The River Serpent

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 gigantic, face-eating half-horse/half-fish. 

New Mexico, you might think, should have nothing. 

New Mexico 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 sizeable 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 twenty 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 that time—the pueblo was almost certainly the most populated place in all of what is now the United States and Canada. 

From that relatively peaceful first 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, eighty 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 possibly have turned this impressive city into ruins.  Disease and war and the harsh desert climate were all likely causes, but there were other stories told as well—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 size of the snake varied with every account of it.  In Death Comes for the Archbishopa 1927 novel containing a version of the legend, author Willa Cather intimated that the snake was generally kept nearby in the Santa Fe Mountains and carried down by torch-light, in a heavy chest, for ceremonies.  Most other accounts, however, say the snake was prehistorically gigantic—huge enough that it left a track like a small arroyo, and that whenever it slept underground, the earth would seem to rise and fall. 

The legend of Avanyu, the giant snake, grew far beyond the walls of Pecos Pueblo.  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, seventy miles northwest, and thought to be the snake’s remains.  And 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 a Pecos 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 Rio Grande, which it used as a pathway, carving through river mud, beneath the water. 

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 only been told 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 Quetzalcoátl—South America’s Feathered Serpent—but the stories might also be writhing inside your mind…nervously slithering among the folds of your brain, as you camp on a beach at Elephant Butte, or as you stop beside the river, for a swim in the dark. 

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