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Impundulu – Lightning bird

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Mankind is made up of spiritual beings having a physical experience. In order to have a physical experience, they need a physical body. As a result, much of the vocabulary, speech, and understanding is based on what is tangible, despite being spiritual beings. Hence, even spiritual experiences are explained and understood from the perspective of lived physical experiences. 

Conjured spirits manifest physically as familiars. There are different types of familiars, the most popular being utikoloshe, impundulu, and umamlambo. Impundulu is most similar to umamlambo in that it is a shape-shifting spirit that is often portrayed as a bird or a handsome seductive man. This article will explore impundulu the familiar, what it is, how it works, how it is made, how it looks, and more.  

What is it?

Impundulu is called a tladi in Lesotho and nzazi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is also known as the lightning bird and depicted in various distinct ways depending on the context, for example:

  • A bird scientifically known as Scopus umbretta is known as impundulu. It is the only living bird in the Scopus genus and naturally occurs in the wetlands of Africa, Arabia, and Madagascar. It is commonly known as the hammerhead or hamerkop. 
  • Zulu people regard impundulu as the bird of heaven, inyoni yezulu or uthekwane, because it moves swiftly and the flapping of its wings is believed to generate thunder with claws that can shoot lightning. In this form, impundulu is a mythical creature that is said to live on the other side of the sky and descends to earth during lightning and thunderstorms. The mythical creature is comparable with other mythological beings such as: 
    • Indra, the Hindu god of lightning and thunder
    • Thor, the Norse god of thunder
    • Zeus, the Greek god of lightning
    • Teshub, the Hurrian god of thunder and lightning
  • Impundulu is also depicted as a shape-shifting familiar spirit that commonly appears as a seductive young man or a bird. It can also appear as a ferociously hideous animal or man or a seductive woman. This type of familiar is often used by women who practice witchcraft to curse intended victims. It is believed that a female witch inherits this type of familiar from her mother. In cases where there is no one to inherit the familiar, it becomes an isholongu, an autonomous or ownerless familiar. Sorcerers are also able to conjure up this type of familiar using sorcery. As a familiar, impundulu is invisible to everyone else but the owner and only appears when summoned by the owner.

To avoid confusion, this article will solely look at impundulu, the familiar and shape-shifting spirit. Resources on Scopus umbretta are readily available online and stories of uthekwane are well-known among Zulu people. 

How does it work?

Impundulu works in various ways, it is considered a messenger of death and a spirit that can cause sickness and death:

  • Impundulu appears in a person’s dreams while sleeping as an evil omen, bearing messages of death. 
  • Impundulu works by attacking and killing its victims in their dreams when they are asleep:
    • It attacks by kicking the intended victim between the shoulders such as the chest area or on the head. Kicking the chest area can cause the victim to cough blood. Impundulu can also press on the chest at night when the victim is sleeping in order to weaken them or to cause breathlessness, a condition known as iphika
    • It kills its victims by sucking their blood. It is believed that when a person is killed by impundulu, they do not actually die. Instead they appear dead and thus presumed to be dead and subsequently get buried. This phenomenon is known as umthwebulo. This is done so a familiar spirit can be cast into the “presumed dead person’s body”. This method of killing is used to make umkhovu, a zombie. 
  • Impundulu also works by seducing women, this is done by appearing as a handsome young man. As a shapeshifter, impundulu can also appear as a fearful monster or bird. 

What does it look like?

There are different accounts detailing what impundulu looks like. The most cited description is that of a man-size (or large) beautiful bird that has a long beak, razor-sharp claws, brightly coloured and dazzling feathers, short brightly coloured tail, and thin long legs. The legs have been described as black, white, and other times as brightly coloured with red feet.

How to make impundulu?

A female witch usually inherits impundulu from her mother. This type of impundulu feeds off the blood of its victims. 

A male sorcerer can conjure up impundulu using imithi emibi (harmful medicines) and imilingo (incantation). For example, sorcerers in Zimbabwe make a type of impundulu using extracted parts of a bat, an ostrich’s foot, herbs, and conjurations. This creature looks like a bat and has a fatal ostrich kick.

What are the symptoms of impundulu attack?

When attacked by impundulu (e.g., when kicked in the chest) the symptoms can be eerily similar to those of chest  and respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis, or TB for short. The reason for this goes back to our vocabulary, speech, and understanding being based on what is tangible. Furthermore, humans understand things in relation to other things. For example, health is understood in relation to sickness (i.e., health is the absence of sickness). Hence, it is difficult to articulate something when you cannot relate it to a lived experience.  

Since we mostly have physical experience, we tend to have a very limited spiritual vocabulary. Hence, when we describe a spiritual experience we use known vocabulary that’s based on our physical experience.    

How to treat impundulu?

Treating anything relating to witchcraft can be lengthy and rigorous involving purging, cleansing, and purification rituals. The reason is that witchcraft targets the spiritual or energetic body. When the spiritual assault is successful, it will manifest physically. Treatment goes beyond treating the physical body. Typical treatment involves induced emesis with concocted medicine, cupping, purging, and steaming.

How to protect against impundulu?

Following the treatment, it’s important to fortify the body in order to prevent future attacks as the body is now vulnerable to impundulu attack. 

Fortification (ukuqinisa) is traditional immunization or vaccination, it serves as protective treatment. There are various ways of fortifying the body, the most appropriate is called ukuqaphula or ukukhipha intlanga, involving scarification, cupping, bloodletting, and rubbing of protective medicines into an incisions made in the skin. Scarification entails making small incisions near the scalp to protect from and to ward off impundulu. 

Explore other related concepts by accessing uhodoba, isilwane, umkhovu, and umamlambo.

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine. 

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