Spider Divination and Divine Androgyny

“What on Earth do those two things have in common?”, you may well ask. It goes like this.

Having given a 2-hour webinar on trans issues this morning I took a little me time and spent the afternon watching a mini academic conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sir Keith Thomas’s legendary history book, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

The papers were from people such as my friend Will Pooley who know far more than I do about magic in the early modern period. That was fun, and I learned stuff, including that there are now academics who study magical thinking amongst fringe groups on the internet. This is just as well, given the amount of nonsense being spread by the alt-right.

However, the thing that got me to sit up and take notice was a mention by an anthropologist that some people in Africa do divination with the aid of spiders. Someone in the audience posted a helpful link to the chat, so now I know how it is done.

The method used by various peoples from Cameroon uses large spiders that live in burrows — presumably a form of tarantula. The diviner has a collection of cards that are scattered around the entrance to the spider’s burrow. The whole assemblage is then covered over. The spider, thinking that her burrow has collapsed, comes out and thrashes around for a while trying to work out what has happened to the sun. Eventually the cover is removed, and the pattern of cards left by the spider is read to produce the divination.

There’s more on this, and other forms of animal divination, here. Land crabs can apparently be used in a very similar way. But in reading the article I came across this:

Androgyny seems to be a common goal among the African cultures where diviners engage in cross-gender dressing. Examples can be found among peoples from West, Central, and Southern Africa. I have long thought that this might reflect an understanding of spiritual entities as androgynous themselves (as opposed to mere humans of single sexes), and that such a posture would have value for the diviner when dealing with male and female clients.

Anyone who has done a bit of anthropology knows that in various tribal cultures around the world, non-binary people are viewed as being especially holy and often as having magical powers. Similar beliefs are found in ancient cultures such as the Scythians and the Inca.

It is generally agreed these days that the idea of a world that is gradually progressing from a belief in magic, to a belief in religion, to a belief in science, is much too simplistic. But we can occasionally see shamanistic beliefs re-purposed in organised religion. Which brings me to this article, published today in The Independent, which looks at the Graeco-Roman deity known as Hermaphroditus. Classicists now mostly accept that statues of Hermaphroditus were not pornographic jokes, as has been assumed by cis male historians for the past couple of hundred years, but rather were expressions of a mystical union of male and female.

So bascially God is non-binary (which Michelangelo understood when he painted the Sistine Chapel). They are doubtless deeply unimpressed with the current fashion for anti-trans extremism.

That Finnish “Non-Binary” Burial

Last week the newspapers were full of stories about a supposed “non-binary” burial discovered in Finland. I got a few inquiries regarding my thoughts. It has taken a while to find the time to do more than make a few scathing tweets about the poor quality of the journalism. Here’s something a little more in depth. (And if you want to check what I say against the original academic paper it is here.)

First up, the actual facts. The burial is located near Hattula in Finland, which is a town roughly half-way between Helsinki and Tampere. The grave has been dated to about 900 years ago, which means during the Viking era (at which point someone will yell at me for using the word “Viking”, but if Cat Jarman can use it I can too.). It was first excavated in 1968 and appeared to contain a single person, two swords, and clothing/jewellery that has been interpreted as female-coded. There has been much controversy over the findings, with some people claiming that this is a grave of a woman warrior, and others claiming that there must have been two bodies in the grave, one of whom was male. The current research has tried to solve that mystery by analysing the DNA of the skeleton, but has only resulted in an even bigger mystery.

I’ll pause here to note that I said “interpreted as female-coded” very deliberately. The gendering of grave goods is an imprecise art, of which I’ll have more to say later.

The result of the DNA analysis suggest that the person buried in the tomb exhibited what we now called Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, which means that they had an XXY chromosome pattern. I am going to assume that the DNA analysis is correct, because I don’t have the expetise to judge it. However, the paper produced by the archaeologists does say that the analysis was difficult, and I am entirely prepared for an expert in genetics to tell me that it was bunkum.

The DNA analysis has led both archaeologists an journalists to talk about the body buried in the grave being someone who is “intersex” and “non-binary”. What does this mean, and are these statements correct.

Let’s start with “intersex”. What this means is people who are, “born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. XXY chromosomes very clearly do not fit the notion of a gender binary. You will see some people talk about strict definitions of “intersex”, which generaly refers to something to do with genitalia. These definitions tend to be produced by medical people. You may also see the term “DSD” used. It stands for “Disorders of Sexual Deveopment” and is deeply pathologising, partly by suggesting that all intersex people are “disordered”, and partly by suggesting that they can and should be “fixed” in some way. When talking about intersex people in training I try to be guided by the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués, and I defend the right of intersex people to be accepted as an ordinary part of human variability.

By the way, the “Gender Critical” movement tends to dismiss intersex people as being “very rare”. There are over 100 intersex traits known to modern medicine, and between 1% and 2% of the population will have one, though many will be unaware of this. The NHS web page on the subject says that around 1 in 600 men exhibit the Kleinfelter trait, which means over 50,000 people in the UK alone. Of course many will be unaware of this, because who has their chromosomes tested?

Note that the NHS said “men” there. People with XXY chromosomes will normally be assigned male at birth because they have penises. The effect of having XXY chromosomes on the body can vary significantly, but as far as gendered appearance goes the only common effect is enlarged breasts. Some XXY people also exhibit soemthing the medical people call hypospadias, which means there is an opening on the underside of penis. This can result in the person being assigned female at birth.

Back when I transitioned, being diagnosed as XXY was the gold standard for trans women, because doctors would see that extra X chromosome and decide that you were half way to being female already. This idea was strengthed when Caroline Cossey revealed that she had XXXY chromosomes, and we all wanted to look like her. But it seems that the majority of XXY people identify as men and are happy as such.

Now on to the question of non-binary identity. I’d like to start by saying that the idea that being intersex implies that you are non-binary is on a par with saying trans women are men, because it assumes that biological factors are the sole determinant of your gender. In all probability the majority of intersex people are happy being cisgender. Remember, many have no idea that they are intersex. Some intersex people, such as Caroline Cossey, will identify as trans women. There are also intersex traits that result in a baby being assigned female at birth but being more likely to identify as male. And there are some intersex people who identify as non-binary because of their biology, or because they would have been non-binary regardless of their biology.

So the idea that the person buried in the Hattula grave is non-binary because they happen to have XXY chromosomes is nonsense. What are the actual possibilities?

The archaeologists have tried to get this right. Their paper has references to work by the likes of Anne Fausto-Sterling and Judith Butler. However, they are hampered by a legacy of assumptions being made about the gender burials which tell us more about the people making the assumptions than about the person buried. The idea that anyone buried with a sword must be a man is taking a very long time to die.

In recognising that the subject is complex, the paper’s authors look around for possibilities and occasionally end up down the wrong rabbit hole. For example, they say, “An interesting aspect of the graves containing osteologically determined females and swords is that they often lack jewellery and other feminine accessories (Simniškytė, 2007; Price et al., 2019). This is seemingly in line with the idea that the Scandinavian gender system accepted masculinity as the only normative gender and allowed only some females to obtain masculine gender in certain circumstances (Clover, 1993).” However, this grave does contain jewellery and the person buried there would probably have been assigned male at birth.

The point this does make is that trans and non-binary identities are culturally contextual. You can only say that someone is non-binary if they behave outside the cultutally accepted norms of male and female for the society in which they live. Do we know what these norms were for early-mediaeval Finnish culture? Possibly not.

It seems likely that the person in the grave would have been assigned male at birth. Very few cultures assign anyone as neither male nor female at birth, and those that do (for example the Navajo) tend to require ambiguous genitalia for make such a pronouncement. If the person in the grave did exhibit hypospadias, then they may have been assigned non-binary at birth, or been assigned female, but we have no way of knowing.

The identification of the person buried as female is dependent on the grave goods. The items of interest are a small number of brooches, and the probable presence of expensive fur-trimmed clothing. As the authors of the paper note, this could mean that the person buried in the grave was a very wealthy and powerful man who liked using excessive bling to emphasise his status.

If the person buried exhibited hypospadias then they may have been assigned female at birth, but masculine biological characteristics would have asserted themselves at puberty and this could have led to the person acquiring a liminal identity. In our culture such people are normally deterined to have been the victims of a mistaken gender assignment, and are re-assigned as men. There are several well known cases in the UK from the 1930s. We appear to be better at gendering babies now. Early mediaeval Finnish culture may well have been more accepting of non-binary identities.

But probably the person buried was identified as male at birth. They may have developed pronounced breasts during puberty or, like Caroline Cossey, they may have had a strong female gender identity, or both. We don’t know how the local culture would have reacted to this. They may have seen the person as liminal in some way and required/allowed a non-binary identity. Or they may have allowed gender transition. Again, we can’t know.

So in conclusion, the person buried at Hattula may have been a cisgender man with a liking for bling, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired male characteristics in life, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired female characteristics later in life, or someone who was assigned female at birth who transitioned socially to live as a woman. All of these explanations could possibly have been seen as “non-binary” in some way by the local culture. One of them has the buried person strongly identifiying as a man, and one has them strongly identifying as female. How the person identified themself could be rather different from how the rest of their society viewed them.

Gendering burials is hard, folks. But the act of trying to do so can teach us a lot about the complexity of human biology and identity.

Luna Press News


The latest volume in the Luna Press Academia Lunare series is now available. This one is called Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction. As always, it is filled with fascinating essays on the titular theme, and an essay by me. This time I have written something about worldbuilding with sex and gender. Yes, it is a paper version of the funny animals talk. There are a few new creatures in the mix this time, and of course you’ll have the text to refer to rather than having to listen to me. I’ll talk a bit about the other essays in the next Salon Futura.

But that’s not all, because the short lists for this year’s British Fantasy Awards have been announced, and last year’s Academia Lunare book is honoured in the non-fiction category. That’s Ties that Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, which features my essay, “Robot Love is Queer”.

The BFS Awards contain lots of other great works and people as well, many of them in that non-fiction category. I’d like to make particular mention of two of our Bristol people: Stark Holborn and Pete Sutton. Well done folks, great to see you getting honoured.

HFRN 2022 – Call for Papers

The Historical Fictions Research Network (of which I am a Trustee) has elected to hold their 2022 conference entirely online. The situation with the pandemic is too confused for us to be able to make any other plans.

Of course the great thing about being online is that we can get papers from all over the world. As with this year, we are aiming to schedule timeslots that will allow everyone from New Zealand to California to particpate.

The dates of the conference will be February 19-20.

Our keynote speakers will be:

  • The George Padmore Institute: An archive, educational resource and research centre housing materials relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe.
  • Amy Tooth Murphy: A Trustee of the Oral History Society and a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the blog Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality. Dr. Murphy will be talking about her project on the oral history of the Butch Community.

The Conference Registration Fee for this year is £75 for regulars and £40 for concessions (PhD students, low-income). Tickets are available here.

Paper proposals are due 1st September 2021: they should consist of a title, and up to 250 words abstract. The decisions on acceptance would be communicated by 1st November 2021. All papers will be delivered live and we will schedule across time-zones.

The theme of the 7th annual conference of the Historical Fictions Research Network is “Communities” and spans a wide array of topics across the disciplines of Archaeology, Architecture, Literature, Art History, Cartography, Geography, History, Memory Studies, Musicology, Reception Studies, Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Museum Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Re-enactment, Larping, Gaming, Transformative Works, Gender, Race, Queer studies.

For the 2022 conference, HFRN seeks to engage in scholarly discussions and deliberations on how communities construct their own pasts; how different versions of the past are used to create – or question – a national memory and identity; how communities challenge the narratives that have been foisted upon them or are used to oppress and discriminate; how communities challenge their own consensual understandings of their past; or how a re-evaluation of the past and past events may change a communities’ self-image. We welcome paper proposals across historical periods, with ambitious, high-quality, interdisciplinary approaches and new methodologies that will support research into larger trends, and which will lead to more theoretically informed understandings of the mode across historical periods, cultures, and languages.

The conference will prioritize (but will not be necessarily limited to) the following thematic strands:

  • Past, Present and the community writing
  • Literature, Language, and community building
  • Historical Fiction, Gaming and Community
  • Gender Writings, Health and Community
  • Textual retellings, revisions, and Community construction
  • COVID, Community and resilience
  • Queer Space and community development
  • Social Media and digital communities
  • Web series, Film adaptation and community
  • Memory, community, and identity
  • Ecological writings and community
  • Community, worldbuilding and historical imagination
  • Cultural histories of communities
  • War, Migration, and community restoration
  • National memories and identities

Each presentation will be of 20 minutes followed by an interaction session.

To register your interest in presenting a paper, please fill in this form.

Visit our website for more details and regular updates. You can also email us.

New From Luna Press

The lovely people at Luna Press Publishing have a new non-fiction collection on the way. This one is titled Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have an essay in it. As you can probably guess, it is about queer animals. You can read a bit about it here.

Obviously there will be many other essays in the book, all of them covering different aspects of worldbuilding, and doubtless most of them better than mine (if perhaps less funny). There are posts about some of them on the Luna Press blog, and more will be coming in due course.

On the Big Stage


Today it was announced that I will be doing a talk for HistFest (June 17th, 7:30pm UK time, booking details here). This is huge.

No, seriously. The sort of people who get on that platform are TV historians, eminent professors, or people with books coming out. Often they are all three. Recent events have featured Michael Wood, Alice Roberts, Olivette Otele, Sir Michael Palin, David Olusoga and Janina Ramirez. And they want me to talk about trans people. It feels kind of like being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo without having actually written a book. I am so grateful to Rebecca Rideal for asking me to do this, and of course to all of the professional Classicists and Assyriologists who have helped me get the skills to make this possible.

Now all I have to do is perform, and thanks to years of experience with LGBT+ History Month I know I can do that. What I’m hoping some of you will do is buy a ticket. I want this to sell out, not for me, but to show people that LGBT+ history has a market.

By the way, if you saw my talk at the University of Durham in February, this will be mostly the same material, but made a bit more accessible for a more general audience. However, there will be some new stuff about trans men in this talk.

Tolkien Lecture 2021

We are still very much in No Public Meetings mode here in the UK, which means that this year’s J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature will again take place online. While I will miss my annual trip to Oxford, I have to admit that online lectures make it much easier for both speakers and audience to come from anywhere in the world. The main constraint is time zones.

With that in mind, I am delighted to report that the 2021 lecture will be given by one of my favourite writers of fantastic fiction, and also someone who knows Tolkien’s work well because of his work on The Silmarilion. I am talking, of course, about Guy Gavriel Kay. The lecture will be at 6:00pm on Tuesday May 11th, and you can book a (free) place here.

Queering Medusa

At long last the final piece of my LGBT+ History Month tour has dropped into place. This is the video interview I did with Dan Vo for the National Galleries Scotland exhibition on Ray Harryhausen. The basic idea is that each of Dan’s interviewees would pick a Harryhausen creature and explain how it connected to queer history. My choice was Medusa, and the edited interview is now available to view.

The most obvious thing about it is that I am still really bad at TV and should not be let anywhere near a camera, but at least I have a decent background. I’m pleased to have given a supporting role to Ifor the Dragon.

Also the story is good. There’s a lot in there about African history and Amazons. I also manage to reference Sandy Stone and Dorothea Smartt. If you want to know what they have to do with Medusa, you need to watch the interview.

What didn’t make it into the final cut was my plug for Liz Gloyn’s book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture. I did try, Liz. If you want to know why I was plugging it, check out my review on Salon Futura.

My thanks once again to Dan, and to National Galleries Scotland, for inviting me to be part of this series. And now, without further ado, here is the show:

New From Academia Lunare

The lovely folks at Luna Press Publishing have a new project underway. It is the 5th in their Academia Lunare series of non-fiction collections. You may remember that book #3 in the series, Gender and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, won a British Fantasy Award. Also book #4, The Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a finalist for this year’s British Science Fiction Association Awards. What’s more, the books have achieved these honours despite both having essays by me in them.

So, book #5. It is titled, Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction. As usual it has a stellar international cast of contributors, and me. You can find the full contents list and contributor bios here. My offering is titled, “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”. It is, of course, about queer animals, because if our natural world is full of outrageously queer behavior there is no reason why your invented world can’t be either.

Pre-orders will open sometime in the spring, and in the meantime Francesca will be doing the PR thing by releasing abstracts of the various essays to whet your appetites.

Also the CFP for book #6 in the series is now out. It will be titled, Not the Fellowship. Dragons Welcome. The idea is to write about one of the lesser characters from The Lord of the Rings. You can pick anyone except a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, including Smaug. I wonder how many proposals they’ll get arguing one way or the other about Tom Bombadill. Guess I’d better put my thinking cap on.

In Search of Trans Celts

On Friday I gave a talk for the lovely people at Aberration as part of their LGBTHM festival. They asked me to look for evidence of trans people among the Celtic inhabitants of Britain. This isn’t easy, and my talk was hedged around with caveats. I promised a blog post that would explain things in more detail. Here it is.

I need to start off by explaining what I mean by “Celtic”, because the Romans did not use that word to describe my ancestors. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that they often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on.

However, the Greeks used the word “Keltoi” to describe people who lived up the Danube, so north of the Balkans, including places like Hungary and Slovakia. The modern word “Celtic” is used to denote a group of Bronze/Iron Age tribal cultures that are united by a common language and culture. They spread all the way from Britain and Spain to Eastern Europe and possibly even China. Archaeologists will refer to Hallstatt Culture (named after a town in Austria) as a general term for these people. There are regions of Spain and Poland known as Galicia because the Romans knew them as home to Gauls.

This is all very simplistic, of course. The reality of the archeology is much more complex as we shall see. Also shared culture is not proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.

The only reference I could find regarding trans people in possibly-Celtic culture comes from Tacitus in his book, Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, “Germany” was somewhat displaced east from our modern idea of the country. The people he was talking about were a tribe called the Nahanarvali, who were part of a larger confederation of tribes called the Lugii. Their home territory was in modern Poland, between the Oder and Vistula rivers. Tacitus wrote:

Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis.

On the face of it, that’s pretty good. Sacred groves are things that we associate with Celts, and these people lived in an area where Hallstatt materials have been found. But were they Celts? And if so, would the same gods have been worshipped in Britain? Well, it is complicated.

Depending who you read the Lugii are described as Celtic, Germanic, or proto-Slavic. We do know that the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals lived to the north-east of Lugii territory, and that they gradually pushed westwards through the Roman era. But Tacitus says that the grove is very old, so hopefully that indicates a Celtic origin.

Then there’s the language. The Lugii sound like they are associated with the Celtic god Lugh (Irish) or Lleu (Welsh). There is an unrelated tribe with the same name in Scotland. But the name of the god, Alcis, suggests a Germanic root and an association with deer.

Also, sacred groves are not unique to Celts. I have turned up evidence of one in Sweden, and Cybele (the patron goddess of trans women) was worshipped in a sacred grove on Mount Ida in her home in Phrygia.

Then there is the nature of the gods. Tacitus says they are twin boys, and compares them to Castor & Pollux. But those gods are traditionally associated with horses, not deer. There is good evidence of a pair of twins associated with horses being worshipped by the locals in the Spanish Galicia during Roman times, but we’ve still got the wrong animal.

Of course none of this proves anything about the ancient Britons, so I turned to the Mabinogion to see what surviving Welsh legend might tell us. Somewhat to my surprise, I found something.

In the Fourth Branch, as a precursor to the tale of Blodeuwedd, we get a story about two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Gwydion goes on to have many other adventures, but Gilfaethwy is known only for his obsession with a young girl called Goewin. She’s not interested, and she’s a special virgin servant of King Math of Gwynedd so untouchable. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy therefore kick off a small war by stealing some pigs from a rival king, Pryderi of Dyfed. While Math is away dealing with the inevitable retaliation, Gilfaethwy is able to rape poor Goewin.

When Math gets home he finds out what the boys have done and is furious. He turns them first into deer (significant?), then into boar, and then into wolves. In each case one of the boys becomes a male of the species, and the other becomes a female, and they have children, whom Math adopts.

So what we have here is a tale of divine brothers who go through species and gender changes and produce offspring, which is all a bit reminiscent of Loki. Also the boys’ sister, Arianrhod, becomes the mother of Lleu.

At this point the story is so complicated that it is impossible to say anything concrete without sounding like Robert Graves or James George Frazer. You start to understand why they wrote the things that they did. My mind has been racing down rabbit holes ranging from Castor & Pollux and their sister Helen on the one hand, to Freyja and Freyr on the other. I could easily concoct a whole neo-pagan theology around this.

But I am a responsible historian, so I just have to say that we don’t know. It is all very mysterious.

In the meantime, if you have been sent here by the folks at Aberration, you can find a lot more about trans Romans in my academic writing. And the books that I mentioned on Friday are:

Talks This Week #LGBTHM21

LGBT+ History Month continues apace. Here’s what’s happening in public this week.

Tomorrow evening, I will be at the M Shed in Bristol in conversation with the wonderful Nicola Griffith. We’ll be talking about her novel, Hild, about sexuality in early mediaeval times, and about a whole lot of other things. You know, women warriors, Sutton Hoo, co-option of ancient history by the far right, and so on. This is a free talk, and you can book here.

On Wednesday evening I will be at Strawberry Hill House in South London where I will be talking about Charlotte de Beaumont, Chevalière d’Eon and being trans in the 18th century. This one you have to pay a small amount for, but it should be well worth it. I have had so much fun doing the research for this and could easily talk for two hours rather than one. The talk will have war, espionage, gender transition, ridiculous quantities of wine, two revolutions, the Hellfire Club, Rousseau, William Blake and so much more. You can book here.

Also I did a talk for a student group at Cambridge today. I’m doing one for a private client on Wednesday afternoon. And Thursday thru Saturday I’ll be helping run the Historical Fiction Research Network annual conference, and giving a paper about Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s hugely successful novel, The Last Days of Pompeii.

Glasgow Does D&D

The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow University, in collaboration with the univeristy’s Games Lab, have run an online event about the origins and history of Dungeons and Dragons. It was fun, and really heartwarming to see so many young people who love RPGs watching the event. As history, however, it could have been better. That’s one of the things about having been there when it happened. You remember stuff.

John D Rateliff, who was the principal speaker, used to work for TSR, and for the company we tend to refer to as Wizards of the Cost, so he knows his stuff. But he didn’t start playing D&D until 1980 so he missed a lot of the frenzy of development in the early years. Heck, Runequest was two years old by then.

Rateliff did mention a book by Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift, which chronicles the early history of the hobby with some reference to fanzines. A quick scan through shows that the fanzines referenced were mostly American (many of them from Bruce Pelz’s collection), but I did see a few names that I recognised. Peterson does mention postal Diplomacy quite a lot, and En Garde!, all of which is very familiar.

When it comes down to it, there are basically only two main debates about RPGs. The first one is about whether the game should be set in a closed world (e.g. a game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or on the Arthurian legends), or in an open one where GMs are free to create their own world. D&D started off open-ended, went through a phase where the owners were trying to lock people in, and has now apparently gone back to being open-ended again. Given that Tékumel is older than D&D, you can argue that this debate has been raging from the start. I was pleased to see Rateliff cite flexibility as D&D‘s key selling point. Back in the 1970s we all used say that we played “D&D“, even though most of us had tossed those first edition rulebooks and made up our own rules.

The other main debate, which has absolutely been with us from the start, is the narrative v rules debate. Those on the narrative side see the game as what we used to called Improvised Freeform Theatre (a term I think Paul Mason may have coined), and the rule-players see it as a form of wargame where knowledge of the rules is crucial to success. I’m delighted to see that the young gamers at the event were pretty much all on the narrative side. Maybe that’s because all of the rules-players have gone off to do Warhammer.

Rateliff, who is a highly-respected fantasy fiction scholar, was very solid on the fictional roots of the game. He seemed to know a bit less about the wargaming side. I was a bit surprised to see no mention of Tony Bath’s legendary Hyboria campaign. But the two elements have always been side-by-side. I bought my first D&D set thanks to an ad in one of my father’s copies of Minature Wargames. I played my first game thanks to friends who had discovered it through the Tolkien Society at St. Andrews.

With all this academic interest in roleplaying, I hope that someone will one day write a history of the early days of the hobby in the UK. Most of us are still alive. They could interview Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Marc Gasgoine and so on, and a lot of us hobbyists.

In the meantime, you can watch tonight’s show below:

World Fantasy Awards

The winners of this year’s World Fantasy Awards were announced last night. As the convention was virtual this year, I was able to “be there”. The full list of winners is available on the Locus website, but I want to focus on just two.

Firstly, the ridiculously titled Special Award – Non-Professional category was won by Fafnir – The Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. This is apparently the first time that the award has been won by an academic journal, and it is one founded by Finns.

I have to confess a certain amount of bias here. I am on the Advisory Board for the journal, but they haven’t actually needed any advising, so I can’t claim any credit there. I also have an article in the current issue, but that was published this year and therefore should not have been considered by the World Fantasy Jury.

There are lots of people who deserve congratulations. The current editors, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Laura E. Goodin & Esko Suoranta, will get the trophies. But there are two other people I’d like to draw attention to. Firstly there is Merja Polvinen of University of Helsinki. She’s the Chair of the Advisory Board, and was very much a driving force in getting the journal started. The other is Irma Hirsjärvi, because the Journal is very much an outgrowth of the academic tracks that we run every year at Finncon, and Irma is one of the main instigators of those. (I just turn up to comment on the papers.)

Finally, we should note that while Fafnir is an academic journal, it is open source. That is exactly the sort of academic publication that the World Fantasy Awards should be honouring.

The other winner I want to mention is in the Novel category: Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender. Kacen is non-binary person of colour, using they/them pronouns. I’ve had the book on my Kindle for several months but haven’t got round to reading it yet. Given that it beat both The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Gideon the Ninth, it must be very impressive. And the fact that someone like Kacen can be voted the author of the best fantasy novel in this year, of all years, fills me with joy. I think you can work out why.

Glasgow Gets Fantastic

Nope, this is nothing to do with the Worldcon bid. This week saw the launch of Glasgow University’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. There’s a really great group of academics there, and GIFCon is still an event I very much want to go to. But now the University has now acknowledged their presence by setting up a centre of excellence. It is great to see such interest in fantasy literature on this side of the Atlantic.

The Centre had an official launch event today. It included a wonderful keynote address by Ellen Kushner, and a great panel featuring Terri Windling, Brian Atterbery, and Rob Maslen, the academic who first founded an M.Litt. course in Fantasy at Glasgow. It was streamed live to YouTube, so you should be able to watch it below.

Tomorrow – Outing the Past

Tomorrow the lovely folks behind LGBT History Month will be holding a virtual symposium on, you guessed it, LGBT History. This one will be all about history and creative production. My good friend Dan Vo is hosting a session at 13:00, and I will be one of his guests. There might be Romans, and mosaics, and Greek theatre.

The event is free, and you can find full details here.

HFRN 2021, Also Virtual

Another academic conference that I’m a regular at (and now a Trustee of) is the annual meeting of the Historical Fiction Research Network. The conference is normally in February, and that’s now definitely uncertain as far as in-person events goes, so we are going virtual. Hopefully that means we’ll be able to pull in people from all around the world (though in fairness a bunch of lovely Aussies are regulars and we had two Russians last year).

Anyway, in keeping with the times, our theme for 2021 is depictions of catastrophe. It was the end of the world, or at least it seemed like it at the time. From the Great Flood in Gilgamesh to the Heat Death of the Universe, humans have always imagined disasters. There’s so much to talk about. Here’s the Call for Papers, and the link to buy memberships.

HFRN 2021- Online
Theme: Remembering Catastrophe

Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form:
Deadline 30th September.

We welcome paper proposals from Archaeology, Architecture, Literature, Media, Art History, Cartography, Geography, History, Musicology, Reception Studies, Linguistics, Museum Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Re-enactment, Larping, Gaming, Transformative Works, Gender, Race, Queer studies and others.

We welcome paper proposals across historical periods, with ambitious, high-quality, inter-disciplinary approaches and new methodologies that will support research into larger trends and which will lead to more theoretically informed understandings of the mode across historical periods, cultures and languages.

This year we are using a form. Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form.

Deadline, 30th September.
Tickets from Helm: £40/£15

Outing the Past Goes Virtual

Outing the Past is an annual academic conference on the subject of queer history. Normally I attend, but this year it got scheduled for September 12th, and I had already accepted an invitation to go to Augsberg in Germany for a science fiction conference organised by the wonderful Sabrina Mittermeier. Of course that isn’t going to happen now. Sabrina and her colleagues have already put some of the proposed events online, including my chat with Sabrina and Maria Turtschaninoff. You can find that and several other events, on the covention’s YouTube channel. (And let me tell you that I’m seriously chuffed to be on the same programme as the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire.)

So what about Outing the Past. Obviously it is going virtual too, and that means you can all join in the fun. There will be a special one-day event on September 12th called Completing the Past. It will be all about LGBT+ History and Creative Production. There are a lot of great speakers lined up, and in particular I would like to draw your attention to the panel titled, “Heritage at home: Connecting and engaging with the LGBT+ past through creative production.” That will be hosted by Dan Vo, and it will feature a bunch of guests talking about works of art that open a door on the LGBT+ past. I can’t tell you any more about it than that now, but you know that if Dan is involved then it is goign to be awesome, right?

Ill Met by Moonlight

Via my friend Stephanie Budin I have discovered a rather interesting conference scheduled for next April. ‘Ill met by moonlight’: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture, is part of a project on Gothic Literature by a group of academics based at the University of Hertfordshire. How I have not heard of them before, I do now know. They’ve been going since 2010, and running annual conferences on all things creepy and going bump in the night. I mean, how can you not love a literary project called, Open Graves, Open Minds.

Anyway, the 2021 conference is about Fairies. Sadly I am scheduled to be in Sweden then, so even though I suspect that in-person events will still be impossible by then, I can’t in good conscience submit a paper on War for the Oaks, even though I want to.

However, you good people are hopefully not so constrained, and therefore might want to get involved. The full CFP is here. If Emma Bull doesn’t appeal to you, they also specifically mention works by Neil Gaiman, Liz Hand and Jeanette Ng. (Sorry Jeanette, you are canon now!). Hie thee to a word processor, and cast thy Puckish imaginings to the aether.

Queering the Classics

Today is International Non-Binary People’s Day (neatly positioned half way between International Men’s Day, which does exist, and International Women’s Day). I am rather pleased that today is also publication day for volume 49 of the CUCD Bulletin, in which I have an article.

CUCD stands for Council of University Classics Deparments, which is a professional forum for all teachers of classical Greek and Roman subjects in British Universities. That makes the Bulletin a pretty serious academic venue, albeit one that will cover issues of pedagogy as well as research. My article is titled “Queering the Classics”, and it is primarily a review of this book, Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World.

However, in order to explain the importance of the book, I had to do the whole thing of talking about understanding gender and sexuality in the ancient world. And it is this that makes publication on International Non-Binary People’s Day so appropriate. The short version is that gender is a social construct, and every society constructs it differently.

Huge thanks are due to the Bulletin‘s editor, Professor Susan Deacy, who has been very supportive of my baby steps in the Classics world.