The Tradition of the Piasa and the Mysterious Rock Art of the Mississippi
Along the river of the Mississippi Valley where its banks form the boundary between Illinois and Missouri, there exists thousands of ancient pictographs carved or painted on rocks, on walls in cave shelters, and beneath overhanging cliffs. For hundreds of years these images have been described in the journals of explorers, heard about through whispers of townspeople, scrawled in old town records and in innumerable reports of ethnologists and archaeologists. One would be hard-pressed to find a more enigmatic and curious image than that of the Piasa. Its name is Native American and in the Illini signifies, “The bird which devours men”.
In the town of Alton, Illinois is a narrow ravine through which a small stream flows into the Mississippi River. Near the mouth of this stream, a hundred feet high up on the face of the cliff side is a modern representation of the Piasa. The image was first written about in 1673 by French missionary priest Jacques Marquette while recording his journey down the Mississippi with Louis Joliet. Marquette describes the image as “as large as a calf, with horns like a roebuck, red eyes, a beard like a tiger and a frightful countenance. The face was something like that of a man, the body covered in scales, and the tail so long that it passed entirely around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fish.”
The original image was visible until 1847 when the entire face of the bluff was quarried away, however, the legend endures.
The legend of the Piasa Bird dates back to long before European explorers came to region. It has been traced to a band of Illiniwek Indians who lived along the Mississippi in the vicinity north of present-day Alton. This tribe, led by a chief named Owatoga, hunted and fished the valley and the river and lived a contented life until the "great beast" came. In 1836 John Russel, a professor of Greek & Latin at Shurtleff College in Upper Alton published an account of the legend as told by the Illini.
Many thousand moons before the arrival of the pale faces, when the Mastodon & great Magalonyx were still living in the land of green prairies, there existed a bird of such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full grown deer. Having obtained a taste for human flesh, from that time he would prey on nothing else. He was artful as he was powerful and he would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off into one of the caves of the bluff and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were nearly depopulated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illini.
Such was the state of affairs when Ouatogo, the great chief of the Illini fasted in solitude for the space of a whole moon, and prayed to the Great Spirit that he would protect his children from the Piasa. On the last night of the fast the Great Spirit appeared to Ouatogo in a dream, and directed him to select 20 of his bravest warriors, each armed with a bow and poisoned arrows, and conceal them in a designated spot. Near the place of concealment another warrior was to stand in open view, as a victim for the Piasa, which they must shoot the instant he pounced on his prey. The next morning the warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush as directed. Ouatogo offered himself as the victim. Placing himself in open view on the bluffs, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the cliff eying his prey. The Piasa rose into the air and darted down on his victim. Scarcely had the horrid creature reached his prey before every bow was sprung and every arrow sent into his body. The Piasa uttered a fearful scream, that sounded far over the opposite side of the river, and expired. Ouatogo was unharmed. There was wild rejoicing among the Illini and the brave chief was carried in triumph to the council house, where it was solemnly agreed that, in memory of the great event in their nation’s history, the image of the Piasa should be engraved on the bluff.
The Piasa. Image Source.
John Russel, in his 1836 report continues, “My curiosity was principally directed to the examination of a cave, connected with the tradition as one of those to which that bird had carried its human victims. Preceded by an intelligent guide, I set out on my excursion. The cave was extremely difficult of access and at one point I stood at an elevation of 150 feet on the perpendicular face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. After a long, perilous climb we reached the cave. The floor of the cavern throughout its extent was one mass of human bones. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide, but we dug to the depth of 3-4 feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited here.”
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