Monsters on the Rio Grande
by Marc Simmons
Most peoples of the world have myths and
legends of monsters and other fanciful creatures
that spring from humanity's fertile imagination.
For a thousand years before Columbus, Europeans
busily assembled a reservoir of lore about oneeyed
beasts, dragons, giants, amazons and headless
monsters that breathed through their stomachs.
These weird ideas and legends were quickly
transferred to America. On many of the earliest
maps, engravers included images of sea monsters
and land dragons in those spaces still unexplored.
The Spaniards who settled New Mexico at
the beginning of the colonial era brought with
them their Old World notions of monsters and
For example, when Juan de
Oñate led an expedition from the upper Rio Grande
westward to Arizona in 1604, he was accompanied by
Father Francisco de Escobar. The priest was an
expert in Indian languages.
In speaking to
natives along the Colorado River, he claimed they
told him of curious beings who lived beyond the
horizon, “monstrous and never seen in our time.”
Among them were humanlike creatures with
large ears that dragged on the ground; others born
with but a single leg and foot; a tribe of people
that slept standing up; and another tribe that
slept under water. These clearly were not Indian
notions, but the friar's projection of European
There exists a rare book written in
French and published in Paris in 1784 containing
engravings of monsters that are supposed to
inhabit New Mexico. In its pages are several
images of “harpies,” which are birds or animals
with human heads and horns.
Author of this
bizarre volume was a prince of the French royal
household who later ascended to the throne as
Louis XVIII. In the book credits, he gave himself
the imaginative titles of Count of Barcelona and
Viceroy of New Mexico.
In the folk culture
along the Rio Grande, one finds persistent tales
of a fabled monster known as the basilisk, or in
Spanish, el basilisco. The legend originated in
North Africa, was carried to Spain by the Moors
and later transferred to the colonies in America.
The basilisk is variously described as a
large lizard, serpent or dragon. In all cases, its
breath or its look, when falling upon a human, is
said to be fatal.
In Spanish myth, the
creature is born from an egg laid by a rooster.
But in our own Southwest, it is said to spring
directly from the hen without benefit of an egg.
As to the deadly effect of the monster's eye, the
Rio Grande version of the story follows belief in
other parts of the Hispanic world.
basilisk sees someone first, that person dies. But
if the situation is reversed and the creature is
caught unaware and observed by a human first, then
A basilisk once found a home in a
magpie's nest in a tree that grew beside the
Albuquerqueto-El Paso wagon road. Many an
unsuspecting traveler was killed by its deadly
gaze. Finally, a mirror was placed near the nest.
The beast looked at its own reflection and
The same story, with slight
variations, occurs in such widely separated places
as Spain, Guatemala and Chile.
common tale in New Mexico concerned a monster
snake. This was a legend that arose from American
The oldest version comes from
Pecos Pueblo. Lt. James Abert wrote in 1846 about
a giant snake god that had once been kept in an
underground kiva and fed infants for nourishment.
His large appetite contributed to the
extinction of the pueblo by the late 1830s.
Of this beast, Santa Fe trader Josiah
Gregg reported: “Once I met a New Mexican rancher
who asserted that upon entering Pecos Pueblo one
winter's morning, he saw the huge trail of the
reptile in the snow, as large as that of an ox
The Indians of Taos Pueblo
are also reputed to have possessed in the 19th
century a giant rattlesnake that dined on their
babies during important feast days. At the time of
the 1847 uprising, American military forces
attacked the pueblo.
In the midst of the
battles, the “snake god” was seen to be in danger.
So a brave Indian placed it under blankets in a
handcart and rushed it to safety through a hail of
bullets. But in the process, the rescuer was shot
Historian Marc Simmons is
author of numerous books on New Mexico and the
Southwest. His column appears Saturdays.
Story source: freenewmexican.com