The Piasa, also called the Piasa Bird, is a legendary avian creature from Native American Folklore which was immortalized in a rock bluff mural painted by Native Americans on a cliff above the Mississippi River. The original Piasa illustration, located in Jersey County near present day Elsah, Illinois, no longer exists, but a newer version, based partly on 19th century sketches and lithographs, has been erected in Alton, Illinois, southeast of the original.
There has been some debate over the translation of the creature’s name, some believe that the word Piasa translates into Great Bird that Devours Men, while others believe that this could not be the case and that Piasa is from the Miami-Illinois word payiihsa, the name of a small supernatural dwarf thought to attack travelers.
In 1673, the French explorer Father Jacques Marquette, while recording his famous journey down the Mississippi River with Louis Jolliet, was the first explorer to discover the original rock bluff mural, he recorded the following description upon seeing it for the first time:
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 2 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.
This creature depicted in the rock painting was first referred to as the Piasa Bird in an article published in 1836 by John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois. According to the article, which was entitled The Bird That Devours Men, the creature depicted by the painting was a huge flying monster that lived in the cliffs. Russell claimed that the creature attacked and devoured people in nearby Indian villages. One Native American legend which was featured in Russell’s article regarding the Piasa Bird reads as follows:
Many moons ago, there existed a birdlike creature of such great size, he could easily carry off a full grown deer in his talons. His taste, however, was for human flesh. Hundreds of warriors attempted to destroy the Piasa, but failed. Whole villages were destroyed and fear quickly spread throughout the Illini tribe. Ouatoga, a chief whose fame extended even beyond the Great Lakes, separated himself from his tribe and fasted in solitude for roughly a months time, he prayed to the Great Spirit to protect his people from the Piasa. On the last night of his fast, the Great Spirit appeared to Ouatoga in a dream and directed him to select twenty warriors, arm them each with a bow and poisoned arrow, and conceal them in a well hidden area. Another warrior was to remain in the open as bait for the giant beast.
When the chief awoke in the morning he told the tribe of his dream. He quick assembled twenty of his finest warriors and strategically hide them in some bushes around a clearing, Ouatroga himself was offered up as bat. Standing in open view, it was not long before Ouatoga saw the Piasa perched on a bluff eyeing his prey. The chef began to chant the death song of a warrior and the Piasa took to the air, swooping down upon him. As the Piasa drew near to the chef the warriors fired a volley of their poisoned arrows at the beast, and uttering a fearful, echoing scream it crashed to the earth, dead.
There are a few researchers who have suggested that the above account was likely a story created by John Russell, as the Piasa’s original image, reported by Father Marquette, made no mention of the beast having wings, nevertheless, Russell’s account is commonly related as the history behind the pictograph. Some researchers, who put stock in the description that the Piasa Bird had wings, have suggested a connection between the Piasa legend and later sightings of the Thunderbird, implying that stories of the Piasa Bird may have evolved overtime into the legend of the Thunderbird.
There is currently no physical evidence to support the existence of a creature like the Piasa Bird.
No documented sightings of the Piasa Bird could be found at this time.
The Stats – (Where applicable)
• Classification: Avian
• Size: Unknown
• Weight: Unknown
• Diet: Carnivorous
• Location: Central United States of American
• Movement: Flight
• Environment: Unknown