Harold Johnson on the Mythology Behind Tamoachan

Over at ENWorld, someone posted a question about one of the figures in the venerable Greyhawk module C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Greyhawk scholar Allan “Grodog” Grohe then consulted one of the original authors of the module, Harold Johnson, and got the following in reply. I thought it was a fascinating look into the background of one of the classic modules of the early 1980’s, and deserved to be repeated.

Allan, It’s been a while since I checked my source materials, but I’ll look for them. When I wrote Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (that should have been Tamoanchan, but the “n” was dropped by an editor proof), I was fresh out of college with a raft of mythology resource books and recently published research articles. I will attempt to find the source material. For what it’s worth, the names were drawn from my research of gods and demigods of Olmec, Toltec, and Incan societies. I used the names to inspire the creation of several of the monsters – for instance Xilonen is known as the Hairy Mother Goddess of Maize and hence the polyp, Xipe was a cannibal war god who wore the flayed skins of his victims, and the gibbering mouther was modelled after -Tlazoteotl- the earth mother also referred to as the Gibbering Mother, described as a being that was all mouths and eyes in my resource material. I justified my almagam of mythologies under the model used by Greco-Roman gods where neighboring pantheons were adapted and adopted by the ruling society and often identified as the same god using an ancient name. If at the core of all mythology is a shared pantheon of gods, their names and spheres of influence will change with each new dominant society. Mezo-American mythology has many differently named gods that share identical spheres of power. I also adapted the scholarly theory that many gods were once heroes and rulers and historically dominant figures, whose stories and deeds were mythologized as they receded into the vague mists of the past until they transformed these heroes into gods – in a manner similar to the deification of the pharoah. From that point of view – some of the ancient beings of power who may have been viewed by the common folk as gods, were no more than a fantastic beast who gained legendary status. As a DM, you should not confuse physical, mortal beings as gods, though the common people in the game world often do. Gods are a principal or essence of a sphere of power and as such a physical shell is most likely a champion of the god in question, a possessed servitor, or a physical avatar – which is no more than a single hair or finger of the actual being worshiped as a god. At best these creatures are demigods or heroes, sharing god blood, servitors possessed by a fraction of the god’s power, or they are merely awe inspiring creatures of legendary status. I’ll let you know what my source materials say about these creatures as soon as I find it.

Allan, I have yet to dig into my files in the garage, I have only looked online and in my active files in the house. This is what I have determined thus far. Xilonen, Xipe, Kalka-killa, and others in the tomb are not the gods, only representations of the gods used by the priests of Zotz. They are only creatures/monsters. Most of the names relate to specific gods in the Olman pantheon however. Kalka-Killa, Chitza Atlan, and Nanahuatl were made up names derived from actual deity and Mezo-american site names, but did not relate to a specific name. Kalka-Killa was derived from a couple Incan deities – Mama-Quilla and Ka Ata-Killa – both are Moon Goddesses. In the references I located, they are listed next to the Crabman in Inca statuary. Since the zodiac sign for the moon is Cancer, the Crab – I was inspired to make this representation a giant hermit crab. Chitza Atlan is essentially the guardian of the dead, sort of the mesoamerican equivalent to Charon the boatman. At best, he is a demigod. This centaur mummy is not actually a centaur, but a taxidermical contrivance stitching the torso of a man to the body of a horse. Technically, it should not even be an equine body, since the mesoamericans did not possess horses, so it is more likely a llama or large white tail deer body (or moose or buffalo). Nanahuatl was a blank faced creature that was to represent the every man, but was essentially a variation on the doppleganger. This is at best a lesser god and at worst a common monster. By the way, Zotzilaha really means “cave of the bats” and referred to the home of the Zotz or Camazotz which by mythological description fit our more Anglican depiction of a vampire. Camazotz may be one creature, but more likely it represented a type of legendary monster race, like the harpies or original gorgans which were a finite number of individuals. In Mesoamerican lore Zotzilaha may be the birth place/parent of Camazotz. I will keep looking for my original source documents to see if there is a greater clarification, but for now I think this should satisfy your gamer’s query.

(Reposted with permission.)

EDIT: Additional information from Harold Johnson can be found here.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

10 thoughts on “Harold Johnson on the Mythology Behind Tamoachan

  1. I don't know why I expect any better anymore, really.

    So Harold had to check his 'online folder'? Seriously? That's how he excuses away cribbing everything he goes on to say from the greytalk discussion list and the http://olmanifesto.blogspot.com blog? He's so intent on getting his fifteen minutes of enworld butt kissing that he can't bother crediting the actual source of that information?

    See, if he'd just answer Allan's question, no problem, we are talking about real world myth here, two people can reach the same conclusion. However…

    Corn goddesses
    Comparison to greco-roman 'mashup'
    definition of chitza-atlan
    discussion of zotz/camazotz/zotzilaha

    The SOB says he looked it up online. He says he hasn't looked at his actual source documents.

    Why the hell couldn't he credit his source? And why the hell is Grodog, who knows better, giving him a pass on it?

    Disgusting behavior, yet again, from so called "professionals".

  2. The point being, those topics, despite being rather irrelevant to the question we assume Allan asked, represent a laundry list of the favorite topics of the author of the blog I mentioned, who's also my ex, Maria Deltorre, who passed away in march.

    Her recent passing may be making me over sensitive to this blatant theft of her work, but I really doubt. Harold is quite shameless in that discussion. Too bad the ignorant masses at enworld will never know better.

  3. chatdemon,

    First, I'm very sorry for your loss.

    Dungeon Module C1 dates back to 1979… I don't understand the source connections that are causing your offense. Please clarify.

  4. The bulk of the information Harold is quoted as providing (and I trust Grodog to accurately report things), is both entirely not rooted in C1, and somewhat irrelevant to the question at hand.

    Here's the full text of the note I sent Grodog on the matter:

    I have to say, especially given Mar's recent passing, that I am extremely disgusted by the quotes from Harold Johnson you posted on ENWorld. He admits to 'looking online' while waiting to access his old notes, but gives no mention of the source of his information.

    I have to assume, since there's no context suggesting otherwise, that the question he was responding to was just that posed by the OP on the ENWorld thread, ie "Most of the opponents in Tamoachan have some antecedent in Mesoamerican myth/history. Does anybody know if this applies to Kalka-Kylla, the hermit crab guardian that the PC's meet fairly early in the module?"

    In the process of answering that question, Harold presents a variety of rather unrelated bits, such as:

    Corn gods/goddesses
    Comparison to greco-roman 'mashup'
    definition of chitza-atlan
    discussion of zotz/camazotz/zotzilaha

    Essentially a laundry list of Mar's pet topics regarding the Olman on her blog (olmanifesto.blogspot.com) and discussions with Marc Gonzalez and others on GT chat and list.

    Further, let me cite the actual text of C1:

    "The design of the temple draws heavily on Mayan and Aztec/Toftec
    mythology and society. Certain historic examples were used as models in designing this module. DMs wishing to expand the ruins of Tamoachan will find it very helpful to use their local library to find out more about these fascinating cultures,"

    Notice something missing?

    Inca. No mention of the Inca, yet Mar often suggested adapting Inca and polynesian elements to the Olman to expand things a bit.

    If Holian would ever get the GT archives up and running, I could provide exact links, however, given the fact that that is unlikely anytime soon (or ever), I simply wish that Harold be queried as to the source of his 'online research' and proper credit given. It is absolutely clear to me where he got the bulk of that information.

    People like Maria, Marc Tizoc Gonzalez, and you as well put a lot of time and effort into researching and writing about things related to C1. I'm sure Harold and Jeff did their homework at the time of writing the original module as well, however, it is painfully clear to me that at this point, what he refers to as 'looking online' is nothing more than cribbing ideas from other people's work.

    Which is really no problem, given that we're talking about research on real world myth and its application to a published document, if he'd only give credit to those he's borrowing from.

  5. Understood.

    It's probably more of an oversight on Mr. Johnson's part than anything deliberate, but the point about crediting sources is very valid, particularly on forums (which often don't appear in search results as readily as a blog post or regular web page).

    Rich, what's the best way to contact you? I have my own permanent web space now. If there's a link index or other material I can host regarding the Olmanifesto work or other materials, I'm happy to donate the space to assist with that. Maria's efforts are greatly appreciated and very useful to others that might want to adapt these cultures to gaming.

    I ran into a lot of issues with research and sourcing – C1's compositing of multiple cultures really makes it very difficult to track a lot of ideas. Mesoamerican material can be really difficult to adapt to a game system (the Inca/Maya/Aztec philosophies, for instance, seem to run into direct conflict with D&D alignment treatment). It's as if there's a wall around Central and South America that makes a lot of this information very overwhelming (and harder to condense for game purposes).

  6. I regret the implication that Harold is purposely and maliciously plagiarizing certain and specific people.

    While I maintain my opinion about where the material came from, I expect that the failure to mention sources was an oversight and non intended as an attack on anyone.

    I've contacted Grodog in hopes of clarifying the situation.

    Scottsz, I can be reached via email, breeyark@gmail.com

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