The Piasa

                                                                                                               A version by Marilyn Kinsella


When Jacques Marquette traveled up the Mississippi he discovered a pictograph on the bluffs close to present-day Alton. He wrote a description of it in his journal. Since that time, there have many stories told about the picture, this is one of them.


They say at first it sounded like far-off thunder, then that noise, it got louder and louder until it filled the sky, and a great shadow fell across the land. Every man woman and child went into hiding. For they knew, if they were to go out, they’d never be seen again. There in the safety of the dark shadows, they only dared to whisper its name…                       Shh! It’s the Piasa.


Oh, the Piasa – devourer of man! A terrible winged creature! But, what was it? A four-legged, or a bird or, perhaps, a snake? For indeed, it had a body of a mountain lion, but with long, sharp talons instead of paws, and it’s body wasn’t covered with fur but with red and black; yellow and green, armored scales like that of a snake. Its face…its face was almost human. It had red, piercing eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth.



                                                    And, oh those teeth…let me tell you about those teeth! They said if one fell out another, longer one took its place



A long beard fell from its chin and antler horns sprouted from its head. A tail so long it wrapped itself around the Piasa once, twice…three times! Two huge wings that sounded like thunder as that beast winged its way across the sky.


Every morning and every evening the people of the Illinwek ran and hid, for you see, the Piasa loved nothing better than to feast on human flesh and blood.


Now living at that time was the chief of the Tamaroa tribe. He was known to be good and just (it is true), but he was also known to be fierce and brave. He, more than anyone, knew that his people suffered. They came to him and said, “Chief, we cannot plant our squash or corn. We fear that the Piasa will come and carry us away.” Or, “Chief, you cannot expect us to go on a hunt, when we are the hunted.” The Chief knew something had to be done.


So, he gathered the skilled hunters from his tribe. They waited in ambush one morning and, when that great shadow came across the land, they brought their atlatls and spears; they brought out their bows and arrows. When the Piasa came close, they shot their arrows and threw their spears. (phht, ppht) But the arrows, the arrows broke like dry grass and the spears just bounced off the beast’s shield of armor. It seemed as if nothing could kill the creature.


Finally, the chief gathered his people and said to them, “It is time. You know what I must do…I must go on a vision quest. Perhaps the Creator will look down kindly upon us and tell me in a vision what we should do to rid ourselves of this evil creature”.


The Chief gathered traveled what he needed until he found a place at the top of the bluffs. Using his fire stick he made a small campfire, and he bathed with the sweet smoke of the sage. He chanted and prayed to the Creator. For four days and four nights he fasted and prayed. On the last night he was given a vision…


Six flocks of birds fly across the sky. One bird from each flock flies down and lands at my feet.  I watch, as they transform into arrowheads. - their points dripping with blood. I look again at the sky. I see a swirling mass of red and black;  yellow and green. Then, I see it… a hole where I can see the blue sky.


Suddenly, the chief awoke from his vision, and he knew, he knew what he had to do.


He called a council of the tribes of the Illininek. Chiefs came from the Peoria, the Cahokia, the Kaskaskia, the Mitchigamea, the Moingwena and the Miami. They met in the Tamaroan lodge. As they sat in a circle, the chief of the Tamoroa spoke, “For many years we fight. But today, today we must band together and fight our common enemy, the Piasa. It is so, for I have seen it in my vision.”


Oh, a vision…now, he had their attention. It was a sacred thing to receive a vision.


“This is what you must do. Go back to your tribe and send me your strongest, your bravest, your most skilled hunter.”


Within a fortnight, six hunters came to the Tamaroan village. The chief told them about his vision, and they followed the chief to the top of the bluff.


“This is what we must do. I will tie one end of this rope around this tree and the other around my waist. You must hide yourselves behind any tree, any bush, any rock. Do not show yourselves. When it is time, I will call out, and you must be ready.  The men took their positions and they waited…and waited….and…and then, they heard it…the distant sound of thunder. And then, that noise it got so loud it filled the sky and a great shadow came across the land. The men dared o look at one another and whisper…It’s the Piasa!


The beast looked down and saw his easy prey. With a terrible screech it swooped down with its talons extended and plucked the chief from the top of the cliff. The chief could hardly breathe. The creature started to flap it wings, but you remember, right? You remember the chief was tethered to the tree… and the man did not lift – the rope held tight. The wings of the Piasa rose higher and higher and wider and wider. And that’s when the chief saw it! Just like in his vision. He saw the soft spot under its wing not covered by scales. “Now,” he gasped, “now! Shoot your arrows.” The men came out with their bows and arrows; they came out with their atlatls and spears. Time and again their poisoned arrows and darts found their mark in the soft flesh under the beast’s wing.


In agony the Piasa dropped the chief and then, it, too, fell to the earth. Writhing in pain and in the throes of death, it threw itself over the side of the bluff and down to the muddy waters of the Mississippi. The men ran to the edge and watched as the body of the Piasa was carried away to its watery grave by the Great River.


Soon after that, the chief of the Tamaroa had a likeness of the Piasa painted on that very cliff. Not only as reminder of the bravery of the seven men, who would have given their lives for others, but as a reminder for generations to come that what one man, what one tribe could not do…they, the Illiniwek could do together.



For more information about the Piasa, view the following web sites:


For controversy concerning the pictograph and the story:






Study Sheets for the Piasa - Part II



Study Sheets - Core of Rediscovery - Part III



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