Posts Tagged ‘Native American folklore’

Ancient Native Americans left behind many forms of rock art, including petroglyphs that were pecked into rock faces with smaller stones, and pictographs that were painted onto the stone. One of the best known pictographs was a monumental figure called the Piasa Bird, on an exposed limestone cliff above the Mississippi River in what is now Illinois. It was the largest painted pre-historic image known to have existed in the continental United States.

Like many legendary dragons, the Piasa Bird was a hybrid creature with many parts. It was quadrupedal, with a long body that reminds me of a cougar’s, but with clawed feet like an eagle or falcon. The wings were as large as its body. Its head and face were humanlike, with a bushy beard, but it had antlers. A long tail circled almost completely around its body, with a fork at the end like that of a fish. All parts of it except the face were covered with feathers, or perhaps scales.

Archaeologists believe that this pictograph originated with the Cahokia people. Cahokia was one of the largest native kingdoms in North America. The culture reached its zenith around 1200 C. E. Due to its great size and prominent location, scholars speculate the rock art was a sort of billboard. “Caution: You Are Entering Cahokia Territory.”

As early as 1673, explorers and travelers made note of the rock art, which included several smaller figures in addition to the Piasa Bird. Their accounts state that Native people would shoot their guns at the pictograph whenever they passed. So possibly this was a “scapegoat” image and attacking it was meant to drive off evil forces. Or perhaps later tribes remembered the Cahokia with hatred, and showed it by attacking their most visible relics.

As you can see from all these theories, there is no clear understanding of what the Piasa Bird represented when it was made. (No one seems to have asked the tribal members, I have to note.) One printed account, by college professor John Russell, claimed that the tribes in the area had been at war, and the gigantic Piasa Bird fed on the corpses of fallen warriors. It enjoyed this treat so much that it began snatching people from the villages nearby. A local chief named Ouatoga prayed to the Great Spirit and received a vision. He armed a number of warriors with poisoned arrows and stationed them around the Piasa’s cavernous lair. Then, using himself as bait, he lured the monster out. It soon fell to the tribal arrows. The natives then painted its image to commemorate the deed.

Dramatic as this account may be, there is no documentation to support it. There won’t be, either. The Piasa Bird was painted onto high quality limestone, which was mined beginning in the 1870s. The entire array of images was destroyed. Some historic drawings do survive. Based on these, a re-creation of the Piasa Bird has been painted onto a bluff not far from the site of the original. You can see it at Piasa Bird Park near Alton, IL. The Piasa Bird is also a mascot for a nearby high school.

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The Zuni tribe of New Mexico honors many spirits, including the ocean spirit, Kolowisi. This great serpent lived in a sacred spring at the foot of a mountain. There was a village nearby called Home of the Eagles. It was a thriving community led by a chief who had a lovely daughter. Her only flaw was that she couldn’t stand to be dirty. She was so focused on staying clean that she insisted on having her own room, away from her family.

When she couldn’t stand feeling dirty any more, she would go to Kolowisi’s spring to wash her clothes and bathe. She did this so often that Kolowisi got tired of having his spring fouled with soap and silt. He thought of a way to punish her.

The next time the maiden returned to the spring, she found a small baby, all alone in the water. At once she felt a powerful attachment to the child. She took it with her when she returned home. She went straight to her room to care for it.

Imagine the surprise when an unmarried maiden turned up with a baby! The daughter explained everything to her father, and wouldn’t be parted with the child for any reason. The chief was very confused, for he knew no mother would just leave her baby in the middle of a spring. But he was also a wise man. He decided to wait and see what would happen.

That night, the maiden put the baby down to sleep. Then she lay down, too, after such an exciting day. Once she fell asleep, the baby began to transform. He stretched out his legs, and then his arms, longer and longer until they became the coils of a serpent. It was Kolowisi, serpent of the sea! All that night, he rested his giant head near hers as she slept. When the dawn came, he stole her away to the spring.

Although Kolowisi was irritated by having his spring disturbed, he had become fond of the maiden. He asked her to be his wife. And since the spring was her favorite place, she gladly agreed.

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