"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


This is a very incomplete essay.  More than anything else it is the seed of an idea for expanding the use of Gloranthan Runes in HeroQuest, RuneQuest, and 13th Age Glorantha.  Maybe "seed" is the wrong word, "justification" might be better.

WHEN GREG STAFFORD wanted a name for the magical alphabet the mythic world of Glorantha was “written” in, he turned north and borrowed the English word Runes.  This is an Old English word meaning “secret” or “mystery,” but originates with the Proto-Germanic *runo, “a magic sign, a runic character.”  Runes were, of course, the writing system used by the Germanic peoples from the second century CE forwards, but while they did indeed represent linguistic phonemes, their association with magic and deep cosmic forces is undisputed.  In the Hávamál Odin tells us that the 12th Rune can make the dead walk again; on both the Björketorp and Stentoften runestones, dire curses are warned for those who break or mar the Runes; and the Poetic Edda tells us runic inscriptions on spearheads and blades can make the weapons invincible.  Stafford’s use of the term to describe the symbols used in Gloranthan religion and magic thus makes perfect sense.

On the other hand, the Gloranthan Runes show a great deal more sophistication than the Germanic originals.  The Germanic Runes represent things common and or important to the daily lives of the people who used them; “cattle,” “ice,” “horse,” “birch,” “joy,” etc.  Compare this however with the Gloranthan Elemental Runes, each of which represents an elemental force of creation, a metal, a phylum, a season, and personality traits.  These Elemental Runes are the raw “stuff” of creation, but then the Form, Power, and Condition Runes further show how they develop and manifest in reality.  So far as any evidence has ever demonstrated, nothing approaching this complexity exists in the Germanic Runes.  We can speculate a greater system of association and meaning, but we cannot really know.

A model much closer to the Gloranthan Runes exists in Hellenic civilization, however.  The Greek alphabet—which dates back to at least the eighth century BCE and is successor to the even earlier Phoenician and Linear B writing systems—was called by philosophers Stoicheia, or “elements.”  They signified not just the phonemic sounds that comprised the Greek language, but the 24 fundamental forces the kosmos was composed of.  Each of the vowel sounds, for example, related to one of the seven visible planets, while the consonants represented the signs of the zodiac, the four classical elements, and the principle of kaos.  Additionally, each letter of the Greek alphabet carried a numerical value (a principle the Roman alphabet would later simplify as Roman numerals).  This opened them up to Pythagorean associations.  In this way each letter became a treasure house of meaning.

A prime example would be the 22 Trumps of the Tarot.

In the first four centuries of the Common Era, the Roman conquest of Egypt (30 BCE) forced a synthesis between Hellenic and Egyptian culture that had already been happening for centuries.  As two occupied peoples, the fusion between these two cultures accelerated rapidly, creating a school of thought we today refer to as Hermetic.  Egypt’s old magic combined with deep Hellenic philosophy, producing both the technical and practical Greek magical papyri and the coherent system of thought espoused in the Corpus Hermeticum.  The two deities associated with knowledge and magic in their respective cultures, the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Djehuty or “Thoth,” merged into one figure, the so-called Hermes Thrice-Great.  Well into the Renaissance, this Hermes was considered a historical contemporary of Moses.  Because one of the main centers of Hermeticism—the thriving seaport of Alexandria—also became home to a substantial Hebrew population following the Diaspora, their traditions became part of the fusion as well. 

Now I mention all of this because through Hermeticism, the Greek Stoicheia became associated with both the Roman and Hebrew alphabets, the latter two borrowing the images and associations each letter carried.  This actually ended up preserving the Stoicheia as Greek influence waned in the West.  Both the Hebrew and Roman alphabets commonly used 22 letters (J, U, W, and Y were unused by and large in Latin, rendering JULIUS as IVLIVS for example).  Scholars argue which source they likely derived from—Roman or Hebrew—but the emergence of the 22 Tarot Trumps in the early Renaissance (contemporaneous with the re-emergence of the Corpus Hermeticum and renewed interest in Hermetic thought) is not likely coincidence.  When we pick up a modern Tarot deck and look at the Trumps, we are looking at associations that originated with the Stoicheia.

This is tantalizing for another reason, one that brings us right back to the Runes.  

In all the standard arrangements of the Futhark (Anglo-Saxon Futhorc), the sequence the Germanic Runes appear in, the first character is *Fehu, corresponding to Cattle, the god Frey, and the phoneme /f/.  At first this would seem to have little to do with the first letter of the Greek, Hebrew, or Roman alphabets, alpha (Hebrew aleph).  

And yet, the Greek and Roman characters derive from the Phoenician, which itself was a pictogram for the head of a bull.  Take a capital “A” and turn it upside down to see the original for yourself.  In Hebrew, the word “aleph” means “ox.”  In other words, the Greek, Hebrew, and Roman characters make the same association *Fehu does; “cattle.”  More intriguingly, the figure depicted on the first Tarot Trump, “The Fool,” in his manner of dress and the dog always depicted leaping beside him bears some resemblance to the Roman god Mithras, a figure commonly referred to in Hermetic texts and worshipped throughout the Roman Empire but especially in its Northern, Germanic frontiers.  Now, Mithras was himself a solar figure associated with fertility, youth, spring, and innocence…so was the Germanic god Frey.  Mithras is usually depicted in the tauroctony, the sacrifice of the bull*.  The Tarot Trump has no bull…except that the letter it is associated with is tied to “cattle.” 

We could go on like this for ages, but I would like to come back now to Glorantha.

The setting focuses on the Runes in largely their mythic sense—their use in magic and religion especially—and yet to a lesser extent we also see them used as the basic for classification systems (Troll is Darkness and Man, Fungus is Darkness and Plant, Insect is Darkness and Beast, etc) and dating systems (specifically the Theyalan calendar).  Yet it seems impossible to my mind that the Runes do not also carry phonemic values (the Elemental Runes as vowels perhaps, the Form, Power, and Condition Runes as consonants).  It is not a stretch to imagine a sort of Hermetic synthesis occurring under the God Learners (who as we all know could never resist a good Hermetic synthesis), who no doubt would connect the Runes to numerical values.  Like Tarot Trumps, the Runes might then form the basis of divinatory systems as well.  If nothing else, the Runic depictions on pages 194 to 197 of the Glorantha Sourcebook are literally begging us to make further Hermetic connections with them.  Thus I suspect the Runes are not just ubiquitous in forming the underlying reality of Glorantha, but also in the daily lives of Gloranthans (particularly the educated ones).    

* this is the center piece of Mithraism, in the same way the Crucifixion is in Christianity.  This matters because there is some suggestion among those scholars who believe that the Trumps emerge from the Roman, rather than Hebrew alphabets, that the cult of Mithras was essential in shaping these images into their current form.  This might provide an answer to the origination of the word “Tarot,” which in Italian is tarrochi and in German tarok.  The very name of these 22 images might have come to us then from the sacred Mithraic tauroctony.     

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