Pennsic 34

The Society for Creative Anachronism is a medieval reenactment organization that spans several continents. Unlike Renaissance Faires, its events are put on by and for members, not for profit or for entertaining the general public. The SCA is a living community and culture based on ideals such as chivalry, honor, courage, wonder, creativity, and scholarship. Hands-on activities include many forms of combat; traditional arts and crafts like weaving, illuminated manuscripts, smithying, woodworking, and so on; there are musicians and storytellers, dances and feasts and battles. Kings, queens, and local rulers administrate the various geographical areas with the assistance of officers and many willing hands. The SCA is a nation of the imagination with a 39-year history, legends and customs that knit members together from all over the world through common convictions about how to care for one another and how to live the dream.

The Pennsic War has grown into the greatest SCA gathering, a two-week-long camping event drawing 12,000-14,000 members from all over the known World. According to legend, it began after King Cariadoc of the East decided to liven things up by declaring war on his neighbor the Middle Kingdom. Messengers being what they are, the war arrow did not in fact arrive until Cariadoc had stepped down from the throne, moved to the Midrealm, won Crown Tourney, and there received the Arrow from his tardy messenger, where he declared that the Midrealm must of course defend its honor from the Eastern aggressors! Hostilities have been renewed each year, although the loser no longer gets Pittsburg, since the "Debatable Lands" rebelled some years back and established themselves as the independent Kingdom of Aelthelmearc.

"Annual enemies, eternal friends" is Pennsic's unofficial motto. Combat is conducted a bit like fencing: the armor is completely real, but the weapons are wrapped and padded wood or fibreglass, designed to simulate the weight and length and feel of period weapons so that fighters can wield them full force without hurting each other (much). Chivalry is vital, since warriors are honor-bound to acknowledge a "killing" blow. Siege weapons and combat archery add to the ambiance, and Pennsic has its own castle for siege battles, plus a woods battle and a number of scenarios to simulate combat in narrow ravines, on bridges, and on the open field. When I first saw The Two Towers, I had a strong feeling of deja vu: the familiar sound of raindrops tapping on helms and armor brought back to me the distinctive smell of wet grass and pungent Pennsic mud!

Combat, however, is only one small part of SCA life, and Pennsic includes everything from plays and masquerade balls to a large University with volunteer-run classes on everything from "armor extrication" (cutting fighters out of plate mail for health emergencies) to "zills" (finger cymbals used in Middle-eastern dance). My own role in the society is mostly as a junior bard-- a storyteller and singer-- although I also have been a drummer, an archer, a scribe, and do occasional waterbearing at the battles. I now hail from the Kingdom of Caid (southern California and Hawaii) but have attended Pennsic since Pennsic XXII. Returning each year to my camp on "Hill Road" is like going home. As Cullan the Chieftain of Bards' Haven says, there is really only one Pennsic; the other 50 weeks of the year are just a "town run".

The original Pennsic war arrow and war horn. Click picture for close-up.

Coming to the War

The Field of Battle

The cannon (!) goes off, and armies of many kingdoms and households allied with the East Kingdom or Midrealm charge together with a clash of weapons against armor. At the edge of the battlefield, Taiko drummers from the medieval Japanese household Yama Kaminari add to the sound of thunder.

This year the East and its allies were dreadfully outnumbered. Among the "happy few": Warriors of Caid (His Majesty under the Caidan banner, blue and white), Lochac (Australia and New Zealand, large banner), West Kingdom (Northern CA and Berkeley, where it all began, gold banner), Drachenwald (Europe, mostly Germany), Atenvelt (Arizona), and divers households.

At the castle battle, ballistas shoot golf tubes tipped with rubber that pack quite a punch. There are also a few trebuchets, to my delight.

After a solid week's worth of fighting in ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity, the last battle's over, yet a few warriors want to spar with friends or valiant foes. Huzzah, that's my king and the king of Lochac having a friendly duel in the distance!

Throughout the week there's also many tournaments and informal pickup duels and challenges, some of them raising money for charity causes.

Video clips: duel1 ~ duel2 ~ melee

Bards and Storytellers

I couldn't take flash photography lest I disturb the bards at their art, but these are some of the talented folks and friends in whose company I feel very, very humble.

Lady Elanor Fairchild and her lord...


Master, ahem, Olagh Garraed Gailbraith, tireless organizer of bardic activities with massive singing talent, well-researched scholar of the original Celtic bards who teaches classes on the topic

I'm afraid that I always remember him best for his vocal performance in Morgana's Norse saga parody "I've got a splinter in my rowing bench". (Web page of cool Garraed stuff)

Mistress Marian of Heatherdale (as kind as she is beautiful) You can browse clips of her songs on Amazon -- here's a few of my favorites!
Mordred's Lullaby  Up Into The Pear Tree
Road to Santiago  Joan  Holly, Ivy & Yew (NOTE: I get about 2 cents if you choose to buy any of those songs from Amazon: however, you should buy directly from Heather's store so she gets a bigger cut!)

Mistress Morgana bro Morganwg, skald extraordinaire and keeper of the flame, beloved and revered by any bard who knows her.

Quote: "Never piss off a bard." (Go here for sound clips.)

Donno these folks, but they were good.

His Grace Frederick of Holland, "loyal subject of the Crown" since day one. Here's his song "Thirty-Nine Years and Counting" recalling how it all began, with more songs, poems, and recordings on his website!

Court and Nobles

Dukes, Counts, Barons, Knights and Ladies, Laurels, Pelicans, and of course Kings and Queens -- I stll have trouble remembering what all the crowns and tokens signify! During the opening and closing ceremonies, Monarchs of the known World assemble, hand out awards, and sound the war horn.

Several thousand miles from home, the court of Caid is down to the basics, without thrones or feast gear, but His Majesty Dietrich von V÷gelsang has not left behind his eloquence. He spoke movingly of the honor and valour of those who fought with him and the selfless hours put in by members of the court. I wish I could have gotten a picture of their Majesties processing out of the Closing Ceremonies in their finery, but I was on one knee and concentrating on trying not to let my voice crack as we sang Non Nobis Domine. I could hear Her Majesty Adriana's voice soaring over almost everyone's, for she is an accomplished singer herself. If only the reigns of wonderful monarchs weren't so short! Ever since I first met them nine years ago and was overwhelmed by their chivalry and generosity, I have yearned to come to Pennsic with them as my King and Queen. They have been precious role models for me.

The Streets of Pennsic

Like Brigadoon, a huge town sprouts up each year across several square miles, with streets like "By the Way", "Good Intentions", "Chandlers' Road", "Cariadoc's Path". Everyone brings and sets up their own tents and kitchen areas, and camps that have been together for years make elaborate gates and towers (often concealing handy solar showers) that are landmarks as well-known to us as those of "real" cities. It would take the whole two weeks to visit every camp, and a full day even to see every street-- check out the site map to get oriented! Here's some random snaps I took while wandering this year.

Barony of Threescore


Blood Moon Clan

Midrealm Royal Encampment

House Stahlgeist

Barony of Bhakhail (Philadelphia area)

Kingdom of Meridies

Caidan royals walking past Kingdom of Ălthelmearc

my own camp on Hill Road...

and our neighbors in the woods behind us, Blue Rose, who have stone paths, statues, and stone circles and light the forest at night with torches. I used to call them Rivendell.

The Merchants

From armor to stuffed animal plague rats, books and vellum to knicknacks and jewelry, pavillions to clothes, clothes, clothes, the merchants of Pennsic have brought together enticements from all over the Known World and beyond. (I saw And˙ril, the staves of Gandalf and Saruman, the crown of Gondor and the helm of the Witch King, and Legolas' knives lurking among more authentic pieces this year.) Entertainers draw curious onlookers: this group of mummers was attempting to sell the finest "air" bottled from the top of Mt. Aislynn (the hill behind the battlefield).

Below, some pieces from one of my favorite merchants: Todd Alan


But all those pictures really can't convey what it's like, or what I do. Below is the only picture I've gotten of the activity where I spend most of my time, and have found lasting friends: in bardic circles around campfires after dark, when stars and moon shine overhead, the night shimmers with the sound of crickets and drums and revelry and laughter, and the air is heady with the smoke of torches and countless fires. During Pennsic nights the mundane world disappears completely into shadow and song. Here Mistress Morgana is spinning Norse magic, telling yet another tale.


"And when the battle's over
We'll go back to the stars
And back into our mundane lives
And dream of future wars
One hundred million warriors
Can't wait to pick up sticks
And practice for the Grand Melee
Of Pennsic 206..."

~ Andrew McRob, "Pennsic 205",
to the tune of "Ghost Riders in the Sky"


~ Natterings and photos by Helena Lyristes, the Bard Formerly Known As Kithyra.
My smaller albums for past Pennsics: Pennsic 33 ~ Pennsic 25 or so