oberon zell-ravenheart

Teaching Wicca and Paganism

An Interview with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
by Thea Sabin, June 2010

On Teaching...

TS: You have been teaching Wicca and/or Paganism in many, many ways, and probably longer than anyone else. In your opinion, what characteristics does a good Wiccan/Pagan teacher have? What does it take to be an effective teacher in these areas?

OZ: Well, first off, a good teacher has to know their subject intimately, and really love it with a burning passion. They have to be constantly and obsessively researching and learning more all the time. Intense curiosity is essential! They also have to love teaching what they know to others, and be very good at it. They have to be able to explain things creatively in such manner that their students can not only understand, but really get it. And they need to have the charisma to inspire their students to want to learn more from them, and to feel fortunate and blessed to have such a great teacher. If your students are bragging about having had you as their teacher 10 or 20 years from now, you’ll know you were effective!

TS: Do you have any advice for anyone who is new to teaching Wicca or Paganism?

Don’t even think about teaching unless you really know and love your subject, and really want to teach it! It’s best by far if you have had really great teachers whom you admire, as these can serve as your inspirations and models. Before you even begin to try and teach, take the time to study as many different Paths and Traditions as you can. Undergo Initiations into the Mysteries. Study with different teachers, read many books, attend Pagan festivals and go to lots of presentations and workshops. Hang out around the campfire or the con party rooms and ask questions of the more experienced elders, teachers and leaders who’ll be there.

TS: Do you have any inspiring, funny, or “don’t do what I did” cautionary stories about teaching Wiccans or Pagans that you’re willing to share? This can be from the Grey School or any other teaching situation(s).

OZ: In my earliest days of teaching Paganism and the Craft (in my late 20s), I was stunningly arrogant in my assumption of how much more I knew than anyone else. I recall a particularly embarrassing (in retrospect) incident when I had really only been studying the Craft myself for a year or so. Since this put me way ahead of everyone else in the Nest, they looked to me to teach them, and expected me to know all the answers. One time they brought in a young black guy who wanted to meet me, having heard of me as a great teacher. He said he was a Witch, so I started asking him questions. But I was so ignorant that I didn’t know anything about his Tradition (Alexandrian, as it turned out), and I cut him down mercilessly when his answers differed from what I had been taught and learned through my own studies—which was heavily based on Crowley and Leland. Later on, when I learned about Gardnerian and Alexandrian Trads, and realized he had been perfectly right, I felt like a total fool. It was a very humbling experience, and I’ve always wished I could have tracked that guy down and apologized profusely to him. Many years later I even wrote a cautionary editorial about this in Green Egg.

TS: What inspires you as a teacher/leader?

OZ: Seeing my students go forth into the world and put into practice the things I’ve taught them. Seeing them become effective and beloved leaders and teachers in their turn, with students of their own. Seeing the legacy of my life’s work and studies becoming manifest in succeeding generations (I’ve now taught three generations!). And having my students come back to me decades later and tell me how grateful they were to have learned from me.

TS: Is there anything else you’d like to say to potential teachers that we haven’t covered here?

OZ: When the teacher is ready, the students will appear!

About the Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard...

TS: What were your most important goals in writing the Grimoire?

OZ: I wanted to provide young folks just starting out on the path I’ve followed all my life with the information and tools I wish I’d been able to get my hands on at the beginning! I had been concerned that most Wiccan and Pagan Paths and Traditions were not offering training to youths. And when the Harry Potter phenomenon hit, I knew that there would be an entire generation of your readers who were going to come searching for the real thing, which no one was offering to them. So I decided to compile a sort of “Boy Scout Handbook” (or more accurately perhaps, a “Junior Woodchuck Guide”) of Wizardry that would provide a solid foundation in all aspects of arcane lore and the Artes Magicka. And not only a book for kids, but one which would remain an essential reference throughout one’s life. I contacted many respected sages and mages, teachers and leaders, authors and elders in our community, and formed the Grey Council, setting as our intention the creation of a Grimoire for the Next Generation. The concept was to create the book we each would want to be given to us at our Coming of Age ceremony in our next incarnation.

TS: The Grimoire is not your usual Wicca 101 book. How did you determine what subjects to include in the Grimoire?

OZ: Well, it’s not a book of Wicca, but of Wizardry, which has a far broader scope, and isn’t a religion. There are plenty of books on Wicca out there—but at the time there was hardly anything on Wizardry—especially anything accessible to kids. I have always been fascinated by Wizards, both historical and mythical, and the sort of stuff they were reputed to know and be able to do. So I wanted to include all the aspects and categories of arcane lore and practice. I made a list of these, which formed the background of the book, and I color-coded them according to traditional associations: Psychic Arts (aqua), Healing (blue), Wortcunning (green), Divination (yellow), Conjury (orange), Alchemy (red), Beast Mastery (brown), Cosmology (violet), Mathemagicks (clear), Ceremonial Magick (white), Lore (grey), and Dark Arts (black). And then I designed the book as an apprentice-level textbook of magickal studies, with courses, classes, and lessons. And I got an Editor who had experience editing children’s books to help me adjust the language for reading levels advancing by one year for each of seven “Courses,” starting with age 11. By the final chapter, the reading level has advanced to age 18.

TS: What do you hope students will take away from reading and using the Grimoire?

OZ: An appreciation and knowledge of the entire field of magickal lore and practice that a Wizard should be expected to know. This is a program of apprenticeship, and it will eventually be followed by a Grimoire for the Journeyman Wizard, and perhaps even a Grimoire for the Master Wizard. And of course, the Grimoire became the foundation for the Grey School…

About the Grey School of Wizardry...

TS: What were your most important goals in setting up the Grey School of Wizardry?

OZ: To continue the studies introduced in the Grimoire, and provide a rich learning environment with other students and teachers—much like the fictional Hogwarts, only teaching real Wizardry. The word literally means “wisdom,” and I think that about sums it up. In my view, wisdom is about always considering the consequences…as far down the line as possible. And foolishness—the opposite of wisdom—is failure to consider the consequences. A Wizard is someone people come to for wise counsel on a vast range of issues—from personal to metaphysical and cosmic. So a Wizard is expected to know and understand a lot of stuff! But more than anything, the purpose of a Wizard is to serve…

TS: I read that you particularly wanted to reach boys who may be feeling left out of the teen Wicca movement. How did you go about creating curricula for youth?

OZ: Well, I took teacher training and got a teaching certificate from Harris Teacher’s College in 1968. I taught several years of public school (grades 4-5), and later served as a school counselor from grade school through high school. I maintain contact with each generation of youth culture through extensive reading of books and comics written for them, watching movies and TV series aimed at teens, and, of course, constant interaction with our the kids in our own Pagan community. I noted an interesting distinction early on: virtually all the books on Witchcraft were clearly aimed at girls, not boys. And so were most of the magickal TV shows, such as Sabrina. The popular assumption has always been that Witches are de facto female. But the Harry Potter books and movies introduced the world to the idea that boys could play too—as Wizards. And this provided a perfect hook for me to reach boys with magickal teachings. And I knew that if I wrote books seemingly aimed at boys, the girls would read ‘em too, not to be left out! And this has proven to be the case.

TS: What have you found to be the differences between teaching adults and youth?

OZ: Remarkably little, actually. Mostly things like vocabulary (which we address with frequent glossaries), generational cultural references, and simple maturity. But since we have students of all ages, there is actually a rather continuous gradient, and older and more sophisticated students really help along those who are younger or less sophisticated (which isn’t always a matter of age; kids raised in Wiccan or Pagan families are generally far more sophisticated in many of these areas than adults who only came to it recently). Of course, there are areas of magickal teaching which we simply don’t get into with youths—such as sex magick, rites of passage, demonology and certain other aspects of the Dark Arts, Hoodoo, sorcery, etc. We’ll address those topics at the Journeyman level in books and classes.

TS: Have you encountered challenges in teaching youth?

OZ: Not particularly. Youths (i.e. under 18) comprise about a quarter of our student body. We tend to get the best and the brightest, and they are pretty amazing! Many can hold their own quite well with adults—especially since most of them come from Wiccan or Pagan families, whereas many of our adults are really fairly new to all this. But we have a wonderful Dean of Studies, and our House Heads are fantastic. And with our leadership program of student Prefects and Captains, our kids are very well taken care of. Also, we have a number of entire families—kids and parents together—enrolled, and most are using our program as a kind of home schooling resource. So the parents are part of the kid’s teachers as well.

TS: How did you determine the curriculum of the Grey School, and what were your priorities in choosing the subject matter?

OZ: Well, I’d already pretty much developed the basic curriculum with the Grimoire. The Courses in the Grimoire became the Departments in the Grey School, for Majors and Minors. When we transferred the Grimoire’s curriculum to the School, however, we realized that we needed to add a few categories, and expand a few others. We added Magickal Practice (gold), Nature Studies (silver), Lifeways (pink) and general Wizardry (indigo). We broadened Conjury to include all performing arts, and expanded Alchemy to include other hard sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and technology. Dark Arts was developed more fully to encompass both Sorcery (practical magick) as well as all the spooky stuff.

TS: How did you determine the structure of the school and curriculum? (Majors and minors, wizard colors, levels, house/lodge system, etc.)

OZ: I have a very creative mind for systems. I just started thinking of everything it would take to make this whole thing work, made an outline, and just kept filling in the blanks until it was complete. Half the time new ideas came to me in my dreams, as I was really obsessing about the School in its creation phases—as I continue to do in constantly tweaking it—such as with our recent “Magister” program which allows adult students to take an unlimited number of classes at the Grey School from all levels without the constraints of the Apprenticeship program. Magisters are not be eligible to receive a Journeyman Certificate, but are able to participate fully in most aspects of student life at GSW—social as well as academic.

Majors and Minors were the natural product of the 16 Departments, which began with the 12 “Courses” in the Grimoire. As for the colors, I started with the easy ones (green for Wortcunning, blue for Healing, brown for Beast Mastery, black for Dark Arts, white for Ceremonial…) and then worked out the most natural and obvious assigning of all the other colors in the spectrum—even resorting to metallics (gold and silver) to come up with all 16 colors we needed. This sort of thing is standard in academia, or course, where each field of discipline is color-coded in regalia, so we had that as a model.

The levels are simply grades. Since I originally designed the Grey School to cover the same age/grade range as Hogwarts (i.e. middle school through high school, or ages 11-18), that gave us a seven-year program. This is also the traditional period of apprenticeship in the Medieval Guild system, which provided our overall concept. Each level comprises 24 credits, which averages about 12 full classes. After the current Apprentice to program, culminating in a Journeyman Certificate, we intend to create a college-level program for Journeyman studies culminating in a Master’s Degree. At that point, we will distinguish three separate schools under the overall umbrella of the Grey School of Wizardry: Arcane Academy (apprentices), Invisible College (journeymen), and Unseen University (masters).

When we started out, we assumed our students would all be teenagers (as at Hogwarts). So we created four Elemental Houses (Sylphs, Undines, Gnomes and Salamanders). We were rather stunned to discover that ? of those enrolling were adults! With all those adults, we realized that we needed an adult social system as well, so we created four Lodges: Winds, Waters, Stones and Flames. This has worked perfectly. There is also a separate adult forum, and even a campus tavern for adults only, called “The Wizard’s Keep.” We also have all kinds of activities in which students can earn Merit points for their House or Lodge, and at Equinoxes we award the House Hat and the Lodge Cup to the House and Lodge with the highest combined average of Merits and Academic Credits.

TS: How did you choose your faculty? What were your priorities and criteria?

OZ: Our first faculty members came from the Grey Council, which after the Grimoire was published began serving as an Advisory Council for the Grey School. Then I approached the authors of Wiccan/Pagan/Magickal books and sent them invitations. New Page and Llewellyn gave me contact info for any authors they had who I didn’t already know (not very many of those!). My continuing criteria were the ability to write well, deep knowledge of their respective subjects, and of course, a desire and ability to teach students of varying ages. I developed a Faculty Application process which includes a writing sample and extensive interview. We also have special classes for teachers (“Fabulous Faculty”), and a faculty mentorship program under the Department Deans and the Dean of Faculty.

TS: How is teaching online different from teaching in person (other than the fact that you’re not face-to-face)?

OZ: Well, online teaching requires many of the same skills as classroom teaching, but also the ability to express ones’ self extremely well in writing—and for different ages. Also, online teaching isn’t time/space-bound the way classroom teaching is. Lessons and assignments come in around the clock, from throughout the world, rather than in a fixed time and place. In many ways this is much easier, because teachers can sit at home, don’t have to dress up, and can respond to students’ questions and grade assignments at their own convenience. Since the teachers aren’t seeing the students face-to-face, there’s no question of favoritism based on appearance, race, sex, age, clothes, etc. But by the same token, all the visual cues we so depend on for daily communications and feedback are entirely absent online: facial expressions, body language, etc. So teachers have to be able to deal with that.

About the Church of All Worlds and Green Egg Magazine...

TS: I know that CAW was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you tell me a little more about how CAW came about?

OZ: Wow—that’s quite a long and complex story! Let me try to offer a brief synopsis. Lance Christie and I met in our first year of college, in 1961. We’d both been “changelings” growing up, and when we discovered each other we hit it off like long-lost brothers. We got to talking about all the ways that we didn’t seem to fit into the extant social/cultural institutions, and began imagining what a world suitable for folks like us would have to be like. We were both into science fiction, and when SISL came out that fall, and we read it, we felt an instant rapport with many of the ideas and concepts articulated therein. On April 7, 1962, we shared water and committed to living our lives according to those precepts. We approached other students we felt might share our perspective, and turned them onto SISL. Our water-brotherhood grew over the next few years, and after we graduated, we took our community Vision out into the world in two directions, spearheaded, respectively, by Lance and me.

Our mutual objective throughout has been to conceive and create a transformative new cultural paradigm that integrates the Wisdom of the Ages (“Everything is alive; everything is interconnected”) with the latest discoveries of science, provides a foundation and functional models for new patterns of relationships with each other (ex. polyamory) as well as with imminent Divinity (“Thou art God/dess”), foments and fosters a global cultural and religious paradigm shift through a worldwide Neo-Pagan Renaissance, and serves as a catalyst for the coalescence of consciousness (“The Awakening”). My overt assignment towards these goals was to create a public church and religious movement. Lance’s was more covert: to develop political, scientific, and ecological aspects less visibly. Thus I created the Church of All Worlds (CAW), and Lance created the Association for the Tree of Life (ATL). CAW was incorporated as such on March 4, 1968. ATL remained more underground, not incorporating until decades later. But they are two sides of the same coin, and Lance and I have been the closest of friends and co-conspirators for nearly half a century. Our work has been very effective and influential in its respective spheres, and we often say it’s “the ultimate conspiracy:” By the time you know enough to grok what we’re really all about, it’s too late—you’re already one of us! And the rest is history.

TS: What is CAW’s role in the Pagan community today, as you see it?

OZ: Well, I guess I see our work as continuing to seed and tweak the evolving community in the direction of our very “green” Vision and Mission; specifically: “To evolve a network of information, mythology and experience to awaken the divine within and to provide a context and stimulus for reawakening Gaea and reuniting Her children through tribal community dedicated to responsible stewardship and the evolutions of consciousness.” Thus we sorta add our little influences here and there, like working on a Bonsai tree. Most of this we’ve done by subtly encouraging (through Green Egg, workshops, interviews, books, rituals, art, music, our personal lives, etc.) things we think should be part of the new world we are creating (such as inclusivity, cherishing diversity, the Gaea Thesis, polytheism, immanent divinity, sacred sexuality, feminist values, freedom of choice, equality, environmentalism, seasonal celebrations, Nature worship, honesty, integrity, wisdom, service, cooperation, community, Tribal values, ordaining priestesses as well as priests—and acceptance of personal lifestyle options such as different sexual orientations and identifications, polyamory, and social/ritual nudity). And of course, to not so subtly discourage aspects and attitudes we don’t think should be part of the Pagan community, such as exclusivity, bigotry, dominance, competition, contempt for other ways, homophobia, racism, classism, sexism, “one-true-right-and-only-way-ism,” environmental desecration, manipulation, dishonesty, stupidity, abuse, and buggering choir boys.

TS: How have CAW, Green Egg Magazine, and the Green Egg Online Forum affected how Wicca and Paganism are taught in the U.S.?

OZ: As pioneers, I think it can be fairly said that CAW and GE established early templates that have served as models for many groups and, to a great extent, much of the entire Pagan movement. Certainly much of our CAW liturgy has been widely embraced and circulated throughout the Pagan community—such as our Handfasting rites, water-sharing, theatrical rituals, Gaean thealogy, etc. CAW’s 9-Circle training program is directed primarily towards self-actualization and service rather than a hierarchy of political privilege and power. But CAW and GE probably had less impact on Wicca, as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca preceded CAW and GE by about 15 years, and they’d developed their own training systems long before they came into contact with the dawning Neo-Pagan movement in the early ‘70s. CAW’s approach to teaching has probably been more informal that that found in most Wicca, tending to be more participatory, gradually integrating folks more and more into the inner Circles and Mysteries over years of involvement. And CAW is not about requiring beliefs, only about participation.

Copyright © 2007 - 2011 Oberon Zell unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

web design by Relache | photography by Nemea Arborvitae