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  • Writer's pictureBryan Alaspa

The Real Story of The Piasa Bird

My latest novel is entitled DEVOURED and it's about a Native American legend which has become known as The Piasa Bird and you can visit a version of it while visiting Alton, IL, just across the river from St. Louis.

My story imagines that this giant flying creature, essentially a Native American dragon-type creature, has been asleep for centuries, but is now alive and very very hungry. It sort of became my American kaiju story and also incorporates elements of Jaws, the book and movie of which got me to be interested in writing and in horror in general.

First Documented in the 1600s

The first time white men documented the Piasa Bird (although it was not known as that at the time) was in the 1600s when Father Jacques Marquette documented the image he saw on the limestone bluffs on the Mississippi River. The bluffs are located on what is today the Illinois side, and his diary describes two images, quite large, painted on the bluffs so that they could be seen from the river.

According to Father Marquette's diary, they were at first afraid, but then began to marvel at the images. Of course, in typical arrogant European attitudes, he spends a lot of time referring to Native tribes as "savages" when, not far from where he was, an area now known as the Cahokia Mounds was once one of the largest cities in the world (rivaling London in population at one time).

Limestone is not a great place to paint permanent images. Which meant that the vibrant greens, reds and yellows they saw, were painted and re-painted over time.

A Guy Makes Up a Legend

As explorers intruded on more and more tribal lands, they found more paintings. Soon, they categorized them as Thunderbirds and Underwater Panthers. The Thunderbirds, depending on the tribe, were either good or bad, and ruled the air, while the Under Water panthers resembled cats in their faces, with long tails, and ruled the earth and the underworld.

In 1863 a man named John Russell came across the paintings and drawings about the giant bird-like creature on the bluffs. He then made up a story. It went something like this (from Wikipedia):

"'The Bird That Devours Men.' The original Piasa Creek ran through the main ravine in downtown Alton, and was completely covered by huge drainage pipes around 1912. According to the story published by Russell, the creature depicted by the painting was a huge bird that lived in the cliffs. Russell claimed that this creature attacked and devoured people in nearby Indian villages shortly after the corpses of a war gave it a taste for human flesh. The legend claims that a local Indian chief, named Chief Ouatoga, managed to slay the monster using a plan given to him in a dream from the Great Spirit. The chief ordered his bravest warriors to hide near the entrance of the Piasa Bird's cave, which Russell also claimed to have explored. Ouatoga then acted as bait to lure the creature out into the open. As the monster flew down toward the Indian chief, his warriors slew it with a volley of poisoned arrows. Russell claimed that the mural was painted by the Indians as a commemoration of this heroic event."

If you visit the current location of the Piasa Bird painting, you'll see the same legend printed out and on postcards and other things. The problem? Russell himself eventually admitted that he just made the whole thing up because he wanted a good story.

So What is the Piasa Bird?

These days it is now thought that the Piasa Bird and the Underwater Panther are tied together. When you study the paintings, they do have some resemblance to each other, too. Some archeologists and anthropologists think that both of those creatures were called "Payiihsa" which actually classified them as "supernatural beings." Some think they might have been small - but for my novel, a tiny flying dragon-creature just wasn't going to work.

Those who study these things are still trying to learn. It turns out Native tribes had very advanced cultures and civilizations. They had cities and many tribes would often live together, sharing the land, and built complicated calendars and time-tracking devices. They also had a very rich history of legends, gods, creatures, supernatural entities and more. So, what the Piasa Bird may have actually been may never be known, but it might have been connected to the Native legends of Thunderbirds.

My Novel Devoured is Coming August 18

Using these ideas and legends, I have created the novel DEVOURED, which will be published August 18 by Wicked House Publishing. It is a thrill ride, adding elements of horror, fantasy and legend with a strong element of dark humor throughout.

If you would like your copy, you can preorder now by clicking HERE or on the cover image.

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