In the late summer of 1773, seven voyageurs, drifting down the Mississippi River in a pair of dugout canoes, found themselves suddenly at a wide confluence. Here, the muddy Mississippi was joined by the Illinois River and the slow moving waters fanned out, passing around large wooded islands and turning in wide, languorous arcs. The leaders of the expedition, a Jesuit priest named Jacques Marquette and French-Canadian fur trader Louis Joliet, were among the first Europeans to see this land and what they found, lurking on the bluffs high above the murky water, startled them.
"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... 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."
This is how Marquette described the images, two large pictographs that had been painted on the sheer wall of a limestone cliff. Today, neither image remains, but thanks to Marquette's description, and those of other explorers who followed, we have an idea of what these terrifying, mythical creatures may have looked like. In fact, one of them has been recreated, time and time again, continuing a tradition that may have begun nearly a thousand years earlier.
Today we call the beast the Piasa Bird (pronounced PYE-AH-SAW), though the origins and veracity of that name remain unclear. Some argue that it is a corruption of the French word for palisades, describing the high bluffs on which the image was painted. Others claim it was derived from a Native American word that described the beast itself. The only clear historical mention of the name comes from a late eighteenth century map on which the area containing the pictograph was called Piasas.
And the meaning of the moster-like figure is even less clear. The most popular myth regarding the beast comes from the writings of John Russell, a local professor who wrote an article on the subject around 1836. According to Russell, the image was a commemorative painting made by local Indians to celebrate the slaying of the beast by their chief, Ouatoga. Inspired by a sacred vision, the chief used himself as bait, boldly standing before the monster's lair while his warriors prepared an ambush. When the beast appeared, ready to devour the chief, it was killed by a volley of poisoned arrows.
Historical sources to support Russell's account are few and far between, but archaeologists are slowly beginning to piece together an alternate history for the ancient monster. Pictographs featuring mythical animals similar to the Piasa Bird are found throughout the Mississippi valley and the Great Lakes region and may symbolize part of a shared mythology that can be linked to the Mississippi culture, a vast mound-building culture that dominated the central and eastern United States between 900-1500 A.D. One of the largest Mississippian centers, an ancient city known as Cahokia, lies just a few miles south of the Piasa site.
Among the iconography of the Mississippians is a curious character known as the Underwater Panther, a beast whose body was an amalgam of snake and mountain lion, topped off by the horns of a bison or deer. In many cultural traditions this creature, called the Mishibizhiw in the Ojibwa language of the Great Lakes, is a harbinger of death and misfortune who must be placated.
So is the Piasa Bird really a depiction of the dangerous Mishibizhiw? We may never know for certain. The original image, which had existed for hundreds of years, was destroyed in the 1870s by a company that quarried the limestone on which the pictograph was painted. Today, a replica has been placed on the bluffs just north of the original site. This representation remains controversial, however, as it is based on depictions published by Russell and others who may have embellished. Many suspect that the wings included in this version were not part of the original, as there was no mention of them in Marquette's description.
Regardless of its accuracy, this ferocious creature still inspires awe and even a few chills. Drive under its fearsome gaze and you'll find yourself staring right into the face of history.
If you would like to see the Piasa Bird for yourself, take a drive up the Great River Road (Illinois Route 100). You'll find it just north of Alton, perched on the beautiful bluffs which are also home to bald eagles and other wildlife. Drive a little farther and you'll reach Pére Marquette State Park
, named for the priest who first laid eyes on this amazing monster more than two hundred years ago.
Photo: The Mishibizhiw (Ontario, Canada), Adam Kahtava/Flickr