Thunderbird

I have been trying to make paintings in a series, but I didn’t feel like working on that the other day and so I just started painting with my hands and smearing paint every which way. I finished for the hour and saw a small  bird in the corner. It was the only image I really saw and I left it overnight. I went back and started painting with my hands and fingers again and then stood back and saw a large bird. At first I thought it was a Phoenix but then I realized it had the tail feathers going down and different wings and a different beak. So I lightly penciled it in and then read about thunderbirds online. As soon as I saw the image it was clear that is what was on my painting. I didn’t make it or force it but it appeared which I think is really cool.

I found a story, a Pacific Northwest story at that, that tells about the thunderbird.

This is from the story I found online…

Disaster had struck the Quillayute – rain and hail had fallen for many days, destroying all of the edible plants and making it impossible to fish. Many of their people had been killed by the hail, which was followed by sleet and snow. Out of food, the Quillayute were desperate, and the Great Chief was forced to call upon the Great Spirit for help. The Great Spirit answered, sending them the Thunderbird:

The people waited. No one spoke. There was nothing but silence and darkness. Suddenly, there came a great noise, and flashes of lightning cut the darkness. A deep whirring sound, like giant wings beating, came from the place of the setting sun. All of the people turned to gaze toward the sky above the ocean as a huge, bird-shaped creature flew toward them. This bird was larger than any they had ever seen. Its wings, from tip to tip, were twice as long as a war canoe. It had a huge, curving beak, and its eyes glowed like fire. The people saw that its great claws held a living, giant whale. In silence, they watched while Thunderbird – for so the bird was named by everyone – carefully lowered the whale to the ground before them. Thunderbird then flew high in the sky, and went back to the thunder and lightning it had come from. Perhaps it flew back to its perch in the hunting grounds of the Great Spirit. Thunderbird and Whale saved the Quillayute from dying. The people knew that the Great Spirit had heard their prayer. Even today they never forget that visit from Thunderbird, never forget that it ended long days of hunger and death. For on the prairie near their village are big, round stones that the grandfathers say are the hardened hailstones of that storm long ago.

The Quillayute described the Thunderbird as essentially a very large bird, though no bird in history was ever as big as the type of bird they described, and of course no other bird ever had the same supernatural powers:

Thunderbird is a very large bird, with feathers as long as a canoe paddle. When he flaps his wings, he makes thunder and the great winds. When he opens and shuts his eyes, he makes lightning. In stormy weather, he flies through the skies, flapping his wings and opening and closing his eyes. Thunderbird’s home is a cave in the Olympic Mountains, and he wants no one to come near it. If hunters get close enough so he can smell them, he makes thunder noise, and he rolls ice out of his cave. The ice rolls down the mountainside, and when it reaches a rocky place, it breaks into many pieces. The pieces rattle as they roll farther down into the valley. All the hunters are so afraid of Thunderbird and his noise and rolling ice that they never stay long near his home. No one ever sleeps near his cave. Thunderbird keeps his food in a dark hole at the edge of a big field of ice and snow. His food is the whale. Thunderbird flies out of the ocean, catches a whale and hurries back to the mountains to eat it. One time Whale fought Thunderbird so hard that during the battle, trees were torn up by their roots. To this day there are no trees in Beaver Prairie because of the fight Whale and Thunderbird had that day.

The battle between Thunderbird and Whale appears to be primarily symbolic of the battle between the air and the sea, as imagined by the Quillayute in their attempt to interpret the forces of nature. Like most ancient peoples, the Quillayute interpreted the forces of nature in symbolic forms, inventing gods and goddesses, deities, and demigods as causes of these phenomena.

At the time of the Great Flood, Thunderbird fought a long, long battle with Killer Whale. He would catch Killer Whale in his claws and start with him to the cave in the mountains. Killer Whale would escape and return to the water. Thunderbird would catch him again, all the time flashing lightning from his eyes and flapping his wings to create thunder. Mountains were shaken by the noise, and trees were uprooted in their struggle. Again and again Killer Whale escaped. Again and again Thunderbird seized him. Many times they fought, in different places in the mountains. At last Killer Whale escaped to the middle of the ocean, and Thunderbird gave up the fight. That is why Killer Whales live in the deep oceans today. That is why there are many prairies in the midst of the forests on the Olympic Peninsula. 3

It is interesting that the Quillayute mention the “Great Flood” in their description of the battle between Thunderbird and whale. The story of a Great Flood that covered the Earth at one time is nearly universal throughout the ancient world – but that is a story for another time.

The Quillayute legend describes the Thunderbird as a giant flying creature with feathers. According to the geologic record, no avian (bird) was ever as large as the creature that the Quillayute described. However, there were flying creatures that were that large – the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus Northropi , native to the Mesozoic Period (65 million – 230 million years ago). With a wingspan of 33 feet, Quetzalcoatlus Northropi was possibly the largest flying creature on earth in any period.



Advertisements

One thought on “Thunderbird

  1. It's so great you trusted your instincts and made a painting from your heart. Bravo! thanks for sharing the legend.I remember seeing some great pacific northwest native american art around the thunderbird on a trip to Seattlea few years back. xox Corrine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s