Legend of the Piasa......

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

"The world is but a canvas to our imagination......."Henry David Thoreau

As adults most of us tend to lose our ability to use our imagination. Real life just gets in the way. So let's take a break from real life for just a few minutes..... find yourself a comfy spot, fire up your imagination and listen to my story....

I grew up in Alton, Illinois - nestled right on the Mississippi River. Nature and history combine to make our little corner of the world unique. Exploring bluffs, caves and creeks was part of our growing up. It's no wonder I now love to create stone textures in my art!

One of the stories we all grew up with was the legend of the Piasa Bird....... The Piasa Bird was a Native American dragon. Bet you didn't know you we had dragons in Illinois, did you? Here's the story.....

It was the summer of 1673 when 2 men from France -Father Jacques Marquette and a fur trader named Louis Joliet set out on a four-month voyage that carried them thousands of miles through the heart of North America to explore the path of the mighty Mississippi River. The two explorers were an unlikely pair. Father Jacques Marquette was a studious Jesuit two weeks shy of his 36th birthday. His partner, Louis Joliet was a 27-year-old philosophy student who had become a fur trader. They traveled in two canoes with 5 others (must have been big canoes...)

Both men kept records of the voyage. The following spring, Joliet headed home but outside Montreal his canoe overturned and all of his notes and his journal were lost.

A really bad day for Louis.....

It is from Father Jacques Marquette's journal that we learn the beginnings of the Legend of the Piasa Bird. "While skirting some rocks" the priest wrote, 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". The limestone bluff that was the canvas for those paintings was right here in what is now Alton, IL.

The huge painting of the two birds (verified by other explorers in the 1700's and pioneers in the early 1800's) must have been a sight to behold. Again from Marquette's journal: " They are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, ..... a beard like a tiger'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."

Father Marquette drew a picture in his journal - accompanied by a bit of an apparent disclaimer on his artistic skills: "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."

Don't laugh - he tried.....

What was the story behind these beasts painted with great artistic skill on the limestone bluffs? Were they real??? Well let me just say right here that dragon stories were part of cultures around the world for thousands of years. They didn't ALL make up the same story did they? But back to our local dragon.....

The Ojibwe tribes of Canada have an indigenous language of Algonquian. Algonquian was the language of the Cahokia tribe which lived in our area before Marquette and Joliet arrived and set eyes on the beasts of the bluffs. In mythologies of Ojibwe- you will find Underwater Panthers and Thunderbirds.... (pictures and information courtesy of wikipedia) Underwater Panthers are described as water monsters that live in opposition to the Thunderbirds, masters of the powers of the air. ...Underwater panthers are represented with exceptionally long tails, occasionally with serpentine properties. Sound familiar? The battles between the two beasts are legendary... Nobody today knows who painted the original mural on the Alton bluffs but that Underwater Panther sure could be a cousin....

The earliest known sketch (after Father Marquette's attempt) was in 1825 by William Dennis. He labeled his creation the "Flying Dragon" Try as I might - I haven't been able to find a copy of William's sketch. Will need to keep looking. The creatures painted on the bluffs near Alton that were seen by Marquette and Joliet were visible at least until 1845. A few years later, the face of the bluff was gradually quarried away for the purpose of making lime, and about the time the Civil War commenced, all traces of the ancient picture had disappeared - but the legend remained.

It was in 1936 that things started to get "creative" This was the year John Russell published an article entitled "The Bird That Devours Men" and called the monster the Piasa Bird for the first time. Notice that by this time the Piasa Bird had sprouted wings and had become a bird. A painting by Henry Lewis in 1939 (picture courtesy of the California Museum) just a few years after John Russell's article does indeed show the creature with wings.

John Russell related a legend in his article (much of which he admitted later to uhhh... "creating") But it is primarily this story that persists as the legend to this day. "The Piasa Bird", Russell wrote, "was a huge flying monster which lived on the cliffs, destroyed Indian villages, consumed its captives and resisted efforts to destroy it. Chief Outatoga, during a dream inspired by the Great Spirit, conceived a plan to kill the terrible bird. Using himself as bait and 20 of his bravest warriors to launch poisoned arros, Ouatoga succeeded and the Piasa Bird fell into the Mississipp and drowned". In commemoration of this event, Russel contended, the grateful Indians placed the image of the Piasa Bird on the bluff. This is the local legend that inspired the repainting of the "Piasa Bird" on the bluffs just north of Alton. It's been repainted and renovated many times over the years but this is the image that we all think of when we think of the Piasa Bird and that you will see on the bluffs at Alton today....

BUT - what if? What if we go back to Father Marquette for just a minute. He described the awe inspiring mural on the bluffs as being painted by master artists. The colors were vivid and it was so realistic they were afraid. Perhaps all of the cartoon like drawing since the 1800's are just renderings of Marquette's amatuer journal drawing? Marquette was after all a Jesuit priest and an explorer - not an artist.

So....what if...... What if, during a walk down the trail on the River Road any day this year - a rock was found. Rocks fall from the bluffs every day. Or perhaps a new cave is discovered.... You can use your imagination here but we found a rock, ok? A rock with vivid colors and textures.... with vivid green and lifelike scales peeking out.

Perhaps there WERE other paintings of the Piasa Bird painted centuries ago by the unknowns who painted the original on the bluffs? Other paintings that have remained hidden and preserved for hundreds of years... It might be quite the discovery to add to our local legend, no?

Let me introduce to my version of .... the Piasa... We can't tell if he's a bird or not but there is no doubt -He's a dragon-as he was when Marquette and Joliet first laid eyes on him.

Created (with just a smidgen of artistic license) on a stone from the banks of the Mississippi River - from one of my original paintings. The image is preserved with liquid glass which enhances the texture of the painting.

There should be no limits to imagination <3

I hope you all have enjoyed the story and that one day you'll be able to visit our little corner of the world where history and nature combine. Until then - please come on over and visit my website where you will find original art for viewing in the online art gallery and paintings (and more) available for sale in the online shop. You can also sign up for email alerts (no spam - I promise) but I will keep you posted on new projects, paintings and upcoming events.

Happy Imagining!!

p.s. as a thank you for reading this blog post - here is a free download for you - A cover of my original painting and a brief history of our Piasa Bird legend. Be sure and click "fit to page" before printing otherwise it will print out 4x6 inches. (for personal use only) Thanks for reading!!

Legend of the Piasa - Tracy Sayers Tromb
Download • 371KB

  • Most information compiled from the Madison County Genweb site and Wikipedia (and what we all learned in school lol)

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