Resources 1984 – D. Legends Surrounding Crater Lake

Historic Resource Study, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1984

IV. Indian Perceptions of Crater Lake


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.