"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 20, 2021

Sex, Gender, and the Orlanthi: Running "The Riddle" and "Rites of Passage" Again

Sex and Adulthood Rites

THE ORLANTHI HAVE A GRIM MYTH explaining the origin of sex. They speak of the Elder Gods—beings like Maker and Grower—who brought forth new life at whim but without any logic or order to it. The life-giving power was sporadic and chaotic. One of these Elder Gods, the most prolific, was called Great Eater, and “it could do only two things, bear and eat.” It spawned massive amounts of life only to reabsorb them into itself immediately after. In horror of this the gods gathered in a circle and prayed for help to end the madness. The result was a pair of new deities, Uleria and Urtiam.

Uleria and Urtiam showed the young world a New Way. Together they brought forth the children Love and Order. “They taught the gods about sexual intercourse…before this there were no sexes in the world.” The gods embraced the New Way and took up sexes of their own. This way, they were able to bear children that were distinct and different from them. Later, Uleria and Urtiam produced another pair of twins, Darhudan and Darudana. These were the two sides of the Man Rune, the Male and the Female.

In the Orlanthi mind, then, “biological” sex is simply about procreation. Humans and animals are born male and female simply for there to be an orderly continuation of the species. It has nothing to do with gender. In fact sex has little to do with the essential nature or being of a person. The Orlanthi refer to it as “shape.” He is “shaped like a man.” She is “shaped like a woman.” It is not necessarily who the really are. It should also be noted that they observe two more categories, less common perhaps but still valid. There is a sex “shaped like both” and a sex “shaped like neither.”

“Gender” is something deeper. Unlike “shape,” it determines the inner nature of the individual, their role in society, and most importantly which gods they are called to.

In writing the earliest chapters of Six Seasons in Sartar I needed to process all of this and keep it clear in my mind. The campaign starts with a pair of adulthood initiation ceremonies in which the player characters come of age. For boys, this happens when they “come of hair,” and the rites are something they go through with several other boys their age. For girls, immediately after menarche they undergo their womanhood rites alone. Greg Stafford left fairly detailed descriptions of these adulthood rites and I used them as the basis for both “Rites of Passage” and “The Riddle.” What became clear to me working through them was that the adulthood initiations were about sex, not gender. They are based, after all, on when children start displaying adult sexual characteristics, and separate the children based solely on their “shapes.” 

The More Complicated Question of Gender

The two “baseline” genders in the Orlanthi culture are the role embodied by the cult of Orlanth and the role embodied by the cult of Ernalda. Orlanth represents the tripartite roles of farmer, warrior, and leader. His job is to protect and nurture life. Ernalda heals, tends to the family, and possesses the mystery of sex and procreation. Her job to to create life and maintain continuity.

These tend to correspond to the sexes of “male” and “female,” but it is more accurate to call these genders “like Orlanth” and “like Ernalda.” In the adulthood initiation rites, children become “men” and “women,” but it is still an open question which gender they will take. While it is true that most men will become “like Orlanth” and most women “like Ernalda,” this is not definitely the case. In “Rites of Passage,” the character Aventarl Son of Rosonil is an example of a boy who may very likely not become “like Orlanth.” In my latest running of the campaign, in fact, I made it clear that he will become a Nandan (see below). Likewise, in “The Riddle,” the player and GM work together to observe and record the player character’s choices to see whether they will become “like Ernalda” or chose a different path.

Ernalda, in fact, presents us with a very particular problem.

Running the two adulthood rites again for my group I am once more struck how much darker, deeper, and more intense “The Riddle” feels to me. There is an element of danger here very different from that faced by the boys. This is not my doing, but Greg’s. It strikes me that the Orlanthi are curiously blasé about when exactly the boys go through their manhood rites. They are eligible “sometime” after coming of hair, but since the rites are generally held every three years or so for a group of candidates, a boy might sit around waiting years. Girls by sharp contrast must be given to Ernalda immediately after menarche. There is no waiting period. She is separated from those around her and the rites prepared immediately. She will face them alone.

My suspicion here is that it all has to do with the girl awakening into her reproductive powers, a power that belongs to Ernalda and Ernalda alone. Once the girl awakens this power, in a sense Ernalda lays claim to her. From the mythology we know Ernalda is quite stern in this matter.

Vinga and Nandan 

We can see Ernalda’s possessiveness of her reproductive power in the mythology of Vinga. Vinga is either the daughter of Orlanth and Ernalda, Orlanth’s female incarnation, or most likely both. In her myth cycle, Vinga decides to leave the Loom House of her mother to take up arms and fight alongside Orlanth and the Thunder Brothers. In effect she is declaring herself not “like Ernalda” but rather “like Orlanth.”

In The Book of Heortling Mythology, however, when Vinga becomes pregnant sometime after this Ernalda is furious with her, cursing Vinga and refusing to allow her to give birth. There is a real sense of Ernalda saying “that power is mine and you are no longer like me.”

Orlanth, the myth makes clear, is utterly powerless in this matter. (Vinga) went to her father, Great Orlanth, and asked for his help. To her shock, Orlanth told Vinga that he had no power to aid her – such things were solely within the province of Ernalda.

To soothe Ernalda’s rage, balance had to be restored. Vinga had to agree to surrender her daughter to Ernalda at birth. Furthermore, Nandan, a Thunder Brother, volunteered to take Vinga’s place in the Loom House. This sacrifice was acceptable to Ernalda and she relents. 

Now, this exchange created more gender possibilities in Orlanthi society. Most men are “like Orlanth,” and most women “like Ernalda,” but it was now possible for some women to enter the storm cult “like Vinga” and some men to enter the earth cult “like Nandan.” In effect this gave the Orlanthi four genders: men who follow the storm, women who follow the earth, women who follow the storm, and men who follow the earth. Two more logically followed from this. There are those who combine both male and female aspects in them (associated with the fluid deity Heler, the rain that unites both storm and earth) and those who have no gender roles, associated with the Eurmali tricksters.

It should also be noted what with men “like Nandan,” they are effectively part of Ernalda’s cult and through the Rune spell “Pregnancy” can wield their goddess’ greatest gift.

Afterthoughts and Conclusions

In this latest campaign running Six Seasons in Sartar, I decided to separate the male and female characters for their adulthood rites purely according to sex. The boys (David and Keith’s characters, Kalf and Beralor) went through “Rites of Passage” together. The girls (Ira and Vicky, as Kalliva and Leika) I ran individual one-on-one sessions of “The Riddle” for. Zoom made it a lot easier to arrange all of this. Once these rites were completed, the characters were officially considered young adults and full initiates of the Black Stag cult. The boys are lay members of Orlanth, and the girls are lay members of Ernalda, but we left the question of gender an open one until the characters finally commit to a cult.  I tend to think now of  the period between the adulthood rites and being initiated into a cult as analogous to our teenage years here on Earth, where we are trying to “find” ourselves. The characters are adults, sure, but it remains to be seen what sort of adults they will be.

“Cult” I think is the ultimate determinant of gender. Anyone who takes on a warrior role—whether you join Humakt or Yelmalio or Storm Bull—is viewed “like Orlanth” (i.e. legally and socially bearing a “masculine” role irregardless of sex). Anyone who takes on a healing, life-sustaining role is viewed as being “like Ernalda” (though a man would have to be at least a Nandan initiate of Ernalda to gain her life-giving pregnancy powers). In the rarer cases of character who manage both roles they would be seen “like Heler,” and those who follow the Trickster, “like Eurmal.”  

1 comment:

  1. Babeester Gor would seem to be an exception though? Still very much female, yet wielding Death. And yet I don't think she can easily be classified as like Heler (or Eurmal).

    More generally I think that while this may be true for many initiates I'm reluctant to say it applies globally. I think a Vingan initiate could still be feminine, and it isn't necessarily clear that this is all that unusual; likewise, I don't think a male initiate of Chalana Arroy couldn't have generally masculine traits (outside of the obvious pacifism required by the cult). Perhaps at Rune level this is less true.

    What happens for PCs with multiple cults? It would seem legal, for example, to be an initiate of Vinga and Babeester Gor simultaneously, or even Orlanth and Ernalda.