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The Piasa bird is an important and iconic image within Native American culture, referring to a mythical dragon-like monster painted on a cliff facing the Mississippi river. The exact origin and meaning of the bird are unknown, which has led to many speculations. Here’s a closer look at the Piasa bird.
What is the Piasa Bird?
Piasa, also spelled Piusa, means both the bird that devours men and the bird of the evil spirit. It is said to have flown above the Great Fathers of Water long before the arrival of the white man. Early pictures show the Piasa bird as a hybrid creature – part bird, reptile, mammal, and fish. But it was given the name Piasa bird in 1836 by John Russell.
According to Native American records, the bird was as large as a calf with antlers on its head, red eyes and a tiger’s beard on a somewhat human-like face. They go on to describe the body as covered in armored scales with a long tail that winds around its whole body and ends in a fish’s tail. While this is a commonly used description, other variations of the monster and its initial image exist.
History of the Piasa Bird Image
The most famous depiction of the Piasa bird is painted on the limestone bluffs 40 to 50 feet above the water, near where the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers meet. The earliest record of the painting comes from French explorer Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673.
There are several additional accounts and reproductions of the image from the 17th century. However, after the last credible report in 1698, no reliable accounts exist until the early 19th century with a sketch from 1825 surviving. It is hard to know whether each statement is of the same image or if the image has changed throughout its early life.
Unfortunately, the original painting was destroyed in the 19th century when the cliff was quarried. The image was then painted and relocated. Today the painting can be seen on the bluffs near Alton, Illinois, with its most recent restoration attempt occurring in the 1990s.
The Legend of the Piasa Bird
In 1836 John Russell wrote the legend of the Piasa Bird. Later on, he admitted that the story was made up, but it had taken on a life of its own by then, and was widely retold.
The legend is about the peaceful village of Illini and Chief Quatoga.
One day, the peace of the town was destroyed by a giant flying monster who swept in each morning and carried away a person. The beast, the Piasa bird, returned each morning and afternoon after that to claim a victim. The tribe looked to Chief Quatoga to save them, and he prayed to the Great Spirit for almost a month for a way to end the terror of this armored beast.
The answer finally came to him.
The Piasa bird was vulnerable under its wings. Chief Quatoga and six brave men left at night to the top of the high bluff overlooking the water, and Chief Quatoga stood in full view. When the sun rose, the Piasa bird flew from its lair and spotted the Chief coming straight for him.
The monster flew at him, so the Chief dropped to the ground and clung to the roots. The Piasa bird, determined to get his prey, raised its wings to fly away, and the six men shot it with poisoned arrows. Again and again, as the Piasa bird tried to carry him away, Chief Quatoga held fast to the roots, and the men fired their arrows.
Eventually, the poison worked, and the Piasa bird released the Chief and tumbled off the cliff into the waters below. Chief Quatoga survived and was lovingly nursed back to health. They painted the monster on the bluffs to remember this great terror and the bravery of Chief Quatoga. Every time a Native American passed the cliff, they shot an arrow off in salute to the courage of the Chief and him saving his tribe from the Piasa bird.
Symbolism and Purpose of the Piasa Bird
The exact meaning of the Piasa bird remains unclear with a few different versions of its purpose and story of the creation existing. Here are a few of the possible meanings of the symbol:
- On a practical note, some believe that the original painting served to let travelers of the river know they were entering Cahokian territory. Other bird-like images were common motifs of their culture of the tribe, so that the Piasa Bird would fit in with their imagery.
- The colors used in the painting are believed to be important. The red symbolized war and vengeance, the black death and despair, while the green represented hope and triumph over death. Thus, the image could be a reminder of the ability to remain hopeful even in the face of war, death, or other challenges.
- According to John Russell, it is a reminder of the heroism of Chief Quatoga that allowed him to save his tribe from the terrors of the monster. Possibly, the image was created to commemorate an event or honor a person- even if not the one from the legend.
- Others believe that the Piasa was a supernatural deity who lived in the Underworld with the spirit of death and destruction.
- The Piasa represents warfare.
- The Piasa is depicted with antlers, which represent spiritual power, particularly when depicted on a none horn bearing animal, further associating the spiritual or supernatural power of the Piasa.
Wrapping It All Up
The Piasa bird is a complex symbol that has different significance to various tribes. The picture has become an iconic part of the Alton, Illinois culture and landscape. Regardless of whether you believe the legend or give it a different meaning, the Piasa bird continues to capture imagination.