"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 24, 2023

Cults of Runequest: Mythology and Eliade's Eternal Return

This is part two in a series of posts about the new Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology title. See part one here.

Glorantha, Tradition, and the Fantasy RPG Dilemma

The Gods World. HeroQuesting. Time. In its first twenty pages, Mythology tackles many of Glorantha's core concepts, but these three in particular are the trickiest for new players, and the most important to getting the most out of the setting. "Cults" are familiar to most newcomers, bearing rough similarity to character classes or the clans/tribes/traditions of settings like the World of Darkness (RuneQuest is referenced as an inspiration in both the first and second editions of Vampire: The Masquerade). "Magic" is familiar as well, though in Glorantha it has deeper meaning attached to it. Even "Runes" are somewhat relatable if one is at all familiar with the concept of elements (classical or chemical). "The Gods World," "Time," and "HeroQuesting" are different, however. They are firmly part of a world that the Enlightenment put a sword to, a world alien to modern minds. A world most fantasy RPGs have declined trying to engage with.

In writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien used the highly anachronistic Hobbits to ease the modern reader into pre-modern, or Traditional, reality. Bilbo lived in a world of clocks, schedules, and pocket watches. He wore waistcoats, was deeply concerned with middle class notions of respectability, and lived in a house called Bag End (quite literally the English for "cul-de-sac"). Seeing Middle-earth through his eyes softened the alienness of it. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin later served the same function. One of the reasons The Silmarillion is more challenging for many readers is they do not have the Hobbits to serve as this bridge. It displays Middle-earth as the Traditional world, a world of living nature animated by spirits and inherent divinity. The sacred permeates Middle-earth, and where the setting's inhabitants work to acknowledge this and live with nature, they thrive. Where they reject the sacred, the inner, and turn to what Tolkien called "the Machine," setting themselves over nature, the world becomes a poisoned hellscape.  

By (the Machine) I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents..the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world... 

Tolkien, 1951 

Fantasy RPGs, which owe so much to Tolkien, to Homer, to Virgil, did not have the luxury of point of view characters to ease modern players into Traditional settings. So instead, fantasy RPGs chose to simply toss the Traditional out of the setting. This in effect turned them into the dice and paper equivalent of a Renaissance Faire. Sure, they looked medieval or ancient, but this was a facade. Most were set on worlds that orbited suns, where the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry were mostly intact and magic conveniently operated like a science. It was a "force," an "energy," that like electricity or magnetism could be directed by repeatable procedures to produce reliable effects. The societies in these fantasy games were surprisingly egalitarian and firmly capitalistic. You adventured for coin so you could buy better and better things. "Danger? How much are we getting paid?" Nothing in these RPGs challenged players to try and look at the world the way that their actual characters would have. They could play Bilbo rather than Aragorn or Boromir. It wasn't roleplaying. It was a mirror.

If you are coming off of experiences like this, then, Glorantha can be a head-spinning one hundred and eighty degree turn.

Make no mistake, Glorantha has its own anachronisms. It is a fantasy game, not a slavish recreation of the Bronze Age. But is a setting and game that refuses to jettison the Traditional aspects of mythology and legend from the dragons and swordplay. 

That brings us back to the Gods World, Time, and HeroQuesting.

Mircea Eliade and Traditional Cosmology

We--like dear old Bilbo--live in a world of clocks, calendars, schedules, Time. Minute follows minute, day follows day, year follows year. It is a linear forced march. Our watches and alarm clocks provide the drum beat.

Yet imagine the point of view, for a moment, of a farmer or a shepherd 5000 years ago. 

Time is not a line, it's a circle, a wheel. The sun rises and sets. The moon waxes and wanes. Days grow shorter then longer again. Without clocks and calendars it isn't about numbers, it's about events. It isn't next winter, it is winter come again.

This is not to say the ancients were ignorant of the passage of time. There is a line in the Mahabharata that likens it to a chariot wheel. The wheel turns, and from our fixed vantage point the same spokes come and go and return again, but at the same time the chariot is moving down the road. 

But chariot wheels sometimes break. This was a constant danger in the minds of ancient peoples. The moon goes dark...but what guarantee is there she will wax full again? Winter comes and nature dies. Will it be reborn? Will the sun climb back out from the land of the dead? What is it that turns the wheel?

And a deeper question looms...why? Why does the sun set and rise? Why do the nights get longer? Why does the moon go black? 

The answer to both questions was clear. Something set the wheel in motion, something started it, and that something must be what keeps it in motion. That thing is outside the wheel, not turning with the wheel but instead turning it.

Romanian religious historian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was among the first to formulate these observations. Eliade was--and remains--a titan in the field because he essentially helped to create it. It was an 18th and 19th century academic conceit to dismiss religious experience, to pass it off as something else. For anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) magic and religion were developmental phases, like childhood and adolescence. Magic was practiced by "primitive" humanity, followed by more mature religion, until both were replaced by mature science. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) predictably explained religion as the product of psychological complexes. Karl Marx (1818-1883) had economic and political explanations. Perhaps the closest we get to Eliade was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), one of the founders of sociology, who at least saw religious experience as a natural aspect of human life. Cult, to his mind, was like culture, forming bonds between individuals and creating commonality. 

Eliade had a more radical notion. Perhaps religious experience was just that...religious experience. Perhaps it was an encounter with the transcendent. With the sacred. Durkheim wrote of the sacred, but he viewed it as a feeling of awe, devotion, respect. He was careful to skirt the supernatural. Eliade instead saw the sacred as a universal experience of something outside. He was careful not to assign it to any one religion or tradition. This all led him to one of his most famous concepts, eternal return.

To simplify, Eliade theorized Traditional humanity being conscious of two types of time, Profane and Sacred (Eliade used the term "sacred time" extensively, a phrase Greg Stafford would later adopt for Glorantha). Profane time was the wheel, the circle, we discussed above. This was the world inside of Time, the world that turned endlessly through days and seasons. 

Sacred time was what existed outside the wheel, the world outside of Time. It was what set the wheel in motion and what kept it turning. Outside of the wheel, it was a single, omnipresent now. This is where all the things that set the wheel in motion existed. Gods, heroes, sacred ancestors.

Critical to all of this was Eliade's observation that in the Traditional mind, the essence of a thing resides in its origin. Its origin established the nature of a thing, formed the pattern of its existence, its identity. Thus creation stories, myths, contained tremendous power. If you knew the origin of thing, you could exert influence over it. And the way in which human beings learned these origin stories was hierophany, the "breakthrough" of the sacred into profane time. These revelations--like the sages who first heard the Vedas or Muhammad hearing Jibreel recite the Qur'an, gave humanity the origin stories of things so that they might use these stories to participate in the sacred.

The eternal return was made possible by these hierophanies. By having the origin story, one had the beginning of a thing, one could touch its source, which lay outside of profane time in the sacred:

In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.

In Glorantha

It is easier to see now how Greg seized on these ideas and digested them, re-interpreting and reweaving them. Hierophany is Myth, the revelation of sacred time to mortals. Sacred time is the Gods World;

The realm of eternity. Every deity who performed great immortal deeds is found here. Within this world of extremes lie the heavens and hells of the cults, where initiates and devotees go after death. Here, too, lie the great pools of creative material from which were made the primal oceans, ancient mountains, and first skies of the Mundane World.

Mythology, p. 14

New players often struggle to understand how the Gods World could have ages, sequences of events, cause and effect, if there was no Time. While a standard answer would be that "we" as beings inside of Time are imposing our perceptions on these stories, I would refer the reader back to the wheel. We think of time as a chain of events, but the Traditional viewpoint is to see it as the cycle. Before Arachne Solara birthed Time, there were no sunrises and sunsets, no seasons, therefore no wheel, no cycle, no Time. Events were fluid then, not fixed.

On the other hand, it is important to recognize that all of the Myths still exist, and can be accessed now. They can be experienced and visited. Through Myth you can enter the Golden Age and see the Spike, the cosmic mountain at the center of exist. Through a different story, you could enter the Greater Darkness and witness the Void, the hole in creation left when the Devil shattered that mountain. Then you could go back and visit the Spike again. This is not possible within Time. If your comrade dies you may attempt to bring them back, but you cannot go back to yesterday or last week to save them. We are trapped on the wheel, and the wheel turns in one direction only. 

Time as a Wheel

Myth, by contrast, can lead us anywhere in the ages of the Gods World, and these visits to the sacred, to the Gods World, are HeroQuests:

Heroquesting is a direct interaction by mortals with the divine realm of myth and archetypes. When heroquesting, participants enter the realm of legend and myth to interact with heroes and gods, gambling precious life force to gain miraculous powers and bring back magic, whether that be Rune spells, guardian spirits, a good harvest, something long forgotten and hidden, or other magical boons or curses.

Mythology, p. 14

In Tolkein's legendarium, which I would argue derives as much from the Traditional worldview as does Glorantha, the world was initially flat but bent into a circle to prevent humankind from ever sailing against the lands of the immortals again. Time, in Glorantha, is similar. The gods made the world, there was a golden age, then they began to war upon each other, the world collapsed and died. To save it, Arachne Solara and the gods bent the world again. That sequence of events was turned into a circle of constant creation and recreation. The Green Age became Sea Season. The Golden Age became Fire Season. Earth Season, harvest, is the first intrusion of Death into the world, the Lesser Darkness. Then Dark Season, the Greater Darkness, befalls the world. The Grey or Silver Age, when Orlanth quested to save creation, is Storm Season. 

Then comes the crucial moment.

In his theory of cyclic time, Eliade cites numerous examples of rites and rituals who's intent was to help the gods "recreate" the world. As mentioned above, there was always a fear that maybe the wheel would stop turning or break. Through myth, and ritual, humans could revisit the origins of things, the source, and help the gods recreate the world. Greg put this at the end of his Gloranthan year and called it--and I think Eliade might have been pleased--"Sacred Time."

Closing Notes

If you have never read Eliade, and are curious about some of Greg's influences, I strongly recommend The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return. Both are very accessible. Eliade was a prolific writer and researcher, who also wrote on alchemy, yoga, and shamanism. I would heartily recommend these as well but they stray a bit from the main topic here.

I admit to being a bit of an Eliade fan boy. I blame Greg for this and all that RuneQuest in my adolescent years. While I never had the chance to study under him, I was able to study under two of his University of Chicago proteges, Alf Hiltebeitel and Wendy Doniger. While both focus primarily in the mythology of the Indian subcontinent (Alf taught me the Mahabharata), any of their works are also terrific and show a deep Eliade influence. 


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