Monday, 20 January 2014

Santa Fe, New Mexico: the Hall of Final Ruin

The city at the end of everything

For all the posturing in earlier posts about cyberpunk, I do still love D&D - especially in its lower level, human versus weird monster, sword and sorcery incarnations. So lately I've been reading Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder history of New Mexico (a book I brought purely because of a Michael Moorcock quote on the cover) and the 1840s Santa Fe vibe was so intensely Weird Fantasy that I just had to tell you about it. I can't think of a better place to set a Lamentations of the Flame Princess style game!

This post will cover the city of Santa Fe, the Navajo, Penitentes and Mountain Men, and end with some adventure locations. A campaign set here would probably revolve around American mountain men and explorers, who became prominent in the region during the 1840s, and possess the drive and skills (and real historical precedent) to act like adventurers. They might instead by representatives of the Mexican government or a Catholic outfit investigating the Penitentes. They might even be Navajo - in that case, i'd suggest further research into the spiritual background of that people; the lattice of superstitions surrounding death and raiding would make the game a unique D&D experience.

Navajo ceremonial mask, picture by Edward S. Curtis 1904
At the end of the Camino Real, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, at the northern end of the desert, at the southern extreme of the Rockies, where New Spain gives way to "existential wilderness," there sits the city - town, really - of Santa Fe. Founded in 1607, by the 1840s it was a town of maybe 7000 inhabitants whose wealth - never high - had been squandered in continual warfare with the Navajo tribe who lived in the surrounding region. It was a city of narrow mud streets, low muddy houses and a muddy swollen river, looking like "an extensive brickyard" according to one American soldier. The most arresting feature of the city were the bells, ringing incessantly from six churches - each of them old and cracked, some of them having been forged in Seville, shipped across an ocean, and then dragged up the Camino Real ("Royal Road") from Mexico City. Each of them had endured bullets, brine and several centuries of desert heat.

The surrounding countryside had its own individual atmosphere. I can't possibly describe this better than Hampton Sides:
Navajo country has moved modern geologists, ordinarily a reserved lot, to adopt a vocabulary of doom: Paradox Basin, Defiance Uplift, the Great Unconformity. Geological maps of the Navajo lands are ominously annotated with "upwarps" and "cinder cones" and "structural disarrays." Not far from [Navajo war leader] Narbona's home lay enormous forests of petrified wood, which the Navajo believed were the bones of Yeitso, a terrible beast slain by the war god Monster Slayer and left to rot on the plains, the creature's blood congealing into lava flows. Throughout Navajo country could be found canyon walls embedded with the fossils of sea organisms--corals, bryozoa, trilobites--that had lived in the ocean more than 300 milion years ago.

And Shoggoths, no doubt.

(Lovecraft actually did write a story set in the region called The Mound, which presages At the Mountains of Madness in many ways. That's probably the only reason to read it, though.)

(inscription about the governor's palace, Santa Fe)

The city of Santa Fe was populated by a mixture of city-folk, slaves and frontiersmen who came down the Santa Fe trail in search of furs and trade. Isolated in the desert, away from the great cultural dramas occurring in the United States and Mexico, it had its own culture which alarmed reproving 19th century Americans when soldiers from the east captured the city in 1846.

For a start, according to an American captain, "nowhere is chastity less valued or expected [...] the women are the boldest walkers I know." They were notorious for their plunging necklines and unique make-up, being "daubed over with a ghostly flour paste" according to Susan Magoffin, a diarist who accompanied the invasion force. A dance called the "cuna" or "cradle" offended the sensibilities of the new rulers - "such familiarity of position would be repugnant to the rules of polite society in our country; but among the New Mexicans, nothing is reckoned a greater accomplishment than passing handsomely through all the mazes of this waltz."

A woman known as Madame La Tules - whether or not she was governor Armijo's mistress prior to his defeat - was known for running a brothel and gambling establishment beloved by Missourian traders, and possessing "that shrewd and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin." (Susan Magoffin)

If that isn't purpose designed to create an atmosphere of gothic decadence out in the desert, I don't know what is. That's before we get to slavery...

Magoffin reports seeing a Santa Fe woman using a Native American slave as a "human footstool". A large proportion of the population were in servitude, despite slavery being technically and recently illegal in Mexico.

"New Mexican bachelor party" - the custom of launching a slave raid on the eve of a wedding, in order to provide the new wife with household servants.

"[The Navajo] could not become Christians or stay in one place because they have been raised like deer."

The Navajo were just as effective raiders, although their preferred targets were sheep, around which most of their society revolved. They had slowly filtered down from Athabaska until finally settling in the region in the 1400s. Once in New Mexico they had carried out continual warfare with the existing regional tribes since that time, in addition to a perpetual war with the Ute across the San Juan River.

Navajo culture was centered around the churro sheep which had accompanied the Conquistadors to the Americas. It was semi-nomadic, a culture of "clear-eyed pragmatists and far-out mystics" with religious and storytelling traditions which proved resistant to Spanish attempts at conversion - according to one Spanish priest the indios barbaros "could not become Christians or stay in one place because they have been raised like deer."

The Navajo had a "deep seated fear and revulsion of death" which manifested in incredibly complex funerary rites. The system of beliefs around malevolent spirits of the dead also provides some monstrous antagonists for frontiersmen venturing out into the weird fantasy version of the province.

Witches called Skinwalkers could be seen prowling the villages at night, moving on all fours with pallid white faces and red eyes, desecrating graves to grind dead flesh into lethal "corpse powder". Precautions against witches, and the ghosts of the dead, were complex and vital. If a person died inside a Hogan dwelling, the body would have to be removed through a hole smashed through the wall, and then the building would have to be destroyed.

Before a raid Stargazers might prepare a solution including the filmy water collected from inside the eyes of an eagle. The wives of warriors would have to stay in their hogans for the duration of the conflict. Heavens forbid a member of the raiding party wear his blanket with stripes crosswise... if the raid could go ahead, if would be a rapid affair, seizing women and children and cattle and best of all, liberating Navajo slaves. 

"Hay! Que estoy deshonrado! Not with a rope! Not with rope! Nail me! Nail me!"

The isolation of Santa Fe produced other groups that only grew in the aftermath of Mexican independence, as the church lost its power to adequately supply priests to the provinces. The Penitentes were a cult with roots in medieval Spain, a lay brotherhood entrenched in the Rio Grande valley. Oppressed at various times by authorities Spanish, Mexican and American, they took on the characteristics of an underground cult. In 1903, at the time of their greatest growth, they were formally excommunicated by the Catholic Church for flagellation.

Prior to their reconciliation with the church in 1946, they were known for castigating themselves throughout Easter. On Good Friday there might be a staged crucifixion, described in some detail here

In the interests of making a real religious organisation fit the conventions of a weird fantasy tale, i'm going to quote the overwrought prose of the Victorian photographer Charles Lummis, who photographed a Penitente Crucifixion in 1889:

"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."

Charles Lummis photographs a crucifixion in 1889. At the time the photograph was taken, four men had recently died of the practice in Colorado, causing widespread outrage and bringing the group into disrepute.  

“During starving times, no man walks in front of Bill Williams.”

Liver-eatin' McLeod (
Taos, near Santa Fe, was the capital of the Southwestern fur trade in the days before the American conquest of the region. It was the wintering hole for members of organisations like the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur company, where they resupplied and gambled, whored and drank away their earnings - a wheat liquor called Taos Lightning formed a kind of currency among Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans alike. 

The mountain men were a fraternity known for their ready competence and otherworld air. A character class built around them would know traps and several languages, wilderness survival and brutal medicine. Aside from Plains Indian delicacies - eating the still hot liver of an animal squirted in the bile of its own gall bladder - they were renowned for eating just about anything. They were renowned for eating so much lard that they "shed rain like an otter, and stand cold like a polar bear." They drifted in and out of the trapping business, taking sojourns on long caravans or driving herds of sheep across vast distances. Caravans would head out for stately Chihuahua City, built on slave labour and silver mines.

The Mountain Men carried Hawken rifles and Green River skinning knives. They spoke a patois language containing phrases from a dozen languages, European and native. They "counted coup" in bloody vendettas against their enemies. They met in yearly open air festivals called "Rendezvous" to dance fandangos and play games of monte, euchre and seven-up. They adopted native names and lifestyles. "It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures, and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave."

And in conditions of frostbite, they were known to sometimes resort to brutal and horrific means of survival, like cannibalism. See the title quote above...


Fortress Rock

The Canyon de Chelly is a rocky maze whose floor is covered in orchards. It was a natural fortress and the last redoubt of the Navajo people in times of trouble. It was also the home of a god called the Spider Woman, a lovable crone who inflicted instructive mischief on her people. 

In the centre of the maze was Fortress Rock, eight hundred feet high, only connected to the rest of the canyon by a failing stone bridge. Hidden on the side of the natural stronghold was a hidden path leading to the top, carved by the ancient Anasazi before their fall. The fortress and the labyrinth had stymied army after army, until Kit Carson's final assault in 1863. 

The Fires of Montezuma

In the Pecos pueblo south of Santa Fe, the people built a sacred Kiva (a round ceremonial room with a smokehole, underground) and tended the fire, waiting for the time they would be liberated from the Conquistadors and priests. In 1838 the village was destroyed by plague, although legends say a few survivors nursed the embers to a new home in the Jemez mountains. The Americans who passed through the ruins in the 1840s saw their own ritual significance in the extinguishing of the fire.

The Great Houses of the Anasazi

Anaasází means "ancient enemies" in Navajo, and refers to a culture that came to prominence around 950ce. Their vast stone and timber pueblos housed the wealth gained from advanced mining and their skills in crafting turquoise. Long straight highways and irrigation systems criss-crossed the region. A centralised government co-ordinated a communications system based on "lighthouses" across the region. An American private passing through the ruins reported being told the cities had been built by white giants fifteen foot tall, and that he had personally seen the thigh bone of a man ten foot tall, at the site of an ancient altar.

This entire culture had developed during a century of aberrant wetness. When that ended, a sequence of droughts fell on the land they had deforested and over-farmed. 

Funny thing about drought - in most emergencies, humans come together. When the water runs out, they fall on each other. The Pueblos became barricaded fortresses. Witchcraft, civil unrest and cannibalism erupted across the canyon. Finally the survivors simply left, leaving behind beautiful pottery and clothing and quantities of dried food, to become the Hopi and the Zuni and the Taos and other tribes scattered across New Mexico. Perhaps the arrival of the first Navajo nomads from the north hastened the fall of this civilization, or maybe the ghost cities - still containing their wealth of pottery and turquoise - served as a reminder about the dangers of stasis. 

All that, and without once mentioning Pueblo sacred clowns...

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