Last week we looked at the folklore of rivers, but this week we’ll look at waterfall folklore.
Waterfalls are a favourite subject of artists and photographers alike. Discussing painting and literature, Brian J. Hudson points out that “the popularity of waterfalls appears to have grown considerably between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries [.. in] the period of the Grand Tour” (2012: 105). Incidentally, it’s also a period of folk tales and legends.
The force of the water has a sense of energy often missing from streams or even rivers. So it’s hardly surprising that legends might spring up about these wonderful sites. And people love to visit them! Niagara Falls, straddling the US/Canadian border, welcomes around 14 million visitors every year.
So come with me now and let’s explore some waterfall myths and legends!
Torc Waterfall, Ireland
A waterfall in County Kerry in Ireland even has its own origin story. According to the story, a farmer named Larry Hayes lived struggled to keep any livestock. Every time he brought a sheep or cow home, something tore it apart during the night.
Eventually, he decided to keep watch to find out what was going on. He met a man in the field, who turned into a wolf. Larry spoke to him and discovered the wolf was an enchanted man. He lived in a huge black rock on Torc Mountain. He promised to make him a rich man if Larry kept his secret for seven years.
Now, in some versions of the stories, it’s a wild boar who lives in a cavern on the mountain. But the point is essentially the same.
Larry did so and grew wealthy. Even though his wife pestered him to know where the gold came from, Larry kept the secret. One night, she followed him, and Larry had no choice but to explain what was going on. The wolf/boar reappeared and burst into flames. Water broke through the rock and turned into the Torc Waterfall that still flows today.
Marmore Falls, Italy
It’s not just the Torc Waterfall that gets its own origin story. The Marmore Falls in Umbria, Italy, has one too.
According to the tale, a nymph named Black fell in love with Velino, a young shepherd. Black was the daughter of Apennines.
Juno, wife of Jupiter and somewhat vindictive goddess, found out about their relationship. She considered it beneath Black and decided to punish her. Juno took her to Mount Carrier and turned the nymph into the Black River.
Velino sought a sibyl to find out what happened to his missing love. He jumped off the cliff into the Black River to be with her again. Now known as the Cascade Falls, it represents their love.
Or does it?
It’s a nice story but sadly untrue. The Romans made the waterfall in 271BC to divert the Velino River. They thought the river carried malaria and considered it a threat to their city, Rieti. They built a canal to take the river away from the valley and off the cliff at Marmore. Its origin story is nothing more than waterfall folklore.
Aira Force, Cumbria, UK
Cumbrian falls Aira Force appears in local waterfall folklore. Its name come from Old Norse. Eyrr refers to a gravel bank and á means river. Fors is a waterfall. So Aira Force basically means the waterfall on the gravel bank river. Fors became Force, explaining the choice of ‘Force’ for various waterfalls in northern England (such as High Force).
After visiting Aira Force, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1799, “What a sight it is to look on such a cataract. The wheels that circumvolve in it, the leaping up and plunging forward of that infinity of pearls and glass bulbs. The continual change in the matter, the perpetual sameness of the form”. The animation and sheer force of such falls could explain the fascination for waterfall folklore.
A castle once stood near the Force. Its lord had a daughter named Emma, who was engaged to the noble knight, Sir Eglamore. Our plucky knight left to fight on the continent but his absence made Emma ill.
She started sleepwalking and kept heading up to the Force, where she used to meet Sir Eglamore. One night, he came back to the castle to find her gone. Following her trail, he found her by the Force. She woke up when he touched her but she slipped on the rocks. She fell into the waterfall and Sir Eglamore dived in after her. He managed to pull her to safety but she died after he dragged her onto the shore.
The legend claims Sir Eglamore moved into a nearby cave to live out his days as a hermit. Some think this legend inspired William Wordsworth’s poem, The Somnambulist.
Glymur is Iceland’s highest waterfall at 198m high. Its name means ‘a noise’, referring to the rumbling the waters make. And as you’d expect, it comes with a slice of waterfall folklore to explain its name.
There’s an island in the nearby fjord where men would go to collect eggs. According to the legend, on one summer journey, a storm hit. The men leave one of their number behind, meaning to come back for him later. They can’t get back until the spring, and they assume their friend is dead.
Imagine their surprise when they reach the island and they meet the man. He looks fine but doesn’t tell them how he survived on the island all winter.
A few months later, someone leaves a baby on the steps of the church. No one recognises the material that makes up the blanket covering the baby. A priest offers to christen the baby if someone will claim it, but no one does. Including the man.
A beautiful woman turns up and claims the baby back, but not before she curses the man to become a whale. You can guess why she picks on him and what he got up to on the island during the winter.
The whale starts terrorising the local area, sinking ships and killing fishermen. I came across two different versions of what happened next. In one, the whale kills the sons of two priests. In the other, it kills the sons of a blind man. Either way, two people (either the priests or the man and his daughter) turn to magic. They lure the whale up the fjord, along Botnsá river and into Hvalvatn (whale lake). The whale finally died of exhaustion, but the noise it made while crawling up the waterfall gave Glymur its name.
What Other Waterfall Folklore Do You know?
It’s unlikely that most of this waterfall folklore is true. But it stands as a testament to the power of these (mostly) natural phenomena that humans continue to share stories about them.
From the sites of tragedy to symbols of eternal love, waterfalls provide a fantastic backdrop for myths and legends. What other tales do you know? Comment below and let me know! Or sign up below and get notified of new articles every week.
Hudson, Brian J. (2012), Waterfall: Nature and Culture, London: Reaktion Books.
Inga (2017), ‘The full story behind Glymur waterfall’, All about Iceland, https://adventures.is/blog/the-full-story-behind-glymur-waterfall/. Accessed 17 November 2018.
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