The Cannibalistic Meteor Demon of San Jacinto

The Cannibalistic Meteor Demon of San Jacinto

Popular rock climbing location Tahquitz Peak is named after an ancient, evil spirit. Local tribes tell similar stories of a being named Dakwish, Dakush, Takwish, Taakwi, Chaup, Shiwiw, and many other spellings and iterations. Each tribes' legends differ and overlap, but every story is equally horrifying. The unifying theme is the meteor myth, an important symbol of the desert tribes and part of some creation myths, likely in part because of the enormous Amboy Crater.

One story depicts a bird-like man covered in white feathers and feather ropes tied around its head, “and these hold in place the elat, the board ceremonially swallowed by medicine-men and also worn as a headdress.” I've tried to find out what an elat is for far too long and the only definition I could find said it was an eagle feather skirt, which is contradictory to this description, so perhaps the original ethnographer misspelled the item in question or misunderstood the information presented to him by the person telling him this legend. Also possible: I'm a failure at Googling. This particular man-bird becomes a ball of light as it loses its feathers, which is possibly representative of the trail behind comets.

A woman tells of a night her family camped on Palomar Mountain to forage. As she lay be the fire, she awoke to the sound of a creature gnawing on flesh. It was the dakwish cradling a person as it consumed him. The woman woke the rest of her family and, once they all gathered to gaze upon the dakwish, it disappeared. Soon after, a woman in her family perished.

Another story describes Dakwish in a more humanoid way as the cousin of Tukupar (sometimes Tukuupar), a medicine man. Tukupar's son has been eaten by Dakwish and Tukupar told the village of this atrocity. He knew that Dakwish lived in the mountain, so Tukupar, being a magic man, turned himself into a raven and brought two rabbits with him to the entrance of Dakwish's home, where he met Dakwish's mother. Dakwish's mother warned Tukupar that Dakwish was terrible and would kill him. They heard a thunderous roar and knew that Dakwish had returned home, because, remember, Dakwish is also a meteor man. Tukupar hid as Dakwish spoke to his mommy, who told him not to kill his cousin, even though Dakwish was complaining of hunger because he hadn't murdered anyone that day.

Tukupar pops out of the shadows and says, “Behave yourself, my cousin.” Likely impressed that his cousin is bold enough to roll up into his home, Dakwish offers him a pipe to smoke and says, “I did not think you were a man. No one can come into this house." Dakwish then brings Tukupar human flesh to eat and asks if he usually eats human flesh. Tukupar pulls a fast one and switches it out for rabbit meat and says he loves eating people. Dakwish is, again, super impressed with his cousin and tell him to dance. Tukupar is, like, “Nah, you dance, I don't know how.” Dakwish laughs at him, so Tukupar gets up to dance, breaking his arms and legs while Dakwish sings. Dakwish is like, “Alright, you're a real man and that's how you managed to break into my home and chat with my mom.” Tukupar, being a medicine man, rubs his arms and legs to magically heal himself.

Tukupar tells Dakwish it's his turn to dance and Dakwish is like, “Nah, I don't know how. You're pretty good,” while hanging his head in shame. Tukupar says, “I thought you were a man. Just do what I did. I'll sing.” So Dakwish starts dancing and breaking apart his legs and arms and throwing them away. The wind starts to howl. He cuts off his hair and throws it away. He breaks apart his own head with his hands and feathery ropes spew from his body to bring it all back together. Tukupar throws gnats into Dakwish's eyes and Dakwish begs Tukupar to fix it. Tukupar says, “Oh, I thought you were man. You broke your body. Heal yourself.”

Dakwish wants to know why Tukupar came to hurt him and Tukupar reminds him of the whole half-eaten son thing. Dakwish is like, “Well, what do you want me to do about?” and Tukupar asks for his son's hair. Dakwish gives him the run around about the son's hair and keeps lying about not having it and Tukupar says, “Look, I can see it under your arm, just give me my kid's hair.” Dakwish throws the hair at him and says, “You just came here to cry!” And Tukupar cried while wearing his son's hair around his neck saying that it's all he really wanted and tries to leave. Dakwish says, “What, that's it? Good bye?!” and Tukupar flies down the mountain.

Tukupar shows the hair to the village and they weep. They want to kill Dakwish, too. Tukupar goes back to Dakwish and tells him to come down to the village in three days and that people are coming to kill him. Dakwish asks, “Will there be a chance to kill people?” and, when Tukupar says yes, Dakwish is excited because who doesn't like AYCE? So Dakwish is waiting for all the villagers to arrive and is impatient. He kills a little boy with a pestle and the villagers get angrier. The ending of this story is incredibly anticlimactic because Dakwish just sits on a rock with his head bowed and someone comes up behind him with an oak club and knocks him on the head. Dakwish turns into a rock and they cover it with wood and make a fire. The Dakwish rocks shakes and flies into the sky in a bright flash, leaving behind Dakwish's liver as a rock. The end.

Chief Algoot is the protagonist in a similar story involving a dead son and seeking vengeance upon Tahquitz. However, in this version, Tahquitz is more like The Grinch who is banished to the San Jacinto and curses the livestock and crops of the tribes below. The demon Tahquitz eats and terrorizes them, so Chief Algoot summons the powers of Those Above to train for a year so that he may finally vanquish the meteor spirit. This story ends when Chief Algoot throws an enormous boulder at Tahquitz, who then turns into a buck and runs to Lake Elsinore, then turns into a giant lake serpent. As Tahquitz lunges to devour him, Algoot grabs Tahquitz and squeezes him to death. The villagers make a funeral pyre and the smoke rises and settles on the mountain to become Tahquitz Peak. For stories like these, it appears the tribes also believed that when the earth shook, it meant that Tahquitz was angry, so they would dance in a ceremony to ward off his wrath.

A 1908 telling by Salvador Cuevas explains the fear of Chaup, another name of the meteor devil. Salavador knew a song they sing, but was legitimately afraid of singing it in case Chaup overheard him. In this myth, he is known as Chaup while he is a meteor in the sky and known as Cuyahomarr in his earthly physical manifestation, sometimes spelled Kwiyaxomar. As he passes through the sky and casts a shadow upon a man, Chaup steals his spirit and that is the light you see in the sky. In keeping with the theme of dismemberment and balls of light, one creation myth tells of how the earth and the moon made love, creating twins who became the sky. One twin was cremated and the other became a meteor who carries people's spirits away and causes their deaths. The creation myths vary, but in them Chaup, Tcaup, or Cuyamhomarr is a hero who named all living things on the planet.

Today, Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock are a destination for climbers and hikers. At 8,846 feet above sea level with a steep final ascent, the peak was first mapped on the 1901 USGS topo map with the name Tahquitz. In 1935, the Sierra Club identified it as a great location for rock climbing and Royal Robbins popularized it in the 1950's. Suicide Rock (originally Suicide Peak), seen from Tahquitz Peak, is allegedly named after Native American lovers who threw themselves off the rocky outcropping when they were forbidden from being lovers. The name had been in use prior to the 1880's, but there's no evidence of that story being true. In 1957, it appeared on the USGS topo map as Suicide Rock because it's not actually a peak. Perhaps living up to its name, there have been some accidental deaths in the papers occurring there.

The demon meteor Tahquitz stories are fun for the campfire or hiking trail. There are several variations to give a spooky feel while traversing the San Jacinto and Idyllwild area and a nice way to “explain” the comets and earthquakes in the desert. Sadly, I did not much on YouTube that wasn't a hiking or climbing video, but there is this little gem:

...as well as this neat ranger talk about terrifying Cahuilla coming of age traditions, hallucinogens and shaman visions:

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