Native American Dragons: The Piasa Bird Mural

May 30, 2016 — At my back was the Mississippi River, a natural wonder that should never be at one’s back. But what had me looking away from it was the massive cave looming four stories above me. It looked like the cave of a monster. Like whatever had come out of it had jumpstarted a Godzilla movie. Except I was near Alton, Illinois—not usually a kaiju HQ, although it was only two hours south of Lawndale, home to a famous Thunderbird sighting in 1977. Walking around the bluff took me to the exterior wall of the cave. And that’s where I saw the monster.

It was about the size of a bus, gold and scaly with red wings. It was vaguely lion-shaped, with terror bird talons for feet, thorny antlers atop its head, and a face with Maybelline red lips slashed by two stalagmite fangs in its bottom jaw, from which descended a long beard. Around it wrapped a long, ropey tail, segmented like a scorpion’s, except that instead of a stinger, the tail ended in paired fins like a fish’s tail. The beast looked like some sort of dragon. And it kind of was: A Native American dragon called the Piasa Bird. Fortunately, it wasn’t slavering hungrily above me. It was painted on the rough rock wall.

There are two stories here, one about an ancient creature that feeds on humans, the other about a mural that has overlooked the Mississippi off and on since before Whitey even found the East Coast, much less Old Man River itself.

In your head, you’re telling me not to, but let’s start with the mural anyway.

In 1673, a priest named Jacques Marquette recorded a painting of two monsters on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. He described the scaly creatures as the size of calves, with deer horns, red eyes, a tiger’s beard, a man’s face, and a long tail that wrapped around it and ended in fish fins. The painting was in green, red, and black. In other words, close to what I was looking at there in Alton, but not quite a match. The colors were off, as was the size and the lack of a second beast. Most notable, Father Marquette didn’t mention any wings.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the beasts had vanished, in part because any native who passed that way shot their weapons at the mural, eventually killing it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bluff itself followed, quarried into flatness by a local limestone company. But the Piasa Bird wasn’t forgotten. In the early 20th century, an artist repainted it on a bluff a couple of hundred yards further upstream from the original location. The bluff was another limestone quarry site, its insides hollowed into a monster cave. Eventually, that mural went the way of the previous Piasa Bird (preserving extinct species is hard), and in the 1980s, the town bolted a metal panel with the Piasa Bird painted on it to the bluff face. But the panel rusted and was moved to the sports field of a high school north of Alton, in the town of Piasa. Piasa’s high school mascot is the Piasa Bird. Alton’s high school mascot is a redbird. In 1999, they re-painted the beast on the bluff, and these days regularly give it a fresh coat.

It’s a pleasant pullover spot, with a parking lot and rest area and signs telling the history of the mural and the legend of the bird. Which brings me, well, to the legend of the bird. The Piasa Bird story is more or less your typical dragon story. The one pretty much every culture seems to have. A giant creature lives in a cave, sitting on the bones of the Native Americans that it has devoured until one day a hero comes and slays it. The legend is codified in the in the 1836 writings of an author and professor named John Russell. And by codified, I mean completely made up, even to the name of the creature.

But Russell’s fiction became lore. And that’s because there was a blatant void around this monster mural that needed filling, even artificially. Truth is, we don’t have a story about the Piasa Bird. It was just a small mural painted on some limestone that a French guy saw in the 1600s. We don’t even know what Piasa means.

But that’s how you make a monster. Reach into antiquity to establish credibility, embellish it with all the powers of fiction, make it famous and celebrate it. Even if in the end, its pieces are all made by humans—the mural, the story, the cave—it’s still a great opportunity to tell the kids in the backseat that next on the itinerary, they’re going to see a monster.