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.