Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Summarizing ERB's works one chapter at a time
Shorts, Novels, Poetry, Plays, Pulps
Articles, Contributors: Tangor Responds, Edgardemain, ERB: In Focus, Nkima Speaks, Beyond 30W, Tantor Trumpets, Dime Lectures, Korak in Pal-ul-don, Public Domain novels of ERB
Worlds of: Barsoom, Pellucidar, Moon, Amtor, Caspak, Pal-u-don

"WE STILL LIVE!" ...John Carter
Copyright © 1982, 1996-2003 All Rights Reserved.



A Barsoom Glossary

This section will attempt to explore the thought processes of Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as the facts contained in the Barsoom Saga. In every case a religion or belief is mentioned, used, or was part of the story line, Burroughs invariably exposed it as a hoax on Martian society.

Does this then mean that Burroughs was apathetic toward religion specifically or in general? Or was this merely a dissatisfaction regarding the workings of human superstition and deep-set traditions? Short of interviewing ERB, an impossibility, or talking with his immediately family, I will never know the answer to the above questions. The fact remains, however, that John Carter and other Barsoomian heroes unearth a number of ugly truths pertaining to religions mentioned as integral story lines; these faiths were based on deception for the purpose of control, power, wealth, or, in worst cases, as breakfast, lunch, and dinner!


Burroughs gave us a wonderful tongue-in-cheek and quite brilliant creative twist on Christianity's version of creation. The Tree of Life, the beginning of creation on Mars, bears some similarity to the beliefs of the Hindu religion, and ERB used his Tree of Life to populate the young Barsoom of twenty-three million years ago. Most earthly religions contain a reference to trees as a tenet of those beliefs because the tree is an easily obtainable example of the many different directions and paths possible for life. Here then is the Tree of Life of Barsoom as related by Dator Xodar to John Carter:

"The First Born of Barsoom are the race of black men of which I am Dator or...prince. My race is the oldest on the planet. We trace our lineage, unbroken, direct to the Tree of Life which flourished in the centre of the valley Dor twenty-three million years ago.

"For countless ages the fruit of this tree underwent gradual changes of evolution, passing by degrees from true plant life to a combination of plant and animal. In the first stages the fruit of the tree possessed only the power of independent muscular actions, while the stem remained attached to the parent plant; later a brain developed in the fruit, so that hanging there by their long stems they thought and moved as individuals.

"Then, with the development of perceptions came a comparison to them; judgements were reached and compared, and thus reason and the power to reason were born upon Barsoom.

"Ages passed. Many forms of life came and went upon the Tree of Life, but still all were attached to the parent plant by stems of varying lengths. At length the fruit tree consisted in tiny plant men, such as we now see reproduced in such huge dimensions in the Valley Dor, but still hanging to the limbs and branches of the tree by the stems which grew from the tops of their heads.

"The buds from which the plant men blossomed resembled large nuts about a foot in diameter, divided in double partition walls into four sections. In one section grew the plant man, in another a sixteen-legged worm, in the third the progenitor of the white ape and in the fourth the primeval black man of Barsoom.

"When the bud burst the plant man remained dangling at the end of his stem, but the other three sections fell to the ground, where the efforts of their imprisoned occupants to escape sent them hopping about in all directions.

"Thus as time went on, all Barsoom was covered with these imprisoned creatures. For countless ages they lived their long lives within their hard shells, hopping and skipping about the broad planet; falling into rivers, lakes and seas, to be still further spread about the surface of the new world.

"Countless billions died before the first black man broke through his prison walls into the light of day. Prompted by curiosity, he broke open other shells and the peopling of Barsoom commenced.

"The pure strain of the blood of this first black man has remained untainted by admixture with other creatures in the race of which I am a member; but from the sixteen legged worm, the first ape and renegade black man has sprung every other form of animal life on Barsoom.

"The therns are but the result of ages of evolution from the pure white ape of antiquity. They are a lower order still. There is but one race of true and immortal humans on Barsoom. It is the race of black men.

"The Tree of Life is dead, but before it died, the plant men learned to detach themselves from it and roam the face of Barsoom with the other children of the First Parent."

The Tree of Life could be considered either a divine creation of the world, or a rather improbable explanation for the evolution of life on Barsoom; this latter explanation is presented as scientific fact, nearly verbatim to Xodar's words, by Ras Thavas in Synthetic Men of Mars. I suppose either is no more implausible than looking at the life forms of this many and varied world of our own which scientists say evolved from a single cell of life somehow created from a cloud of amino acids suspended in the electrically charged atmosphere of the new born earth some four billion years ago.

Regardless of whether the Tree of Life is considered a necessary part of the Barsoomian religious mysteries, it does more than adequately explain the arrogant conceit of the First Born blacks and the religion of Issus they blindly followed for centuries.



When John Carter of Virginia returned to Barsoom after ten years on Earth (see the ending of A Princess of Mars), he suddenly found himself in a strange valley. At first the valley appeared quite wonderful with riotous plant growths and bodies of water open to the sky, coupled with the knowledge that he was once again back on Barsoom, but soon he discovered the true horror lurking behind that peaceful facade.

It is here, in the Valley Dor, Martian Heaven, that John Carter first meets the plant men (described elsewhere), the First Born, and their living deity, Issus.

On Barsoom the extreme longevity of its inhabitants, up to a thousand years, can be a burdensome thing if lived to its full extent. Since a Martian does not show his or her age until the last twenty or so years of their lives, they voluntarily, according to the tenets of the religion of Issus, make a final, fatal pilgrimage to Valley Dor. It is their belief they are going to heaven, to be re-born through the good graces of Issus. It was, so it was told, in the Valley Dor where the supplicant received the blessing of Issus and obtained immortality, in a heaven filled with peace and goodwill.

This rather benign and wholly desirable vision of afterlife was vigorously perpetuated by the Holy Therns. The Therns conducted their religious belief from various temples located all over Barsoom. The Holy Therns had ten cycles (levels) of hierarchy, though John Carter only spoke of a Ninth and Tenth from his personal experiences.

At the end of their thousand years of life martians of all walks of life would depart on a last journey down the River of Mystery, the River Iss and meet their unfortunate doom at the hands of the Holy Therns and the vicious creatures which inhabit Valley Dor. (Ec: Apparently Martians live longer than 1,000 years. Observe Ras Thavas in Mastermind of Mars before he had his brain transplant.)

John Carter discovered the ugly truth behind the promises and exhortations of the Holy Therns. Beautiful in appearance the Valley Dor is filled with enormous trees reaching a thousand feet or more in height, surrounded by gorgeous grassy swards, fruits, food lying ready to be retrieved. The Lost Sea of Korus is in the center of the valley and emphasizes the ideal vision of heaven on "earth"

The only inhabitants of Valley Dor which believe it is heaven are the ferocious white apes and carnivorous plant men. These creatures seize and devour the unsuspecting pilgrims when the supplicants, exhausted from traveling countless thousands of miles across the planet then down the mighty River Iss to reach the south polar mountain walls and through a thousand miles of subterranean caverns, are unable to save themselves. The Holy Therns, in fact, watch the River Iss and announce the coming of food for the apes and plant men.

In some cases the Therns make slaves of the petitioners, working them for years, then feed them to the roving herds of plant men. In a distasteful aside Burroughs noted that come Therns of the Tenth cycle are cannibalistic, though they will not touch human flesh which has not been thoroughly drained of blood by the vampiric plant men.

At the head of this cult is Matai Shang, Holy Hekkador of the Holy Therns. Other names in his title include Brother of Issus, Master of Life and Death upon Barsoom and Father of Holy Therns.

At this point it should be stated that even the Therns themselves believe in Issus. A Temple, the Golden Temple of Issus, had been erected by the Therns on the shores of the Lost Sea of Korus. Matai Shang himself believe in the existence of Issus though they were responsible for the butchery, enslavement, and plundering of the pitiful creatures coming down the River of Mystery.

Burroughs, through John Carter, exposed Issus as First Born, a black woman of such age and antiquity that she no longer appears human. She, in fact, cannibalistically feasts on Holy Therns, unknown to Matai Shang and his associates, who would, obviously, have been very distressed to learn of this. Issus also favored human meals prepared from any kidnap victims or slaves captured by her First Born raiders when they sallied forth from their hidden base below the Lost Sea of Korus. At this point it is obvious that ERB never intended the religion of Issus to be based on any sort of divine possibility.


This brings us to another of the blood thirsty religions of Barsoom. Located in Lothar in a short side adventure for Carthoris and Thuvia in the fourth book Thuvia, Maid of Mars, the description will be even shorter: Komal, God of Lothar; no promises, no life eternal, Komal is hungry. Komal is actually a rather large captive banth held in the bowels of the Lotharian city, apparently on his way to becoming a true fat cat from consuming the unfortunates sent to meet the god of Lothar.


The final religion mentioned by Burroughs involved the Phundahlian god Tur. A people far out of step even for the unusual peoples of Barsoom, their chosen god was depicted as a giant idol in the main city. Within the central temple the great image of Tur has been silent (Tur spoke to the masses at one time centuries earlier) but these people continue their worship, piously reading the Turgan, the Phundahlian bible. An example of the rites performed during this worship was wit-nessed by American Ulysses Paxton in his martian identity of Vad Varo.

I asked Dar Tarus if I might accompany him into the temple... directly inside the main entrance ... was a line of priests ... we approached one ... I handed him a piece of gold which he immediately changed into many pieces of lesser value, one of which we dropped into the box at his side; whereupon he made several passes with his hands above our heads, dipped one of his fingers into a bowl of dirty water which he rubbed upon the ends of our noses, mumbled a few words which I could not understand... Never have I seen such a gorgeous display of wealth and lavish ornamentation as confronted my eyes in this, the first of the temples of Tur...

Some of these (carved) images were of men and some of women and many ... were beautiful ... others of beasts and strange grotesque creatures ... (were) hideous indeed. The first we approached was that of a beautiful female figure; and about the pedestal of this lay a number of men and women prone upon the floor against which they bumped their heads seven times and then arose and dropped a piece of money into a receptacle... The next was that of a man with the body of a silian (about which were) horizontal wooden bars in concentric circles. ...hanging from them by their knees were a number of men and women repeating monotonously ... biddle-babble-blup.

At the next figure we visited the people were all upon their hands and knees crawling madly in a circle about the pedestal. Seven times around ... then they rose and put some money in a dish. ..At another the people rolled about saying, 'Tur is Tur; Tur is Tur; Tur is Tur.'

He led me next to the figure of a monstrosity with a mouth that ran entirely around its head. It had a long tail and the breasts of a woman. ...(around which were) a great many people, each standing upon his head. They were also repeating, over and over, 'Tur is Tur.'

(I asked the meaning of this phrase.) "Oh No," exclaimed Dar Tarus. "On the contrary they said just exactly the opposite ... which makes a very great difference."

The Great Tur proves to be another hoax, fueled by greedy priests. Vad Varo eventually discovers that the idol of Tur, the temple, and the palace area are equipped with concealed microphones, speakers, peri-scopes and what all for the priests to tell the people what to do and how much to pay through the nose. The bones of the last great High Priest and once Jeddak of Phundahl are found unburied in a cavity within the idol. He was obviously killed in an accidental fall, explaining why the voice of Tur has been silent for so many years.

The Phundahls were also responsible for fostering several ridiculous beliefs on the people of Barsoom. One, Barsoom is flat. Two, Tur's home is upon the sun. Three, Tur created Barsoom 100,000 years ago, openly denying the established historical chronicles of older civilizations. Four, to make life amusing Tur created two sexes, male and female. Then he made animals to be food for man and each other.

Phundahlians still believe Tur created everything by his own hands and continue to refuse the evidence of their own sexuality. They deny the existence of other worlds because Tur said there was only Barsoom. Vad Varo, of course, scratched his head and left the poor misguided Phundahlians to wake up and smell the toast burning in their own sweet time.

We are reminded that ERB in real life loved puns and reverses. Tur is Tur becomes Rut si Rut, which may have been a commentary on the idiosyncracies of organized religion.


ERB dabbled with religion on Ladan, or the nearer moon of Barsoom called Thuria (Phobos). The Tarids, the white race of Ladan with blue hair and blue eyebrows, worship a Fire God, which happens to be the sun. As Umka explained to John Carter in their prison cell:

"They (the Tarids) are governed by some strange belief. ... I do not understand it, but every important act in their lives is regulated by it. They say that they are guided by the sun and the moon and the stars.

"It is all very foolish, but they will not kill us until the sun tells them to, and then they will not kills us for their own pleasure but because they believe it will make the sun happy."

This is the standard god of superstition, wielding greater power, mystery, and capriciousness which has been a part of human cultures since the dawn of time. It is merely a way of justifying the right and duty of those in power who use that power for their own ends.

This concludes our examination of Barsoomian religions, but I shall leave you with one last thought. Whether ERB subscribed to any earthly religion or not, it is a fact that he took great delight in poking fun at the ones he created for Barsoom.