Anti-ScienceRandom AsidesSkepticism

All the woo in Wooville

Last weekend, we spent a really fun day at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ren Fest, it’s an outdoor fair which attempts to emulate the Renaissance period. People dress up, people joust, people perform. You know, like Botticelli used to. It’s a lot of fun. We were there because a friend was getting married at the festival. So much awesome! It was a beautiful day, a very nice, simple wedding and the most awesome groom’s cake I’ve ever seen:

Yes, those are tiny little sugar swords in the cupcakes. You pull them out and you are king of Cake-land, of course!

Of course, while wandering the fair, I was unable to stop my woo-dar from going off. Unfortunately, finding woo at the Ren Fest is about as hard as finding explosions in a Michael Bay movie…  See what I found, along with more photos below the fold!

There was the usual stuff – Astrology:


More astrology/tarot:

People who thought Gandalf feared high water:

People trying to convince me that the Rennaissance had panini makers and espresso machines:

By the time we saw the lady with the fire cupping marks on her back, I was getting a little jaded:

Then I saw this sign:


A spark of hope! And, further investigation showed that they did, in fact, have a wicked cool assortment of astrolabes, compasses, spyglasses and sundials.

Very neat indeed. Unfortunately, on further inspection of the stall, this display sat in between Aromatherapy necklaces:

and Protective Talismans (talismen?):

The protective talismans were particularly fun.

This one will apparently get you the love of your life. Or some frequent flyer points, maybe. Not really clear.

This one contains a magical spiral inscription in Hebrew

The best part about this one was that when I referred to my handy Jew-on-the-spot who was with me (don’t leave home without one!), all the Hebrew lettering is actually backwards.  Nonetheless, it supposedly contains a ‘comprehensive’ curse on all devils – male OR female. That’s hardcore, people. (It says Devil Trap, not Devil Crap, as it seems on first glance.)

So, random Ren Fest store, I give you props for the scientific instruments and for spelling scientific correctly. But way to turn it around with everything else.

When I started writing this, I thought it was actually a little unfair to pick at the Ren Fest for woo. I’ve been to many of these over the years and they always seem to attract the ‘fantasy/sci-fi’ crowd (of which I am a proud card-carrying member, I might add). Unfortunately, that also tends to bring with it crystals and tarot cards.

Was I being too foolish to hope for even a little bit of skepticism at these things? I mean, I know I know, it’s probably mostly harmless forms of woo (or is it?) and it’s just a silly festival that is probably just well aware of its target demographic. But it’s still a little sad.  The actual Renaissance represented a time of enlightenment – an end to the Dark Ages. A time of the resurgence of science, art and intellectual pursuits. This is the time of DaVinci and Michelangelo! And, even if science at the time was a little caught up in the whole ‘alchemy’ thing, I think the concept of the renaissance was ‘out with the woo, in with the fact,’ at least in theory.

In addition, these events attract young people in droves and, even if it makes me seem stodgy, I’d like to see just a little more ‘reality’ in my renaissance. So am I being overly picky here? Should the Ren Fest really represent the concept of the Renaissance? Or should I just let it go and enjoy the swordplay and paninis? :)


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. writerdd:
    “Maybe we need to have skepchick booths at ren faires? Or would we be burned at the stake as witches?”

    Funny, you don’t look like your made of wood.

  2. OK, as I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I spent a year on the circuit, and I have a few points to make…

    1) While they call the RenFests, there’s always much more Dark Ages than Renaissance in them… and more fantasy than everything else combined. That’s where the money is, so that’s where they go.

    2) If you keep your eyes open, you can find the rare historical gem, and it’s always fun to share a wink with those in know. It’s like a secret club (and the people who get it right always seem to be far prettier than the woo-sies it seems, as well).

    3) Sadly, even the people in the know often have to play by the woo rules set up by the local owners. The customers expect a certain things for their money, and that’s what you have to give. At least in a weapon shop, we had a better than average chance to educate while we entertained and actually being knowledgeable about the history of the type of weapon you were showing would often help make a good sale, and put more money in your pocket.

    All in all, I support them in theiry, and if we play our cards right, we can sort of make it the thin edge of the wedge of real education for the masses. It’s a long, hard fight, but every time someone walks away holding a nice, historical German broadsword instead of some aluminum LotR knock-off, shouting some good history at his (or, surprisingly often, her) friends, it’s a reminder of why we should keep on fighting.

  3. To be fair[e], the Renaissance WAS chock-full of woo despite the upsurge of science; they’re being authentic, at least. However, I’d wistfully hope they would treat it as, “How silly, look what people used to believe in!” instead of “Ancient wisdom preserved for your modern world!” — and I suspect it was very much the letter.

    The backwards Hebrew letters is bizarre. Maybe that’s so you can write left-to-right with them 8-)

  4. Gabe // May 27, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    “Maybe we need to have skepchick booths at ren faires? Or would we be burned at the stake as witches?”

    Funny, you don’t look like your made of wood.

    But– She turned me into a newt!

  5. When I started writing this, I thought it was actually a little unfair to pick at the Ren Fest for woo.

    Hey, if there’s one group that it’s okay to pick at it’s carnies . . . . In all their glorious forms.

    There’s a huge ren-fest outside of Houston every October-November, and I’ve made regular visits for years. Masala, remind me at TAM and we’ll swap carny stories over drinks.

  6. While the the lady with the fire cupping marks may have been into woo, it’s also entirely possible that they were recreational.
    There’s a lot of crossover between the Rennies and the BDSM crowd.

  7. “…all the Hebrew lettering is actually backwards.”

    It’s like that old joke about playing a Country and Western record backwards, except you drop out of medical school, your mother gets mellow, and you become a great athlete.

  8. I’ve been on renfaire circuit for over ten years (and have performed at the GA festival, in ’98 and ’99); chances are I’m friends with any major act that you saw. I invite skeptics in MI and CT to come see Zoltan at those faires.

    As for the woo – oh yah, plenty of woo. And while Rystefn is correct that many people ‘play the game’ to keep the patrons happy, it’s my experience that a significant number of them truly believe some scary, scary things. I’ve tried confronting the astology/tarot people before, and it just gets everyone angry. There seem to be a lot of conspiracy theorists, too.

    On the flip side, you do have the sci-fi crowd mixed in with everyone else, and they can be hard-core skeptics It’s an interesting mix. At least almost everyone’s a Democrat…

  9. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of weird and wacky woo on the circuit… and a lot of scary wrong woo as well… Don’t even get me started on the conspiracy idiocy. There’s no denying that, and anyone who tells you otherwise is one of the idiot believers (or at least highly ignorant).

    Like I said, I was lucky enough to work a weapons shop, and it’s pretty easy to keep that more or less woo-free (well, anime nerds get some weird ideas about ninja and katanas, but I’m not sure that counts as woo, really…)

  10. As mentioned the weapons/blacksmithing stalls are interesting as woo-ifying metal work means no metal, and most weapons woo surrounds Japanese weapons (katanas can cut through concrete!) which are notably absent from Western Ren-fairs), and occasionally you do get an interesting titbit, but on the whole I would think of them as 90% anachronisms, and ripped a lot off LoTR and other medieval fantasies.

    Now if they had the first aid station with authentic period ‘healing tools’ that way improve things a lot. (You have a headache? Okay lets drill a hole in your head to let the evil spirits out and then rub dung in the wound). As it is people appear to think the Dark ages/Renaissance period were all happy clappy and pleasant.

    As for Python, I’m pretty sure its been done to death and Ren-festers hate them. And the backwards written Hebrew, I suppose there could be some Kabblah thing where writing it backwards does something – as in the demon craps itself laughing when it sees it.

    Does it work against rabbits with ‘big teef’ though?

  11. Two theories:
    1) Backwards writing is an occult thing. Backwards hebrew is doubly occult since hebrew is written right to left anyway
    2) It’s for use as a seal
    3) They’re ignorant pillocks

    _five_ theories. No Three theories, sorry.

  12. What’s with the cute ruffles at the bottom and on the sleeves of Gandalf’s flood-robe?

    I always went to the Ren Faires for the music and the huge turkey legs. YUM! Oh, and the fun hats. There was always at least one place where you could watch/participate in some craft/food being produced that was historical and interesting.

  13. Oh yes, my final verdict is and always has been that Ren Faires are totally worth it. If for nothing else other than the fried pickles :)

    As for Gandalf, I have no clue about the ruffles. Maybe that’s why he had the robe hiked up so high – so he could show them off? :)

  14. As for Python, I’m pretty sure its been done to death and Ren-festers hate them.

    I dunno. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable anywhere where Python gets a hostile reception. Once you ban Python, what’s next? Hitchhikers Guide? Red Dwarf? Blackadder? We’d be weeks getting all our snark out without referential shorthand.

  15. [i]I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable anywhere where Python gets a hostile reception. Once you ban Python, what’s next? Hitchhikers Guide? Red Dwarf? Blackadder? [/i]

    Howard Johnson’s right!

    If I walk into a place where I can’t comfortably say “I have a cunning plan” and expect at LEAST knowing smirks, I’ll have to walk right back out again.

  16. But what if they enforce a “No Python” rule by retaining the historical Baby eating Bishop of Bath and Wells and his hot poker?

    Then of course, you could always get plastered, run through the Renfest with fake breasts (or real ones if you are so equipped) while singing about goblins…

    It would make for an interesting day even without Python. ;)

  17. Lyc: “Then of course, you could always get plastered, run through the Renfest with fake breasts (or real ones if you are so equipped) while singing about goblins…”

    *Heavy Sigh* Oh, Gahd…

  18. My roommate worked at the ren faire for a couple of years, years ago. We’ve talked about how people will show up in Victorian, Empire, Medieval, etc, wildly inaccurate period pieces…what got his goat the worst were the pirates and fairies…he said that once he actually saw (after I was telling him about the King of The Hill episode where Dale insists he’s in period wear – the future- wearing star trek gear) a group of trekkies wearing their traditional garb. So, I think that all things nerd (Python, Hithchiker’s etc) are alive and well with zero threat at the ren faire!

  19. I dont mind if they have fun, and I suspect a fair number of the RenFesters know they are a mismash of differing eras and fantasy genres, and are just having fun and making a buck.

    But the ones who take it soooo seriously drove me nuts. It’s like mentioning “mitichlorians” to a Wars fanboy at a SW convention – they turn an interesting shade of purple and start frothing at the mouth. There’s nothing wrong with a good fantasy, but please dont try passing it off as reality (that way lies Von Daiken and Dan Brown).

    Not coincidently I think, the ones who take it seriously are more often than not the biggest woos.

  20. Heh! Yeah, I’m pretty sure that he got pretty irritated…he kind of has a form of like accuracy Asperger’s or something. And he’s a Rosicrucian/into mysticysm in general, so yup: your correlation fits with this one.

    I wonder what the owner of the Android’s Dungeon would wear to a ren faire?

    …”worst cotehardie ever”.

  21. We have a guy show up to TRF every year two or three times in full StormTrooper gear (Empire, not Nazi). I can’t speak to all the rennies by any stretch, but in our shop, we all thought it was the coolest thing ever. He was more period than 90% of the costumes we saw, since Star Wars is, you know, “long ago” and all.

    Regardless, RenFests have long since stopped actually being about the Renaissance, if they ever were, and now just about dressing up and goofing off. If you doubt, check into it, and you’ll find designated weekends at most of the big ones (and a lot of the smaller ones) for pirates, Greece/Rome, Fairies & Goblins, Vikings, and a host of other non-period themes.

    Hell, the last weekend of TRF is “Celtic Christmas”… I don’t even know where to start on how wrong that is.

  22. Getting back to the pictures — aromatherapy I find the least offensive of the woos. At least the basic premise — “Nice smells can lift your mood” — has some basis in reality, which is more than can be said for homeopathy or astrology. It’s also more or less period — didn’t folks before the advent of indoor plumbing frequently wear herbs and things around their necks to cover up the general stench?

    I’m not sure if it’s non-period to call all this stuff “scientific,” either. My impression is that the same smart folks in the Renaissance were interested in both what we call science and what we call woo.

  23. Said Masala: …my favorite act is Ded Bob

    Heh – Ded Bob was the first act I shared a stage with, back in ’98. There’s now four (!) of them, you know. The main dummy (smuj) is a good friend of mine, and I’ve met the dummy currently working GA (sluj) on a few different occasions.

    I’m not just Ded Bob’s friend, I’m also his webmaster…

  24. “He was more period than 90% of the costumes we saw, since Star Wars is, you know, “long ago” and all.”

    ROTFL! How true! I can’t wait for my roommate’s opinion.

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