I've been going to Pennsic since 1986. I've missed a couple of years because of varying things like military service on the other side of the continent and obnoxious work environments but for the most part I've gone pretty much every year for the last two decades. Going has gotten a lot easier since I retired.
Pennsic is like a combination of Brigadoon and Valhalla. It mysteriously arrives every summer for two weeks near the intersection of Interstate 79 and U.S. Route 422 in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, you fight all day, drink and party all night and then just as mysteriously it disappears again and you spend the next 50 weeks preparing physically, financially and psychologically for the next one.
Master Fólki Þorgilsson's book Herstaðr-saga: An Incomplete History of Pennsic tells the story of how Pennsic started:
"One day, almost 30 years ago, Cariadoc of the Bow, the King of the Middle, got bored with peace and declared war upon the East, loser to take Pittsburgh. The King of the East read the declaration of war, filed it away and forgot about it. Time passed. Cariadoc moved to New York and subsequently became King of the East, whereupon he retrieved the declaration from the file cabinet and said, 'Let"s fight.' The Middle won, and Cariadoc has the distinction of being the only king who declared war upon himself and lost."
It's a funny story. It's even for the most part true.
Pennsic has been at the same site since 1977 although the first five wandered around a bit. The ground at Cooper's Lake has taken on its own myths and legends as well. Just south of the barn, which acts as a place for courts, award ceremonies, dancing, arts exhibitions and general social gathering, there is a runestone placed on top of what is now called Runestone Hill. It was put there in 1981 by a small group in Iowa. There are tales that many children have been conceived next to the runestone. Is it true? Probably. Lots of children are conceived at Pennsic. Some are even born there, although that happens less frequently. The large hill above the main battlefield is known as Mount Eislinn, named after a former Queen of the Middle who served at Pennsic while having terminal cancer.
It is difficult to describe Pennsic to someone who has never been around the SCA before and it really can overwhelm people who haven't had exposure to the Society in the past. I would not recommend it to a new person for their first event, particularly those who don't like primitive camping with 11,000 other people for two weeks in high summer. First thing is that it can be loud. You can hear doumbeks playing all night. Some people find it soothing. Others want to have them shot. Another thing is that it is larger than you expect. Although most camps are rather cramped together, there is still a lot of space and the camping areas have gotten so large and widespread that you simply can't visit them all in one year. Another thing is that public shower facilities are rather limited and the lines can be very long, particularly after battles or when the temperatures get high. Many camps are starting to bring their own shower equipment, ranging from the simple shower bag to more elaborate setups including hot water tanks. Finally, there are tents. Pennsic will have the widest variety of temporary residences you will ever see. There are people in little dome tents (often called ground pimples). There are those in 12'x15' cabin tents. There are those in enormous pavilions, many of them magnificently multicolored. Some people bring virtually nothing. Others bring specially made beds. You take the level of comfort you can afford and, most especially, transport. In ancient times, the VW Bus was the official vehicle of the SCA. Now it is a Dodge Caravan. We're all getting older.
The War is between the East and Middle Kingdoms but because of the growth of the Society, the site is now in a third one: the Kingdom of Æthelmearc, which comprises the territories of western and central New York, western and central Pennsylvania and West Virginia...basically everything west of the mountains. Needless to say, this has created new layers of complication to the festivities and complicated treaties have been drawn up to ensure that the event keeps running smoothly. A well known Æthelmearc peer is famous for saying, "We can be Belgium." The Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands contingent often sings their traditional song, "This Land is our Land, This Land is OUR Land" to remind the gatherers where they are.
There are some sights at Pennsic that shouldn't be missed.
- Opening Ceremonies. All the Kingdoms of the Known World (nineteen as of this writing) as well as some associated non-SCA groups process onto the main battlefield in pomp and splendour. The heralds insult each other. The kings of the East and the Middle break a ceremonial arrow and War has begun.
- The Field Battle. While there are many battles at Pennsic, this one is still the granddaddy of them all. Imagine 1500 (or more) people in full armor rushing towards each other. The ground shakes so hard you can feel it in the merchant areas. Your pulse races and its not because you're running while wearing fifty pounds of gear. Nothing can possibly describe it until you've been in one.
- Casa Bardicci. A replica of an Italian villa painstakingly rebuilt every year. Gorgeous.
- The gates. Camping groups often build a variety of gates. Some of them are plain. Some are truly stunning. There are wooden fortifications and pirate ships and even the Gates of Moria. Walk around and see them.
- Vlad's Pleasure Palace and the Slave Auction. 'Nuff said.
- The Grand Arts & Sciences Exhibition. Usually on Wednesday morning and early afternoon in the barn. You can see many of the stunning works of art of a immense variety of forms.
- Midnight Madness. On Wednesday night, most merchants drop their prices on virtually anything and stay open offensively late. Better than any shopping mall and usually much bigger as well.
- Your Inner Vagabond. Turkish coffee house. Excellent place to sit and relax.
- Wolgemut. The legendary German medieval troubador group has performed at Pennsic every year since Pennsic XXX (2001). If you're at Pennsic you'll hear them. You won't be able to avoid it.
- Og. Lord Og the Red is one of the legendary fixtures of Pennsic. He writes articles for the Pennsic Independent, the on-site newspaper entitled Og on Alcohol. Sometimes they're actually about alcohol. A jolly, redheaded and bearded bear of a man, he's like a medieval Santa Claus who leaves beer in people's stockings. Drink well. Drink often. Drink with Og.
If you go to Pennsic, go everywhere, talk to everyone, take classes, don't hide in your camp the whole two weeks. You'll miss the whole point of being there. It is a place like no other with people like no other.
Some websites about Pennsic are:
- The Pennsic War official website - http://www.pennsicwar.org
- The East Kingdom - http://www.eastkingdom.org
- The Kingdom of Æthelmearc - http://www.aethelmearc.org
- The Middle Kingdom - http://www.midrealm.org
- Pennsic.net. Excellent site for pictures - http://www.pennsic.net
- The Pennsic Independent, the on-site newspaper (which I happen to be an editor for) - http://www.pennsicindependent.com