I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for December, 2014

HATE SYMBOL or GOOD LUCK?

[I delayed this for a week trying to track down the origins of a fylfot that I had seen, a beautiful variation of a fylfot that was not really a fylfot. But the design is most probably a modern adaptation and so, unfortunately, should not be used 😦 ]

This week we would like to speak on the reclamation of symbols that have been demeaned by a gentleman that J. R. R. Tolkien called (with magnificent understatement) “that ruddy little ignoramus.” We are referring, of course, to the demonization of a millennia-old good luck symbol because of the actions of that gentleman. If you are still uncertain, I am referring to the Nazi perversion of the fylfot (swastika).

The fylfot was an ancient symbol that was also known as a swastika. “The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” One can see it used everywhere. I saw it in a city steeple in Reykjavík and at a resort in central Indiana. It was used as a symbol for sports teams and for religions. In terms of the Viking age, it was used on the Oseberg tapestry, and upon reliquaries of the contemporary Christian church. Fylfots, in other words, were seen many many places. The fact that it was to become a despised political symbol by being used by a bunch of hateful bigots—and is still being used that way, along with other symbols such as the Volknot today—is due to one man. (Saying it was one man is a bit of an exaggeration; perhaps, it is more accurate to say that it was due to the influence and hateful bigotry of one man and his mindless followers)

The Nazi adoption—might we say perversion of—of the symbol in 1920 relegated its five millennia of being a symbol of good fortune to the trash heap (they did much the same thing with other Nordic symbols and stories; even today, MoPs will pass by a Regia display and say, “Yeah; you show them black gentlemen [not the term they used] that white power will git their asses!”). Many of the things adopted by the Nazis came out with a stench about them; for example, the out-thrust arm salute was used until the time of World War II for use with the American Pledge of Allegiance.

The fylfot, because of its use by the German dictatorship, became a hated symbol, one that was almost universally reviled, and this feeling has continued for almost a century. It would seem foolish, of course, to think that it use by single political faction—even so hideous a one as the National Socialists—in the twentieth century, would forever cause it to be reviled, distrusted and forbidden to be used, yet as recently as 2014, Hallmark had to discontinue a wrapping paper because it contained a geometric design that some liberals saw as a fylfot! Its original purpose has been forgotten.

However, in the years since its use as a Nazi symbol, it has been adopted by those people supporting the German Nazi philosophy and hate philosophies of their own. No one is willing to espouse it for its original meaning, and it has been allowed to become a symbol of those things that are rightfully despised!

Will the fylfot be reclaimed? Has the possibility of reclamation even been negated? The possibility of it being perceived as a non-racist, apolitical might be remote. Those persons wishing to reclaim it as something more benign than its use as a symbol of hate and prejudice are often overwhelmed by the probability of ignorance coming own against them. Even those wishing to reclaim it are often warned not to try, since it will only stir up an unthinking perception of prejudice!

How long will this continue? Will it ever be reclaimed as a benevolent symbol? Unfortunately, the struggle for its reclamation might well continue to be impossible as long as it is used only by hate organizations! Too many people will see it atomically and immediately as a symbol of Naziism, of the Aryan nations, of other white supremacists, without pausing to think of it in its larger historical influence.

So there is a reluctance among many people who want to reclaim it to display it; and ironically, until it is commonly displayed in a benign or beneficent atmosphere, it will continue to be seen as an exclusive symbol of hate.

Will the fylfot be reclaimed the way that so many other hated symbols and phrases have been reclaimed? In the present, rather pc environment, probably not. At least not in the near future. In the distant future, once the incredibly obscenities of the second word war have passed into history, and there are no living persons—and living descendants who knew them so well—that was affected by them, reclamation may be possible. But for right now, fylfots must remain in the camp of those symbols that have been unrightfully maligned, and there is little chance that it will be reclaimed without stirring up unthinking hatred of another sort!

I can only, at the present, whisper the hope that the symbol might be picked out of the mud, laundered and reclaimed for what it was originally meant to be.

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DISLIKE AND SUBTERFUGE: A LOOK AT PROGRESSIVES

I have been reading an article available on the internet about a reenactor’s “refusal” to back up progressives because he feels they are being bullies, that they are being snarks (my word, not his), that they re trying to tell other people how to behave and how to kit themselves out. “Progressive” is a term that is used by—and against—reenactors who try to be accurate in their portrayals. He is speaking of the eighteenth century, but what he says has impact upon any reenactor, including those who do the Viking Age.

It is a very infuriating article not precisely because of the man’s beliefs but because of the way he expresses them. And the way that he can totally ignore—or perhaps not see—some of what I consider to be the most vital aspects about the progressive movement.

He notes that some people who want to become involved in the hobby are poor. That is certainly true. However, the fact of the matter is that you should try to align the class of your impression with your ability to pay. Even in history, it was more expensive to dress posh! I have more respect for someone who makes a good simple woolen overtunic, perhaps in the style that Þor Ewing describes for slaves in Viking Clothing, than for someone who does an inappropriate posh design with insufficient inappropriate fabrics, who cuts corners and who tries to portray above his station.

What I believe is that there is a need to have different societies with different standards. Different Authenticity Regs. A person interested in getting into the hobby can choose the level of accuracy that he wants to attain. It is not right in any sense for someone to join a society and then dismiss these regs as being too restrictive, any more than it is right for someone from another society to lecturer a person on what he should wear, based on the critic’s society’s authenticity regs and not those of the other’s!

Knowing the authenticity regs and abiding by them is essential for successful membership. A member has essentially signed a contract and agreed to abide by the regulations. Anyone who has agreed with what they are going to represent to the MoPs and then to complain they cannot do it or to refuse outright to adhere to these standards is being a selfish and dishonorable malcontent. Attempt to change the standards, but abide by them until they are changed, or leave the society altogether. These are honorable action!

In other words, a progressive whose society has high standards is not being an authenticity nazi if he tells a member of his society how to make a better presentation. He is if he says the same thing to the member of another society who has different or lower standards. They have not signed up for his interpretations! They are not, in the same way, fulfilling their contract!

The gentleman in question however refers only to The Hobby and not to different societies that may well have different standards. At larger, multiple society events, obviously, everyone needs to go by the standards of the host society. The sponsors should have, should publish and should make easily obtainable a list of the standards that are being expected. And if the level of the accuracy is not to the liking of the potential participant, then they can stay away from the event and not go around to bitch that someone’s kit is “inaccurate.”

I cannot agree with everything he says because of his scatter-gun approach. Because of his creation of straw men that can be easily demolished to favor his opinion and that he can easily demolish. He does not deal at all with how his version of The Hobby is being represented to the public. What I have found is that the people who are more stringent about their accuracy are more willing to tell MoPs that this is not how it was done, that this is safer than what was done at the time. It is the societies that have very low or no authenticity regs who say proudly We are a reenactment group when referring to their fantasy LARP, who have no real standards, and who try to pass off the farb that they do have as accuracy, I am reminded of an early fair that I officiated at for the SCA. One fighter decided that he was going to be a hero and not take any blows because, as you know, the MoPs won’t know any different. So he was areal hot dog, ignoring blows and portraying The All-Star Wrassler that he probably wanted to be. Finally, tired, he took a killing blow. Later, I was greeted by a pair of MoPs who expressed their thanks for the presentation and then, at the end, said, “And I’m glad that Mister Hero realized that he was dead…”

MoPs are often more knowledgeable about things than many of the participants commonly think! A society must have at least minimal authenticity regs! And anyone who joins them or to participate behind their ropelines must be willing to attain these standards and not complain that he is too poor to make a good showing! Lower your sights. Find something that you can afford that is accurate. We are not asking that everyone has a full, posh outfit. What we are asking is that what is being worn reaches up to and attains the accuracy standards that the participant has agreed to attain!

In the end, I suppose, I should place myself among those progressives that he dislikes so much. However, on the other hand, I only think that standards of accuracy that I attempt to attain and that I go by, that are delineated in the Authenticity Regs are pertinent only to the society which wrote and adopted them. I will never complain or unilaterally advise a member of a different society who has different or less quality of standards. They are off limits. Criticizing the members to their faces when they have not asked an opinion is not fair game!

An excellent Yahoo group of AWI Progressives is RW Progressives.


PICTURING THE PAST

By “picturing”, I am primarily referring to photography. The following entry is devoted to two subjects, though they are both about photography. Assuming, to begin with, that there is a natural desire to take photographs and videos of a historical reenactment, the desire to make such photographs is natural and that the photography is a good thing, the questions we investigate are valid.

The first deals with the question of what the finished photographs should look like, whether they should be altered in one way or another.

The second is how someone in an era before cameras would be able to carry a camera at an event he is participating in and not look like some kind of burlesque! (Disguising the camera so that it looks like current cameras during the era after photography was invented is a matter also dealt with below)

For many people, this means that you are recording military reenactments which boil down to battlefield reenactments. It should be noted that while I have taken battlefield photographs, it has been in civilian dress. To take photographs of the everyday life that is represented at the living-history exhibitions is more satisfying to me. While it is possible to have a camera in eras being recreated that had this technology—times since 1836—as long as the cameras look similar to the historic version. We will forgive those eras when the length of the exposures means that there were no photographs of the actual military actions unless they were incredibly blurred and ghostly, and this last almost up to the invention of motion pictures! Until then, it was all still photography where they attempted to get photos of the soldiers—usually staged and static—and the aftermath of the actual battle—showing posed living persons (such as the prisoners after Gettysburg), corpses (for example the scenes of a deceased sharp shooter in the Devil’s Den…which was apparently a posed shot itself), scenes of what had been a battlefield (such as the scene of Seminary Ridge) and non-battle shots of stationary scenes as meetings (such as Grant’s meeting with his staff at Bethesda Church, Maryland). Sepiaizing or otherwise making modern shots look as if they were period shots has an advantage for eras that actually had photography because it tries to emulate the photography that was actually done at the time. For eras before the invention of photography—as well as many eras after the invention when they did not have the means or technology for action photography—it becomes a matter of choice. How many scenes of a Saxon reenactment looks as if it might have been a shot of a Victorian era Viking reenactment? Has this shot been sepiaized but for no good reason and does not add to the verisimilitude of the shot?

For that matter, the color of the photograph undergoes a number of questions. Do you make all the photographs all sepia? Do you make them as colorful as possible? Do you adjust the color balance so that it does reflects the colors that were available in artwork of the era? For that matter, when dealing with black-and-white prints, should the actual black and white balance be altered? These are all questions that the photographer must ask…and answer as well. There is no single answer. And photographers have to make their own decisions. For that matter, they must even decide whether they should even forsake the idea of photography and make all shots line or wash drawings?

The answer to photography in reenactments of the earlier days, when photography—even the camera obscura—was not known is threefold:

First, to be done only by MoPs or by members wearing modern dress and therefore not at all looking farby; or

Second, not to do any photography at all (though there is, as noted, a desire to see the reenactment, so there is a desire both by the MoP and by the participant to have shots done); or

ChadThird, and this is the most delicate and questionable, is to have cameras that hide—in “books” for example—that can be brought out for a quick photograph (not out of the enclosure of course) and then quickly returned to hiding.

This latter is what I have resorted to, and I have created what looks like a leather-bound book. It has surprised many people, who see it sitting before me among other books (real books) that I have bound and never realized it was something more. Some folk have even noticed it being used and do not recognize what it is!

The method I use for disguising the camera is not the only way that a dedicated reenactor can approach the subject. I first considered, for example, hiding the camera inside a runestone, but I decided against that because of a lack of needed mobility. Anyone who has any method that he uses that goes beyond the book are encouraged to share their methods with us all here. The more ways that reenactors know to disguise their cameras, is good. It helps to avoid a common way that people disrupt the atmosphere of a reenactment!


REENACTING, ACCURACY & EVOLUTION

To some extent there have always been historical reenactors. In ancient Rome, there were reenactors who performed in fates and festivals. There were reenactors in the Middle Ages who recreated Biblical and historical scenes. This did not mean that they had any sense of what was correct or accurate or even that the costume of the previous day was not the same as the costume used at that time. Look, for example, at art featuring Biblical scenes in which the participants are dressed in a current fashion. While they may have been able to know when such and such an activity happened, they could not will you the appearance of the participants.

Reenactors continued for some time being people who wanted to celebrate the past but who did not knowing how the past might look. For example if you look at any of the popular art and fiction during the eight5eenth and nineteenth centuries when interest in “Viking” folklore began. You can see that they had a very minimal idea of what was going on at that time and, probably little desire to present anything that was in opposition to what they believed. This attitude continued well into the twentieth century and is seen in many depictions yet today!

If we look at the first medieval reenactment in the United States—actually in British-held Philadelphia—the costumes and equipment were less historically accurate than romantic and appealing to the participants and spectators. We have some illustrations from the event, known as the Mischianza, done by Major John André, that show this quite well!

A couple generations later, what was known as The Last Tournament was planned but because of weather conditions postponed. Armor was actually taken from drawing rooms, but it is uncertain whether the armor was used or if, indeed, it survived because was not. It was about this time that people had begun to realize that the costumes, the kit and the accouterments of the earlier day were indeed different from those of the current day. But this was during the Romantic, neo-Gothic era of the Victorian era, a tendency to have costumes based on that which was found by the archaeologists, though there was still a tendency to interpret it according to contemporary morés and tastes. In photos of the nineteenth century medieval and Viking reenactments, the costumes are a curious mixture of the accurate and the fanciful. But then, even into the early twentieth century, such a freewheeling amount of interpretation was seen in artistic representations, in films (and is still seen today in many infancies) and in such places as books by Wilcox and Norris was still seen and still commonly available. Total uncritical acceptance must be guarded against!

The fact that the myth of the Viking helmet with horn was born in the middle of the nineteenth century—originally a theatrical design from Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’Ring cycle and achieved vast popularity that is seen yet today needs not, I hope, be mentioned with any intense investigation…

It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that a true sense of what was proper—and not merely the illusion of it, as was seen in pageants, plays and, later, films. Most of the early manifestation of reenactors were in the black powder community and in the counter-cultural societies of the mid 1960s, and they were more concerned with idealized technology—and its adaptation to modern requirements—than with the accuracy of costuming. However, as you look at photographs of the various examples of historical costume, you can tell the development of research and knowledge, so that many of the reenactments of today are very accuracy itself, and some of the fiction and films also mirrors at least part of this accuracy.

The fact is that much early reenacting was bound up in the American Civil War centennial, but not only were these reenactments seen—in the words of President Kennedy—as “sham battles,” but participants were content to wear modern suit jackets of blue or grey and to use bb guns. But there among those folk some who were more concerned with historical accuracy, and an increasing spiral upwards toward accuracy was seen. The start of renn faires and LARPs in the 1960s saw a culture more influence by Victorian misinterpretations than by strict accuracy, and this continues to this day, although there again were people who began to do more research and to try to attain a greater accuracy. There are now societies that demand greater accuracy and even in the farbier societies, places of extreme accuracy (although the phrase created by progressives—”what you permit you promote”—is well seen in these subcultures).

In the end, the increasing prominence—or at least knowledge of—reenactors in modern society and its mass media has increased in the past few decades. You can be jaded and note that this has occurred because mainstream media has become more concerned with the representation of the past but not wholly with accuracy, just the illusion of accuracy. People want to dress in a peculiar manner, but the interest is primarily in being able to look different from the mainstream and to stand out, rather than to recreate any sort of historical accuracy and validity. Any change in this attitude has been gradual and often in one area or another, and it has progressed at different speeds in many different sub-communities. To a great extent, the societies who have stringent authenticity regs—and therefore exacting requirements for your appearance before you can participate—are being praised by the media even when they cannot understand it or denigrate it with a back-handed compliment!

Today we see that reenacting and reenactors are treated with a familiarity by the popular media that is on one hand a very welcoming sensation but on the other hand and at the same time is treated in a degrading manner by a mas media that seems to want to create a lower class of people who their mainstream audience can feel superior to and, feeling superior, can purchase the products being promoted by their commercials! Members of the more realistic subculture are not treated as serious historians but rather as jokes, so you will see reenactors being portrayed as humorous in such things as comic strips, in films and even in news coverage of their events. Even any desire for accuracy is presented as a kind of joke, with the media inviting their audience to laugh at the anal types who are attempting to attain any kind of accuracy!

Therefore, with the varied perception by the media, by the mainstream and even by academia, will the perception of reenacting attain a sort of somber acceptance and respect, or will it continue to be the degraded third cousin who likes to wear peculiar outfits. In the end and for me, it little matters. I will, despite the perception and the level of respect and acceptance, continue to try to evolve and to present the most correct interpretations. Perhaps that is a failing on my part…but I can do no less. Hopefully, nether can you!