Sacred Texts  Bible  Bible Critical Views  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

p. 391



While the first edition of this volume was passing through the press in 1903, there reached me a cutting from an American newspaper, describing the survival or revival of a quasi-sacrificial Passion Play among the Christianised descendants of the Aztecs. As an illustration of the psychology of human sacrifice, it is worth reprinting without note or comment:—



"Santa Fé, N.M. (March 27).—Among the Americans who flock once in ten years to see the Passion play at Oberammergau, there are few who know of the more realistic performance given yearly by the Penitentes of New Mexico. This performance was first adequately described by Adolphe Bandelier in a report issued by the Smithsonian Institution about ten years ago.

"The full title of the Penitentes is Los Hermanos Penitentes, meaning The Penitent Brothers. The order was established in New Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest under Coronado, about 1540. The purpose of the priests who accompanied the Spaniards was to form a society for religious zeal among the natives. They taught the natives that sin might be expiated by flagellation and other personal suffering. As time passed, the Indian and half-breed zealots sought to improve their enthusiasm by fiercer self-imposed ordeals of suffering. The idea of enacting the travail of the Master on Calvary was evolved. Hence the Passion Play of the Penitentes on each Good Friday.

"Mr. Bandelier learned from the Spanish archives that as early as 1594 a crucifixion, in which twenty-seven men were actually nailed to crosses for a half-hour, took place on Good Friday, 'after several weeks of pious mortification of the flesh with knives and cactus thorns.' The Penitentes numbered some 6,000 at the time of the American-Mexican War in 1848. The Catholic Church has long laboured to abolish their practices. So have the civil authorities. Fifty years ago there were branches of the Penitentes in seventeen localities in the territory, and crucifixions took place in each of the branches. The organisation has since gradually died away. Nowadays the sole remnant of the order is in the valley of San Mateo, seventy-five miles north-east from Santa Fé. There is no railroad nearer than sixty miles.

p. 392

"Some 300 Mexicans still cling to the doctrine that one's misdeeds are to be squared by physical pain during forty days of each year, finally closing with a crucifixion. Most of the Penitentes live at Taos, a very old adobe pueblo. They are sheep and cattle herders. Not one in a dozen of them can read and write in Spanish, and they have as little knowledge of English as if they lived in the heart of Mexico. The Penitentes keep their membership a secret nowadays. They meet in their primitive adobe council chambers (moradas) at night, and they conduct their flagellations and crucifixions as secretly as possible. Charles F. Lummis, of Los Angeles, Cal., was nearly shot to death by an assassin for photographing a Penitente crucifixion a few years ago. The Penitentes have several night meetings during the year, but it is only in Lent that they are active. They have a head, the Hermano Mayor, whose mandates are strictly followed on pain of death. Adolphe Bandelier has written that up to a half century ago there were instances of disobedient and treacherous brother Penitentes having been buried alive.

"In Lent the Penitentes have night meetings several times a week at the morada. One day they will whip one another, on another day they go to El Calvario (the Calvary), a little hill away from the town, where they coat their bodies with ashes, and all the time call in lamentations for a witness to their sense of sinfulness. For several days at a time they go without food, and they spend whole nights in tearful prayer. When Holy Week comes the intensity of the fanaticism increases. They have been seen to thrust cactus spines into one another's naked backs until the flesh swelled owing to the torture caused by thousands of nettles under the skin. They have been known to crawl on all fours like lizards over hill and vale for miles at a time to prove their humility. Self-lashing with short whips similar to cats-o'-nine-tails is common, and young men have died from exhaustion and loss of blood during too zealous flagellations.

"On Good Friday the Hermann Mayor names the ones who have been chosen to be the Jesus Christ, the Peter, the Pontius Pilate, Mary, the Martha, and so on, for the play. Notwithstanding the torture involved in the impersonation, many Penitentes are annually most desirous of being the Christ. The play is given on El Calvario. While the pipero blows a sharp air on a flute the man who is acting the part of the Saviour comes forth. His only garment is a quantity of cotton sheeting or muslin that hangs flowing from his shoulders and waist. About his forehead is bound a wreath of cactus thorns. The thorns have been pressed deep into the flesh, from which tiny streams of blood trickle down his bronzed face and over his black beard. In a moment a cross of huge timbers that would break the back of many men is laid upon his shoulders. He grapples it tight, and, bending low under the crushing weight, starts on.

"On the way a path of broken stones has been made, and the

p. 393

most devout Penitentes walk over these with bare feet and never flinch. The counterfeit Christ is spit upon by the spectators. Little boys and girls run ahead of the chief actor that they may spit in his face and throw stones upon his bending form. When El Calvario is reached, the great clumsy cross is laid upon the ground. The actor of Christ is seized and thrown upon it. The assemblage joins in a chorus of song, while several Penitentes lash the man's hands, arms, and legs to the timbers with cords of cowhide. The bonds are made as tight as the big muscular vaqueros can draw them. The ligaments sink into the flesh and even cut so that the blood runs out. The arms and legs become blue and then black under the binding, but not so much as a sigh escapes the lips of the actor. He repeats in a mixed dialect of Spanish and Indian the words uttered by Christ at the true Calvary, and bids his brothers spare him not. When all is ready a dozen men erect the cross. The women weep and the children look on dumbfounded. Some of the men mock and jeer the man on the cross; others throw clods of sunbaked earth at him, and still others, feeling that they must have some part in the physical agony of the afternoon, call upon the multitude to lash and beat them.

"In several localities in Colorado and New Mexico it was once the practice literally to nail the hands of the acting Christ to the timbers of the cross, but the Catholic priest of this generation put a stop to that. There is no doubt that people have died from the tortures of the Passion Play. Only two years ago the Government Indian agent in the San Riga Mountains reported several deaths among the Penitentes, because of poisoning by the cactus thorns and the lashing the men had endured. The Penitentes believe that no death is so desirable as that caused by participation in the acting of the travail of the Lord.

"After the first half hour of noise and flagellation about the cross at El Calvario the excitement dies away. The crucified man, whose arms and legs are now black under the bonds, must be suffering indescribable pain, but he only exclaims occasionally in Spanish, 'Peace, peace, peace,' while the Penitentes who have had no part in the punishment prostrate themselves silently about the cross. As the sun slowly descends behind the mountain peaks the pipero rises to his feet, and, blowing a long, harsh air upon his flute, leads a procession of the people back to the village. Some of the leading Penitentes remain behind and lower the man from the cross. Then, following the narrative of the scenes on Calvary, his body is wrapped about with a mass of white fabric, and is carried to a dug-out cave in the hillside near at hand. In the cave the bleeding and tortured body of the chief actor is nursed to strength. If the man is of great endurance and rugged physical strength he will probably be ready to go home to his family in the evening, conscious of having made ample atonement for long years of sin, and having earned a reputation that many men in Taos have coveted.

p. 394

"Until a score of years ago women joined in the balancing of the Penitentes' accounts with Heaven by self-imposed bodily suffering. No longer ago than when Gen. Wallace was Governor of the territory hundreds of women scourged themselves until their backs and shoulders were raw."


The following extract from a New York journal, referring to an incident at Easter, 1903, is noteworthy in the same connection, illustrating as it does, with the Oberammergau play, the persistence of the dramatic appeal of the Passion Play in the gospels:—



"The Lambs Club is composed to a considerable extent of actors. Its house backs up against the Garrick Theatre, and its monthly Sunday gambols' have of late been given on that stage. These affairs have consisted of farces and burlesques, and the audiences have been composed of members and their invited guests. But last night merriment gave place to decorum. A 'passion play' was performed in all seriousness. No tickets were on sale, and so there was no chance of interference by the police, either on the ground that the Sunday law was broken or that the subject of the piece was illegal.

"This drama of the Crucifixion was the work of Clay M. Greene, the playwright and formerly 'shepherd' of the Lambs. He had written it for the Jesuit College at Santa Clara, Cal., of which he is a graduate, and it was acted there last year by priests and students under his direction. In the Lambs cast Judas Iscariot was impersonated by Joseph Grismer, Pontius Pilate by Al. Lipman, Peter by R. A. Roberts, John by Ernest Hastings, and Matthew by Henry Woodruff. Other rôles were taken by Nathaniel Hartwig, Enos Welles, Fritz Williams, De Wolf Hopper, and Sam Reed. A stageful of Lambs represented the assemblages. The mounting was the same that had been used in California, and was excellent. The acting was careful, dignified, and, in the main, impressive.

"Mr. Greene's play begins on the plains of Bethlehem with the quest of Christ's birthplace by the wise men of the East and Herod's emissaries, and passes quickly to Herod's palace, when the news of the new-born King of the Jews incites him to order the massacre of the infants. Then a lapse of years carries us to the representation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, His arraignment before the Council, the betrayal of Judas, the trial before Pilate, the delivery by Herod to the Jews, the march to Calvary, and the convulsions of nature following the Crucifixion.

"Christ is not a visible character, but his presence is indicated in three scenes. In the trial a bright light is thrown from the side, as

p. 395

though he were there, and to that point Pilate addresses his exhortation to the Master to refute the accusations of his enemies. On the way to Calvary the top of a cross moves across the background, as though carried by Christ, who is hidden by the multitude, and an effulgence marks his movement. Nor is he actually exhibited on the cross, but shadows thrown on a transparent curtain make a picture of the Crucifixion.

"This performance of 'Nazareth' is preliminary to its possible, use in a regular theatrical way. William A. Brady has acquired the rights in it and stands ready to produce it publicly. It is understood that he will request Archbishop Corrigan to sanction the enterprise, and that representatives of his reverence saw the play last evening. In the meanwhile, Oscar Hammerstein has an option on 'The Passion Play,' a version of the Christian tragedy now current in Montreal, with the tacit approval of the Roman Catholic clergy of that city, and with no obstructive action by the Protestants. Mr. Hammerstein says he will introduce it at the opening of the big theatre which he is going to build in West Thirty-fourth Street, if the acquiescence of church and municipal authorities can be secured. Christ is a visible and audible personage in the Montreal performance, which is in French, but here an English translation would be used.

"It is inevitable that, in case either of these 'passion plays' becomes a feasible venture, the famous Oberammergau representation will be imported. It is said that it would be located in Madison Square Garden, and could be placed there early next autumn if a certainty of non-interference were attainable. It is nearly twenty years since Salmi Morse brought his 'passion play' to New York from San Francisco. This was a fine production, directed by David Belasco, and costing $40,000. James O'Neill impersonated Christ, and in the cast were Lewis Morrison, James Herne, and others since conspicuous. During three weeks large audiences were drawn, but the leading actors were arrested every day and fined $50 each. At last the Governor of California took prohibitive action.

"Mr. Morse was almost a monomaniac about his play; and Mr. O'Neill, who had been educated for the priesthood, seemed sincerely religious in his personification of Christ. Henry E. Abbey brought the company and the outfit to this city, intending to place them at Booth's; but the Mayor threatened to cancel the theatre's license. The next move by Mr. Morse was to lease an old church on the site of the present Proctor Theatre in West Twenty-third Street, and put in a stage, on which a single performance was given to an invited audience. Mr. O'Neill had withdrawn, and the late Henry C. De Mille, as the Christ, headed a cast of generally inefficient amateurs. So the venture ended in a fiasco. The present attitude of city and church authorities is not yet ascertainable."

Next: Appendix C. Replies to Criticisms