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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!