THE SEVEN WONDERS OF BARSOOM SERIES
THE RELIGION OF ISSUS II:
First Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsooom
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
B. The Gardens and Golden Temple of Issus.
The submarine surfaces and they are taken to an elevator that speeds
them upward to the domain of the First Born:
“When we emerged from the little building
which housed the upper terminal of the elevator, we found ourselves in
the midst of a veritable fairyland of beauty. The combined language of
Earth men hold no words to convey to the mind the gorgeous beauties of
They are allowed entry into the temple and are escorted through endless
corridors, and finally ordered to get down on their hands and knees and
crawl backwards into the receiving chamber of Issus:
“One may speak of scarlet sward and ivory-stemmed
trees decked with brilliant purple blooms; of winding walks paved with
crushed rubies, with emerald, with turquoise, even with diamonds themselves;
of a magnificent temple of burnished gold, hand-wrought with marvelous
designs; but where are the words to describe the glorious colors that are
unknown to earthly eyes where the mind or the imagination that can grasp
the gorgeous scintillations of unheard-of rays as they emanate from the
thousand nameless jewels of Barsoom
“Even my eyes, for long years accustomed to the
barbaric splendors of a Martian Jeddak's court, were amazed at the glory
of the scene.
“Phaidor’s eyes were wide in amazement.
“‘The Temple of Issus,’ she whispered, half to
“Xodar watched us with his grim smile, partly
of amusement and partly malicious gloating.
“The gardens swarmed with brilliantly trapped
black men and women. Among them moved red and white females serving their
ever want. The places of the outer world and the temples of the therns
had been robbed of their princesses and goddesses that the blacks might
have their slaves.
“Through this scene we moved toward the temple.”
“After we had crawled in this disgusting
fashion for a matter of a couple of hundred feet we were halted by our
The reader can well imagine the anticipation Phaidor felt at this moment.
It is like when a child is first confronted with the idea of Santa Claus
by its parents. I recall when I was about five or six years old I couldn’t
wait for my turn at the store to sit in Santa’s lap and tell him everything
I wanted for Christmas; it was literally the fulfillment of one of my greatest
dreams. The only thing better would be to share a Coke with Santa after
he came down the chimney. But when it finally came to my turn in the long
line, I was speechless from the epiphany. Afterwards I was further humiliated
by my mother and brother who made fun of my inability to speak, telling
me that I would be lucky to get anything at all since Santa never heard
my request. I remember sweating the time until Christmas, hoping that Santa
could read my thoughts.
“‘Let them rise,’ said a voice behind us; a thin,
wavering voice, yet one that had evidently been accustomed to command for
“‘Rise,’ said our escort, ‘but do not face toward
“‘The woman pleases me,’ said the thin, wavering
voice again after a few moments of silence. ‘She shall serve me the allotted
time. The man you may return to the Isle of Shador which lies against the
northern shore of the Sea of Omean. Let the woman turn and look upon Issus,
knowing that those of the lower orders who gaze upon the holy vision of
her radiant face survive the blinding glory but a single year.’
“I watched Phaidor from the corner of my eye.
She paled to a ghastly hue. Slowly, very slowly she turned, as drawn by
some invisible yet irresistible force. She was standing quite close to
me, so close that her bare arm touched mine as she finally faced Issus,
Goddess of Life Eternal.
“I could not see the girl’s face as her eyes rested
for the first time on the Supreme Deity of Mars, but felt the shudder that
ran through her in the trembling flesh of the arm that touched mine.
“‘It must be dazzling loveliness indeed,’ thought
I, ‘to cause such emotion in the breast of so radiant a beauty as Phaidor,
daughter of Matai Shang.’” (GM/9.)
I'll never forget the mentally crushing experience I had when – tipped
off in the fourth grade that Santa was just our parents – I found presents
in my mother's closet and realized it was true. The cognitive dissonance
this created in my mind nearly drove me crazy. When I confronted my mother
with the story I had been told, she told me not to listen to rumors at
school for Santa Claus was true. But when I confronted her with the facts
in her closet, she was furious and wouldn't speak to me for days.
I have believed ever since that the idea of Santa Claus has a very dark
side of keeping children in line, an early version of heaven and hell.
Simply put, it is a form of mental terrorism in the wrapping of joy and
presents, a pseudo-religion of rewards and punishments. Absolute belief
in anything and cognitive dissonance go hand in hand. The pleasure of the
Santa Claus fraud seemed to be more for the benefit of my mother than for
The same thing is true when you eventually learn in school that the
earth was not created in six days, the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden
of Eden is just an ancient near east wisdom fable, and the rest of the
Bible – God's alleged inerrant word – is just Hebrew and Greco-Roman mythology
with a little historical fact thrown in to increase the deception. Yes,
there is truth in the Bible, but it has to be deeply mined before it can
be found, and only then with a mind steeped in the Knowledge of Good and
But, back to the story. Carter is escorted out of the temple and Xodar
tells him that since he spared his life he will try to make things as best
for him as possible, unless Issus sends for him:
“‘Why would she send for me?’ I asked.
Carter doesn’t realize it yet, but Xodar has just explained to him the
ultimate fate of Phaidor, for there is no higher bred Holy Thern than her.
The meaning of “other dainties” is suggested later in the story, and likely
has to do with female genitalia.
“‘The men of the lower orders she often uses for
various purposes of amusement. Such a fighter as you, for example, would
render fine sport in the monthly rites of the temple. There are men pitted
against men, and against beasts for the edification of Issus and the replenishment
of her larder.’
“‘She eats human flesh?’ I asked. Not in horror,
however, for since my recently acquired knowledge of the Holy Therns I
was prepared for anything in this still less accessible heaven, where all
was evidently dictated by a single omnipotence; where ages of narrow fanaticism
and self-worship had eradicated all the broader humanitarian instincts
that the race might once have possessed.
“They were a people drunk with power and success,
looking upon the other inhabitants of Mars as we look upon the beasts of
the field and the forest. Why then should they not eat of the flesh of
the lower orders whose lives and characters they no more understood than
do we the inmost thoughts and sensibililties of the cattle we slaughter
for our earthly tables.
“‘She eats only the flesh of the best bred of
the Holy Therns and the red Barsoomians. The flesh of the others goes to
our boards. The animals are eaten by the slaves. She also eats other dainties.’”
Before they get too far, Carter is summoned back to Issus after Phaidor
tells her that he had defeated the mighty Xodar and bound him with his
own harness. Carter has to get down on his hands and knees again, and this
time is ordered to rise and face Issus:
“‘Let the man turn and look upon Issus,
knowing that those of the lower orders who gaze upon the holy vision of
her radiant face survive the blinding glory but a single year.’
Xodar is then brought in and humiliated in front of the First Born, sentenced
to be the slave of the slave John Carter, who is sent back to Shador to
await his chance to show his fighting prowess. Before he leaves, Phaidor
runs up to him:
“I turned as I had been bid, expecting such a
treat as only the revealment of divine glory to mortal eyes might produce.
What I saw was a solid phalanx of armed men between myself and a dais supporting
a great bench of carved sorapus wood. On this bench, or throne, squatted
a female black. She was evidently very old. Not a hair remained upon her
wrinkled skull. With the exception of two yellow fangs she was entirely
toothless. On either side of her thin, hawk-like nose her eyes burned from
the depths of horribly sunken sockets. The skin of her face was seamed
and creased with a million deep-cut furrows. Her body was as
wrinkled as her face, and as repulsive.
“Emaciated arms and legs attached to a torso which
seemed to be mostly distorted abdomen completed the ‘holy vision of her
“Surrounding her were a number of female slaves,
among them Phaidor, white and trembling.” (GM/9.)
“‘Oh, do not leave me in this terrible
place,’ she begged. ‘Forgive the things I said to you, my Prince. I did
not mean them. Only take me away with you. Let me share your imprisonment
on Shador.’ Her words were an almost incoherent volley of thoughts, so
rapidly she spoke. ‘You did not understand the honor that I did you. Among
the therns there is no marriage or giving in marriage, as among the lower
orders of the outer world. We might have lived together for ever in love
and happiness. We have both looked upon Issus and in a year we die. Let
us live that year at least together in what measure of joy remains for
the doomed.’” (GM/9.)
ERB takes this opportunity to show that he openly opposes free love and
adultery, but we all know what a struggle Carter must have gone through
as a real man to reject the naked and beautiful goddess Phaidor. She goes
back dejected to Issus.
As Xodar and Carter are escorted out of the temple, Xodar is further
humiliated among the men and women of the First Born. The women taunt him
as inferior to Dator Thurid, a famous warrior among them. Thurid appears
and attempts to kick Xodar in the testicles, but Carter intervenes and
binds him in his own harness, exactly the same way he did to Xodar.
Carter and Xodar are then taken to Shador and have it out over Issus,
after Carter attempts to cheer him up:
“‘Come, come!’ I cried. ‘There is hope
yet. Neither of us is dead. We are great fighters. Why not win to freedom?’
Carter leaves Xodar in his thoughts and explores the prison, using his
ability to leap high to get over the walls that separate the cells. He
discovers another inmate, a young red Martian who is vaguely familiar to
him. Here’s where ERB's mastery of pulp fiction comes into play.
“‘You know not of what you speak,’ he replied.
‘Issus is omnipotent. Issus is omniscient. She hears now the words you
speak. She knows the thoughts you think. It is sacrilege even to dream
of breaking her commands.’
“‘Rot, Xodar!’ I ejaculated impatiently.
“He sprang to his feet in horror.
“‘The curse of Issus will fall upon you,’ he cried.
‘In another instant you will be smitten down, writhing to your death in
“‘Do you believe that, Xodar?’ I asked.
“‘Of course; who would dare doubt?’
“‘I doubt; yes, and further, I deny,’ I said.
‘Why, Xodar, you tell me that she even knows my thoughts. The red men have
all had that power for ages. And another wonderful power. They can shut
their minds so none may read their thoughts. I learned the first secret
years ago; the other I had never to learn, since upon all Barsoom is none
who can read what passes in the secret chambers of my brain.
“‘Your goddess cannot read my thoughts; nor can
she read yours when you are out of sight, unless you will it. Had she been
able to read mine, I am afraid that her pride would have suffered a rather
severe shock when I turned at her command to “gaze upon the holy vision
of her radiant face.”’
“What do you mean?’ he whispered in a affrighted
voice, so low that I could scarcely hear him.
“‘I mean that I thought her the most repulsive
and vilely hideous creature my eyes ever had rested upon.’
“For a moment he eyed me in horror-stricken amazement,
and then with a cry of ‘Blasphemer’ he sprang upon me.
“I did not wish to strike him again, nor was it
necessary, since he was unarmed and therefore quite harmless to me.
“As he came I grasped his left wrist with my left
hand, and, swinging my right arm about his his left shoulder, caught him
beneath the chin with my elbow and bore him backward across my thigh.
“There he hung helpless for a moment, glaring
up at me in impotent rage.
“‘Xodar,’ I said, ‘let us be friends. For a year,
possibly, we may be forced to live together in the narrow confines of this
tiny room. I am sorry to have offended you, but I could not dream that
one who had suffered from the cruel injustice of Issus could still believe
“‘I will say a few more words, Xodar, with no
intent to wound your feelings further, but rather that you may give thought
to the fact that while we live we are still more the arbiters of our fate
than is any god.
“‘Issus, you see, has not struck me dead, nor
is she rescuing her faithful Xodar from the clutches of the unbeliever
who defamed her fair beauty. No, Xodar, your Issus is a mortal old woman.
Once out of her clutches and she cannot harm you.
“‘With your knowledge of this strange land, and
my knowledge of the outer world, two such fighting-men as you and I should
be able to win our way to freedom. Even though we died in the attempt,
would not our memories be fairer than as though we remained in servile
fear to be butchered by a cruel and unjust tyrant – call her goddess or
mortal, as you will.’” (GM/10.)
Every reader knows before Carter does that the boy is his son, making
the reader impatient for the epiphany, but not before ERB commands it.
Moreover, throughout this story and the next one, Carter and his friends
will make one stupid mistake after another, totally frustrating the reader.
But this is the nature of cliff-hanger writing, and no one knew how to
do it better than ERB.
The boy has been a prisoner for almost a year and is reaching the allotted
time, but in the meantime he is a great fighter in the stadium where the
monthly games are held. The boy has learned many things during his time
there which will all come into play before the story is over.
When he returns to the cell he shares with Xodar, he finds a different
man. To paraphrase R.E.M., “That’s Xodar in the corner, that’s him in the
spotlight, losing his religion”:
“‘I have been thinking very hard, John
Carter,’ he said, ‘of all the new ideas you gave me a few hours since.
Little by little I have been piecing together the things that you said
which sounded blasphemous to me then with the things that I have seen in
my past life and dared not even think about for fear of bringing down upon
me the wrath of Issus.
Let’s all say, “Amen!” to that!
“‘I believe now that she is a fraud; no more divine
than you or I. More I am willing to concede – that the First Born are no
holier than the Holy Therns, nor the Holy Therns more holy than the red
“‘The whole fabric of our religion is based on
superstitious belief in lies that have been foisted upon us for ages by
those directly above us, to whose personal profit and aggrandizement it
was to have us continue to believe as they wished us to believe.’” (GM/10.)
Before they can successfully plan their escape, however, Carter and
the boy are called to compete in the arena.
C. The Monthly Rites of Issus.
Carter and his son, Carthoris – a combination of Carter and Thoris
– are led to the Gardens of Issus by the same route that Carter had taken
initially with Phaidor:
“When we reached the gardens of Issus
we were led away from the temple instead of toward it. The way wound through
enchanted parks to a mighty wall that towered a hundred feet in air.
Carter asks Carthoris about the object of the assembly, whether it is a
fight for the edification of Issus or something much worse:
“Massive gates gave egress upon a small plain,
surrounded by the same gorgeous forests that I had seen at the foot of
the Golden Cliffs.
“Crowds of blacks were strolling in the same direction
that our guards were leading us, and with them mingled my old friends the
plant men and great white apes.
“The brutal beasts moved among the crowd as pet
dogs might. If they were in the way the blacks pushed them roughly to one
side, or whacked them with the flat of a sword, and the animals slunk away
as in great fear.
“Presently we came upon our destination, a great
amphitheater situated at the further edge of the plain, and about a half
a mile beyond the garden walls.
“Through a massive arched gateway the blacks poured
in to take their seats, while our guards led us to a smaller entrance near
one end of the structure.
“Through this we passed into an enclosure beneath
the seats, where we found a number of other prisoners herded together under
guard. Some of them were in irons, but for the most part they seemed sufficiently
awed by the presence of their guards to preclude any possibility of attempted
“‘It is a part of the monthly rites of
Issus,’ he replied, ‘in which black men wash the sins from their souls
in the blood of men from the outer world. If, perchance, the black is killed,
it is evidence of his disloyalty to Issus – the unpardonable sin. If he
lives through the contest he is held acquitted of the charge that forced
the sentence of the rites, as it is called, upon him.
Carter almost discovers that the boy is his son, then the guards summon
them up a steep incline that leads out into the arena:
“‘The forms of combat vary. A number of us may
be pitted together against an equal number, or twice the number of blacks;
or singly we may be sent forth to face wild beasts, or some famous black
“‘And if we are victorious,’ I asked, ‘what then
“‘Freedom, forsooth. The only freedom for us is
death. None who enters the domain of the First Born ever leave. If we prove
able fighters we are permitted to fight often. If we are not mighty fighters
– ’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Sooner or later we die in the arena.’”
“The amphitheater, like all I had ever
seen upon Barsoom, was built in a large excavation. Only the highest seats,
which formed the low wall surrounding the pit, were above the level of
the ground. The arena itself was far below the surface.
The first event is the Tribute to Issus, which marks the end of the allotted
period of time for the girls that have looked upon her radiant glory. Ten
splendid beauties from the proud courts of mighty Jeddaks and from the
temples of the Holy Therns are led out into the arena. Here they would
meet their ends and the next day provide the main course for the temple
“Just beneath the lowest tier was a series of
barred cages on a level with the surface of the arena. Into these we were
herded. But, unfortunately, my youthful friend was not of those who occupied
a cage with me.
“Directly opposite my cage was the throne of Issus.
Here the horrid creature squatted, surrounded by a hundred slave maidens
sparkling in jeweled trappings. Brilliant cloths of many hues and strange
patterns formed the soft cushion covering of the dais upon which they reclined
“On both sides of the throne stretched a solid
mass of humanity from top to bottom of the amphitheater. There were as
many women as men, and each was clothed in the wondrously wrought harness
of his station and his house. With each black was from one to three slaves,
drawn from the domains of the therns and from the outer world. The blacks
were all ‘noble.’ There is no peasantry among the First Born. Even the
lowest soldier is a god, and has his slaves to wait upon him.
“The First Born do no work. The men fight – that
is a sacred privilege and duty; to fight and die for Issus. The women do
nothing, absolutely nothing. Slaves wash them, slaves dress them, slaves
feed them. There are some, even, who have slaves that talk for them, and
I saw one who sat during the rites with closed eyes while a slave narrated
to her the events that were transpiring within the arena.” (GM/11.)
“A huge black entered the arena with
the young women. Carefully he inspected them, felt of their limbs and poked
them in the ribs. Presently he selected one of their number whom he led
before the throne of Issus. He addressed some words to the goddess which
I could not hear. Issus nodded her head. The black raised his hands above
his head in token of salute, grasped the girl by the wrist, and dragged
her from the arena through a small doorway beneath the throne.
We are left to wonder what the “other dainties” are, since it was suggested
it is more than just eating human flesh. Carter watches in horror as three
monstrous white apes are unleashed upon the defenseless girls. He is enraged
and knocks down his guard, takes his sword, and rushes into the arena to
save the girls. This is ERB’s “Spartacus” moment. There are some really
great depictions of this in the Frank Frazetta section in ERBzine
“‘Issue will dine well to-night,’ said a prisoner
“‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
“‘That was her dinner that old Thabis is taking
to the kitchens. Didst not note how carefully he selected the plumpest
and tenderest of the lot?’” (GM/11.)
All hell breaks loose and a slave revolt begins. Carter and Cathoris,
yelling, “Down with Issus,” rush the dais but Issus escapes at the
last second through a secret bolt hole under the throne. Carter and Carthoris
pursue Issus, but they become trapped in the chamber in which she fled.
But Carthoris during his long stay knows his way around, and they find
their way back to Shador using secret underground passages unknown to even
Issus. They find their way back to Xodar and he agrees to join them in
escaping, explaining fully their operations of the First Born:
“‘It will be,’ said Xodar, ‘when they
find from whence you have come. That is but one of the superstitions which
Issus has foisted upon a credulous humanity. She works through the Holy
Therns who are as ignorant of her real self as are the Barsoomians of the
outer world. Her decrees are borne to the therns written in blood upon
a strange parchment. The poor deluded fools think they are receiving the
revelations of a goddess through some supernatural agency, since they find
these messages upon their guarded altars to which none could have access
without detection. I myself have borne these messages for Issus for many
years. There is a long tunnel from the temple of Issus to the principal
temple of Matai Shang. It was dug ages ago by the slaves of the First Born
in such utter secrecy that no thern ever guessed its existence.
“‘The therns for their part have temples dotted
about the entire civilized world. Here priests whom the people never see
communicate the doctrine of the Mysterious River Iss, the Valley Dor, and
the Lost Sea of Korus to persuade the poor deluded creatures to take the
voluntary pilgrimage that swells the wealth of the Holy Therns and adds
to the numbers of their slaves.
“‘Thus the therns are used as the principal means
for collecting the wealth and labor that the First Born wrest from them
as they need it. Occasionally the First Born themselves make raids upon
the outer world. It is then that they capture many females of the royal
houses of the red men, and take the newest in battleships and the trained
artisans who build them, that they may copy what they cannot create.
“‘We are a non-productive race, priding ourselves
upon our nonproductiveness. It is criminal for a First Born to labor or
invent. That is the work of the lower orders, who live merely that the
First Born may enjoy long lives of luxury and idleness. With us fighting
is all that counts; were it not for that there would be more of the First
Born than all the creatures of Barsoom could support, for in so far as
I know none of us ever dies a natural death. Our females would live forever
but for the fact that we tire of them and remove them to make place for
others. Issus alone of all is protected against death. She has lived for
countless ages.’” (GM/13.)
D. The Demise of Issus.
They escape through the shaft of Omean and are eventually rescued by
a fleet of ships from Helium. Zat Arras, temporary reigning Jeddak from
Zodanga, is in charge of the fleet and he places John Carter, Carthoris,
and Xodar, under arrest for escaping from the Valley Dor. They have a trial
in Helium in the Temple of Reward where Carter gives his famous defense
of his actions:
“‘Men of Helium,’ I cried, turning to
the spectators, and speaking over the heads of my judges, ‘how can John
Carter expect justice from the men of Zodanga? He cannot nor does he ask
it. It is to the men of Helium that he states his case; nor does he appeal
for mercy to any. It is not in his own cause that he speaks now – it is
in thine. In the cause of your wives and daughters, and of wives and daughters
yet unborn. It is to save them from the unthinkably atrocious indignities
that I have seen heaped upon the fair women of Barsoom in the place men
call the Temple of Issus. It is to save them from the sucking embrace of
the plant men, from the fangs of the great white apes of Dor, from the
cruel lust of the Holy Therns, from all that the cold, dead Iss carries
them to from homes of love and life and happiness.
The men and women of Helium listen and escort Carter and his friends back
to his palace, which is full of thern spies disguised as red men. He organizes
a rescue fleet, secretly from the eyes of Zat Arras, but for nearly a year,
he is held prisoner in the pits beneath Zat Arrras’s palace. Carthoris
rescues him in time to lead a coordinated assault upon the First Born where
“‘Sits no man here who does not know the history
of John Carter. How he came among you from another world and rose from
a prisoner from among the green men, through torture and persecution, to
a place high among the highest of Barsoom. Nor ever did you know John Carter
to lie in his own behalf, or to say aught that might harm the people of
Barsoom, or to speak lightly of the strange religion which he respected
“‘There be no man here, or elsewhere upon Barsoom
to-day who does not owe his life directly to a single act of mine, in which
I sacrificed myself and the happiness of my Princess that you might live.
And so, men of Helium, I think I have the right to demand that I be heard,
that I be believed, and that you let me serve you and save you from the
false hereafter of Dor and Issus as I saved you from the real death that
“‘It is to you of Helium that I speak now. When
I am done let the men of Zodanga have their will with me. Zat Arras has
taken my sword from me, so the men of Zodanga no longer fear me. Will you
Issus with his bare hands and discovers her final revenge:
repulsive creature, squatting there in terror, attempted to escape me and
leap into a trap behind her. But this time I was not to be outwitted by
any such petty subtrefuge. Before she had half arisen I had grasped her
by the arm, and then, as I saw the guard starting to make a concerted rush
upon me from all sides, I whipped out my dagger and, holding it close to
that vile breast, ordered them to halt.
A modern example of what Issus must have been going through is Adolf Hitler
in his bunker as the Third Reich crashes down all around him and the Russians
are at the gates. Like Hitler, even Issus herself is deluded, and her ancient
and evil mind cannot handle the cognitive dissonance she faces:
“‘Back!’ I cried to them. ‘Back! The first black
foot that is planted upon this platform sends my dagger into Issus’ heart.’
“For an instant they hesitated. Then an officer
ordered them back, while from the outer corridor there swept into the throne
room at the heels of my little party of survivors a full thousand red men
under Kantos Kan, Hor Vastus, and Xodar.
“‘Where is Dejah Thoris?’ I cried to the thing
within my hands.
“For a moment her eyes roved wildly about the
scene beneath her. I think that it took a moment for the true condition
to make any impression upon her – she could not at first realize that the
temple had fallen before the assault of men of the outer world. When she
did, there must have come, too, a terrible realization of what it meant
to her – the loss of power – humiliation – the exposure of the fraud and
imposture which she had for so long played upon her own people.” (GM/22.)
“There was just one thing needed to complete
the reality of the picture she was seeing, and that was added by the highest
noble of her realm – the high priest of her religion – the prime minister
of her government.
One of the main reasons Hitler killed himself, not wanting to fall into
the hands of the Russians or his own people, was because of the fate of
Benito Mussolini, who was literally torn apart by his own people during
their defeat by the allied forces in WWII. It still amazes me how prescient
this story is in light of the things that were to come in Earth history.
“‘Issus, Goddess of Death, and of Life Eternal,’
he cried, ‘arise in the might of thy righteous wrath and with one single
wave of thy omnipotent hand strike dead thy blasphemers! Let no one escape.
Issus, thy people depend upon thee. Daughter of the Lesser Moon, thou only
art all-powerful. Thou only canst save thy people. I am done. We await
thy will. Strike!’
“And then it was that she went mad. A screaming,
gibbering maniac writhed in my grasp. It bit and clawed and scratched in
impotent fury. And then it laughed a weird and terrible laughter that froze
the blood. The slave girls upon the dais shrieked and cowered away. And
the thing jumped at them and gnashed its teeth and then spat upon them
from frothing lips. God, but it was a horrid sight.
“Finally, I shook the thing, hoping to recall
it for a moment to rationality.
“‘Where is Dejah Thoris?’ I cried again.
“The awful creature in my grasp mumbled inarticulately
for a moment, then a sudden gleam of cunning shot into those hideous, close-set
“‘Dejah Thoris? Dejah Thoris?’ and then that shrill,
unearthly laugh pierced our ears once more.
“‘Yes – Dejah Thoris – I know. And Thuvia, and
Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang. They each love John Carter. Ha-ah! but
it is droll. Together for a year they will meditate within the Temple of
the Sun, but ere the year is quite gone there will be no more food for
them. Ho-oh! what divine entertainment,’ and she licked the froth from
her cruel lips. ‘There will be no more food – except each other. Ha-ah!
“The horror of the suggestion nearly paralyzed
me. To this awful fate the creature within my power had condemned my Princess.
I trembled in the ferocity of my rage. As a terrier shakes a rat I shook
Issus, Goddess of Life Eternal.
“‘Countermand your orders!’ I cried. “Recall the
condemned. Haste, or you die!’
“‘It is too late. Ha-ah! Ha-ah!’ and she commenced
her gibbering and shrieking again.
“Almost of its own volition, my dagger flew up
above that putrid heart. But something stayed my hand, and I am now glad
that it did. It were a terrible thing to have struck down a woman with
one’s own hand. But a fitter fate occurred to me for this false deity.
“‘First Born,’ I cried, turning to those who stood
within the chamber, ‘you have seen to-day the impotency of Issus – the
gods are omnipotent. Issus is no god. She is a cruel and wicked old woman,
who has deceived and played upon you for ages. Take her. John Carter, Prince
of Helium, would not contaminate his hand with her blood,’ and with that
I pushed the raving beast, whom a short halfhour before a whole world had
worshipped as divine, from the platform of her throne into the waiting
clutches of her betrayed and vengeful people.” (GM/22.)
The Goddess Issus and one of her Thern Priests --
by Jesse Marsh
© 1952 by Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated
The story of Dejah Thoris, Thuvia, and Phaidor in the Temple of the
Sun can be found in ERBzine
#3302. The door to their cell will not open again for another Martian
year, to wit, 687 days, and is narrated in the final volume of The Trilogy,
After the great victory over the First Born, the Holy Therns, and Issus,
Carter makes many trips to the Temple of the Sun longing for his Princess,
and about half way through the allotted one year period, he follows the
black Dator Thurid in hopes that he will lead him to Matai Shang, who has
so far escaped justice. Accompanied by his faithful calot, Woola, he follows
Thurid to the Lost Sea of Korus, where they take boats up the River Iss:
“As I came up cautiously to the edge
of the low cliff overlooking the Lost Sea of Korus I saw Thurid pushing
out upon the bosom of the shimmering water in a small skiff – one of those
strangely wrought craft of unthinkable age which the Holy Therns, with
their organization of priests and lesser therns, were wont to distribute
along the banks of the Iss, that the long journey of their victims might
He follows Thurid into the subterranean tunnel from which the Iss emerges
from the Golden Cliffs, and witnesses Thurid meeting up with Matai Shang
and a few other therns.
“Drawn up on the beach below me were a score of
similar boats, each with its long pole, at one end of which was a pike,
at the other a paddle.” (WM/1.)
Thurid knows a secret access to the Temple of the Sun and Carter follows
them but gets lost in a wrong turn, and doesn’t find the trail again until
much later. Before he can continue he must face two therns guarding the
way. He disposes of one of them while Woola takes out the other:
“The diadem in the center of the circlet
of gold upon the brow of Lakor proclaimed him a Holy Thern, while his companion,
not thus adorned, was a lesser thern, though from his harness I gleaned
that he had reached the Ninth Cycle, which is but one below that of the
Holy Therns.” (WM/3.)
Carter then discovers the base of the Temple of the Sun just in time to
see Matai Shang and Thurid escaping with Phaidor, Thuvia, and Dejah Thoris.
He continues his pursuit through a labyrinth of underground passages, finally
coming out on the other side of the Otz Mountains:
“But through it all we came at last to
where the way led up a narrow gorge that grew steeper and more impracticable
at every step until before us loomed a mighty fortress buried beneath the
side of an overhanging cliff.
The therns are expecting him and Carter walks into a trap. In a courtyard
beneath a three hundred foot tower, on a balcony thirty feet above him,
Matai Shang, Thurid, Phaidor, and a bound Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, watch
Carter fall into the trap. Matai Shang mocks the person that brought his
reign to an end:
“Here was the secret hiding place of Matai Shang,
Father of the Therns. Here, surrounded by a handful of the faithful, the
hekkador of the ancient faith, who had once been served by millions of
vassals and dependents, dispensed the spiritual word among the half dozen
nations of Barsoom that still clung tenaciously to their false and discredited
“‘Earth man,’ he cried, ‘you have earned
a more ignoble death that now lies within our weakened power to inflict
upon you; but that the death you die tonight may be doubly bitter, know
you that when you have passed, your widow becomes the wife of Matai Shang,
Hekkador of the Holy Therns, for a Martian year.
There is little to learn about the religion of Issus after this scene,
other than the fact that neither Matai Shang, Thurid, or Salensus Oll,
Jeddak of Kadabra, ever get to wed Dejah Thoris, for they, including Phaidor,
all perish, bringing the religious leadership of Issus to an ignominous
“‘At the end of that time, as you know, she shall
be discarded, as is the law among us, but not, as is usual, to lead a quiet
and honored life as high priestess of some hallowed shrine. Instead, Dejah
Thoris, Princess of Helium, shall become the plaything of my lieutenants
– perhaps of thy most hated enemy, Thurid, the black dator.’” (WM/4.)
A. First Layer of Deception.
The religion of Issus is world-wide, having infected the red, yellow,
and green men equally. The belief at this level is never fully explained
other than a sentimental belief in an afterlife of love and peace and happiness
and eternal joy after a life of war and cruelty. It may involve some sort
of sun worship, hinted at by the Temple of the Sun and the monthly rites
of Issus, but if it did, it would have taken place in the secret temples
in all of the communities of Barsoom. These were likely run by priests
and lesser therns, as well as by high priestesses who had been wed to Matai
Shang for a year.
They have been deluded into believing that the master race, the First
Born, are merely black pirates from Thuria, the nearest moon, a belief
held even by the therns. The latter have provided ancient romantic type
skiffs at key spots along the River Iss before it flows underground for
a thousand miles before emptying into the Lost Sea of Korus.
The story of the Martian Heaven, the Valley Dor, is so powerful a concept
in the minds of the Barsoomians, that they do not question it out of superstitious
fear of Issus. The only person to return alive to tell the truth about
Valley Dor was tortured to death for his blasphemy.
B. The Second Level of Deception.
The second level of deception involves the therns, headed by the Father
of the Therns, Matai Shang. The hierarchy beneath him appears to be according
to what cycle a thern has achieved, involving what is assumed to be spiritual
development or mastery of some kind of catechism or dogma.
The therns are divided into main categories: Lesser Therns and Holy
Therns, the latter having reached the Tenth Cycle. Thorians are assumed
to be of the Ninth Cycle. They inhabit the outer Golden Cliffs of the Otz
mountains in palaces and temples and gardens overlooking the Valley Dor.
They are deluded into believing that they are the master race. They are
descended from a ancient race of fair-skinned blond-haired people, but
likely through incest and degeneration have become bald, wearing blond
They are a flesh loving people in both senses: they eat it and it is
assumed that they are libertines since Thuvia said that they are moral
pygmies and Phaidor told Carter that they neither give nor take in marriage,
with Matai Shang seemingly the exception.
They believe in a heaven within a heaven, to wit, the Temple of Issus.
At the end of their allotted life span they make the journey to the Temple
of Issus by some underground passage, and find a similar fate awaits them
as the rest of the lower orders at the hands of the First Born, who eat
them. The First Born maintain their delusion over the therns by revelations
written in blood upon strange parchment that are secretly placed on Holy
Thern altars by agents that travel through a secret tunnel from the Temple
of Issus to the temples of the therns. This maintains a supernatural quality
to the deception which the therns have never figured out.
Their beliefs are strange to say the least. They believe in a weird
form of reincarnation where when they die before their allotted time they
become a plant man, and if as a plant man they die before their allotted
time, they then become a great white ape. Finally, if they die as a white
ape before their allotted time, they become lost souls for eternity stuck
inside the slimy bodies of silians, who inhabit the Lost Sea of Korus,
the last existing ocean on Barsoom.
C. The Third Layer of Deception.
The third layer consists of the First Born. No one is looking for them
upon the face of Barsoom for they have convinced the people of the planet
that they are black pirates from Thuria, the nearest moon. They inhabit
the true heaven on Barsoom, the Valley Dor. They have no fear of the plant
men and great white apes, who fear them as pets.
One thing they share with the therns is cannibalism. They both enjoy
eating human flesh and take joy in their cruelty. They have a strange belief
in the Tree of Life myth, which is too long to go over again, but if the
reader is interested, he can go back and read it in the section where Xodar
is bound on his flier narrating it to Carter to keep him distracted.
In the pseudo-religious myth of John Carter, he first saves them from
death by asphixiation, then resurrects on the planet to save them from
evil. He is the antithesis of Jesus Christ, for he is the Prince of War,
and not the Prince of Peace.
first heard of the John Carter saga when I was in exile in Canada in the
early Seventies. David Bowie had come out with “The Spiders from Mars”
and Time magazine did a whole spread on the history of science fiction
dealing with Mars. When I returned to the States in 1973, I finished college
and bought a set of the Ballantine editions with cover illustrations by
D'Achille. I still have them, though they are well-thumbed and the
pages are turning yellow and don’t have much time left before they crumble
I didn’t appreciate these books that much at first because I found the
language tedious and awkward, having taken English college classes where
the impressionistic limited adjective and short sentence style of Hemingway
was in and the authors who used too many adjectives and long sentences
were viewed as hack writers of pulp fiction and were out. I didn’t like
the fact that ERB's style of writing slowed down my reading time. In the
end, however, I was glad I had read them because four years later Star
Wars was released and I immediately saw the influence of ERB on the
story and the characters.
Morever, I came to learn in the late Eighties while attending law school
– when I read my first Tarzan novels and was used to the writing style
of the 19th century from reading old court opinions that forced my eye
to slow down so that I could figure out what the holding of the case was
– that the paid-for-by-the-word writing style of ERB had a certain poetic
classical rhythm which was enchanting if you slowed down and enjoyed the
After practicing law for almost twenty years I was bored and out of
a fluke, decided to reread the Carter saga. I was amazed at what I had
missed the first time. I realized I was reading some of the greatest works
of the imagination in the English language. It is an honor for me to write
these articles, hoping that they will encourage readers to take up the
saga once again and partake in the adventure that is John Carter's Barsoom.
And there you have it, ERB’s Religion of Issus:
First Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!