"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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022


Note: This is the first of two (maybe even three) essays on Gloranthan Illumination. It is an overview, and sets up the theses for the future pieces.

In writing The Final Riddle, I realized I needed to start with the prickly subject of Illumination. Introduced way back in 1981's Cults of Terror, Illumination is a state of spiritual and mental transcendence, the Gloranthan equivalent of "enlightenment." Like many things Gloranthan, it has parallels to concepts in our own world, such as the Buddhist nirvana, Saint Symeon's "dying to the Self,", or the concept of moksha on the Indian subcontinent. Yet Illumination is not strictly speaking any of these. Like so much in Glorantha, a setting which resists the simple dualism of many fantasy worlds, the nature of Illumination is left up for individual gaming tables to decide. In doing so, we are weighing in on a subject that has been the source of much conflict in our own world.

On one hand, we have Nysalor, the "Bright One." This First Age deity introduced (or re-introduced, in later writings) Illumination into the world. For his disciples, it was an overwhelmingly positive force, elevating the Illuminate above all the harmful divisions caused by the Gods War. Illumination allows the individual to rise above dualities and definitions. Life and Death, Harmony and Disorder, Illusion and Truth, even Cosmos and Chaos can be seen as aspects of the same thing. Illumination effectively liberates the individual from religious strictures, such as joining opposing cults or facing spirits of reprisal. It all seems...good.

Yet at the same time, in the West, we see Nysalor's teachings abused and corrupted. His disciples use their liberation from normal ethics to create diseases just so they can spread them and cure them. The Vampire Lords of Tanisor go further. This gave rise to Arkat, Nysalor's great enemy, who himself became Illuminated to bring down the Bright One. They became mirrors of each other, each called the other Gbaji, the Deceiver. In the end of their cataclysmic struggle one emerged, but no one can be sure which.

Readers with a taste for South Asian history might see some parallels here. When the Buddha emerged, his teachings of self-liberation went completely against the Vedic priesthoods, who taught that personal salvation came only from the temples and their deities, and the practice of sacrifice to both. Buddhism was, in essence, an affront to the social order which kept the priests and the warrior castes in their lofty positions. The accusations then lay in charges that Buddhists were antagonistic to the Cosmic Order, rta. In this way they were associated with disorder, or to use a Greek-derived word, Chaos. As Glorantha fans all know, that is the primary charge against Illumination. It is a form of Chaos.

The socio-political tensions between early Buddhism and the Vedic tradition are not unique, however, they are nearly universal. We need to talk a moment about exoteric and esoteric spirituality. The first is communal, societal, and usually organized around group ceremonies, temples, and priesthoods. The later is internal, solitary (mostly), introspective, and subjective. Exoteric religion tells you "do this," or "believe this." Esoteric religion asks you to withdraw and look inward for answers.

In any given religious tradition, we see these two aspects. Judaism has kabbalah as an inner tradition, for example. Islam has sufism. Christianity has a strong mystical tradition early on that the Church slowly tapped down. There are, historically speaking, often tensions between these two sorts of faith. In the Sunni tradition, a fine example is the tension between Salafism (exoteric Islam based on the Qur'an, hadith, and performance of the Five Pillars) and Sufism (which is more meditative, contemplative, and inner). 

In Glorantha, theism is extremely exoteric. The Orlanth cults, for example, form the backbone of Orlanthi society. Worship revolves around lay people supporting temples, with priests and Rune Lords wielding a great deal of political influence and power. Theistic cults tend to hold society together. So too do many of the Western sorcerous traditions. Shamanistic societies are a bit less rigid, but still involve a specialist (the shaman) to deal with the spiritual world on your behalf.

Illumination throws all of this out the window. You must answer its Riddles for yourself, and the enlightenment liberates you from the restrictions of theistic (or sorcerous) faith. This makes it extremely dangerous from the exoteric position, because it cannot be controlled.

The Lunar Empire handles this in a clever way. They hand the exoteric reins of power to the Imperial state cults, while the Great Sister overseas Lunar esotericism. The exoteric state cults maintain order and Imperial unity, and the vast majority of the population may belong only to them. Further, the state cults are expansionistic, pushing the borders of the Empire outwards and seeking converts. Those citizens seeking to go deeper into the Lunar religion, however, can turn to the esoteric Illumination (or "Sevening") ways. These cults are centripetal, pulling the initiate inwards towards the heart of Lunarism. This unique dualism is inherent in Lunar Illumination, and will be the subject of Part Two of this series. Still, even though the Red Goddess embraces the esoteric path in a way most exoteric cults can't, she has her Examiners in service of the State that watch for Illuminates going "bad" ("Occluded," is the Lunar term).

It is worth noting, incidentally, that even the language we use suggests a tension between these two religious approaches. The Sanskrit word for "religion" is yoga, or "yoke." The English comes from the Latin re ligio, to be "bound" or "tied" (we get the related word "ligature" from the same root). Compare this to the word most closely associated with enlightenment..."liberation." To be "freed" from bonds. One binds, the other unties.

My suggestion here, then, is not that Greg Stafford was modeling any specific cultural conflict in the tension between Gloranthan religions and Illumination (Buddhist and Vedic, Salafism and Sufism, Christian and Gnostic, etc), but rather the inherent religious tension between these two approaches to Truth. Glorantha is about mythology, so too is religion, and the struggle between the two religious paths is often expressed in mythological terms. It is logical that one of the main struggles in the setting, then, is the tension between exoteric orthodoxy and esoteric heterodoxy. I would argue that it is indeed a main theme in Glorantha, maybe even its primary one. After all, the First Age was dominated by Arkat's struggle against Nysalor. The Second Age, meanwhile, was characterized by the rivalry between two Empires and philosophies, the extreme orthodoxy of the God Learners and their drive towards One Universal Truth, and the EWF's esoteric heterodoxy of Draconic Consciousness (a close cousin to Illumination). In the Third Age, it is repeated again, with the Lunar Empire struggling against the Theistic nation of Sartar (the twist being, of course, Argrath's own Illumination). 

Fantasy settings thrive on conflict. Tolkien's Middle-earth had Good versus Evil, Moorcock's Multiverse had Law versus Chaos, Howard's Hyborian Age had Barbarism versus Civilization. What we are looking at in Glorantha, I think, is a more nuanced theme about the Truth that is defined for you versus Truth that is defined by you, and the dangers inherent in both.   

The Final Riddle is coming soon to the Jonstown Compendium.       

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