[Glorantha]Re: [HeroQuest-RPG] The limits of Myth (was Apple Pie and Characteristic Mythology?)

From: Jonathan Quaife <jonathan.quaife_at_majotech.com>
Date: Thu, 26 Feb 2004 00:12:48 -0000


Hello John

Jolly good. I enjoyed your comments. I don't have time to answer all of them, nor I think would it make the discussion interesting for others to do so, but first off I should say that I agree with everything you wrote. Your approach is a little more anthropologically oriented than mine, but reading between the lines I think we're talking the same language.

I read and enjoyed your article in Tales #20. Especially the Spindle Spears (kin of mine, I reckon).

First off, to take your key points briefly:

You ask...

"The basic campaign question is, how far can a myth be wrong before it
becomes useless?"

I'm not sure a myth can ever be 'wrong' (or useless). To paraphrase your words, "The world is made of story... Myths are in a sense reality creating and reality sustaining." Surely, isn't a new component to a myth simply another component to its meaning? (Again, as you cite: "Every answer is a clue to the next meaning").

I should add that in this (Gloranthan) context my feeling is telling a story differently doesn't change the myth because simply 'telling' a story perhaps isn't possible in a Gloranthan context the way it is (for most of *us* at least!) in a real world context. The story itself is the bond between the archetypal reality and mundane reality. I would say that in fact the story is a bridge to the experience of the myth--the sacred act of telling will never be entirely independent of this experiential component.

You also write that, "Heortlings don't seem to have trouble with competing or conflicting versions of myths, and have never seen a need to institute central religious authorities to guide and legimitise religious and mythic expression the way the Darra Happan and western churches and centralised cults do..." To which I would add that change is surely (and anyway) a part of all religious traditions. Some may deny it occurs (or perhaps, more likely, embrace it with a view to the past), but the essence can only be that change is the norm. "The world is broken, now we must remake it".

AnotheR question that you pose is...

"But for us as GMs... Do myths really exist for everything? Can a
sufficiently powerful group of questors stretch a myth indefinitely, or is there a breaking point?"

My real contention is that if there is a myth for everything, then myth becomes boring and loses its essential function (as conduit through which the numinous can be approached). I would say that myth is important where social values are tested, but not necessarily elsewhere. In Glorantha I would say that all ritual relates to 'the mythic' but not necessarily to specific 'myths' in the sense of myths as stories. Put another way, in Glorantha all ritual does relate to an experience of what I might perhaps describe as mythic 'pericopes' (not the experience of a story but an experience of the divine in a given context), while some particular rituals could relate to a myth or series of myths in the sense of a 'story'. A little more in this below.

On the second question, "Can a sufficiently powerful group of questors stretch a myth indefinitely?" The limit I would think is a function of the questors and the society that supports them. Here I think that this isn't so much "stretching" as "experimental heroquesting". "Stretching" a myth is surely myth shaped by Will, just as experimental questing, and experimental quests will usually begin in familiar mythic terrain.

Secondly, developing slightly on our earlier posts:


JQ: The secret of mythology is surely that myth alludes to occult and mystery. In this way it conveys something of the numinous.

JH: Your other key question seems to be how much myths *implicitly* reflect the biases, blind spots and cultural biases of the tellers. In the real world this is easy - and your Greek example is a good one. There are key themes in Greek myth: the gods' indifference to individual human life, the divine concern with justice and vengeance, though on a longer time scale than humans can comprehend, the necessity for humans to learn their own limitations, and their incomplete understanding compared with that of the gods. That last one doesn't seem to be a feature of Gloranthan myth! - or does it? :) We can also see the myths evolve over time - the gods become more abstract as we jump from Homer to Vergil, and certain themes become more important - say the growing interest in a positive afterlife as we approach the Christian era. ... Can we see these themes in Heortling myth? Well yes... the obsession with, and horror of, kinstrife is a one example. But does it creep into the story through human transmission, or is it a feature of the raw myth itself? For me, that question is unanswerable. YGMV.

My issue is more that myth less reflects the norm of life and represents more the extremes or violations of it. On the other hand I agree it is possible to go far too far with real world analogy. More on this below, because here it is better to focus on the practicalities from the point of view of authorship and narrative. There are many themes that could be developed to imbue (for example) Heortling mythology with a more mysterious feel. I kept your insights above on transition in Greek literature just for example. We could interpret or imbue a similar transition in Orlanthi myth and saga, should we choose to do so...

For example, on indifferent (or at least aloof, remote, incontactable) gods... In Heortling myth the gods *do* abandon humankind (or at least leave humankind to fend for itself): this is certainly a theme in the Greater Darkness---Second Son, the Star Tribes, and so on. I think there's great storytelling potential along these lines, in fact--especially given the ambiguous identity of Vingkot as a 'sort of god' and 'sort of man'. On vengeance and capriciousness I reckon the Sword and Helm saga certainly offers some great opportunities.

Admittedly, these themes are quite Hellene, so if this is not to taste, there are lots of other opportunities. For example, Orlanthi myth certainly has some great mystery religion potential (anybody fancy a dip in the Baths of Nelat? Could this have something to do with the origins of Aeolianism...), and the Thunder Brothers present a real temptation to introduce a nameless and collective source (and not far from home, unlike the Vadrudi) for myths about kinstrife and skullduggery. Perhaps this should, in fact, be their primary storytelling role; as bad, jealous Orlanthi juxtaposed (and related) to key role-models such as Hedkoranth or Barntar. Here I'm thinking in terms of the flavour of the demons in Hindu myths, or Loki and the giants in Scandinavian literature--always in the background of the story causing trouble, with the added zang of constantly trapping role-model characters in the web of familial honour and obligation ("There is no greater curse than the curse of kin...").


JQ: Often myth is challenging, frightening, or even (and perhaps especially) subversive. Also, framing mythology in this style is much more interesting from a gaming and story-arc point of view. JH: Most of our myth-making is campaign focussed. After all, Gloranthan myth is primarily a template for action.

Yes, this is the paradigm, although taking it too far it leads us to the
"while Orlanth was away from the stead" trend. Real world analogies are
helpful here only (but also especially) because they help us identify what is interesting to preserve from a storytelling and gaming perspective in terms of sacred mystery in myth. A deity may be a patron of housewives, but my feeling is that we don't need housewife mythology to substantiate the point (personally I find that this type of 'mythology' in a Gloranthan context tends to leave me feeling unfulfilled). There are plenty of real world deities and saints who are patrons of obscure things without stories or myths that explain the association. As mentioned above, I don't feel it is necessary for every association or ritual to have a complete myth to explain it.

To develop this a little. Should we distinguish between myth in the sense of 'story' and, perhaps, myth in the sense of 'pericope', then paraphrasing your words above, the question that would perhaps follow would be: "When is myth (in the sense of 'story') a template for action?" Two criteria spring to mind: (1) in circumstances of transtion such as: birth, initiation, marriage, death, and the transition of the seasons and crops; and (2), perhaps much more prominently, in circumstances of crisis such as: disease, famine, war, ritual or magical crisis, and circumstances of social change that challenge the accepted status quo (for example the arrival of new deities, rites or cults, or of customs that challenge accepted gender roles or the power structure of the social group).

There you go, now you've got me writing like an anthropologist!

To paraphrase your question, "Does an Orlanthi obsession with (for example) kinstrife creep into myth through human transmission, or is it a feature of the raw myth itself?" From my side the key driver for all this is that because many of the circumstances in (2) are unusual, this provides opportunity aplenty to construct myths more in a subversive and challenging mode, perhaps by using themes that could test familial relationships or that will provide benefits that come with a sting in the tail. Where a mythic story, for example, carries the consequence of the hero's brother being killed or murdered by his mother (possibly not a good example in the context of Orlanthi plot-twists, I admit), then this could be consequence for the heroquestor's brother also, although perhaps not in the context of the quest itself. Perhaps the heroquestor didn't know that part of the story when he set off, or perhaps a divine opponent he meets on the quest is only afterwards revealed to be a valued friend or kinsman upon the questor's return... Or perhaps your player heroes out of desperation are torn between conducting a quest that they know will bring kinstrife upon their clan or are forced to face terrible consequences in the immediate term if they do not... This of course means your question remains a question, and that our games remain all the more interesting for it. What is key is that kinstrife in is the myth, or is peripherary to it (perhaps in terms of the myth's characters' motivations) even if not in the original mythic archetype from which it stemmed.

Finally as a virtually irrelevant aside, but one hopefully demonstrating my own recognition of Gloranthan uniqueness, my impression is that, unlike in Glorantha, real world ritual seems to bear only passing relation to myth. Some associations seem to imply that myths represent in some few instances a retelling of the pattern of ritual, but these examples are very hard to find. We have James Frazer and his erronious interpretation of the Babylonian Akitu festival, followed by Eliade's tendency to repeat the ideas of others without cross-examination, to blame for the idea that ritual somehow represents a re-enactment of myth. In the real world the relationship is subtle and not, I suspect, direct: both myth and ritual relate primarily (let's say 80%) to a greater mystery, and only secondarily (say 20%) to each other. To develop this I recommend checking out Fritz Staal, "Rules Without Meaning", on ritual. Most commentators seem to think that he goes too far, but that he makes some interesting points nonetheless.

All the best for now,

Jon!

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End of Glorantha Digest Received on Thu 26 Feb 2004 - 06:57:29 EET

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