The thunderbird in Cherokee culture foretold of victory for tribal wars fought on the ground.
Meaning of the Thunderbird Symbol
Native American Indians were a deeply spiritual people and they communicated their history, thoughts, ideas and dreams from generation to generation through Symbols and Signs such as the Thunderbird symbol. The origin of the Thunderbird symbol derives from the ancient Mississippian culture of the Mound Builders of North America and were major elements in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of American prehistory (S.E.C.C.). The enemy of the Thunderbird was the Underwater Panther, a sea monster from the Underworld. Native American symbols are geometric portrayals of celestial bodies, natural phenomena and animal designs and representations of actual events. The meaning of the Thunderbird symbol was viewed by some tribes as an omen of war when the sound of thunder was heard. The name of the Thunderbird name originates from the belief that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. The Native Americans believed that the giant Thunderbird could shoot lightning from its eyes. Thunder was believed to be a sign the spirits were at war in the skies but this also foretold of victory for tribal wars fought on the ground. For additional information refer to Mythical Creatures.
The Thunderbird Symbol
The Thunderbird symbol is one of the most dominant icons in Native American Indian culture and art. Descriptions of the thunderbird are found on totems, pottery, cave art, and in the ancient legends and myths of Native Americans. It is believed among the Lakota Sioux that if you had a dream or vision of birds you were destined to be a Medicine Man but if you had a vision of the Thunderbird, it was your destiny to become a sacred clown. The Thunderbird symbol is depicted in many ways and often features in pictograms. The thunderbird is the symbol of thunder, lightening and storms which are created when the thunderbird flies. The thunderbird is depicted as a large raptor like bird usually with curling horns, long legs, a long beak and a featherless head. Sheet lightning is believed to flash from its eyes when it blinks, and individual lightning bolts made by the glowing snakes or serpents that follows it. The thunderbird is depicted in masks as many-colored, with two curling horns and teeth within its beak. The legend and symbol of the thunderbird may have originated from the myths and legends relating to large species of North American birds such as the Great Blue Heron, the Golden Eagle and the Pelican. The Thunderbird symbol and icon can be compared to other legendary bird monsters such in the Piasa Bird symbol and the mythical Raptor symbols.
The Thunderbird Symbol of the Mound Builders
The Thunderbird Symbol of the Mound Builders was displayed as masks as they were believed to hold spiritual powers that never left them. They also believed that the masks would identify them with the spirits and activate their power. The thunderbird was a spirit of the Underworld and associated with their Bird Man symbols and beliefs. The bird man was portrayed in the guise of an eagle, hawk or falcon. These birds were all strong, high flying predators together with raptor like creatures. The horns that are often displayed in Thunderbird symbols signified spiritual power, especially when applied to animals that did not ordinarily have them such as Birds, Panthers, Avanyu and Snakes (Serpents).
The Thunderbird Symbol as a Pictogram
The Thunderbird symbol we have used is in a fact a pictogram. A pictogram, also called a pictograph, conveys a story and meaning through pictures that signify and resemble the shapes of physical objects or people. An Ideagram is another form of pictogram which conveys complex ideas, feelings and emotions. A pictogram, such as the one recognised as a Thunderbird symbol, is a therefore a form of writing which uses representational, pictorial drawings to tell a story.
Native American Indians of the Mississippian culture were sun worshipers and had a highly complex warfare culture. Their symbols, such as the Thunderbird symbol, reflect the warfare culture and the religious beliefs and cosmologies of the different historic tribes who existed at the time of the first European contact.
The Mississippians believed that the universe consisted of three parts with good and bad spiritual forces. These three worlds were linked together and their connection was usually portrayed as a cedar tree or a striped pole. The Underworld was inhabited by spirit snakes, the Upper world was inhabited by spirit birds and the people of the earth who were ruled by these powerful spirits like the Thunderbird.
Items displaying symbols, like the Thunderbird symbol, from the Mississippian culture have been found in burial sites that contained war axes, knives and other weapons. This type of symbol was embossed in valuable materials such as rare shells, copper and lead and depicted on pottery and stone tools and weapons.
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