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.


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


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


Legends of lost worlds and mythical cities

All around the globe legends abound of mythical cities, lands and islands that have been lost for some reason. Some, such as the mythical cities of El Dorado and Shambala are lost in jungles or impenetrable mountains.

Depiction of Thule – Public Domain

Others such as Lyonness, Cantre’r Gwaelod, or Atlantis, were drowned by the seas. Others such as Thule were rumored to exist on the edge of the ancient world their locations disputed, or like the legendary island of Antillia, also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, faded from view when approached by ships. Still others just could not be rediscovered or were located in inaccessible places like Agartha said to be located at the Earth’s core.  Read more

Mythical Beasts: The Salamander

Salamanders have long held a significant place in the folklore and mythology of many different countries around the world.  Fantastic powers and attributes have been bestowed upon them giving them a place in mythology, alchemy, heraldry and popular culture that is perhaps surprising, for what in reality is a rather small,  humble creature.

The real salamander is a very different creature to the one of legend so how did it come to be given attributes that makes it a popular emblem on the Coat of Arms for Royalty, nobility, insurers, local authorities and many other organisations?

Emblem of salamander that lives in fire – Image Author unknown – Public Domain image due to its age.

The Real Salamander

Salamanders can be found in many parts of the world and there are known to be around five hundred species.  They are found in Europe, Asia, some parts of Africa, and North and South America.   The largest are found in China and Japan and can grow to five feet long though most are much smaller. Salamanders are not reptiles and although they look like lizards they are not related to them and neither are they related to mammals or birds.  They are amphibians and their nearest relatives are frogs and toads.

Fire And The Mythical Salamander

Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC), and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) associate them with fire and it is with fire that most of the fantastic powers are connected.  People thought that salamanders were born or created from fire.

Most of the popular myths are believed to originate from the European species, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), which hibernates in hollow, decaying logs of wood during the winter months.   With wood being the main fuel in ancient times this may explain their sudden appearance amid flames when a fire is lit or replenished with a salamander inside.    Woken abruptly from hibernation, or sleep, the natural reaction would be to make a quick escape giving the mistaken appearance that they were born, or generated from fire and flame.

Pliny the Elder believed the salamander to have such a cold body that it could extinguish any fire.  There was also a belief that the skin and other parts and extracts of the salamander gave protection against fire.

Early travellers to China claimed they had had been shown clothing reputedly woven from salamander hair that had been deliberately placed in a fire and came out unscathed.  Today many people think that they were shown clothing made from asbestos fibres. In fact though its skin is different from reptiles, salamanders are no more fire proof than any other creature.

A salamander unharmed in the fire – Author Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain Image

The Poisonous Salamander Of  Myth

The salamander was also reputed to be so toxic that if it entwined itself around a fruit tree then the fruits become poisonous to all who would eat them. The saliva was thought to cause the hair of a person to fall from the body if it made contact with human skin.

If a salamander got into a well then the well water would be poisoned and undrinkable. Many species of salamanders do secrete a toxic substance from their bodies when threatened but the toxicity of the substance was greatly exaggerated.

The Mystical Salamander Of Alchemy

In 16th century alchemy Paracelsus (1493 -1541) is generally credited with the first mentioning of the concept of elementals.   These were Air (Sylph), Earth (Gnome), Fire (Salamander) and Water (Undine).  His association of fire to the salamander also helped to perpetuate and exaggerate the myths about the creature.   Elementals were creatures, or spirits, in harmony with, or made from the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

The Salamander In Heraldry

Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished.  They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality.  They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.

A salamander was the icon that King Francis I of France chose for his own sign and the motto,  ‘Nutrisco et exstinguo (I nourish and I extinguish).  The good fire – the passion and belief in Jesus is nourished –  the bad fire, temptation and evil are overcome.

The salamander appears on the Coat of Arms of many Royal and noble families in Europe and also that of many towns, local authorities and institutions.  Their exaggerated fire protective attributes encouraged many insurance companies and organisations of the past and present to include a salamander as an emblem on their Coat of Arms.

The Salamander In Popular Culture

Today the salamander myth is perpetuated in popular culture.  Allusions to its legendary powers can be found in books such as ‘War with the Salamanders (or War with the Newts)’, by Karel Capek, ‘The Silver Chair,’ by C.S Lewis, the Harry Potter series of stories by J.K. Rowling and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.

They also have roles in many video and computer games today which often make greater exaggeration and distortion of the legends, making the mythical salamander into a very different creature to the real salamander today.

© November 9, 2010 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

A version of this was first published on November 9, 2010 by zteve t evans titled Origins of the mythical salamander- © November 9, 2010 zteve t evans

File:Salamander in fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Unknown – In Public Domain due to its age.

File:A salamander unharmed in the fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

Salamander, from Wikipedia

Monstropedia, Salamander

Sacred Texts, The Salamander