Last summer my husband Geof and I
left New York for a long-anticipated trip to
Norway. On his first trip to Norway back in
the 1960s, Geof had traveled up the Flåm
Railway to see the famous Kjosfossen waterfall,”
which was also on our itinerary for the
2012 trip. “You’ll love this waterfall,” he told
me, “it’s beautiful!” I definitely did love the
waterfall—not only because it was so large
and lovely, but also because I discovered
that it had a reputation for being haunted by
a water spirit.
Here’s how I learned about the Kjosfossen
ghost. As our train groaned its way up the
Flåm Railway’s steep incline, a voice on the
intercom told us we would stop at a platform
near the waterfall. “Be careful!” the voice said.
“It’s very wet there. Do not slip or fall!” Two
members of our group decided not to get
out of the train for fear of slippery surfaces.
Another group member said a guide had told
her the waterfall might be haunted. “Do you
think she was joking?” she asked the rest of
us. Hoping that our train ride was turning into
a classic legend trip, I jumped out the train’s
door as soon as it opened.
What I found was a wet wooden platform
just big enough to hold the small crowd of
tourists that was emerging from the train.
Romantic music poured from loudspeakers
as we all looked down at the waterfall and
spied an ethereal woman dancing by the edge
of the water, swathed in spray. Dark-haired
and slender, wearing a bright orange dress,
she looked like a visitor from another world.
Who could this mysterious dancer be? Surely
not a ghost!
Later that day, I asked Anne, our tour
guide, who the dancer was. “Oh, she’s a
student of the Norwegian ballet,” Anne
told me. “There’s always a dancer there to
greet the tourists, and she always reminds
me of our waterfall spirits, the Nøkken.
If you like music, they’ll teach you to play
After returning to New York, I did some
research on Norwegian water spirits. Some
spirits care most about playing music on
their violins, while others use their powers
of seduction to lure people to a watery death.
Both male and female Norwegian water spirits
are known for this dangerous proclivity.
Like the Sirens of the ancient Greek epic,
The Odyssey, they seem to like nothing better
than attracting and drowning travelers
who find them appealing. This connection
between water spirits and sudden death helps
to explain why travelers to Norway, including
me, hear warnings over loudspeakers as
they approach a roaring cataract. Of course,
slippery platforms can be dangerous for
heedless, fast-moving visitors, and the hint
of a supernatural presence makes this danger
seem even more intimidating.
Studying the dangerous water spirits of
European folklore makes me think about
Niagara Falls, New York’s most famous waterfall.
How much, if at all, do water spirits
matter there? If we look at descriptions of
the Falls in tourist brochures and online, we
find legends of sudden death, with emphasis
on Native American folklore. There are, of
course, mentions of various people who foolishly
went over the Falls in barrels and other
doomed receptacles, but the most dramatic
legends tell of Native American struggle and
The source of these stories is Brooklyn
journalist Charles M. Skinner’s Myths and Legends
of Our Own Land (1896), which presents
early American legends without clear source
citations. “Niagara,” a narrative attributed to
the well-known explorer La Salle, identifies
the Falls as “the Thundering Water,” a mighty
and loud-voiced spirit that demands two
victims every year. Skinner explains that the
Native people sent a beautiful young woman
in a white canoe over the Falls for the last
time in 1679 after Chief Eagle Eye’s daughter,
Lelawala, was chosen to be sacrificed to
Niagara. After Lelawala’s white canoe full of
flowers and fruit began to drift toward the
Falls, her grief-stricken father jumped into
his own canoe and tried to save her. He was,
of course, too late; he and his daughter both
perished, and she became the famous Maid of
the Mist in a “crystal heaven” deep beneath
the roaring Falls.
Since the publication of Skinner’s Myths and
Legends, researchers have debunked La Salle’s
record of human sacrifice to Niagara Falls. As
far as we can tell, La Salle wanted to depict
the Haudenosaunee people as superstitious
folks in need of help from their European
colonizers. In my own research on ghost
stories of New York, I have found countless
legends of sad “Indian princesses” who
died tragically. Such legends recall our state’s
colonial past while offering sensational details
to entertain listeners.
In 1846, the “Maid of the Mist” corporation
started a boat ride at Niagara Falls, and
Skinner’s legend of human sacrifice became
part of the boat ride. Telling this legend to
thousands of tourists did not, of course, seem
right to New York’s Haudenosaunee people.
Such notables as Corn Planter and Handsome
Lake corrected the legend to make it
a teaching story of sacred origin. The Maid,
who is never sacrificed, attempts suicide and
is rescued by the Thunder Beings of the
Falls. After learning the creator’s teachings
from the Thunder Beings, she returns as a
spirit to share important knowledge to keep
her people safe.
Unfortunately, legends of an Indian maiden’s
sacrifice at Niagara Falls still abound on
the Internet. This ghost story from a colonial
past has not changed as quickly as one might
hope it would. There are, however, Internet
versions in which the sacrificed maiden
returns as a spirit to instruct and save her
people. Like Norway’s Nøkken, she teaches
everyone to take care and listen closely to
spirits of the falls.
||Libby Tucker teaches
folklore at Binghamton
University. Her book, Haunted Halls:
Ghostlore of American
College Campuses (Jackson:
University Press of
Mississippi, 2007), investigates
stories. Her most recent book
is Children’s Folklore:
A Handbook (Westport:
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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