(First things first -- not all this research is mine. In fact, very little of it is, outside of the similarities with the Maori legend. However, it's not a very well publicized idea, though it is very likely to be the case and is possibly grounds for eliminating the famous Piasa Bird from the list of cryptozoological beings and as such, really should be put out there.)

A great hero, arising in a land terrorized by a monstrous, man-eating bird, comes up with a daring plan. Using another man as bait, he lures the monster bird out from its lair, and while it is distracted by the chase, he leaps out from hiding and kills the beast. Such a story is familiar to many in the cryptozoological community as the killing of the infamous Piasa, the monstrous bird depicted on a rock painting near Alton, Illinois.

However, this story is not that of Ouatago, the Native American chief who slew the Piasa. Rather, it is the story of Pungarehu, and the bird in question was not that chimera of Illinois folklore, but the Poukai or Pouaka. The people preyed upon were not the Illini, but the Maori of New Zealand. (The Poukai, or its prototype the Haast's Eagle, has been in the news recently).

In the cryptozoological literature the Piasa story has been told and retold and likened to the more modern sightings of gigantic raptorine birds throughout Illinois, with a few researchers noting the story as somewhat dubious - but then, of course, they go on to recount it anyway.

A few years back two friends of mine, Ben Roesch and John Moore, published a small magazine called The Cryptozoology Review. Of course, I've now come to realize quite a few CFZers also wrote for the magazine; there were several contributions by Darren Naish, and Richard Muirhead wrote a few as well. I believe Jon Downes may have written some things up for it, but I could be wrong (and probably am, knowing me).

In the Summer 1998 issue John Moore wrote up an article about the Piasa. We had been talking via e-mail for quite some time, and I recall our conversations on the bird and its somewhat dubious nature. Some of the particulars are a bit fuzzy, but he sent me some of the sources he was drawing upon for the article.

Anyway, most everyone is familiar with the particulars of how the Piasa pictograms were discovered by Father Jacques Marquette in 1673. His account of the first European sighting of the paintings, as given in the Recit des Voyages et des Decouvertes du Pere Jacques Marquette reads:

'...we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's is approximately the shape of these monsters, as we have faithfully copied it.

Unfortunately, Marquette's depiction no longer survives. However, John reproduced with the article a copy of a drawing originating on a French map made by Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin in 1678, possibly copied directly from Marquette's sketch. The drawing depicts the Piasa more or less as it appears near Alton today; however, it has no wings (note that Marquette makes no mention of wngs in his account, either). The last reliable sighting of the original paintings was reported at the end of the eighteenth century, and it was noted that they had nearly disappeared then. Moore thinks it likely that the paintings may have entirely vanished by the beginning of the 1800s.

The fact is that many of the Native American tribes believed that a manitou, or spirit, called a Water Panther inhabited many rivers and streams. The water panther in traditional depictions is a long-tailed creature with four legs, sporting deer-like antlers. It supposedly haunted rapids, which were caused by the movement of its long tail. It could also move between bodies of water in the form of a meteor, and was also believed to be responsible for eclipses.

The traditional story of Chief Ouatago and the killing of the birds, originated from the pen of a man named John Russell, and did not appear in print until 1836. In fact, Russell's own son reported that "his father at one time confessed to him that the legend of the Piasa Bird was the product of imagination coupled with Marquette's account."

The only truly mysterious part of the tale, then, seems to be the derivation of the name 'Piasa' itself. Moore feels it may have derived from the French pailissa (palisade), a word often used to describe bluffs such as the Alton rocks. I felt that the name may have derived from pesshu or bizhy (Missipesshu and Micibizhy were two names used for Water Panther spirits). Given the similarity of the above Maori tale, it may even be that the name was derived from that bird's name, Poukai (its variant Pouaka is even closer to Piasa).

Moore's thesis in the article was that the Piasa, far from being a bird as traditionally thought, was only a spiritual depiction and in all likelihood never represented a real biological entity. Personally, I find this theory to be much more tenable than the truly chimerical flying monster depicted in the minds of many.

The most distressing part in my mind is the fact that, upon reviewing the source material, we find that just such a 'Piasa-as-spirit' theory had been proposed as far back as an article by Indiana historian Jacob Dunn written in 1923 and the "Piasa Bird" fallacy has been circulated and propagated for nearly 90 years! He also noted that one specific Water Panther - called Lennipinja by the Miami tribe of Ohio - was called, tellingly, l'Homme Tyger (man-tiger, or manticore) by the French. Further, Dunn noted that the Jesuit missionaries (of which Marquette was one) often wrote on the veneration given to the Water Panthers by natives and that Marquette notes a similar veneration of the Piasa.

IMAGES: Top is the early version of the Piasa from the 1678 Franquelin Map described in the text, and below it is a depiction of the water panther.