The legends of Kaieteur
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
April 17, 2005
A geomorphological phenomenon, a waterfall on the Potaro River, is Guyana's premier tourist attraction. The Kaieteur Falls, as it is called, enjoys power and monarchy among landforms. It is always named first among Guyana's natural assets and its name is called in every mention of the country's natural heritage and scenic beauty, hailed and fabled as the crown jewel within the awesome reserves of rainforest. Its picture is presented in every portfolio to promote Guyana as a destination for ecotourism, nature or soft adventure, or even as a sight that gives the country a claim to a place in mass tourism. When this is added to its capacity for hydro- electric power, the Kaieteur is valued for its scenic greatness as well as for its economic potential.
This great fall has world fame; it is described as majestic, awesome, powerful and there is a claim that it deserves a place no less than the celebrated Niagara Falls as one of the wonders of the world. There is, therefore, no surprise that visitors ask after it, that it has caused the development of a Kaieteur National Park and that whole area surrounding it is a reserve, protected by law under the National Protected Areas System (NPAS). Neither is it surprising that the Mighty Kaieteur is not only itself a legend, but is enshrined in a mist of legend, mythology, folklore and spiritual power. But while thus protected by modern earthly legislation, throughout its history it has been even more effectively preserved by the spiritual beliefs of the people who have been reported as refusing to do any damage to parts of the fall because of the awe and dread with which they regard them. The rocks and the cave behind the fall are sacred.
Its name has a meaning, and the story behind how it got the name is a treasure in its own right that enhances the attraction, the curiosity and the fabled reputation of the falls. The story is in the category of legend and myth because of its quasi-historical claims and its attempt to explain the existence of natural phenomena such as the fall's geomorphological characteristics and their spiritual associations. With all the magnificence and awe-inspiring greatness of the Kaieteur, one would expect this story to be equally mystifying and to match the stature and grandeur of the wonder it seeks to explain. But the tale is at the same time interesting, grand and disappointing.
One would believe that only a tale of heroism, triumph and soulful elevation would suffice to give the fall its name; or one in which the gods exceed themselves; or one whose outcome is so miraculous, its end remains an enduring mystery; or even a moving tale of romance or some other great tragedy. However, most of the versions do not quite measure up. The records of Robert Schomburgk and Walter Roth remark at the seriousness with which Amerindians in the area took their spiritual beliefs in the stories behind the appearance of certain rocks and petroglyphs, but the attitude today also includes some mild humour and a recognition of quaintness.
Generally, it is believed that the rocks and petroglyphs are either sacred or cursed and not to be interfered with by humans. In most cases the rock formations are the physical remains of humans who were petrified by the Great Spirit in order to make them immortal, sometimes out of sympathy or to save them from suffering or a tragic end; sometimes they were turned to stone as a punishment. Some of these rocks are to be found at the base of the Kaieteur Fall and the story explains their shape and origin.
The mighty Kaieteur is referred to in some of the legends as The Old Man's Fall. An old man named Kai, who used to live in a village further up the Potaro River, sailed in a canoe down the stream and over the edge of the waterfall. As he was plunging to his death, the spirits or the Great Spirit (or Makonaima) changed him into immortal form. His boat was turned into an elongated, pointed rock that can still be seen at the bottom of the waterfall, while his pegall is preserved as another rock formation there. During periods of low water levels, his features may be seen outlined in rock. Kai is said to be living in a cave hidden behind the sheer drop of the water and sometimes the falls are covered in mist. When this happens, it is because Kai is cooking and the smoke forms that mist. Swallows and other birds are often seen swirling around, and they are said to have flown along to accompany Kai on his last voyage. They wailed at his passing, but when he was transformed, they remained with him, often flying in and around the cave.
The name Kaieteur was given in the old man's honour and memory. It is made up from Patamona words Kai (old man's name), ti (the possessive marker) and wik (house) and indicates that the falls are possessed by Kai. (Source: Dr Desrey Fox). Kaieteur is also translated to mean "Kai's house." Kaieteur is in Patamona territory.
There are different versions of how this all came about. The first, which seems closest to the Patamona, is more in keeping with the expected lore of heroism and greatness. It is, of course, the one favoured by the poets and used to sing the glory of Guyana. It inspired A J Seymour to write the famous epic narrative poem The Legend of Kaieteur and is also the subject of Dennis Craig's work Kai, a short, more modern piece. In this legend, Kai was the wise old mentor of the people who were too frequently raided and plundered by another more warlike nation who plagued them for a long time. Kai took the responsibility to find a solution and went on a journey to consult the Great Spirit. It seems the solution involved a sacrifice, and Kai sailed his boat over the waterfall. This heroic act of courage saved his people. His transformation and immortality are recognition of this.
Dorothy St Aubyn appears to have used that same source for her Legend of the Falls in which Kai was a great hero, a brave hunter and warrior among his people. As a reward, he was allowed to marry the Chief's daughter. He planted a tree of life outside their home and they prospered more than anyone else. They lived a long, happy life until the tree signalled to Old Kai that his wife would die. Years later, after another signal from the tree, Kai took his boat and sailed bravely into the mist over the edge of the falls.
However, most of the legends contain no such epic themes of courage and glory. They are disappointing because of their seeming relative triviality which can only be saved, as in some of the versions, by some sense of humour or of tragedy. These versions are related by Barrington Brown who is quoted by Roth in his Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians, by Rev William H Brett in his prose narratives Guyana Legends and in the versions of the tales that he composed as poems, Legends and Myths of the Aboriginal Indians of Guiana (also printed as Aboriginal Tribes), as well as by Odeen Ishmael in Amerindian Legends of Guyana.
All of these follow a consistent line with minor variants. In his youth Kai was very useful to the people of the large village upriver from the falls. But as he grew older he began to feel that they owed him a living. The old Kai became more disgusting and the people became tired of enduring and looking after him. He became more feeble, and, in addition, "he suffered much from the insects called chegoes which burrowed into his feet" (Brett). Gradually, "there devolved upon his near relatives the tedious duty of extracting the jiggers from his toes which there accumulated day by day. These duties becoming irksome at last, it was arranged that the old man should be assisted on his way to his long home, that spirit land lying two days'journey beyond the setting sun" (Roth). They then placed him in a woodskin in the river which bore him away to the fall.
In other variants, there is no mention of them sending him on any journey to his spirit home or other such euphemisms, it was a plain case of murder. When they could no longer stand Kai they simply placed him, against his will, in the woodskin and pushed him off to his death over the waterfall. In all of them, the spirits took pity on him and saved him from suffering the breaking of his bones on the rocks over the falls, by turning him into stone. According to one version, the old man was transformed so that the sight of the petroglyphs would forever remind the villagers of their wrong.
Thus is it ironic that the myths and legends explaining the origin and meaning of the Majestic Kaieteur should take us on a descent from such heights of magnificence to the light and laughable ordinary story of people getting fed up with picking chigoes or jiggers from an old man's foot. But in this contemporary setting, there is perhaps a way of elevating it to a loftier, nobler interpretation. It is a merciful tale of euthanasia.
Jenny Wishart, Samantha Samuels, Dr Desrey Fox, Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana