The original Piasa Bird was a petroglyph (a
prehistoric carving, usually pictorial, gouged into a rock surface). According
to legend, in the years long before the Europeans arrived in the Meeting of the Great Rivers area, the Piasa
(pronounced Pie-a-saw) was a bird-like creature of such great size that it could
easily carry off a full grown deer in its talons. But what concerned the Illini
tribes of the region was that the creature preferred human flesh. The native
people attempted for years to destroy the creature but were unsuccessful and
watched with terror as this monster destroyed whole villages.
Then a local chief, Ouatoga,
whose fame as a great warrior extended far beyond the region, separated himself
from the rest of his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a full moon, and
prayed to the Great Spirit to protect his people from the Piasa. On the last
night of his fast, the Great Spirit appeared to the chief in a dream and
directed him to select and arm twenty warriors with bows and poison arrows. He
was instructed to hide the warriors in a chosen spot while one warrior was to
stand in open view as bait for the Piasa. As instructed in the dream, Ouatoga assembled his warriors and
laid the trap with himself as the bait. Soon Ouatoga saw the Piasa perched on a
nearby bluff. Ouatoga stood erect and chanted the death song of a warrior to
attract the great beast. As the Piasa swooped down upon the chief, the hidden
warriors let loose their poison arrows. Mortally wounded, the Piasa uttered an awful
and hideous scream that could be heard far and wide. In commemoration of the event,
the image of the Piasa was engraved
on the bluff. It then became the custom that whenever a warrior passed the image,
he discharged an arrow at the once feared creature.
Drawing by map maker Jean-Bapiste Louise Franquelin
from a written description in Marquette's journal
On their exploratory trip down the
Mississippi River in 1673, Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet became the
first non-natives to view the image of two large monsters on the bluffs near
Piasa creek. According to Marquette’s diary, "each was as large as a calf
with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face like a man,
the body covered with green, red and black scales, and a tail so long that it
passed around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fishes’
tail." Later records describe only one image of the monster.
The modern rendition of this legendary
creature traces its roots to the 20th century. In 1924, Herbert Forcade
researched this Native American legend and chose a spot on the bluffs north of
Alton to paint the Piasa. This painting was blasted away in the 1960's to make
way for the Great River Road. A metal replica of the Piasa was subsequently
located at Norman’s Landing in Godfrey before being taken down in 1995.
The current 48-by-22 foot painting situated
on a 100-by-75 section of the Mississippi bluffs just north of Alton (1 mile
up the Great River Road from the Alton Visitor's Center) was completed by the American Legends Society and volunteers in 1998.
There is no charge to visit the Piasa Bird.
Piasa Bird is located approximately 1 mile north of the Alton Visitors Center on
IL-100 (the Great River Road.)
more about the Alton