In what we currently call the United States, common pilgrimage sites are canyons, caves, boulders, and waterfalls. Snoqualmie Falls, for example, is celebrated as one of the tallest and most powerful waterfalls on the continent. Comparable to Niagara Falls (it’s actually taller than Niagara), some call it a Garden of Eden because it’s where, in the Snoqualmie myth-histories, the first humans emerged. Anyone can visit the falls now and see The Salish Lodge and Spa perched on top. Interestingly, the Snoqualmie Tribe has just implemented a new Land Protection Tax, believed to be the first in North America, at the Salish Lodge & Spa. The money will be used to protect the waterfall and surrounding area.
Can you imagine being able to visit the place where your people first ‘emerged’? There is a European pagan cave in Caesarea Philippi known as The Gates of the Netherworld that people visit, some on pilgrimage, but many settlers cannot conceive of this. Their mythical emergence spot is categorically lost, “hidden.” Even if found, Christians can’t return to Eden because of two angelic monsters guarding the entrance with their spinning swords of fire! Who are those beings? (I like to think this image—beings in a hidden garden separated by a spinning gate of fire—is a metaphor for the anaerobic bacteria now living in our guts — our cousins forced down into the muck by the fiery sword of the sun. Maybe, when oxygen began to fill the atmosphere, the ones who could “eat” and metabolize it were thrown out of “the garden,” destined to live above ground. Eden, our evolutionary birthplace, is now carried inside our bodies, in our guts, as the ocean is now carried inside the animal egg.)
When you live next to your culture’s origin place, you get to visit there on class field trips and special occasions. Japanese people mark the top of Takachiho mountain on Kyushu their origin place, where they “landed,” and when visiting, expect to be surrounded by schoolchildren playing games and taking pictures. The Lakota believe they emerged out of Wind Cave in South Dakota, which conceals “a portal to the spirit lodge.” You can sign up for a guided tour, but the secret portals are never revealed to outsiders.
The Hopi and other Southwest tribes believe they emerged from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, specifically from a “sipapu” or pit near the otherworldly blue waters of the Little Colorado. The Grand Canyon’s waterfalls are also origins. Rainbow Falls is the emergence place for the Zuni, Havasu Falls for the Havasupai, and in general, the pits near these sites are forbidden to outsiders. Backpackers who seek them out report strange accidents.
The Haida emerged out of a big shell, the Kiowa out of a big log. Places can be symbolic. Waterfalls are classic symbols for the sublime, maybe also for North America itself. Abraham Lincoln visited Niagara Falls in 1848 and brilliantly described it through geological, psychological, and philosophical perspectives. He said, for example, that “all the water constantly pouring down is supplied by an equal amount constantly lifted up by the sun.” Then Lincoln describes a kind of all-American myth-time that the waterfall opened up inside of him:
“But still there is more. It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent — when Christ suffered on the cross — when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea — nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker — then as now, Niagara was roaring here. The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now… fresh today as ten thousand years ago.”
Giants. In evolutionary anthropology, there is a theory that not only caves, boulders, and pits, but waterfalls are key to understanding the origin of religion. Jane Goodall recorded chimpanzees “dancing with excitement” around waterfalls, and she remarks how they will sit in the water at the base and stare up at them as if in a state of aesthetic appreciation. This could be due to the water’s sublime and symbolic power (water is life), but it could also be due to the trippy aftereffects that staring at the constantly moving water has on the brain. The “waterfall illusion” is when we hallucinate movement when we look at something stationary after staring at something moving in one direction for some time. This can also mess with our sense of time.
Waterfalls also symbolize orgasms, and according to philosopher Sara Heinamaa, they “frame crucial romantic encounters in several popular movies,” like The Lion King and Avatar. “They allude to sexual climax, which thus appears as an explosive or overflowing event.” Similarly, waterfalls may represent vomiting and other cathartic expulsions.
Weirdly, waterfalls have been used to explain a property of black holes. Bill Unruh theorizes that light crossing the horizon of a black hole is like sound passing over the edge of a supersonic waterfall. It cannot escape. “The analogy turned out to be more accurate than Unruh initially thought. Eight years later, in 1980, he realized that the equations of motion for sound in the waterfall analogy were identical to those describing light at the horizon of a black hole.”
There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokenness we find within. — Beldan Lane
For more, take a deep dive into sacred pits.