Cahuilla Hermeticism?

I finally started looking into local history after years of saying I was going to start writing about legends of the California desert for this blog (what can I say? has had it pretty well covered.). I thought it only fair that I start with the people whose ancestral land is now my home, rather than some silent movie-era Hollywood scandal, but material about the original inhabitants of the Coachella Valley is not easy to find. I settled on the seminal The Cahuilla Indians by Harry C. James as my starting point. It was published in 1960, with all of the problematic language one might expect from something from seventy years ago, but I was still moved by the book and its depiction of the legends, life, and suffering of these people whose ancestors still call this place home. Considering it was published and distributed by one of the local tribes, I figured it must have some amount of imprimatur from them, and will be using it as my source for discussing what might be one of the more interesting creation myths I have ever read.

The Cahuilla creation myth starts out with a void, as any good creation myth should, but a void carrying strange sounds, like the sounds of singing, and occasionally a rumbling that would drown out the singing. Two masses formed out of the void, male and female, and the colors red, white, blue, and brown. The colors aggregated into a great female and male form, and they tried to conceive, but the first two attempts ended unsuccessfully. The third attempt, pierced by a lightning bolt, succeeded in birthing the twin creators of the world, Tamaoit and Mukat.

The twins fought for awhile over who was the older of the two, and their contest resulted in the creation of the world, with Mukat, the black twin, always getting the edge on Tamaoit the white twin. The two created poles that combined to form the world, using snakes, rocks, and spiders from their chests to weave the Axis Mundi together, and pulling astral bodies from their chests- Mukat pulling the sun from himself to light their pipes. Their afterbirth formed a miasma containing all disease and woe that their creations would suffer. They created animal helpers (spiders and ants being pulled from them prior to ‘creation’ per se), Coyote from Tamaoit and the Horned Owl from Mukat, that assisted in creation.

Not seeing well in the darkness (where the sun went, not sure.. hey it’s myth), Mukat pulled the Moon Maiden, Man-El, from his chest, and she illuminated how misshapen were the creations of Tamaoit. After a scolding from his brother, Tamaoit sang a song and went beneath the Earth in a cataclysm, taking much of creation with him. Mukat managed to hold creation together, and finished making man. The sun decided to show back up, and burned man according to how far North or South he had chosen to live.

So much to unpack here from a Western perspective, twin symbolism, the colors that could correspond to fire, air, water, and earth, black and white poles, Axis Mundi, the void, but I will leave that for later. Just wanted to crack open a little local legend for now.. and maybe leave a little tobacco for Mukat and Tamaoit.

The Dark Watchers..

Ever feel like you’re being watched? Well you are, but let’s leave the NSA, Russia, Amazon, Facebook, etc, out of it for awhile (hi guys!). If you find yourself in the Santa Lucia Mountains of coastal California, perhaps in search of a nice Pinot Noir, you may end up with some company. According to Jason Offutt in his book Chasing American Monsters, the Chumash Indians were the first to see mysterious silhouettes standing on the mountain ridges, silently staring. [edit 03/22/21 Ken Layne on his Desert Oracle podcast clarified the tribe as the Essalen, a tribe nearly wiped out by the Spanish, and from whom the Essalen Institute took its name.] Spanish settlers recorded seeing these vigilantes oscuros, and a quick search online (specifically the comments section of the Weird California page on the subject [unsecure link, not sharing it]) shows that these things are still being seen regularly today. Back to Offutt, “Legend has it these humanoid creatures rarely appear to anyone who is carrying a gun, or is dressed in weatherproof clothing; they only reveal the themselves to people who wander the mountains in more old-fashioned garb.”

Pepé, the protagonist of the John Steinbeck short story ‘flight’ had a gun, and little good it did him shortly after seeing the Dark Watchers.

Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment, but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show any interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and and minded his own business.

Pepe looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man’s figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone.

John Steinbeck, ‘Flight’

Steinbeck was interested enough in these mysterious beings that his son, Thomas, collaborated on a book (In Search of the Dark Watchers) about the subject with artist Benjamin Brode. Apparently lore of the Watchers was deeply ingrained in his upbringing, his grandmother even claiming to have traded with them- which is lore altering if true.

Poet Robinson Jeffers, in his poem ‘Such Counsels You Gave to Me’ also mentioned “the watchers, who are often seen in this length of coast range, forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges to watch.”

So, what are these ethereal observers? Are they like the ‘shadow people’ many observe in their bedrooms at night? Are they ghosts, or the remaining vibrations of a people long passed on? Perhaps it is a form of alien intelligence, curious about our hiking habits? Whatever they are, I thought they deserved a cocktail of their own. Luckily the boys at Bootlegger Tiki were up to the task and helped me whip up “The Dark Watcher aka the Poor Pepé”.

old-fashioned garb and all

1 1/2 oz Singani 63

1/2 Demerara syrup

1/2 lime juice

1/4 oz fallernum

barspoon grenadine

barspoon açaí pureé

shake with crushed ice, Collins glass, garnish with edible flowers to accentuate the floral aspects

It’s refreshing and dangerous, and just dark enough to add a sense of mystery. If you ask the bartenders at Bootlegger nicely, I am sure you could get them to make you one.

It’s watching me..

..and if you see something dark watching you on the horizon, just leave it be.