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.