Perhaps you’ve seen them at a local science fiction convention such as Comic Con: people dressed in Victorian-era garb but with strange implements of wondrous science that would have never worked in the real world. These are steampunks.
The single most common question I get asked as a steampunk author is: just what is steampunk, anyway?
Steampunk put simply is Victorian-style science fiction, fiction in the style of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. It is a Victorian world plus, one with strange mad science and wondrous steam-driven technologies from heavier-than-air flying ships to steam-driven mechanical computers to giant, track-driven land battleships to brass-covered automatons. It’s science fiction blended with alternate history — a Victorian era of “What If?”
While steampunk may have found its origins in the science fiction writings of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and others, writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, authors of The Difference Engine, have brought forward this style into the twenty-first century. And while much of steampunk focuses on science fiction, fantasy elements are not out of the picture either. Much of modern young adult steampunk fiction involves both vampires and magic. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, even includes zombies! It’s very much an ‘anything goes’ fictional genre.
The freedom and openness of the steampunk genre is built on the immense enthusiasm its fans have for dressing up and do-it-yourself costuming. While people can and do buy props and costume pieces off the internet, steampunk is much more about making your own gear and showing it off for friends and family. I believe the immense popularity of steampunk is one of the offshoots of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Harry Potter made it cool for people, young and old, to be readers and cool even to dress up publicly as their favorite characters. People in the steampunk community group together, often in costume, in local clubs called airships. Many airships have build nights in which the steampunks gather to work on their prop projects while socializing.
The openness of the genre is seen clearly visible in the wide variety of the ages of the participants. You are just as likely to see a retired couple costuming as steampunks at a local convention as you are to see high schoolers involved in it. And while rigorous debate often occurs between steampunks as to what is or is not steampunk, the community is unified in its desire that everyone should have a good time and that every effort at costuming and prop building be appreciated from the most expert and professional to the first effort of a newly steampunking child.
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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
Gary Bourgeois, David Ducorbier and Brandon Black — three of the contributing writers for the New Orleans By Gaslight anthology — will be conducting two steampunk panels at CONtraflow science fiction convention in Kenner, Louisiana on October 3rd through 5th. Details at: http://contraflowscifi.org/.
Also at CONtraflow — the New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Circle will be conducting a Meet and Greet on Saturday, October 4th at the convention. Members of the general public will be treated to readings from the authors’ current works and will have the opportunity to meet and mingle with the latest rising stars in New Orleans science fiction and fantasy!
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.
Book Signing/Release Party for New Orleans By Gaslight
Tuesday, October 15th, 7 pm. East Bank Jefferson Parish Library
4747 West Napoleon Avenue, Metairie, Louisiana
You are cordially invited to the book signing and release party for New Orleans By Gaslight, the first locally produced and locally written anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in the city of New Orleans.