Thursday, 3 August 2017

CanCon 2016: Wicca + Druids

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the former, as I put my secretary skills to the test again for Saturday’s 9pm panel on “Witchcraft, Druids and the Occult”. Panelists were Brendan Myers, Max Turner, Mary Pletsch, and Farrell McGovern (who also moderated). It was introduced as a panel that: “will attempt to answer questions, describe, and give a rough sort of idea of the reality of current and past paganism. As opposed to the various propaganda from other agencies.”


Max writes urban fantasy, and has a love of magic and fantasy and occult. Began as a D&D player, he wanted the truth behind the folklore, it’s an ongoing exploration.
Mary has a novel on her computer under a non-disclosure agreement. She has been practicing Wicca for 15 years.
Brendon is a cofounder of the con with Farrell. He has phDs, and has authored 17 books, including a four part urban fantasy based on druidic and old celtic ideas. He raised money on kickstarter for edits.
Farrell is a member of larger druid organizations, on world leadership council. Before that, flavours of Wicca. On top of that, a Discordian, with Eris as the primordial deity.

Farrell began with “What fiction and non-fiction has influenced your interests?”
Max: “Can we start the other end? I know you’re looking at me.”
Mary: “I have half baked ideas.”
Max: “I’d also love to know what’s practicing Wicca like.”
Mary: There were influences in books before Harry Potter and before Teen Witch, there was a series in the early 90s. Also Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy, that’s not where her interest came. She was drawn to God figures and Mythology earlier than she remembers, it was something she did before she had a name for it, despite being raised in a Christian-Lutheran household. Reconciled with faith taught by her grandmother. Mary said there’s a difference between Wicca and Witch. Scott Cunningham (author) is a great start, but simple, not meatier philosophies. “I’ll finish after everyone else.”
Max: The fantasy series that drew Max towards Gaelic culture was Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.
Brendon: “That was wonderful.”
Max: “Wonderful and accessible.” He’s listened to audio CDs with his children, and books in the car on long trips. A boy raised as a peasant farmer, tied in elements of Celtic mythology, even stole some names wholesale. Doesn’t explore religious aspects, more their concept of magic. With (he assumes) modern aspects, but there’s definitely faeriefolk. That was his entry point, and with D&D they placed characters in England and Wales, and tried to import more real history into the games.
Brendon: “My dad was born in Ireland”, a lot of Irish storytelling as his way of preserving cultural identity, wide breadth of history. With old Irish heroes, some of them were druids, sparked curiosity about his own heritage. Led to some happy discoveries with D&D, like druid as a class.
Max: And it was fun. Neo-celtic, there’s a more appropriate term, but it started in 17th century. They’ve reinvented it in a more recent iteration of game, Pathfinder RPG (2009).
Brendon: There’s a book, “The Druids Tune”, by O.R. Melling, who never wrote anything else. Two time warped back to 4th century, meet a druid who was responsible. Out of print but a wonderful little story. Made the idea of the other world accessible. Good urban fantasy and SciFi often has a character whose job is to be the wisdom keeper or provider, and a druid often figures in that way.

Mary: As far as fictions go, two books written by Kala Trobe. “Magick in the West End”. Wicca and Paganism, weaving into the stories, but if you don’t already know the practice and symbolism, stories might not make as much sense. Goes deeper the more you know. It’s nice to have anthologies that aren’t about telling people ‘you were a witch’ or ‘complete fantasy’. Also enjoyed series by Viviana(?). Magical city where vampires, werewolves and witches live... one of these things is not like the others. Witches aren’t people practicing, it’s superpowers basically, weird to have as fantasy creatures when they’re a real world thing.
Mary: For non-fiction, Christopher Penczak. A new writer, Thuri Calafia, “A Witch’s Circle of Fire” and “Circle of Water”. Not well known yet but solid introduction. Also a workbook “Wicca: A Year and a Day” it’s 366 exercises, forget the author (ED- Seems to be Timothy Roderick), but it’s written like a devotional, over the course of a year. And he’s just published a sequel.
Farrell: “I came to this on a convoluted path in terms of books.” He started studying Quantum Physics in high school. Led to “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, approaching the topic from a philosophical quasi-religious direction. Ran into Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, then as a lifelong reader of SciFi and Fantasy, Robert Anton Wilson’s “Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy”. Which was a sequel to the “Illuminatus” book trilogy. They talked about Discordians. At the same time, he fell in love with nice Jewish girl, searched on Judaism, and found a purple book by Margot Adler, “Drawing Down the Moon”. Which was an introduction to the Pagan community.
(Max asks for the name again.)
Farrell: Learned Discordians were real, and you could become one, so dedicated himself to Eris. That was his first phase. Then ran into “The Mists of Avalon” (Marion Zimmer Bradley), and stuff by Fritz Liebher(??), a long time practicing Norse Pagan. The only people he ran into were doing Wicca or Witchcraft (at that time, in the 80s, the terms were inaccurately used interchangeably). Then a book called “Gossamer Axe”, mixing mythology and urban fantasy, highly recommended. While running an online BBS, a person also said “you’re Irish, look at your irish culture”. Which led to him joining ADF (Druid Fellowship), and how he got here.

Brendon: Want a few words about the world, not just how we came to it?
Farrell: How about the reality of what you do and believe.
Max: “I’m not a practicing Druid or Wiccan. This is all new to me. I’d like to hear what the others have to say.” Such as Wicca as it exists to him is quite vague. A witch in literature is quite specific, the church says ‘this is what it is’. It was used as a land grab for the church, as a response to bad things happening, scapegoating. In historical research a fellow had done on harvests and witch burnings, a lot more witches were burned than normal when it was unseasonably wet. A fungus that infests barley causes involuntary twitches in women, so the response of a community is that’s an evil eye, they’re trying to curse you. You read weird things like that, you see it as an outsider, the word has all this cultural baggage. Max understands Roman Catholic rituals (not a practicing Christian, considers self an open minded atheist), but what those terms mean to you, what your rituals are, a suggestion of religion without ‘what do you believe’.
Mary: Witch is a loaded word. She’s learned about different magical practices or what she’d call “witch craft”. Some separate Wiccan and Witch. Some who are practicing magic say they’re not witches, for the reason you say. The “Benandanti” custom of doing rituals for harvest said, “We’re not witches, we go out to fight witches”, to appease the Catholic church. Had to spin up the whole mentality of “wicked witches” for their harvest practices.
Max: But what would be an example [along the lines of] rosary beads and confession...?
Mary: Practices is part two. You have Powwow artists in Pennsylvania, with a charm to stop blood, full of references to Jesus or Mary. If you say it’s witchcraft they’ll freak out because they’re Christians, their magic, they don’t want to ascribe to witchcraft, they do it in this Christian framework. If you talk in Africa, there’s words for good magic practices and bad ones. The word “witch” is quite loaded, people who would describe as doing “witch craft” won’t use the word witch. Rule of Three, what you send out to the universe is going to come back to you, what goes around comes around - some don’t want these laws of karma, or believe they’re restricted to harming none. They prefer “witch” to “wicca”. “Wicca” was only formalized in the 50s as a religion. We’re pretty sure there’s no organized underground religion, ideas and philosophy, yes, but unorganized; it’s been reconstructed based on works and thoughts.

Max: What does a Wiccan actually do?
Mary: Wicca is a lot like farming, it’s a nature religion that fits, thinks about, and works with the cycles of the earth, the turning of the seasons, the way that we interact with our environment... things are interconnected, whatever you send out will send out ripples, and ripples there get sent back to you. In that web, we can create harmony. If we work at odds against each other, that’s disharmony. Many look at phases of life.
Max: Who prescribes rituals? Like, ‘when there’s marriage, this is what happens’.
Mary: Lots of different sects, so it depends what groups you’re in. I’m a solitary witch, I’m my own priestess. Partner with nature.
Max: Is there any divine creator?
Brendon: Coming at this as a scholar, contemporary Paganism in almost all various forms, yours and Druidry, will tend to be one of three thirds, or some combination of them. (1) Panthenism. (2) Polytheism. (3) Humanism. The first is the idea that earth is the body of our divinity. The second says there are many gods, how we relate to them might be how we relate to anybody (worship, or contracts, or friends, or avoid them). The last says there’s something magical about being human, perhaps having a soul.
Farrell: “A friend of mine was a non-theistic pagan.”
Brendon: “I’m close to the Humanism corner of the triangle myself.” But view is there’s another world, there may or may not be gods. We’re exploring these different possibilities in our lives and in our fiction.
Mary: That’s good.

Max: What does it mean to be a practicing Druid?
Farrell: “First, I have to address the term Druid.” There’s a very romanticized view, the guy with the robes, long beard, staff with holly on it or something. Literally a view of old people, who had the wisdom before us, we must imitate them, it’s not really what a druid is. The hard part is we don’t have a lot of information about what the original druids did.
Brendon: “I wrote a whole book about it.”
Farrell: Most of the sources take a lot of interpreting.
Max: You get these little blurbs, no recorded language.
Brendon: True enough, first images of what it was, as said, used a golden sickle. Which comes from one fragment of Roman text from one guy who saw one druid once.
 (Brendon and Max briefly talk about mistletoe as I rest my fingers)
Brendon: Romans needed to portray elite of Celtic people in the worst light because had just conquered them. Had to say they sacrificed people. Archeologically, well, they probably did, a shallow pool or pond was found, with drowned political prisoners. With a religious veneer.
Max: Remarkably well preserved due to acidic bogs.
Brendon: Also found bronze trumpets. Probably an execution painted with religion to make it acceptable. Not unlike what Romans themselves did. ... Morgan Llywelyn has done a fabulous job of talking about living in a society where people believe that stuff. A fire that is supposed to be kept burning in a house goes out, a serious social faux pas, so the person who let it go out will have to go to the otherworld and explain it to the gods - aka, they killed her for it. Frightening how blasé the characters are about that, it’s simply “what you do”, but also understandable.
Max: The veil between the other world and this one were thin. Never like that with Heaven, having people going and returning.
Brendon: They built big churches to give an idea of what it was like. We don’t have the same impression from Celtic mythology.
Farrell: Back, after a long digression.
Brendon: But it was fun.

Farrell: Druids were the intellectual class of society. And the religious people were just one of a group of people, like lawyers or scientists now, they were those who observed nature and tried to understand how it works. Our school systems, we go through a regimen of training and then take that training and knowledge and apply it to the world, ending up with a group of people that become very influential in society because they have a large pool of knowledge that others want to hear about. Druid today, you don’t think about a priest, you think about an advisor, someone smart and wise. A powerful concept, like “witch” is, but in a positive way instead of a negative way.
Max: How do you distinguish Druids today?
Brendon: "We drink more beer."
Max: But how do you know?
Farrell: We don’t really know practices from that day. Framework’s based more on Christian than Pagan.
Brendon: At that time, married with Deism, belief that there is a God who created the world, who then stepped back and left us to our own devices to take care of our own affairs. That kind of Deism was how they thought they could ditch all the baggage and still be religious and scientific. Also overlaps with freemasons and quasi secret orders, which served then what labour unions do today. Among Britain’s first anti-roads protestors.
Max: Creating a social safety net.
Brendon: Exactly. Now taken care of in a public health system.

Farrell: These days, druids, we...
Brendon: Write books.
Farrell: We write books, all the groups out there have ways to improve knowledge. Ritualistically, many groups look like Wicca in terms of practicing. In Wicca you create a sacred space as part of your ritual. Druids, you see everything as already sacred, but you need to create a place to communicate with ancestors, nature spirits, and gods.
Max: In the modern world, there’s lots of pick and choose religions. Like Roman Catholics who don’t do communion, or don’t accept the pope as infallible.
Farrell: Only the papal bulls are infallible.
Max: But, you know...
Brendon: Harming the environment is a sin, we knew that hundreds of years ago.
Mary: My dad’s a Protestant, he takes it as Adam and Eve were left as ‘caretakers’.
Brendon: The Arch Bishop of Canterbury said something similar, ‘God won’t save us from global warming’. We’re off topic again.

The panel took questions for the last fifteen minutes.

Q: Consider Pastafarianism, those who protest many religions by wearing strainers on their head, it’s an organized movement. How do you look at something like that, a human construct (what all religions essentially are), and do you feel they’re mocking you? Since you’re non-mainstream enough to be recognized, without being stereotyped.
Farrell: Yes, they’re mocking us and it’s wonderful.
Mary: “Being a Wiccan doesn’t mean I have to dress in a particular way”, she doesn’t have to wear black. Some interpret ‘harm none’ by not eating animals, some are hunters who are fine with eating animals they catch themselves in the way cavemen and bow hunters did. Mary eats meat. Wicca is a faith where you are not interested in justifying yourself to a pope or an authority, it’s justifying it to yourself. Justify to your concept of God why you’re okay to be doing what you’re doing. People will hand wave things, but you are also your harshest judge. "That’s why I don’t care if someone want to wear a pasta strainer, I also consider it almost performance art."
Max: They are bringing to light odd disparities. What scares me is organizations can exist that bully and steal, how can that happen in the modern age. “I’m grateful, they make religion absurd”, not to undermine the faith, there’s good you can derive from some of the tenants in Christianity but many religions need a revamp.
Farrell: Something for the trickster, who can say the things that nobody else dares to say. Discordianism is a spinoff of this tricker movement. Pastafarians being the next latest version of, “the emperor doesn’t have any clothes”.
Brendon: Modern Druidism began much like Pastafarians. With people who’d had enough, but wanted to be people of faith, so they looked at history and said ‘we’ll dress like that’. After it was going for a generation, people found it meaningful. In the 1960s, the same thing happened in the US, Carleton College, when all students had to demonstrate attendance at a religious ceremony.
Farrell: New Reformed Druids of North America.
Brendon: Thank you. Then when the school rescinded the rule, a lot of people said it was fun, let’s keep doing it.
 (Max and Brendon say something I didn’t catch.)
Brendon: At the same time, environmentalism and feminism were getting larger.
Max: So maybe in 100 years, the Pastafarians too?
Mary: Wait until they have a schism.
 (Farrell makes a connection to the Druidism he’s part of)
Brendon: “I used to live in Ireland” and there’s a story about how spirits who lived in fireplaces had moved to microwaves. So there was a refusal to eat microwaved food, it was cursed.

Q: Much to do with language rites in Ireland too?
Brendon: Yes, it does, the Irish language was used for Catholicism as well, but those who’d had enough of Irish Catholic Church. Also, because they ran the schools and hospitals until 1970s, and only now are stories of abuse and power coming out. But still feeling spiritual, that the world is taking care of you, but not in context of catholic church.
  (Max and Brandon talk of Irish “Laundries” (asylums), and that broken trust in church but spiritual feeling, so going to old stone circles.)
Brendon: Here in Canada we might talk of sacred stones, there you can visit them.
Max: Walking through an old Greek city you get the same feeling as when you contact something ancient, that has taken on sacredness due to surviving.
 (Audience Member: Can get that in Canada too, but it’s harder close to habitation.)
Brendon: There are ancient sacred sites in this country, but they don’t belong to us, they’re First Nations.
Farrell: Sacred sites, like on the shore of the ocean. Not there to swim or sunbathe, but there, and look, and it’s very spiritual.
Max: There’s an energy that’s undeniable. There’s what you perceive, what your mind is telling you, but your senses are overloaded. Yet a message is still being communicated, there’s strength and healing power in the world.

Q: Care to address the importance of divine feminine?
Brendon: Good of you to ask that, thank you.
Max: Meaning ‘God as a man’ is a problem?
Mary: "I was raised in a Christian house", but where God was neither man or woman, aspects of both. In old English, mankind was ‘all people’ so God was ‘He’, but not really a gendered being. Others say God is a man, if you’re a woman you’re less than man, made from them.
Max: But ‘you shall serve under Him’, it’s religious, right?
Mary: Lots are eating shellfish too, we’re back to picking and choosing. One thing in Wicca is that, with your triangle, some consider them Monotheists, but like facets of a diamond it can be a male God, female Goddess, bigendered, androgynous, so many Wiccans will use the image and subdivide. A reflection of the duality in nature. Sun/Moon, Day/Night, neither is better than the other, neither could exist without the other. If you got rid of all the evil and things associated with it, you are in a desert wasteland, and you will die. Religion warped to serve an agenda, Wicca was more about bringing it back into balance. So those looking for women God forms, this was a place for that. Some swing the pendulum the other way, don’t want to deal with a male deity, some are trying to figure out how to bring gays in. “It didn’t work out that way for me”, it’s not that there aren’t bumps, but the fact that Wicca is open to deities for all expression, and there are those types of deities, it should be a space where all those things can be addressed.
Brendon: Everyone look at the women nearest you. That’s what God looks like. Think about this deeply for a minute, they’ve never been allowed to embody the divine. Now they are. If you know this, maybe we’ll all think twice when someone cracks a rape joke. Or when you’re sitting comfortably on a seat and an elderly woman boards who needs that seat. The idea that there is a divine feminine.

Farrell noted we were running overtime, any other questions he was open to people shanghaiing and asking questions. And Brendon has loads of books to sell. I approached after to ask (or possibly overhear?) about the Occultism aspect, is that like a procedure within this? Brendon said it’s another overlap. Farrell said there’s a joke whereby if you ask 13 Wiccans what it is, you’ll get 14 answers.

That concludes this panel, thanks for reading. Hopefully you found some of this to be interesting, informative and/or helpful. Feel free to drop a comment if you have an opinion or a question!

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