Indians – 08 Myths of Crater Lake

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades

 Myths of Crater Lake

There are several Klamath and Upper Umpqua myths extant regarding Crater Lake. Only one, however, the Klamath myth of Le*w and Sqel, can be traced to versions in the original language, rather than to westernized and possibly corrupt retellings by settlers or amateur folklorists.

The appears in five published versions, and in an unpublished translation. (5) Le*wis “the monster who dwells in Crater Lake …. rather octopoidal and of a dirty white color” (Barker 1963b:215). The myth relates his battle with Sqel (who also appears as Old Marten or Old Mink), a great figure of Klamath myth:

a culture transformer, giving laws, destroying evil beings, teaching subsistence techniques, and generally preparing the world for the myth age humans. (Barker 1963b:389)

The myth opens with Sqel/Mink/Old Marten and his friend Weasel. They are tricked by the beautiful but wicked daughter of Le*w, who ingratiates herself with Mink (or in an alternate version, Weasel), and tears out his heart. She then takes the heart to Le*w’s people at Crater Lake, who play ball with it. Weasel runs for help to Gmokamc, the Klamath creator figure, who advises Weasel, and then proceeds with the help of various allies to recover Mink’s heart. Mink revives, but Le*w now carries him off to Crater Lake, and is about to cut him to pieces and feed him to his children, the crawfish. However, Mink outwits Le*w and slays him, cutting up his body and (pretending the pieces belong to Mink’s own corpse) feeding them to the crawfish. Finally Mink throws Le*w’s head into Crater Lake, naming it correctly. Stern’s account concludes:

Then he [Mink] threw into the water all this, heart, windpipe-and-lungs, and liver. “Here’s Mink’s heart, windpipe-and-lungs, and liver!” Now the Crawfish came and ate all that. “Then here’s Lao’s [Le*w’s] head!” Bawak sound of head splashing into the water. The Crawfish recognizing their father scattered in all directions. Then that head of Lao’s lodged there. This is Wizard Island. (Stern, trans. 1951:5)

Ella Clark includes in her collection three other Crater Lake myths, attributed to Klamath sources. In “The Origin of Crater Lake” (Clark 1953:53-55) describes a battle between the Chief of the Below World and the Chief of the Above World. The opening to the underworld was found in a vast mountain (“the high mountain that used to be”). In a development recalling the myth of Hades and Persephone, the Chief of the Below World falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a Klamath chief. She spurns him, and in revenge the Chief of the Below World tries to destroy the Klamath with fire. However, the Chief of the Above World pities the humans, and does battle with his underworld counterpart. Amid vast explosions and fire the Chief of the Below World is driven underground, and the mountain collapses upon him, creating Crater Lake.

“Crater Lake and the Two Hunters” emphasizes the lake as a realm inhabited by spirits of the dead, dangerous to the living, and safely accessible only to powerful shamans. Two hunters, defying this taboo, travel to Crater Lake, and are destroyed (Clark 1953:58-60). “Another Crater Lake Legend” has much the same theme. A group of hunters discovers the lake. One man is greatly drawn to it, returning again and again to swim in its waters and to camp on the overlooking cliffs. In this way he acquires great spirit power. Ultimately, however, he is killed by one of the spirit creatures which dwells in the lake (Clark 1953:60-61).

At least one myth of Crater Lake from the Upper Umpqua area is extant. “The Mountain with a Hole in the Top” was related by a Cow Creek informant, Ellen Crispen, to W. K. Peery (in Bakken 1973:13-17). Long ago the animal-people and the man-people spoke the same language, and were friends. They lived in the shadow of a great mountain, perpetually covered with snow. An evil chief arose among the man-people, and taught others to kill the animals. Bear, chief of the animal-people, protested to Tamanous, Old Man God. Angered, Tamanous created a great wind, which uprooted trees, and made the mountain explode. All that remained was a crater, which filled with water. The evil man-people were killed, and their souls were sent to dwell in lodges at the bottom of the lake. (6)


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