"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.

Monday, August 28, 2023


This is the second part of a discussion of the recent Chaosium releases for RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, three titles for The Cults of RuneQuest series: The Prosopaedia, The Lightbringers, and The Earth Goddesses. The Prosopaedia was covered in Part One, the second one is here, and the final book will appear in part three.

The Chain of Being and Glorantha

In Part One I frequently used the phrase "chain of being" to describe the worldview of pre-Enlightenment (and Gloranthan) societies. Before I go on with the review, I'd like to clarify what I meant by that.

Capitalized, the "Great Chain of Being" was a specific Western tradition that is said to have started with Plotinus (205-270 CE), but is based on much earlier ideas from Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus is credited with founding the Neoplatonist school, and the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturæ, was one of the school's core principles. The idea would be incorporated into both the Hermetic tradition and by St. Augustine (under the name Scholasticism) into Christianity. 

At its simplest, the Great Chain of Being perceived a hierarchical or "tiered" cosmos. At the highest level is absolute unity, what Plotinus in his Enneads referred to as the One but Augustine and the scholastics would call God. The One exists on a plane all by itself. It cannot be described because there is nothing else to compare it to. It cannot change because there is nothing else to become. It is thus eternal, ineffable, and timeless. Plato called this the Good.

The cosmos is created then by the One slowly becoming the Many. From the One emerges the "ideal forms." These inhabit the second level of existence. They are borrowed directly from Plato, who taught that ideals were perfect, eternal, and transcendent. For example, individual cups might come in all shapes and sizes, they can be chipped and broken. But the idea of a cup, of "cupness," transcends any individual cup and will always be there. All cups contain the idea of cupness, but no single cup can ever define the whole of what cupness is.

These ideas begin to interact, to combine, to affect each other. This happens on the next plane down. From these interactions, the physical world that we live in is formed.

You probably see where I am going with this. Glorantha also begins with the One. The dragons call it Ouroboros, the Malkioni call it the Invisible God, many other societies call it Chaos (original Chaos, i.e. the Chaosium, not the Rune Chaos). From this unity emerges the ideas...the Runes. These are the perfect forms, eternal and transcendent. The Runes then interact with each other creating the gods and goddesses and their interactions create the world our player characters and NPCs live in.

Wait...was Greg Stafford a neoplatonist? Not necessarily, because much of what I just described above can be found in ancient cultures all over the world. In ancient Egypt ma'at emerges from Chaos, causing the gods to form, and the gods create the world. In Mesopotamia, Apsu emerges from Tiamat and they give birth to the gods, who in turn destroy Tiamat and from her fashion the world. The idea is in the ancient cosmologies of India and China. It's in most Indo-European traditions. Similar patterns exist in the myths of numerous indigenous peoples. Thus it made sense that if you were going to create a world to explore mythology, the chain of being was a natural fit.

But here is the really important thing. In a system where a chain of being exists, there is connection. "As above, so below." Through magic, or worship, or raised consciousness, an individual can interact with the levels of being above them. The universe is interconnected, highest to lowest. Your character's Air Rune affinity connects you to Orlanth and above him the Air Rune itself. The Runes run through everything, holding the universe together. And perhaps it is even possible to transcend these Runes and glimpse the unity behind them...but let's leave the discussion of Illumination for another time!

For now, let's dive into the primary vehicle characters have to explore the chain of being in Glorantha, the cults.

The Lightbringers

It seems to be almost a law of physics, that the winds of change awaken fear and fundamentalism...Things do fall apart. It is in their nature to do so. When we try to protect ourselves from the inevitability of change, we are not listening to the soul. We are listening to our fear of life and death, our lack of faith, our smaller ego's will to prevail.

Elizabeth Lesser 

What's In a Name

The pantheons of Glorantha are named after one of the great Elemental Runes that the gods of that pantheon descend from. From Nakala came the deities of Darkness. From Nakala's daughter Styx--the Waters of Darkness--came Zaramaka, the Elemental Waters, who spawned the deities of Water himself. Next arose Gata, the Primal Earth and mother of the deities of Earth. Then Aether appeared, and sired the deities of Fire and Sky.

Moon came much later, inside of Time, reborn from dead goddesses by the actions of mortals. While some of this pantheon descend from the Red Moon Goddess, many others are mortals who became divine.

Inbetween the Lunar deities and those of Darkness and Water, Earth and Sky, there is one other. The story starts with Umath, god of Elemental Air...but it doesn't end with him. If it had, we might call the pantheon he originated the "deities of Air" or perhaps the "storm tribe." But they stopped being just that when Orlanth came along. They became something more.

Umath's first act was violence, tearing his mother Gata and his father Aether apart to create a kingdom for himself between Earth and Sky. Indeed, violence would come to characterize the tempestuous pantheon he fathered. Yet there is a myth in The Book of Heortling Mythology, and it will be re-appearing in the upcoming Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology book, that plants the seeds of what this pantheon was destined to become. I want to summarize it only quickly here.

Umath made a lot of enemies, and it came to pass that a number of them decided to conspire against him. Myth calls them "giants," but really they were old gods...Genert, Magasta, Lodril, and others.They struck at Umath by seizing his sons and tossing them into pits, each with its own danger. Vadrus--the most violent of the brothers--they tossed into water to drown him. Urox, the Storm Bull, they tossed into the Animal Corral for the beasts to eat him. Humakt was chucked into the Fighting Pit. Ragnaglar into the Sex Pit, where they hoped he would be driven mad. But here comes the important part: Orlanth they threw into the Pit of Strange Gods, where they expected to young god to come to blows with these strange and foreign deities.

In the way of myths, each of these tests revealed who the gods really were. This was the basis of my adulthood initiation, "Rites of Passage," in Six Seasons in Sartar. Orlanth, who matters to us here, ended up winning over the Strange Gods, making peace with them, and leading them in an escape from the pit.

Now, I tell this story now because this test of character revealed the truth of what Orlanth is. He does exhibit his father's violence, but he also can make peace. He builds alliances. he embraces outsiders. He leads.

When Umath is killed, Orlanth comes to lead the pantheon. The cosmos is falling part. The gods are at war. Orlanth started it, and he becomes determined to finish it. Having killed the sun god Yelm, Orlanth decided to descend into the Underworld and liberate him from Hell. As he undertook his quest, he met, and recruited, more strange gods. Lhankor Mhy and Issaries, both sons of two members of the Celestial Court. Chalana Arroy, daughter of Glorantha herself. Eurmal, the Trickster. Flesh Man, a mortal driven mad by what he had seen, and most enigmatic of all, Ginna Jar, who was perhaps the ghost of Glorantha herself. Together they would face impossible challenges, and by the end the cosmos would be bound together by Time, forever changed yet preserved. They led the sun back to the world and the deities of Air were never really that again. They were the Lightbringers now.

Just as the pantheon had changed, the people who followed the old storm gods changed too. Once called Vingkotlings and later Heortlings, they had a new name now and a new mission. Called the Theyalans--the people of the Dawn--they spread out far and wide helping people understand the change of the world and the new order under Time.       

So now. Let's discuss The Lightbringers.

The Book

Weighing in at about 164 pages--including a very meaty index--The Lightbringers is our first proper look at the Cults series. Not strictly limited to the deities of Dragon Pass, it includes the kin of Umath, the Lighbringers recruited by Orlanth, and some of the neighboring gods of Prax who the Theyalans--or their descendants the Sartarites--have had long relations with. The full assemblage is here:

With the deities included in The Earth Goddesses, GMs and players will pretty much have Sartar, Esrolia, and Prax covered...the traditional stomping grounds of the game.

There is a lot here that will be familiar to longtime RuneQuesters. The book kicks off with the poetical Songs of the Storm Voice, and then a section of what a young Orlanthi asking questions about the world might be told. "Where did the world come from?" "Where did I come from?" "What happens after we die?" "How do I do magic?" Etc. This is a tradition that started way back in RQ3, and it is terrific to see its continuation here. Then there is a summary--a sort of mini-Prosopaedia--listing the gods and goddesses a person living in the region of Dragon Pass might know of, most of which are not covered in this book. A long section follows on the Lighbringers, as they are really the heart of this pantheon. Then we get into the cults proper.

The cult format is familiar too, following the pattern established way back in RQ's first and second editions. We start with mythos and history, the story of the god's actions before Time and the actions of their followers after the dawn of Time. The otherworldly home of the deity is detailed, followed by the promises of life after death offered to followers, its Runic associations, and in a nice new touch the deity's iconography. And this is where we pause a minute to talk about what is not familiar, and unique to this edition.

RQ started as an American game, but rapidly became a hit (particularly with RQ3) in Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. In 2023, it's spread way beyond that. There are passionate fans here in Japan, and I have been contacted by groups in India and South America (the first group to actually livestream Six Seasons in Sartar was in Brazil). Mythology is universal, but also very local. Everyone exposed to it sees reflections of themselves. What I think this edition of RQ has managed is to tap into that universality, particularly with the art. Loïc Muzy, Agathe Pitié, Katrin Dirim Antonia Doncheva, Andrey Fetisov, Ossi Hiekkala & Roman Kisyov make The Lighbringers a feast for the eyes but also deliver the most far-reaching and universal imagery RQ has ever seen. By way of example, let's walk through this depiction of Orlanth.

  Click to enlarge

Orlanth here is armed with very Greek or Near Eastern weaponry, a nod perhaps to Zeus (or even Yahweh, who started as a storm god). His horned helm and red beard remind us of Thor. His "thunderbolt" is a vajra, a clear nod to whom I think is Orlanth's closest mythological cousin, the Vedic thunder god Indra. And the dragon head could either be Chinese or Persian, and that, my friends, opens up a huge can of...wyrms.

Thunder gods fighting dragons is unbelievably widespread. Thor and Jormungandr. Zeus and Typhon. Indra and Vritra (a dragon who swallows up all the waters of the world and causes a drought until Indra slits his belly open...vaguely familiar?). Yet we could go much, much farther afield. Hé-no is the thunder spirit of the Iroquois and Seneca peoples of North America. When his friend Gunnodoyak is swallowed whole by the Great Water Snake of the Great Lakes, Hé-no fights the serpent and--you guessed it--cuts open the serpent to liberate his friend. Thus dragons feel like a necessary part of Orlanth's iconography.

Detour over now. In summary my point is RQG seems to be making a concerted effort to remind us that Glorantha is myth and myth is bigger than any single culture. 

Cult descriptions continue with why the cult exists, what its likes and dislikes are, how it is organized. How are temples organized? Where are its centers of power? What are its holy days?

Then we get into the meat and bones for player characters, how to join the cult, progress through its ranks, what powers and skills it offers. I summarized all this on Part One. There is a discussion of subservient cults and allied ones, and in some cases what the cult looks like in lands outside of Dragon Pass.

One of my favorites parts are the "other notes" at the end of these cult write-ups, little snippets of lore than add color and texture. What celestial bodies are the gods associated with (I love discussions of the Gloranthan night sky), what "in-cult traditions" does it have (Chalana Arroy initiates carefully sweeping the grounds of her temples to avoid stepping on and harming any insects, the Eurmali's role as the clowns of Orlanthi society and the function they serve, a long discussion under Issaries of trade in Dragon Pass, and the hysterically poor cataloguing systems of Lhankor Mhy temples!). There is so much here that helps make Glorantha live and breathe.

Closing Thoughts

This is a big book.

Not necessarily in page count, but in the territory it covers and the ideas it presents. RuneQuest was arguably the first game out there that ever seriously gave attention to religion, mythology, and magic and The Lightbringers keeps that legacy going. Better still, it is not just a reprint of what we've seen in the past. Lightbringers is pushing the game forward in some really striking ways. Some detractors will wish for less art and more text, perhaps, but as an educator one of the first things you learn is that not every student learns by text. There are visual learners too, and these pictures are all worth thousands of words. Others might wish for presentations of Glorantha more "days of yore," a Cults of Prax carefully preserved in amber. But Cults of Prax was a weird, radical, and daring book, and for RuneQuest to stop pushing forward it would fail continuing what Stafford and Co. put in motion. In an age when Certain Other Fantasy Games are increasingly playing it safe, The Lightbringers takes risks.

And just wait until I talk about The Earth Goddesses. We saved the best for last. 




No comments:

Post a Comment