Niagara Falls is more than just a natural spectacle; it's a place where many fascinating stories and legends were born. One of the most captivating and widely told legends is that of the Maid of the Mist. However, just like the raging falls themselves, the origin of the tale has been a point of great debate. This debate revolves around two versions of the legend, with one largely endorsed by local folklore and another being adopted by the tourism industry.
The narrative that has been popularized through Niagara tourism depicts the Maid of the Mist as a beautiful young woman named Lelawala, betrothed against her will by her father to a brutal warrior. Desperate, Lelawala escaped her destiny by plunging her canoe over Niagara Falls. However, instead of perishing, she was caught and cradled by Heno, the Thunder God who dwelled within the falls. He was so taken by her courage that he decided to spare her life. Lelawala was blessed to live in the watery abode of Heno, where she would appease the Thunder God with her messages from the human world.
According to local historian Ken Cosentino, the original version was passed on by Algonquin Elders and famous storyteller Michael Bastine, who himself received the story from his elders.
There once was a Great Horned Serpent that lived in the limestone cave in the Niagara gorge, in the place that is called “Devil’s Hole.” The cave was known to the local Indigenous People as “Cave of Evil Spirit,” referring to the devilish serpent. The serpent was sometimes referred to as the “water panther” and it was the nemesis of the Thunderbeings.
A long time ago people of an ancient tribe in Niagara were dying of a sickness. It was discovered that the Great Horned Serpent was poisoning the water upstream and when people drank the water, they would die quickly and painfully. The serpent would then eat the dead bodies and continue this cycle, plaguing the local Indigenous population.
A brave woman from the tribe set out on a canoe from the Island now known as Celinda Eliza, into the upper rapids of the Great Falls (now known as the Canadian Horseshoe Falls). Her mission was to speak with Hino, Chief of the Thunderbeings who lived behind the veil of the Great Falls, and ask him to intervene and protect her people from the serpent.
Her mission was treacherous and almost immediately her canoe was trapped in the upper rapids. While Hino wouldn’t typically take interest in the drama of the people, he noticed the woman’s beauty and swiftly rescued her as she was going over the waterfall. Hino took her behind the Falls into his home and introduced her to his sons. She asked for his help and pleaded, and eventually convinced him as Hino fell in love with her.
Hino did intervene and fought a harrowing battle with the Great Horned Serpent. When Hino killed the serpent, its body fell to the upper rapids and became lodged there, creating the shape of the horseshoe and causing a rockslide which destroyed the Thunderbeings’ home behind the Falls.
After that incident, the Thunderbeings moved up into Sky World to live. The woman became pregnant with a baby boy who was half human and half Thunderbeing.
One day, the boy was playing with a piece of flint when someone attempted to contain him for fear of his power. The resulting bolt of lightning nearly burnt down the village and Hino instantly snatched his son, bringing him up into Sky World because he was too powerful to live among the humans. It is said that one day the boy will return to Niagara Falls.