"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 25, 2022

Writing Riddles: Babalon and the Red Goddess

This is the second in a series of essays on Gloranthan Illumination. See the first here.

SEVERAL CENTURIES OF AN EXTREMELY POWERFUL exoteric religious institution led to the systematic suppression of esotericism in the West. For the sake of convenience—this is an article on Glorantha, not ecclesiastic history—we will label the various Western esoteric religious traditions as “Gnostic.” As a general rule of thumb Gnosticism places personalized spiritual experience over orthodox teachings, and this placed it at war from the 1st century C.E. onward against the developing and later dominant Catholic Church. Particularly later in the history of the Church, a convenient way to dismiss the Gnostic traditions was to associate them with the Devil. Whatever their teachings or intent—and there were some Gnostic traditions that painted a favourable picture of the Devil—the Gnostics were all “satanic” and therefore the enemies of mankind and ripe for extermination.

This sounds suspiciously like the attitude of several Gloranthan theistic cults towards Illuminates.

Gnosticism was deep underground by the 19th century, and increasingly referred to as “occultism.” Again, we are simplifying a bit here, but the statement is fairly accurate. Much of Western occultism, the Western Mystery Tradition, is essentially Gnostic. Perhaps no single occultist of the period, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, was accused of playing on the Devil’s team more than Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). It is also fair to say no other occultist revelled in the accusations as much either. Labeled “the Wickedest Man Alive” by the British press, Crowley was accused of Devil worship, human sacrifice, corruption, enslavement, deviancy, and murder. I am sure more than one Nysalorean Riddler could relate. But what he was teaching, his doctrines and his goals, are deeply Gnostic, and a basic understanding of them is a useful way to bring Illumination—especially Lunar Sevening—alive at your gaming table.

Let’s get three things out of the way before we begin. First, while we are going to be drawing numerous parallels between the Red Goddess, the Lunar Way and Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema, no one here is saying that Greg Stafford was a Thelemite or that he intentionally modelled the religion of the Lunar Empire on Crowley’s teachings. Rather, these parallels (and as you will see there are a LOT of them) seem rather to arise from the fact that both Crowley and Stafford were digging deep into the same mythologies. Second, this is not an essay on Thelema, qabbalism, or any of the other concepts it will touch on. We are here to talk about Glorantha as a setting, RuneQuest as a game, and how to make these concepts playable in the context of both. Third, while I am myself a Thelemite, I am not here to proselytize to the reader in any way, shape, or form. Technically, Thelema forbids that. That aside, let’s dig in.

Babalon/The Red Goddess

There are a number of Thelemic deities, and Crowley conceptualizes them like a Malkioni Wizard. Each is seen as a manifestation of an abstract cosmic principle, and each is an emanation of what we might ultimately call his version of the Invisible God. Thelema has deities like Nuit and Hadit (more on them later), Ra Hoor Khuit, and the Holy Guardian Angel...but really it is Babalon, the Scarlet Woman, the Bride of Chaos, who is probably the most recognizable in the Thelemic pantheon.

With good reason. She is arguably the most significant.

Moon Goddess, Mistress of Time, Sister of Chaos...she went on a dire Godquest to find her Seventh Soul...and brought the gift of Illumination back into the world...she returned to the world in 1232, riding atop the Chaos demon known as the Crimson Bat. Illumination is an essential part of the Lunar religion and she embraces seemingly incompatible powers such as Life and Death...

"The Red Goddess," The Glorantha Sourcebook, p. 149   

Aside from the similarity in their titles—“scarlet” and “red,” “woman” and “goddess”—Babalon and the Red Goddess both combine in themselves all dualities and contradictions. This is actually Babalon's function in Thelemic mysticism. 

The Thelemic notion of Illumination--Crowley referred to it more often as Illuminism--lies in the union of opposites. Zero (Nothing or “no-thing” because it cannot be measured, described, or defined) is a symbol of this union. Zero equates with infinity. All numbers and their opposites are contained within Zero: 1 + -1, 2 + -2, 10,000 + -10,000, etc. For Crowley, then, overcoming false duality (male and female, dark and light, life and death) is essential to the ultimate union, that of subject and object, Self and Not-Self, Microcosm and Macrocosm. This experience is the "zero state."  

Creation, conversely, is the act of this perfect Nothing, the Void, dividing into opposites. Even in Genesis this is the case. The Deep, formless and void, is divided into light and darkness, day and night, wet and dry, male and female, etc. In Glorantha, this is of course Primal Chaos, from which the Elemental Runes emerge followed by Power, Condition, and Form Runes in neat pairs of opposites. 

For Crowley, Babalon is the mystical rejoining of opposites to reach that transcendent state once more. She accepts all things, and all things are united with their opposites within her. The Red Goddess serves a parallel Gloranthan function. She unites Death and Life, Illusion and Truth, Chaos and Cosmos. This is point one, then. Both Babalon and the Red Goddess represent Illumination via the reconciliation of opposites. 


According to Greg Stafford, in the Dara Happan religion the individual is said to have six souls. Each of these is associated with a specific god: Dendara, Lodril, Oria, Dayzatar, Gorgorma, and Yelm. Lunar Illumination is referred to as "Sevening," because it postulates a Seventh Soul that awakes durning Illumination and unites all the rest. This soul is associated with Rashorana, either the last of the gods born or the first Chaos god. Rashorana incarnated--the Lunars teach--in the First Age as Nysalor.

Of course we also know that the Red Goddess had Seven Mothers, and there are Seven Phases of the Red Moon. But the number seven belongs to Babalon as well.

The Seal of Babalon, seven points, seven letters, and a whole lotta sevens.

Again, this is not an essay on esoteric number theory or the Qabalah (if you want those look here...I wrote five essays on the topic back in October of 2016 and they remain the most read articles on the blog today). So I am going to keep things simple here. 

Basically, Crowley placed a lot of import on the Tree of Life, a concept borrowed from Hebrew kabbalah. This is a conceptual blueprint of the mind of God as well as the human soul. Reading from the top down it shows the process of divine creation...but from the bottom up it shows the process of returning to the divine. That is all you need to know to follow the rest.

The Tree of Life also proposes multiple souls, or portions of the human psyche. I will spare you the Hebrew and make it simple. The three circles above the red line are basically the parts of us that are holy. They are, actually, indivisible from each other. If it helps, think of them as the point, the radius, and the circumference of a circle. Three things that are one. We will be coming back to them.

Below the red line are parts of us we are more familiar with. Setting aside the Body for a moment, Crowley's Illuminism was about awakening and mastering those six aspects of our psyches, much as Greg described awakening the Dara Happan souls. This is when the Illuminate reaches the Seventh...number 3 on the illustration below. THAT is the sphere where Babalon dwells. Thus she is the "Seventh Soul," where all the opposites come together.

Neat, huh.


But what happens when you transcend all those opposites? Well, you are introduced to circle number 2 on that diagram. 3 is Babalon, but 2 belongs to To Mega Therion, the Great Beast, also known as Chaos.

Without up or down, left or right, good or bad, we are left with Chaos. And number 2 there on the Tree is decidedly sinister. Remember when I said from the top down it was a map of divine creation? Well circle 1 is Unity...circle 2 then is Disunity, the All tearing itself apart. Christian theology would put the Devil here. Perhaps a better way to think of these top three is thesis (1), antithesis (2), and synthesis (3). Put another way, 1 is the contracted universe, 2 is the Big Bang--a huge, violent, terrible holocaust--3 is where the explosion cools and matter and cosmos begin to form.

So Chaos is dangerous, untamed, wild...and thus needs Babalon to control it. Borrowing from the Book of revelations, Crowley uses the imagery of Babylon the Great riding atop the Beast, as seen in this depiction from his Tarot deck, the Book of Thoth.

The Eleventh Tarot Trump

Now if it seems odd to you that Aleister chose to use the Whore of Babylon and the Beast as essentially positive symbols, let me just say quickly that he felt the Book of Revelations was a good thing, and that exoteric monotheism needed to be torn down and replaced. Like a good many Gnostics before him, he took negative figures from the Bible and made positives of them conceptually. 

However, the image of a unifying goddess riding a wild manifestation of Chaos--Chaos she has tamed to her purpose--is instantly familiar to Gloranthaphiles as well.

From the Glorantha Sourcebook.

In both cases, the Crimson Bat and the Great Beast, we are seeing a very similar idea being played out. In the Thelemic case, by taming Chaos, Babalon reunites the cosmos and we are restored to circle 1, Unity. This is essentially the argument the Lunars are making. Chaos is dangerous, but part of the Universe and it needs to be controlled. Once tamed, the universe can be healed back to Unity. 

But there is a deeper point to be made here. Primal Chaos, the Void the Dragons speak of, is the Perfect Zero state that preceded the cosmos. It was only when this Primal Chaos began   to be ripped apart into Elemental, Form, Condition, and Power Runes that lesser Chaos, the Chaos Rune, was formed. That Chaos, the lesser Chaos, is the one that needs to be tamed so you can get back to the original state of transcendence. Crowley symbolized this with a mathematical formula, 0 = 2. Primal Chaos tears itself apart into 2, or rather n and -n. That state of duality is the bad one, the lesser Chaos. Once the duality is reconciled, transcendence again.

So Wait a Minute...

...are you honestly saying that the Red Goddess is basically Babalon?


As I said before, Greg and Aleister were working with very similar mythological concepts. I don't honestly know to what extent Greg had the Whore of Babalon in mind when he wrote about the Red Goddess sweeping into the world on the back of a giant Chaos beast, but if we peel back another layer on the onion we get to ask an even more exciting question.

Who was the Whore of Babylon?

Most Biblical scholars will tell you "Babylon the Great" in the Book of Revelations is actually the Roman Empire. As Babylon had once held the Jewish people in captivity, Revelations appears when another empire, Rome, has enslaved them. I have the distinct impression that if you could explain the Biblical reference of the Whore of Babylon to a Sartarite during the Lunar Occupation, they would happily draw some Red Goddess parallels.

But the image itself has a far deeper history than the Biblical, and this is why Stafford and Crowley both employed variations of it. By the time Rome became an Empire, the Anatolian goddess Cybele had been adopted by the Imperium. She was called Magna Mater, the Great Mother, and was seen as the mother of the Empire and the manifestation of its power and authority. We have a number of depictions of her crowning Roman Emperors. This is likely the "Whore of Babylon" the Jewish rebels were speaking of, because Cybele rode a lion as her mount.

Magna Mater

Being a mythologist, however, Greg knew (as Crowley did) that this goddess was so much older than Rome. Long before the Imperium, with roots in the Bronze Age or older, we find a goddess associated with lions, sovereignty, and high places. We see her on Minoan seals:

In Mesopotamia they called her Inana and Ishtar:

And so widespread was her worship she remains in India today as the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess:

When I approach Greg's work in Glorantha, I always try to avoid looking at a single source, because there never really is one. The Orlanthi could be Norse, or Celt, or Greek, or any other Indo-European people. The Lunars could be Roman, or Persian, or Babylonian, etc. One of the things that makes Glorantha feel so real is that we all recognize it, because really it is patterned on mythologies that transcend any one given culture.

Back To Babalon...

Hopefully this has given you something to think about, to chew on, swallow, or spit out as you please. As I continue working on The Final Riddle, however, Babalon has been useful to me in filling in some of the gaps of Sevening. I think she and the Red Goddess are two manifestations of a deeper myth. I playfully made mention of their association in The Seven Tailed Wolf, but as The Final Riddle is all about Illumination I thought it might be useful to share my though processes here.

Thanks for reading!



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.       

Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Four years ago, on this very day, I tried to express my grief at the passing of Greg Stafford (1948-2018). For a man I had only ever spent a weekend with at a convention, and spoken with only over a few drinks, the sense of loss I felt was striking. It shook me to my core. And it turned out to be life altering.

As a kid I was obsessed with mythology; the D'Aulaires books of Greek and Norse mythology in the second and third grades, Edith Hamilton around grade four, dozens of others. I must have checked them all out of the library so often no one else in the school ever had the chance to read them. It was this intense interest, in fifth grade, that introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. A teacher had a set of the Holmes Basic Set and convinced me to GM it. "You'll love it, it has monsters and gods and heroes." She was right. I did.

I was excited to go to junior high school because they had a D&D club. I would get the chance to play, rather than run. To my surprise, when I arrived the older boys were not playing D&D, however. They were playing something called RuneQuest. That was how I met Glorantha. How I "met" Greg.

It was an earth-shaking moment because I realized for the first time that mythology could be created. While AD&D scavenged--it had pegasi and minotaurs and gods like Zeus and Thor--Greg was conjuring Orlanth's rivalry with Yelm, the Seven Mothers and their Red Goddess, Storm Bull dispatching the Devil with the Spike. Mythologies could be created...new mythologies! Soon after I would discover Lovecraft and Moorcock and Tolkien, but Greg showed me the possibility first.

I didn't really get to "know" Greg until I went to university, however. The plan was to be a history major, but in a comparative religion course I discovered Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and Profane.

...religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is pe­riodically reintegrated by means of rites...

That changed the course of my studies. I realized Greg hadn't just conjured Glorantha up. The setting had sources, forerunners. It was a revelation, of sorts. I felt I was following a trail of breadcrumbs Greg had left for me. I ended up spending the next seven years chasing it, moving into the study of ancient epic poems like the Iliad and Mahabharata. In this way I chased Greg's shadow throughout grad school, feeling a little thrill whenever I tripped across something that gave me a glimpse of where Glorantha had come from. Before I knew it I was a mythologist and Indologist. All from chasing Stafford.

It was in the midst of this that I met Greg in the flesh, at the very first RuneQuest-Con in 1994. Ironically, we talked mostly about Pendragon.

Then life got...complicated. A break-up. Leaving my country behind to cross an ocean and enter an alien world. It got complicated for Greg around the same time. Chaosium, the company he founded for Glorantha, was in financial trouble. He left and took Glorantha with him. As Hero Wars replaced RuneQuest I was in Japan, learning a new language, leveraging my linguistics background into a teaching career. Greg meanwhile was turning Hero Wars into HeroQuest, and way ahead of everyone else his Glorantha Trading Association was Kickstarter long before Kickstarter. I became a backer, and for the record the first edition of HeroQuest was the first Gloranthan book my name appeared in.

Life went on. While I had written a lot when I was younger--four novels in my teens and twenties, and in 1989 I had been the first winner of the New York Young Playwrights' Contest and the winner of it again in 1990--teaching had become my priority and the writing was happening less and less. This saddened me, so in 2012 I started blogging. To my surprise, the blog started to take off, gathering readers. Around the same time, Greg also returned to something he loved. He went back to Chaosium. As my writing picked up again, Chaosium was reborn.

Then came the news. RuneQuest was returning.

Threads seemed to be pulling everything together. Greg was back, Chaosium was back, RuneQuest was back. I was running "Six Seasons in Sartar" as a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign and blogging about it when I was asked if I wanted to review the new RuneQuest. Of course I did. I jumped at the chance. I published "Rites of Passage" on the blog a month after that review, then reviewed the Bestiary the month after that. The "Six Seasons" blog entries were becoming huge hits, and I was getting more and more messages and emails about them. Something was stirring. I had this feeling that "Six Seasons" was meant to be something bigger than blog articles, but had no sense of what or how. Yet with RuneQuest back, I knew "Seasons" had to be rewritten for it. I started the process. In the meantime, I reviewed the Gamemaster Screen Pack.

A few short weeks later, Greg had entered the Spirit World and wasn't coming back.

The entire next year, 2019, nearly every article on the blog was about the world he left behind. No, not this one...I mean Glorantha.

I think that year I had no real idea what I was supposed to be doing. The blog articles had a strong following, and I had this nagging sense that I was supposed to be following Greg's shadow again. I had no clear idea how to do that.

Until the Jonstown Compendium came along, and on its heels a very convenient pandemic that shut my school down and left me with nothing to do but write. Everything fell into place, and it felt in some sort of weird way that the universe was showing me what my next move was to be. No, that is an understatement. The universe seemed to be bending over backwards for me to do this. So the best way for me to honor Greg's memory, I decided, was to do what he did. Add something to Glorantha and share it.

Four years to the day after I blogged on his passing, it was announced that I was the 2022 winner of the memorial award in his name. The last two years, Glorantha has become more present in my life than ever, having published about 540 combined pages on the Haraborn in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and The Seven Tailed Wolf. I've worked with Jeff Richard on the heroquesting rules and written sections of the upcoming Sartar Campaign. I have two more Gloranthan projects to get out before the year's end. 

I'm still chasing Stafford, but tonight I feel like I have at least caught his tail.