Friday, 6 November 2009

The Piasa bird - legend or Thunderbird?

The Piasa Bird is a legendary creature that was depicted in murals painted by Native Americans on the side of cliffs above the Mississippi River.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette discovered the murals on a limestone cliff or bluff while exploring the area. He wrote:

"While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three Colors composing the Picture. Moreover, these 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It."

In 1812, a Major Amos Stoddard, wrote "What they call 'painted monsters' on the side of a high perpendicular rock, apparently inaccessible to man, located between the Missouri and Illinois Rivers and known to moderns by the name of Piasa, still remains to a good degree of preservation."

In 1820, Captain Gideon Spencer came up the Mississippi and got a glimpse of the Piasa. By this time though, only one of the murals remained.. Spencer asked the Indians what the strange painting was and they told him that it was a "Storm Bird" or a "Thunder Bird" and that it had been placed there long ago.

The mural was then referred to as the "Piasa Bird" in an article published in 1836 by John Russell . The article was entitled "The Bird That Devours Men." According to the story by Russell, the creature was a flying monster that lived in the cliffs. Russell claimed that this creature attacked and devoured people in nearby Indian villages. The legend according to Russell, claims that a local Indian chief, named Chief Ouatoga, managed to finally slay the monster using a plan that was given to him in a dream from the Great Spirit.

The Legend goes as follows:

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, 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.

So could the Piasa have been a thunderbird? The description and the mural seem to depict a legendary beast but it does not match the descriptions of thunderbirds . Over time things get distorted and what was painted may not necessarily have been what was seen and of course it could just be a story and have no truth in it what so ever. The mural is interesting though and reminds me of heraldic beasts and who knows what grains of truth may be in a story?

3 comments:

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walker b webber said...

I saw a giant bird !! I was a 6 yr old living in the Rio grande valley of south Texas in san benito tex. I was in the brush next to my house on old combes hwy and looked up and saw this huge bird in the air , it looked to be as big as a small piper cub plane. i would flap its wings maybe three times and then glide . I t WAS NOT a condor, or turkey vulture, this giant bird has been reported in this area for years!! I feel lucky to have seen it and it launched a life long interest in the cryptids

kateyvankirk said...

I work in Grafton, il and live nearby. I always work odd late hours and luckily ride home with another passenger. One night in January 2012, we were heading home at about 2 a.m. and a large bird (larger in size than any bird i have ever seen)whose feathers reminded me of an owl, and head looked like someone took a knife to fine leather. This bird was amazing and swooped right down in front of my car as if I were threatening its territory. Lucky for me I had another person there to tell me I wasn't crazy. I did not grow up in the Grafton area so this legend is all new to me, and I have been highly interested ever since my encounter to find out how many others have seen what I did that night.