Although the most well known depictions of the mythical thunderbird come from the Pacific Northwest of North America, it is a creature not unknown in the rest of the world. In early Mesopotamian religion, it was Ninurta (also known as Ningirsu, Imdugud or Anzu, which means “Rain Cloud”), as an enormous black bird, who brought much needed water to the farmers of this agricultural civilization. With the body of a bird but the head of a lion, it floated on outstretched wings, calling with its thunderous cry. Over time though, the Mesopotamians envisioned Ninurta as a man, gradually doing away with images of birds and thunderclouds, to the point where Ninurta actually does battle with the Thunderbird Anzu, conquering him.
In the Pacific Northwest, however, it is still the image of an enormous bird that dominates. Among the indigenous Haida and Kwakiutl, who have traditionally occupied a region along the shores, waterways, and islands of British Columbia, the thunderbird was not only a powerful spirit, but also an ancestor, and an image used for traditional tattoos. In the belief systems of this rainy area, it was the thunderbird who watered the earth. Thunder was produced by the beating of its gigantic wings while lightning flashed from its beak. According to James G. Swan’s report to the Smithsonian in 1874, the thunderbird took human form when residing in the mountains. But when he was hungry, he’d cover himself with feathers, and set out in search of prey (a whale, in this case). The vast stretch of his wings would actually darken the sky.
As with totem poles, the use of the thunderbird as a tattoo was only accorded to its rightful descendant. As with the killer whale, Haida belief holds that the dim and earliest history of humankind knew a period when animal, spirits, and humans were able to talk and interact with another, even morphing from one to another or developing special relationships. Such is the case with the thunderbird. The use of its image in a totem pole or a tattoo (or on clothing or tools, etc.) indicates that the user or wearer is displaying their “family crest” or totemic ancestor or the way in which they embody the spirit of the thunderbird. Traditional Haida tattoos covered the arms, chests, thighs, feet, and sometimes the back — typically of high ranking members of the society.
Although modern tattoo seekers may not be in search of this particular type of totemic connection, the thunderbird image is a powerful and attractive one. Whether done in the stark and complex style of the Pacific Northwest or in more graphic or realistic types of styles, the thunderbird is still a symbol that harkens back to its mythic roots of thunder, lightning, water, enormous strength and life-giving benefit.