The “lightning bird”, in Zulu both impundulu and inyoni yezulu (“bird of the heavens”) appears to manifest in two distinct ways in Nguni culture. On the one hand, it manifests specifically as a bird associated with lightning; on the other hand as the familiar of a female witch, in which case it may change its shape frequently (often to that of a handsome young man), and is associated with evil and malice rather than lightning.
Let us look first at the association of the impundulu with lightning. Callaway (1970:119) presents us with some interesting detail:
“The bird of heaven” is a bird which is said to descend from the sky when it thunders, and to be found in the neighbourhood of the place where the lightning has struck. The heavendoctors place a large vessel of amasi mixed with various medicines near a pool such as is frequently met with at the top of hills; this is done to attract the lightning, that it might strike in that place. The doctor remains at hand watching, and when the lightning strikes the bird descends, and he rushes forward and kills it. It is said to have a red bill, red legs, and a short red tail like fire; its feathers are bright and dazzling, and it is very fat. The bird is boiled for the sake of the fat, which is mixed with other medicines and used by the heaven-doctors to puff on their bodies (pepeta) and to anoint their lightning rods, that they be able to act on the heavens without injury to themselves. The body is used for other purposes as medicine. A few years ago some peacocks’ feathers were sold at a great price among the natives of Natal, being supposed to be the feathers of this bird.
We have already seen earlier in this article that the fat of a lightning bird is an essential element in making the medicinal mixture used to doctor pegs used for lightning protection. Of interest is the symbolism of the pot of amasi (sour milk) used to attract the lightning to a distant hill-top, presumably well away from human habitation. This would of course appear to work very well, given that lightning is naturally attracted to high hill-tops. Hammond-Tooke points out (1962:273) that in the homestead itself calabashes of amasi and milk must be hidden.
Berglund (1976:39) tells of a young man who was present when lightning came into a hut and killed an old woman and two children. His perceptions of the strike were as follows:
Looking, I saw the thing. It was fearful to see and moved very quickly. But I saw it clearly. It was a bird. The feathers were white, burning. The beak and the legs were red with fire, and the tail was something else, like burning green or the colour of the sky. It ran quickly, saying nothing, simply snatching those whom it took. Then it touched the grass with fire.
According to a number of Berglund’s heaven-herd sources, the lightning-bird is sent by the “Lord-of-the-Sky” when he “wishes to have a human” (op.cit., 40). His sources go on to say that there is no mourning for someone killed by lightning, as this would be regarded “as an arrogant act of rebellion against the Lord-of-the-Sky”. Nor, apparently, is there an ukubuyisa ritual for one struck by lightning.
The “lightning-strike-as-bird” metaphor is continued in the belief that when lightning strikes, the bird is alighting to lay its eggs. This idea has an extra spin to it in the Bhaca belief
… that electricity is the excreta of the lightning bird and that White people chase the bird until it excretes an oillike fat. This is electricity. The excreta is very fluid and everything it touches is burnt. (Hammond-Tooke, 1960:282fn)
Hammond-Tooke agrees that for the Xhosa and Bhaca the lightning-bird (impundulu) is associated with lightning (1960:382):
The spectacular and dangerous properties of lightning have formed the basis of another Bhaca belief, that in the intsaka yetulu, 13 the “bird of heaven”, called in Xhosa, impundulu. The impundulu is identified with the lightning; thunder is the beating of its wings, while the flash indicates the laying of its eggs that will hatch the following summer.
He goes a little further, though, on the relationship between lightning and evil, saying that the flicking of “muthi” around the borders of the homestead is “to drive away imishologu (evil influences, including the lightning) that encompass the kraal” (1960:272). This apparent relationship between lightning and evil leads us to the second manifestation of the lightning-bird, as a familiar, and Bhaca beliefs here clearly go way beyond what Berglund records about the impundulu in Zulu society. Hammond-Tooke begins (op. cit., 279) by saying that “no one knows for certain who is a witch” and that “the submissive young bride, outwardly demure and obedient, might be the possessor of the dreaded lightning bird, whose kick can cause sickness and death.” He continues
The bird may also be possessed by women as a familiar … [It] comes to its mistress in the form of a beautiful young man, often white and dressed in a grey suit, who has sexual connexion with her.
Clearly members of the Bhaca society must be very careful about how they deal with people even if they are “outwardly demure and obedient” for
The intsaka yetulu appears to a person in the form of a young man in a grey suit who asks why he is annoying its owner. There and then it turns into that old bird and kicks him until he dies.
It is worth noting that an intsaka yetulu may be sent to someone by letter. If you should open that letter, soon you will be visited by the same young man in a grey suit who will turn into a bird and kick you until you die.
Although there is no indication in the anthropological literature on the Zulus of this Protean bird which shifts easily between the personable young man in the grey suit and the bird with a fatal kick, it is worth noting that Doke and Vilakazi (1957:513) say for the entry impundulu that this is a “bird supposed to be used by women in witchcraft”.
They do not mention the link with lightning strikes. Bryant’s 1906 dictionary does not record the word impundulu, which makes me wonder if this is not a comparatively late adoptive into Zulu from Xhosa. There is a possible link between the word impundulu and the similar word impundu in Zulu. Doke and Vilakazi (1957:677) give three meaning for this word: “1) gate-post; 2) smaller lobe of beast’s liver; 3) species of plant, Gasteria glabra, whose bulbous roots are placed at the kraal-entrance to cause forgetfulness in would-be evil-doers”, and say it is derived from the verb phundula (“lead astray, mislead, puzzle, confuse, frustrate”). Bryant (1906:516) says the same, but in more detail:
impundu: one of the posts standing on either side of the entrance to the isibaya (not kraal); the smaller lobe of a beast’s liver, said to make a man forgetful if he eats it, therefore the perquisite of the old women; a certain plant whose bulbous root is stuck at the entrance to kraals in order to make the abatakati forgetful of their evil practices.
Both Hutchings (1996:35) and Pooley (1998:342,430) recognise impundu as a Zulu name for various species of Gasteria, with Hutchings saying of Gasteria croucheri that the leaf infusions are used as protective sprinkling charms and that the plant is cultivated on hut roofs as protective charms against lightning.
Before we move on to the “thunder tree”, it is interesting to note other bird species linked to lightning and other forms of weather. Hammond-Tooke (1960:288) tells us that
… if the uthekwane [Hamerkop] or indlazanyoni [Speckled Mousebird] flies over a kraal or alights on it, it is said that lightning will strike the homestead, but if the bird is killed or driven away the evil will be averted
The owl (isikhova) is also considered a bird of ill-omen, for if it hoots round a kraal someone will become sick, or lightning will strike the stock.
Krige (1950:315) tells us that
The commonest fat used as an ingredient in this [anti-lightning] pegmedicine is that of the Ngqungqulu bird (Helotarsus ecaudatus) [Bateleur Eagle] which, when flying quickly, makes a noise like thunder, and to this is sometime added fat of a “peacock” which is said to cry and ruffle its feathers before thunder.
Krige also associates the Bateleur Eagle, as well as the Ground Hornbill, with rain (op.cit., 321):
The insingizi bird [Ground Hornbill] is closely associated with heaven and the rain, for if many izinsingizi walk in the open country and cry, it is an omen that it will rain. Another heaven-bird, for the death of which the heavens will mourn, is the iNgqungqulu [Bateleur] … it, too, is killed for rain. If this bird cries while flying it foretells rain.
Woodward and Woodward (1899:97) noted much earlier of the Ground Hornbill, “It is generally heard crying before rain, from which the natives think it has the power of bringing rain …”, and although they do not mention it, Burchell’s Coucal (Z. ufukwe) is also known by the colloquial name “the Rain Bird”.