"Without pointy hats, we’re just old men with beards," says Oberon Zell-Ravenheart.
Oberon "Otter" Zell-Ravenheart, founder of The Grey School of Wizardry. Photo by Nemea Arborvitae, courtesy of Zell-Ravenheart.
To anyone who grew up in the Harry Potter era, trawling the internet for DIY Patronus instructions and haphazard “magic” scams, an online wizarding school might sound dubious, at best. But there is, in fact, a place where that pesky line between reality and fantasy doesn’t exist – it’s a school, mostly online but with real-life components, where students can realise their wizarding potential. And it’s totally serious. The Grey School of Wizardry, run by headmaster, founder, and pointy crushed-velvet hat-wearer Oberon “Otter” Zell-Ravenheart, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Sonoma County, California, and the world’s only registered wizarding academy.
The Grey School isn’t a piddling gimmick. It’s an establishment with a ten-year history, 650 students across the world, and 450 classes taught by several dozen teachers in 16 departments: Alchemy & Magickal Sciences, Beast Mastery, Dark Arts, Psychic Arts, Divination, Wizardry, Wartcunning, and “Mathemagicks,” to name a few. Students between the ages of 11 and 17 are sorted into four houses – Gnomes, Salamanders, Sylphs, and Undines – while adults are sorted into lodges, each with its own faculty head and student prefects. Beyond classes, the Grey School has clubs, merit systems, a student newspaper (Grey Matters) and hosts IRL summer camps called “conclaves” around the US.
The school, according to Zell-Ravenheart, “is based on the old guild system,” which means that it’s a seven-year apprenticeship program, culminating in a Journeyman certificate. And it’s open to anyone with an interest in the occult. “The school is non-religious,” Zell-Ravenheart told me. “People think that because we’re doing magick, we’re Pagans. But our second graduate was a Sufi Muslim. It’s true that the majority of our students are Pagans because they’re the most amenable to the stuff we’re doing and most religious leaders oppose magick. But the school is for everyone.”
If all of this sounds suspiciously like Harry Potter, it’s because the school is cribbed directly from the books. After being introduced to the series, Zell-Ravenheart decided there was enough hype and magical interest to found a real-life Hogwarts. He even entertained the idea, for a time, of buying a castle in St. Helena, Mont., to build a real, brick-and-mortar wizarding academy, but found the costs were too high. Instead, he opted to build a campus on the internet, in the virtual reality world of Second Life. People now refer to him as Dumbledore (although before the books, he answered to Gandalf or Merlin).
But Zell-Ravenheart didn’t start the Grey School just to profit off of Potter LARPers. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool wizard, as well as an author, artist, lecturer, metaphysician, naturalist, sculptor, shaman, theologian, and transpersonal psychologist, and a staunch believer in “magick.” Born Timothy Zell-Ravenheart in St. Louis in 1942, he early on felt a deep, spiritual-mystical connection to nature, including an empathetic attunement to animals. During his long college years – the man has studied anthropology, divinity, psychology, and sociology up to the doctoral level – Zell-Ravenheart became involved in a number of spiritual, neo-Pagan communities, drawing on ancient myths and modern fiction to try to restore enchantment back into the modern world. Over the years, he built himself up to become one of the top wizardry writers in the Pagan and mystic-magical community, publishing the on-and-off wizarding publication Green Egg and its child-reader companion How About Magic?
Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, a textbook Zell-Ravenheart wrote for students at his Grey School of Wizardry. Photo by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart.
Zell-Ravenheart claims the idea of starting a wizarding school occurred to him as far back as the 1960s. But early plans never materialised, and he was instead sucked into other projects. He is the founder and First Primate of the Church of All Worlds, which he co-founded while at Westminster College. The faith promotes the connectiveness of all things, and professes to be anti-dogma, anti-belief, and pro-eclecticism, with each autonomous “nest” of the church drawing from whatever fictional, historical, or invented mythos and beliefs it so chooses. In 1977, he and his recently deceased life partner Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart founded the Ecosophical Research Association to study mythical creatures, leading, among other expeditions, a 1985 search for mermaids and their lore in Papua New Guinea. During the 1980s, he grabbed national headlines by creating a “unicorn,” grafting a horn bud onto a goat with minor surgery. (He sold a number of the creatures to the circus, but keeps the skull of his first creation in his home.) More recently, Zell-Ravenheart led a revival of the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient cultic initiation ceremonies. To pay the rent, he illustrates posters, T-shirts, and books, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy series, and runs TheaGenesis, a company that reproduces sculptures of gods and goddesses.
Through it all, Zell-Ravenheart stressed his understanding of wizardry as something more nuanced than the lightning bolts and broomsticks of pop culture. He describes a wizard as one who pursues wisdom in the arcane knowledge of many different traditions, including various religious faiths. He makes a clear distinction between “magic,” which he defines as “prestidigitation and conjuring, illusions and stage magic … the magic of Hollywood,” and “magick” – “a more psychic, ceremonial, and traditional thing.” According to Zell-Ravenheart, magick can overlap with magic, but beyond the flash, magick is all about seeing something that transcends everyday understanding and engagement beyond the pale of our own world.
Zell-Ravenheart saw a school as the perfect way to enchant education, supplementing mainstream schools with a primer in alternative ways to see reality – and in the process provide Pagan-friendly education for the children of Pagans, whose beliefs often emphasise these transcendent views of nature and reality.
That doesn’t means The Grey School lacks wand waving and spells. Although classes vary, some classes, like those in the Dark Arts deal with, as Zell-Ravenheart put it, “the sorcery, the hoodoo magic stuff.” Then there are the practical tutorials in how to make a wand.
Zell-Ravenheart conceded that the school has had problems in the past with children who thought they would see sparks flying out of their wands, but said he tries to explain that magic is still real. “Movies show what’s only in our heads, what people see in the imagination,” he said. “But if you do the work, you’ll be watching these things in your head. In one of the first Psychic Arts classes, in one lesson you learn to see auras, for instance. You start seeing the light coming off from the ends of fingertips and things like that.”
Convinced of the power of magick to enrich the lives of children and adults alike, in 2002, Zell-Ravenheart assembled the Grey Council (named originally after Gandalf the Grey, or a mystical association between the colour grey and magickal lore, depending on who you ask). The Council consisted of a who’s who list of mystical authors and practitioners, spiritual and stage magicians, and neo-Pagans of various stripes. The group collaborated for two years to develop the form, ethos, and curricula of The Grey School of Wizardry, and opened their virtual doors on August 1, 2004, corresponding with the pre-Christian Gaelic harvest festival Lughnasadh.
A few folks listed in rosters of the Grey Council claim they never had much to do with the school. “I was asked to be the eco/nature teacher, but never actually participated,” said Jesse Wolf Hardin, founder of the Animá teachings, a wilderness restoration project and a listed member of the Grey Council. “I remained largely unfamiliar with [the school].”
This, along with other things, like the school’s $30 (€22) membership fee and penchant for selling Chakra Sets and Penkhaduce jewelery in its online store, have raised red flags among skeptics – even neo-Pagan message boards occasionally question whether there’s a self-serving motive in Zell-Ravenheart’s project.
Members of the public and the neo-Pagan community have also criticised Zell-Ravenheart for his tendency to borrow from fantasy and science fiction in his teachings, and to appropriate the culture of various faiths into a cherry-picked mishmash. You can’t, they argue, selectively worship Kali, Lugh, and Odin all at the same time, or draw on Native American spiritual practices without being connected to the culture they come from.
Students and faculty from The Grey School hanging out at Potter Con. Photo courtesy of Oberon Zell-Ravenheart.
Zell-Ravenheart brushes off the criticism. “I feel we have always drawn from story to enhance our lives,” he said. “We are story. Man’s first magick was fire, but his second magick was story. There’s no difference in drawing from a contemporary, powerful mythos than from Greek myths and legends.”
“When you draw from the past, you’re stuck with the myths as they are,” he said. “Fantasy and science fiction are the mythos of the future. Pop cultural mythos are strong mythos to hold onto, so why not explain magick in terms of The Force?”
As for the issue of appropriating culture, Zell-Ravenheart said, “that has not been a problem for us, perhaps because I’ve gotten to know the people involved in these traditions rather than just picking them up.”
“Hindus and Buddhists think it’s delightful when other people burn incense to the Buddha or pray to Lakhshmi,” he said, adding that, for him, it’s about drawing inspiration from the rituals, rather than mimicking them. It’s a problem, he added, “when New Age entrepreneurs go out and set up a weekend sweat lodge with no training and then give you a certificate saying you’re a pipe-carrying expert in a Native American tradition at the end.”
At 71, Zell-Ravenheart is now thinking about who will take over the school, “should I get abducted by a UFO tomorrow.” Whoever takes over, he said, will likely maintain the school’s traditions, including the wearing of robes and gowns and amulets. “All things have some kind of uniform,” he said. “Whether firemen or the Pope or Buddhist monks. Performance deepens the connection and authenticity of a thing sometimes. And without pointy hats, we’re just old men with beards.”
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