Indigenous tribes in the Great Basin region had tales of water babies; frightening vengeful spirits that cursed the lakes where they dwell.
The following is an excerpt from my book which explores the water baby legend in the Pyramid Lake section.
The Haunting Legend of the Water Babies
Simply put, the legendary water babies are the spirits of disabled newborns that were killed. Now, these vengeful, disembodied spirits are said to haunt the lake—they take their revenge upon those who venture too far into Pyramid Lake.3 Almost yearly, a trout fisherman goes missing; bodies of the unfortunate anglers are rarely recovered.4 While it could certainly be coincidental for the occasional outdoorsmen on Pyramid Lake to vanish—never to be seen again—many attribute the disappearances to the water babies. In fact, some people claim to hear the eerie cries of the babies when they get too close to the shoreline.
Before the arrival of white settlers to the area, it is widely believed that the Paiutes tossed premature babies and those with handicaps into the lake in order to keep the tribe strong and thriving. Life was hard in the high desert, and the disabled were unlikely to survive. If even the tribe was able to keep the disabled persons alive in a harsh environment, these efforts would have taken their toll on the rest of the tribe. Rather than care for the disadvantaged children and “waste” precious resources on them, they were disposed of in the waters of Pyramid Lake.
Talk about survival of the fittest—this cruel practice was Malthusian to the extreme! The legend holds that over time, the spirits took control of the lake—they remain there to this day.
It is not clear if the practice of killing disabled infants actually occurred, or if it was a tale spread by white pioneers arriving from the East. People of European descent had a lot of misconceptions about indigenous peoples, often writing them off as savage brutes. It is possible that this version of the water baby legend grew from misunderstandings and cultural differences.
The Paiute Version of the Legend
The Paiutes have a different version of the water baby myth, a story that may be even more bizarre! According to Paiute legend, a young man fell in love with a mermaid while visiting the California coast. Determined to marry her, he brought her to his home near Pyramid Lake. Upon seeing the strange creature, the tribe’s elders immediately rejected her and demanded that the young man return her to the ocean. The rejected mermaid departed, but not before putting Pyramid Lake under a curse.
As the Paiute legend continues, two sisters were washing clothes in the river. One of the sisters had an infant who she left in the shade as she worked. While the sisters were distracted with their work, a serpent emerged and ate the infant. This was no ordinary serpent, it was able to shape-shift. The serpent assumed the form of the child and when the child’s mother went to feed it, the snake attacked the woman and began to eat her. Unable to free the young mother from the serpent, the sister rushed off to get the assistance of a medicine man. The powerful medicine man struck a deal with the snake: the snake was to restore the woman to health. In return, the serpent would be allowed to inhabit Pyramid Lake.
Today, people claim that you can hear the cries of the water babies coming from the lake at night, particularly during the spring. Hearing a water baby’s cry is thought by some to be a very bad omen; worse yet, if you are unfortunate enough to actually see a water baby, you are going to die. Regardless of which version of the water baby legend one prefers, one thing is clear—there is something creepy, and something very dark and unsettling about it all.