Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: Bird Of Evil Spirit

People passing along the river highway north of Alton see a strange painting on the smooth face of the bluff. This picture is about thirty feet long and eight feet high. It represents a strange creature widely known in Indian legends as the Piasa (Pi-a-saw) or Bird of Evil Spirit. 

The present picture, placed there a few years ago, is a faithful reproduction of the original one made by the Indians and carefully sketched by an artist on April 30, 1826. The first picture really was a shallow carving or petroglyph that had been painted in red, green, and black. It remained well preserved until the winter of 1846-47, when the rock was quarried away.

The monster pictured must have been hideous indeed. Its body resembled that of an alligator. Each foot had enormous talons, like those of a bird of prey, and, according to legend, strong enough to carry a buffalo. The head of the beast on an upright neck, was much like that of a man. The ears were pointed, eyes red and staring. Its teeth were large and sharply pointed. Its antlers resembled those of a deer, and its beard that of a tiger. It bore a fiendish look.

The body was covered with scales or feathers of assorted colors. The tail was long enough to return over the back and head, then underneath the entire length of the body, ending like that of a fish. The enormous batlike wings were carried erect. The picture is said to have been so horrible that few of the most daring Indians could look long upon it.

According to Indian legend, this bird or beast had its home in a high cave in the bluff. At first its diet was serpents, and the Indians did not fear it so greatly. One day, however, while two trives of Indians were engaged in a fierce battle alongside the bluff, the Piasa swooped down, seized two warriors, carried them away, and feasted upon them. Having tasted human flesh and found it pleasing, the eating habits of the beast changed. It no longer hunted serpents. Adults and children alike, often several in a day, were seized and eaten. It appeared that all might be devoured. The Indians accordingly were filled with great dread.

After their medicine men had tried many devices but had failed to control the beast, a young chief of the powerful Illinois, named Wassatoga, began a solitary fast, seeking a way to overcome the Piasa. After many days, a vision came to him. The tribe could be saved only if a brave would stand as a living sacrifice. Wassatoga called a council and told of his vision. He agreed to offer himself and, if necessary, to give his life to save the tribe. On the day chosen, the young chief and twenty of the most trusted warriors repaired to a prominent rocky point. Armed and in gorgeous war dress, Wassatoga took position on an exposed rock where he easily could be seen from great distances. His sturdy warriors, with their most powerful bows, hid themselves in the niches of the nearby rocks. All awaited the coming of the Piasa.

In a short time, Wassatoga beheld the monster perched upon a distant point of the bluff. Standing very erect and in full view of the Bird of Evil Spirit, Wassatoga began his death chant. With a great shriek and with each swoop of its wings giving off the sound of thunder, the Piasa dived toward its intended victim. Bolts of lightning flashed from its eyes. The young chief stood defiantly atop the rock. When the beast had come very near, the twenty warriors hidden among the rocks nearby loosed their arros with all the force the powerful bows afforded. According to the legend, these “quivering arrows pierced the monster through to their feathers.” The Piasa fell dead against the rock upon which Wassatoga stood. The tribe had been saved. The Indians, to commemorate their fortunate rescue, carved and painted the picture of the beast high upon the face of the cliff.

The first records mentioning the Piasa were those Father Marquette set down in 1673. Fathers Hennepin and Dousy mention it in their accounts. Fathere Gene Saint Cosme tells of seeing it in 1699. No other mention of it had been found, until more than a hundred years had elapsed.

This picture of the Piasa was accounted as the greatest Indian painting found in North America. It apparently was an outgrowth of the widely-held belief of all North American Indians in the Thunder Bird, or god of storms.

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

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