"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, January 4, 2022

The Sons of Umath: The *Kóryos Myth in Gloranthan Gaming

This article builds on the previous one. Read that here. All quotes, unless otherwise attributed, are from The Book of Heortling Mythology

LIKE THE ANCIENT *Kóryos themselves, the roleplaying games that followed 1974's Dungeons & Dragons had to leave the safe and established domain of their predecessors to explore new territory of their own. Both Empire of the Petal Throne and RuneQuest took the early lead in this, adapting the detailed and complex settings of M.A.R. Barker and Greg Stafford to show that roleplaying games did not need to be generic dungeons but could, in fact, explore whole new worlds. But in 1979 Stafford and Steve Perrin produced something wholly new, something that suggested for the first time that gaming could simultaneously be a few hours of entertainment with your friends and an exploration of deeper themes and meanings that date back thousands of years. I am talking, of course, about the publication of Cults of Prax.

The title itself was radical, and telegraphed exactly what Stafford was trying to do. "Cult" back in 1979 (and yes, even today) had only negative connotations in the public mind. People would have thought immediately of Jim Jones, the Process Church, and Charles Manson. In academia, however, especially in disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, and comparative religions, "cult" had a very different meaning. Derived from the same root as "culture" and "cultivation," it was a term that related to the religious, ethical, and philosophical dimensions of specific groups. This was exactly how Stafford used it. Eschewing character classes as archetypes for characters, Perrin and Stafford used cults. The cult your character belonged to defined their role not just at the gaming table, but in the society the character lived in. Cults of Prax gave characters views on history and mythology, life after death, morality, and proper living. It was the publication of this work that set Glorantha apart from everything else as an adventure game that was also struggling with the age-old question of meaning.

There is so much, frankly, to unpack from this book that it would take several articles to do it. Tonight, however, I would like to look at just three cults Prax introduced to the world; Orlanth, Storm Bull, and Humakt. Specifically, I would like to look at them each as critical facets of the Indo-European *kóryos tradition.

*   *   *

As mentioned in the previous article, the *kóryos are an academic construct, but one which nevertheless fits the facts and has archaeological evidence to support it. Based on innumerable traditions, practices, and stories amongst Indo-European language speakers from India to Ireland, scholars hypothesize an ancient and long-standing practice that seems to have survived for thousands of years. Adolescent young males underwent a strenuous initiation rite in which the boy "dies" but is not yet reborn as a "man." Instead, the adolescent assumes a sort of liminal status outside of regular society. He and his peers form a warband, and are expected to survive on their own in the wilderness, raiding, hunting, stealing.

These warbands were called "wolf" or "dog" warriors, and had a very peculiar status. Neither children nor adults, neither "men of the land" or "beasts of the forest," they existed somewhere between these realities. They also existed between life and death. Wrapped in wolf, dog, or bear skins and painting their faces black, they were said to be utterly fearless, charging into battle naked. Already dead, they had not yet been reborn by taking a wife and starting a family. Thus, not only were they said to be terrifying and fearless warriors, they also communed with and were representatives of the dead, often haunting burial grounds outside their communities.   

After a specific period of time and under conditions which varied from society to society, the young men either came home and married, or went out and formed new communities of their own. In either case, they now assumed their full status as "men" and were expected to set aside their war-like days and rejoin the world of the living.

But not always.

You see, there is also evidence to suggest that these boys had a captain or a guide, an older man who never assumed "normal" adult male status but instead chose to remain wild and warlike, out on the fringes of his culture. This type of person both prepared the boys for their days of exile, and went with them when the exile occurred. Something like a shaman or a priest, he was a representative of the Otherworld, but a martial one expected to use violence to defend his people. He was a living embodiment of a god, but a dread one.

This is all a construct of the practices of Proto-Indo-European peoples from at least 5000 years ago, somewhere in central Eurasia. A community would form, the adolescents would be kicked out to form warbands, and in turn end up founding their own communities elsewhere. As successive generations carried the practice further west and north, the Indo-European societies they left behind became more settled and civilized, maintaining vestiges of the *kóryos tradition but not actually practicing it. Thus the very end of the practice of *kóryos is seen in the Middle Ages, in the practices of the Vikings. But make no mistake, there is evidence of the *kóryos amongst the ancient Latins, the Mycenaeans, early Celts, and ancient Iranian-Indians as well.

*   *   *

So what has any of this to do with Glorantha?

Three of the cults in Cults of Prax are gaming-table reflections of the *kóryos traditions. To be clear, we are NOT arguing that Orlanth Adventurous, Storm Bull, or Humakt are meant to model the *kóryos the same way that the knights of Pendragon are meant to model their counterparts in the Matter of Britain. Instead, Greg, in digging deep into Indo-European mythology in creating his own Orlanthi, takes inspiration from them. These gods, the Sons of Umath, collectively mirror the *kóryos in a way that is playable, and palatable, to modern gamers, buts still clearly draws on the currents of this very ancient practice.

In Orlanth, we see the very core of the tradition, the wild and rebellious young male who needs to carve out his place in the world before assuming the opposite duties of fatherhood and order. In Humakt, we see the individual cut off from his kin and occupying a liminal status between the living and the dead, a mediator between both worlds who is also an instrument of violence. In Storm Bull, we see the wild berserker face of *kóryos, terrifyingly between animal and man.

Scholars have speculated that the tradition of the *kóryos originated at least partially in the fear the ancient and established older males had of their sons. The  older male had built a home, taken a wife, and made a place for himself. He feared his sons would then grow and try to take it from him. It's theme we see preserved in Indo-European mythologies again and again.  Modern readers might be most familiar with Kronos, who eats his sons for fear of being supplanted, or of Oedipus.
Umath, the father of Orlanth, Humakt, and Storm Bull typifies exactly what these older and established males were afraid of. Once Umath is born;  

There was no place for him anywhere. Every space and place had been parceled out to other gods and demigods and children of the Solar Empire, as well as their tributaries, servants, office holders, leaders, and protectorates. Emperor Yelm ruled everything, nothing was left. Being impulsive, Umath made his own place in the world. He put his hands up to the belly of his father and his feet upon his broad mother, and then pushed them as far apart as he could. Old man sky groaned with that effort, and Grandmother Earth wept too, so now life also has its groans and sorrows for everyone. But Umath made a place for himself...

Umath's first real act mirrors one of the roots of the *kóryos tradition, but it is his sons who are actually forced to enact it. What know of the *kóryos is that it began with an ordeal, an initiation ceremony that separated the boys from their families, their lives, and their people. There is every indication it was brutal.

As mentioned, the *kóryos were associated with wolves and dogs, creatures that in Indo-European mythology are associated with the Underworld. For example, just as in Greek mythology Cerberus guards the entrance to the Underworld, in ancient India it was Sharvara, dog of the Lord of the Dead Yama, who did. Both Cerberus and Sharvara mean "spotted" in their respective languages, again indicative of a common root and ancestor. Undergoing this ordeal, the boys became "dog warriors," servants of the Underworld. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ordeal involves being imprisoned in pits...and further, an even more traumatic ordeal. At Krasnosamarskoe, on the Russian steppes, archaeologists have uncovered 4000 year old remains of this ritual. Aside from the pits, the bones of numerous dogs have been found, showing signs of ritual killing and being consumed. The eating of dogs--faithful companions to these Indo-European peoples--was taboo. By killing and eating these dogs (quite possibly their own beloved pets), the boys were meant to be shocked and traumatized, as well as cast out of the social order. It also seems likely that by ingesting these dogs, the boys became "dog warriors," possessing the ferocious spirit of the animal.

Stafford wisely jettisons all traces of dog-killing from his Orlanthi initiation rites, but he kept the pits. He also moves the cause of the act from fathers worried about being supplanted by their sons to uncles;

The giants were Genert, Lord of the Earth; Kalt, the Renewing God; Lodril, lord of Fire; Magasta, the Sea giant; Dehore, Darkness-keeper; and some others whose names are not known now. These were all uncles of the child gods, so although they hated them they could not kill them. Instead, they decided to destroy them without having to take responsibility for the deed. They lied to the children, and said that they had prepared tests for each of them, and that afterwards they would be gods. In truth, they took the children to various wicked places that they could not understand, and they put a child in each. 

These places are pits of various kinds, where each of the Sons of Umath undergo a terrible ordeal. Notice here the promise that these rites would make Orlanth and his brothers gods. This was very likely the same promise the *kóryos boys were given. Vadrus, Orlanth, Storm Bull, and Humakt all pass through their ordeal triumphant. The Other Brother, likely the mad Chaos god Ragnaglar, was driven mad by his. While it is widely believed that "dog warriors" from ancient India to the Viking berserkers used alcohol or drugs to attain their fearless, frenzied state, it has also been suggested that the ordeal of undergoing these rites traumatized some of the boys to the point of sociopathic behavior as well. Like the Other Brother, not everyone made it through these initiations sane and whole.

The Sons of Umath emerge from their ordeal only to find that Umath has been killed by the Red God. They no longer have a father. They no longer have a place in this world. Again, this is exactly the position the *kóryos were in after their ordeals. The boys in both cases are on their own. And it was this myth that first inspired Six Seasons in Sartar, which begins with initiation and ends with being cast out into the world.

*   *   *

The figure of Orlanth mirrors the core of the *kóryos myth. As a fatherless and rebellious youth he leads a band that wars and raids and gets into a number of misadventures. Eventually he wins and woos Ernalda, settles down, and becomes a figure of authority. More significantly, he leads his followers away from the lands of this father to claim new territory for himself;

The Sons of Umath lived upon the Great Impenetrable Mountain that is now called The Spike. They lived high up on its slopes in great hidden valleys. Many other peoples lived there too, some more numerous than the Storm Tribe.

“Now is the time,” said Orlanth, “that we go.” 

As mentioned in the previous article, the *kóryos are one of the models of Indo-European expansion. These warbands left the borders of their ancestors' land to explore and claim new territory all their own. In the same way, Orlanth takes his entire entourage away from the Spike, the cosmic mountain of the gods, in search of new lands he can tame and rule.

Of course, this could really just be a metaphor for any adolescent, couldn't it. You leave your parents and make a life of your own. None of this is specific to the *kóryos. But it is the Sons of Umath collectively we need to observe to see the total picture. It is in Orlanth and Humakt and Storm Bull together that we see the full representation of the *kóryos practice.

*   *   *

Wait. What about Vadrus?

The reason we have excluded Vadrus (Umath's third son) from this study is that he does not have a published cult of his own. Storm Bull and Humakt date all the way back to Cults of Prax, and are major portions of the Gloranthan gaming experience. Vadrus, by contrast, is more of a peripheral character. Having said that, he is a perfect representation of the *kóryos myth as well. In fact, he represents some of the darker, harsher aspects. 

Vadrus was the first to open hostilities against the Golden People. He led a band of his men from the above and took wives from among the people who followed the Emperor. The tribe is called the Vadrudings and were a terrible scourge upon the Golden Empire when they invaded.

In the *kóryos model of Indo-European expansion, we do not see armies of Indo-Europeans sweeping across Europe and south central Asia conquering as they go. Instead, we see these warbands of young men, exiled from their tribe, who start raiding neighbors. Not numerous enough to conquer these neighbors, they raid and steal and terrorize. Some evidence suggests the neighbors being raided tried to appease them with offerings of food and cattle and even women. Or, unfortunately, that these warbands took women by force. Often they fathered children upon these women and settled amongst them. In this way the Indo-European culture, language, and genes crept across Europe. The Vikings, the descendants of the *kóryos closest to us in time and therefore the best attested, are prime examples of this.

Just as Greg Stafford wisely toned down the sheer brutality of warband initiation (though with Ragnaglar was see him acknowledging the potential trauma), he also played down this unfortunate aspect of the *kóryos. He didn't ignore it entirely, however, because we see it with Vadrus.

When Vadrus was fighting against the Sea People they often forcibly took their foes’ women. Aerlit took one named Warera, and she was a royal of the Neliomi Clan. She escaped from her captor and went back among her people and gave birth. The child was nursed on her resentment and anger, and he was trained in the ways of the Westerners. The child was named Malkion

Vadrus is more associated with the rapacious elements of the *kóryos than is Orlanth or his other brothers. As a game designer and myth-maker for modern audiences (and yes, I am counting the late 60s and 70s and 80s as "modern"), Stafford walked a fine line of presenting the wholeness of the myths he was drawing on and making them playable. Vadrus didn't get a cult, but just as much as Orlanth, Humakt, Storm Bull, and even Ragnaglar he reflects an aspect of the myth the Sons of Umath draw upon. He is an element of the Indo-European warband as much as the others.

*   *   *


One of the most important aspects of the *kóryos--and perhaps the most difficult for modern audiences to understand--is their association with the Dead.

In the initiation rite that separates the boy from his childhood and his people, he was also being separated from "life." The adolescent dog-warrior was counted amongst the Dead. Until he proved himself, taking a wife and starting a family, he was not yet a man and not yet "alive." He was now an instrument of Death, associated with violence and killing, but a representative of the ancestors. For being himself Dead, he walked alongside those who had gone before him. Thus there was something holy about the warband. They were agents of the Otherworld and the Dead.

There is strong evidence that the warbands painted their faces and wore animal skins to mask themselves. Masked, their identities were removed. They were not members of this clan or that tribe, they were the troop of the Dead. All across the Indo-European world, we find vestiges of the "Halloween tradition," where masked youths come to your door demanding beer or food or sweets. You either give this to them, or face the consequences. Again, this could well be a memory of the  *kóryos.

In Humakt we see this facet of the *kóryos brilliantly exemplified. In joining the cult of Humakt, the individual severs their ties to kin, family, and life to become a member of a mercenary company, a warband sword to the god of Death. They stand as gatekeepers between the living and the Dead, and are instruments of death itself. 

Of course in the*kóryos tradition, the warband would eventually settle down, take wives, and rejoin life. But Stafford already assigned the "settling down" aspect to Orlanth, leaving the Humkati to maintain that status throughout their careers. As mentioned earlier, not all members of the warband did chose to settle down, some continuing their liminal status throughout their lives. These men were particularly feared--and respected--as terrifying warriors and champions of the Otherworld. We see shadows of the Swords of Humakt here, but also, I think, our final brother.

Storm Bull.

*   *   *

I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields.

-Haraldskvæði Saga, 9th century AD

In the monument erected to the Emperor Trajan's conquest of the Dacians (101-106 AD), one relief depicts Dacian warriors wearing bear and wolf skins. 700 years later, Norwegian skald Þórbjǫrn Hornklofi--in writing of the battle of Hafrsfjord, Norway--described the terrifying Úlfhéðnar and Berserkir, the wolf warriors and bear warriors. These two recorded instances are seven centuries and 3000 kilometers apart, but there is evidence of these warriors as far afield as ancient India in the Rigveda (1500-1000 BC). These warriors were not considered strictly human, but somewhere between man and beast, tied to the invisible forces of the Otherworld.

The *kóryos warbands were associated with the dog or the wolf. Later, in Europe, the bear seems to be embraced as well. As the archaeological evidence suggests, in their initiations they consumed dogs to become them, and wore wolf or dog skins. They were no longer humans, leaving the settled lands of humanity to haunt the woods and the wilds. They were viewed as between man and beast. Fearless, ferocious, and terrifying, they were said to fight in a trance-like state or berserker rage.

Theoretically, the tradition predates the concept of a full-time warrior caste. For early Bronze Age Indo-Europeans, the *kóryos were the "necessary evil" of violence, keeping a settled community safe by terrorizing those all around its borders. When the warrior caste innovation occurred, and the community now had more permanent defenders, the role of the *kóryos evolved somewhat into the concept of "shock troops," which seems to have been the role they played right up into medieval times.

It is crucial to understand here that the *kóryos (and their descendants) were permitted to act in ways that were taboo. They were not human, they existed beyond human rules and behaviors. They were tolerated because they were useful. This tradition lasted in Indo-European societies well after they became settled and civilized. Among the ancient Greeks, for example, young males (the Athenian ephebos and Spartan krypteia ) who passed through their adulthood initiations were allowed to fight in ways no honorable warrior would, which traps, night attacks, and ambushes. All of this was part of their traditional status as being somewhat outside the human sphere, between animal and Otherworld...

Urox was the oldest son of Umath.
When he was young he was never sure if he was an
animal or a god.

Urox, or the Storm Bull, embodies this final facet of the *kóryos, their status between man and animal, their legendary berserker fury, and the fact that they are tolerated as a necessary evil. The three lines quoted above describe exactly the status the *kóryos held, somewhere between animal and divinity. 

The Storm Bull is one of the oldest manifestations of Umath the god. Umath was the primal Aer who tore apart the sky and the earth to make room for himself and his children. When Umath provided the world with his children the Storm Bull contained mostly that which was bestial in nature: violence, and raw unthinking strength, guided by instinct and the sensitivities of a god.

-Cults of Prax

This inhumanity, this bestiality, is at the very core of the *kóryos and their identity as "dog" or "wolf" men, as is their liminal status and the breaking of taboos. The following passage, also from Cults of Prax, might have been written about them; 

Socially they are unacceptable. They characteristically act with total disregard for any tribal taboos or manners, even to the extent of occasional murders which will go unavenged. Normal people consider all worshippers of this cult to be mindless brutes, barely human, certainly deranged, and absolutely dangerous. These opinions are correct. But the necessity of the warrior overrides the temporary discomfort which people must suffer...

Broadly speaking, this sort of behavior and status was reserved for adolescent males in Indo-European societies. But as mentioned, we know there were those who never returned to human society. The beast never released its grip on their souls. Their role was to continue to teach and train the young to become dog warriors (or wolf, or bear). In these full time and "professional" berserkers I think we see the Storm Bull the most clearly.

*   *   *

So what is the point of all this?

I think what makes Glorantha distinctive from other richly developed settings (like Tékumel) is that its foundation is wholly myth, not linguistics or culture. Generally speaking, the cultures of Glorantha arise from myths that transcend culture. The Praxians and Pentans are "nomads," but that could be Scythians or Huns or Mongols or Turks (etc). The Lunar Empire is any dream of empire, from Star Wars to ancient Persia. The Malkioni are the mythical "West," with its materialism, humanism, monotheism, and atheism. They are not so much cultures but ideas of cultures, myths of cultures, and this makes it impossible to identify them with any specific people in human history.

The Orlanthi are another kind of myth, the mythological "proto Indo-European." When we look at cultures as diverse as the Indo-Iranians, the Irish, the Greeks, Latins, and Norse, we see commonalities both linguistic and religious that lead us to imagine some distant proto ancestor. That is the myth-space I think the Orlanthi occupy. The thundering chieftain god, the clan, and the central significance of the warband are not specific to any one Indo-European culture, but buried in the DNA of them all. And this of course means the *kóryos are as well.

But what makes Glorantha particularly fascinating is that it is not a "copy." If the Orlanthi had warbands of dog warrior youths running around they would simply be a clone. By breaking this tradition up amongst various gods and cults, the mythological inspiration remains intact, but now in a more playable and original fashion. We can look at the Sons of Umath collectively and see the shadow of the *kóryos, but individually they remain original and unique. Aspiring GMs take note!

For me, the *kóryos were the model for Six Seasons in Sartar and The Company of the Dragon. But following the lead of Greg and others, I followed the broad outlines of the idea (adulthood initiation, going out into the world to form a warband, eventually coming home) but reworked it to try and pay homage to the original myth but still do something different with it. I think it is very useful to go back and look at how Greg did the same in the design of Glorantha.


  1. As usual another wonderful article. Thank you for your work Andrew!

  2. Fascinating read, a very insightful exploration!