Oberon Zell Morning Glory with snakes
Cover Stories

Meet the Local Man Who Kickstarted Modern Paganism

GT’s exclusive interview with Oberon Zell of the Academy of Arcana

Oberon Zell and Morning Glory in 1974. They started the Grey School of Wizardry together 30 years later.

She has green skin, long flowing hair, and a pregnant belly that looks like, or perhaps is, the Earth. Her name is Gaia, and she’s one of the many goddesses on display in miniature statuette form in the large glass case next to me.

On the other side of the room I see a couple shelves of toy dinosaurs, a collection so vast and diverse, I can only assume it was accrued over the course of several decades.

To its left, there’s a display case of skulls, which catches my attention. I ask its owner, Oberon Zell, about them.

“I used to find roadkills, take them home, clean them up, dissect them and collect the skulls,” says Zell, who is the 74-year-old proprietor of the shop we’re sitting in, Academy of Arcana, in downtown Santa Cruz.

The skulls are creepy—and all real, he casually explains, except the top shelf, which includes the skulls of an alien, a werewolf, and a cyclops.

We’re in the back room of the Academy of Arcana, the museum and sanctuary, he calls it. The front of the store features mostly merchandise and curiosities that can be purchased. Behind that is the library, which contains materials on magick (ie: not performance magic), paganism and the occult, as well as mythology, science, nature, history, astronomy, science fiction and fantasy.

The museum is lined with strange things displayed along every square inch of the walls. Later, I learn that one section has extensive pictures of Zell’s unicorns from the ’80s—yes, unicorns. If you went to Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus in this period you likely remember Zell’s unicorns. (“We discovered the secret of the unicorns. They were not a myth. The world has completely forgotten, but for a while it was in every magazine, every newspaper,” he says.)

What I find most interesting is Zell himself. He sits in front of me, long flowing grey hair, massive, thick beard: a real-life wizard. Or, rather, a pagan, the godfather of the neopagan movement in fact. He formed the Church of All Worlds in 1962, which kicked off the neopagan movement, and started Green Egg magazine in 1968, which “injected key memes into the whole mix.”

“I like living in a world that is strange and mysterious. It’s not so much about the answers, it’s about the questions,” Zell says. “They don’t always give you the answers, but they take you in interesting directions in the journey along the way. That’s what I try to work with.”

 

The Sacred and Mundane

Oberon Zell with Morning Glory and unicorn Lancelot

Zell and Morning Glory with one of their ‘unicorns,’ Lancelot, in 1980.

Right now, he’s reading my tarot cards. He lays down three cards: the Lovers, Queen of Pentacles, and the Ace of Rods. He’s considering the cards’ meaning. My dilemma, I told him, was that I was torn on whether I should write an article. I’m considering that could bring a considerable backlash.

 

My second card, Queen of Pentacles, represents security and financial matters, he tells me. The third, The Ace of Rods is apparently speaking directly to the dilemma itself: “The Ace of Rods wields the power to have an impact to change the world. Probably a major reason why you’re into journalism is really wanting to have some far-reaching thing with your words.”

He considers how it all works together: “Pursuing what you believe to be right is more important than worrying about the consequences.”

He suggests that I take a picture of the cards before he picks them up and reshuffles them back into his deck. “I hope that’s helpful. I do this for a lot of people. I do card readings—and counselling,” he adds. “It was my professional career in the mundane world for many years.”

It’s hard to imagine Zell in the “mundane world,” especially as I glance over to the right and see a large photo of him in an actual wizard outfit. But he confirms that from 1966-1975 he worked as a family counselor and director of social services for the Human Development Corporation in St. Louis. This was while starting and running a religion. Zell, it turns out, is something of a legend.

But he’s new to Santa Cruz; he moved down from the North Bay, just outside of Cotati, in October 2015. According to Skot Colacicco, the president of the board of directors of Community Seed, a local pagan event coordination organization, the news that Zell was relocating here generated quite a bit of excitement in Santa Cruz’s vibrant pagan community. It’s a diverse group, and many of the resources locally focus on very niche aspects of paganism, whereas Zell’s vast eclectic knowledge, Colacicco says, makes him a remarkable resource.

He’s also got his own unique style that is, in its own way, very Santa Cruz. “He went down the wizard route, which a lot of us haven’t been brave enough to pose ourselves in,” Colacicco says. “He’s always been like, ‘yep, this is who I am.’ In that way, he’s been a huge inspiration to many of us who were like ‘I don’t want to be too weird.’ He’s willing to be weird so that other people can see that it’s OK.”

 

Changer of Worlds

Zell relocated to Santa Cruz following the death of his wife and longtime life partner Morning Glory, after her battle with cancer. The two met at the third annual Gnostic Aquarian Festival in Minneapolis in 1974, where he was a keynote speaker. They instantly clicked, and their first conversation lasted all night.

“It was love at first sight,” he says. “From then on, we were inseparable.”

Less than a year later, they married, and did everything together, including running the Church of All Worlds and Green Egg—and, of course, raising unicorns.

Now a couple of years after her death, Zell is still trying to figure out what to do with himself.

Oberon Zell and Morning Glory with original Church of All World at Heartland Pagan Festival

In 1990, original members of the Church of All Worlds reunited at the Heartland Pagan Festival in Kansas.

“We were just total soulmates. We shared everything,” Zell tells me, stopping to hold back tears. “It’s very strange to have her not with me. We watched all the same TV shows, and movies. Read all the same books and magazines. Had the same friends, listened to the same music. It was a running commentary on everything. I can’t turn to somebody and say hey, ‘how about that?’”

After she passed away in May of 2014, Zell was unsure of what to do with his life. A friend in Bonny Doon invited him to come down and stay with him, suggesting he take all of those memories and accomplishments that he and Morning Glory had created in their life together, and put them on display in downtown Santa Cruz. Zell did so, and opened the Academy of Arcana on Nov. 27, 2015.

Since the move, Zell has been the subject of international write-ups and documentaries, including a segment shot by the Chinese travel channel. The impact that he and Morning Glory have had on American culture, even beyond paganism, is surprisingly significant. They were involved with environmentalism, women’s rights, and polyamory—in fact, Morning Glory is credited with coining the term “polyamory.”

Zell’s influence in paganism and the occult is hugely significant. There likely wouldn’t be a neopaganism movement had he not started the Church of All Worlds.

“There were sort of small scattered groups and individuals, but there was no movement. Church of All Worlds is one of the main driving forces of that,” says Sarah Pike, a professor of comparative religions at CSU Chico. “It would be hard to overstate his importance. He was one of a very small group of people that saw what was happening, and really saw the coming together of the environmental movement, feminism, and the sexual revolution, and sort of the emergence of a new religion during the 1960s. Before that, it was just some scattered people practicing individually.”

Everything leads back to the formation of Church of All Worlds, which predates his meeting with Morning Glory. In fact, the early years of Church of All Worlds seems more of a goof by college students who were obsessed with Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But they turned out to be very serious about their efforts to revive the ancient pagan ways and deities, create a training system for self-actualization, ordain priestesses, celebrate the old seasonal festivals, revere nature and the Earth, and in general, create an alternative to Christianity and other contemporary religions.

 

Coffee Shock

Fifty years ago, Zell announced that he was the high priest of the Church of All Worlds—to a scattering of people at a St. Louis coffee shop.

“I said the fateful words: ‘We’re pagans.’ That was the first time anybody had ever put those two words together. It had always been ‘those pagans,’” Zell says. “It had always been a term of appropriation. Nobody had identified themselves as pagans.”

The Church of All Worlds began in 1962 between Zell and college friend Lance Christie, inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land. What started as conversations between the two about paganism, philosophy and the growing cultural changes, eventually evolved into a secret society that by 1965 had 100 members. The idea of a new religion was implicit in the book. After he and Christie read it, they dedicated their lives to manifesting that vision.

In 1967, the group was printing a newsletter of their ideas. In order to raise money for a ditto machine, they held a garage sale at a local coffeehouse over Labor Day weekend. The newspapers gave free ads to churches, so they advertised as the Church of All Worlds.

Regular patrons at the coffee shop wondered who the Church of All Worlds was. On the following Thursday, Sept. 7, Zell got on the mic to satisfy their curiosity. Dressed in a white turtleneck sweater and nicely trimmed goatee, he officially declared the Church of All Worlds a religion open to the public. People asked what this “Church of All Worlds” was. He replied, “I guess you could say we’re pagans.”

Of course, deciding to move his little group from secret society to a public religion brought up a lot of questions. For instance, what was their theology? As a student of mythology and organized religions, he didn’t want the Church of All Worlds to be controlled by any specific dogma. He certainly didn’t want it to become a cult. He made the decision to make it as open-ended as possible, while still embracing the ideals of paganism.

“It was intended to be all this inclusive, all-encompassing thing that could draw the wisdom and good experience from anywhere, but not be bound to any single, particular source. It’s still going strong,” Zell says.

The church grew in large part because of Zell and his kind nature, and because he treated people like family. He never tried to recruit or force his beliefs on anyone.

Gwydion Genzoli has known Zell since he was three years old. Genzoli’s father was a close friend of Gwydion Pendderwen, who purchased a 55-acre parcel on Greenfield Ranch in 1975. When Zell and Morning Glory moved in next door in 1977, they saw Genzoli and his dad fairly frequently.

“He and his wife had this idea of accepting what it is people are into and what it is they are about, even when—especially when—it contradicts your own [beliefs],” Genzoli says. “He’s a much better person than I am. I try to be as good as him, and sometimes, I think of him looking over my shoulder, to correct the choices I’ve made. You kind of appreciate him ’cause it leaves you a little less jaded about the world. We can use a few more dreamers out there.”

The Church of All Worlds was more to Zell than just an expression of his philosophies and ideals for how people could live in harmony together; it was a family of like-minded weirdos. Zell can’t recall a time in his childhood when he didn’t feel like the odd duck in his own family.

“My father was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager for his first presidential bid. That gives you an idea where my family was on this stuff,” Zell says.

They weren’t quite sure what to do with him. As a kid, Zell would talk about memories that were his late grandfather’s, and that he would have no reason to even know. Looking back, he now says that he is his grandfather reincarnated.

“I remember dying very well. It was a very big deal when I was a kid. I used to have nightmare about it. Many kids’ nightmares, if you talk to kids about nightmares—really look at the story—it’s memories of their former death.”

When Zell became a pagan leader (he appointed Don Wildgrube as ‘high priest a few years later, giving himself the title of “Primate”), his father couldn’t accept it. At his marriage with Morning Glory in 1975, where 500 people attended, including a film crew from Japan that showed up to document it, one of Zell’s friends asked his dad if he was proud of everything his son had achieved. His response was: “I feel like I’ve given birth to the anti-Christ.”

 

The Empress

Morning Glory had a profound impact on Zell and the Church’s happenings. Zell and his organization were always interested in fostering a women-empowering organization. Her partnership made that all the more real. Her focus, and even workshops on goddesses through the years would help Church of All Worlds, and even the pagan community alone become a place where women held leadership positions and were viewed as equals within the structures of power.

Originally from Long Beach, Morning Glory moved to Eugene, Oregon a few years before she’d gone to the third annual Gnostic Aquarian Festival. Like Zell, she was different from other people around her. But her friends appreciated her interests, and helped chip in to get her a bus ticket to go the festival.

She got her name at age 16 during a trip to Big Sur, on a vision quest. She woke up one morning covered in morning glories people had picked and left on her. From then on, that was her name.

The Church of All Worlds was always a pro-feminist religion, which is what made it so attractive to Morning Glory. Their first priestess, Carolyn Clark, was also an ardent feminist, as would be anyone ordained as a Priestess. Morning Glory carried that on even further.  

 

Mystery School

Lately, there is a lot of focus on a newer aspect of Zell and Morning Glory’s legacy: the Grey School of Wizardry, which they started in August of 2004. Through it, folks can take online courses on magick. Zell likens it to the old “mystery” schools of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle that explore the mysteries of the universe. There’s no separation between modern science and magick. Astrology and astronomy are treated with the same respect. Physics and metaphysics. Alchemy and chemistry.

The Academy of Arcana serves as a physical space for the school with a library, museum, classroom, meeting place, scheduled classes, and events.

The wizard school was something that Zell always wanted to do, but it wasn’t until the popularity of Harry Potter bloomed that he felt compelled to do it. He was invited to speak in November 2001 at a screening of the first film.

“All these kids with pointy hats. And we sat up there in the balcony—the school had reserved the whole balcony. Looking down, there were all of these kids watching the show,” Zell says. “We thought, ‘this is huge. And these kids, some of them are going to want to look for the real thing. And maybe that’s what we should do is to put it together.’ So this is a real life school of wizardry, instead of just the fantasy one,” Zell says.

Creating a school and a church had been in their minds for a while, and was inspired by Professor Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men comics.

A few years following the release of the Harry Potter film, Zell was commissioned to write a book of Wizardry, which became a textbook, so he thought this was the time to create a school for it.

“I realized that the world was finally ready for a school of Wizardry,” he says.

In the back of the museum/sanctuary at the Academy of Arcada, a small section catches my eye. I ask Zell about it. It’s a shrine to Morning Glory. It has different pieces of memorabilia. He shows me an old photo of her where she’s topless and says, “You can see why it was so easy to fall in love with her. She was an amazing woman.”

He then adds that the entire place is a shrine to Morning Glory.

“Everything reminds me of her. She’s so embedded in so many things. This was her priestess crown, these are her magical tools,” he says, holding them up. “I feel like an amputee, running around with a good part of me missing. I go to take a step and there’s none left there. She was just truly a phenomenon. And dearly beloved by so many. I can survive. It’s not what I want to be doing, just surviving.”  

There’s more to the Academy of Arcana than simply remembering the past. With all of Zell’s history, rarely has he had it on display for the public to see and learn from. A lot of the reason for his decision to move to Santa Cruz and open this business was to do just that. For the first time, he’s really focusing on establishing his legacy.

“This is my life,” Zell says. “I’m very proud and happy with my life. I don’t have any dark secrets that I want to hide from anyone. To be able to show it off is kind of cool. It’s like having a big fancy estate and having guests come through—escort them through the collections, the library and the exhibits.”

 

The Academy of Arcana is at 428-A Front St., Santa Cruz; 291-4009.

 

Contributor at Good Times |

Aaron is a hard-working freelance writer with a focus on music, art, food, culture and travel. In addition to Good Times, he's a regular contributor to Sacramento News & Review, VIA Magazine and Playboy. When he's not working, he's either backpacking, arguing about music or working on his book about ska. One thing's for sure—he knows more about ska than you.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bill Genzoli

    October 25, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Wonderfully written. Informative and amazingly done.

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