No Stranger in This Strange Land – Interview with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
As a lifelong Science Fiction fan I grew up reading Heinlein. I remember well reading “Stranger in a Strange Land.” But few people have had it start a life path as interesting as Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s. He has been a long-time influence on the Neo-Pagan community. One of my readers suggested interviewing him. I asked and Oberon quickly gave his permission.
Christopher: So many Neo-Pagans seem to be science fiction fans. Why do you think that is?
Oberon: Well, I think that’s obvious. Science fiction is the literature of imagination, of speculation, of wonder, of exploration, and of possibilities. It is literature by and for intelligent, curious, questing readers. I think that the impulses that draw people into alternative religions—especially Paganism—are the same as those that draw us into science fiction. It all begins with the fairly tales we are introduced to as children. These naturally take us into classical myths and sagas, which lead seamlessly into such things as the Arthurian Cycle, Lord of the Rings, and other tales of magick. And it’s an insignificant step from fantasy into science-fiction—so much so that they are commonly considered a single category: fantasy/sci-fi. Science fiction is the mythology of our time—and of the future.
In a typical Pagan home, every vertical space is a bookcase, and every horizontal space is an altar!
Christopher: Where and when did you read Stranger in a Strange Land? How old were you?
Oberon: I was 18, and in my freshman year of college. It was 1962, and I read SISL over spring break. It had been the Science Fiction Book Club’s “book of the month” for October of 1961, but it took me a few months to get around to reading it. Lance Christie, my first friend in college, had read it over Xmas break, and passed it on to me, saying that this book put together all the stuff we’d been talking about since we met in the first days of school.
Christopher: How did that lead you to co-creating the Church of All Worlds?
Oberon: After reading SISL, Lance and I decided that we wanted to create a life and a future based on these ideas. So we shared water on April 7, 1962, pledging eternal water-brotherhood, and set forth to bring others into it. We were both in the psychology dept., and the big thing there at the time was the brand-new field of Transpersonal Psychology, inspired by Abraham Maslow’s concepts of self-actualization. He listed a hierarchy of 15 basic needs of self-actualizing people, which became the basis of a nifty psych survey called the “Edwards Personal Profile Survey (EPPS).” Our entire freshman class had been given the EPPS upon enrolling, and the Psych Dept. needed volunteer students to grade all these. So Lance and I volunteered. Naturally, we looked up our own scores first, whereupon we immediately noticed that we shared a unique profile that was very different from that of most other students—an “M” in the middle five criteria, where most other students had a “W.” So we flagged every other student whose EPPS profile showed that “M,” and we looked them up, and turned them on to SISL (we bought a bunch of paperbacks and handed them out). Those who came back saying “Wow! This is fantastic! I wanna live like this!” we took into our confidence, and offered them water. Thus began our first water-brotherhood, a “secret society” which we called “Atl” (Aztec for “water”). And after a few years, after we graduated, we took it public as the Church of All Worlds.
Christopher: CAW seems to have morphed over time. Did it start as Neo-Pagan, or did that come later?
Oberon: Well, when we started out, with the Atlan water-brotherhood, we really didn’t have a clear idea as to how to classify this religion. Heinlein hadn’t said anything about that. So we leaned towards philosophical identifications at first—such as Existentialism, NeoPlatonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Transcendentalism. But in 1967, I came upon a little article by “Young Omar” (Kerry Thornley) called “Functional Religion.” In it, he proposed the designation “Pagan” for such religions as ours, and I immediately adopted that term for CAW, right at the time we were first going public and incorporating. I seem to have been the first person to self-identify both myself and my religion as “Pagan,” and through CAW’s newsletter, Green Egg, I promoted this identification to other new religious groups just emerging at the time, adding the “Neo-” just to emphasize that we were not claiming to be an ancient tradition—like Druidism or Witchcraft—but rather something new, albeit based on something old. This terminology caught on immediately, and soon dozens of groups were calling themselves “Neo-Pagan.” And thus a movement was born!
Christopher: How did Green Egg start and why? How many times has it been reborn?
Oberon: Right after we became public, in Sept. 1967, we filed for incorporation. We received our charter from the state of Missouri on March 4, 1968. At the same time, we rented a large Victorian mansion in Gaslight Square, St Louis, where we started having meetings, services, and other activities. To let people know what we were about, and post our schedule of upcoming events, I decided to put out a little newsletter. Since we had designed CAW with three concentric “rings” of progressive involvement (each comprising three Circles, for a total of nine Circles…), it seemed logical to have three newsletters, one for each Ring. At that time, the only method of copying available was ditto (spirit duplicating), which came in four different colors of ink: black (which was really a rather dismal grey), green, red, and purple. So I decided to use a different color of ink for each of these newsletters, and to call them, espectively: Green Egg, Scarlet Flame, and Violet Void (later changed to Violet Vision). Each started out as a single page, but GE soon grew…
From 1968 through 1976, we put out 80 issues, getting up to 80 pages per issue. But then Morning Glory and I left St Louis and moved to the West Coast in a red school bus I refurbished as a travel home and called “The Scarlet Succubus.” For the next decade we were off on our own adventures—living for eight years in a Hippie homesteading community, raising Unicorns, doing Renaissance Faires, traveling around the world, chasing Mermaids in the Coral Sea, and forming a triad marriage with Diane Darling. Green Egg had long ceased to exist. But people kept talking about it, with great nostalgia and regret for its demise.
And so in 1988, Diane, MG, and I decided to resurrect our beloved and lamented zine, utilizing the new technology of desktop publication that the first Macintosh computers provided. That was the first “Phoenix Resurrection” of GE, and the first new issue (#81) featured a full-color Phoenix on the cover, with a banner that said: “The Next Generation.” It ran for another 55 issues, over 12 years, with a four-color glossy cover and really fancy production, winning many awards. But at the turn of the Millennium, right after issue #136, the new Ohio-based CAW BoD decided to dissolve the magazine, to our great dismay.
Then in 2007, my dear friends Ariel Monserrat and Atom Donohue stepped forward and offered—with my enthusiastic approval—to resurrect their favorite Pagan publication yet a third time as an online zine. Issue #137 appeared at Spring Equinox of that year, again featuring a glorious Phoenix cover. It is available at: www.GreenEggZine.com As I write, issue #146 has just come out.
Christopher: I saw it in its second reincarnation. Could you explain to some of our younger people what its role was in the pre-internet age of Neo-paganism?
Oberon: Just a few issues after its inception, I began using GE as a vehicle to connect with other groups I learned about, that I thought might be willing to be included under the umbrella designation of “Neo-Pagan.” The first to sign on was Fred Adams of Feraferia. Shortly, we formed the first Neo-Pagan ecumenical alliance, the “Council of Themis,” with about a dozen member groups. GE published descriptions, manifestos, and even the official newsletters (as inserts) of these groups, and our letters column soon grew to about a third of the magazine. I sent sample copies to every group I learned about, and soon nearly every Pagan in the world was reading it—and sending us letters, articles, poetry, and artwork to publish.
Rather than just being the publication of a single group (CAW), GE soon became the “inside” publication for the entire emerging Neo-Pagan community, informing, inspiring, and shaping it into the fastest-growing religious movement in the English-speaking world, with a current estimated membership of over 10 million! Noted Pagan author and elder Ray Buckland says: “The Green Egg has become one of the staples of Pagan life… For many years, it has been a melting pot for Pagan opinion and experience, a means for elders to share and beginners to learn. Paganism without the Green Egg would be unthinkable!”
And now my latest book, Green Egg Omelette (New Page, 2008), celebrates all this in an anthology of germinal articles and art spanning 40 years of publication.
Christopher: Where does the idea for polyamory come from? What is it and how long have you practiced it?
Oberon: Well, I first encountered the concepts of polyamory (having multiple simultaneous lovers with full awareness and consent of all) in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. While certainly people have formed multiple partnerships and relationships throughout history, Heinlein seems to have been the first to formally articulate the ethics and principles involved in making them work. Lance and I (and subsequently, other Atlans and CAW members) thought that this made sense to us, and we fully adopted this lifestyle. It worked amazingly well, and permeated the emerging Neo-Pagan community with a network of lovers which continues to expand and interconnect countless groups.
But for decades, we had no terminology to describe such multiple relationships, so we really weren’t able to talk about them. Finally, in early 1989, Diane asked Morning Glory to write an article on the
subject for Green Egg. In doing so, she came up with the terms polyamory and polyamorous. Her article, “A Bouquet of Lovers,” was published in the Beltane issue (#89). And the rest is history!
Christopher: What is the Gaia Theory? What is Deep Ecology? When did you begin promoting these ideas?
Oberon: “The Gaea Thesis,” as I like to call it, is, quite simply, the premise that all life on Earth comprises a single vast living organism, in whose body we are the equivalent of cells. This is not just a metaphor; all creatures on Earth are literally descended from a single original cell fertilized into replication at the time of the “Cambrian Explosion,” 544 million years ago. And, just as with the cells in our own bodies, the same DNA runs throughout all creatures on Earth. This planetary being has been acknowledged by all cultures from the dawn of time as “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature.” The ancient Greek name for Her was “Ge,” or “Gaea,” from whom we derive the names of all the Earth sciences and studies, such as geology, geography, geochemistry, geodesy, geophysics, etc. And, like any living organism at any scale, it is implicit that She has Her own sentience, consciousness, awareness, Spirit. This we have always known, and called “Goddess.”
All this came to me in a profound revelatory vision on Sept. 7, 1970…
“Deep Ecology” is simply a political term for a concept of ecology that embraces the spiritual as well as the physical facets of biospheric science, policies, and actions.
Christopher: What led to the creation of Grey School of Wizardry? What are your dreams for it?
Oberon: Well, it began with the Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, which I began working on in 2002, for a 2004 release. That book, however, was only the first phase of a long-range Vision to make available the Wisdom of the Ages for a new generation and a new Millennium. The Grimoire is not only an essential handbook of Apprentice-level Wizardry, but also a basic textbook for a full seven-year academic curriculum of Wizardly studies. Thus, its Lessons begin very simply and grow more complex as students advance.
So the second phase of this Vision was the creation of an on-line School of Wizardry to serve as a larger context for the Grimoire and magickal teachings. Several Grey Council members joined the faculty, and other teachers came in from elsewhere. Intended initially for students of ages 11-18 (middle through high school), the Grey School was designed to provide an extensive program of magickal studies, at an Apprenticeship level. Graduates would be certified as journeyman Wizards.”
On Aug. 1, 2004 (Lughnasadh), the Grey School opened its virtual doors at www.GreySchool.com to a flood of first-year students. We were amazed to discover that three-fourths of them were not teenagers, as expected, but adults—ranging in age from 18 to 80! We were challenged immediately to expand our concept, curriculum, and programs to encompass adults as well as youths. As of this writing, the School offers more than 300 classes for Majors in 16 Departments of Wizardry and Magick.
The motto of the Grey School is: “Omnia vivunt; omnia inter se conexa”—“everything is alive; everything is interconnected.”
Christopher: You have played many parts in the Neo-Pagan community. What were the ones most important to you?
Oberon: Well, personally, by far the most important thing for me is developing a vast worldwide community with enough common ground that I can travel anywhere in the world and be welcomed into a circle of my People. Thus, wherever I go, I am Home. I have many, many dear friends and lovers throughout this country, and in several more—particularly Australia, where CAW is one of the major Pagan religious organizations, and the first non-Christian church to become legally incorporated and recognized in that country.
I am delighted, proud, and deeply grateful to have had the opportunities to contribute to this community-building in various ways: creating and incorporating one of the very first legal Neo-Pagan churches; coming up with a name to call ourselves that enabled countless diverse groups to unite under a common appellation; founding the first church in history to legally ordain women as Priestesses; developing a compelling mytheology for this religion in the form of the Gaea Thesis and other writings; helping to develop many of the rituals and liturgical structures now widely used throughout the Neo-Pagan community (especially those of handfasting, rites of passage, Sabbats, and Mysteries).
Green Egg, of course, has been very important to me over the past 40 years, and another of the things I am very proud of. I am particularly happy to see that it has been picked up and is being carried forward online by a whole new crew…
I am also pleased to have been able to create sacred imagery in the form of posters, statues, jewelry, T-shirts, tattoo designs, etc. that many Pagans have acquired. It’s great to see folks wearing my designs, and having my statues on their altars! And now I am enjoying writing books in which I can pass on the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over all these years to present and future generations. As long as people keep buying my books, my publishers will be happy, and will continue to be willing to publish whatever I write.
And of course, there is the Grey School, of which I am most proud indeed!
Christopher: What have you planning in the future?
Oberon: Well, of course, many more books! I’ve just finished a major project in preparing a very special large-sized hardback “Master Edition” of the Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard. This will be a limited edition of 999 copies, all individually signed by me in a full-color numbered bookplate. The cover will be leatherette, with gold foil-stamped embossing. The pages will be parchment-colored, with gilded edges, and sewn-in ribbons for bookmarks. Twenty four pages of new material I’ve created include a 17-page illustrated “Glossary of Wizardry.” And I’ve rewritten and updated a number of pages to encompass information I did not have at the time of the first writing.
Other books I’m currently working on are an autobiography, The Witch and the Wizard OZ, (being published by Llewellyn, and due out in 2010); GaeaGenesis: Conception and Birth of the Living Earth (also planned for a 2010 release date); and Grimoire for the Journeyman Wizard (planned for 2011).
Future books I plan to write include the following: A Wizard’s Guide to Girls; A Wizard’s Guide to Women; A Wizard’s Guide to Life; Legendary Journeys (journal entries and photos from my travels to sacred sites around the world); History’s Mysteries; and The Gospel of Gaea. Maybe even a book on the Church of All Worlds…
Then there are many more Green Egg anthologies I could put together, focusing on different topics—I’m thinking Green Egg Fried (psychedelics); Green Egg Sunny-Side Up (humor); Green Egg Easy Over (sacred sexuality); Green Egg Benedict (comparative religions); Green Egg and Ham (kids & families); Green Egg Scrambled (miscellaneous); Green Egg Poached… I’m sure I’ll keep coming up with more ideas as I go along…
I also want to get back to sculpting more statues, whenever we can manage to set up another studio. I have several entire pantheons leaning over my shoulder, demanding “me next!”
When I get some time to do something frivolous (i.e. not marketable), I have an intricate kit for a four-foot-wingspan working model of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter that I’ve been dying to assemble! But that’s a month-long project, at least, and I just don’t have that kind of time these days.
I also have major plans for the next phase of the Church of All Worlds, which will center on bringing our website (www.CAW.org) up to the same level of complexity that we have with the Grey School. Fortunately, there are a number of other people working on this as well…
I hope to get back to one of my most ambitious ecumenical projects: the Universal Federation of Pagans (UFP). I started this out about 20 years ago, and we incorporated with over 100 member groups. But other circumstances drew my attention elsewhere, and I had to leave it in the hands of others, where it has languished.
But certainly my most ambitious project ever is my hope to acquire a physical campus for the Grey School. It would include a library and museum where my large collections would find a permanent home—and be merged with those of others. I have in mind a great castle, in a lovely rural location accessed by an early 20th century railroad train currently in use for tourism (yes, this place does exist). But such a project would involve millions of dollars, which I can only see coming from grants, for which purpose we applied for and received a 501(c)(3) federal tax exemption for educational and charitable purposes. I would like to have a personal conversation with a certain well-known author about this…
Someday—in conjunction with the Grey School castle—I’d like to raise Unicorns again, maybe breed a Phoenix; have a “funny animal” farm, with kangaroos, emus, llamas…
I’d like to visit a few more places in the world I haven’t gotten to yet: Egypt, Thailand, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, Stonehenge, India, Japan, Malta, Turkey…
Christopher: How could our readers learn more your various projects?
Oberon: Well, you can read my books, and check out my personal website at www.OberonZell.com. All my statues, jewelry, and books can be seen (and purchased—please!) at www.MythicImages.com. The Church
of All Worlds site is www.CAW.org. And of course, there is the Grey School at www.GreySchool.com
Christopher: Anything else you would like our readers to know?
Oberon: Lessee: I’m a great fan of Star Trek—especially STNG. I used to have a white Geo Metro detailed to look like a Star Fleet shuttlecraft. I’m really into mythical beasties, dragons, and dinosaurs, and I have a huge collection of dino models. I enjoy spelunking, swimming, SCUBA diving, kayaking, white-water rafting, exploring, and tide-pooling. I still read and collect comic books. My favorite author is Terry Pratchett. My heroes include Leonardo da Vinci, Tarzan, Archimedes, Gandalf, Hypatia of Alexandria, Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long, Boudicca, Vercingitorix, Al Gore, Nikola Tesla, Steve Irwin, Osa Johnson, Jon-Luc Picard, Albus Dumbledore, and Norman Lindsey. My greatest dislikes are hypocrisy, stupidity, religious fundamentalism, sanctimoniosity, bullies, control freaks, abusers, holy wars & inquisitions, and not having enough money…
I love my Family (esp. my lifemate, Morning Glory), women, sex, the Goddess, my friends, Nature, animals, dinosaurs, cats, snakes, owls, Thai food, museums, animal parks, libraries, toys, magick, sex, rock ‘n’ roll (particularly late ’60s-early ’70s), the NorCalifia coast, redwoods, caves, sci-fi & fantasy movies, sex, reading, writing, drawing, sculpting…