Anomalous Thracian: Constructing Living Tradition
A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
Review of HOWL-CON YEAR ZERO
I am twenty-two hours returned from a trip to Portland, OR where I spent three or four days hanging out with werewolves at the debut “year zero” run of a brand-new convention called Howl Con which is put on by some Pacific Northwest con-vets who generally put together an awesome event which was entirely worth making the time for. I will be returning next year to present once again on Wolf Steppes: Walking with werewolves in Thracian, Scythian and Eurasian Myth, probably also returning to (and expanding on) Werewolves and/as Rites of Passage with my medievalist colleague (who literally holds a Ph.D in werewolf studies!) and whatever else I can cook up in the mean time and con the con into giving me a timeslot for.
But I digress; next year is a year away, so let me shift the focus to the weekend that has just happened, for those of you who were not able to attend. I was initially going to this as a purely social escape and vacation (my first since December!) from my work here in the Temple, which is full-time and demanding. I was subsequently invited by the organizer to present a panel or two. (“Invited” may be an overstatement: he simply assumed I would be, and asked what it would be on. So I did.) I arranged for capable caretaking support for my animal charges and companions – the Temple serpents, the crazed African raven, and the addle-minded felines – and kicked off for Portland just in time to catch the first rains of the city’s season.
Howl Con is not my usual sort of event, in a lot of ways. Though I (like many) have done my share of roleplaying, and have a rather large collection of genre fiction in my household library, the elements of “fandom” have never been driving forces in my life. Howl Con was an all-things werewolf event, but the programming had an obvious lean toward fiction and fandom – with some simply amazing talent showing up in terms of film, television, visual arts, novel writing and some big names from the RPG world – and I was feeling a little out of my element on arrival, and pondering the relevance of my non-fiction cultural, historical and social-spiritual presentations to this crowd. So, I busied myself with a cigar, a bottle of spirits, and socialized… as any self-respecting Thracian would.
Friday night was a meet-and-greet, which was intimate in scale and welcoming in atmosphere. Small circles of werewolves and werewolf enthusiasts (and authors, and artists, and scholars…) gathered and chatted and generally networked. There was probably some proverbial butt-sniffing going on as we all figured out why we were all there in the first place – in my case, I was still trying to figure that out for myself at that point – and generally a good time was had. I think that in some ways the connections made Friday night, at least for me, shaped the way that the next two days played out as those good folks became my perceived “central group” of the con’s attendees and presenters.
Saturday’s early attraction was, without question, two hours of time with Silas Weir Mitchell – TV’s Monroe the werewolf from the hit series Grimm – first doing a Q&A/signing and then sitting on a panel with the esteemed Rev. Dr. Phillip A. Bernhard-House, who (as mentioned above) literally holds a Ph.D in werewolf studies and wrote one of the most comprehensive books on the subject to date. Phil and Silas engaged with the subject historic accounts of werewolves in legal documentation (going back to the Hittites!) and addressed the varying views of shapeshifting as cultural metaphor, shamanic/spiritual transformation, or literal physical change. (I have a four minute video of one of their exchanges; if I am permitted to post it in terms of legalities and such, and also if I can figure out how to get it off of my phone, I will do so!)
Silas was quite enthusiastic and engaging, and seemed a very nice guy. Phillip Bernhardt-House, in many ways, set the tone for the con with that panel on lawyers, as he wound up on about six or seven other programming things (including three with me) with some really great continuity between the different talks, topics and avenues of exploring the werewolf mythos and cycle. The daytime scheduling for Saturday covered a wide expanse of the werewolf genre, from realistic wounds delivered through masterful special-effects make-up with Julie Corbett to werewolves in films to important information from the front-lines of wolf conservation work with representatives from Wolf Haven International. Everyone was having a blast and I don’t think I heard a single critical thing the whole time.
Saturday evening saw my nose to the grindstone, as I was asked to step into a panel on Shapeshifting Rituals and Talismans with Phil. We dove into it in a free-style and conversational way, and wound up with an excellent hour of engaged in-depth exploration and audience discussion that wound up as a great lead-in for the rest of the night. Immediately after this ended, I gave my Wolf Steppes talk – which was met with some technical difficulties and was a little slow to start, but turned into a great set of conversations on the Eurasian roots of werewolf myth and the tie-ins with ritual fraternal societies and the shaping of global history from the Proto-Indo-European migration days up to the rise of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan.
Caffeine happened somewhere in all of that, and then the third hour of talks started up with Werewolves and/as Rites of Passage, in a lot of ways a continuation of the previous two panels, with Dr. Bernhardt-House returning to co-present. We retained nearly all of our audience for all three hours and the group grew by the end, as we wove historic, scholarly, religious and spiritual components together into a socially-relevant exploration of our own current age, and its resounding lack of appropriate rites of passage and ritual expression. Phil gave examples of modern rites of passage that he has been involved in – especially the “returning rites”, which welcome a werewolf back from the wilderness and into the greater community – and then I drew parallels between ancient werewolf societies’ “introduction/initiation” rites and modern street gangs, military hazings, and tossed in more than a mouthful from the field of the sociology of deviance.
By the end of this programming marathon, I was both a little drunk on whiskey and incredibly enthused for the convention itself. Whatever doubts I’d had about the relevance of my views at a con that had originally seemed to be mainly for fiction-fans were thoroughly removed. I was humbled by the engagement of the audience at all three events, and the willingness to go into perhaps less familiar sides-avenues of the werewolf mythos, and I am grateful for their welcoming of these other avenues.
There was a live music performance (which I here was VERY good!) during that last Rites of Passage panel, and then the evening ended with a series of fantastic short films and a thumpy-strobey-spinny dance party.
Sunday I was slow to rise and missed some things, but hear that everything was just as successful as the first day. RPG veteran Satyros Phil Brucato was on a number of programming slots and had the rapt attention of a veritable legion of fans, and some really great writing talent from near and far was on site to present their works and discuss writing craft in general. In the early afternoon I was asked to step into another panel discussion on Global Shapeshifting Myth with Dr. Bernhardt-House and Jess Hartley of White Wolf Publishing fame, which was a fun discussion of other forms of shapeshifting, how to differentiate werewolves from other “shifting” phenomena in ancient myth, and the various reasons, causes, and functions of shapeshifting in general.
Sunday ended with a late-night after-party/dinner at a local diner, where some presenters (including author, pagan celebrity and all around queen of the wolf people, Lupa; artist and author Amanda Heller of StarDog Studios; and a whole slew of con staff and organizers) got to devolve into various states of post-con-delirium over pie milkshakes (which are exactly what they sound like, and apparently include a whole slide of blended pie) and fried chicken. This many-hours-long circle was in many ways a panel discussion unto itself, as topics of taxidermy and animal parts were addressed, discussions of death and dying and modern society’s disconnection and discomfort with these elements of the natural world, and personal shares from people around the table. Friendships were made, professional networking relations secured in some cases, and generally a great time was had by all…
This weekend was, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a howling good time and I can’t wait to see what next year brings! I want to extend my thanks to the organizers for thinking to ask this crazy spirit-worker into their midst, and in general for putting on such a great show for the whole weekend. I highly recommend this event next year – it even coincides with the Thracian Wolf Days in modern Bulgarian folk tradition! – and am planning on being a fixture in its programming for as long as they’ll have me!
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