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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Piasa Bird : Fact or Fiction?

When I was a little girl, my Dad would take me on boat rides on the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, in the area just north of St. Louis, Missouri.  One day, Dad pointed out an interesting primitive painting on the side of a bluff, which jutted high above the waterways.  He said, "look up there at that picture on the side of the bluff...they say it was painted by the Indians a long time ago".  When I gazed at the image, I saw what appeared to be a bird-like image, with sharp talons, large teeth and a set of wings.  As I recall, it may have had a set of horns, too.  It was a bit scary looking to me.  It's been a while since I've taken a look at it.  One day, I'll have to drive by that part of the area near Alton, Illinois, and take another look at what may be left of the image.
Department of Natural Resources, State of Illinois

What I was shown was the image of the Piasa Bird, There are many articles written about it.  I was surprised to find that even in this age of technology and historical research, there are so many different theories about the Piasa Bird.  According to many website writings, Father Jacques Marquette wrote about seeing the painting in his hand written records of his famous exploration with Louis Joliet.  Father Marquette wrote that it had horns like a deer, a beard, red eyes, a body covered in scales and a long tail, although not quite in those words.

Some say that the bird was given it's name by the Illini Indians, Piasa, which translates to a bird that feeds on man.  It sounds like it was thought of as a monster, with a taste for human flesh.  In other words, they had visions of a blood-thirsty creature that they evidently feared as much as some of us fear all the ghouls and goblins at this time of year.  Some say that this creature is responsible for the deaths of many Indians of the area. However, there are contradictions to this school of thought. I read somewhere that certain authors thought that the original image was not painted at all, but merely etched into the side of the bluff, and nature had made the colors of the rocks into various hues.
Piasa Bird and Cave Tourist Spot, near Alton, Illinois,

It has also been said that the name, Piasa, came from the Miami-Illinois tribe, which meant "little peoples", and had a relation to the thought of little dwarfs that attack travelers in the area of the bluffs along the river ways.  So, where does the flying monster come into this story? Another story version states that Piasa, the name of the monster, means "the Destroyer".  Who is correct?  I don't know.

There are also stories about the bird-monster living in a cave in the bluffs.  It would hide there, and swoop down on unsuspecting area intruders.  The Indian legend, which may have been embellished by non-Indians, tells that the creature was killed by a chief who stood out on a ledge by the bluffs to entice the creature out of his cave.  When the monster made a move to attack the chief, his warriors shot their poison arrows at it, and killed the creature. The story goes on to say that the villagers painted the picture on the bluff to commemorate the killing of the creature, and in honor of their brave Indian chief.  Is it true, or not?
Workers touching up the paint on the Piasa bird, Illinois Tourism Department

An early account of the painting was told by John Russell, who was said to be an imaginative professor from a college in the area.  His version, which he supposedly published in a newspaper article, said that the creature was given the name of a nearby stream, the Piasa. His story was similar to the one above about the Indians who killed the creature, but, he admitted to others that he embellished his story.

Lastly, there was a article written in the Illinois State Historical Society Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 3 by Dr. H. W. Long, regarding his take on the Piasa bird.  He was in France during WWI, and was able to visit a museum while there.  He observed a display of "Le Grande Geule", a bird of prey.  After studying it carefully, he realized that he had seen the likeness somewhere before then.  He was given permission to photograph the display of the creature.  After his service, he began to review the photo and compare it to the photos that he had seen of the Piasa bird in Alton.  In his article, he write about the similarities and differences in the two creatures.  He notes that there is a possibility that in the description that Father Marquette gives about the image that he saw, he also was familiar with the French "Le Grande Geule", which had an effect on his memories as he wrote his description of the painting on the bluffs along the Mississippi.  His theory is that early French explorers of the region placed that painting on the bluffs, and not the Indians of the region. He further explains that he feels the early explorers would have knowledge of building rigging for holding the painters, and also knowledge about longer lasting pigment paints to use on the painting on the bluffs.
Illinois State Historical Society

Who knows what the truth is?  There are only stories told ages ago, photographs of the bluffs before and after the painting was retouched by modern techniques, and, of course, the diary of Father Marquette.  But, it is fun to think that such an evil creature with four taloned feet, wings and a long tail lept through the air to scare anyone who dared to impose on  this monster's territory.

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