Monday, September 25, 2017

Introduction to the Akashic Mysteries

Despite the many philosophical arguments that spring up around Star Wars, the real intent behind “the Force” was to discuss religion. Of course, the line between philosophy and religion blur quite a lot in the best of times, but for the second philosophy, I want to discuss theology and, especially, mysticism, rather than “pure” philosophy (whatever that means).

I noted with Neo-Rationalism that Star Wars combines sci-fi tropes with the beats of fantasy. It has far future technology combined with spooky, ancient mysticism. Neo-Rationalism allows us to handle science, so we need our mysticism, and that’s the Akashic Mysteries.

Why not just jump straight into Communion? For a few reasons. Exploration is a deeply important part of space opera, not in the same way that it is in Star Trek, but more like the sense of wonder one gets when encountering a new culture or a new people, as so often depicted on the pulp adventures that inspired Star Wars. I want Communion to have the mystique of a distant and remote faith, something exotic and strange.

Star Wars treats the Force as an exotic and strange faith, one with ancient roots that Luke eagerly wishes to adopt. But the rest of the Star Wars works treat it as the only faith in the galaxy. Luke’s excitement would thus be comparable to a farmboy discovering Jesus: it’s not actually all that exotic. Consider, instead, the first Europeans, who already have a culture steeped in a tension between atheistic science and theistic faith, encountering Buddhism or Daoism for the first time. These faiths and philosophies have deep ideas that might seem new and, at least in the case of Buddhism, took certain elements of Western culture by storm! To me, this better reflects the intent of the Force, and is thus what I want to do with Communion.

That means we need to steep our native, human culture in that tension between atheistic science (Neo-Rationalism) and mystical spiritualism (the Akashic Mysteries). We can see the Akashic Mysteries as the human alternative to the mysticism of Alien religions. In fact, you could ditch Communion and center your game on the secret truths of the Akashic Mysteries, if you wished! An important element of an RPG setting is not revealing the truth of that setting to the reader, but helping the reader create his own truth. But the default assumption is that the Akashic Mysteries represent a cultural foundation for the Galactic Federation that has since faded when faced with new realities and the superior philosophy of Communion, and only has enough of a presence remaining to allow those players who wish to defy convention to get that rebellious thrill of uncovering a subversive philosophy that is both morally and mystically superior.

So, welcome, initiate, into the Akashic Mysteries, which (and I probably should have led with this) are the next iteration of the Oracular Order which has become so central to the Alliance and the Federation.

The Dune Connection

No doubt someone will suggest that I’ve borrowed a lot of my ideas from Dune. To this accusation, I say “Guilty!” Dune definitely inspired Star Wars and is one of my favorite books (one that gets suprisingly short shrift in an era where everyone is looking for sci-fi ideas that they can turn into long-running TV-shows of movie franchises). I think it might be fair to describe Psi-Wars as “If the Empire of Dune got jumped in a back alley by Jedi and Sith.”

The Akashic Order are the Bene Gesserit. They see the future, they manipulate your genes, they lie, they cheat, they have an important plan for the future of mankind, but explaining it would endanger it. They have a witchy motiff, with women dressed in veils quietly conspiring to manipulate you into some particular action for some mysterious reason. This is intentional. I want my Akashic Order to feel familiar, and beyond Warhammer 40k, Dune is likely the best known space opera property other than Star Wars. It also very much evokes the sort of feel I want the Alliance to have, of stately nobility who constantly squabble with one another, and where the Bene Gesserit manipulate the Houses of Dune, so to do the Akashic Order manipulate the houses of the Alliance (and, before, the old Empire)

But Dune also has fantastic perspective on time which I want to pull into Psi-Wars, especially in the context of the Akashic Order (later, we’ll look at how the philosophy of Communion argues against their take on time). The vision Paul Atreides has of the flowing of uncountable paths before him and his struggle to navigate them, and then his hard choice of the only path, the “golden path” for humanity is the same choice I want to give the Akashic Order. I just want to expand that choice out beyond a single person, so that a group of players can decide how they want to face that problem.

A Quick Minority Report

Nisei Mk II, from Netrunner
I’ve liked the Minority Report ever since I first saw it, and it holds up very well over time. The story behind it, though, is intriguing. The original premise of a “Minority Report” was not a conflicting report, but one that build upon the previous two. In the film, they needed three precogs because they “worked like a hive mind,” but in the short story, the first precog would predict the future, then the second would predict how the first prediction changed the future, and then the third, the strongest, would predict the future based on how those two predictions changed the future.

This creates a more tenuous future than Dune does, where the very act of predicting the future makes an impact. That gives us an excuse to isolate our oracles from the world and to isolate the believers from the true prophecies, because if people truly knew their future, they could change their future, which might not be what the Akashic Order wants.

But the Minority Report also, to me, shows what early Maradon culture might have been like: finding the rare few psions in their midst and pushing them into state service. They might have created a justice system based around precognitives, put telepaths into law enforcement or political roles, and slowly built their society around the unique talents of psions. Only later, once psionics became more common due to eugenics, did we start to see a wide-spread philosophy about their place in society, one that kept them in the elevated position of aristocracy, in the form of the Akashic Mysteries.

The Old Ways: Greco-Roman Oracles and Mystery Religions

I tried to follow historical developments of the ancient world for the development of the history of Psi-wars, both because that’s how Star Wars works, and because history is filled with neat ideas that we can borrow. If Communion is Christianity, breaking like a storm on the Empire that eventually causes its downfall (if we believe Edward Gibbon), then the Akashic Mysteries are the pagan religions that dominated the Empire before that point.

I drew mainly from Greek religion when building the Akashic Mysteries (but, to be fair, so did the Romans). I’m confident everyone should be familiar with the Oracle of Delphi, with her mysterious and sometimes incoherent prophecies that needed to be “interpreted” by priests, and often how they had mutually contradictory interpretations that meant that no matter what happened, the Oracle was always right. That said, the actual prophecies took place deep below ground, with the (originally young, female and virginal) oracle sitting over what were probably volcanic fumes, getting high on them and then having a glossalia fit, if she wasn’t actually talking about what she saw. In principle, she was getting in touch with the divine, with Apollo, and that the fumes brought her “closer to God.”

To me, this speaks of sensory deprivation (deep beneath the ground) and intoxication to create a powerful trance, all of which have obvious connections to the psychic, which we often associate with both. The use of a virginal young woman (which, by the way, we see in the Minority Report and, arguably, in Dune) speaks of a desire to keep the oracle isolated and “beyond the material.” She has not yet been tainted by the physical and can have a profound spiritual connection.

But the Oracles aren’t really a religion so much as a manifestation of an existing religion, just as a temple is not the basis of a religion, but an institution of a larger faith. For an actual religious practice, I wanted to turn to the Mystery faiths of Ancient Greece.

This is both tricky and handy because we know so little about them. This makes gathering up details difficult, but it also means that few people will wag their finger at me for getting those details wrong. At their core, especially the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Mysteries seemed an initiation into deeper secrets. One would go into the ground (and once again we have subterranean imagery), learn of powerful images (“Symbols shown”) and participate in a ceremony or a play in which one learned of and embodied greater symbolism. Psychedelics might have been consumed (another parallel with the oracles).

In principle, most of the Mysteries turned on seeing/interacting with the divine. By going into the ground, one symbolically died; while “dead” one could learn and interact with the powerful imagery of the gods and become godlike for a time, and then “return” to the world. The Eleusinian Mysteries turn on the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In it, Persephone is taken to Hades (she is “killed”), while there, she falls in love with Hades (“comes to know Death”) and eats pomegranate seeds (“partakes of the divine”) and then is restored (“resurrected”) but is caught in a cycle of death and life. She has a role to play.

The Akashic Mysteries also expect people to play a role in their eventual Coming Storm. Each house, each aristocrat, needs to know where they belong and what they need to do. The Mysteries reveal to them that they can defeat “death” in the form of this great catastrophe, but they must play their role. If one believes the Akashic Mysteries, the very act of being noble gives one obligations and traps him in a ceremony, one played out in the Mysteries.

The Mysteries also have degrees of initiation, how close to the “truth” they can get. This fits nicely with need to hide the true future from people, for fear that too much knowledge would introduce new variables that would invalidate the previous prophecy. It also creates a natural heirarchy. The feminine imagery of the Eleusinian Mysteries also fits the feminine imagery of the Delphic Oracle, which fits the feminine imagery I want to invoke with the Akashic Mysteries.

(Which isn’t to say that Mysteries never had masculine imagery. The Orphic Mysteries, which document Orpheus’s descent into Hades to recover his wife, and his inability to recover her, his inability to defeat death for another while overcoming it himself, might make for an excellent masculine version of initiation)

The New Ways: Edgar Cayce, Theosophy and New Age Mysticism

The “Akashic Record” is not a new concept. In the 19th century, the Theosophists first spoke of this idea of a “book” or “record” that was “written in the astral” which contained all human thought and wisdom from the past and future. Later psychic thought would cement the idea with the name of the “Akashic Record,” which was borrowed from a Hindu word for “the sky,” as this was an era in which Hindu and Buddhist thought was taking the world by storm. I first ran into the term with Edgar Cayce, who claimed that his prophecies came from going into a trance and “reading from the Akashic Record.”

The Akashic Mysteries build on that concept. The deepest level of initiation involves being guided by a powerful trance (“Going into the Astral”) and seeing the “shape of history,” or the Akashic Record.

Beyond that, I mostly wanted the name. I think genuine psychic spookiness gets short-shrift from modern sci-fi fans. They like the idea of psionic abilities but dislike the New Age claptrap that used to be attached to it, but psychic ideas arose in a culture of New Age claptrap. I wanted to bring some of that claptrap back into the game, in part as a nod to where these things came from, but also to note that given Star Wars’ mysticism, we should keep some of the mystical elements of our psychic beliefs. I’ll return to this concept again, especially as I get into more psychic powers.

What are the Akashic Mysteries?

The Akashic Mysteries are the result of powerful psions who have mastered the art of truly deep trances that grant them insights into the mysteries of Time, so that they can see farther into the future and past than anyone else. There, they discovered some great crisis, and they’ve since sold their powers to others in exchange for favors that seek to guide all the galaxy on a path that will avoid this great and terrible crisis.

The Akashic Mysteries need to be mystical. They must use mysticism to understand something so mind-bending and powerful as the shape of time. They use mysticism to cloak their prophecies into the things people need to believe to make their ultimate prophecy work. Then, finally, they use the prestige and influence they’ve built up to anoint certain people, “better” people, as the undertakers of their great task.

The Akashic Mysteries must seep into every part of life, because the tenuous nature of the future means that all people must work together and prevent introducing too many unforeseen variables into the equation. As a part of this, the oracles, those who have seen the future, most remain apart and isolated, “spiritually pure and untouched by the world” to keep the timeline, and their own predictive powers, unsullied.

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