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We're Off To See A Wizard
The Magical Life of Oberon Zell
Interview by Natalie Zaman
When I attended the New York Witch-Fest a few Samhains ago, I was a little nervous about approaching the man who founded the Church of All Worlds, Green Egg Magazine and the Grey School of Wizardry (for those who believe that wizard schools ala Hogwarts are fantasy--think again!). For over 40 years, Oberon Zell has been a champion of paganism, learning, and magic, along with his--to use his words--beloved soul mate Morning Glory.
Hopefully I've come away with a little wisdom from my meeting with this extremely warm and personable wizard. Accomplishments are marvelous things, but it is the person who is important--the one who helps others and works actively to spread enlightenment and make the world a better place today.
NZ: When I first started reading your work, I knew you as "Otter" Zell. You are now Oberon. My own magical name is Skatha, and as I work towards my next level of wisdom, the second name I chose for myself is Taliesin, because I admire his wisdom and acceptance (he was a wizard, yes?). What is the significance of your names and why did you choose them?
OZ: Yes, Taliesin was certainly one of the great Wizards of yore. A good choice!
I didn’t exactly “choose” the magickal names of either “Otter” or “Oberon.” These were “given” to me in magickal ways and circumstances which were so powerful that I felt it would be ungracious to refuse them.
“Otter” came about one afternoon in February of 1979, when Morning Glory and I were sitting on the cliff bank high above the rushing waters of the swollen creek that ran through Coeden Brith—the 220-acre parcel of magickal land we were living on as caretakers at the time. “Tim”—the mundane name by which I had been know for my previous 36 years—was no longer a suitable identifier. After trying out various too-clever ideas which just didn’t fly, I was at a loss. Morning Glory said: “Why don’t you just go by Otter? You swim like one, and when you’re in the water, everyone says, There’s the otter in the water.”
Well, I told her, I just didn’t think “Otter” sounded magickal or impressive enough. After all, at that time we were planning on raising Unicorns and taking them out into the world! I felt I needed a name with more dignity and flair. But I was out of ideas. So my beloved soul mate said, “Why don’t you ask the Goddess for a Sign?”
So right then and there I raised my arms and my eyes to the stormy skies and said: “Mother of all living, I ask you for a Sign. Give to me a suitable name which I may bear in Your service.” And as I lowered my eyes to the foaming flood, an otter popped out of the water and climbed up on a rock right below us. He looked straight at me, then spun in a circle, and disappeared into the muddy froth. I had never seen an otter in the wild before. I turned to Morning Glory, and she turned to me. I could only say, “I hear and I obey!”
“Otter” was the name my Mother gave me, and which I carried out into the world as the Wizard with the Unicorn.
As for “Oberon”—that name came along much later, in September of 1994. I had—for the first time in my life—taken on the role as aspecting the Dark Lord in a major ritual enactment (the Eleusinian Mysteries). This experience again profoundly affected my sense of personal identity, and “Otter” began to feel inappropriate as a name in this new context. A week later, we were visited by an interesting couple—Kai and Devaka. She’d been a member of the Rajneesh community, who was into giving people names; and he was an ex-fundamentalist Christian preacher. As we sat by the river that ran past our back yard, Devaka said, “When I look at you, I don’t see an otter. I see... Oberon!” And it felt as if the mantle of the King of Faerie from Midsummer Night’s Dream just settled over my shoulders. So I asked Kai to baptize me with that new name right then and there, in the river. When I emerged, I was Oberon. And so it has been ever since.
NZ: You've said that your passion for magic began as a young child. What would you say was your first magical experience? And how did this put you on the path to becoming a wizard?
OZ: Well, my first magickal experience in this life would definitely have to have been being born into it!
Right after I was conceived, my father joined the Marines and went off to fight the Japanese Empire in the South Pacific in World War II. My mother stayed at home with her mother and father, and her sister. Shortly thereafter, her father died of a heart attack. His room was converted into a nursery for the new baby.
My earliest memories (and the nightmares that haunted my childhood) were of dying—like falling down a dark well, the world receding far away into nothingness. And then I awoke—in my familiar room, with my familiar family all around me. And throughout my childhood, things I did or said constantly resulted in responses of “That’s just what your grandfather used to say (or do)!”
So I’m my own grandpa! Many of the clearest memories I still have of my early years are not things I experienced in this life—but in my grandfather’s life. And my mother has confirmed this.
As a child, living with three women (my Mother, my Maiden Aunt, and my Grandmother) who epitomized the archetypal Triple Goddess, my earliest reading was Faerie Tales and children’s versions of the Greek myths. So I got an early introduction to the world of myth, magick, and mysterie! This is probably where I really began my path towards becoming a Wizard.
Plus I was very telepathic as a little kid—hearing people’s thoughts as easily as their voices. But I had no idea there was anything unusual about this—I just assumed everyone did it. This was fine as long as I only dealt with a few people at a time—my family. But I got totally overwhelmed one time when a large number of people came over for some reason—and my mind reacted by shutting off the ability. I regained some of it over many years of work and practice, but never again was I just wide-open as I had been in the beginning.
NZ: The Pagan path allows for many different types of practitioners and names can sometimes be confusing. Is wizardry a spiritual path, or part of the Craft? And, can women be wizards?
OZ: Here’s the thing: Wizardry is not a spiritual path, or a religion, but rather a Calling. Wizardry literally means “wisdom,” and it is akin to such callings as philosophy (“love of wisdom”) and science (“knowledge”). Another old term for Wizard is sage, also meaning “wise one.” And the highest degree of academia is a Ph.D., which stands for “Doctor of Philosophy.” Indeed, renowned Wizards of the past were often also called “sages,” “prophets,” “philosophers,” “scientists,” or “professors” by their contemporaries. Even today in the mundane world people who are particularly brilliant in some arcane field are commonly called Wizards—such as “computer wizards.”
Throughout history, there have been Wizards in every religion—indeed, many of the founders of religions have been Wizards—such as Moses, Zarathustra, or Lao Tzu! I myself am unabashedly Pagan, but in the Grey School we are proud to have not only Pagan Wizards, but Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, and Sufi apprentices. All are welcome!
Wizardry is a different orientation from Witchcraft or Wicca—which in modern times is definitely a religion, with Witches being clergy. In more ancient times that was less so—with the village Witch occupying a position similar to that of the village blacksmith, potter, weaver, or stonemason. The Witch was the village shaman, and her work involved herbalism, midwifery, divination, healing, finding, exorcisms, and spell craft—which is why it is called “The Craft.”
And yes, indeed, just as men can be Witches, women can be Wizards! There are a number of famous examples from history, such as Maria the Jewess, Hypatia of Alexandria, Cleopatra of Alexandria, and Dion Fortune. And many wise women today are known as Wizards—some of them teaching at the Grey School .
NZ: What would you say is a wizard's most important tool, and why?
OZ: Well, his mind of course! All the factors that make a true Wizard—intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, imagination, creativity, insight, foresight, passion, compassion, concern, mysticism, psychic skills, dream work, and magick itself—are of the mind. Of course, reputation also counts for a lot! And then there is “Boffo” (special effects and window dressing).
And I would have to say that my Library is a very important tool to me—and to all the Wizards I know!
For magickal workings, of course, an altar is essential—and assorted tools are used in conjunction with it. I have several wands, athames, chalices, thuribles, etc. The best and most powerful are ones I’ve made myself.
In a magickal household like ours, every vertical space becomes a bookcase, and every horizontal space becomes an altar!
NZ: Tell us about the youth programs at the Grey School of Wizardry?
OZ: We originally set up the entire School to be for kids—from 11 to 18. We were actually quite surprised when it turned out that 75% of the students enrolling were adults—up into their 70s! For them we had to develop special adult programs and tracks. But the kids were and are our primary focus.
There are seven “year-levels,” and the material is designed to be at the equivalent level of what you would get from Middle School through High School in the American system (grades 6-12).
The Grey School has 16 color-coded Departments, as follows: Wizardry (indigo), Nature (silver), Practice (gold), Psychic Arts (aqua), Healing (blue), Wort cunning/Herbalism (green), Divination (yellow), Performance/Conjury (orange), Alchemy & Magickal Sciences (red), Lifeways (pink), Beast Mastery (brown), Cosmology & Metaphysics (violet), Mathemagicks (clear), Ceremonial Magick (white), Lore (grey), and Dark Arts/Sorcery (black). Each Department has its Dean, and students can Major in their chosen specialty, and Minor in others that interest them. Graduates will receive a Certificate of Journeyman Wizard.
Classes are structured similarly to those taught in any high school. There are lessons, assignments, homework, projects, reports, and exams. We have very high standards for passing (80%), as we want to make sure that Wizards graduating from the Grey School really know their stuff! And our students routinely exceed our expectations, with quite a few on the Deans List.
Our two dozen teachers are brilliant and highly-qualified—experts in their respective fields, many with books to their credit. They take a very personal and interactive approach with their students, and are always available to answer questions and offer counsel. Some families are using the Grey School to augment a Home Schooling program, and we have a number of entire families in the School—parents and kids studying together.
Incoming youth students are sorted by Sun Sign into four Elemental Houses: Sylphs, Undines, Gnomes, and Salamanders. Adult students are similarly sorted into Elemental Lodges: Winds, Waters, Stones and Flames. These Houses and Lodges form smaller communities within the larger School. Students may earn merits for their House or Lodge, and at the Equinoxes, these are tallied along with academic credits to determine the winners of the House Hat and Lodge Cup Awards—which are displayed in the School’s Trophy Room for all to see.
There are also a number of clubs associated with various Departments, and these have their own activities. Among these is the student-run quarterly School paper—Whispering Grey Matters.
And in the past couple of years, the Grey School has been holding a number of summer camp “Conclaves” in various places around the country. There teachers and students can meet face-to-face for a week or a weekend of magickal crafts, stories around the campfire, nature walks, and other fun activities with a magickal slant.
Our longer-range plans include developing a 4-year college-level program of Journeyman studies, culminating in a Master’s Degree. And someday we also hope to have a physical bricks-and-mortar campus. Our recent approval by the IRS for a 501(c)(3) educational and charitable tax exemption should help.
NZ: The youth program at the Grey School starts at 11. What advice can you give a younger person who wants to train in magic and wizardry? Anything they can do to prepare?
OZ: The best preparation for the younger kids who want to learn magick and Wizardry is becoming addicted to reading! Especially stories involving magick and Wizards—like The sword in the Stone, The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, Ursula Leguin’s Earthsea Trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books—and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books!
I also recommend reading all the myths and legends that have been adapted for younger readers, such as those by Padraic Colum. And there have been a number of books on Wizardry for kids that I’ve collected—all of them are pretty good! In particular, I can recommend the Wizard’s Handbook by Anton & Mina Adams.
There are also a lot of wonderful magickal movies out now—and I recommend seeing as many as you can! Many beloved books are being made into excellent films—from The Chronicles of Narnia to Lord of the Rings. Nearly every story of a hero has a Wizard in it somewhere to advise him. I think it’s fun to try and spot the Wizard, even when it isn’t obvious. Such as—who’s the Wizard in Spiderman? Why, Aunt May, of course!
NZ: To quote you again (loosely!), a wizard is a "wise one," and his purpose is to serve. What does a wizard offer the world and his community?
OZ: Well, wisdom, of course! We seem to have far too little of it in these troubling times. Wisdom is, in essence, consideration of the consequences. Just as foolishness/stupidity is failure to consider the consequences!
Traditionally, Wizards have served as wise counselors, teachers, mentors, and advisers—often to kings and queens. Think of Merlin with Arthur; John Dee with Queen Elizabeth I; or Obi-Wan Kenobi with Luke Skywalker. Wizards are people that everyone comes to for advice, counsel, divination, and mediation. Morning Glory and I spend much of our time in this sort of work, as we have quite a wide circle of friends. We have also spent time training apprentices and proteges over the years—and we are very proud of how they have all turned out!
Now I have taken a lifetime of learning and teaching, and turned to writing books of Wizardry so I can offer something to people who can’t show up on our doorstep. And with the Grey School, a growing number of Wizard teachers are now able to offer their wisdom and knowledge to an ever-expanding number of students (over 475 at this moment)!
NZ: And for fun--do you have a favorite Sabbat? What do you do to celebrate?
OZ: Well, like most magickal people, my very favorite Sabbat has to be Samhain—with all the associated customs of Halloween and Dia de las Muertos. We’re the kind of people who like to leave our Halloween decorations up all year round!
The season starts for us in early October, when we check out the Halloween stores and pick up new goodies. We decorate our house inside and out—including a graveyard with headstones for people we’ve known who’ve died (far too many!).
Then in mid-October (preferably the 13th!), we hold our big annual Addams Family Reunion party. This is enormously popular with our wide circle of friends, and well over 100 people show up, in amazing costumes ranging from Victorian to Undead. Indeed, the idea has caught on among our friends around the country, and now similar parties are being held in many places!
Of course, the entire Samhain season is a busy one for us. Around that time we get a lot of requests for interviews for radio, TV, and newspapers. And often we get invited to be guests of honor at Samhain festivals around the country—such as the New York Witch Festival I attended this year.
In recent years, Morning Glory and I dress up in our magickal regalia and take our granddaughter trick-or-treating down in The City, where entire neighborhoods go all out with decorations. We look forward to doing this with her for many years to come! But in former years, we’d go out to public events like Starhawk’s Spiral Dance, or the huge Castro Street Parade in San Francisco, or costume balls (where we sometimes won the costume contest), or any of a number of events that are held at this time.
The Church of All Worlds—which I founded over 50 years ago—holds an all-night Samhain Sabbat at our sacred land of Annwfn, and we’ve attended nearly every year for three decades. It is a very sacred occasion, with a “dumb supper” eaten in silence after inviting the shades of our beloved dead. The ritual generally involves a journey into the Underworld—and back.
Of course, Beltane runs a very close second as my favorite Sabbat—for all the opposite reasons! In addition to the traditional Maypole Dance, we hold outrageous May Games, and the winning couple become the King and Queen of the May—until Samhain, when the King’s reign comes to an end.
To learn more about the Grey School of Wizardry, visit their website. What House or Lodge will you be in?
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