North American Mythology: The Mystery of the Piasa Bird

Piasa Bird – Burfalcy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

PIASA BIRD OF ALTON

Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis lies the city of Alton, Madison County, Illinois.  One of the city’s calls to fame is the mysterious Piasa Bird.   This is a Native American design of a strange bird or dragon-like creature painted on a limestone cliff face above the Mississippi River.  The first known Europeans to see it were early explorers traveling along the Mississippi Valley.  Although the original mural no longer exists through quarrying activities the existing designs were reproduced from 20th century sketches and lithographs of what once existed.  The images have to be restored at regular intervals because the rock face is an unsuitable canvas for painting.

IMAGES OF CAHOKIA

The original murals were believed to be created before the arrival of Europeans, possibly around 1200 CE and perhaps earlier by local Native America people.   As the original mural seems deliberately situated to be seen it may have acted as a warning to travelers that they were entering a territory controlled by local people.  Also, because of its visibility from the Mississippi river it may have been a warning to canoeists of the dangerous confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers a few miles further on.

Before Europeans reached the New World the region was inhabited by people of the Mississippian culture known as the Mound Builders, from approximately 800 CE to 1600 CE. These people were responsible for building a six mile square urban complex known today as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.  It consists of multiple artificial earthen mounds that were built on a flood plain near of the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers.  At its zenith it was believed to be home to around 30,000 people making it the largest known urban center in the New World north of Mexico.  This complex was believed to be the center of a civilization with trading links stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.   It was from these people that the mural is believed to have originated.   They also created many other pictographs of animals and birds including thunder birds, falcons, bird-men, monstrous snakes and other subjects.  One that has particular relevance to the Piasa Bird was the Underwater Panther, as we shall see.

Other murals have been found in the area and on 27th May, 1921, the local newspaper, The Alton Evening Telegraph, mentioned seven smaller images believed to be of Native American origin.  They were painted on rocks some one and a half miles from the Piasa Bird site in the Levis Bluffs region discovered by George Dickson and William Turk in 1905.   These were believed to include an owl, a squirrel, a sun circle and a depiction of two unknown creatures in some kind of contest.  The rest of the depictions were of larger animals like a lion or coyote. 

DISCOVERY BY EUROPEANS

Kohl, J. G, Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, and Louis Joliet. The Mississippi. [1850] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002626428/>.

The first known Europeans to see the Piasa Bird  were the Jesuit missionary and explorer Father Jaques Marquette and his party in 1664, who saw it painted on a limestone cliff overlooking the Mississippi River.  However, the image they saw appears to have changed its appearance in modern time by growing wings.   According to Marquette,

 “While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. they are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish’s tail. green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture.

Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately the shape of these monsters, as we have faithfully copied it.”

On an early map compiled by the French cartographer Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin a mural of a creature is shown (see images) as located east of the Mississippi and south of the Illinois River is shown but this also has no wings.  How it acquired wings is not clear but it seems it was first described as bird by Professor John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois in an article entitled, “The Tradition of The Piasa” in 1836.

THE JOHN RUSSELL LEGEND

Russell claimed the name came from a nearby stream who local Native Americans called the Piasa which meant “the bird that devours men” in the language of the local Illini people.  The stream ran through parts of Alton until it was encased in drainage pipes in 1912.   He claimed that the depiction was of a huge bird-like creature that dwelt in a cave in the cliffs.  It had developed a taste for human flesh after a war had left many bodies lying out in the open which it scavenged upon.  According to him to satisfy this appetite it would fly down and attack and devour local people in nearby villages. 

He told of  a legend of how a local chief named Chief Ouatoga was sent a dream from the Great Spirit revealing how he could kill the monstrous beast.  The Great Spirit told the Chief to hide his bravest warriors near the entrance of the cave armed with poisoned arrows.  When they were in place he was to openly approach the cave acting as bait so that the Piasa Bird would rush to attack him.  Ouatoga enacted the plan and as the creature rushed out of the cave his braves let fly their poisoned arrows slaying the beast.  

According to Russell, it was this beast the mural was supposed to commemorate.   The mystery is what happened for the creature to acquire wings.  However, it is possible that what both Father Marquette saw and what Russell saw was accurate as the wings could have been added after the first sighting although why they were added is not known.   It was Russell’s colorful version which stuck although there are claims he later admitted to making up the story.

THE UNDERWATER PANTHER

Underwater Panther – Uyvsdi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A modern theory proposes a different origin.  According to this the mural depicts a mythical Native American creature known as the “Underwater Panther” but with added wings.  Some people think the original wingless depiction of the panther bears a strong resemblance.   Versions of the Underwater Panther are shown in petroglyphs, pictographs, and other art forms from the Great Lakes in North America, down to the Andes in South America.  There are a great many different Native American cultures and its attributes and meaning vary between them.  It is also know as the Underwater Lynx and other names but often referred to collectively as Underwater Panthers.

According to Esarey, Costa, Wood, the Piasa and the Underwater Panther are both linked to the legends of the “payiihsa” which was a small supernatural being with big feet with 4 to six toes.   It is often found in pottery and rock art   “payiihsa” along with images of the Underwater Panther. 

A legend from the Peoria people translated by Miami-Illinois language expert, David Costa is now thought  more likely to be the inspiration of the depiction. This tells how the cultural hero and trickster Wiihsakacaakwa and a Frenchman went on a boat trip along the river.  They had to pass by a cave which they knew to be the home of a supernatural man-eating monster.  To the dismay and fear of the Frenchman, Wiihsakacaakwa decided he would be as loud and irritating as possible, ignoring his companion’s pleas not to disturb the monster.  The raucous behaviour of Wiihsakacaakwa roused the beast which emerged from the cave finding them in their boat in the river.  Taking a great gulp of river water the monster sucked the boat into his cave where he imprisoned them.  They discover there are other captives held in the cave and that the monster ate them one by one when he gets hungry.   However, the monster, feeling secure in its cave went to sleep. 

Wiihsakacaakwa told the others to sneak out of the cave while he piled the gunpowder they had brought with them for hunting, around the monster.  After the others had escaped Wiihsakacaakwa blew him up.  Having defeated the monster Wiihsakacaakwa decided he liked the cave and made it his home until a pair of twin supernatural dwarfs known as the “payiihsaki,” appeared and drove him out stealing the cave from him.

The belief is the Piasa originated from “payiihsa”, an Miami-Illinois word that is used to refer to two small supernatural entities.  The Underwater Panther was often associated with two small supernatural dwarves.  From this comes the claim the original Piasa was wingless Underwater Panther which is reinforced by the 1682 map of the Mississippi that corresponds to the descriptions given by Jolliet and Marquette.

Although Russell’s  tale was the most colorful and heroic it is the legend of Wiihsakacaakwa that is now considered authentic with the monster possibly the Underwater Panther and the two dwarfs giving their name to the Piasa Bird.

Copyright 25/08/2021 zteve t evans

Further Publications by zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 25th, 2021 zteve t evans

6 thoughts on “North American Mythology: The Mystery of the Piasa Bird

  1. Hi, Zsteve. What a time is was for exploration, courage and missionary zeal! I had to go and listen to Ennio Morricone’s ‘Mission’ and remember what I can of the movie. Thanks for telling us how these fabled creatures came to be legends. M.

  2. This post is of great interest Zteve, as I have always been interested in the Native Americans.Thanks for a very detailed and well researched post. Hope all is well with you during these trying times.

  3. Interesting! It’s great to get more context for the Piasa Bird. I’ve certainly seen the image many times, but I didn’t know the multiple theories behind it.

    The detail from Russell’s story about the beast learning to eat humans from war dead is striking because it closely parallels something I read about why wolves were feared as human-eaters in Europe. That might lend credence to the idea that he made the tale up, since the same source also claimed few if any cultures native to the Americas left battle-slain corpses around for scavengers like they had in Europe.

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