Crater Lake
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IV. Indian Perceptions of Crater Lake (continued)

D. Legends Surrounding Crater Lake

The most common of the legends centering around Crater Lake involve two powerful mythological beings, Skell, lord of the Under-world, and La-o (Llao), god of the Above-world. Their theme is basically good versus evil. One of the most often repeated stories is referred to as the Klamath Legend of La-o:

According to the Mythology of the Klamath and Modoc Indians, the chief spirit who occupied the mystic land of Gaywas, or Crater Lake, was La-o. Under his control were many lesser spirits, who appeared to be able to change their forms at will. Many of these were monsters of various kinds, among them the giant crawfish (or dragon), who could, if he chose, reach up his mighty arms even to the tops of the cliffs and drag down to the cold depths of Crater Lake any too venturesome tourist of the primal days.

The spirits or beings who were under the control of La-o, assumed the forms of many animals of the present day, when they chose to go abroad on dry land, and this was no less true of the other fabulous inhabitants of Klamath land who were dominated by other chief spirits, and who occupied separate localities; all these forms, however, were largely or solely subject to the will of Komoo'kumps, the great spirit.

Now on the north side of Mt. Jackson, or La-o Yaina (La-o's Mountain), the eastern escarpment of which is known as La-o Rock, is a smooth field, sloping a little towards the north, which was a common playground for the fabled inhabitants of Gaywas and neighboring communities.

Skell was a mighty spirit whose realm was the Klamath Marsh country, his capital being near the Yamsay River, on the eastern side of the marsh. He had many subjects who took the forms of birds and beasts when abroad on the land, as the antelope, the bald eagle, the bliwas or golden eagle, among them many of the most sagacious and active of all the beings then upon the earth.

A fierce war occurred between Skell and La-o and their followers which raged for a long time. Finally Skell was stricken down in his own land of Yamsay and his heart was torn from his body and was carried in triumph to La-o Yaina. Then a great gala day was declared and even the followers of Skell were allowed to take part in the games on Mt. Jackson, and the heart of Skell was tossed from hand to hand in the great ball game in which all participated.

If the heart of Skell could be borne away so that it could be restored to his body, he would live again, and so with a secret understanding among themselves the followers of Skell watched for the opportunity to bear it away. Eventually, when it reached the hands of Antelope, he sped away to the eastward like the wind. When nearly exhausted he passed it to the Eagle, and he in his turn to Bliwas, and so on, and although La-o's followers pursued with their utmost speed, they failed to overtake the swift bearers of the precious heart. At last they heard the far away voice of the dove, another of Skell's people, and then they gave up the useless pursuit .

Skell's heart was restored and he lived again, but the war was not over and finally La-o was himself overpowered and slain and his bleeding body was borne to the La-o Yaina, on the very verge of the great cliff, and a false message was conveyed to La-o's monsters in the Lake, that Skell had been killed, instead of La-o, and when a quarter of the body was thrown over, La-o's monsters devoured it, thinking it a part of the body of Skell. Each quarter was thrown over in turn, with the same result, but when the head was thrown into the lake, the monsters recognized it as the head of their master and would not touch it, and so it remains today, an island in the lake, to all people now known as Wizard Island. [17]

This version does not seek to provide a detailed explanation of the destruction of Mount Mazama and the subsequent formation of Crater Lake, but does try to explain the origin of the volcanic cone known today as Wizard Island. This story contains virtually no hint of the volcanic activity that startled the surrounding countryside several thousand years ago.

Another legend attributes the formation of Wizard Island to a battle waged between two mortals--a tale heard from a Klamath Indian but revolving around members of the Shasta tribe of northern California and southern Oregon:

Wimawita ["Grizzly Bear," a Shasta brave] was the pride of his family and tribe. He could kill the grizzly bear and his prowess in the fight was renowned even among those fierce braves who controlled the entrance to the Lake of the Big Medicine, where the black obsidian arrow-heads are found. But the chase no longer had pleasure for him and he wandered far up the slopes of Shasta, where the elk and deer abound, and they passed slowly by him down into the heavy growth of murmuring pines, as if knowing that his mission was of peace. Above was the line of perpetual snow, where the tamarack was striving hard for existence in the barren rock. From this great height Wimawita gazed upon the lodges in the prairie amongst the huge trees far below and then, suddenly descending, disappeared into the forest, advancing towards the east, where springs the great gushing sawul [large spring], the sources of the Wini-mim [McCloud River].

There, in a little hut, dwelt old Winnishuya [Forethought]. "Tell me, O mother," he said, "what can I do to regain the love of Tculucul [The Lark]? she laughs at me and the dog Tsileu [Red Flicker] wanders with her over the snow-clad mountain." "'tis well," answered the old woman; Tculucul still loves you, but since your brave deeds among the Klamaths your thoughts are far away and you long for further perils to chant your great exploits in the councils of the brave. Tculucul has noticed your neglect and distaste for the exploits in which you formerly took pleasure. Why, 0 Wimawita, do you not seek for greater glory? Know you not of the great lake far away and deep down in the mountain-top? The way is long and difficult and but few reach its rocky slopes. If you have the strength and courage to climb down and bathe in its crystal waters, you will acquire great and marvelous wisdom, Tculucul will look upon you with favor, and none will equal you among your own people. The Llaos (children of the Great Spirit) guard the lake, and far in the past one of our own tribe reached it, but not propitiating the spirits, they killed him and his body was sunk into the depths of the blue water."

As she spoke the old woman's strength increased. Wimawita, listening, caught her energy and said: "'tis well, my mother;--tomorrow, while all sleep, will I start upon this journey far away over the fields of lava, to the river where the Klamaths dwell. Then will I find the way to the wondrous lake and bathe in the deep water." While speaking, he noted not the parting of the brush, where Tculucul was concealed and in her fright almost betrayed her presence. Nor was Tsileu visible behind the granite rocks near by, eagerly watching and hearing all that happened.

[Wimawita started off at at dawn the next day, followed closely by Tculucul, dressed as a brave, and further behind by Tsileu, gliding stealthily in the tracks of the others. The three marched for many long days "over the prairies of Shasta and the dreary lava fields of Modoc, until Wimawita reached the great river of the Klamaths." Here Tculucul revealed herself and proposed to accompany him to "the great lake in the top of the mountain." Tsileu, "inwardly raging, cast a look of hate upon them and sped northward through the land of the Klamaths."]

. . . At last, after many weary days, they reached the lake and made camp upon the edge of the precipice. All night Wimawita chanted his song and early, when the sun was just lighting up the circular wall on the opposite side of the lake, fully seven miles away, he clambered down the steep and rocky walls and plunged into the deep, clear water. His spirit seemed to soar from him; but it required all his strength to climb back to the rim of the crater. Again the next day he attempted the same difficult feat, and on returning said: "Once more only, Tculucul, will I have to bathe in the crystal water. Then wisdom and strength will be mine, our tribe will be the grandest in the land, and you the greatest squaw among us. Thus will your faith and help to me be rewarded."

On the third morning he started. Just as he reached the last descent, near the water's edge, he beheld Tsileu, "Dog of Wimawita, we will here find who is the greater man. Defend yourself!" he cried. They swayed to and fro on the edge of the cliff, advancing and retreating, where a false step would cause death. Tculucul from the cliff above, powerless to aid, beheld the mighty encounter. Suddenly Wimawita slipped on the mossy rock and Tsileu, exerting all his strength, raised and hurled him far out into the lake. Then the Llaos rose and bearing fiercely down upon Tsileu tore his body to pieces and cast them upon the water. Before the ripples had subsided where the lark disappeared, the waves parted and the lava burst out with a mighty noise. The Island of Llaos Nous [Wizard Island] rose up as a gasp of the dying crater, and here, 'tis said, dwells the spirit of Wimawita, the brave, and Tculucul, the lark." [18]

Another legend not only explains the creation of Wizard Island but also suggests the manner in which the Crater Lake caldera became filled with water. Some new romantic elements have been added:

Llao, the master of everything living under the earth and water, dwelt in the fiery pit where Crater Lake now lies, and this was the only place he could come to the surface of the earth. Skell was master of all the animals that lived on the earth. Both were in love with the daughter of the chief of the Klamath Indians and both asked for her hand in marriage and were refused because her father was rearing her to be chief of the tribe when he died. Llao felt wronged when he was refused her hand and returned to his home on Llao Rock and brooded. Skell understood and pledged his help to the Indians if they needed it.

Then Llao commanded the chief to deliver his daughter to him in three days, or seven days of death and destruction would be launched against the Indians. The girl wanted to sacrifice herself for her people, but they wouldn't let her. They tied her in her tent and lay face downward awaiting destruction. Skell started to help the Indians, but Llao, seeing him go, hurled a flaming boulder across the skies and struck him dead. Then Llao's children took Skell's heart from his body and brought it to their father.

All of Skell's children gathered at a fountain where he drank and bewailed his fate. Llao sent a messenger to them proclaiming himself lord of everything above earth as well as underneath it.

After he left, the coyote said, "Since it is proclaimed that Skell's heart will live and his body live if his heart be returned, let us proceed to the home of Llao and declare ourselves his loyal subjects, awaiting the chance to restore the heart to our master."

Taunts greeted them as they arrived, and the weasel, brother of Llao, ran to the ballground with Skell's heart and began to toss it into the air. The coyote followed him to the ballground and began to chide him for not being able to throw it far. Other animals tried to toss it too but the coyote chided them all for not being able to throw it high into the air. Finally, Llao became angry at his taunts and stalked out and hurled it far into the air. It soared and soared and finally came to the ground on the far end of the baseball ground. The fox, who was hidden near, snatched it and rushed into the forest. As Llao's children were about to catch the fox, the antelope burst through the throng and took the heart and rushed on with it. The eagle swooped down and, taking the heart from the antelope, flew out of sight with it. A voice of a dove, sounding from a great distance, told them Skell lived again.

Brooding over this, Llao went to Skell's land and challenged him to a wrestling match. Skell knew that Llao was stronger, but decided to wrestle rather than appear cowardly before his children and the other gods. Llao threw him across his shoulder and started toward his home. When they were only a short distance from Llao's home, Skell said that a louse was biting him and he wanted to scratch. Llao taunted him saying, "What matter a little bite when I am soon going to cut you into pieces and feed you to my children?"

"But you will grant me this one last wish," pleaded Skell. Llao freed one of his hands and Skell pulled out his knife and cut off Llao's head. Then he sent word to Llao's children that Skell had been killed. They gathered around the pit beneath Lao's throne and ate the pieces of their master as they were thrown down to them. But when their master's head was tossed over, they were grieved and would not touch it. It remains today where it was thrown and is known as Wizard Island. Then the pit grew dark and the children wept, their tears falling into the dark pit which is today known as Crater Lake. [19]

Another explanation for the formation of the cavity, its flooding by water, and its inhabitation by demons involves internecine warfare among members of the Klamath tribe:

Long before the white man s coming, there was rebellion among the Klamath Indians. For days the battle raged fiercely until finally the weaker side took refuge on the highest mountain for miles around. Firmly entrenched among the rocks, they were able to withstand the assaults of the entire tribe. One attack after another was made, each ending in a repulse. Finally a council of war was held by the besieging party, and the medicine men were told to invoke the aid of the Great Spirit. For two days and two nights they kept up their chant; on the third morning their prayers were answered. A fearful rumbling shook the earth and with an awful roar the entire top of the mountain sank from sight, pulling with it every one of the rebellious braves. Scarcely had this disturbance ceased than water began rushing into the recess from a hundred crevices, and when finally the victorious party ventured near the rim they saw a vast lake lying before them. Then, as if to make amends for the fearful punishment, the Great Spirit converted the ghosts of the victims into huge, long-armed dragons which could reach up to the crater's rim and drag down any venturesome warrior. [20]

More graphic details of volcanic activity have been added to another version of the Crater Lake legend, where, in addition to the good against evil thesis and the romantic ingredient, there are allusions to volcanic eruptions and lava flows. This story also credits another spirit, Snaith, and mortal men with a hand in the formation of Crater Lake:

In the beginning--long-ago-time--according to Modoc myth and story, there was a high mountain, where now in a deep gulf reposes Crater Lake. It was La-o-Yaina, mountain of Llao, the mythical God, who with his Below-world subjects and terrible creatures rules these regions. About and upon this mountain was the land of Gay-was, where Llao resided and looked down upon the land of the Klamaths. But in fact Llao was discovered by three old religious men--medicine men--and revealed by Skell, the Upper-world god, to be no other than Kee-Kwil-ly Tyee Tah-o-witt, the Down Below-world Chief of fire and smoke and darkness in the middle of the earth never lighted by the sun. The destruction of La-o Yaina was the result of a terrible conflict between Llao and Skell, when Skell came to the defence of the daughter of a great Klamath chief, with whom both had fallen in love. The fire-curse of the smoking mountain was only abated by the sacrifice of the three religious men, who knew the secrets of the gods, and afterward Skell caused Snaith, the storm, rain and cold chief, to fill up the caverns of the earth made by the bursting of Llao's throne, extinguishing the fires forever and thus was made the Lake. With the sacrifice of the three ancient men, the knowledge of the gods disappeared from among the Klamath tribes. [21]

This next version incorporates the sacrifice of the medicine men and also depicts violent activity by both Mount Mazama in Oregon and Mount Shasta in California. This suggests that there might have been a violent eruption of Mount Shasta at approximately the same time as Mazama's activity that caused the two volcanoes to become associated in one legend. [22] The entire process of the mountain falling in upon itself is clearly explained in this paraphrase of the story: before Crater Lake was formed, the volcanic mountain called Mazama served as the passageway between the domain below the earth and the world above. When La-o, chief of the world below, visited the surface, he could be seen as a dark form towering above the white snow. When Sahale Tyee, chief of the world above, appeared on earth, he rested atop Mount Shasta, south of Mazama. The day came when these two deities quarreled, and the anger of La-o shook the ground, sending thunder and burning ashes into the sky and spilling lava down the mountainside. The medicine men interpreted La-o's violence as a curse directed at least in part toward the tribe for their wickedness and errors. To make atonement they climbed to the top of Mount Mazama and threw themselves off as a sacrifice. The chief of the world above was so impressed by this that he renewed his war with La-o and finally drove him underground. As the chief of the world below retreated and disappeared, the mountain top fell in upon him and his door to the surface was sealed. Never again did La-o frighten the Indians. The crater of his mountain then filled with pure waters and became a scene of peace and tranquility. [23]

A long time ago, he [Chief Lalek] said, the spirits that live in the mountains and in the water, in the earth and in the sky, used to come and talk with the Klamath people. One time the chief of the spirits that lived deep in the mountain where the lake is now became angry with the people on the earth. Muttering with wrath he came up from his home, stood upon the summit of the mountain, and vowed that he would destroy the earth with the Curse of Fire. Hearing him, the chief of the sky spirits came down and stood on the summit of Mount Shasta. From their mountaintops the two powerful spirit chiefs began a furious battle, in which all the spirits of earth and sky took part.

Mountains shook and crumbled. Fire pouring forth from the mouth of the chief of the below-world spirits swept through the forests and reached the lodges of the people. Red-hot rocks and burning ashes fell for miles and miles. The people rushed into Klamath Lake and there prayed to the chief of the sky spirits to save them from the Curse of Fire. To appease the angry below-world spirits, two old shamans of the tribes offered themselves as a living sacrifice, and their sacrifice was accepted. One last time the mountain-that-used-to-be broke open and all the earth trembled. The below-world spirits were driven back into their home and the top of the mountain crashed down upon them.

Then came the spirit of storms. Rains that fell for many years wiped out the fires and partly filled the hole that was made when the mountaintop collapsed. Never again were the Klamath people visited by the chief of the below-world spirits, but through this story they were warned to keep away from the old mountain and the new lake. [24]

Evidently the warning was heeded, for this next legend concerns Crater Lake's "rediscovery"" by the Indians, who had been avoiding it for many years. This version describes the lake's frequent use as a quest site:

A long time ago, long before the white man appeared in this region to vex and drive the proud native out, a band of Klamaths, while out hunting, came suddenly upon the lake and were startled by its remarkable walls and awed by its majestic proportions. With spirits subdued and trembling with fear, they silently approached and gazed upon its face; something within told them the Great Spirit dwelt there, and they dared not remain but passed silently down the side of the mountain and camped far away. By some unaccountable influence, however, one brave was induced to return. He went up to the very brink of the precipice and started his camp fire. Here he laid down to rest; here he slept till morn--slept till the sun was high in air, then arose and joined his tribe far down the mountain. At night he came again; again he slept till morn. Each visit bore a charm that drew him back again. Each night found him sleeping above the rocks; each night strange voices arose from the waters; mysterious noises filled the air. At last, after a great many moons, he climbed down to the lake and there bathed and spent the night. Often he climbed down in like manner, and frequently saw wonderful animals, similar in all respects to a Klamath Indian, except that they seemed to exist entirely in the water. He suddenly became hardier and stronger than any Indian of his tribe because of his many visits to the mysterious waters. Others then began to seek its influence. Old warriors sent their sons for strength and courage to meet the conflicts awaiting them. First they slept on the rocks above, then ventured to the water's edge, but last of all they plunged beneath the flood and the coveted strength was theirs. On one occasion the brave who first visited the lake killed a monster, or fish, and was at once set upon by untold numbers of excited Llaos (for such they were called), who carried him to the top of the cliffs, cut his throat with a stone knife, then tore his body in small pieces, which were thrown down to the waters far beneath, where he was devoured by angry Llaos. [25]

And finally, we have in the following the most pictorial representations of the spirit world of Crater Lake:

Tradition tells how two hunters, brave and skillful Nimrods of the Klamath tribe, ventured far beyond the realm of the living. Went where, the ancient doctor told, dwelt the Great Spirit--where he had, when yet the nation was in its infancy, given vent to his rage in sending forth spouts of flame and smoke. The very fathers of the tribe had been issued from the land of spirits through a mighty cavern, which they said led into the regions of the uncanny. Here did they believe and teach that all men returned to dwell in spiritual form with their Maker. They described it as a place deep and bottomless as the very sky--a place where the mountains sank into the bottomless depth of the spiritual world. A peak, they said, arose from near the center of this unbounded depth, and this was the throne of the Almighty. Within this dome there was a furnace, from which issued the flame and smoke. About the glowing cloud at the mouth of the crater struggled winged salamanders, or "fire spirits," attempting to escape from their fiery prison, but bound by the will of the Great Spirit. These were the spirits of evil men doomed to suffer an eternal penalty of torture for their earthly wrongdoings. In the bottom of the abyss was a sheet of water as blue and deep as the sky which it reflected. Over the surface of this lake and on its surrounding banks sported the spirits of the departed good. They sailed in gilded canoes over the glossy depths of the lake and in the tranquil shades of the surrounding forest they roamed in search of game; they sailed like birds from one pinnacle to another, and fished in the balmy blue waters. Here was the paradise, and in the crater the infernal regions.

The doctors of the tribe only were allowed by the Great Spirit to visit this holy retreat. Here they came and counseled with him; here they met the dead of the tribe and bore messages from them to the living; here did they procure medicine for the sick and charms to guide the fate of men. So did the doctors tell the people, and so did the people and do many yet believe. They said that it was the decree of the Great Spirit that any living man who should dare to intrude upon the sacred presence of the dead should die in consequence, and be doomed to the infernal furnace. Yet these warriors were brave. They feared not even the Great Spirit himself. They wore the scalps of mighty warriors at their belts. They had vanquished the fiercest beasts of the forest; they had overcome all enemies they had chanced to meet; they longed for fresh adventures--for more thrilling dangers, and they rivalled each other's courage. They at last determined to invade the realms of the supernatural. They entered the forest and traveled toward the sky-towering pinnacles of Crater lake. On they pressed, dauntless in their courage. They reached the regions of the uncanny. They climbed nearer and nearer the great abyss. At last they came to a break in the forest, and there before them lay the awful spectacle. It was as it had been pictured to them. They stood fixed to the spot. There, as the doctors had described, lay the lake. There before their eyes, with wings like birds, sported the spirits, and from the crater far below them in the lake burst forth flames and smoke and the agonizing cries of suffering men. The screams of the tortured mingled with the happy songs of the peaceful spirits. There the birds which once had fallen, pierced by lightning arrows, flew in spirit flocks. Fish once victims to the fraudulent fly sported in the lake, and deer and bear, whose skins had long since been worn for garments, browsed in the forest. Dogs followed their masters through space. Here they stood and gazed, unable to tear themselves away, till at last the Great Spirit, ever conscious of the movements of all men, issued from the fiery depths of the crater, and, summoning a huge monster from the bed of the lake, pointed to the two men on the shore. The great dragon, wont to do the bidding of his grim master, cut the tranquil surface of the lake with his thousand fins, and, clearing the high precipice with a gigantic leap, caught one of the warriors in his mighty arms and returned with him to the crater. The other warrior fled at the approach of the monster, and ran wildly down the mountain. Myriads of spirits, now disturbed, dashed after him, but he ran desperately on and reached safely the settlements on the Upper Klamath. He told them of what he had seen, of his adventures, and of the fate of his companion, and then, fulfilling the stern decree of the Great Spirit, yielded up his soul to undergo the tortures awaiting him in the fiery crater. But the Indians have not to this day forgotten his experience, and they still tell their children of that happy hunting ground where "their dogs shall bear them company." [26]

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002