New Mexico’s version of the Loch Ness Monster

by Mike Smith

Daily Lobo

When it comes to tales of enormous and legendary amphibians, Scotland boasts its elusive mascot in the waters of Loch Ness, China shares rumors of a gorge-dwelling creature that chases fishermen, and South Africa reports fearfully on a carnivorous half-horse, half-fish.

New Mexico, one might think, shouldn’t even enter such conversation – and yet, New Mexico has Avanyu.

In 1541, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado entered New Mexico with a sizable army and made a stop at what would later be known as Pecos Pueblo, a centuries-old native settlement. The pueblo sat atop a hill between two streams, about 20 miles southeast of the future site of Santa Fe. Some of its adobe buildings rose five stories high, thick walls protected its farms and homes, and its people were so numerous that, at the time, the pueblo was almost certainly the most populated place in all of what is now the United States and Canada.

From that first relatively peaceful encounter, however, life at the pueblo would change irrevocably. Puebloan religious figures would be destroyed as idols; residents would be enslaved; the Spanish would be driven out; the Spanish would return; and the Puebloans’ numbers would steadily, relentlessly decline.

By 1838, what had once been the largest North American settlement outside of old Mexico was down to only about a dozen individuals, all of whom soon left to join family at Jemez Pueblo, 80 miles to the west. The Santa Fe Trail, a now legendary wagon road between Missouri and Santa Fe, passed almost through the shadows of the abandoned Pueblo’s walls, and caravans along the trail would wonder at what could have turned this impressive city into ruins. Disease, war and the harsh desert climate were all possibilities, but there were other stories told, stories of a thing much less normal.

One object of worship for the former residents of Pecos Pueblo was said to be an enormous snake – a serpent god named Avanyu, the plumed water snake – a terrifying, man-eating demigod that lived in a hole beneath the pueblo. Some accounts say it lived solely on live human babies, which it feasted on about once a month, though others say it also devoured the tribe’s sick and dying. The snake was alleged to be gigantic – huge enough that it left a track like a small arroyo, and so large that whenever it slept underground, the earth would seem to rise and fall.

According to Art Latham’s Lost in the Land of Enchantment, the snake entered Hispanic folklore when what would later turn out to be a dinosaur skeleton was discovered in a sandstone wall near Ghost Ranch, 70 miles northwest. In his 1844 Commerce of the Prairies, Josiah Gregg wrote, “The story of this wonderful serpent was so firmly believed by so many ignorant people, that on one occasion I heard an honest ranchero assert, that upon entering the village very early on a winter’s morning, he saw the huge trail of the reptile in the snow, as large as that of a dragging ox.”

One oral history, from an area family, claimed that the snake had died when a tribe member fed it a goat instead of a baby. Archaeologist Adolph Bandelier was told it had been taken by the last surviving pueblo residents to Jemez. And most other accounts say it merely left, moving down a creek and into the Rio Grande, which it used as a pathway.

With the snake and its divine blessings gone, there was no reason to remain in Pecos Pueblo, the stories say. But the stories may have been told only to explain the pueblo’s depopulation, to excite early travelers, or as the results of wrong-headed notions about the Puebloans making human sacrifices. The stories may be only legends stretching all the way back to Quetzalcoatl – South America’s feathered serpent – but they might also be nervously slithering inside your mind the next time you camp near Elephant Butte or stop beside the river for a swim in the dark.

~ by accordingtoleanne on November 15, 2012.

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