A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The recent flooding in St. Louis reminds us that we are powerless over the violence of nature. We believed that our grandfathers had tamed the Mississippi, transforming the roiling waters into a series of placid lakes, but now the brown god is waking up, rising and churning, destroying the cities and suburbs built along its banks. The native Americans of the region knew about its power, and now we are learning as well.
The Piasa (pronounced Pie-a-saw), is a cliff painting at a bend in the Mississippi River, as well as a subject of local legend. Experts believe that the original version may have been created as early as 1200 CE by artists of the Cahokian nation, part of the Mississippian culture. In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, in recording his famous journey down the Mississippi River with Louis Joliet, described the “Piasa” as a birdlike monster painted high on the bluffs along the Mississippi River, where the city of Alton, Illinois now stands.
According to the diary, the Piasa “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 it passed around the body, over the head and between the legs.”
It is widely believed that the creature was given its name by the Illini Indians: “The Piasa” — meaning a bird that devours men.
There are many legends concerning the Piasa. Here is one:
Long 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 spread throughout the Illini tribe. Ouatoga, a chief whose fame extended even beyond the Great Lakes, separated himself from his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a whole 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 Ouatoga in a dream and directed him to select 20 warriors, arm them each with a bow and poisoned arrow, and conceal them in a designated spot. Another warrior was to stand in an open view, as a victim for the Piasa.
When the chief awoke in the morning, he told the tribe of his dream. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush. Ouatoga offered himself as the victim. Placing himself in open view, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the bluff eyeing his prey. Ouatoga began to chant the death song of a warrior. The Piasa took to the air and swooped down upon the chief. The Piasa had just reached his victim when every bow was sprung and every arrow sent sailing into the body of the beast. The Piasa uttered a fearful scream that echoed down the river, and died. Ouatoga was safe, and the tribe saved.
Although the cliff painting that Father Marquette described has long disappeared, a striking re-creation, based on nineteenth century sketches, can be seen on the bluff just north of Alton on the Great River Road a few hundred yards from where the original was located. The priest called it a “birdlike” creature, but many would describe it as a dragon with the face of a man.
For a different version of the legend of Ouatoga and the Piasa, as well as a possibly apocryphal account by a nineteenth century professor who claimed to have found a cave of bones near the site, see Prairie Ghosts.
For more information about local attitudes toward the Piasa, see Altonweb.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms.
The Piasa (detail)