North American Mythology: The Mystery of the Piasa Bird

Piasa Bird – Burfalcy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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.


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. 


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

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.


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.


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

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Chippewa Folklore: The Legend of the Sleeping Bear

This is a Native American legend from the Chippewa people that tells how North Manitou Island and South Manitou island, were created in the Great Lake now called Lake Michigan and how the Sleeping Bear Dune on its shore came to be.


Pixabay – Image by skeeze – CC0 Public Domain

Mishe Mokwa

A long time ago on the Wisconsin side of Mishigami, the great lake, which is now call Lake Michigan, lived a mother bear called Mishe Mokwa, who gave birth to twin cubs in the spring. In keeping with her sacred duty to her young, she taught them how to live in the wild and how to find shelter. She taught them how to find clean water from the creeks and rivers, how to use their claws to dig out the dead trees for ants and grubs and how to follow honey bees back to their nests and steal their honey. Mishe Mokwa taught them plants that would heal them when they were sick and she taught them which animals were to be avoided and all the dangers of the wild woods because even for bears there were many.


The summer that followed the birth of her cubs became hot and troubled. The sun appeared bigger and closer to the earth and the clouds did not appear in the sky to cast cooling shadows and so no rain fell. Day after day the sun scorched the earth drying up the rivers and streams and the plants and trees grew brown and withered and the woods became bone dry and food became scarce. One morning she led her cubs down to the creek to drink but the creek was dry.

Fire in the forest

Mishe Mokwa knew they had to leave to find water and food and called her cubs to her telling them, “The sun has dried the water and we have to have water.  We can no longer stay, we have to follow the dry riverbed to the great lake Mishigami where we shall drink our fill.”

Mishe Mokwa was wise and relied upon her instincts and led her cubs along the dry riverbed towards Mishigami which was still some distance off. They traveled all day but as night fell out of the darkness came a great storm. The thunder rolled across the skies and lightning struck several trees and the parched woods were quickly turned into a sea of flames and smoke.  Mishe Mokwa called to her cubs,

“Quick, we must run for our lives down the dry creek bed to the great lake where we can hide in the wide water and be safe, run, run, run!”

Her cubs responded and they followed her as she ran down the dried riverbed with the flames so close their fur was singed.  Eventually and just in time they reached the great lake and swam out to safety. Turning round and looking back they saw the entire  shore in flames. The cubs looked upon the terrible sight in fear and one of them cried,
“Where, oh where will we live our home is burning!”

And the other one cried,
“How will we live with no home!”

Crossing Mishigami

Mishe Mokwa looked at the scene of devastation and inside she quailed but she knew she had to stay strong for her children. “There is a land on the other side of the lake where we can live. We will swim to it, follow me!” she told them.

So Mishe Mokwa began swimming in the opposite direction to the burning woods with her cubs following her. They swam all night and when the sun came up they found themselves in the middle of a vast world of water with no land anywhere in sight but they were heading straight for the sun.

Treading water they turned and looked back towards the shore where flames still raged and smoke rose into the skies. Mishe Mokwa and her cubs were now far from the shore and could see no land only plumes of smoke rising into the skies above Mishigami.

“Look, our old home is gone, there is no more land only smoke. How do we know which way to go we are surrounded by water and we can’t go back!” asked the cubs.

Mishe Mokwa said,  “Last night I followed the stars and today we swim for the sun and see how the wind flies across the water pushing us to our new home. We must keep on swimming, quick now!”

Once again she led her cubs swimming before them across the great lake ever urging them on, ever urging them to keep close.  All that day they swam on and on and night came and still Mishe Mokwa urged her cubs on.  The next morning they were again swimming into the rising sun.  “Mother, can you see our home yet?” asked the cubs,

”No, not yet we must keep swimming!”  she replied

“We are so tired and so hungry!” cried the cubs.

“I know, but we must keep swimming, we have to reach the shore on the other side, keep going!”

Of course, Mishe Mokwa was worried but she knew there was no alternative other than to keep swimming. They swam all day and night began to fall with no sign of land. She urged her cubs to stay close and carried on swimming finding her way in the darkness by the stars. Dark clouds began to roll across the sky that night and blocked out the stars, but Mishe Mokwa could feel the wind pushing her on and she encouraged her cubs again, but another storm broke upon them.

Storm on the lake

The wind whipped up and drove the family apart. All Mishe Mokwa could do was swim in circles in the darkness calling out to her children but no answer came. Eventually, the storm abated and the sun rose. She swam round and round but could find no trace of either of them. Not knowing what to do she waited in the water hoping they might hear her voice and find her. She waited and waited but still they did not come. Then she thought they were much lighter than she and the strong winds of the storm may have pushed them on in front of her.  She started swimming again heading for the sun, calling out all the way hoping to catch up with them.


Pixabay – Image by 246738 – CCo Public Domain

She swam all that day and the next night but still neither saw or heard a sign of them. As the sun rose she found herself wearily clambering up a sandy bank on to new shore. Thinking they must have made it safely she searched the sand for their tracks but none could she find. Thinking they may have landed at another point she searched up and down the shore but no sign of them could she find.

Mishe Mokwa was tired and hungry and terribly afraid for her cubs and searched all day. When night fell she lay down facing the water to rest still hoping to see them come struggling out of the water. Day after day she searched resting only at night but her cubs did not come and she fell into despair and sleep came upon her.

Manitou looks down

Manitou, the Great Spirit who is wise and the creator of all looked down upon Mishe Mokwa with kindness and pity and took her up into the spirit world where her cubs ran to meet her. Dancing joyfully around her they cried, “We tried to follow but the waves were so high, the wind too strong and we were so tired and we were lost in the water!”

And with great happiness Mishe Mokwa told the, *I know you tried hard and did your best but now I have found you and we are all together forever!”


The Sleeping Bear Dune has suffered much from erosion Image by Royalbroil – CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking on and smiling Manitou was touched by the love and dedication he saw and decided he would do something so that others of his children should remember such devotion. Calling upon his great power he caused the bodies of the cubs to rise out of Mishigami, the great water. Today they are called the North Manitou and South Manitou Islands. To remind the people of the devotion of Mishe Mokwa he lovingly and gently blew and his breath caused fine sand to gently cover the body of Mishe Mokwa which is now known as the Sleeping Bear Dune on the banks of Lake Michigan.

© 20/07/2016 zteve t evans

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Copyright July 20th, 2016 zteve t evans