Los Hermanos Penitentes
A Whole New World
During the 19th century, the remote hills above the New Mexican town of Chimayó were renowned as the heartland of the Penitentes. Indeed, the Spanish expedition that founded New Mexico performed public self-flagellation on Good Friday 1598, as it marched up through Mexico. Similar acts by early Franciscans attracted Pueblo Indian scorn. Anglo-Saxon newcomers in the 19th century reported hooded figures filing along the ridges at dawn, whipping themselves as they went. The New World was witnessing something the Old World had desperately tried to forget.
“Los Hermanos Penitentes”
arrived in New Mexico after Mexico gained independence in 1821. “Los
Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno”, to give them their full
name, soon became outsiders in their new home of New Mexico too, when America
took over the state in 1846. The first Catholic bishop of Santa Fe, Jean
Baptiste Lamy, had little – no – sympathy for them and denied
the sacraments to their leader, Father Martinez of Taos. The Penitentes
were forced to move into the mountains and became a cult because of their
suppression by local Church authorities. They were denied access to official
church property and thus met in plain adobe structures that became known
Lamy’s successor Jean Baptiste Salpointe continued their persecution. In a circular letter to the Penitentes of New Mexico and Colorado in 1886, Salpointe ordered them to abolish flagellation, and the carrying of the heavy crosses, and sent to the different hermanos mayores copies of the rules of the Third Order of St. Francis, advising them to reorganize in accordance therewith. His letter and orders went unheeded.
He then ordered all the parish priests to see the Penitentes personally and induce them to follow his instructions. This action accomplished nothing. To make matters worse, a Protestant paper, “La hermandad”, was published at Pueblo, Colorado, in 1889, which incited the Penitentes to resist the Church and follow their own practices. Salpointe, in a circular letter of 1889, therefore ordered the Penitentes to disband. As a result, the society, though not abolished, was very much weakened, and its further growth prevented.
The movement, however, did not die. Only in 1947, the Penitentes were finally recognised by the Bishop of Santa Fe. The current adherents now consider themselves to be members of the “Third Order of St Francis”.
the morada, the penitent “church”, the people stand facing each
other, rather than facing a priest and an altar. This further inscribes
the egalitarian sense of community among the members. When the Penitentes
come together to celebrate rituals, they create the very sacraments. The
Penitentes are men, though in the latter half of the 19th century they admitted
women and children into separate organizations.
Focus of the ritual activity was Lent, when the Penitentes attempted to experience the passion and death of Christ. Up to the year 1890, the flagellations of the Penitents were public; at present they are secret, though not strictly so. They also wear a hooded dress and it is likely that the Ku Klux Klan received their inspiration from these “brothers” in New Mexico and Colorado.
Much of the symbolism of their rituals as Penitentes is about the story of being led out of darkness into light, as brothers of darkness becoming brothers of light over time. As physical purgation prepares the soul for illumination, the adherents reintegrated themselves into Spanish society through flagellation and ritual death.
processions, they divided into Los Hermanos de Luz – the Brothers
of Light – and Los Hermanos de Sangre – the Brothers of Blood.
The former were in charge of candle and music, the latter scourged themselves
with yucca whips or carried giant crosses. Indeed, one less-known aspect
of this order is that the Penitentes were once well-known for their songs
of worship, called alabados. Members of the other group whipped themselves
bloody in private ceremonies every Friday night from Lent until Palm Sunday
and then every day until Holy Thursday, when they began a round of public
processions that ended with the re-enactment of a crucifixion on Good Friday.
Chris O’Brien, who interviewed some of its members, notes that during
one interview, a member was unable to push his back against the chair, because
of the self-inflicted wounds his back carried.
Some were crucified (bound, rather than nailed), others dragged a Death Cart, a wooden wagon holding an effigy of Death, armed with a bow and arrow. Today, wayside stone cairns in the High Country indicate where the coffin bearers would rest; the cairns themselves are known as descansos.
One public procession was held at
Taos, where three hundred penitentes participated in the procession. Many
of these were stripped to the waist and scourging themselves, led by the
acompanadores (escorts), and preceded by a few Penitentes dragging heavy
crosses (maderos). This procession went through the streets to the church,
where the Penitentes prayed, continued their scourging, returned in procession
to the morada.
At present no “crucifixions” take place, though previous to 1896 they were annual in many places in New Mexico and Colorado. The Penitentes now confine themselves to secret flagellation and occasional visits to churches at night. Flagellation is also practised at the death of a Penitente or of a relative. The corpse is taken to the morada and kept there for a few hours; flagellation takes place at the morada and during the procession to and from it.
The initiation ceremony, which takes place during Holy Week, is simple, except for the final test. The candidate is escorted to the morada by two or more Penitentes where, after a series of questions and answers consisting in the main of prayer, he is admitted. He then undergoes various humiliations. First, he washes the feet of all present members, kneeling before each; then he recites a long prayer, asking pardon for any offence he may have caused. If any one present has been offended by the candidate, he lashes the offender on the bare back. Then comes the last and crucial test: four or six incisions, in the shape of a cross, are made just below the shoulders of the candidate with a piece of flint.
A visual reminder
of the early accounts about the Penitentes is from journalist/photographer
Charles Lummis, while he lived at the home of his friend Amado Chaves in
San Mateo, New Mexico, a known stronghold of the Penitentes. In 1888, he
managed to photograph the crucifixion ritual that was held there that year.
Lummis encountered the Penitentes when he heard an “eerie shriek”
drifting down from one of the side canyons near the village, and asked locals
what the sound was. It was of a fife-like reed instrument called a pito,
which was used in their religious rituals.
Lummis decided he would try to photograph one of their processions, though his hosts told him that he might be killed in the process. As Lummis told it in one of his half dozen or so published accounts of his scoop, “As the midnight wind sweeps down the lonely canon, the wild shriek can be heard for miles. It carries an indescribable and uncanny terror with it. That weird sound seems the wail of a tortured soul. I have known men of approved bravery to flee from that noise when they heard it for the first time. The oldest inhabitant crosses himself and looks askance when that sound floats out to him from the mountain gorges. I had been watching feverishly for Holy Week to come. No photographer had ever caught the Penitentes with his sun-lasso, and I was assured of death in various unattractive forms at the first hint of an attempt. But when the ululation of the pito filled the ear at night, enthusiasm crowded prudence to wall.”
On Holy Thursday, the sight of his camera “provoked ominous scowls and mutterings on every hand.” Lummis placed a pistol on top of the camera and using diplomacy – cigars and other gifts – “and when the Brothers of the Whip had supped, re-masked themselves and emerged, the Chief Brother and Brothers of Light were mine”, Lummis concluded.
A real scoop
the procession reached the crucifixion spot, many of the crowd glowered
at Lummis, but the Hermanos Mayor was moved to return Lummis’ hospitality,
marked out a distance of 100 paces from the cross, and told Lummis he was
allowed to stand behind this line to photograph the event.
Lummis described what he saw: the man who had been chosen for crucifixion had a four-inch gash in his side. When he reached the spot chosen for the ritual on a hillside in one of the canyons back of town, several of the Penitentes lifted the cross from his shoulder and laid it on the ground. He lay back on it and his attendants cinched him to it with rough ropes around his legs and arms pulled as tightly as the bindings on a mule. As they tightened the ropes, the man on the cross “sobbed like a child,” Lummis reported, not because of the pain but because he was ashamed that they were not using nails instead. “Hay! Que estoy deshonrado! Not with a rope! Not with rope! Nail me! Nail me!” he cried. Up until that year, the victims had been spiked to the cross. But that grisly practice was in decline as a result of the bad publicity from the rising death toll. The year before, four men had perished while nailed to crosses in penitent communities in southern Colorado, Lummis claimed.
The ropes were brutal enough. As Lummis watched and the minutes passed, the victim’s arms swelled and turned purple and he groaned with pain. Meanwhile the Penitente with the load of cactus lay on his back at the foot of the cross with his head on a stone and another larger stone placed on his stomach, pressing him more firmly into the backpack of cactus.
At 100 paces, Lummis was too far away from the scene to get the shot he wanted. So he decided to press his luck by asking permission to move closer. “In gracious response to my request, the Hermano Mayor paced off thirty feet from the foot of the cross and marked a spot to which I might advance in order to get a larger picture,” Lummis wrote.
While many newspapers ran shorter versions of Lummis’ article over the next couple of months, the longer article was rejected by more than a dozen magazines over the next year. Lummis was convinced many editors simply didn’t believe the macabre tale he told, even though he supplied photographs to prove it. It was finally picked up by Cosmopolitan which published his story along with a dozen engravings based on his photographs in May 1889.
More than a century onwards, the
Penitentes continue to practice their religion and remain well-known in
northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.