonging to the realm of the Waterspirits.19
In battles against their enemies, they wield the Thunderbird Warclub, blackened by fire, which never fails to kill anyone against whom it is swung.20 In primordial times when the earth was flat, they created the hills and valleys with the power of their foot steps,21 or by the force of their warclubs.22 They did this in revenge for the murder of their mortal nephew, Bad Thunderbird, whose assassins they drove underground to live ever after as worms.23 The first Thunderbird Warclub was made by the Thunders when they went on the warpath against the cranes in support of their brothers-in-law, the Nightspirits.24 Great Black Hawk allowed copies of this warclub to be kept by mortals of the Thunderbird Clan to use as a weapon,25 and as an essential component in the Thunderbird Warbundle.26 The possession of the special warclub, the power of the eyes, and the control of rain are all tied closely together. A man who understood himself to be a reincarnated Thunderbird tells us,
The Thunderbirds are beings whose glance can penetrate any object. For that reason I also can do it. For instance, I have seen a man through a tree. This I did once during a thunderstorm when a man had sought shelter behind a tree. ... All the Thunderbirds have small war-clubs. ... I also had the power of causing or stopping rain. All that I had to do was to offer tobacco to the Thunderbirds and make my request.27 (source)
Such people retain analogues of the powers that they possessed in their lives as Thunderbirds.
Thunderbirds are represented as brave and powerful, but at times slow witted and culturally backward. The Thunders are ignorant of the proper use of sticks in roasting meat, and smoke grass instead of tobacco. Consequently, they believe humans are very clever creatures.28 Nevertheless, the Thunders have a taste for human flesh, and will even eat snakes whose holiness makes them taboo as food. However, their favorite food is that of their slain enemies, the Waterspirits, against whom they wage ceaseless warfare.29 The story of their warfare is bound up with the use of lightning as a means of eating as Menaige related (ca. 1850):
It is one of the old traditions that when the Thunder Birds or Winaxí first appeared, they lit fires (by lightning) somewhat indiscriminately, striking everything they came across, even to the Wakčéxi or Spirits of the Water and Under Earth, whom they killed and eat of — that is the Indians say whenever the lighting kills or blasts anything, they "eat it"; as a pasture field being struck the grass turns yellow or is "eaten" by the Thunders; that is the substance is extracted and taken up. They say that whenever a hill is struck by lightning, as hills often are on account of their altitude above surrounding objects, it is because a Wakčéxi is concealed under it (that is in its water-springs) whom the Thunders thus kill and eat.30
This concept systematically interrelates thunder stones with the consuming effects of lightning. Common birds, to which Thunderbirds are akin, do not have teeth, but in their place have a gizzard which is kept populated with the stones that birds swallow from time to time. Food is ground by these stones in much the same way that it is by teeth in other animals. So the thunder stones in the gizzards of the Thunderbirds are avian counterparts to teeth, teeth that are shot out as lightning. It is this dental lightning that then "eats" what it strikes and consumes. Waterspirits (Wakčéxi) are the most delicious food known to the Thunders, who often try to hunt them, but with very little success.31 While humans can clearly see a Waterspirit when their eyes chance upon one, Thunderbirds have great difficulty seeing them.32 The Thunders always refer to Waterspirits as "beavers," and place great value on both their meat and their hides.33
The Thunders are intimately entwined with human life. The Thunderbird Clan was founded by four mortal men who were created by Earthmaker on the model of Thunders. Although they themselves were not actually Thunderbirds, they possessed many of their attributes. These four men were carried down to earth by the first four Thunderbird brothers, who set them up to rule over the Hočąk nation. The counterpart of Great Black Hawk founded the Thunderbird Clan among the Hočągara, the clan from which the preeminent chief is drawn.34 Many powerful chiefs or shamans of the Hočągara are said to have been Thunderbirds in previous lives.35 In a reversal of this process, Blue Thunder, a Thunderbird reborn as a human, transformed his nephew into a Thunderbird egg, from which he later hatched as a Thunderbird.36
Thunderbirds play an important role in the spiritual life of vision seekers, to whom they give powerful blessings for prowess in war. In Aračgéga's fasting dream, two Thunders shot down four men with thunderbolts — in such wise was Aračgéga to overcome his enemies on the warpath.37 They gave Kerexų́saka a potent warbundle, which through eight generations had contributed to many victories. Before the spirits had introduced mankind to the warbundle, warriors relied on fire itself to supply them with the spiritual power needed for victory.38 It was the Thunders in primordial times who were first to introduce mankind to fire made from fire-sticks, and were the first to plant tobacco on earth.39 The gift of tobacco reflects the power of the Thunders to grant blessings beyond the parameters of war. Aračgéga encountered the Thunders in a vision. They caused it to rain all around him, but directly above him was the blue sky of the eye of the storm. They transferred the spiritual power of this sky to one of his fingers in the form of a blue dot. If a person on his death bed could identify which of these fingers was so blessed, he would be saved.40 Thus those who have the power to take life also have the power to give it back. In an inversion of the normal process of blessing, a female Thunder "dreamt" of a human, and when the man appeared to her, he blessed her with the ability to enjoy human food.41 On another occasion, a Thunderbird woman dreamt of a human, who later came and married her. Unfortunately, after the couple returned to the man's earthly abode, he took a Nightspirit woman and two Waterspirits as wives. The Thunder woman became jealous of the Waterspirit women and a fight ensued. Following this painful example, men ever after have been monogamous.42
Comparative Material. To the idea that Thunderbirds shoot lightning stones from their eyes, there is, surprisingly perhaps, a parallel from ancient Greece. A. B. Cook adduced a number of examples where ancient writers seem to be attributing this ability to the god of thunderbolts, Zeus.43 One of these attributions seems more explicit and unambiguous. Æschylus says in Agamemnon, 466:
|τὸ δ᾿ ὐπερκόπως κλύειν εὖ βαρύ·||Exceeding good report is dangerous;|
|βάλλεται γὰρ ὄσσοις Διόθεν κεραυνός.||For a thunderbolt is flung by the eyes of Zeus.|
|κρίων δ᾿ ἄφθονον ὄλβον.44||Luck without envy is my choice.|
The playwright is suggesting here that the jealousy of the gods over challenges to their status can move them to strike down their mortal rivals. Coupled with Cook's other examples, this description of Zeus' response may be seen as more than a metaphor.
Links: Storms as He Walks, Sleets as He Walks, Bird Spirits, Lightning, Eagle (II), Hawks, Partridge (II), The Thunderbird Warclub, Tobacco, Wonáǧire Wąkšik, Cosmography, Yųgiwi, Spirits, Waterspirits, Traveler, The Twins, Gottschall, Nightspirits, Fire, Pigeon, The Creation Council, Great Black Hawk, Pigeon Hawk, Crane, Ducks, Kaǧi, Bluehorn, Witches, Iron Spirits, Mice, Rock Spirits, Black Hawks, Hummingbirds, Martens, Frogs, Bears, Beavers, Polaris, Lice, Snakes.
Stories: mentioning Thunderbirds: The Thunderbird, Waruǧápara, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Thunderbird and White Horse, Bluehorn's Nephews, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (vv. 1, 2), The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird, The Thunder Charm, The Lost Blanket, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Story of the Thunder Names, The Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Brave Man, Ocean Duck, Turtle's Warparty, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Quail Hunter, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Redhorn's Sons, The Dipper, The Stone that Became a Frog, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Origin of the Hočąk Chief, The Spirit of Gambling, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Aračgéga's Blessings, Kunu's Warpath, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Glory of the Morning, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Big Stone, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Song to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way; with Storms as He Walks as a character: Kunu's Warpath, Redhorn and His Brothers Marry, Redhorn Contest the Giants, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty; about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, The King Bird, Bird Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧápara, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Black and White Moons, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (turkey buzzard), The Shaggy Man (blackbirds), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (blackbirds), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įčorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4); featuring Nightspirits as characters: The Big Stone, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Fourth Universe, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Ocean Duck, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Sun and the Big Eater, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga; about the interrelationship between Thunderbirds and Nightspirits: Ocean Duck, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Big Stone, Sun and the Big Eater, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga.
Themes: a human is transformed into a Thunderbird (or vice-versa): Waruǧápara (human > Thunder), The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird (Thunder > human); a human joins up with the Thunderbirds: The Thunderbird, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Waruǧapara, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Dipper; a mortal is an affine of the Thunderbirds: The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Thunderbird, Waruǧápara, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 3); Thunderbirds capture a boy who is out looking for material with which to make arrows: Hare Acquires His Arrows, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds; the Thunders seek to eat a human being: The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Bluehorn's Nephews, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds; Thunderbirds are reduced to using grass or weeds when they smoke their pipes: The Thunderbird, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Dipper; Thunderbird people are ignorant of tools: The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, How the Thunders Met the Nights; Thunderbird people roast meat over the fire on sharpened sticks: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (v. 3), How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Dipper; a man injured by the Thunderbirds regenerates (in four days): Waruǧapara, Redhorn's Sons, The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Bluehorn's Nephews; the war between Thunderbirds and Waterspirits: Traveler and the Thunderbird War, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Brave Man, The Lost Blanket, Ocean Duck, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Thunderbird, Waruǧápara, Bluehorn's Nephews; a hero kills Thunderbirds and uses their feathers to make arrows: The Twins Disobey Their Father, Hare Acquires His Arrows; a mortal causes a Thunderbird to triumph over a Waterspirit (or vice-versa): Traveler and the Thunderbird War, Bluehorn's Nephews; walking like the Thunders: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara, Kunu's Warpath; Storms as He Walks leads scouts by walking in the air: The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Kunu's Warpath; a small bird's call causes the Thunderbirds to come forth thundering: Turtle's Warparty, The Quail Hunter; handling a thunder weapon adversely affects bystanders: The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Hare Acquires His Arrows, The Stone that Became a Frog.
1 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, summer session, 1927): 5; Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 ) 239.
2 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2: p. 3, col. 2.
3 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 248-250.
4 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 288-303; E. W. Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 46 (1914): 404-420. Told by Joseph LaMère, Bear Clan, to Radin in the summer of 1908 and to Lenders in Aug. - Sept., 1909.
5 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 248-250, 390-392; Charles Philip Hexom, Indian History of Winneshiek County (Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Sons, 1913) "Religion" (unpaginated) — Informant: Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan.
6 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 2.
7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 161 nt. 1.
8 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 2.
9 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303.
10 J. O. Dorsey, Winnebago Ethnography, "Buffalo Dance, etc.," (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, MS 4558 , 1883).
11 Paul Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134.
12 Hexom, Indian History of Winneshiek County, "Religion" (unpaginated) — Informant: Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan.
13 Dorothy Moulding Brown, Indian Legends of Historic and Scenic Wisconsin, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1947) 60-61.
14 Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends, 5; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 239.
15 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 128-129.
16 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 51.
17 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 3.
18 Dorothy Moulding Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place-Name Legends, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1947) 14; Henry Ellsworth Cole, Baraboo, Dells, and Devil's Lake Region (Baraboo: Baraboo Publishing Co., 1920) 29.
19 George Ricehill, Tale of a Stone that Turned into a Frog, transcribed by Oliver LaMere, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #19, Freeman #3899  (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909) 16-17; George Ricehill, No Title, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #11a, Freeman ##3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909 [revised, 1945]) Story XVI, p. 72.
20 Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara."
21 Charles E. Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, Wisconsin, 1936) 5.
22 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 166; Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara."
23 David Lee Smith (Thunderbird Clan), "How Valleys and Ravines Came to Be," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 100-101.
24 Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara."
25 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303.
26 Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 404-420.
27 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 253-254.
28 Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara"; Paul Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #44: 1 - 74. For the latter, see also Paul Radin, "The Thunderbird," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #16.
29 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 42; Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44: 1 - 74.
30 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 3.
31 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 288-300 and 300-303. E. W. Lenders, loc. cit. Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16. Radin, "Mąznį'ąbara," Notebook #21; Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44: 1 - 74.
32 Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16. Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44: 1 - 74.
33 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 97. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912. Radin, "Mąznį’ąbara," Notebook #21. Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 288-300 and300-303. Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16. Lenders, loc. cit. Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44: 1 - 74.
34 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 164-168.
35 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 252-253, 390-392.
36 Lenders, The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' 404-420.
37 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 248-250.
38 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 251-252.
39 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 165.
40 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 248-250.
41 Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16.
42 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 300-303; Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44: 1 - 74.
43 Arthur Bernard Cook, Zeus. A Study In Ancient Religion, 3 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914–40) 2.502-505.
44 The text is from Cook, Zeus, 2.503 nt 4.