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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Good Spirits column Spirits of the Falls by Libby Tucker here.
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Voices SS2012


Volume 38

Spirits of the Falls by Libby Tucker

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 the violin.”

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 sacrifice.

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.
Good Spirits


Photo of Libby Tucker Libby Tucker teaches folklore at Binghamton University. Her book, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), investigates college ghost stories. Her most recent book is Children’s Folklore: A Handbook (Westport: Greenwood, 2008).

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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