Monday, April 25, 2011

A ROPE OF THORNS Interstitial #3: Gods and Monsters

As fans of the Hexslinger Series can probably figure out, I’ve been interested in the Mayan and Aztec pantheons for a very long time, so long that I almost can’t actually recall what first pointed me in their direction. Most likely, however, it was a 1974 paperback called Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations by Robert Silverberg (, which would have made me...six or seven when I first read it. Biiig section on Chichen Itza, along with Troy, Babylon, Angkor Wat, Knossos and Pompeii; I’d already fallen head-first down the Egyptian rabbit hole courtesy of Robert Graves and the Greek and Norse ones courtesy of the D’Aullaires, so it really only made sense.

My introduction to the Aztecs, on the other hand, came later on, with Gary Jennings’ 1980 1,000+-page potboiler of much the same name--Aztec--which manages to rifle Mexica mythology and re-tell the Hernan Cortez story with maximum porno-pulp sensibility. Serriously, if you ever wanted to see a version of Apocalypto in prose form (barring the Aztec-not-Maya thang), this is probably it. From Jennings’ belief that only a gay guy could’ve designed the famous statue of Chalchiuhtlicue in Her Serpent-Skirted Aspect that makes her head look like two anacondas kissing and the Wars of Flowers (with their happy cannibal climaxes) to our protagonist falling for a New Corn Maiden, only to watch her dance up one side of a step-stair pyramid and come down the other as some rotten-toothed priest’s coat, this was all...pretty heady stuff. The sort of thing which leaves a mark, one way or another.

As I got older, things which kept popping out at me included: The legendary Templo Mayor Stone (, which once drove me to appall my art teacher by drawing a delicate little pencil sketch of a creepily-accurate, sadly blonde dismembered Moon Goddess that owed a double-debt to Penthouse and Fangoria; the use of the Mayan goddess Ixtab (“She of the Rope”) as a repeating motif in William S. Burroughs’ gay Western The Place of Dead Roads; the occasional rib-slammin’ appearances of Tezcatlipoca in Les Daniels‘s The Silver Skull; Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, in which Michael Moriarty fights off Aztec priests bent on sacrificing him by simply refusing to say the prayers they tell him to/believe said sacrifice is necessary (damn, those frustrating atheists!); that episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker where Erik Estrada played a corporately-appointed year-king ixiptla of Xipe Totec who walked around some Mexican-owned hotel playing the flute and feeling up his three girlfriends, before freaking out and running at the last minute; the haunting figure of Itzapapalotl, star-demon goddess of the sacrificial knife, whose butterfly wings are fringed in obsidian shards. And come to think, bits and pieces of almost all of the above have since worked their way into the Hexslinger ‘verse, so--go me, I guess.

Believe me, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert. For that, I’d refer you over to the inestimable Aliette de Bodard, author of the Obsidian and Blood novels, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm; the essays she’s written collating her research, starting here (, are far more detailed, more objective and far better-organized than anything I could manage. Indeed, in much the same way that I’ve been careful to never write anything from the “point of view” of our two primary warring Hexslinger ‘verse deities (Rainbow Lady Ixchel, former Mayan goddess of the moon turned theophagic “vampire”, whose ambition has driven her to ingest and incorporate six other Mayan and Mexica goddesses, vs. Tezcatlipoca, Mexica god of magic and deceit, who already enters the game as four gods in one), I sort of find I don’t really want to “understand” more of either system than I already do--I want it to stay alien, contradictory, difficult, poetic, literally mythic.

And isn’t this attitude inherently appropriative/misrepresentative? Probably, given my sack-o’-sheets whiteness--but in my own defense, the thing that’s always appealed most to me about Mayan and Mexica theology (because I’m weird that way) is the idea of the cosmos as “blood engine”, powered not just by human sacrifice but by self-sacrifice, emphasis on the self. That you have to pay for what you get in blood and give the best you have, over and over, to keep the world running. And on the one hand, eventually--inevitably--that won’t even be enough; the world will destroy itself, break down into components and be remade once more, as it already has at least four time over. But on the other hand, things go on, nothing is wasted--indeed, if you trace this river of blood back far enough, you’ll find that every god or goddess began as an ixiptla, a chosen-yet-voluntary sacrifice. That even the most vast and unknowable powers grew from some tiny red seed, the human grist which powers eternity.

(The best grist, naturally, being hexes. So one can assume--and one does, if one's me, operating in the Hexslinger 'verse--that once upon a time, all gods were hexes: Shamans, priests and priestesses, mediums, what-have-you. Sacrificial victims/avatars/"little kings" and "queens". Thus Ixchel. Thus, probably, Tezcatlipoca.)

So yeah, given how a lot of today’s “nicer” theologies seem to pivot on empty promises, on grand conceptual returns which will never be reaped in any quantifiable way, this philosophy often seems to take on an odd sort of merit...becomes worthy of respect, if no more or less attractive than any other form of sanguinary-based magic. I mean, these people walked it like they talked it. Whereas the conquistadors just lied through their asses, stole whatever they could and burnt the rest, leaving a double legacy of literal and mental slavery behind. Not, I have to say, the Catholic church’s finest hour.

Now--historically, the Mayan and Aztec pantheons already sort of sit inside/out each other, like a set of Moebius nesting-dolls. Just as the Olmecs and Zapotec may have pre-dated and influenced the Maya, the Maya may have influenced the Mixtecs and Toltecs, who definitely influenced the Mexica/Aztecs. This maybe explains why the mysterious Mayan “God K”, who just happens to control the wind and be identified with jaguars and have a black mirror for a foot, bears such a specific relationship to Tezcatlipoca, who...also does all of the above. But better!

With each historical layer, however, you seem to get more and more “new” gods--gods possibly derived from human conqueror archetypes, genuine people who “became” “gods” through the twin methods of victory and sacrifice. Those “new” gods, in turn, seem to get their powers “legitimized” by being bound to earlier archetypes, which is how we somehow end up with Tezcatlipoca’s Blue, Red and White Aspects becoming identified as the supposedly separate gods Huitzilopochtli (god of war, god of lightning, the Aztec pantheon’s primary god), Xipe Totec (god of maize, god of renewal, the god who embodies the very concept of year-king-ness) and Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent, god of the city of Tollan, inventor of books and the calendar, who remade the world from its own bones, and who himself goes back at least as far as Tezcatlipoca, while occupying a different part of the deific spectrum--the only god who does not accept human sacrifice).

Where I ended up going with all this was to assume a few basic truths that form the backbone of the Hexslinger ‘verse’s impending Mayan-Aztec apocalypse: That after the conquistadors cut off their supply of frequent human blood, the deities of this massive, blended pantheon-family sank further and further into slumber and decay; that their two underworlds, Mictlan (Mexica) and Xibalba (Maya), ran into each other, forming an amorphous swamp of archetypes called Mictlan-Xibalba where those few who still remained awake preyed on their “brothers” and “sisters”, hoping to gain enough power to once more affect the waking human world.

The most successful of these, thus far, has been Ixchel, who managed to “eat” the Mayan goddeses Ixtab and Yxtabay, plus the Mexica goddesses Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlazteotl and Coyotlaxqhui--mainly because all of these other goddesses already incorporated metaphorical aspects of her own mythology: Weaving, ropes, long hair, the rainbow, the moon, the earth, filth, sexuality, maternity, a driving hunger for blood and revenge. Like most women, particularly archetypal ones, what she wants is her way or the highway; she likes marrying people (like Asher Rook, her “little husband”), then taking them apart just to put them back together again (like Chess Pargeter, her “little husband’s husband”)--making them her brothers, her sons, her children, her meat. She’s the earth in three of her aspects, not just Mother of All Hanged Men but Mother of Everything, and (as we all know) mother always thinks she knows best.

But even expending the energy necessary to eat these other goddesses in the first place has left Ixchel at a deficit rather than a surplus, which is why Tezcatlipoca--summoned back into the world by the sheer, incredibly amusing hubris-spectacle of her attempts to re-set the cosmos’ clock--is, at the moment, in a slightly more positive place. She needs blood; he just wants it. But both of them will take it, if offered. And enjoy it.

So the key thing to keep in mind is that the dichotomy here isn’t good vs. evil, so much, as disorder (T-Cat) vs. order (Ixchel), or maybe "a version of order which will leave things in disorder". The big difference between these two equally bad choices is that while Ixchel “devoutly” believes that her version of the world can be restored, Tezcatlipoca knows their time has passed, and the fragile, succulent hex-humans they’re both riding and manipulating will be--and must be--the ones to shape their world into its future form. But also that they must somehow do so by rejecting both gods and rely on their own power, yet avoid becoming gods in turn, especially ones whose power pivots on sacrifice--since hexes (more so than other people) are so clearly driven by the same vampire hungers as the Mayan and Aztec deities alike.

From Tezcatlipoca’s Enlightened Chaotic point of view, it probably won’t be fun, because these things rarely are...but it’ll sure be interesting, and produce lots of collateral damage! There’s a reason he’s called “the Enemy”, after all: Yours, and every other’s.

Clear as bloodstained mud, right? Well, next time up, we’ll talk about something slightly less contradictory: Hex City, here we come!

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