Tamoachan Revisited - The Origins of the Olman
Date: Thu, August 25, 2005
Topic: Greyhawk Gazetteer

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is a treasure house of information on the Olman in the grandest tradition of Greyhawk - development of the setting through adventure modules. Don not just read about it, experience it. While supplemented in later sources, the information on the Olman found in The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan remains the first and best source on the Olman. Unfortunately, later sources are too often ignorant of or ignore the Tamoachan adventure. The Olman "canon" of these later sources is then highly suspect.

Let us return now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when adventures defined Greyhawk. Let us revisit Lost Tamoachan. Much remains hidden there to this day. Read the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer or The Scarlet Brotherhood? Think they accurately describe the Olman? Then, you don't know Tamoachan. The authors of the LGG and TSB certainly didn't. So. Let's set the record strait. It ain't canon until Tamoachan says it canon.

Tamoachan Revisited - The Origins of the Olman
By: Glenn Vincent Dammerung, aka GVDammerung
Used with Permission. Do not repost without obtaining prior permission from the author.


Of all of the peoples that populate the Flanaess, none is more mysterious than Olman, who inhabit only the southwestern most fringe of the Flanaess. Believed to be distantly related to the Flan, the Olman in coloration have a red-brown or dark brown skin tone. Like the Flan, the Olman are an indigenous people. Their homeland, however, stretches from the Amedio Jungle to the south, well beyond the bounds of the Flanaess proper. The Olman have, however, occupied lands as far north as the Suss Forest and the Abbor-Alz hills, as well as portions of Hepmonaland.

The Olman are also believed to be distantly related to the residents of a parallel Oerth, specifically the Maya, Toltec and Aztec peoples of “Earth,” and possibly similar peoples of “Aerth.” The gods of the Olman are also the gods of these peoples. The gods of the Olman are not , however, of Earth, for even on Earth, the gods of the Maya, Toltec and Aztec are considered “alien,” having come to Earth but then left. Much the same is true on Oerth. The gods of the Olman are inconsistent in their attentions and have at times “left” or “withdrawn.”

Compounding the difficulty in understanding the Olman is the scarcity of reliable sources of information. There are two principle sources. The Sonjohn and Leason Tamoachan Expedition of 577 CY is the only first hand account of the Olman in situ. These explorations are recounted in the seminal treatises - Lost Tamoachan and the subsequent Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. The later work of the wizard Skreyn, is the seminal work on the Scarlet Brotherhood, and so entitled, but touches only in passing on the Olman and is based entirely on second hand accounts and hypotheses, some of which are highly suspect, drawn from the Tamoachan manuscripts. While Skreyn’s later work has value, the Tamoachan manuscripts are widely acknowledged as the beginning point of any serious consideration of the Olman.

Prefatory Note - A Clash of Authorities

Before beginning to consider the Olman in detail, it is necessary to address the viability of the Skreyn’s discussion of the Olman in his book, The Brotherhood of Scarlet. Certainly, Skreyn’s work has significant merit. It is also, however, obviously flawed when it comes to consideration of the Olman. A brief example will suffice to make this point.

Found in the Hidden Shrine are distinct representations of and votive sites to both Camazotz, the Olman god of bats and Zotzilaha, the Olman god of the underworld. Skreyn, however, expresses his opinion that Camazotz and Zotzilaha are one and the same. This is obviously false, as even the most casual acquaintance with the finds of the Tamoachan Expedition reveals. In Tamoachan, Camazotz and Zotzilaha are treated distinctly and separately.

By the same token, the Hidden Shrine contains distinct votive shrines to both Tezcatlipoca, the Olman god of the sun, moon, night, scheming and betrayals and one of the two chief Olman deities, as well as Apocatequil, the Olman god of the moon and lightening and a minor Olman deity. Skreyn opines that Tezcatlipoca and Apocatequil are one and the same. Again, this is obviously not so, as a simple understanding of the finds at the Hidden Shrine reveal. In Tamoachan, Texcatlipoca and Apocatequil are treated distinctly and separately. Skreyn appears to have attempted to simplify the Olman pantheon for convenience and obviously gets it wrong.

As will be discussed elsewhere in more detail, these are not the only facts about the Olman that Shreyn gets provably wrong but it is necessary at the outset to understand the suspect nature of Skreyn’s work and to thereby avoid having the reader, only familiar with or preferring Skreyn’s work to cry - “But that’s not what it says in The Brotherhood of Scarlet.” That cry is unavailing. Skreyn’s errors are apparent if one reads and compares both the records of the Tamoachan Expedition and Skreyn’s much later and less detailed work.

In Skreyn’s defense, his work is primarily concerned with the Scarlet Brotherhood and on that subject it is authoritative. It is only when he ranges beyond his principle subject and out of his depth that his scholarship is revealed to be less than thorough. As regards the Olman, Skreyn’s The Brotherhood of Scarlet must be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

The Origins of the Olman

Olman history is recorded in hieroglyphs and complex pictograms. Once, an Olman Empire “covered much of the southern continent before centuries before current history began.” So reads the records as discovered by Sonjohn and Leason at Tamoachan. Olman influence and archeological sites have also been found in Hepmonaland, the Suss Forest of the Pomarj and in the Abbor-Alz hills. Principally inhabiting the Amedio Jungle and points south, as well as the Olman Islands, in the current era, there was no question but that the Olman originated in these areas until the publication of The Brotherhood of Scarlet by Skreyn. Therein, Skreyn opined that the Olman originated in Hepmonaland and only lately, some 1000 to 1,500 years ago, migrated to the Amedio Jungle and Olman Islands, after being pushed from Hepmonaland by the native Touv people and the insurgent yuan-ti. The resultant “controversy” as to the origin of the Olman is born of Skreyn’s ignorance of the Tamoachan Expedition and misreading of its finds.

The origin of the Olman is laid out for all to see in the Vault of Chicomoztoc - The Place of the Seven Caves. Before examining the seven tableaus contained within the Vault, it should be noted that the name itself - place of seven caves - seems to rule out easy reference to Hepmonaland, not known for cave systems, when the Hellfurnaces, well known for such, might just as easily be the reference. The central diorama in the Vault, removes all doubt.

The Central Diorama

In the center of the Vault of Chicomoztoc is a diorama depicting an Olman hunting party. The central location of this diorama serves to highlight its importance with respect to the other tableaus in the Vault. Dressed in deerskins and feathers, the Olman are seen hunting stag with dogs in a mountainous area. This diorama depicts the origin of the Olman in the land called Chicomoztoc - The Place of Seven Caves.

The origin of the Olman lies in the mountains. Hepmonaland has no significant mountain ranges. The Hellfurnaces are an extensive mountain range, the southernmost extent of the Great Dividing Range of the Flanaess, known south to north as the Hellfurnaces, Crystalmists, Barrier Peaks and, finally, the Yatils. .

Hepmonaland has neither deer nor stag. Both may be found in the northern extents or higher elevations of the Hellfurnaces and the southern Crystalmists

The conclusion that the Olman must originate in Hepmonaland is then absurd and only possible if one discounts the central diorama of the Vault of Chicomoztoc. The origin of the Olman is seen to be in Chicomoztoc - the Place of the Seven Caves - located within the Hellfurnances or southern Crystalmists.

Tableau A

Tableau A depicts a river scene with Olman seen gathering rushes, fishing with nets and carving a dugout canoe. The known Olman habitations in Hepmonaland are in dense jungle, unbroken by rivers of any significance. In the Amedio, there are a number of significant rivers and, notably, these rivers flow from the highlands of the Hellfurnaces toward the sea. Thus, both the position of Tableau A - as a first in a series, suggesting a progression from the Central Diorama - as well as the pure geography of Hepmonaland and the Amedio, suggests the latter as the referenced locale.

The Olman, originating in Chicomoztoc in the Hellfurnaces, followed river courses as they settled the Amedio.

Tableau B

Tableau B depicts a farming scene with Olman planting maize and harvesting wheat, while a priest in a bird costume blesses the endeavors of the farmers. Neither maize nor wheat are native to the Amedio or Hepmonaland. Both, however, may be grown in the plains areas south of Xamaclan and up into the Hellfurnaces and piedmont. Again, the reference appears most naturally to be to the area of the Amedio and surrounds, not Hepmonaland.

Tableau C

Tableau C depicts a tiered temple where offerings of gold and jade are made by a priest with a constrictor snake. Three warriors stand by - a winged serpent warrior with a spear, a bear warrior with razor claws and a coyote warrior with a torch - along with several stone statues of the gods.
Jade is not found in Hepmonaland but is found in the verges of the Hellfurnaces. Couatls are far more frequently encountered in the Amedio and almost not at all in Hepmonaland. Bears and coyotes are entirely unknown in Hepmonaland but are found in the range and verges of the Hellfurnaces - bears being more northerly in distribution and coyotes found more in the south.

Tableau C depicts the founding of the capital of the ancient Olman capital at Chetanicatla. The Couatl, Bear and Coyote represent the extent of the empire. The Couatl represents the Amedio and its leading position indicates that the Olman center of power then shifted from Chicomoztoc to Chetanicatla. The Bear represents Chicomoztoc, most notably by the “cave” association - Chicomoztoc being The Place of the Seven Caves and bears being notorious for fancying caves as places in which to habitate. The Coyote represents the southern expansion to Xamaclan and surrounds. Of course, at this point, the Olman having come down to Chetanicatle from Chicomoztoc, Tamoachan had yet to be founded.

Tableau D

Tableau D depicts warfare between red warriors and black warriors. The Olman are a “red” race of humanity, much as the Touv are a “black” race of humanity. Tableau D depicts conflict between the Olman and the Touv. Following the progression of the tableau from the central diorama, the conflict is that which occurs as the Olman invade Hepmonaland.

Tableau E

Tableau E depicts the “creation of the world” as non-human gods, the leading figure adorned in green quetzal feathers, mixes ash and blood to form the sculpture of a man and a woman, while four towering figures - red, black, blue and white surround a fire about which two smaller figures commit ritual suicide. One of the two smaller figures is described as “The Pimply One,” while the other is described as “The Lord of Snails.” Tableau E is highly allegorical and relates the mythologized founding of Tamoachan.

The god creating man and woman is Quetzalcoatl, as may be understood by the place of Quetzalcoatl in Olman mythology generally and specifically by this adornment of green quetzal feathers. The allegory here is creation - the Olman of Tamoachan, the creation of their world - Tamoachan. The Olman Empire was not an empire in the usual sense of the Suel or Aerdi. The Olman Empire was composed of a number of independent city-states out of which emerged a leading city-state. Each of the kings of the city states were palatinate or tributary to the “overking” of the “capital” city-state, so long as the capital could remain preeminent. The founding of a new city-state was thus a significant act of creation as it created a new focus of identity and hence the allegory. Olman regard themselves first as members of a particular city-state and only then the member of any other grouping.

The four towering figures represent the races as the Olman understood them. The red figure is the Olman, enjoying a pride of place, at least in their own mind. The black figure represents the Touv, the race after their own with which the Olman had then the greatest contact. The blue figure represents “the sea peoples” - other islanders and sea dwelling folk - with whom the Olman were developing significant contact. The white figure represents the Suel, who were then almost beneath notice to the Olman, for contacts with the Suel were all but non-existant.

The fire represents sanctity and sacrifice, being the province of the god Huhueteotl. The “Pimply One” is Nanahuatcin, while the “Lord of Snails” is Tecuziztecatl. Both are guardians of Tamoachan and both were encountered by the Sonjohn and Leason expedition. Their ritual suicide as depicted in Tableau E is an allegory of their sacrifice of their own beings to the protection of Tamoachan. Such ritual sacrifices are a common theme for the Olman and it is seen as a positive good, not the evil other peoples would have it.

Tableau F

Tableau F completes the story. Tamoachan prospers. Depicted are the creation of rugs, baskets, totems, pots, clothing and weapons.

From Central Diorama to Tableau F, the story of the Olman of Tamoachan is told, and incidentally the origins of the Olman are revealed - the mountain kingdom of Chicomoztoc - The Place of the Seven Caves. The “Vault” of Chicomoztoc keeps this historic record alive for posterity.

If this understanding of the Vault of Chicomoztoc is doubted, one is invited to attempt to apply it to a supposed homeland of the Olman in Hepmonaland. Any such attempt will quickly reveal itself as folly for inconsistencies and implausibilities will abound.

The Hall of Thrashing Canes

Opening from and to the Vault of Chicomoztoc is the Hall of Thrashing Canes, wherein a stylized bamboo-like forest leads to a cave with bronze doors of stylized seaweed. The Hall of Thrashing Canes in important to the fullest understanding of the Vault of Chicomoztoc because the Hall is how one reaches the Vault or how one leaves it to arrive elsewhere. That is to say, the Hall leads both to and from Chicomoztoc - the homeland of the Olman. What does it tell us?

The cave imagery is the key to understanding the Hall. For the Olman, a cave is a symbol of home, being so associated in Chicomoztoc. The Hall of Thrashing Canes, then, may be seen to display a journey through a forest to a home by the sea, or reversed, it becomes a journey from a home by the sea, through a forest to the Olman homeland as depicted in the Vault of Chicomoztoc. Once the basic imagery is understood, deciphering particular meanings is not difficult. The Hall of Thrashing Canes is the antechamber of the Vault of Chicomoztoc. They must be considered together.

The cave with the seaweed doors represents Tamoachan. To reach Tamoachan from Chicomoztoc, one must pass through a forest - the Amedio. To reach Chicomoztoc from Tamoachan, one must pass through a forest - the Amedio. Attempting to apply the imagery of the Hall of Thrasing Canes to the Amedio reveals no such symmetrical result.

The Hall of Thrashing Canes, then, reinforces the conclusion as to the origination point of the Olman found in the diorama and the tableaux of the Vault of Chicomoztoc. Only an Amedio homeland for the Olman, including the Hellfurnaces, fits the Tamoachan evidence naturally. This natural conclusion is the better one.

Author’s Note:
I would like to acknowledge the work of Rich Trickey, aka Chatdemon, who first undertook an analysis of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to attempt to understand how the Olman should be developed in “canon.” Rich recognized The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan as the single best and earliest source of information on the Olman.

That an adventure should develop some significant aspect of the Greyhawk setting is, of course, familiar as much of early Greyhawk was developed in the context of a module or modules and only later summarized in a “sourcebook” or “accessory.” The best sourcebooks or accessories are in accord with the canon of the early modules.

Rich is also be credited with first calling into question the discussion of the Olman by Sean K. Reynolds in The Scarlet Brotherhood as not being in accord with the canon presentation of the Olman in The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.

While my conclusions drawn from The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are different than Trickey's, this article owes an obvious creative debt to his earlier work. We both agree, I think, that The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is a better source on the Olman than The Scarlet Brotherhood. We also agree, I think, that Sean K. Reynold’s discussion of the Olman in the latter work is flawed on a number of levels.

This article comes from Canonfire!

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