The Piasa BirdPosted: February 22, 2011
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.