The Piasa Bird

I grew up in St. Louis, Mo, and my father’s family had owned farmland in the Alton, Illinois area in the 19th century. So it is not surprising that I grew up familiar with the legends of the ‘Piasa bird.’

In 1763, the Catholic priest (who went on to be creditied with the founding of Saint Louis) Father Jaques Marquette and his crew of explorers were travelling down the Mississippi River when they discovered a gigantic painting of a fantastic creature upon the river bluffs. It had a man-like face with giant teeth, a snake tail tipped with a fish-like flipper, wings, clawed feet and antlers (the image at right is a reproduction based on early settler’s drawings; the original was unfortunately destroyed because it was painted on stone that was subsequently discovered to be of value for lithography; the original painting (which might have dated back to the Cahokia civilization of ~1200 CE) was cut up and carried away). Father Marquette and his explorers noted the good quality of the painting and could not figure out how anyone could have painted the picture on a cliff of that height. They also worried that the painting might depict a real creature (they were among the first Europeans to visit this part of the world which was, at that time, a big white space on the map with a question mark). They called it ‘the bird that eats men.’

I grew up believing that the word ‘Piasa’ (which is pronounced “Pie-uh-saw”) was ‘bird that eats men’ in the native language. As it turns out, no one can agree on why the explorers called it a ‘Piasa.’ Some think is is a reference to the French word for river bluff and others think it is a native word. Most think the original was a symbol of The Cahokian Civilization. The Cahokian civilization dissapeared before any Europeans made it to the midwest, so no one knows much about them.

4 Comments on “The Piasa Bird”

  1. You have seen this, haven't you?:

    I'm grew up in Webster Groves, by the way.

  2. Tim Brannan says:

    Matthew, thanks for the link, I have been meaning to do one for Basic D&D too.

    Limpey, I have always loved the Piasa bird story and have been to those bluffs many times.

  3. limpey says:

    Matthew/Tim: Thanks for that!
    It's a shame that one of the original native paintings (which I guess would have been 400+ years old when Marquette saw it) was destroyed when they quarried the stone. Apparently the modern Piasa reproduction has to be repainted every couple of years — which seems kind of ironic. The natives painted one that lasted several hundred years without maintenance and we modern people, with all our fancy modern paints, can't get our Piasa painting to stay without peeling for 5 years?

  4. limpey says:

    I don't know, Josh. We moved to STL when I was a youngster (U City), so I wasn't 'born and bred,' but my father's great-grandfather had owned a farm in the Alton/Cahokia area (there is a tiny town named after him). Maybe it's a “West Illinois Alton/Cahokia” thing.

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