A guest blog from Nils Visser
“Is this Wicca?” Somebody asked me at the Steampunk Asylum in Lincoln, to which I had brought my Wyrde Woods books Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd.
“Erm, yes, no, maybe…” I was left fumbling as per usual.
Truth be told, both Neverland and Dance (the both forming one story) have defied easy categorisation since their conception. I didn’t know this when I wrote them, knowing next to nothing about publishing fiction, but I was defying all conventional wisdom by producing works which are hard to squeeze into a clearly defined genre. Had I known, I would have probably ignored it anyway, because I mostly wrote Wenn Twyner’s story as part of self-therapy at a time when I was stuck in a deep, dark pit.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many Wyrde Woods readers cared enough about the story to make it their own, describing it to me as a love story, or books about coming-of-age, mental health issues, ecological conservation, road protests, magical childhood kingdoms, spirituality, regional (Sussex) culture, or witchcraft. I am not about to argue with people’s personal reading experiences, and it’s quite magnificent to have conceived a tale about which readers really care, so their insights are much welcomed. However, if you asked me to tell you what Wenn Twyner’s story is about, I would mention all the above as being essential ingredients, but subordinate themes to the main one, which is one person’s journey from trauma to recovery – something that is by very definition a highly personal and unique experience.
Is the magic and witchcraft in the books Wicca? Yes. No. Maybe. It wasn’t written specifically to be presented as a Wicca book. If I were to claim it was, I’m quite sure even a mediocre pedantic could easily find fault with it, for I have relied on a wide range of experiences, insights, and personal preferences to construct the magic of the Wyrde Woods. Much of that overlaps, but not all.
So how did it all come about?
It begins with my own concept of spirituality, which is quite a melting pot and goes way back to the 70s. I was born in the Netherlands in 1970, but apart from a few fragments, my first memories are of another country altogether. When I was three years old, my father was due to write his anthropology PhD thesis. This included a lengthy stay amongst the people he wanted to observe, so the entire family moved from the Netherlands to a tiny village in the central plains of Thailand.
This wasn’t the luxurious ex-pat existence more common these days, but total immersion. We lived in a hut on stilts near a big river, without any mod cons, just like everybody else in the village. I saw elephants on a daily basis, cars not so much, maybe one would pass by every fortnight or so, at snail’s pace because all of us village children would crowd around it to marvel at the shiny contraption. Not that modern technology passed us by entirely, for we frequently saw US Airforce bombers heading for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to give you a bit of historical context. We didn’t have a bathroom. We washed ourselves with water from a bucket, and relieved ourselves in the banana plantation behind the cluster of huts which was home to several extended families as well as our own smaller one. Upon our return to the Netherlands, after close to three years in Thailand, my younger brother and myself caused occasional consternation at home or visiting relatives and friends for a year or so, because we would happily wander into tiny suburban gardens to squat and do a poo, not quite appreciating the Dutch fondness for tiny, cramped, and claustrophobic indoor closets for such purposes.
I attended the village school and – with that knack young children have – managed to learn to speak and read Thai. This is a complex language, with a great many ways of pronouncing vowels, each pronunciation denoting a different meaning. My father wrestled with Thai. One day he was asked to repeat his compliments of a market seller’s watermelons again and again, as more and more villagers were invited to hear him speak, to collective delight, because he was actually mistakenly complimenting the market seller’s wife’s breasts…very nice…round and juicy…you get the drift. He solved this by appointing me as his translator. I was around four years old at the time, and already an anthropology research assistant, my first job!
Part of the research involved religious beliefs, because spirituality pervades everyday life in Thailand to a considerable extent. Although Buddhism forms the central core of Thai religion, it is infused with an old (Brah-maist) Hindu tradition, shamanic animist roots, and ancient folklorist beliefs. The spirit world is closely interwoven with the living world, and everyone in our village had a ‘spirit house’, a shrine where offerings can be made to appease ghosts to prevent them from becoming malevolent. I maintain the custom of keeping a spirit house to this day, by the way, usually one of the first things I set up when moving into a new place.
The generic name for spirits is phi, but this covers a very wide range of beings, from ghosts, to benevolent nature spirits, to an impressively grotesque array of demons. I recall visiting temples, where drawings on delicate rice paper were produced, illustrations of demonic Yamatoots (in the service of Yama, the Lord of Hell) tormenting humans in ways that make your average Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell seem like a pleasant countryside picnic. Translating all of this for my father, I built up an impressive knowledge of the Yaksha, both the good guardian variety as the evil ones who haunt wild places and devour unwary passer-by’s. I also learned the stories of the Garuda, the Naga, Hanuman, Thotsakan, Maiyarap, Phi Krasue, Phi Krahang, Phi Braed, Phi Lok, Mae Nak Phra Kanong, and many others.
I have vivid memories of a visit to our village by a demon specialised in the abduction of naughty children. With hindsight, it may have been a cautionary appearance by a villager dressed up and wearing a demon’s mask, but that is not how we experienced it. My playmates and I were terrified, but also fascinated, so we stalked the demon as it stalked us, and I remember the whole thing being horrifically realistic and tremendously exciting.
The Christian beliefs back in the Netherlands, generally cleansed of doom and hellfire, seemed tame and lame when I returned, and failed to capture my imagination the way Thai spiritualism had, apart from a few old testament stories like Jonah and the Whale.
A few years after our return to the Netherlands, my father got a job as administrator of a Dutch NGO Third World Development service in Kathmandu, Nepal, and once more we left the Netherlands to live abroad. I lived in Kathmandu for four glorious years, from age ten to fourteen, and could often be found wandering about the magnificent temple complexes of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Patan, Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath, and Pashupatinath.
In contrast to Thailand, Hinduism was the main religion here, with a very royal dose of Buddhism thrown in for good measure, the whole influenced by deeply rooted shamanic beliefs. Akin to Thailand, spirituality was interwoven into daily life, rather than compartmentalised into something you might do on a Sunday. It was not at all uncommon for a Nepali to use his lunch break to eat at a local temple whilst communing with his (deceased) parents, and to come back to say that his father or mother had said this, that, or the other. Amongst other things, I paid a rupee to behold Kumari, the Living Goddess whose feet must not touch the ground, developed a personal affinity to Parvati and Ganesh, witnessed the ritual sacrifice of more goats and buffalo than I care to remember, watched (and smelled!) open funeral pyres, visited a shamanic witch doctor seeking cures for a wide variety of Delhi-Belly, participated in religious festivals, and collected colourful masks of my favourite gods and goddesses.
Towards the end of our stay, I also became fascinated by the Goddess of Lightning who provided some of my earliest sex-ed. Temples needed to be protected from lightning, you see, and this was achieved by elaborate carvings on the struts supporting the tiers of temples, depicting just about every sexual act you can imagine (men and women, men and men, women and women, threesomes, foursomes, tensomes, a lot of bestiality involving dogs, monkeys, donkeys etc.). The reasoning was that the Goddess of Lightning was a virgin who would naturally shy away from graphic erotica.
One of the most profound experiences I had in Nepal was when I was eleven, on a trek somewhere in the Himalayas. We were high up, above the tree line, so probably about three-and-a-half thousand meters, and took a brief detour to a Tibetan monastery perched atop a ridge of craggy rocks, at the centre of a vast web of colourful prayer flags. The backdrop was formed by the Himalayas, snow-covered giants which towered another three, four thousand meters over our heads, reducing us to insignificant particles with a comparable life-span of a mayfly. Just the sort of thing to put you in a state of mind in which you contemplate the mysteries of life.
We went into the monastery, purchased silk scarves and incense, prostrated ourselves in front of a statue of the Buddha, and then presented the scarves and incense to the Head Lama, who took the incense and blessed the scarves before laying these around our shoulders. As was customary, he then shared some wisdom. Hindsight tells me that he had a standard spiel for this, based mostly on young Westerners on a semi-spiritual walkabout in exotic destinations, but that is not how I experienced it as a wide-eyed eleven-year-old.
The Lama started by explaining the prayer flags we had seen. They are delicate squares of cloth, coloured white, yellow, green, blue, and red, with prayers printed on them. They are unravelled by the wind, and the strands worked loose blow from the Himalayas – the roof of the world –, to the rest of the planet, thus ensuring that the prayers are spread widely. The Lama added that this was a good thing, because it didn’t matter what people called the God(s) they worshipped, or the religion they adhered to, since it was “all the same Light, or the same Darkness, regardless of the shape or name given to the eternal balance between Good and Evil, and the choices people must make between them.”
Those words have formed the firm cornerstone of my personal beliefs ever since.
The Lama followed with a rebuke of sorts, saying that he admired us for travelling so far to seek enlightenment, but that the best place to seek such knowledge was at home. This puzzled the eleven-year-old me, as we weren’t all that far from Kathmandu, which I considered home. It wasn’t until later, that I realised he was really just rattling off a standard speech intended mostly for young twenty-somethings on their (almost mandatory) magical mystery tour before settling down. I think it was a warning, not to consider spiritual enlightenment as something that was just a part of a grand tour of the East, but to see it as something which should be sought for at home, infusing everyday life as it did in Asia.
At any rate, those words too, took root in my mind, and will lead us to the Wyrde Woods in Sussex many years later.
(Part two of this will be along in a few weeks, as will my review of Nils’ brilliant Wyrde Wood books).