The Piasa Bird, often referred as Marquette's Monster, is a modern mythological beast that unhappy with its lack of historical pedigree, stole that of the Manitou of the waters —the fundamental life force or spirit that inhabits the waters of a river or lake a common figure among the legends of the Algoquian groups.
The Piasa was first describe by French missionary Priest Jacques Marquette in 1673 as being “large as a calf, with horns like a roebuck, red eyes, a beard like a tiger and a frightful countenance. The face was something like that of a man, the body covered in scales, and the tail so long that it passed entirely around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fish.” Significantly, Marquette’s description, the earliest recorded, makes no mention of wings, which is a common feature in later descriptions.
While much has been written and said about the Piasa, the fact remains that such a beast is not, and has never been, part of the Native American folklore. It’s important to mention, that the illustration that gave origin to the Piasa tale, part of a mural attributed to the Illiniwek people who lived in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 17th century and originally found on a massive river-bluff near Alton (Illinois, US), is now long gone.
The mural, and the so-called “Piasa figure” were destroyed around 1847, when a quarry started mining the area and blasted away the wall on which it was painted. This rockwall overlooked the edge of the American Bottoms floodplain, and the mural may have been an older remnant from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia (the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico and a major chiefdom), which began developing about 900 AD.
However, while the ancient pictograph was real and created prior to the arrival of any European settlers, interpretations of it by French settlers and American scholars were erroneous, as they were based on Marquette’s records, and thus, inherited all of his original misinterpretations.
Marquette visited Alton's area in the 1670s. As part of his missionary work, he intended to travel down the Mississippi river. By his own account, Marquette was not entirely familiar with the Algonquian language, spoken by most the tribes along the Mississippi, and evidently made some errors in transcribing what he learn from the natives as they warned him of the dangers lurking in the river.
In this respect, historian Jacob P. Dunn wrote, in a research paper published 1917, the following:
“Considerable attention has been given by Illinois writers to the Indian pictograph sometimes known as 'Marquette's monster' now commonly called 'the Piasa Bird.' However, no Indian ever heard of any such thing as a Piasa Bird, and there is no such word as 'piasa' in the Illinois language.”
The rock bluff on which the pictograph was made was called Pa-i'sa Eock by the Illinois Indians, and a pa-i'-sa (pronounced pah-e-sah) was one of 'the little people,' corresponding to our elves, gnomes, sprites and kobolds.
The monster is a representation of the manitou of the waters, a mythological creature also referred as Water Panther, which the Miamis call Len'-ni-pm'-ja, or the Man-Cat.”
The northern tribes called it Mi-ci-bi-si (the Big Cat, or Panther), and the old French chroniclers sometimes speak of it as Le Homme Tygre, i.e., Tiger Man. This was the monster which the Peorias told Marquette inhabited the Mississippi, when they advised him not to attempt to descend it, for it was the manitou most feared by the canoe people.”
The previous paragraphs show that the case of the Piasa is a case of mistaken identity, for the beast represented by the pictograph, now destroyed, was the Manitou of the Waters, an aquatic mythological beast most feared by the local tribes.
However, nowadays if you look around, you will find a long tale that is generally referred as the Illiniwek "Legend of the Piasa Bird" (see below). But then, if not tribe ever knew of the Piasa, where did this so-called "Piasa Legend" come from?
Two prominent points of origin had been elucidated. First are the records of John Russel, a professor at Shurtleff College, who in his journals wrote something that seemed related to Marquette’s Monster.
Russell was an amateur explorer interested enough in the local legend to do a little exploring and research into the story of the creature. In doing so, he visited the area were the mural was located (the Pa-i'-sa Rock) and some of the caves below the bluff. This is his recount of one of such exploration trips:
“Preceded by an intelligent guide, who carried a spade, I set out on my excursion. The cave was extremely difficult of access, and at one point in our progress I stood at an elevation of one hundred fifty feet on the perpendicular face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. The unbroken wall towered above me, while below me was the river.”
This reference appears to have propped others, such as McAdams, to think that Marquette’s Monster must had been a bird-like creature with the ability to fly.
“After a long and perilous climb, we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river... The roof of the cavern was vaulted, and the top was hardly less than twenty feet high. The shape of the cavern was irregular; but, so far as I could judge, the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet.”
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 a depth of 3 or 4 feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited here. How, and by whom, and for what purpose, it is impossible to conjecture."
Russell may have found the contents of the cave distressing and intriguing, however he never published his findings. It was 50 years later that Russell’s accounts were made public by another amateur explore, geologist Wiliam McAdams.
In 1887, McAdams published an article in the journal "Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley."
It’s in this article that the “Legend of the Piasa Bird” makes its first appearance. This is the tale better known today, and everything indicates that it was McAdams invention. The so-called legend was published along an illustration of the Piasa Beast. This illustration was based on Marquette’s description, but with one important addition: wings. It’s from this drawing, and McAdams story, that all of the modern-day renditions of the Piasa Bird come from.
McAdams affirmed, without any evidence to support his claims, that the Illiniwek people had a legend describing how their pleasant life was interrupted by the arrival of a "great beast."
This is the tale, authored by McAdams, but made believed to be part of Native American Folklore:
"It was at the time that Owatoga was chief that the beast came. One morning when Utim –Owatoga’s son– and a friend were fishing when they heard screaming and saw a huge bird rising from the edge of the river. The creature had a man gripped in its claws and it carried him away and out of sight. Then, the two young men rushed back to the village to find their people very frightened. They waited all day, hoping the young man would escape from the bird and return, but he did not."
After that day, nearly every morning, the great bird would appear in the sky and carry away a member of the tribe. Those who were carried off were never seen again. The people began to call the bird the Piasa, meaning the bird which devours men."
This part has been proved false, as not language of any tribe in Illinois has a word remotely close to Piasa with the meaning expressed by McAams.
"Owatoga knew that to kill the beast he needed the guidance of the old spirits, so he retreated to his lodge to fast and sweat and emerged the next day with the revelations of a vision: He was to take six of his finest braves and climb to the top of one of the highest bluffs. The men were to carry with them only their bows and a quiver of poisoned arrows. They were to hide themselves while Owatoga stood on the edge of the bluff and waited for the Piasa to appear. When the monster came, the chief was to throw himself down on the rocks and hold on while the bird attempted to carry him away. As it did so, the braves would slay the beast their poisoned arrows.”
So it was that the arrows were sharpened and poisoned, the group climbed to the top of the bluff, the six young men hid, and Owatoga stepped out to the edge of the cliff waiting for the creature to appear. Suddenly, the sky darkened overhead as the bird’s massive wings were heard, and the Piasa swooped down toward Owatoga."
It was when the tip of the creature’s sharp talon sunk into his shoulder, that Owatoga threw himself flat upon the rocks, and held to the roots of a nearby bush. The Piasa roared in frustration as its wings beat furiously, trying to lift the man from the rocks."
The wings unfolded once more, and as the beast exposed itself, the men burst from their hiding place and fired their arrows. The arrows found their mark but the Piasa continued to fight, trying over and over to lift Owatoga from the rocks. Finally, when the poison did its bid, the creature released Owatoga, and with a howl of agony, collapsed backward, crashing over the edge, spiraling down out of sight to plunge beneath the waters of the Mississippi to never be seen again.”
McAdams article quickly became popular. The story was engaging and many believed his accounts given that similar beasts were part of the oral tradition of other Algonquian tribes. For instance, the Dacotah tribe believed that thunder was a monstrous bird flying through the air and claimed that these birds were large enough to carry off human beings. These similarities gave credit to McAdams forgery, so much that nowadays many truly believe his descriptions were based on Native American Traditions.
Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that despite the similarities with authentic Native American legends, the Piasa Bird is purely the creation of McAdams, who, by selling his story, greatly profited of his counterfeited beast.
-Dunn, J. P. (1917). Shall Indian Languages Be Preserved? Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), 10(1), 87-96.
-Steiger, Brad (1991). "Giant Birds, Beasts, and Human Skeletons of Great Size". Beyond Belief. Scholastic. pp. 38–39
-Temple, W. C. (1956). The Piasa Bird: Fact or Fiction?. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), 308-327.
-Peithmann, I., & Peithman, I. (1952). Pictographs and Petroglyphs in Southern Illinois. Journal of the Illinois State Archaeological Society, 2(4), 91-94.
-Voelker, F. E. (1914). The Piasa. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), 7(1), 82-91.