"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.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

CULTS OF RUNEQUEST: MYTHOLOGY, The Forward and Introduction

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of posts on the Cults of RuneQuest series. The posts will continue as each book appears. Go back and read the first here.

Further, there is far too much to discuss here for just one post, and I would like you to regard this as more of a discussion than a review. Here we will just set the stage by discussing the Foreword and the Introduction, two very important chapters that set up the rest of the book and entire series. Look for further posts on Mythology in the days ahead.

The Indispensable Guide

Mythology should have been the first release in the Cults of RuneQuest series. That is not me speaking ex cathedra: it says so right on page 5. It is a sentiment that I happen to agree with, however. I also agree with the statement that immediately follows: It is an indispensable guide for anyone seeking to play or gamemaster RuneQuest. I have a quibble with the article in front of "indispensable" however. The "an" should be a "the."

The truly great fantasy settings--and there can be no doubt that Glorantha qualifies--come with worldviews. Howard's was that in the contest of barbarism and civilization, barbarism would always win. Tolkien's was rooted in his faith. There is a divine plan and it is wrong to surrender to despair, hope and faith must triumph. Moorcock saw that opposite extremes are ultimately just reflections of one another and equally toxic. The only sane position is balance. Greg Stafford's worldview--at least the one that informs Glorantha--can be summed up in just a single sentence from his "Foreword" to Mythology. There he tells us:

Truth is found where we find a way to be at One with ourselves and the cosmos.

Let that steep for a moment until it brews in your head. He goes on to say:

If we are touched by a thing, whether it is a story, a person’s action, or even some distant event, then it holds meaning, and therefore, Truth, for us. It is our responsibility, then, to pursue this, that we may do our part to preserve the cosmos and live once again among the gods.

The worldview of Glorantha is that Truth is cultural, Truth is local, Truth is individual. The sin of the God Learners--and it is a sin that we see perpetrated every single day in our own world--was to believe that their Truth was Universal and applied to everyone.

Facts and Truth

Now...I can hear some of you in the back there saying "feelings are not facts." And you are quite right. Your mistake is that you think facts and Truth have anything to do with one another.

The modern English "truth" comes from Old English triewð (West Saxon) or treowð (Mercian) meaning "faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty." These ultimately trace back to PIE *drew-o-, meaning "to hold, to be steadfast." This is why we talk about remaining "true" to something. "Fact," by contrast, comes from the Latin factum, "something that happened, something real." The two have nothing to do with one another except in the post-Enlightenment mutilation of language so that only what can be seen under a microscope is of value. But what it comes down to is "fact" is something we can see, and "Truth" is something we feel.

We start here, because too often in discussions of Glorantha there is confusion between the two. People want the facts, not the Truth. After the last several centuries of God Learnerism in our own modern world, we can hardly blame them. The indoctrination runs deep. So they ask "How many arms does Orlanth have?" "Is Vinga Orlanth's daughter or his female form?" "In the core rulebook Issaries has two Runes and in The Lightbringers he has three. Which is correct?" For decades the term for contradictions and deviations like these was Gregging. "Oh Yelmalio is Elmal now. It's been Gregged." Post Greg, there is often the assumption that the current team (lead by Jeff Richard) is "getting it wrong." These assumptions spectacularly miss the point. 

This is why I feel Mythology is "the" indispensable book for playing or running RuneQuest. Had it existed before it might have put an end to two decades of Internet arguments and round-the-table arguments before that.

Truth is not fact, and mythology is about Truth, not fact. If the Orlanthi know it is true that Orlanth slew Yelm and caused the Darkness, and the Dara Happans know that it is true that the Darkness was caused by the Rebel Gods killing the Son of the Sun Murharzarm, there is no contradiction. The facts seem to differ, but that underlying certainty, the feeling of faith and fidelity that both Orlanthi and Dara Happans feel in the experience of their respective myths is the same Truth.

Facts divide us. The experience of Truth can only unite.

What is Mythology (the Book, not the Subject)

Despite being the fourth title released, Mythology is and should be the first book in the Cults of RuneQuest series. At around 165 gloriously illustrated pages (more on that later) it is an overview of the setting's worldview, a deep exploration of what makes Glorantha tick. It opens as mentioned with a Foreword by the late Greg Stafford, creator of the setting, then an "Introduction" which explains what every subsequent book in the series is actually about.

The "Introduction" explains what we mean when we talk about "mythology" in relation to Glorantha. This matters, because academics have squabbled over what "myth" is for decades. Mythology tells us how Greg defined it, and how Jeff and subsequent authors have then applied this definition to their own work. Though I do not intend to quote the entire book to you, there are two sections here that have to be quoted because they exemplify the message of the book:

Mythology reveals the nature of the soul. Despite our enlightenment conceits to the contrary, humanity is not so far removed from our Pleistocene roots, and we have never been much interested in objective explanations of the obvious. Instead, we have an imperative need to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events. It is not enough to see the Sun rise and set; this external observation must at the same time be a psychic happening: the Sun in its course must represent the fate of a god or hero.

That is a stand-out passage because the entire structure of Gloranthan mythology is built upon it. It is followed a paragraph after by this reminder: 

These sacred narratives do not explain the world—they are the source of the world.

Again, I can see some of you in the back rolling your eyes. We have been taught that myths are how "primitive" peoples explained natural phenomena. That is nonsense. Myths are the source of the world, because "world" is yet another word butchered to fit modern assumptions. We learned in school that "world" meant the planet we live on. It doesn't.

In old English woruld meant "human existence, the affairs of life." It was cognate with Germanic wer, "man" (we get the English werewolf from there) and the Latin vir. So myths, then, are the source of the world by relating the cosmos around us to inner human existence. Science explains the planet we live on. Myth explains us.

The "Introduction" goes on to define the core concepts of the game and setting. It discusses what a "cult" is, what "magic" is, what "God Time" and "Heroquesting" and the "Runes" are. And it also introduces something new, and one of Mythology's finest features.

Throughout the book we find red blocks of text, not "boxed text" exactly but set aside by borders at the top and bottom. These are actual Gloranthan myths, the stories your characters might hear in world. With each myth comes its "source," who wrote it or is telling it (this matters, remember that Truth is local, like a microclimate). These myths are ready to go, to be dropped into your ongoing campaign or to be used to build heroquests on. They make up large sections of the book (particularly in the initial half) and are a very welcome addition.

Before we close our discussion for now, in the "Runes" section (pp. 17-20) there is another extremely important line that could be easily overlooked:

Some philosophers hold that the deities themselves are merely approachable personifications of the Runes. (p. 17)

A great deal of confusion arises in Gloranthan discussions when new players and GMs view the gods as "people," as if they had bodies as we do and biologies. Throughout the Cults series there are genealogies, and it is easy to mistake these for "bloodlines." It is probably more accurate to regard them as "lines of descent." It is not DNA being passed down, it is the power of the Runes. 

When we talk about Barntar then as the "son" of Orlanth and Ernalda, we don't necessarily mean he has his father's eyes and his mother's nose. We mean, of course, that his Earth Rune power flows from Ernalda, that his Air and Motion powers flow through Orlanth. Barntar is, really, the combined powers of Earth and Air in a specific context, in this case, farming. But because myth is about relating natural forces to human experience, they personify him as a "son" with a "mother" and "father." Again, this does not mean he isn't...the Truth for many Orlanthi is that he is...but he probably doesn't need to trim his nose hairs or cut himself shaving (unless it was necessary for him to do so to explain some Truth in a myth!).




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