The Tradition of the Piasa and the Mysterious Rock Art of the Mississippi
In the years following Marquette’s description, a number of explorers spoke of the pictograph, as well as others that were reported to have been seen on the bluffs as far as 30 miles away from the original. St. Cosme reports seeing the images in 1699. The Piasa is mentioned in a book by A.D. Jones with the title, “ Illinois and the West” written in 1838. One of the most satisfactory pictures of the Piasa comes from a German book called “ The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated” published in 1839.
As with the Illini tribes, there can be found traditions of similar large birds and dragons throughout the world. The Dacotah tribe believed that thunder was a monstrous bird flying through the air and claimed that these birds were large enough to carry off human beings. In the ancient Buddhist caves of India there can be found a number of carved and painted dragons that easily fit with the descriptions of Piasa. There have also been found in the area of the Mississippi Valley thousands of burial vases which have dragon-like heads pronounced, standing up from the rim of the vessel.
One theory regarding the origin of the Piasa is that it may have been an older iconograph from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia, which began developing about 900 AD and was at its peak about 1200 AD. It was the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico and a major chiefdom. Icons and animal pictographs, such as falcons, thunder-birds, bird men, and monstrous snakes were common motifs of the Cahokia culture. The Piasa creature may have been painted as a graphic symbol to warn strangers traveling down the Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.
However, others have questioned whether the so-called mythical creature could have been an ancient species of bird that actually existed. That so many cultures and groups of people separated by thousands of miles and years have similar tales of immense flying creatures is curious to say the least.
Featured image: The Female Piasa Bird. Credit: FoolishLittleMortal
By Greg Sorrell
Records of Ancient Races - W.M. McAdams 1887
The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated - H. Lewis 1839
Illinois and the West - A.D. Jones 1838
Parkman's Discoveries of the Great West 1838