African folklore: The Lightning bird

African folklore: The Lightning bird

The lightning bird is a mythical bird in the folklore and traditions of different peoples of South Africa, such as the Zulu, Pondo, and Xhosa people.  Sometimes it is called the impundulu, thewane, izulu, and also the inyoni yezulu.  It is supposed to have the ability to call up thunder and lightning with its talons and wings.

lightning_noaa

Image by C.Clark – Public Domain

The Lightning bird

The impundulu, which means, lightning bird, is described in various ways.  Some say it is a bird that stands as tall as a human and has a plumage colored black and white but descriptions do vary greatly.  One village girl to whom it appeared claimed the it looked like a black rooster and ran up the shaft of her hoe and across her body where it left its claw marks. It then flew off into the sky to disappear in the clouds.  Others say it has an iridescent plumage like that of a peacock. Still others say it has a red beak, red legs and red tail. Many descriptions say the lightning bird is a winged creature as tall as a man and when it wants to can appear as a man but usually appears as a large black and white bird of prey.

Some African people believe the hammerkop is the lightning bird and if someone destroys its nest it will sit on that person’s roof and call down lightning to destroy the house. Others say the lightning bird will only usually appear through lightning but will sometimes reveal itself to women as a bird.   When this happens it is believed to appear in the mind perhaps as some kind of inner vision and sometimes comes in different forms.

The egg of the Lightning bird

There is also a belief that the lightning bird lays an egg at the exact point where its lightning first makes contact with the earth.  This can be of mixed fortune and can be seen as either being a good omen or a bad one, perhaps making it necessary to dig out the egg and dispose of it.

Vampire bird

lassa_witch_doctors

Witch Doctors – Public Domain

According to African folklore and tradition it is strongly associated with witchcraft. It is said to be a vampire bird that is often a servant, confidant, or a familiar of a witch, or witch doctor. The lightning bird cannot be killed by shooting or stabbing and it cannot be drowned or poisoned.  The only way it can be killed is by burning with fire if it can be caught, otherwise it is said to be immortal and outlives its masters. Legend says that it is inherited from mother to daughter in the family of the witch or witch doctor to whom it belongs and will do the bidding of its current master.

It will visit and cause bad luck or illness to anyone that its master commands it to. It is said to possess an insatiable lust for blood sometimes transforming into a handsome young man who seduces women to drink their blood.  For all these reasons and because it is the servant of witches or witch doctors it is considered to be an evil creature. Witches and witch doctors are believed to be able to transform their shape into that of an hyena and the Lightning bird or Impundulu is often seen riding on the back of a hyena.

Medicinal powers

It is usually the case that the witch doctor of the people is the one who has the most dealings with the Lighting bird.  According to tradition an extract from the flesh of the bird can help the witch doctor find thieves as well as control their minds and also the minds of those who are law abiding.

It is believed that the fat of the bird is the fuel that burns when the bird sends forth lightning.   It is also believed to have important ingredients that are used in traditional medicine and its fat is prized.  It is difficult to obtain the fat of the lightning bird for medicinal use as according to tradition the bird must be captured the instant the lightning it lets loose strikes the ground.  Another way is to dig it from out of a hole underneath the ground at the exact spot where lightning strikes the earth.

A bird of power

To the many Africans the Lightning bird was seen as a bird of power and magic and like thunder and lightning, something to be feared or at least respected.

© 18/05/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright May the 18th, 2016  zteve t evans

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