Steampunk and the Spiritual

I am still basking in the afterglow of my first trip to Teslacon, a wonderful annual Steampunk convention in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an immersive experience, with nearly all 1,200 guests dressing and participating for the entire time and following along with the story of the convention. People showed off their gorgeous and creative costumes, contraptions, accessories, makeup, music, and literature. I attended panel discussions on subject ranging from Victorian shaving and cosmetics to inclusion of trans-gendered, intersex, gender-queer, and other non-traditional sexual identities in the Steampunk community.

My friends at Terra Mysterium also performed a new show called The Clockwork Prince, weaving together the legends of King Arthur with the courtship of Victoria and Albert with our favorite time-traveling mage Professor Marius Mandagore as a guide. The show was delightful, as all their shows are.

Now that I have been involved with Steampunk for a couple years and have a greater sense it, I must confess that I had once had a doubt (commonly expressed by casual observers). I wondered if Steampunk is ultimately about a gorgeous aesthetic and doesn’t have a deeper meaning. One friend recently referred to Teslacon as a triumph of style over substance, and an impenetrable LARP.

With time and experience, I have grown to understand what lies deeper in Steampunk, and it resonates with a spirit of independence and creativity that I love.

Terra Mysterium and The Owen Society make a link that is explicit between the Steampunk aesthetic and its relevance. At every meeting of the The Owen Society, Professor Mandragore gives an introduction about Steampunk and the Society’s particular interpretation. We are inspired by the Victorian geniuses that came before us, but we re-tool the stories and trappings to a modern age and find something that’s an antidote to the soulless modern mechanical age.

Since I have also been thinking about my own spiritual path, I realized the great intersection of Steampunk and modern Paganism is that they allow us to create our own story to shape our lives. We are informed and inspired by the past, but we don’t need to follow “follow the book”. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Sinners and one of the Sheep of the Flock as in Christianity. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Consumers as defined by our current version of mass market capitalism.

We don’t need to slavishly follow stylistic limitations based on specific historical periods like historical re-enactors. We won’t be judged by how closely we imitate characters from a particular film, TV show or comic book. As Lord Bobbins, the guiding star of Teslacon, said “Steampunks don’t owe Lucasfilm anything, because we made our fandom.” (as quoted by Lisa Walker England)

We are the Makers. We are the Storytellers. We can dress as high priests today and rogues tomorrow. We can shape our own gender identities. We can wear ridiculous hats and jet packs. I may not sew my own clothes or weld metal gadgets (yet), but I am daring to wear a different style of clothes and act a little differently. I can make friends with a variety of unique and interesting people and go to unusual events. I am beginning to write my own story.

I have a friend who has the habit of proclaiming every few months for the past couple years that “Steampunk is dead”, usually in reaction to some silly person wanting to paste a “Steampunk” style into their music video/TV show/iPhone app and, predictably, the result looks a bit stilted and weak. He isn’t attracted by the aesthetic (which is fine) and, in truth, he’s a grumpy and rather mean-spirited person most of the time (which is less fine, but I’m hardly going change that). What he is missing is that attempts at layering Steampunk style onto mainstream products will never really be Steampunk. Mass produced brass-painted plastic ray guns aren’t Steampunk. A pop star whose music and image is composed by a committee of corporate executives to appeal to a particular demographic will never be Steampunk.

Steampunk is alive and well, my misguided friend, and I am very thankful for it!

I am in love with Terra Mysterium


Terra Mysterium is a small theater group here in Chicago, a collective of actors, musicians and writers. I am so lucky to have encountered them, both because they are delightful and creative people, but also because they helped crack open something inside me and lead me along my spiritual path.

The group came together around the idea of Earth Mysteries, so essentially they are a Pagan theater company.  Their first show (which I saw in a later revival staging) was called “Betwixt and Between” and it was a modern fairy tale adventure with the actors switching identities to tell the story

The first Terra Mysterium show that I saw was “Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon Symposium regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft”. It was a wonderful piece of theater.  The story framework was that the eccentric and mysterious Victorian-era Professor Mandragore has a Salon Symposium that transports through space and time.  He and his (equally eccentric and mysterious) guests materialized at an intimate theater in Chicago and each presented their work, and sometimes they summoned various spirits to assist.  From the Pooka to the White Lady, these spirits lent their magical presence to the proceedings.  The whole evening was full of wit and myth-making and I had a marvelous time.

That show launched the company in a different direction.  The audience loved the air of neo-Victorian mystery and the company began to embrace and be embraced by the local Steampunk community.  The two most recent shows “The Alembic” and “In the Observarium” incorporate both the Earth Mystery and Steampunk themes into deliciously entertaining shows.

The character of Professor Mandragore (Keith Green) himself even launched a group called The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, which combines Steampunk and pagan/occult scholarship.  The gatherings of the Owen Society on Sunday afternoons in the upper room of a local pub have become some of my favorite events.  The papers given by the Society members combine history, whimsy and spirituality.  Of course, they are also an excuse to dress up in glorious neo-Victorian attire.

Here’s where they have become a part of my own spiritual path.  Although the topics are sometimes fanciful, many of the contributors are genuine authorities presenting real scholarship.  They have presented on such fascinating subjects as stone circles in Britain and Ireland, ancient Roman curse tablets, and the Fairy Doctor tradition of magic. I have had a longtime interest in ancient understandings of the divine and traditional expressions of nature-based healing. The Owen Society presenters have also exposed me to subjects in astrology and the Kabbalah that I had known little about in the past.  Part of my journey into understanding Paganism recently has been to be more open-minded and open-hearted about different paths, beliefs and practices that I may not understand. Even when the talks don’t resonate with my current mindset, I can at least expose myself to these systems and have a glimpse into different ways of thinking, which is a value in itself.

The Owen Society has brought the theater collective into an intimate and interactive format (the groups are often less than 20 people and allow for questions and discussion after the talk).  Terra Mysterium is also branching out of the theater in another way.  They are recording their music and videos and they are marketing them for sale in such venues as Amazon and iTunes.  Their first track is the title song from “In the Observarium”.

So, yes I’m in love with Terra Mysterium.  It’s not a jealous love, though.  You can fall in love, too, dear reader.  Soon that may be possible even for those far from Chicago who are unable to appreciate them in person. I’m so glad to have discovered them and hope they continue their beautiful and enriching work for many years.