Why would dragons be associated with waterfalls? What is it about these striking features of nature that would attract a totally fantastic creature? Are dragons found in all types of waterfalls, or only in some?
The first thing to note in trying to answer these and similar questions is that it can be very difficult to find information relevant to the topic. There are numerous websites devoted to waterfalls by those who value them for their beauty or for the soothing sound of running water, but very few travellers learn anything about the mythology of the indigenous peoples who formerly lived, or in some cases still live, near these majestic features of the natural world. To find relevant information it is necessary to search through hundreds of travel books (generally those from the nineteenth century or earlier), or through accounts of the mythology of indigenous peoples who lived or still live near waterfalls. Even then, it is often possible—even likely—that real beliefs in dragons haunting local waterfalls may simply not be stated, and the only way to get that information would be to interview culturally traditional aboriginal people in situ. Despite these barriers the following examples have been collected, representing a clear association of dragons with waterfalls in North and South America, Insular Southeast Asia, and Africa. This association cannot be arbitrary, or there would be no explanation for its recurrence in widely separated parts of the world.
1 North America
1.1 The Horned Water Serpent of Niagara
Of all waterfalls in North America those of the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York, are easily the most famous. If dragons are associated with waterfalls in various parts of the world the falls at Niagara are sure to be a prime target for investigating this connection, and in this respect, we are not disappointed. The native people of this area were the Seneca, the westernmost of the five nations of the Iroquois confederacy.
One of the most cited legends of the Iroquois people is a Seneca story about the ‘horned serpent of Niagara’, a variant of the horned water serpent legend found across North America. In his League of the Ho-de
Essentially the same version of this story was retold by Converse (1908), but two somewhat different versions were narrated by the Seneca Arthur C. Parker (1923:218–227). In the first of Parker’s two variants a young marriageable woman is courted by a Thunderer named Hi”no, who is described as a friendly man who would have no dealings with witches. Hi”no was sure he would win the hand of the girl he courted, but she was slow to respond. He suspected that she had been bewitched by a competitor, and he and the girl’s father waited to spy on her actions. Shortly afterward they saw her meet a stranger with a long neck and small, beady eyes, who she accepted as her husband. Her husband took her, crawled down the cliff of the great falls at Niagara, splashed into the water, and swam back into a cave behind the cataract, which housed a dimly-lit lodge. Inside were many suits of clothing, and before excusing himself for three days the woman’s new husband encouraged her to find one and put it on. However, she was reluctant to do this, because everything she tried had a strange, fishy smell. There was one dress that particularly attracted her, and she nearly put it on, but she desisted because of the odor. When her husband returned, he asked her if she had selected a suit, and she explained that she found one she liked very much, but that she was reluctant to put it on because of its smell, and the fear that it might bring evil on her. Her husband protested that this was precisely the suit he had hoped she would choose, and that it would greatly please him if she wore it. The next day he excused himself again, promising to return before long. This time while he was away the girl carefully examined all the suits in the lodge, and at that point realized to her horror that these were the clothing of great serpents. Seeing how she had been deceived, she resolved to leave. Escaping from the cave lodge she swam to the surface of the water, but it was dark and the sky was filled with thunder clouds. As Parker puts it (1923:221):
A great storm was coming up. Then she heard a great splashing, and through the water she saw a monster serpent plowing his way toward her. Its eyes were fiercely blazing and there were horns upon its head. As it came toward her she scrambled in dismay up the dark, slippery rocks to escape it. As the lightning flashed she looked sharply at the creature and saw that its eyes were those of her husband. She noticed in particular a certain mark on his eyes that had before strangely fascinated her. Then she realized that this was her husband and that he was a great horned serpent.
In the conclusion to this dramatic tale (a literal cliffhanger) her husband coiled around to embrace her, but in a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder he collapsed, pierced by one of Hi”no’s arrows. The girl was about to fall, but she was swept up and carried off to her father’s lodge, saved by the Thunderer, who told her he had wanted to save her, but had been kept at bay by the monster’s magic. He then asked her the most important question: had she put on any of the dresses she was offered in the underwater lodge? If she had, he explained, she was no longer a woman, but had become a serpent.
She replied that she had resisted the urge to put on the serpent garments, and Hi”no told her that she must then go to a sweat lodge to be purified. She accordingly went to the women’s sweat lodge, and when she had sweated and been purified by herbs “she gave a scream and all the women screamed for she had expelled two young serpents and they ran down and slipped off her feet. The Thunderer outside killed them with a loud noise” (Parker 1923:221–222).
There is no need to recount the second version offered by Parker, since the two versions of this story that have already been given are sufficiently different to raise important questions. Although they tell the same tale they clearly do so for different purposes. The version given by Morgan is essentially a ‘just so’ story, telling how the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara was formed. The version given by Parker, on the other hand, is far more entangled with Seneca ideas about witchcraft, and is no doubt embedded in a larger cycle of stories in that genre.
It is easy to become distracted by the details of these kinds of stories, which no doubt were elaborated through the generations for their entertainment value on dark winter nights, but we must not lose sight of the fact that here we find a dragon associated with a waterfall. Niagara, of course, is not a single cataract, but a series of falls formed by the river splitting into several channels before reaching the precipice that it plunges over, and anyone who has visited it will know that the tremendous water volume produces a ‘reverse rain’, a constant ascent of spray high into the air, generating rainbows on sunny days, which is why one of the streams is called ‘Rainbow Falls’. What is particularly interesting about the horned water serpent of Niagara is that it lived in Cayuga Creek, above the falls, a point that is not without significance, because given the huge water volume of Niagara and the consequent high-rising spray, rainbows normally appear over the falls, rather that in front of the cave formed by natural hydraulic erosion at the base of the cliff.
2 The Caribbean and South America
2.1 The Dragon of Haiti
Of all parts of the western hemisphere that were populated by freed African slaves, Haiti probably lays claim to preserving more of traditional West African culture than any other place. One African-derived feature of Haitian culture that particularly stands out is its animistic religion, known variously as Vodoun or Voodoo, which is a blend of European Catholicism and indigenous oral traditions that focus on the placation of spirit presences. As described in various sources, supplicants of this religion make an annual pilgrimage to the Saut d’Eau waterfall on the La Tombe river in the mountains of central Haiti, where they seek the blessings of the waters guarded by Ayida Wedo, the rainbow, who arches over the falls intertwined with her consort Damballah, the serpent (Métraux 1959:329 ff., Davis 1985:170–185).
As will be described in greater detail in a later chapter, what is most striking about this ceremony is that it centers around a deity that is both rainbow (female), and serpent (male), and these two alter egos are intertwined in an inseparable unity that is at once male and female, a fusion of opposites characteristic of the dragon in contexts as disparate as imperial China, aboriginal Australia and the medieval intricacies of European alchemy, as will be shown in due course.
2.2 The Dragons of the Guianas
The Guianas and adjacent parts of Venezuela are noted for their tepuis (flat-topped mountains which are islands of biodiversity in a vast sea of jungle), as well as for a terrain that is generally conducive to the production of waterfalls. Angel Falls in Venezuela, at 3,212 feet, is generally regarded as the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, but little is known about the indigenous folklore concerning it. However, two other waterfalls or waterfall complexes in the neighboring Guianas have been reported as having a resident dragon.
The first of these was described by the explorer Henri Coudreau (1895), who spent time among the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Oyampi Indians (called ‘Wayampi’ in more recent sources) of the middle and upper Oyapock river in French Guiana toward the close of the nineteenth century. Modern sources indicate that three of the Oyampi villages are located near Trois-Sauts (‘Three waterfalls’).
Coudreau tells us that the falls of Ouroua Itou, rushing between many islets, is a long, rapid and dangerous drop, the nastiest besides Coumaraoua. The large trunks of rolling trees carried by the water crash into the rocks below with a deafening roar, like cannons firing in their passage. Ouroua Itou, like Coumaraoua, Acouciragne, Arario and Massara, are the legendary falls of the Oyampis. Each of these waterfalls has a gigantic serpent at the base, hidden in the eddy of the crashing water, and more than once the Oyampis say they have seen it raise its monstrous head. All their efforts are then useless, as canoe and Indians are carried under water, where the giant reptile in its ferocity devours the Indians, and sometimes the canoe as well. Each waterfall thus has its mythical guardian. For this reason, the Oyampis will never speak the name of a waterfall before passing it, since the serpent at the bottom of the water is able to understand the utterance of its name and will pursue those who have been so bold as to utter it.
The second of these waterfall complexes was described by the German explorer and ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1924), who travelled through the Guianas in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, taking copious notes on the culture and mythology of the local peoples. His particular focus was on two Carib-speaking groups that he called Taulipáng and Arekuná. Today these are known as the Taulipang and Arecuna, and each ethnolinguistic group is considered to speak a dialect of the Pemon language. For the Arecuna Koch-Grünberg (1924:15) has this to say:
Keyeme, the rainbow, when it appears is thought of as a large multi-colored snake that lives in the high waterfalls. This belief probably originated from the observation that numerous rainbows form in the spray or mist that arises from the falls. When Keyeme sheds his skin, he is a man of malevolent character. However, this does not prevent him from being called “the father of all animals.”
A bit later he adds that Keyeme can have a human form, but is a huge water snake when he undresses, and that animals have souls, which go to Keyeme after their death, which is why he is called the “father of all animals.”
In addition to these descriptions Koch-Grünberg recorded many Arecuna tales in which Keyeme plays a role, but these appear to be completely independent of his association with waterfalls. The primary relationship of this mythical character, who appears to be half-human, half-dragon, is thus with the waterfalls that provide a physical source for his existence, and once brought into being as a cultural creation, the Arecuna were free to elaborate on his character in myth and story, much as the Seneca were able to do with the dragon of Niagara.
Superficially these two South American examples might seem to be near-duplicates, but the facts speak otherwise. First, although both groups are located in the Guianas they are nearly as far removed from one another as is possible within that geographical context. The Oyampis on the Oyapock river are on the far southeastern side of French Guiana, while the Pemon/Arecuna are in the Pacaraima Mountains in central-west Guyana, along the border with Venezuela and Brazil, well over 800 miles distant. Moreover, the Oyampi reportedly came from south of the Amazon about 1736, and did not enter French Guiana until about 1800–1820 (Gillin 1963:814–815), meaning that these two groups were even more widely separated until the past two centuries. Second, they speak unrelated languages, and are culturally very distinct. What this tells us, then, is that the monster serpents in the waterfalls of Guyana and French Guiana probably are not copies of one another through cultural borrowing, but that if better documentation were available, we probably would encounter many more examples of this type throughout the South American continent (and no doubt elsewhere in the world). We will have to be satisfied with what we have from very sparse and random reporting of such beliefs. However, they show sufficient agreement and geographical spread to make it clear that there must be a reason that dragons are associated with waterfalls in widely separated regions.
2.3 The Dragon of Iguazu
Given the presence of dragons in other major waterfalls, for some time I suspected that the great falls of Iguazu (Portuguese: Iguassu) on the Brazil-Argentinian border, which prompted Eleanor Roosevelt on seeing them to exclaim “Poor Niagara!”, must also have a resident dragon. However, I had never been able to obtain any information relevant to this question until Antonio Andres-Lopez, a travel agent and friend who often conducts tours to South America, was able to inquire about this for me (p.c. 8/29/11). What he discovered on a tour that he led to Iguazu is related here:
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the land around Iguazu Falls belonged to the Guarani Indians. Every year the Guarani tribe would sacrifice a beautiful virgin to the Serpent God M’Boi who lived in the Iguazu River. Usually these women were bred to be sacrificed, and no one protested as the girls were thrown into the river. Naipi, however, was not one of those condemned girls. She was to be married to Taruba, a great warrior from a neighboring tribe.
A few weeks before the marriage ceremony Naipi was walking near the river and M’Boi saw her reflection in the water. The Serpent God thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and demanded that the Guarani tribe give her to him. The elders of the tribe were too afraid to upset M’Boi because his father was Tupa, the Supreme God of All; so they arranged to sacrifice Naipi a day before she was to be united with Taruba.
Naipi was devastated, as she and Taruba were madly in love. Taruba was furious and believed he could rescue Naipi from her grim fate. The lovers arranged to meet at the Iguazu river and run away. Unfortunately M’Boi saw Naipi climbing into the escape canoe and he raced to catch up with them. Taruba rowed as hard as he could, and was able to keep a few feet of space between them and the serpent. This made M’Boi so angry that his body expanded to the size of the river. He slithered and squirmed, causing the river to form new curves, and the little canoe to rock back and forth. When Taruba wouldn’t give up M’Boi became so furious that he caused the earth to split. The river spilled over the cracked earth, sending the canoe into spirals. Taruba was knocked out and tossed onto the embankment. Naipi was trapped inside and about to smash into the land below when M’Boi changed her into a large rock so she wouldn’t be able to run away. Taruba saw the transformation and tried to rush down to her, but his hands were pulled into the earth by M’Boi. His fingers were stretched so deep into the embankment that they turned into roots and Taruba grew into a palm tree, forever rooted to the earth above the falls.
This was M’Boi’s way of revenge, separating the two lovers by an enormous waterfall, so they could see each other, but never touch. M’Boi is said to lurk deep in the waters of Devil’s Throat, watching the palm tree and the rock, making sure they never unite. Although Naipi and Taruba can never be together, they still manage to show their love by forming a rainbow which starts at a palm tree on the Brazilian side of the falls and reaches over to the rock of Naipi in Argentina.
There are elements of this story that suggest it might be a later, Europeanized version of an original Guarani tale, as with the romantic view of the rainbow that memorializes the plight of the doomed lovers, which is not typical of tribal ideas about the rainbow anywhere on Earth. Whether this is accepted or not, the key element remains unchanged: the falls of Iguazu house a resident dragon.
Like Morgan’s account of the horned water serpent of Niagara, this can be seen as a ‘just-so’ story told by the local people to explain striking features of the local landscape. Such stories, however, appear to be secondary to the primary belief that the falls were inhabited by a monstrous serpent. Once this belief existed, it could be elaborated in horror stories of the kind seen here, or in connection with Niagara. Although fully elaborated tales of resident dragons have been recorded only at Niagara and Iguazu, these may very well exist elsewhere, but were not part of the observations made by European visitors to other waterfalls.
3 Insular Southeast Asia
3.1 The Dragon of Southern Sarawak
Spencer St. John, a nineteenth century British consul in Brunei, wrote a book of memoirs entitled Life in the forests of the Far East in which he described many personal adventures on the island of Borneo. In recounting one of these that involved a trip out of the Iban village of Sebuyau in southern Sarawak to the neighboring mountains, he begins (1863:28) with the following narration:
Next day we started for a waterfall, which we were told was to be found on the sides of the Gading mountain, a few miles below the village. After leaving our boat, the path lay through a jungle of fruit-trees; but as we ascended the spur of the mountain these ceased. In about an hour we came to a very deep ravine, where the thundering noise of falling water gave notice of the presence of a cataract. This was by far the finest I had yet seen; the stream, tumbling down the sides of the mountain, forms a succession of noble falls....
After launching into further poetic descriptions of the view before him, he continues (28–29)
A slight detour brought us to a spot above the cascade, and then we could perceive that it was but the first of a succession. One view, where six hundred feet of fall was at once visible, is extremely fine: the water now gliding over the smoothest granite rock, then broken into foam by numerous obstructions, then tumbling in masses into deep basins—the deafening roar, the noble trees rising amid the surrounding crags, the deep verdure, the brightness of the tropical sun, reflected from burning polished surfaces, then deep shade and cooling air. This varied scene was indeed worth a visit. We ascended to the top of the mountain, though warned of the danger we incurred from a ferocious dragon which guarded the summit.
This description is particularly clear: St. John was positioned above the first of multiple cascades tumbling down some six hundred feet into a ravine below. As he ascended higher his Iban guides warned him that a dragon lived above the falls, where it presumably would have been visible in the spray rising high into the air from the great volume of water crashing into the ravine.
This writer says nothing further about the dragon—he simply notes it in passing as a belief of the local people, and then moves on to other topics. Despite the brevity of this observation, however, it is important, because it agrees with the dragon of Niagara residing in Cayuga Creek above the falls, exactly where rainbows form in the rising spray, and very similar descriptions have been reported in other cases far from Sarawak.
4 The Pacific
4.1 The Battle of Wailuku
Visitors to the largest of the Hawaiian Islands (locally known as the ‘Big Island’) are treated to the spectacle of two large waterfalls near the major population center of Hilo, on the ‘wet side’ of the island. The more popular of these is Akaka Falls, but given its connections in Hawaiian mythology, the more interesting one is Waiānuenue, or Rainbow Falls (wai = ‘fresh water, stream’, ānuenue = ‘rainbow’) on the Wailuku river. As the name suggests, this waterfall produces rainbows on sunny days on account of the volume of water that cascades over it, generating a ‘reverse rainfall’ that simulates the conditions conducive to rainbows in the sky.
What makes Rainbow Falls of more than usual interest in the context of dragons and waterfalls is a story about the Polynesian culture hero, Maui, that is connected with this location. According to a Hawaiian legend which occurs in several versions that differ only in details, Maui’s mother, Hina, lived in the large cave formed by hydraulic erosion under the falls, where she was being harassed by a giant mo’o, or reptilian monster named Kuna, who lived above the cascade, and continually troubled her by sending logs, stones, and other trash down to her dwelling. She protested this behavior, and in an angry response he sent a large stone over the falls to partially block the entrance to her cave, allowing water to enter it and flood her home, but preventing her escape. Fearful of drowning, Hina called out to her son, Maui, to confront this monster, and this resulted in the Battle of Wailuku, in which the culture hero saved his mother and vanquished the beast.
Like nearly all parts of Polynesia, Hawai‘i is free of snakes, and this natural biological model was therefore not available for conceptions of the rainbow, which in most contexts was viewed as a bridge to the afterlife. Nonetheless, Hawai‘i does have both lizards and freshwater eels. Pukui and Elbert (1971) gloss mo’o as ‘lizard, reptile of any kind, dragon, serpent; water spirit’, and kuna as ‘a variety of freshwater eel’. The monster of Rainbow Falls in this case could not be a serpent, but Hawaiian mythology made the most of locally available zoological resources by representing the rainbow in this one specific context (at a waterfall) as a gigantic lizard that bore the personal name Kuna (freshwater eel). The parallels with beliefs about serpents living in the spray of rainbow-generating waterfalls in other parts of the world are clearly too striking to be due to accident, and point to a common human propensity to view the rainbow as an animate being of reptilian (generally serpentine) form.
5.1 The Dragons of Basutoland
Given their reported existence elsewhere, we would expect a number of dragon-haunted waterfalls in Africa, and this no doubt is the case in reality. In particular, we would expect the majestic Victoria Falls on the Zambesi River to harbor a resident dragon. However, few travellers comment on such matters, and as a result I have found only a single well-documented example to date, and a passing reference to a second case. With regard to the first of these, T. Lindsay Fairclough (1905:201), a member of a British surveying team in Basutoland in the early twentieth century, observed the following:
The two principal waterfalls in Basutoland are on the Maletsunyane and Ketane rivers, both tributaries of the Orange. The former river falls into a vast chasm, which is exceedingly grand in its bare ruggedness. The actual fall is 630 feet, but the walls of rock on either hand rise over a thousand feet. The Ketane fall, about 400 feet, is smaller in volume, and the gorge is full of bush, and small green hills in the background still further add to the beauty of the scene. The average native will not willingly approach the foot of these falls, on account of a gigantic snake, the spirit of the place, supposed to live in the pool below. The rainbow shining in the spray also alarms them.
The second example appears in a very brief passage in Werner (1933:232), who notes with reference to the spray from a waterfall in Kenya that “the Kikuyu say the rainbow in the water and the sky is not the animal itself, but its picture, because in a very distant region of West Africa the Ewe (in Togo) say the same thing: the rainbow is the reflection of the snake in the clouds.”
These are surely not the only places in Africa or other regions where gigantic serpents are thought to inhabit waterfalls, but without far more searching or contact with indigenous peoples who have preserved traditional beliefs it is all that we have to date. Nonetheless, this brief survey is not without value. Two observations stand out in these stories. First, it is almost too transparent to require comment that the dragon in each of these falls IS the rainbow, and although the two are distinguished by comments such as that of Fairclough that both the dragon and the rainbow alarm the local people, simple observation tells us that the dragon exists only in their minds, while the physical basis for these representations is the refraction of sunlight shining through the ‘reverse rainfall’ of a major cataract. Second, as the dragons of Niagara and Iguazu illustrate, these dragons are also perceived as preying on young, marriageable women, much like the dragons of Europe who are confronted in mortal combat by knights in shining armor, a point to which I shall return in discussing the ethnology of the rainbow.
Sir James George Frazer (1922:169), the renowned author of the multi-volume classic The Golden Bough, was so impressed by the wide distribution of this second theme that he believed a custom of sacrificing human beings to water spirits conceived as great serpents or dragons was once prevalent around the world, and that one form this custom took was to provide a woman to be the spirit’s wife so as to pacify his fury, or provide him a way to reproduce. However, while it is tempting to conclude that these many mythic references to dragons preying on young women may derive from an actual cultural practice of human sacrifice, this conclusion is not inescapable, and in cross-cultural perspective it appears less likely to be the case than other possibilities that will be considered in due course.
To summarize, dragons (or, more appropriately, Rainbow Serpents) have been reported as residents of waterfalls in at least the following locations:
Niagara, as reported by the local Iroquoian-speaking Seneca people, where it is the ubiquitous horned water serpent of North America.
Haiti, where it is clearly a West African import.
Various waterfalls of French Guiana, as observed by the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Oyampi/Wayampi Indians, where it is a gigantic serpent.
Various waterfalls of west-central Guyana, as observed by the Carib-speaking Taulipang and Arecuna Indians, where it is a gigantic serpent.
Iguazu falls on the Brazil/Argentina border, as observed by the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Guarani Indians, where it is a gigantic serpent.
A waterfall on the Gading mountain of southern Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, as observed by the local Austronesian-speaking Iban people, where it is reported simply as ‘a dragon’.
Rainbow Falls, on the island of Hawai‘i in the Hawaiian chain, as reported in connection with the Polynesian culture hero Maui.
Two waterfalls on the Maletsunyane and Ketane rivers in Basutoland, southern Africa, as observed by the local Bantu-speaking people, where it is a gigantic serpent.
An unnamed waterfall in Kenya, as observed by the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu people, where it is said to be a ‘picture’ of a snake in the spray, with a similar idea reported in passing for the Kwa-speaking Ewe of Ghana.
In each of these cases (and no doubt many more that remain unreported) the rainbows produced by the ‘reverse rainfall’ common to waterfalls of large water volume are seen by the indigenous local people as gigantic serpents, or Rainbow Serpents (in Hawai‘i, where snakes are unknown, this is a mo’o or lizard, which has the personal name Kuna, which means ‘freshwater eeel’).
Looking ahead, we can add that the Rainbow Serpent of aboriginal Australia is also said to be “particularly associated with waterfalls” in the New England tableland, where waterfalls are common (Radcliffe-Brown 1930–1931:343). Needless to say, this seems clearly to be the same phenomenon wherever it is found, showing that the Rainbow Serpent, contrary to general belief, is not confined to the Australian continent, but is the product of a universal response by preliterate peoples to understanding the nature of the rainbow.