FEATHER - Kwakiutl Thunderbird on a replica of a memorial totem pole in Duncan, B.C.

Kwakiutl Thunderbird on a replica of a memorial totem pole in Duncan, B.C.

Birds can fly. Humans can not, but they dream of flying. Some birds are mighty hunters or they feast upon the dead. Others are unaccountably clever or even devious. Still others are beautiful in some unearthly way. All of these attributes and more have caused birds to find places in religions and mythologies all over the world.

The tribal peoples of North America generally had a large pantheon of spirits — rather than gods, per se — that populated the fringes of their own world and were encountered only by either the brave or the unfortunate. Within the mythology of the tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy of New England and Maritime Canada, there are several spirits that take the form of a bird or are equipped with bird wings. Pomola, a bad-tempered being that lives on (and in) Mount Katahdin, is a central figure for the Penobscot tribe. Traditionally, the Penobscots refused to climb the mountain because Pomola killed (and ate) all comers. This spirit often had the head of moose and wings and body of an eagle.

Wuchowsen is a Wabanaki wind spirit. It is a gigantic bird and the movement of its wings make the winds. From time immemorial New England residents have known that the wind can be dangerous and even deadly, but because they are simply part of “the way things are” Wuchowsen was not regarded as a bad spirit. A widespread story involves Glooskap’s attempt to stop Wuchowsen from flapping its wings. Glooskap was a heroic, but very empirical giant who lived under the cliffs of Aquinnah (Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard (at least according to the Wampanoag). He was forever grouchily fixing problems as he saw them and then, realizing the error of his ways, putting them right again. In the many versions of his encounter with Wuchowen, he either incapacitates the wind spirit and then lets it free again, or some mortal hero breaks Wuchowsen’s wing and Glooskap repairs it. In any event, the connection between birds and the winds is always clear, as is the importance of wind in the status quo of nature.

A more well known North American tribal bird spirit is the Thunderbird. It takes many forms and appears throughout the continent, suggesting it is a very ancient part of tribal mythologies.

In Algonquin tradition, the Thunderbird controls the elements of the upper world, while the underworld is controlled by the Great Horned Serpent. Pomola is a regional variant of the Thunderbird; the Penobscot and other Wabanaki confederates are all part of the Algonquin language group. On the other end of the continent in the Pacific Northwest, the eagle-like birds with outstretched wings and large hooked beaks that surmount the totem poles of the Kwakiutl are identifiable as thunderbirds. Throughout North America the Thunderbird is represented with outstretched wings, a strong beak and often with curving horns. Birds on the top of Tlingit poles in Alaska are horned like owls, but are Thunderbirds. The totem poles were never worshipped; they were always embodiments of stories. As such, the placement of the Thunderbird at the top doesn’t actually connote its supreme importance and represents more of an aesthetic decision.

Another bird often depicted on totem poles and found elsewhere in numerous mythologies is the raven. Anyone who watches ravens for any length of time can see that they are social, intelligent, but not particularly noble. Like most corvids, they seem to like shiny objects and will steal them. They also emit all manner of noises, everything from quiet croaks to otherworldly shrieks. Furthermore, they will eat almost anything, living or dead. Lacking strong talons, they tend to prey on the more defenseless creatures and kill them rather messily. Plus they eat carrion, including, throughout history, the dead on battlefields.

The tribes of the Pacific Northwest understand well the dual nature of the raven personality. They portray it is both a key player in the creation of the World and as a trickster god. In a prominent Tlingit story the raven plays a role analogous to that of Prometheus in Greek mythology. The Creator places all the elements of the world in boxes and bequeaths them to the animals. Seagull receives the box containing light, but refuses to share it. Raven first tries flattery and diplomacy to get Seagull to share the light, but then resorts to inflicting pain, which is successful.

The Haida depict the raven as mercurial, but in the end benevolent and protective. The Haida creation myth begins with a world entirely covered with water in which the raven is both bored and hungry. Land is created so that the raven may find food. It hears strange sounds from inside a clam and sings to the clam, which opens and the first men climb out. Raven soon grows bored with the antics of men and considers returning them to the shell, but hears different odd sounds coming from a chiton. He coaxes the first women out of the chiton and introduces them to the first men. He enjoys their interactions and decides to protect them ever after.

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