Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 10: Thunderbirds, Keepers of Sacred Medicine
Updated: Jun 3
Odemiini-giizis (Strawberry Moon) / Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon), June 1, 2019
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm."
- Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk), Oglala Lakota wičháša wakȟáŋ (medicine man / man who communes with the spirit world
According to Anishinaabe tradition the Thunder Grandfathers came to earth in the beginning of times to govern the quality of man’s existence, and that of the animals and plants, with supernatural powers over which the Anishinaabeg had little or no control. Thunders became thus associated with fertility, and with the creation of clouds and rain. The Thunders are often perceived as gigantic birds, called Animikii Binesiwag: Thunderbirds.
Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds, are said to be related to the wendaanimag noodinoon, the Winds that blow from the four corners of the Earth. Animikiig, the Thunderers, are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the Aadizookaanag - Spirit Grandfathers - that guard the four cardinal points of the Universe. They leave their homes on high cliffs and mountain peaks in the west in the beginning of spring and come to Earth in different forms and guises and sizes - as winged beings, or sometimes even in human form - to vist the Anishinaabeg and to drive off malevolent underground spirits from the Earth and the waters of lakes and rivers. They are in charge of the warm weather and procure and maintain the warm seasons on Earth, which is why they migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall. Their thunder claps herald the presence of powerful manidoog or Spirit Beings, their lightning arrows carry strong Medicine. It is said that the eyes of the Thunderbird Grandfathers, who have a close and beneficial relationship with humans and are known to impart knowledge and foretell the future, are able to see and explore the hearts of human beings and discern their skills, talents, and desires. This brings up memories of a long time ago when the Anishinaabeg still wandered aimlessly on the face of Aki (Earth), disheartened and disorganized and standing on the brink of extinction; it was then that Grandfather Binesi was sent to Earth to aid the People in finding their place in the world and in making them aware of their collective and individual skills and talents needed for developing self-worth and for survival in a harsh and hostile environment. Thunderbird also taught the Anishinaabeg to organize themselves in doodemag (clans), thus shaping the bedrock of a strong society.
Since Thunderbirds travel singly or in pairs, Anishinaabe artists often depict their images singly, as two, and sometimes - since they represent the wendaanimag noodinoon or Four Winds created by the Great Mystery - as four.
The title of the wedding rings, Animikiig, Biidoonoog Mashkikiwan, literally means "Thunderers, They Bring Medicines." The Ojibwe word mashkiki means medicine derived from plants. Yet the title has a metaphorical resonance as well as it indirectly refers to the Sacred, Healing Medicine of Animkiig, the Thunder Grandfathers who dwell in the four corners of the Universe; in springtime, this sacred Medicine, along with pools of fertility-bringing rain, is being carried upon their mighty wings as a blessing to the the thirsty earth and also as a gift to the needy Anishinaabeg.
The symbolism of the ring set - the oxidized (sulphured) spirit line merging with the red gold Thunderbirds and the yellow inlay of Grandfather, the Sun and the white (14 K) gold sky -refers to the deep love between people against a background of the all embracing belief in the cycle of life and to our interconnectedness with the earth, the sky and all that is part of the universe-be it the physical, the non physical and the metaphysical. The flowing outline in these wedding rings feature the mirror images of two stylized Thunderbirds, their wings reaching out to each other, this symbolizing the bond of love and understanding that exists between the wearers of rings.
Sacred Seeds of Medicine, Knowledge, and Love
These unique wedding rings, made by hand in the minimalistic, dramatic graphic overlay style that is my trademark, are constructed of white and red gold with yellow gold inlays. Both wedding rings, which have interiors of sterling silver, feature abstract, strongly stylized figures of two Animikii-binesiwag, or Thunderbirds with an outstretched wing, depicted in mirror image and flanking a yellow gold sun symbol. The Thunderbirds’ wings and the sun symbol are connected by a flowing “spirit line.”
The rings consist of a bottom sheet of silver (the inside of the ring). The cut-outs in the ring surfaces are blackened through oxidation, which makes the design stand out in relief. The center of both wedding rings show an inlaid circle of yellow gold within a bigger, oxidized, circle; in the ladies’ ring, a brilliant-cut diamond is added. In Anishinaabe tradition a circle within a circle denotes GICHI-MANIDOO, which literally means “Great Mystery," or "Great Spirit.”
As said in the above, the title of the wedding ring set, Animikiig, Biidoonoog Mashkikiwan, meaning Thunders, Bringers of Medicine, relates to these design elements; the Thunderbirds symbolize the powers of the Thunder Grandfathers and the sun symbol represents GICHI-MANIDOO, the sum of Mystery and the incredible life force that permeates the the sky and the earth and everything that is alive. The sun/Great Mystery symbol (particularly the diamond mounted on the ladies’ ring) can also be regarded as miinikaan (a “seed”) carrying the sacred Medicine that the Thunderbirds brought a long time ago to Earth and the Anishinaabe Peoples. It reminds us of the revitalizing tasks the Thunder Grandfathers fulfill when they return each spring with the migrating birds, bringing the cleansing rain to the trees and plants and lakes and rivers so that life on earth continues. Thus, these Mystery seeds are magic symbols that bring nature life and fertility and gift the humans with medicine, knowledge, and wisdom.
The outstretched Thunderbird’s wings connected by the sun/Great Mystery/seed symbol in the middle embody a spirit, a special grandfather's blessing, that brings the life partners luck and prosperity on the path they take together. At the same time the symmetrical design of the rings reminds the couple to love each other unconditionally, with the same tender affection that grandparents hold for their grandchildren...
Giiwenh. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw animikii binesi aadizookaan. Bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga!
So the story goes. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to share with you this sacred Thunderbird story. Please come see me again!
> Read the next episode of the series Love Stories From the Land of Many Lakes: The Loving Earth.