Sunday, July 19, 2015

Toltec Traces in “The Thunder-Rider” By David Bowles

Around the same time that Robert E. Howard was writing his James Allison tales (in which a young, dying Texan remembers adventures from various past lives), he crafted one of his most clearly anti-modernist tales, “The Thunder-Rider,” in which his now infamous tendency toward racism is tempered by a palpable reverence for indigenous American peoples. Most notable in this rough draft is Howard’s use of Mesoamerican myth, specifically that of the legendary city of Tollan and the dark sorcerer Tezcatlipoca who brought about its downfall. 

The Story
Quetz vs. Tezcat

Published posthumously in Marchers of Valhalla and The Black Stranger, The Thunder-Rider centers on John Garfield, a college-educated Comanche man who works in an early twenty-century office building. Despite having fully assimilated to the mainstream Western European culture of the US, Garfield finds himself increasingly in the grip of violent urges he ascribes to his ancestry. After some internal struggle and pointed criticism of the vices of modern American culture, Garfield sets out to seek guidance from an aged shaman called Eagle Feather, who offers to open up the younger Comanche’s spiritual memory through a grueling, torturous ritual. Upon reliving moments from his previous incarnations, the medicine man affirms, Garfield will sate his appetite for violence.

The blood rite brings him close to death, but the young man survives and is able to access memories of his former selves. One of these is Iron Heart, a Comanche warrior wandering the Southwest around the year 1575. Garfield recounts a particularly eldritch adventure of his. Recognized by enemies through epithets like “the Scalp-Taker, the Vengeance-Maker, the Thunder-Rider,” Iron Heart takes his mounted war party south toward Mexican settlements in search of more horses (Howard spends several generally plausible paragraphs explaining why the tribe has learned to ride more than a hundred years before history records that innovation).

Lipan Apache Raider
 But the party turns aside to attack and slaughter a group of Lipan Apaches near the San Saba River. Unfortunately for Iron Heart, these Lipan have an alliance with the Tonkawa and Wichita peoples, who butcher the Comanche until a remnant of fifteen warriors flee north, being chased for more than a hundred miles. Their luck is such that they run right into another group of Apache enemies. Barely escaping, the war party ends up wandering a vast, featureless plain.

Then, unexpectedly, they cross into the Darkening Land, the silent realm of spirits. All around them in the mists they see huge tipis fashioned from the hides of white buffalo. Within these ancient, abandoned homes they find the undecayed bodies of giants—the Terrible People of legend, a race long dead. From one of these, Iron Heart takes a massive axe of green jade. 

Before he can much delight in this beautiful weapon, a group of Pawnee surround the Comanche, led by the pure-blood Spanish woman Conchita, who was stolen as an infant and raised to be a “war-bird.” Just as the two groups begin to clash, they are incapacitated by the arrival of another group of feather-clad people who Iron Heart compares to the Puebloans in appearance and whose magical gong helps them capture Pawnee and Comanche alike. They are taken to a sort of ziggurat on a low hill, surrounded by a wall on the gate of which is carved a feathered serpent. From here rules a tall, cruel man who calls himself Tezcatlipoca, a name Conchita recognizes and fears—one of the sun’s incarnations, Howard suggests.

 Tezcatlipoca is excited to have the jade axe—weapon of a long-dead foe of his—and he imprisons Iron Heart while having his gong-ringer Xototl take Conchita to the Room of Gold to await his pleasure. Visiting her, he gives his villain monologue, explaining how he left his ancient kingdom in Mesoamerica before the “barbaric Toltecs wandered into it,” coming north to establish a magical stronghold and to enthrall a tribe of Puebloans, whom his cruelty has reduced in number down the centuries.

As the Pawnee and Comanche are sacrificed one by one, Xototl sneaks into the Room of Gold to have his way with Conchita, but she kills him and frees Iron Heart. They start to escape, but Tezcatlipoca intervenes. He and Iron Heart struggle, but Conchita tricks the ancient creature by shouting that the long-dead giants have risen to attack the palace. Taking advantage of the distraction, Iron Heart kills Tezcatlipoca with the jade axe. Then he subdues the fiery Conchita, beating her until she relents and promises to accompany him to his people. 


With some revision and editorial refining,
The Thunder-Rider might have been a truly epic tale of conflict among indigenous North Americans whose cultures and religions historically overlapped in ways that encourage creative exploration of shared themes. Using the myth of Tezcatlipoca was particularly inspired, if not fully realized in the extant draft.

For Mesoamerican peoples, creation had occurred several times (either four or five, depending on the particular culture). Each age was called a sun, because a different god served that function from era to era. The principal creator gods were twin brothers, most commonly known to Nahuatl-speakers as Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (the Smoking Mirror). Two halves of a single process, the brothers represented order and chaos, respectively. Their conflicts were often the cause of cataclysms that brought one age to end and ushered in another.

 Tezcatlipoca, as Howard notes in The Thunder-Rider, was an “incarnation of the sun,” having served as that source of life for the First Age. The beings that peopled the earth during that epoch were giants, much like the Terrible Beings of Howard’s tale. It may be that the author was inspired to imbed an ancient conflict between the giants and Tezcatlipoca by the fact that the First Age came to an end when the god of chaos, displeased with the inhabitants of the earth, sent his his nahualli or animal spirit, the huge jaguar Tepeyollotl or “Mountainheart,” into the world.  Mountainheart transformed some giants into were-jaguars and led them in a vicious war against their brothers and sisters.

According to Aztec annals, in the year 1-Reed, on the day 4-Jaguar, Mountainheart and his army of jaguars devoured nearly every giant on the face of the earth. Quetzalcoatl wrestled his brother from the sky, and the First Age came to an end. Three more eras with three more attendant suns would come and go before our present epoch, the Fifth Age, illuminated by the son of Quetzalcoatl, Nanoatzin. And it is in the forgotten history of Mesoamerican of the present age when myths and blend to create legend.

The Nahua peoples or Chichimeca were a group of interrelated tribes that immigrated into the high plains of central Mexico over several centuries beginning about a millennium ago. Today we call them “Aztecs,” though that name actually describes their legendary overlords in their place of origin, Aztlan. They discovered the vast ruinous cities of the Tolteca, a glorious civilization whose benighted descendants now lived in small city-states at the edges of the once-mighty empire. The Chichimeca—especially the Mexica, last tribe to arrive—aped many of the cultural trappings and gods of the ancients. The term for artistic excellence in Nahuatl, toltecayotl, is a reflection of their reverence for the past.

 In The Thunder-Rider, Howard has clearly availed himself of one of many Toltec stories folded into Nahua lore—that of Tollan, a long-forgotten metropolis often associated with the cities of Teotihuacan and Tula, whose ruins still inspire awe today. From the modern perspective it seems likely that a noble named Ce Acatl (“One Reed”) and titled Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl—“our revered lord the feathered serpent”—ruled Tollan during the 10th century CE. However, as with the historical figure underlying King Arthur, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl became conflated with a myth—in this case, the actual god Quetzalcoatl.

The resulting legend—told in one fashion or another from the highlands all the way to modern El Salvador—depicts the incarnation of the creator god, born to a woman who swallowed a piece of jade and was thereby impregnated. This child, Ce Acatl, would grow to be a pious, good-hearted man who was selected to rule Tollan. Accompanied by his equally virtuous sister Quetzalpetlatl, Ce Acatl abolished human sacrifice, ushering in a time of prosperity and cultural revival. His people hailed him as Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

The story further recounts that the priests of the old order were incensed at the changes to the state religion. Chief among them was Tezcatlipoca, a dark mage whom the Nahua peoples conflated with the god of chaos, Quetzalcoatl’s brother. Setting out to destroy the righteousness of the ruler, Tezcatlipoca insinuated himself into the royal palace in a disguise and used his wiles to trick Quetzalcoatl into getting so drunk that he forgot his ritual duties (and, in some versions, had sex with his sister). Disgraced, the ruler of Tollan abandoned the city with a small retinue, traveled for several years through what is now southern Mexico doing penance, and then immolated himself on the Gulf shore, vowing to return.

As for Tezcatlipoca’s fate, the annals are less clear. The final ruler of Tollan, Huemac, continued to contend with the dark priest, who brought down one magical disaster after another until the city itself fell. Howard clearly means for the antagonist of The Thunder-Rider to be this same Tezcatlipoca, as he “came from the south more than a thousand years before,” fitting with the 10th century setting of the original legend.

 If we take Howard’s Tezcatlipoca to be the same who deceived Quetzalcoatl in Tollan, the appropriation of the feathered snake (to be found on the gates of the palace to which Iron Heart and Conchita are taken) makes more sense; though it may still simply be conflation of the two mythical figures by the author. The snake diadem worn by Tezcatlipoca and the massive serpent that does his bidding until slain by Iron Heart could both be interpreted on this view as mockeries of the dark priest’s principal enemy. That the cruel demigod meets his demise via Conchita’s ruse then becomes deliciously ironic, as such deception was his own favorite tool in Tollan.

A few final notes. Upon arriving in the mist-shrouded kingdom of Tezcatlipoca, Iron Heart calls it the “Darkening Land,” which itself is a Cherokee concept—the realm to which all dead spirits are bound. It is not clear why Howard would not have used the similar Nahua term Mictlan, the Land of the Dead sometimes located in the North, or the Mayan Xibalba, Place of Fear. Perhaps further revisions would have prompted the use of such a Mesoamerican or Southwestern equivalent.

The name of the gong-ringer and would-be-rapist, Xototl, is not a true Nahua name. Instead, Howard has probably mis-transcribed or distorted “Xolotl,” the nahualli or animal twin of Quetzalcoatl. God of lightning, Xolotl would accompany the sun each night as it traversed the Underworld.  A revamped version of the tale correcting the spelling of this name would have added more poignancy to Tezcatlipoca’s usurpation of Quetzalcoatl’s power and his eventual destruction at the hands of mere mortal warriors.

In the final analysis, The Thunder-Rider represents a heartening respect for and interest in the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico and the US Southwest. It is a real shame that Robert E. Howard was unable during his lifetime to return to this story and give it the final polish it needed, but we can nonetheless enjoy its flawed extension of a vital Toltec tradition.

For further reading, I recommend  several colonial-era documents translating Aztec codices: Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas, Libro de oro y tesoro indico, Histoire du Mechique, Leyenda de los soles, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. Modern works with English versions of these documents and other pertinent pre-Colombian codices include Bierhorst’s History and Mythology of the Aztecs, Markman and Markman’s The Flayed God, and Carrasco’s Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition

About David Bowles
A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas. Recipient of awards from the Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, among them Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry and Border Lore.

Additionally, his work has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Metamorphoses, Rattle, Translation Review, Concho River Review, Red River Review, Huizache, The Thing Itself, Eye to the Telescope and James Gunn’s Ad Astra.


Jeffrey Shanks said...

Great essay David. Howard used the Toltecs in several stories and he equated them with Lemurians that migrated to North America.

Jeffrey Shanks said...

Just to add, you mihgt to check out a couple of Howard's likely sources for his knowledge of MesoAmerica. One of his main references for the Toltecs in general is E. A. Allen's PRehistoric World (1885). In scanning it briefly, it looks like that's where he got the jade axe from. His other source was the Central and South America volume of the multi-volume Grolier History of the World edited by Bryce et al. THis one has Tezcatlipoca, Xolotl, Tollan, etc. Both are available on line.

Prehistoric World:

History of the World v. 14:;view=1up;seq=7

David Bowles said...


Very nice! I'm familiar with Grolier (my dad had a set when I was a kid), but Prehistoric World is new to me. Great to know what REH's likely sources were (I'm sure closer examination of them could lead to more clues about the curious adaptations of the Tollan myth).