Friday, February 14, 2014

Birdlore: The Piasa Bird

In my previous Birdlore blog I regaled readers with the legend of the Mighty Thunderbird of a Pacific Coast Tribe.  The image of the storm-creating eagle is perhaps the most well-known depiction of this creature; however, the word “thunderbird” may also be used as a general term to describe any great bird of the skies in Native American lore.  One of these great birds also happens to be a local legend:  The Piasa Bird of Alton, IL.

The Piasa (pie-a-saw) was a terrible creature that was said to have terrorized the Illini tribes, who lived along the Mississippi River long before the arrival of the white man.  The name translates as “the bird that devours men” because the Piasa was said to have preferred human flesh. 

A modern reproduction of the "Piasa Bird" on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton, IL.  Wings were not described in Marquette's 1673 account.  The original petroglyph eroded away on the limestone bluffs. (photo from the Wikipedia files)
 The original petroglyph decorating the bluffs of Alton, depicted a mismatched creature that was part bird, reptile, mammal, and fish.  In 1673, Missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote a detailed account of the Piasa Bird’s appearance in his diary, when he stumbled upon the original petroglyph on his journey down the Mississippi river.  He wrote, “…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”.

The most common legend regarding the origins of the Piasa Bird goes:

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, butt 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 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.

The most recent restoration of the Piasa Bird painting is located on the Mississippi bluffs just north of Alton along the Great River Road.

Even though the World Bird Sanctuary does not have a Piasa Bird, come visit us to see many other fascinating birds that may have been the inspiration for this ancient legend.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary, Trainer

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