The Penitente Brotherhood, a mysterious Catholic society based in New Mexico, was active in the 19th century, but many details about the group are still unknown. In the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine, Dean Blaine explores New Mexico's Penitente sites and their secrets.
The brotherhood was formed by lay Catholics who lived too far from priests and churches to celebrate the sacraments. But as word of the organization spread, rumors about "self-flagellation, bloodletting, and gory re-enactments of Christ's crucifixion" did too. The Catholic church eventually condemned the Penitentes, calling them "wayward extremists."
In northern New Mexico, near the village of Pilar, archaeologists are exploring a two-room adobe building where the Penitentes held meetings until the 1930s. Outside the building, there's a cemetery and a wooden cross to represent Christ's death. At the cemetery, the brothers apparently held a Lenten ritual in which they bound a man to a cross.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Recent excavations at the site suggest that the brothers saw prehistoric significance in choosing the building's location. Archaeologists from Barnard College found Pueblo artifacts at the site, and they believe the Penitentes wanted "to build upon the already inherent sanctity of the site." Rock art at the site depicts prehistoric petroglyphs, indicating interest in Native American traditions.
While there are many secrets about the Penitente Brotherhood that historians may never know, the artifacts lend new understanding to the brothers' traditions. Blaine posits that the brothers wanted to "reconcile traditional Native American religious conventions with the teachings of Roman Catholic dogma." For more about the history of the Penitente Brotherhood, check out the most recent issue of Archaeology.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.