Alison Place:Opposed runes; Mind-body-soul

From: ian (i.) gorlick (
Date: Wed 28 Jun 1995 - 23:59:00 EEST

Alison Place here, not Ian.

        I'm sufficiently tempted by the ongoing discussion on opposed pairs to send in something again. (I got behind on my digest reading three months ago, and haven't submitted since.) This will be an exercise in amateur philosophy, so be warned! I have a biologist's argument for grouping things by pairs.

        Pam Carlson says, "Most cultures probably recognise the idea of opposed concepts, but they may have different attitudes to it." I disagree, because we are constructed with so many built-in pairs that regarding pairing as a fundamental natural truth may be unavoidable for us and most Gloranthans.

          It is extremely common in most human cultures to classify using opposing or complementary pairs. Why, I don't know, but some of my speculations follow. I think that the primary division into female/male among most animals (especially ourselves) is touted as one reason. Or perhaps it is because so many parts of our bodies have been issued in pairs, and we impose our bilateral symmetry on the world. It's also the lowest prime number, and as any taxonomist can tell you, the world is divided between lumpers and splitters. Of course, all of these may be mutually reinforcing.

        Even though triads or larger sets could be made up (e.g. dawn, day, dusk, night; man, woman, child; Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, Heaven; baby, child, adolescent, adult, elder; black, grey, white; etc.), in practise we boil them down to two when possible. The other states are then considered transitional between the primary two, or subsets of just one.

        How does this apply to Glorantha? Although my knowledge of Glorantha is neither exhaustive nor faultless, I don't know of any truly neuter people except the original Mostali. Adult dragonewts metamorphose into dragons, who are hermaphroditic; Clay Mostali are sexual, and bachelor newtlings will become male or female upon maturity. Aldryami may be part vegetable, but the male/female dichotomy is very nearly as powerful in the plant world. (They may consider plant, animal, fungus to be a prime triad, or they may consider fungi to be disabled plants or hybrids between plants and animals.) However, in all of the discussions to date, only human perspectives have been considered, so I'll stick to those.

          There is a very practical reason for differentiating between some states, whether your culture believes the states are phases on a continuum or not. Life/Death has been discussed, but not in this way. If you are a Brithini, the split is real. When you are alive, you exist, but when you die, you are no longer. (I'll resist the Monty Python parrot stuff, here.) You have become nothing, forever. For Lunars and many others, death is the period that your spirit endures before reincarnation or godhood. It is transitory.

        But what about the body? Both cultures agree that after the spirit departs (if there is one), the body will get very smelly, gooey, and unpleasant to have around. It can make quite good food or fertiliser, depending on mores. It is impossible to deny that it behaves very differently from a short while ago, when it could move and make noises. In practical terms, Death and Life are truly different. From there it is a short philosophical step to contrasting them, or putting them at opposite ends of a spectrum, or poles of a circle.

        Male and female make another distinct pair. In human societies, to beget offspring a male and female of the right ages must be bred together. Getting around this is considered a sign of superhuman or godlike status or favour. I know that there are supposedly cultures on Earth that claim not to have figured out that males are essential, but I believe that closer examination usually shows this to be a polite fiction. (Got any better info, John Hughes?). They're in the minority now, anyway.

        When you combine the two pairs above, you are discussing the creation and cessation of life as we can experience it. This is so fundamental to our species' continued survival that it is no wonder that everything else that can be is reduced where possible to two alternatives. I am not surprised, therefore, that Gloranthan humans have the same biases. The pairs are not merely God Learner constructs, despite Peter Metcalfe's and Greybeard's assertions to the contrary.

        As a challenge to the readers, how many sets can you think of that are not pairs, and cannot be reduced to them? I've thought of blue-red-yellow, quark flavours, solid-liquid-gas-plasma and that's about it. They are also apparently truths of the physical world, not cultural.

        The Hindu have four basic castes (plus casteless?), and the Shiva-Brahma-Vishnu triad. Although all sorts of peoples venerate various numbers as special or magical, and try to group objects or people into sets this size (e.g. three wishes, seven voyages of Sinbad, seven sisters in the Polynesian story of the bones of Djulung, twelve dancing princesses, x magical weapons, y magical items, z tasks, etc.), they are always grouped according to likeness, not difference.

        If people are dissatisfied with the philosophical grounds I've suggested for opposed runes, what potential alternatives are there? Some dualities will always remain, but some might be profitably rephrased or broadened. Our culture frequently considers mind-body-soul to be a valid set, but I can't think of any Gloranthan rune for mind, unless Knowledge/Truth would do. Would this triad be of immense religious significance to the Malkioni, as the relationship between persons of the Trinity was to Christians?

        One Malkioni to another, "No, you fool, only the soul goes on to Solace! The spirit is both mind and soul, and who needs to think in Solace in Glory? Damned heretic! Let me liberate your soul, so that you may experience salvation and realise this holy truth!"

        It is quite possible to have beings lacking one of the triad. Those without a soul are vampires. Those without a body are spirits. What you get without a mind is probably a zombie, but I'm open to better examples on that one. An anencephalic person probably qualifies as well.

        My suspicion is that the Spirit rune is far more important to Theyalans than has been considered so far. Spirit comprises both mind and soul. To them, the spirit is real enough to leave the body and come back, to survive it after the body is wormfood, and to attack, teach or speak with those whom it wishes. It can even be seen. It's neuter, too, as far as I know. It can be destroyed, but that goes for almost everything. For those who love pairing, what does it go with?

        As for the meanings of those pesky Life and Death runes, they have been interpreted in the past few postings as: Life/Death or Beginning/Ending or Continuance/Ending or Togetherness/Isolation or Growth/Decay. Peter Metcalfe is no doubt right when he says that different cultures will give the same runes slightly or completely different meanings and emphases. These various positions give immense scope for Gloranthan sages to quibble for eternity as to the distinctness or appropriateness of various pairings, much less the concept of pairing itself. Then there are the relationships of these meanings to Order/Disorder, Harmony/Discord and Fertility/Death. Please, don't deny umpteen Grey Sages, Kralorelan scholars or Rokari wizards their doctoral thesis material!

        Hope my speculations have contributed, and bye for now. Alison

End of Glorantha Digest V1 #332

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