Just got in a story from Kirsten Corby! Getting closer to the point where this project will be completed. There’s still time to get in a submission for The Other World. We can still use both poetry and short stories although at this point, poetry is needed more than additional stories.
The Other World is an anthology of poetry and fiction about the fey set in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Poems and short stories should be sent to blacktomebooks [AT] mail.com.
I’d like to have this wrapped up by the end of the month but if you have a submission and you want to get it in, just drop me a line and give me an idea as to when you think you’ll have your submission completed. I don’t mind waiting a few more days if we can put out a book of the size and quality our readers have come to expect.
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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.
Witches In Steampunk Fiction
Witches are and have always been a popular trope to use in fiction and screenplays, now more than ever. We are experiencing an occult renaissance due to a combination of an unprecedented availability of information on the subject and the lack of laws prohibiting occult practice and study.
The first thing to remember — as some witches will be very quick to point out — is that Wicca and witchcraft are not one and the same. Wicca is witchcraft to be sure but not all witchcraft is Wicca. Even here in New Orleans, where voodoo practitioners have told me that Voodoo and Witchcraft are one and the same, they wouldn’t necessarily say that Voodoo is Wicca, nor Wicca Voodoo. They are two very different systems that work to achieve the same ends. The easiest and quickest way to think of it is that these are both religious systems that seek to encapsulate the ways and means of modern shamanism. That’s painting with a broad brush to be sure, but it is accurate.
Wicca As A Steampunk Anachronism
Two points can be raised about the ahistoric use of Wicca as a magick system in steampunk fiction. Point one: Wicca is based off of authentic Italian witchcraft practice and the practice of other similar systems the world over for centuries. The exact forms and words Wicca uses weren’t assembled and complied until the mid 20th century but for the casual reader of fiction, that really is a bit of a quibble. Individual practitioners ever since Gardner’s time have substituted their own words and ideas for the specifics laid down by Gardner and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine witches of an earlier time performing rituals that were equivalent to Wicca with a few changes here and there.
The second point to raise is that the migration, if you will, of Italian witchcraft to Britain or anywhere else could have easily occurred naturally through increased contact between cultures. With air travel being as predominant as it is in most steampunk worlds, it would be perfectly natural to imagine interested American, British or persons of any stripe becoming aware of the ways and means of Italian witchcraft and translating those forms into their home language for use. And so, even though modern Wicca as it is clearly did not exist in English prior to Gardner and his fellows, there is absolutely no reason to avoid using Wicca as a basic form of witchcraft practice even in the 1800s — in a steampunk world, of course.
Wicca Is A Historic Form
The form Wicca takes as witchcraft was constructed by Gardner and his fellows in the middle of the last century but the forms taken and assembled by them come from actual historic practice. The bulk of what appears as modern Wicca comes from Italian Witchcraft or Stregheria. Gardner and his fellows drew from a book entitled Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, a detailed examination of Italian witchcraft practice. So, the complaint that what Gardner was doing wasn’t traditional British witchcraft, in that it wasn’t a form exactly that British witches had historically practised, is true. But at the same time, the point Gardnerian Witches raise that they are using the forms witches have used for centuries is also true.
More important, to the practitioners of Wicca, is that as a religious and magickal system, it works. Wicca provides for the needs of its followers as evidenced by its meteoric rise from obscurity to one of the most predominant alternate religions available today. Part of the appeal of Wicca is its use of ancient systems and concepts found in cultures all over the world. The use of the protective magick circle, for example, appears in ancient Babylonian magick. Wands and other such similar tools as used in modern Wicca were used by the ancient Egyptians. This makes Wicca particularly well suited for use as a system of magick in steampunk fiction. It’s not the only historical system to be sure and systems like Kabbalist ceremonial magick and Freemasonry practice make for useful study for specific applications but Wicca, especially eclectic Wicca, works very well as a general understanding of the ways and means of real world magickal practice.
Wicca As A Remarkably Rugged Platform
The ways and means Gerald Gardner chose to assemble Wicca out of are historically accurate magickal models — they just aren’t the ways and means used by traditional British witches. Ironically, enough time has passed that many of the groups practising strict Gardnerian Witchcraft refer to themselves as Traditional British Witches but the fact remains that the form of witchcraft practised by Gardner and his fellows was a recreation and not an unbroken tradition of British witchcraft.
Eclectic Wiccans have shown us through their actual magickal and religious practice that the means of Wicca make for an amazingly rugged platform to which the specifics of nearly any culture’s mythology may be attached and used as operators. There is Greek witchcraft and Roman witchcraft, Egyptian witchcraft, Babylonian witchcraft, etc. I know a witch — a male witch, mind you, in Milton, Florida who yearly conducts the assumption of the Goddess Kwan Yin from Chinese mythology.
Forms like calling the guardian spirits of the four directions and tracing a circle to work in are nearly universal and have been utilised by almost every culture on the planet at one point or another. Attention to the four quarters and pouring libations thereunto appears, for example, in Voodoo. While those with an attention to detail can and should do some research on whatever specific pantheon or culture they intend to blend with Wicca, it is of great utility to append a few choice details to the overall superstructure of Wicca when depicting witchcraft in fiction.
Powwowing, or German-American hexcraft, is an authentic historic tradition of witchcraft one may wish to study in detail to provide “authenticity” to certain depictions of witchcraft practice in the Americas in the 1800s. The objection that some will raise that it isn’t witchcraft — based on its use and manipulations of the Bible — depend on one’s definition of witchcraft to begin with and the use of the Bible can be omitted in any case in any particular fictional depiction as one sees fit.
To make myself absolutely clear — the Salem Witches were most likely not witches of any kind or stripe, just disturbed girls and the public hysteria reacting to them. But if one wished to depict them as authentic witches, then one could do worse than to make use of a system cobbled together from Wicca, Powwow and Freemasonry — the latter depending on the education of the individual witch in question. Detailed research into these matters may be counter-productive as folk magick tends to look like folk magick no matter who practices it after all.
The Best And Worst Reason To Use Wicca As Your Witchcraft in Steampunk
When I was in grad school, I was working on a screenplay about modern day sorcerers fighting a secret war in New Orleans. My instructor had made the suggestion that rather than research existing historic occultism that I just make the magick for the story up. I looked on this suggestion with some disdain as I had recently discovered Wicca and had found the ways and means of magick, both in Wicca and ceremonial magick, to be utterly fascinating and beautiful and assumed my viewer would likewise.
At the very end of the script, I had my main character cloak himself and his two companions with an invisibility spell. I wrote out the English words I envisioned him using for the spell and then purchased a forty dollar two-volume dictionary of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (yes, I am aware that such dictionaries are largely a guess at how ancient Egyptian would be spelled and pronounced based off of Coptic). I translated the spell into ancient Egyptian — my main character was Black and had a tendency to use Egyptian ceremonial forms — and placed the translated spell in my script.
We would do readings of each other’s work in our screenwriting workshops. Various students would take on the roles of the characters and one student would read the narration and stage directions.
My best friend at the time, Alan, was reading the lines of my main character, which made me very happy. We were, all of us, writers not actors, so our performances weren’t great anyway so I was pleased to have my friend act as my main character.
He reached the part in my script with the translated Egyptian spell. I was thrilled.
And instead of the translation I had so thoughtfully provided, he looked at what was on the page and said out loud to all: “Humina humina humina,” to which no one batted an eyelash and the reading continued. And so I put forward the best and worst reason to just go ahead and use Wicca as your witchcraft in steampunk — your reader won’t know the difference and most likely wouldn’t care if they did.
Some of Leland’s scholarship and translations have been called into question, however a more recent translation via Mario and Dina Pazzaglini answers most of these charges.
Without delving into the issue of secrecy in magick, let me just state that the texts of the Book of Shadows used by Gardner are all now public knowledge and public domain. Gardnerians have added on to this in order to make some sense of their traditions of secrecy and silence but everything at the core of the Gardnerian system is available to you via the library and the internet.
This classic by Scott Cunningham quickly and easily relates both the beauty and the structure of modern eclectic Wicca. If you only ever read one book on Wicca in your lifetime, make it this one.
I don’t know how to boil down why I became pagan.
I didn’t care for pretty much anything about Christianity. The whole Old Testament needs to go. A god asks you to kill your first born child, you’re supposed to tell him to go fuck himself, not wait around for him to laugh and say, “Just kidding.”
I don’t want to worship a deity who according to his own holy book wanted humanity to be ignorant and punished them when they learned too much. He lies about them dying if they eat of the Tree of Knowledge and the serpent (some how cast as the villain) is the one who’s telling the truth. I don’t want to worship a deity who by his own holy book is a drowner of infants. This guy gives the finger to every man, woman and child on earth except Noah and his family and even kills all the animals except the ones on the Ark. That’s just fucked up.
I don’t like how Christians go on and on and on about the Bible being the One True Word of God — when it suits them — and ignoring it because “well, you just have to follow Jesus’ teaching of compassion” whenever it doesn’t. I mean really. I can’t remember how many arguments started with a quotation of an obscure verse from the Bible that backed somebody’s pet theory. I can’t remember how many times I heard someone want to ignore some tenet of the Old Testament because “Jesus brought a new covenant.” Don’t tell me this is the literal word of God and then treat it like a salad bar.
I don’t like how judgemental Christians are. I had a co-worker who was talking with some nurses. The nurses get into a religious discussion and ask him to participate. He says no thank you, I don’t want to get into trouble. They say, no, no, we’re inviting you to participate. It’s okay. So he says fine. One woman says, “I don’t see how you can resolve a belief in reincarnation with a belief that the Bible is the literal word of God.” And my friend says, “I DON’T BELIEVE THIS (emphasis mine) but it does say that you have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The nurse doesn’t like this answer. She complains to her nurse supervisor. The nurse supervisor calls our home office in Mobile. The manager responsible for the site calls my friend’s manager who calls him into his office and says, “Don’t discuss weird things in front of the nurses.” I nearly started a shitstorm over that one until my own manager simply said, “Look — you just shouldn’t talk about religion in front of customers. The other manager just didn’t phrase it right.”
I don’t care for the “unspoken rules” that have cropped up around Christianity. When I was a teenager, I assumed that it was a bad idea, religiously mind you, to date outside my race. Nobody told me in those words not to date white girls but no one in my Baptist church ever did it and since everyone was always proclaiming how moral and better than the “people of the world” they were — it logically followed that actions you didn’t see any of the congregation conducting were immoral actions. Now that might be a race thing. African Americans, as a minority, have always had a “group think” that I’ve found distressing. But that it took one of my fellow high school students asking me: “Let me get this straight: you come home. Your parents are out of the house and won’t be back for hours. There’s this white girl on your bed and she’s naked and beautiful and ready to go. You’re gonna tell her no?” for me to realize “No, I’m not going to tell her no.” and that it was okay to date white women, that’s just fucked up. And it took me until college to be okay with the idea of dating a woman older than me. And I wasn’t the only one. I have a friend — he’s black too — who thought the same way. No one ever told us you couldn’t date a woman older than yourself — it was just assumed — and it was assumed to be because of religious reasons. The Christianity we were taught was the legs holding up the status quo — and without any rhyme or reason given. “Lean not to your own understanding” is the most fucked up concept imaginable — it’s just created for abuse.
I left Christianity because it made no sense. It had no rules, no rhyme, no reason, no structure. Killing was bad — unless the Israelites did it — or God did it to little kids. It’s the worst thing imaginable for you or I to kill children but I had a girl in my Sunday school class actually say to me “You don’t understand — God made us so He can destroy us.” Like your parents can just murder you and it’s okay. That’s fucked up. I was in the car with my Mom once and she’s listening some preacher on the radio and this guy is whipping his congregation into a frenzy. I think he was talking about David. He made some statement about David killing so many enemies of the Israelites that he was unclean and thus unwelcome in the temple. And the crowd is eating this up. And I just start shaking my head. And my Mom looks over at me and asks why I’m shaking my head and I just say, “Uh — thou shalt not kill?”
I came to paganism by chance. I was taking a creative non-fiction writing workshop at LSU and my instructor asked us to interview someone we were afraid to interview. I had heard of a group of witches in New Orleans and decided to interview them. I knew I was on to something when I pitched my project to the class and the table went “oooh!” I interviewed the then male co-coordinator of CUUPS (the Covenant of Unitarian-Universalist Pagans) and after listening to him go on about his politics for four hours, he invited me to attend their Wicca 101 classes as part of my project.
This is where I learned much of the basics of paganism — this and the books of Scott Cunningham, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject. Cunningham had a unique gift for simply, easily and quickly conveying not only the core ideas of the Wiccan religion but its inherent beauty as well.
Nature and ecology as the centre of one’s spirituality — this is a core concept. The Divine has wrought the world — by one means or another, who can say? And by understanding the natural world, we can understand the nature of the Divine Presence. And the first thing we note in Nature is plurality. There is nothing singular in Nature. We do not see ONE of anything. We see unique expressions of plurality — I am not you — you are not me — but we don’t see species of one. Even the Sun is just one star among many. Ecology — diversity — a dependence on interactive systems — these are at the heart of the Wiccan viewpoint.
Equality of the genders: Instead of a God, we have a God and a Goddess and all the myriad deities who comprise them. A Wiccan coven is led by a High Priest and a High Priestess working as a team, expressing the energies and force of their genders in tandem. Traditionally, initiation of a witch requires a member of the opposite sex. The understanding we have of the universe as being comprised of a multiplicity of forces is key here. Yin and Yang working together the way male and female come together to bring about new life. Fertility is key to Wicca. Other branches of paganism, particularly gay themed ones, de-emphasize this but the concept of a joining of diverse forces typically holds true.
Mysticism: We do not have a single holy book. Each of us is free to learn what lessons we will from Nature. I am fond of saying that “What is given for me to understand is not necessarily what is given for you to understand and vice versa.” Recall the story of blind men encountering an elephant. One man touches the trunk and says that an elephant is like a snake. One man touches the elephant’s side and says that an elephant is like a wall. One man touches the elephant’s leg and says no, an elephant is like a tree. The Divine Presence is like that. It is too complex an issue for everyone to have the same view as everyone else. We encounter different aspects of the Divine Presence in different ways. And we must always be true to that experience because I believe the Divine finds the best way to communicate to each and every one of us, if only we are willing to listen. So if you only encounter one God, then for you, there IS only one God. If when you encounter the Divine, you encounter the God and Goddess, then that’s what there is for you. If you encounter the whole Greek pantheon, the whole Greek pantheon is real for you. And you should structure your spiritual practice around these understandings. You should take no notice of anyone who tells you “This has to be done such-and-so a way or it’s wrong.” You should ignore that person entirely. Learn their reasons, give it a try if you care to but ultimately you must find the ways and means of religious practice that suit you and fulfil you and make you happy.
We do not proselytise: For the same reason as the above, we accept that you must find your own path. If you come to me and ask me to show you my path, I will but it’s with the understanding that my way up the mountain will not be your way up the mountain. We may walk similar paths near to one another and be able to talk as we go along the way but my path will always be a little different from yours.
Reincarnation: I like Babylon 5’s idea that “the soul is not a localised phenomenon.” It’s a bit more refined than my own simple idea that the Earth renews and reuses everything in its ecological sphere — so why not reuse consciousness? Living a single life to be tested and then die to go to some eternal reward just seems a primitive idea. That we, like matter or energy, cannot be destroyed but only transformed, just seems more valid, to me. We are renewed and then we go forth again to journey outwards to learn and to be.
Magick: Magick is a tough one but I do believe in it. I believe in the power of prayer — because that’s all magick really is — to change the world, literally. I believe we receive what we need from the universe and that we can take an active role in guiding the universe and it’s part of our tutelage by the gods that we learn how better to do that. But ultimately, magick is asking the universe for something and the universe is wise enough sometimes to tell us “No.”
So — that’s a little about why I’m a pagan.