Saturday, March 7, 2015



Re-imagined Piasa painted on the cliff at
Alton, IL. Public domain.

One of the early records of rock art from North America was recorded by the French explorer Father Jacques Marquette during his exploration of the Mississippi River.

"In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette saw the painting on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River while exploring the area. He recorded the following description:
"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."" (Wikipedia)
German illustration, 1839. From Mallery,
1889, fig. 41, p.79.

Variously referring to the Piasa monster or the Piasa Bird, such reports almost tell us more about the state of mind of the western observer than they do any Native Americans who were involved in the episode. One of the earliest illustrations of the Piasa was taken from an 1839 publication in Germany and is illustrated in Mallery (1889:79)

“Unfortunately, the Alton Bluff paintings were destroyed by quarrying activities during the first half of the nineteenth century and have been replaced through the years by modern versions on a nearby bluff facade. For many years the piasa figure was painted and repainted on the bluffs. Later a painted steel plaque depicting a piasa was erected and more recently taken down and once again painted directly on the bluffs in yet another location. A piasa, or an underwater spirit much like it, was an important figure in the traditions of the region’s Native American groups.” (Diaz-Granados et al. 2005:118) 

It is necessary to keep in mind that the present representation of the Piasa is based on imagination with an eye to possibly unreliable early sketches. It is touched up periodically and exists much more as Chamber of Commerce advertising for Alton than as an artifact of previous people in that area. In fact, it is not even in the same place as the original. 

“Although destruction of the famous Piasa in Alton, Illinois makes reconstruction of that petroglyph questionable , the recent description of another petroglyph Piasa in Illinois shows bird-like wings on the back of a serpent. Unfortunately, the Piasa as a motif in the Southeast is such an unpredictable mixture of human, feline, deer, bird, serpent, and other characteristics that it is difficult to equate it with the well-known Quetzalcoatl representation. Many of the serpents, such as rattlesnakes occurring on shell gorgets, are obviously native to the Southeast. The snakes frequently have antlers, which also seems to be unique to the Southeast (Howard 1968)” (Cobb et. al. 1999:175)

 Winnebago Medicine Animal, eastern Nebraska.
Photograph: Nebraska State Hist. Soc.

Winnebago medicine animal.

Although we do not have the original to view any longer, the present reconstruction shows a creature which bears a strong resemblance to the drawings of Winnebago "medicine animals" from other sources. This creature seems to be a variation of Michi-Peshu, the "Water Panther" of the eastern Woodlands, and I would think, provides a reasonable model for our speculations of the appearance of the Piasa.
Piasa illustrated in Mallery, fig. 40,p. 78.
The modern so-called reconstruction is based upon the 1825 drawing by William Dennis and illustrated in Mallery (p. 78) with colors added imaginatively based upon the description by Marquette. One thing I am sure of is that it probably does not come close to the original pictograph. Sadly, this is often the case with older records as the portrayals are often improved upon by western observers.


Cobb, Charles R., Jeffrey Maymon, and Randall H. McGuire,
1999    Feathered, Horned, and Antlered Serpents, pages 165-181, in Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, edited by Jill E. Neitzel, An Amerind Foundation Publication, Dragoon, Arizona.

Diaz-Granados, Carol, and James R. Duncan
2005    Rock Art of the Central Mississippi River Valley, pages 114 – 130, in Discovering North American Rock Art, Loendorf, Lawrence L., Christopher Chippindale, and David S. Whitley, editors, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Mallery, Garrick
1889    Picture Writing of the American Indians, in the Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1888-1889, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.


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