12 November 2009

Legendary Piasa Bird of the Mississippi River

"As we coasted along rocks frightful for their height and length, we saw two monsters painted on one of the rocks, which startled us at first, and upon which the boldest Indian dare not gaze long. They are as large as a calf, with horns on the head like a deer, a frightful look, red eyes, bearded like a tiger, the face somewhat like a man's, the body covered with scales, and the tail so long that it twice makes the turn of the body, passes over the head and down between the legs, ending at last in a fishes' tail. Green, red and a kind of black are the colors employed. On the whole these two monsters are so well painted that we could not believe any Indian to have been the designer, as good painters in France would find it hard to do as well; besides this they are painted so high upon the rock that it is hard to get conveniently at them to paint them. As we were discoursing of them, sailing gently down a beautiful still clear water we heard the noise of a rapid, into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more frightful: a mass of large trees, entire with branches, real floating islands, came rushing from the mouth of the river Pekitanoui (the Missouri,) so impetuously that we could not without great danger expose ourselves to pass across. The agitation was so great that the water was all muddy, and could not get clear.

Pekitanoui is a considerable river, which coming from very far in the north-west empties into the Mississippi. Many Indian towns are ranged along this river, and I hope by its means to make the discovery of the Red or California Sea." (Discovery and Explorations of the Valley of the Mississippi, page 39 and 249.)

The rocks, to which the explorer here refers, constitute part of an extensive chain of almost perpendicular bluffs, commencing at the city of Alton and extending northward up the Mississippi. Upon one of these, the Piasa or Pi-a-sau Rock, so-called from the remarkable legend connected with it, and situated on the western confines of Alton, immediately on the Mississippi, the remains of two enormous figures, corresponding in all respects to the description given by Marquette, were still to be observed at a comparatively recent date. But the original face of the bluff has been removed to a considerable extent in quarrying for building stone, and with it all trace of their existence has also disappeared.

"The tradition connected with this rock was not confined to a few tribes but existed among all the aboriginal inhabitants of the great west, none of whom even to this day (1841) pass the rock without discharging their rifles or arrows at the figures upon and around which are innumerable marks of balls and other missels. (Wild's Mississippi Valley Illustrated.)

As the legend may serve in some measure to illustrate the beliefs and superstitions of the ancient race who once inhabited this beautiful land, no apology is needed for introducing it here entire. [Piasa bird of the Mississippi River]

The Legend of the Piasa.

Many thousand moons before the arrival of the pale faces, when the great Megalonyx and Mastadon whose bones are dug up, were still in this land of green Prairies the numerous and powerful nation called the Illinois, inhabited the State which now bears their name over the greater portion of which their hunting grounds extended. For many years they continued to increase in numbers and prosperity and were deemed the bravest and most warlike of all the tribes of the great Valley. At length in the most populous districts of their country near the residence of their greatest chief, there appeared an enormous animal, part beast and part bird, which took up its abode on the rock, and banqueted daily upon numbers of the people, whom it bore off in its immense talons. It was covered with scales of every possible color, and had a huge tail, with a blow of which it could shake the earth. From its head which was like the head of a fox, with the beak of an eagle, projected immense horns, and its four feet were armed with powerful claws, in each of which it could carry a buffalo. The flapping of its enormous wings was like the roar of thunder, and when it dived into the river it threw the waves far up on the land. To this animal they gave the name of the Bird of the Pi-a-sau, or "Bird of the Evil Spirit." [According to some "the bird which devours men."] In vain did the Medicine Men use all their power to drive away this fearful visitor. Day by day the number of their tribe diminished to feed his insatiable appetite. Whole villages were desolated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illinois. At last the young chief of the nation Wassatogo (or Ouataga,) beloved by his people and esteemed their greatest warrior and whose fame extended even beyond the great lakes, called a council of the Priests in a secret cave, where after fasting many days they slept, and the Great Spirit came to the young chief in his sleep, and told him the only way to rid his people of their destroyer was to offer himself as a sacrifice. Wassatogo started up, aroused the slumbering Priests and informing them of what had occurred to him, announced his determination to make the required sacrifice.*

Wassatogo then dressed himself in his chieftain's garb, put on his warpaint as if going to battle, and taking his bow and arrows and tomahawk he placed himself on a prominent point of rock to await the coming of the monster bird. Meanwhile as had been directed in his vision a band of his best braves had been concealed in the interstices of the rock, waiting each with his arrow drawn to the head of the monster when their chief should be attacked, to wreak their last vengeance on their enemy. High and erect the bold Wassatogo stood chanting his death song with a calm and placid countenance, when suddenly there came a roar as of awful thunder and in an instant the bird of the Piasau uttering a wild scream that shook the hills, darted down upon the chief. At that moment Wassatogo dealt it a blow in the head with his tomahawk, and every bow sprung at once sent its arrow quivering up to the feather into its body. The Piasau uttered a shriek that resounded far over the opposite shore of the river and expired. Wassatogo was safe. Not an arrow, not even the talons of the bird had touched him. The Master of Life in admiration of the generous deed of Wassatogo had held over him an invisible shield. The tribe now gave way to the wildest joy, and held a great feast in honor of the event, and to commemorate it, painted the figure of the bird on the side of the rock, on whose summit the chieftain stood, and there it has endured for ages a mark for the arrow or bullet of every red man who has since passed it in ascending or descending the great Father of Waters.*

*In another narration of the same Legend we find the following version, viz: At length, in a trance it was revealed to Owatoga, that the terrible visitant, who had hitherto eluded their utmost sagacity, might be destroyed. The mode was this. First, a noble victim was to be selected from among the bravest warriors of the tribe, who by religious rites was to be sanctified for the sacrifice. Secondly, twenty, equally as brave, with their stoutest bows and sharpest arrows, were to conceal themselves near the spot of sacrifice. The victim was to be led forth, and singly to take his stand upon an exposed point of the rock, where the ravenous bird would be likely to note and seize upon him. At the moment of descent the concealed warriors were to let fly their arrows, with the assurance that he would fall.

On the day appointed, the braves, armed agreeably to the instruction of the vision, safely reached their hiding place, which commanded a full view of the fatal platform. The name of the victim had been kept profoundly secret, up to the sacrificial hour. Judge then, the consternation, when, dressed in his proudest robes, Owatoga appeared at the head of his tribe, himself the voluntary victim.— The tears and shrieks of the women, and the expostulations of all his chiefs language [text missing].

[Text missing…] availed nothing; he was bent upon his solemn and awful purpose. "Brothers and children," he addressed them, waving his hand in which he held a short wand, and which procured for him instant and profound audience, "the Great Spirit is angry with his children. He hath sent us this scourge to punish us for our sins. He hath demanded this sacrifice. Who so fit as your chief? The blood of my heart is pure. Who will bring any charge against 0watoga? Many moons have I been your chieftain. I have led you to conquest and glory. I have but this sacrifice to make, and I am a free spirit. I am a dry tree, leafless and branchless. Soon shall I sink upon the wide prairie and moulder away. Cherish and obey the sapling that springs up at my root. May he be braver and wiser than his sire. And when the Great Spirit smiles upon you and delivers you, forget not the sacrifice of Owatoga. Hinder me not—I go forth to the sacrifice."—"Illinois and the West," by A. D. Jones, 1838,—page 55-6-7.

"The spot became sacred from that time, and no Indian ascended or descended the Father of Waters for many a year without discharging his arrow at the image of the warrior-destroying Bird. After the distribution of fire-arms among the Indians, bullets were substituted for arrows, and even to this day no savage presumes to pass that magic spot without discharging his rifle and raising his shout of triumph. I visited the spot in June (1838) and examined the image, and the ten thousand bullet-marks upon the cliff seemed to corroborate the tradition related to me in the neighborhood. So lately as the passage of the Sac and Fox delegations down the river on their way to Washington, there was a general discharge of their rifles at the Piasau Bird. On arriving at Alton, they went on shore in a body, and proceeded to the bluffs, where they held a solemn war-council, concluding the whole with a splendid war dance, manifesting all the while the most exuberant joy. — Ibid, page 59.

Derived from: A Gazetteer of Madison County..." by James T. Hair. Published in 1866. With original material obviously from the journals of 1673!

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