Creatures of African Myth: the Lightning Bird

Birds have a knack for appearing in historic, cultural or mythological tales in Africa. Some feathered creatures were believed to possess strong powers, while others allowed deities to take on the shape of a creature more acceptable by humans. In this article, you will meet more creatures of African myth, including Lightning Bird, which was mentioned in tales by people living in southern Africa.

Lightning Bird

Depending on the myth or group of people that you speak to, the lightning bird is a real or imaginary creature thought to possess special powers. Southern African natives look at the bird in a superstitious manner. Various tribes see the bird as equipped with supernatural powers. They also believe that lightning is one of the ways the bird appears to humans.

In some African tribes, the Hammerkop is believed to be the lightning bird. Men usually encounter the bird in the form of a lightning strike, while women see it as a bird. It has been known to take the form of other feathered friends. One village girl claims that it was a black rooster-like bird that ran up her farming tool, leaving behind claw marks on her body before it took off into the clouds. In other cases, the bird had iridescent feathers like a peacock with a red, fiery tail, bill, and legs.

Powers associated with the bird include possessing body parts that are valuable to traditional medicine. Tribal witch doctors are looked to for help in dealing with the bird. Supposedly, they can use an extract that comes from the bird’s flesh as a method of catching thieves.

Mami Wata

The Mami Wata is a water spirit that sometimes comes in the form of a mermaid. Found in parts of the western coast and central Africa, the Mami Wata possesses long dark hair, fair skin, and eyes that look into the soul. Appearing in the dreams and visions of villagers, she is seen as a beautiful mermaid with tail. However, some believe she can take the form of a gorgeous woman who walks along the streets of modern African cities. Anthropologists have come across her existences in songs, local poetry, carvings, and in more modern times , film.


In Central Africa, the Mbwiri is a demon that has the power to possess people. Often times, it was said that a doctor would misdiagnose someone with epilepsy when they were actually experiencing a possession from the Mbwiri. If this kind of possession surfaces, relatives will call a shaman. A hut is constructed where the possessed individual stays with the shaman (and some of his assistants) until they are cured.

Between 10 to 14 days, the people in the hut eat and drink at the expense of the patient’s family. Dancing takes place to the sounds of the flute and drum. It is believed that the Mbwiri is disgusted by ‘good living’ and will be driven out when placed under these conditions. Epileptic fits may arise, where the patient dances in response. When an announcement is made that he or she has been cured, a small house is built, where he performs certain duties and avoids eating some foods. The process has also been known to cause madness, where some patients wind up running into the bush.