The Piasa Bird

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 80
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/30/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Would you tell me your version of the legend of the Piasa Bird?

Informant: My version… back in the olden days, tribes of Indians lived on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Which was not even the Mississippi river then, but, umm, uhh, and their nemesis was a – a uhh dragon, who lived in the caves on the bluff below them someplace. And the dragon would, umm, periodically umm, come and take a-an Indian, uhh, for it’s-for it’s its meal. Uh. The uhh… Indians would shoot arrows at it but uhh the-the-the it had kind of a… bunch of scale plates on the outside that umm, would deflect the arrows, and uhh, they couldn’t kill it! Finally the chief said, “this is enough of this.”

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: So he said, uhh, “what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna get the, the uhh, dragon to a place where i can do a better job of killing it.” And he thought and thought and though for a while, and then he said – he took his daughter, good looking lady young lady and put her out on the edge of the bluffs, and he hid himself where he could uhh, see her and also, see the-the-the dragon coming in… to get her. And as the dragon came in it raised up, and the chief stood up, and shot… the only spot… on the dragon that wasn’t protected, and put the arrow into the dragon. The dragon uhh was… mortally wounded, ummm did not get the daughter, umm, flew back over toward the river, umm crashed into the river, and was never seen again. And so then – the chief was renowned for his skill at archery and uhh saving the rest of the tribe.

Interviewer: Wow.

Informant: To this day… nobody’s ever found that dragon. Haven’t found where it is, and people have looked. Umm. I looked.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: Up and down the river – the bluffs. We used to go down there and climb on the bluffs and up and down the roads and all over the place. But to this day the dragon has never been found, and people wonder whether it’s really true or not. But I guess you have to figure that out for yourself.

Background: My informant lived most of his younger life in Alton, Illinois, where the Legend of the Piasa Bird originated. The legend is well known, at least in the southern Illinois region, though there is much mystery around the legend and that causes many slight variations in the story. It’s one large source of pride for the city of Alton.

Context: The informant is my Grandpa, and this piece was collected after I asked him if he knew any ‘folklore’ and gave him a day to think about it, on his request. He is certainly getting old, but he’s still rather sharp for his age.

Thoughts: The legend of the Piasa Bird supposedly comes from a traditional Native American story, but the story that most people know is some version of a telling by a professor, John Russell, at the nearby Shurtleff College in Alton. This is a strange example of reverse authorship. Did Russell make up the story? If he did, why? Why would he make up a legend for another group of people? In all the Piasa Bird is an interesting study of folklore.