Alton Museum of History and Art, Alton, Illinois

Piasa Bird

Piasa Bird on the Bluffs

     The Piasa Bird (pronounced Pie-a-saw), is a local legend in the Alton area. Its foundings go back to 1673 when Father Jacques Marquette, in recording his famous  journey down the Mississippi River with Louis Joliet, described the "Piasa"  as a birdlike monster painted high on the bluffs along the Mississippi  River, where the city of Alton, Illinois now stands. According to the  diary, 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 creature was given its name by the  Illini Indians, "The Piasa", meaning a bird that devours men.

     Piasa Bird HeadThere are many legends regarding  its origin. One of the more popular accounts goes like this ...

     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.

     The re-creation of the original painting  (one version is depicted in the image at the top of this page), has been  a local landmark and, until just recently, could be seen on the bluff  just north of Alton on the Great River Road. Due to weather damage and  an increase in local traffic, the painting had been removed for restoration  and relocation.

     UPDATE! -The Piasa Bird now rules over  the River Bend once again. Through the efforts of local citizens , government  and business advocates, the painting on the bluff has been restored.
 

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