When travelling alongside the Mississippi River, driving down the Great River Road, a visitor just leaving Alton is greeted by a strange sight. As he rounds a bend in the road, a wall of tall limestone cliffs gleams in the sunlight, rising up from the road at least 50 feet. There, etched into the chalky surface of the rock, is a very odd looking creature. It is vaguely griffon-like-- a four-legged animal with a beard, talons, and a pair of wings. The paint has faded from the unrelenting sunlight, but the visitor can still see the tawny gold of the creature's feathery tail. It seems a peculiar subject for graffiti. And it is far too well-drawn. In all honesty, he thinks, it looks like nothing more or less than some logo for a motorcycle wear company.

Allegedly an ancient Native American tale, first seen by European eyes through famed explorers Marquette and Joliet, the Piasa (pronounced PIE-a-saw) bird has become the object of much local affection for residents on the Great River Road.

The Ancient Legend

A long, long time ago, the ancient tribe of the Illini people was being terrorized by a monster. It would swoop down upon their villages at night, a fearsome creature with a man's beard, a bird's talons, and a deer's antlers, that could carry away man and beast alike. Whole populations would be murdered by the ravaging Piasa. Many warriors tried to kill the bird, but all failed. As the death toll mounted day by day, the Illini began to lose all hope.

Then it so happened that a great chief of the Illini, Ouatoga, came to power. He had been a great warrior before he became a great chief, and so he knew of the dangers of the Piasa bird. He told his tribe that he must separate himself from them for a time, to seek the guidance of the Great Spirit. For a full month, Ouatoga fasted and prayed until the Great Spirit gave him a message.

Ouatoga, emerging from his fast, came back to his tribe and assembled of group of 20 of his strongest warriors. He arranged them all in front of a cliff, giving them poisoned arrows. Ouatoga volunteered himself to be the bait. The chief stood out in the open, singing the song of the dying soldier. Sure enough, the Piasa Bird appeared, flying down for his next meal. Ouatoga gave a signal, and the group of warriors let loose the poisoned arrows. The bird let out a horrible cry and fell to the earth, dead.

The warriors had been victorious. To celebrate, they carved the image of the Piasa bird into the cliff face. Ever since, any time a warrior passes the image, he would let an arrow loose at the memory of the fearsome bird.

The Actual Image

Veracity of the legend aside, it does seem that the Piasa bird was carved into the cliff before Europeans arrived. Explorers Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet noted two carvings of the beast when they came down the Mississippi in 1673. Only one carving has since been observed.

The original carving seems to have been lost or faded away. In 1924, artist Herbert Forcade painted a new Piasa bird on a bluff just outside Alton. However, the construction of the Great River Road in the 60s necessitated its demolition. The strange painting a visitor sees today is actually a project put together by the American Legends Society in 1998.

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