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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, August 30, 2023

The Cults of RuneQuest Part Three: The Earth Goddesses

Note: This is part three of a look at the new Cults of RuneQuest line. Look for a discussion of The Prosopaedia here and The Lightbringers here. In this post, we will dive deep into The Earth Goddesses (on sale from Chaosium here).

Introduction: Indian Connections 

I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship. Thus Gods have established me in many places with many homes to enter and abide in. Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them, – each man who sees, breathes, hears the word outspoken. They know it not, yet I reside in the essence of the Universe. ..I pervade all existing creatures, as their Inner Supreme Self, and manifest them with my body. I created all worlds at my will, without any higher being, and permeate and dwell within them.

"The Devi Sukta", Rig Veda, circa 1500 BCE

I have been looking forward to this one.

As an undergraduate I had the privilege of studying under Thomas B. Coburn, an Indologist who specializes in the Hindu "Great Goddess" and is best known for his work on the Devi Mahatmya, one of the most important texts in the Indian Goddess tradition. I ended up writing my Master's thesis on this tradition, particularly the goddesses Durga and Lakshmi. My continued interest in Goddess traditions led to an interview with Claudia Loroff in November 2021 on the topic of the goddess Ernalda. So while I was excited to see The Lightbringers, I was particularly interested in The Earth Goddesses.

In Glorantha, the Earth goddesses form the main religious tradition of Esrolia. If there is an "Esrolia" anywhere on Earth it would have to be the Indian subcontinent. Goddess worship--particularly in the form of Shaktism--has existed there throughout its history. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, archaeologists have unearthed a Palaeolithic Shakti temple dating back to to between 9000 and 8000 BCE. Indologists like Arthur Basham and John Marshall argued that the Indus Valley civilization was both matriarchal and had a powerful Mother Goddess cult. Whether or not this was the case, what is clear is that the Indo-Europeans who migrated into the subcontinent circa 2500 BCE developed a powerful goddess tradition that distinguished them from their Indo-Iranian neighbors, perhaps because of influence from the earlier civilizations there. Shakti continued to appear throughout the Vedas and Puranas (the former composed between 1500 and 400 BCE, the later between 300 and 1000 CE), as well as the Mahabharata (300 BCE to 300 CE). Today, an estimated 30 million people continue to revere Shakti as the supreme being.

So why am I talking about Shaktism in a blog post about Glorantha? Well first, let me define it. Then you will get a clearer picture. Shakti--or as the goddess Shakta--is the divine feminine power that creates, underlies, and sustains reality. Other goddesses--such as Durga, Kali, or Parvati--are merely manifestations of her. In Shaktism, Shakti is the Mahadevi, the Supreme Goddess, and more to the point, the supreme being. Now, let's compare this to what Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses has to say about Imarja:

Imarja is the divine feminine creative power and primordial cosmic energy. She is revered by the Esrolians as the Universal Creatrix...she is worshipped through her many manifestations. Her most important manifestation is Ernalda, and she is invoked through the Ernalda cult... 

The Earth Goddesses, p, 10.


...where the Earth goddesses are dominant...(t)he supreme godhood is a goddess, and the many goddesses are sometimes viewed as aspects of the same supreme Goddess. ...the ideal of a Supreme Goddess, called Glorantha or sometimes Imarja, is influential in many cultures.

The Earth Goddesses, p. 3

Thus, while Greg Stafford drew on mythologies and religious traditions from all over the world, the influence of Indian Shaktism is unmistakable, particularly in the concept of Imarja.

Another potential Indian influence is the goddess Ernalda and her Husband-Protectors. In Sartar, Ernalda is the wife of Orlanth, but in Esrolia, Orlanth is just one of Ernalda's many husbands, including others like Argan Argar, Lodril, Flamal, and Storm Bull. I cannot help but think Greg had in mind Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, when conceiving of this. 

The five male heroes of the Mahabharata, the Pandava, are each the incarnation of a god. The oldest, Yudhishthira, is the incarnation of Dharma (law and truth). Arjuna is the incarnation of the thunder god and warrior chieftain Indra. Bull-like hot-tempered Bhima is the incarnation of the wind god Vayu. Twins Nakula and Sahadeva incarnate the Ashvins...the Dawn and Dusk, Health and Medicine. All five of these heroes share a single wife...Draupadi, and Draupadi is (you guessed it) the incarnation of Shakti, the Supreme Goddess. They are her Husband-Protectors, and she in many ways binds them and empowers them. In the infamous dice match sequence of the saga, the Pandava lose everything, including their freedom. When one of the antagonists drags Draupadi into the room, claiming that as the Pandava are their slaves they now own her too, one makes the terrible mistake of trying to disrobe her. Miraculously, he can't unwrap her sari, pulling yards and yards of endless silk as he tries. As dogs start howling throughout the city, the antagonists are so terrified of Draupadi and her power, they free her and her husbands. She, for her part, lets her hair down and vows not to wear it up again until she has washed it in the blood of the man who tried to defile her.

The moral of the story? Don't mess with those Earth goddesses.

Alright. Enough about India. Let's get to the text.

The Contents

The Earth Goddesses follows pretty much the same format as The Lightbringers, and I think we can expect the rest of the pantheons to be covered in the same way. We begin with "Wisdom of the Earth Priestess" and a poem about the six main Earth goddesses...the three "kindly ones" (Asrelia, Ernalda, and Voria, the Crone, Mother, and Maiden) and the three "grasping" goddesses (Ty Kora Tek, Maran Gor, and Babeester Gor). Then a number of questions are answer by and Earth priestess for us (Where did the world come from? Where did I come from? Why do we die? Why am I here? How do I do magic? Who are the other gods?), giving us the perspective on each of these from the point of view of the Earth pantheon.

Speaking of which, the next section gives a mini-Prosopaedia summary of the gods associated with the Earth pantheon, either as members, husband protectors, or allies. A genealogy of the Earth deities follows. As with the genealogy in The Lightbringers, the art here is stunning, combining elements of Aztec and Mayan art, Egyptian, Indian, and even sub-Saharan African.

Then come the cults proper. The list is as follows:

- Ernalda
- Aldrya
- Asrelia
- Babeester Gor
- Calandra and Aurelion
- Cult of the Bloody Tusk
- Donandar
- Eiritha
- Flamal
- The Grain Goddesses
- Maran Gor
- Mostal
- Pamalt
- Ty Kora Tek
- Uleria
- Voria

This with the Index brings us up to about 140 pages.

The cult descriptions follow the same structure as the ones in The Lightbringers. Mythos & History, Otherworldly Home, Life After Death, Runic Associations, Iconography, Nature of the Cult, The Cult in the World, Lay Membership, Initiate Membership, God-Talkers, Priestesses, Rune Lords Subservient Cults, Associated Cults, and Notes. As with The Lightbringers, the Notes are often my favorite section, with fascinating details that bring the cults to life. What are the funerary rites of Ty Kora Tek like? How are Genertelan deities worshipped in Pamaltela? Dinosaurs are sacred to Maran Gor. The (in)famous Puppeteer Troupe is discussed. The treasuries of Earth temples are managed the cult of Asrelia. Marriage contests to test suitors. Kero Fin and the Feathered Horse Queen. It goes on and on.

Note that regions far beyond Esrolia receive service here, notably Prax and Pamaltela. Non-humans are also included, with Aldrya for the Elves, Mostal for the Dwarves, and the Cult of the Bloody Tusk for the Tusk Riders. 

Closing Thoughts

As with The Lightbringers, the art in The Earth Goddesses is stunning, and frequently is used to give us more information about the world than simple text could provide. Loïc Muzy, Agathe Pitié, Katrin Dirim, Ahn Le and Simon Roy make the book a joy to just page through. Much of it, like the following piece...

...in "in world," and tells us how the Gloranthans visualize their gods. Other pieces, like the Studio Ghibli-esque Aldrya are just plain fun.

Yet what I think The Earth Goddesses truly exemplifies about the Cults of RuneQuest series is that these are not simply splat books meant to give player characters kewl new powers and endless buffs (the trap so many other games fall into). There are skills and spells in here, but this is a series primarily about world building. It is hard to imagine, for example, player characters who follow Asrelia, the Grain Goddesses, or Ty Kora Tek (possible, of course, but unlikely), but these goddesses need to be there to flesh out the world and give it verisimilitude. The inclusion of such elements makes Glorantha a living, breathing reality, rather than a support system for dungeon crawling. This is a key feature of RuneQuest, and always has been.

And it would be criminal to leave a review about The Earth Goddesses with addressing the cow in the room ("cow" as in the term for "adult female elephant"). This hobby (table top roleplaying) began as a very masculine endeavor. Early games were largely power fantasies for young boys, and the scantily clad babes in bikini armor were intended as eye candy. When I was in junior high and high school, the groups I were in were only boys. This started to change rapidly however. By the time I was in college, 1989-1993, my gaming group was split evenly according by gender.

In a 2020 survey on the demographics of TTRPG players, 53% of gamers identified as male, 38% as female, and about 6% as non-binary or other. So while the hobby still leans male, it is a lot more even than perhaps any other time in the past. RuneQuest has always been ahead of the curve in representation. Cults of Prax had Chalana Arroy, Aldrya, and Eiritha back in 1979. Ernalda was the sample cult in 1983's RQ3. Greg introduced transgender deities with Vinga and Nandan. With Cults of RuneQuest, the representation is even better. Vinga and non-binary Heler were both in The Lightbringers, Nandan is discussed here in The Earth Goddesses, but the book itself is largely about female spaces and female experiences. Female sexuality, pregnancy, and even indirectly menopause (in the case of the cult of Ty Kora Tek) are all touched on. Again, I don't think this has anything to do with politics as much as, once again, world building. Glorantha is not inhabited by a single sex. Mythology is about the human experience, and for the game to reflect that it has to take in the entirety of human experience. The Lightbringers, and especially The Earth Goddesses, do not shy away from this. 

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