He jumps about and has a prickly tail.
Three rows of teeth and two superb mustaches,
You’ll find him leaping over hill and dale.
—Barbara Wersba (1932–), The Land of Forgotten Beasts
0. Modern Piasa painting on cliff face above Alton, Illinois.
The Peculiar Piasa
Called “one of the most haunted towns in America,” Alton, Illinois, is about twelve miles north of St. Louis, situated between the mouths of the Missouri and Illinois Rivers, on the east bank of the mighty Mississippi featured in the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But Alton is also the home of a deeper and more ancient legend—and an intriguing monster of mystery.
Writing in 1836, Professor John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois, described the perpendicular bluffs and cliffs, rising to a height of 100 feet, that bordered the river’s edge:
In descending the river to Alton, the traveler will observe, between that town and the mouth of the Illinois, a narrow ravine through which a small stream discharges its waters into the Mississippi. This stream is the Piasa (pronounced Pi-a-saw). Its name is Indian, and signifies, in the Illini language, “The bird which devours men.” Near the mouth of this stream, on the smooth and perpendicular face of the bluff, at an elevation which no human art can reach, is cut the figure of an enormous bird, with its wings extended. The animal which the figure represents was called by the Indians the Piasa. From this is derived the name of the stream.1
Fig. 1. Fr. Marquette discovers Piasa petrograph. Image credit Alton Museum of History & Art.
This now-famous petrograph had been first reported in 1673 by Pere Jacques Marquette, who was recording his famous journey down the Mississippi River with Louis Joliet. Here is the entry from Fr. Marquette’s diary:
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.2
Fig. 2. Drawing of Piasa from Fr. Marquette’s diary, 1673.
Interestingly in light of later images, the creature originally described and “faithfully Copied” into his diary by Fr. Marquette is wingless. Created long before the arrival of any European explorers in that area, the so-called Piasa petroglyph was of no flying monster, but was actually a typical representation of the Underwater Panther, a powerful and dangerous creature appearing in the mythology of several native traditions, particularly in the Great Lakes region, the Northeastern Woodlands, and the Mississippian culture. These include the Anishinaabe tribes, the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi; and also the Innu, Algonquins, and Nanabozho.
Variously called Michi-Pichoux, Mishibizhiw, Mishipizheu, Mishupishu, Mishepishu, or Mishibijiw (“great lynx”), or Gichi-anami'e-bizhiw (“fabulous night panther”), these aquatic monsters combine features of several animals: the body of a mountain lion or lynx; horns of a deer or bison; a ridge of spiky scales on the back; sometimes bird feathers; and parts from other beasts as well, depending on the particular myth. They are generally represented with exceptionally long serpentine tails. The roar or hiss of the creatures may be heard in the sounds of rushing rapids, and they are even believed to be able to cause storms. Compare this basket design with Fr. Marquette’s original drawing:
Fig. 3. Underwater Panther basket design, George Gustav Heye Center, National Museum of the American Indian.
Underwater Panthers are seen as an opposing yet complementary force to the Thunderbirds (see my previous “Creature of the Month”), with whom they are engaged in eternal seasonal conflict. Said to inhabit the deepest parts of lakes and rivers, some were believed to be helpful, protective creatures; but usually they were feared as malevolent monsters that brought death and misfortune. They often need to be appeased for safe passage across a lake. As late as the 1950s, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians performed traditional ceremonies to placate the Underworld Panther and maintain balance with the Thunderbird.
One variant, Michi-Pichoux, figured prominently in the folklore of the Cree Indians of eastern Canada, where it dwelled among the islands of the St. Lawrence River. It was described by French priest Fr. Louis Nicholas in his Histoire Naturelle (1675) as a hairy, tiger-like beast more than 18 feet long, with huge, clawed feet and a paddle tail like a beaver’s. Its enormous head had fangs more than two feet long, and it preyed upon humans, especially children.
Fig. 4. Underwater Panthers in beadwork design.
Moreover, it turns out that the term Piasa is actually from the Miami-Illinois word páyiihsa—supernatural dwarfs that attack travelers—and contrary to Russell’s assertion, has no meaning of “man-eating bird.”3
The so-called Piasa petrograph was created prior to the arrival of any European explorers in the region, and possibly before 1200 CE. It may have been an older iconograph from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia, which began developing about 900 CE. The largest prehistoric city north of Mexico, Cahokia was at its peak about 1200 CE, with 20-30,000 inhabitants. The Piasa mural may have been painted to warn strangers traveling down the Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.3
Fig. 5. Michi-Pichoux. Ojibwa petrograph from Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. Note canoe and giant water-snakes.
The Alton petrograph was noted subsequently by LaSalle and other 17th-century French explorers. Additional sightings were reported in the early 19th century, and a sketch was made in 1825 by William Dennis, who added wings and labeled it as a “Flying Dragon.” In 1841 the “Piasa Bird” was included in a lithograph by John Casper Wild (Fig.6). And in 1846, the petrograph was sketched by Henry Lewis for a collection of lithographs published in 1854. In 1847, Swiss artist Rudolf Friederick Kurz described the image as “a colossal eagle.”4
Fig. 6. “Piasa Bird” lithograph by J.C. Wild, who explored the area in 1841. The picture shows how the bluffs below Riverview Park looked before quarrying operations six years later created the hollowed-out place below the park. The small figures show the relative size of the Indian petrograph that was so awe-inspiring to all who viewed it. (Telegraph archive)
In his 1836 article titled “The Bird That Devours Men,” John Russell, professor of Greek and Latin at Shurtleff College, Upper Alton, Illinois, referred to the “Piasa Bird” for the first time. He also related a legend, which he later admitted having invented, that became the widely-accepted explanation of the petrograph:
According to Russell’s imaginative fable, long, long ago there lived a terrible bird so vast that he could carry off grown men, swooping down upon them unexpectedly and bearing them off to his inaccessible caves in the cliff to be devoured; the beast having acquired a taste for human flesh from the corpses of an intertribal battle. Hundreds of warriors attempted to vanquish the monster, but without success. His depredations depopulated entire villages, and all the tribes were in despair.
Finally, following a vision from the Great Spirit, Ouatogo, the great chief of the Illini, selected twenty of his bravest warriors and concealed them in ambush. Standing in open view as a willing sacrifice for his people, Ouatago chanted the death chant as the great bird plunged toward its victim. But moments before the deadly claws could strike, twenty poisoned arrows were shot simultaneously into the monster’s body. Uttering a fearful scream of pain and rage, the mighty raptor died without touching the courageous chief.
To commemorate this great victory, the image of the Piasa was painted upon the face of the bluff, below the caves where the bird had taken his victims. And forever after, every Indian passing by that spot in his canoe would fire arrows (and later, guns) at the effigy.
Early French explorers, such as St. Cosme, indeed reported that by 1699 the images were badly worn due to the custom of the local Indians to “discharge their weapons” at the petrographs as they passed. In 1836, Russell confirmed, “The marks of the balls on the rock are almost innumerable.” In his 1838 book Illinois and the West, author A.D. Jones also describes the ravages of weapons (firearms) upon the images, and further refers to the paintings as being named “Piasua.”
Fig. 7. Indians shooting at the Piasa on the cliff face. From The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, by Henry Lewis, 1846.
In March of 1836, led by “an intelligent guide, who carried a spade,” Russell claimed to have made the arduous climb over the perpendicular face of the 150-foot cliff to reach a cave, about fifty feet above the surface of the river, which was attributed in legend to be one of those where the Piasa had carried his victims. Clambering with great difficulty through the opening, he found himself in a cavern about twenty by thirty feet wide, with a vaulted ceiling at least twenty feet high. Astonished, he said that “the floor of the cavern throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide; but we dug to the depth of three or four feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited there.” 5
Tragically, the entire cliff, petrographs, cavern, and alleged bones were dynamited into oblivion only eleven years later in 1847, when the property was purchased by a limestone quarry, the Mississippi Lime Company. In 1882, although he had never seen the original image, or the drawing of it in Fr. Marquette’s diary, Professor William McAdams, an Illinois State geologist, drew up an entirely imaginative illustration of the “Piasa Bird” that subsequently became the definitive version:
Fig. 8. The Piasa by William McAdams, 1882.
Based on McAdams’ drawing, various renditions of the original pictograph have been painted on the Mississippi River bluff at Alton since 1924, only to weather away over time. While Fr. Marquette described the original petrograph being only “as large As a calf,” in 1983 a 39-foot-wide reconstruction of the supposed image of the Piasa based on McAdams’ drawing was created in painted steel by the Alton-Godfrey Rotary Club, and attached to the limestone quarry wall, along the Mississippi River at Norman's Landing at Alton, Illinois, near the original location. The site became a place of annual pilgrimage by local Indians in ceremonial costume, perhaps unaware of its dubious provenance.6
Fig. 9. A performance of the Piasa Indian Dancers during the dedication ceremony in 1983 celebrates the conclusion of a more than year-long volunteer effort coordinated by the Alton-Godfrey Rotary Club.
Unfortunately, this colorful cartoon version of the Piasa was removed in 1996 by the landowners because the increased traffic flow became a nuisance. It was later moved to a new Sports Complex at Southwestern high School, Madison County, Illinois, where the Piasa was adopted as the school’s mascot. The corroded metal monster was refurbished by the industrial art students, and there it remains to this day.
Fig. 10. Final home of painting of Piasa on metal plate at Southwestern high School.
The most recent painting of the Piasa was created in 1998 by artist Dave Stevens of Godfrey, Illinois. It measures 48 feet long and 22 feet high, and is located in a new facility called Piasa Park, along the Great River Road. The park covers an area of 2.5 acres within the old limestone quarry.
Fig. 11. Piasa painting on quarry wall by Dave Stevens, 1998.
However, there is something odd about these modern images, which we are supposed to believe are replicas of the original petrograph. They do not at all resemble either the 1673 drawing in Fr. Marquette’s diary, or even the later renderings by William Dennis, J.C. Wild, Henry Lewis, and others. Rather, they bear an uncanny similarity to a pen drawing from a 17th-century bestiary manuscript, titled “The Manticora Monster of Tartary,” which would seem to be the prototype upon which McAdams based his popular Piasa image from which all subsequent versions derived. Note the fierce bearded human face with horns, the draconic wings, the large body scales, and the knobby scorpion tail which appear for the first time on graphic interpretations of the Piasa. I am unaware that anyone else has noticed this remarkable resemblance, and I may be the first to make this connection:
Fig. 12. “The Manticora Monster of Tartary,” 17th century.
Look for part 2 to post in June.
1. McAdams, William, “The Bird which Devours Men,” Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley, C.R. Barnes; Cambridge, UK, 1887.
2. “The Piasa Bird,” The IBEX Archive, www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/ibex/archive/vignettes/piasa.htm (2007)
3. “Piasa,” Wikipedia.
4. “The Piasa Bird,” Op cit.
5. McAdams, Op cit.
6. Taylor, Troy, “The Legend of the Piasa Bird,” 1999, Ghosts of the Prairie: Haunted Illinois, http://www.prairieghosts.com/piasa.html (2007)