THE SEVEN WONDERS OF
THE RELIGION OF ISSUS II:
First Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsooom
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
B. The Gardens and Golden Temple
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 the scene.
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 herself.
“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.” (GM/9.)
“After we had crawled in
this disgusting fashion for a matter of a couple of hundred feet we were
halted by our escort.
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 many years.
“‘Rise,’ said our escort, ‘but do
not face toward Issus.’
“‘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
“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 me.
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 Evil.
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.’” (GM/9.)
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
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
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 radiant beauty.’
“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
“‘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 horrible agony.’
“‘Do you believe that, Xodar?’ I
“‘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
“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
“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 her divine.
“‘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 men.
“‘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
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
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 escape.” (GM/11.)
“‘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 warrior.’
“‘And if we are victorious,’ I asked,
‘what then – freedom?’
“‘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.’” (GM/11.)
“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 functionaries:
“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 about her.
“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.”
“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 #0423.
“‘Issue will dine well to-night,’
said a prisoner beside me.
“‘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
“‘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
“‘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 he captures
“‘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 without understanding.
“‘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 other day.
“‘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 listen?’” (GM/17.)
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
“‘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.”
“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
“‘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
“The awful creature in my grasp
mumbled inarticulately for a moment, then a sudden gleam of cunning shot
into those hideous, close-set eyes.
“‘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
“‘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.”
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 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 religion.” (WM/4.)
“‘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.’”
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
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
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
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
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 to dust.
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
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
And there you have it, ERB’s Religion of Issus:
First Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!