In our quest for North American legends of gryphon-like beasts, we must not overlook the mysterious Piasa Bird, the terrifying man-eater of the Mississippi River valley.
"Piasa" in the language of the Illini nation means "The Bird that Devours Men." Long before white men appeared in North America, this winged monster haunted the Upper Mississippi valley. It developed a taste for human flesh and terrorized the native tribes of the area for years. Finally a chief named Ouatoga set himself up as bait, drawing the monster near enough to be riddled by poison arrows fired by his warriors. In memory of this triumph, Ouatoga directed his men to paint an image of the Piasa on a high cliff.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, the famous Jesuit missionary, explored the Mississippi River and the surrounding lands. He apparently passed by a number of petroglyphs, or rock-paintings, two of which depicted the Piasa. Any drawings or paintings of the Piasa you might see are modern re-creations based on Marquette's description:
They are as large as a calf, 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 a tail so long that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail.
These creatures are chimerical indeed! Martin Beam's 1873 description of the legend sounds more gryphony:
Possessing an eagle's head and wings, the former crested with steel, it had a tongue of an adder and the tail of a dragon, tipped with the sting of a scorpion. It had four legs, human to the knees, the remainder eagle-like, pointed by the longest and sharpest of talons.
There is considerable controversy as to how accurate the descriptions of the Piasa petroglyphs were -- or whether they all refer to the same paintings -- or whether the "monster" drawings existed at all. A Father Anastasium Douay, for example, following the Mississippi in Marquette's metaphoric footsteps, wrote:
I had brought with me the printed book [by Marquette] of this pretended discovery and I remarked along my route that there was not a word of truth in it.
As long as we mention controversy: Some researchers even believe the whole legend of the "Piasa" was concocted about two hundred years ago to fit the descriptions of the rock drawings.
There is an eerie sidelight to the tale of the Piasa, "The Bird that Devours Men," however. The creature was so fond of human flesh that it emptied out whole villages, the victims carried off to be eaten in its lair. In March of 1836, Professor John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois, climbed the almost vertical bluff overlooking Piasa Creek, a branch of the Mississippi. In a large grotto, 150 feet above the river, he found that:
The floor of this cave throughout its whole extent was a mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled together in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide, but we dug to the depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cavern and still found only bones.
Like those Gryphons, the Piasa can get awfully hungry. . .
The quotes from Marquette and others come from Charles Harnett's 19th century article on the subject. See his Puzzle of the Piasa.
I mentioned somewhere along the way that there almost seemed to be a conspiracy against gryphs. Someone named Sparhawk wrote to inform me that there is, indeed, a terrible Anti-Gryphon Conspiracy. Surely this is going a bit far, I told myself. Maybe grypho-philes are just naturally paranoid. I've been so annoyed by a recent development, however, that I had to inform the world!
The Fortean Times (the Journal of Strange Phenomena) is the only magazine I buy regularly in these money-tight days. Issue 164 (Dec. 2002) ends with "Next Month: The Terrible Griffin: An Unnatural History of the Composite Beast." (What? Only terrible? They must have forgotten horrible, hideous, ugly, evil, etc.)
But I look forward to anyone's Special Griffin Issue.
Fortean Times #165 Jan. 2003. Edgar Cayce, Maryland Sniper, Cat Adopts Mouse -- no Griff. On the back page: "Next Month: The Terrible Griffin". Must have had the article bumped.
Fortean Times #166 Feb 2003: Elvis, the Nagas of Thailand, "Ghostwatch" TV special, cloud shaped like a dog -- no Griffs. Last Page: "Next Month: The Terrible [horrible, evil, nasty] Griffin."
So, at last, Fortean Times #167 March 2003: Mysterious wildcats in Britain, Prince Madog, Sleepwalking Killers, Live TV Autopsy -- an amazing lack of Griffs. Last Page: Coming Soon: Erich Von Daniken, Did the Welsh contact American Indians, NASA moonshot. No more of that Griffin nonsense. No explanation as to why there was no article. Not a Sausage, as they say in England.
But FT #168: After the Welsh Indians, Moon Landings, the Raelian Cult "clone" -- last page: "Coming Soon -- The Terrible Gryphon." So we're back to that, are we?
And now, at last, FT #169, May 2003: Von Daniken, Kaspar Hauser, Skinwalker Ranch, Giant Squid attack --
"Next Month in FT: The Terrible Griffin."
Let us contemplate the Zen Gryphon (that isn't there).
If that's not a Conspiracy, I don't know what is!
What's that? Another Japanese monster movie, like those mentioned in issue 2:4? No. It seems that in the 19th century lithographers were quite keen on getting Solnhofen slate (actually a kind of limestone) for their printing processes. Indeed, other kinds of slate were inadequate for lithography, so this area of Bavaria near the Danube River was mined extensively.
It so happened that fossils were often found well preserved in the layers of slate, and in 1861 a strange partial skeleton was discovered in a quarry in Langenaltheim, west of Solnhofen. The fossil, consisting of the tail and most of the limbs (no head), resembled a lizard or small dinosaur, but the impressions of feathers lined the tail and forelimbs. It appeared to be a very primitive bird, scarcely distinguishable from a reptile, but capable of a crude sort of flight. Professor Andreas Wagner named the creature Griphosaurus, as it combined the features of bird and lizard as the Gryphon combined bird and mammal.
Unfortunately, we gryphophiles still don't have a prehistoric creature to call our own. A year earlier, a fossilized feather impression was found at the Solnhofen quarry, and Professor Herrmann von Meyer named its original owner Archaeopteryx lithographica, "very old feathered one from the lithographic slate." Despite the fact that the feather didn't resemble the ones on the Langenaltheim fossil, they were considered to be of the same species, and so the name Archaeopteryx had precedent.
The bird-reptile has had many name problems. The more famous fossil Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1877 (the one with the head and neck arched far back), was actually know for many years as Archaeornis because it was structually different enough to be a new (though related) species. Sir Richard Owen, the famous paleontologist, was the one to reject the term Griphosaurus (because the creatures were definitely birds, as they had feathers, and "saurus" means reptile). He also rejected lithographica and said it should be called Archaeopteryx macrura (macrura meaning long-tailed). Those who disliked the name "Archaeornis" called the 1877 specimen Archaeopteryx siemensii after Werner von Siemens, who bought it for the University of Berlin. See Willy Ley's Exotic Zoology for the full story.
The poor bird-lizard's woes continue. In 1986 maverick scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe published Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery, in which they claimed that the whole existence of the ancient bird was a hoax, merely fossil reptiles with feather impressions stamped in to shore up the theory of evolution.
Gryphons can't seem to get into The Fortean Times; their American counterpart, the Piasa, can't prove that even its legends were real, and controversy surrounds a long-dead critter merely named in their honor. A Gryphon conspiracy? It sounds more like a curse!