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Feature Wed May 27 2009
My thinking may not tend much toward New Age philosophy, but I do try to cultivate a belief in cosmic serendipity. As a doctrine it doesn't require much discipline beyond keeping my eyes open, alert to whatever portents or talismans may cross my path; I make a point of reading flyers on telephone poles. On a spring afternoon on the north side of Chicago, one of these catches my attention. "Weekend With the Wizard," it reads, "Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in Chicago." His photograph is especially striking: posing in front of a bookshelf, sporting the requisite flowing, white beard, Zell-Ravenheart gives the impression of a low-budget Dumbledore. His purple robes and wizard's wand seem decidedly costume-shop. But there's a peculiar intensity to his gaze, something almost perversely otherworldly -- the man is obviously on a weird trip, and the opportunity to join him for the weekend seems less an invitation than a challenge.
He's hosting two days of lectures, workshops and events, at Wicker Park's Occult Bookstore and a place I've never heard of called Life Force Arts Center. The topics range from "Oracular Tools of the Ancient World" to the "Polyamorism, Paganism and Community" (Pagan swingers--it sounds like an orgy, and on a Sunday morning, no less!). The blow-out event is Saturday night's "Waters of Spring" ritual, a four-hour epic featuring potluck dinner, a presentation on the ecology of water, and the ritual itself, a two-hour ceremony "created by All the Pagan Leaders in Chicago," as well as post-ritual drumming, dancing and singing. The flyer goes on to list Zell-Ravenheart's credentials and accomplishments: Shaman, Wizard and Artist, creator of the Gaia Theory and the Church of All Worlds, and -- this seals the deal, there's no way I'm going to pass up face-time with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart -- Breeder of the Modern Unicorn.
As it turns out, I can make it only to Saturday night's "Waters of Spring" event; I'm busy cooking couscous for the potluck dinner, and miss the afternoon presentation on "Gaia Theology and Green Paganism." Making my way to Lakeview's Life Force Arts Center, I find that the venue is located on a stretch of Lincoln Avenue with an unusual concentration of left-field spiritual enterprises -- the Kabbalah Center, the Peace School, and, until recently, the Church of Scientology's Chicago headquarters. Lincoln Avenue, a young Neo-Pagan will later assert by way of explanation, runs on a ley-line.
Checking in at the registration table, I make a donation, retrieve a name-tag, and am asked to sign some release forms. "What exactly are these for?" I ask, my eyes glazing over the fine print. "The first one, you're just consenting to be photographed and videotaped," the woman at the desk answers cheerfully. "The other says that if you die, you can't sue us."
Hey, I think to myself, this party might be even wilder than I'd imagined -- nothing like the prospect of imminent death to enliven a social function! Unfazed, I make my way to the potluck spread, placing my still-warm couscous amid a surprising array of foods. Who'd have thought that a bunch of Neo-Pagans -- proponents of the Gaia Theory -- could be found snacking on deviled eggs, potato salad and 'Nilla Wafers? I'd be likewise shocked (tittilated, even) later in the evening, when I spied the Wizard himself, sitting in the corner, wolfing down a slice of pizza.
The venue has a curious layout. The first room is an unassuming storefront, lightly stocked with books, CDs and New Age knick-knacks: pewter whatsits, airbrushed paintings of mermaids and coyotes; the main space is a long, narrow hall, warmly lit, with folding chairs lining the perimeter and a colorful, makeshift water altar commanding the center of the room, covered in goblets and candles and crystals. Some 50 or 60 people of all ages and descriptions are milling about the room, talking and laughing and singing. The mood is boisterous, the style of dress flamboyantly geeky, a more-is-more Ren-Faire aesthetic of amulets and leather. "It's all about the ritual bling," quips one young pantheist.
The program begins with a low-key talk on water conservation, led by a bright, barefoot young Neo-Pagan named Sayre Vickers. It's a topic on which he's well-qualified to speak: in 2008 the Chicago Tribune named Sayre the city's second-greenest person, citing the comprehensive greywater system in his Humboldt Park apartment -- he forgoes running water, and composts his own waste. "I love water," Sayre gushes as the presentation begins. "How do you love water?" A surprisingly nuts-and-bolts brainstorming session follows. If you put a brick in your toilet tank, Sayre advises, you can displace water and reduce your per-flush usage; rainwater barrels fill up quickly and can be used for gardening. It's hardly wizardry, but his enthusiasm is infectious. "Don't leave the water running while you shave," suggests one participant. "Most bottled water is just municipal tap water," notes another. A bathroom break is called for before the ritual begins. "Don't flush if you don't have to!" Sayre calls after us.
The room is buzzing as the lights go down and the ritual gets underway (the event, as it happens, coincides with this year's Earth Hour, when millions of people worldwide shut off the lights in an energy-saving gesture, and the ritual will be lit by candles.) "You'll never see another ritual like this," promises Shauna Aura (of Chicago mytho-spiritual group Ringing Anvil) the evening's emcee. It's billed as a "unity ritual," a sort of gathering of Chicago's Pagan tribes, and the groups on hand represent a wide spectrum of Neo-Pagan and earth-spiritualist traditions and tendencies. There's a group called the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, a "Neo-Pagan order for Gay, Bisexual and Transgender men who love men;" there are Wiccan, Druid, Vodou and Templar sects, and groups with names like Gaia's Womb and Sacred Order of the Black Cat. There is Janet Berres, founder of the International Tarot Society, and, of course, the unicorn-breeding headmaster of the Grey School of Wizardry, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. Each group, Shauna explains, will lead a portion of the ritual, some demonstrative, others participatory.
I work diligently to silence my inner cynic as the ceremony begins and the group is led in a somewhat run-of-the-mill grounding meditation -- imagine you are one with the Earth, etc. etc. But just as my patience begins to wear, things start getting weirder and deeper. A Voudo rite ups the ante with gnarly sensuality. Everyone rises from their seats to hail the cardinal directions; there are incantations and invocations in ancient, evil-sounding tongues, and over the next hour an astonishing pantheon of deities and spirits is called forth, from Isis and Ganesh to the Norse Gods, the four elements, the ancestors of the blood, fire people, air people, and Isadora Duncan. One kid in a heavy-metal t-shirt manages to summon the spirits of Galileo and John Lennon in a single breath. As rituals go, it's pretty incoherent, a slightly ridiculous patchwork of occult rites and sacraments, but the cumulative effect creates a bizarre energy so thick even I can't resist its power.
After an hour-plus of this, we're well-primed for Zell-Ravenheart's water-sharing ritual. Oberon created this rite in 1962, and it would become a cornerstone of his Church of All Worlds. The ritual is pretty much what it purports to be: a simple sharing of water. There's nothing particularly far-out or occult about it. But by this point in this evening the symbolism has become pretty heavy, and Oberon's transmutative invocation -- "We are one with all the waters in the Universe," he intones; "We flow in the blood of every living creature" -- has a mesmerizing effect. Goblets of the sacramental beverage are passed from person to person ("If you have a cold, or are in some way immuno-comprosmised, please do not touch your lips to the glass, " Oberon thoughtfully cautions.). This is the Water of Life, the blessing goes -- may you never thirst again.
The ceremony is not yet over; there are further blessings and consecrations, and a group Tarot reading from Janet Berres, in which she divines the past, present and future of Chicago's Pagan community. Despite the diversity of backgrounds and traditions on display, Berres notes, the sense of kinship is palpable. "We may look different or act different than the outside world," she concedes. "But we're a family. We really have a strong place here as a community."
The final ritual is an exercise in group ecstasy, led by Shauna Aura. It begins modestly enough, as a simple, melodic chant: "Pour it out for me, pour it out for me/Anything you give me, I will drink." Gradually, with each repetition, the chant gains momentum, the sort of gradually-escalating intensity seen at rock concerts and evangelical tent-meetings -- even the most skeptical wallflowers are swept up in the mass feeling, and get up to dance and sing. People are circling the candlelit altar, clapping and stomping and screaming with abandon. Suddenly, the chant drops out, giving way to a wordless, pulsating hum. It's a totally spontaneous, genuinely moving moment, and it sends shivers down my spine. I forget, for a moment, all about wizards and unicorns, forget that I mostly came here looking for a cheap laugh; the simple joy of being in a room full of people, singing and dancing and feeling at one, is more magic than I could have hoped for, and if this is the sort of spell that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart is capable of casting, then perhaps his claims to wizardry are not as far-fetched as I'd believed.
The ritual having ended, we descend on the potato salad and 'Nilla Wafers. As a parting spell, this run-of-the-mill potluck fare has been transubstantiated into something nourishing and delectable. Making my way back home, it's raining heavily, there's water everywhere -- the kind of cold, early-spring rain which I usually resent. But tonight I don't mind it at all, and splashing around in the puddles on my street I recall Oberon's blessing: "This is the Water of Life, may you never thirst again."
About the Author
Liam Warfield is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who delights in exploring the city's cultural periphery. This is his first venture into the local Pagan community.