A Conversation with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart

Oberon Zell-Ravenheart is a Neopagan writer, speaker, and religious leader (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds) with a place in the United States public eye since the 1960s. He is considered by some to be “The Father of Polyamory” by virtue of his wife Morning Glory Ravenheart first coining and publicizing the term ‘polyamory’, and their public three-way triad with their partner Diane in the 1980s and 90s as the first record of any family describing themselves as being ‘polyamorous’.
He visited New York City this week for the first time in decades, and was gracious enough to answer some questions with Leon Feingold of POLYquality.com; their correspondence formed the basis for this article.

PQ: Oberon, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. What brings you from California to New York and what are your plans while here?
OZ: I have a number of wonderful sweet lovers around the country, and I’m currently on Walkabout to visit and spend time with them all. While here I plan on attending the poly Drinks and Thinks at Retro next Monday, and enjoying conversations and food with whomever shows up to join us, after which I admit I am quite curious about Poly Cocktails and would like to take a look.

PQ: What’s a Walkabout?
OZ: It’s an important ritual in the lives of some Pagans and Magick followers, although it is historically most identified with an Aborigine Australian rite of passage into adulthood. In all situations it is a physical journey with spiritual significance, and can take months or years to complete.

PQ: I read Robert A Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” in middle school, and I identify it (along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in college) as the most important book I’d ever read in my formative years, guiding me both with respect to ethical non-monogamy, and many more aspects of my personality. To what extent did the book shape your vision for polyamory and Church of All Worlds?
OZ: SISL was a HUGE influence on all of us! I (and a number of reviewers of the time) considered it to be the most significant influence on the entire sexual revolution of the ‘60s, as well as the real-life CAW which gave rise to the entire modern Pagan movement. Heinlein’s definition of Love as “that condition in which another person’s happiness is essential to your own” became our fundamental concept, and a core of what today is called compersion. And the poly relationship dynamic described in the book became our model for our own relationships, which we eventually labeled “polyamory.” SISL was kinda our “Bible,” and everyone who came into our lives was expected to read it, if they hadn’t already (unsurprisingly, nearly all had). Regrettably, when Virginia Heinlein published her late husband’s early unedited manuscript in 1991 as the “uncensored version” (untrue; I had extensive personal correspondence with RAH about this; he did all the editing himself, and there was no censoring of any kind) this early draft did not yet include that definition of love, which was the whole point of the book.

PQ: What do you feel were some of the limitations of polyamory the way your family first envisioned it?
OZ: I can’t think of any. The actual experiences vastly exceeded all expectations and visualizations. We found we could do and be so much more as a group family than we ever could without each other. Even though we are now geographically dispersed since MG’s death, we’re still very close in our love; and our kids, now grown with kids of their own, still consider themselves dear brothers and sisters (they were all only children until we got together).

PQ: I’ve always wanted to ask this question: why “polyamory” and not “polyphilia” (Greek) or “multiamory” (Roman)?
That’s the exact conversation MG and I had that led to the term. Many people had been trying to come up with terms to describe such relationships that preferably didn’t have the root “gamy” (marriage) in them. Terms such as “polyfidelity,” “responsible non-monogamy,” “panfidelity,” “omnigamy,” etc., were being tossed around in the many articles of the time. “Polyphilia” sounds like a disease, or worse, an affliction, like pedophilia. “Multiamory” just sounded awkward. But “Polyamory” sounded perfect and self-explanatory, so that’s what she went with when she wrote her famous article, “Bouquet of Lovers,” for the Beltaine 1990 issue of Green Egg magazine. Clearly it was the perfect term, as there are now hundreds of thousands of people identifying with it! It’s quite possible that someone else somewhere else may have independently hit upon and tried out the Greek and Roman hybrid as MG did, but it wasn’t until MG published and we all started using it, that it really took off and became the go-to term for what is considered modern polyamory.

PQ: So “Father of Polyamory” makes historical sense in the perspective of the term you and MG came up with, and your public life as ‘polyamorists’, which draws a straight line to polyamory groups like Open Love and Loving More. But presumably you’re not contending you came up with the idea of consensual nonmonogamy.
OZ: Of course not, and no in
telligent, educated person would argue that. I’ve made no claims to have “invented” polyamory, merely that my beloved lifemate Morning Glory coined the terms “polyamory” and “polyamorist” in 1990, and our 10+year triad marriage with Diane from 1983-1994 was indisputably the first family on record to identify ourselves as “polyamorous,” thus providing useful terminology that has (obviously) been widely adopted in the poly movement.

PQ: Albert Einstein has been called the Father of Physics, Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul, Michael Jackson the King of Pop. They weren’t the first or only people to have done each before, but each provided something groundbreaking which redefined the way their followers considered each genre, and how those who came afterwards evolved it. You have arguably earned that recognition, with half a century of your life shaping the way millions of people around the world consider themselves polyamorous.
OZ: I appreciate the honor implicit in the offering of the title, although I don’t use it to refer to myself, and while I acknowledge my own role in the development and awareness of modern polyamory, if anyone should receive that degree of credit for the terms it should be she who created them and grew them into the terms we use today – my dearly beloved and recently departed MG.

PQ: How has polyamory changed since you and your family first started practicing it?
OZ: There are actually two main answers I have to this question, one positive and one negative. The first revolves around evolution of word usage as relates to identity, perspective, and definitions. Please keep in mind that MG wrote her 1990 “Bouquet of Lovers” article as a request from our 3rd partner, Diane, who was editing Green Egg at the time. They’d been discussing someone else who was claiming to be in an “open relationship” (the best term we had at that point), and being sneaky and dishonest about it. MG said, “Well, he’s just not following the rules!” And Diane said, “You’re always referring to these unwritten ‘rules.’ How about you write an article on them for GE?” So she did. And the rest is history.

But at that time, MG was writing from the perspective of a couple looking to open their relationship (or marriage; the most common term was “open marriage”) to include other lovers. So those were the “rules” she wrote up, on how to do that successfully to the positive benefit of all. So a core element was that of commitment priority, so as not to jeopardize the relationship between the initial couple. Hence reference to “primary,” “secondary,” etc. relationships. Diane, MG and I (and later MG’s previous husband, Gary, who married Diane to join our new family) felt our Triad was entirely stable, and we all knew where we stood in it. But insofar as MG was advising other couples on how to open their relationships, the element of priorities was crucial for the security of all. After all, as we noted early on, jealousy (which was never an issue for any of us) was a huge concern for most people, and mostly, we discovered from talking to people, it was a product of insecurity. So making sure that everyone felt secure was foundational to opening a relationship beyond a couple.

However, as time went on, we realized that often the secondary partners in such relationships were not happy about being relegated to 2nd place. They wanted to be primaries too. This became enough of an issue that we eventually came up with a different consideration—inspired by MG’s conversation at one of the Highlands of Tennessee Samhain Gatherings in the late ‘90s with an Ife Priestess from a refugee Yoruba community in Georgia who was in a polygamous marriage (one man and two women); she had been driven from Nigeria by the Christians and settled in Georgia, where polygamy (not polyamory) was a common practice. MG asked the Priestess how it worked with them, she responded that in Nigeria polygamy is a matter of seniority. There are separate words for the first and senior wife (iyale), vs. the most recent and thereby junior wife (iyawo). Any others fall in between, and everyone knows their place in the line of seniority. And interestingly, in some situations, the junior wife has priority – as with NRE. Whereas in other situations, it’s the senior wife who makes the decisions. We found that applying this principle to our group family dynamic worked perfectly, and this became the basis for our 2nd 10-year group marriage, the Ravenhearts.

Along that same line is people continuing to coin new words to describe aspects that weren’t covered by the previous vocabulary. I haven’t kept track of all of these lately, but one that one of my lovers introduced to me a really a good one: “metamours,” for lovers of your lovers. Another good one I learned at the same time is “polysaturated.” However, by the time I learned of these terms in 2014 they were already in common use, and no one seems to know who originated them.

As to the negative change I referenced, there seems to be less of the innocent Hippie/Pagan love and exuberant idealism that so characterized the early glory days of the ‘80s-‘90s. I haven’t been to (or even heard of) a polycon in many years. Legendary founding figures such as Morning Glory and Deborah Anapol have died. Some of our biggest challenges within the polyamory community have taken place quite recently; it’s been challenging maintaining clarity of the definition with people who keep wanting to change it to something else in order to fit their own reinterpretations of value, ethics, and history. The movement seems to have gotten more politicized, and downright meaner. We are now seeing poly people using their public platforms to be judgmental, disrespectful, and exclusive, ironically the opposite of what we always stood for as cultural groundbreakers in the United States.

PQ: I understand you had a surprising experience along those lines recently on social media.
OZ: This week, for the first time, I experienced what I can only describe as unmitigated hostility coming from certain vocal poly folks, who seemed to despise me for my role in launching the movement they apparently think of as theirs alone. It left me just stunned. I’d never encountered such a hostile reception in the communities I’ve founded and been involved in, all my life. I’ve attended countless Poly and Pagan gatherings around the country and in Australia, often as a guest of honor, and I’ve always received a warm welcome as a founding Elder. But in this scenario, I was rudely and ignorantly accused of being a colonizer, a racist, and worse, by people I’d never met, based exclusively on my being a white cisgender male who was credited alongside others in my peer group with the development and popularity of modern polyamory, and their assumptions about what that meant.

Anyone who did any research – or engaged in civil conversation – would learn that MG (who was part Chocktaw for whatever that is worth) and I were avid students of cultural anthropology (I have a degree in it), and were always particularly interested in learning all we could about sex and marriage relationships in other cultures, as we ourselves had always been naturally poly long before we coined terms for it. The closest we came was “Free Love,” a popular term in the ‘60s. In fact, I wrote a widely-circulated article with that title, that had some influence. While we always eschewed racism, and never particularly cared what color people were, including our lovers (hey, we were Hippies, and involved in the Civil Rights Movement), we were fascinated to catch occasional documentaries about traditional polyandry (i.e. one women with several husbands) in obscure regions of India and China. As I recall, the people in India were indeed dark-skinned Dravidian. In China, the current Communist government is trying to eradicate these practices, but apparently in India they are being left alone. However, the documentaries didn’t give any indigenous terms for these practices; only the Latin “polyandry.”

MG and I led a diving expedition to New Guinea in 1985, to investigate and confirm reports of “mermaids.” The women in our expedition discussed the relationship dynamics among the women of the several villages we visited. In that admittedly-limited sample, the official marriage pattern was monogamy, but the adult men and women lived separately in men’s houses and women’s houses, and sneaking around was common. And the courtship rituals were famously elaborate. However, MG learned no terms for what we would call polyamory.

However, when we visited the Trobriand Islands during that expedition, things were considerably different, with a great deal of open and joyous free non-marital sexuality among the younger men and women, particularly around the Yam Harvest, where the men who grew the biggest yams were quite in demand among the young women—much like our King of the May! One of the girls kept flirting with my son, fascinated by his profuse body hair. She would certainly have dragged him off into the bushes if he’d been willing, but as we were on an expedition for the Cryptozoological Society, it seemed inappropriate to yield to such friendly invitations. But again, MG learned no native terms we would equate to polyamory.

I’ve also already described the Ife Priestess from a Yoruba community we met; when she asked, MG learned no native African terms for what we would call polyamory.

I therefore think it reasonable to say that as far as we knew, there simply hadn’t been any other name for exactly what we’d come up with, and certainly none we could find in English. Polyamory was just our term we came up with for precisely how MG and I and our community lived – without stealing it from others – which has since grown into a global phenomenon. But these angry people were not only insisting that MG didn’t even coin these terms, but that they were invented long ago by some unidentified non-white people! (As if all white people were always monogamous – they’d presumably never heard of the ancient Greeks, Sumerians, Celts, Vikings, etc.) Nonmonogamous relationships have existed in every human culture, regardless of whiteness (see above how we personally experienced indigenous versions of polyamory in Nigeria and the Trobriand Islands), since the dawn of time.

All this is a very long way to say that if there were racist overtones, they came from the hostile people who projected their issues on me. A major point of both Paganism and Polyamory is that they are INclusive of all people who wish to identify with them, regardless of any other attributes, such as skin color, etc. Ancient Pagan peoples were of all places and colors: black, brown, red, yellow… and white. We all lived in tribal villages and communities, and shared far more in common than our differences. Same thing for poly people (generally referred to as “polygamous” rather than “polyamorous,” as nearly all cultures seem to have required marriage to legitimize sexual relationships, no matter how many). These terms are not racial designations; they are community values, irrespective of race. In most of my life experiences, at least, the Pagan and poly communities are racially diverse, and no one thinks anything of it.

PQ: Sounds like you walked into a firestorm you weren’t expecting.
Certainly I had no idea what I was stepping into when I just blithely and innocently accepted an offer to attend a poly party, exactly the sort of thing I’ve been doing all across the country (and in Guatemala) for the past 4 months of my Walkabout. Up ‘til now, I’ve received nothing but gracious welcome and generous hospitality everywhere I’ve been. I’ve been very proud of the Pagan community I essentially founded and fostered over the past 50 years. They know how to treat their Elders, and each other.

And while I haven’t been as much involved in the wider poly community since MG died and our Families dispersed geographically (though we’re still all very close in love and support), I have attended (and hosted) a number of poly potlucks and discussion groups in Santa Cruz over the past few years. Again, I have received nothing but welcome and affection, as a beloved grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner. So all this anger and hatred has been a severe shock to me; the saddest thing to me is that a movement that started out being all about love – expansive love, “Loving More” – has now degenerated into a campaign of hate, directed particularly towards its very founders. And rather than act as a community to balance out one-sided or vitriolic campaigns, people seem more interested in virtue signaling and staying out of the way of the vocal minority, than standing up for those who have any conflicting opinions.

PQ: So where do you think this anger and hostility is coming from?
OZ: In conversations with some of the other New York poly leaders, I have come to understand that the hate and anger these others are expressing isn’t really about me so much as it is about their personal life experiences as disenfranchised and marginalized people. And they’re taking it out on me because they identify me with their oppression, however misdirected.

I’ve spent my whole life working against racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and any other exclusive ideology. Clear back in the 1960s, I was deeply involved in the social justice and civil rights movements—as well as sexual freedom, feminism, Naturism, and the newly-emerging Paganism. I founded the Church of ALL Worlds—the first church in modern history to legally ordain women as Priestesses! We had gay clergy and were performing gay and poly marriages long before these things became issues of public debate. In the pages of Green Egg I campaigned against racial supremacists who were trying to infiltrate the Pagan community. CAW and my Grey School of Wizardry have the most comprehensive non-discrimination clauses we could come up with. We are a haven for many people who have been unwelcome and even persecuted elsewhere: Witches, Pagans, Gypsies (we prefer the term Romany, actually…), gays, polys, and more recently, transsexuals. What color people are is equally irrelevant to us; all are welcome who want to be here. We see ourselves like The Island of Misfit Toys: people are judged on what they bring to the table, not what they bring to the mirror.

Since I hadn’t encountered this sort of negative response before, I was totally taken aback, and thought if I could just address their accusations with corrections and explanations, all would be well. I guess I just sorta took it for granted that I would be appreciated for my part in helping to create the subculture in which they’ve found refuge and haven. Clearly, I was mistaken!

I acknowledge that because of my status as a white, cis, male elder, there very well may have been situations where racism existed and I was unaware, or a power dynamic was in place that I didn’t see. I by no means am trying to take away or denigrate anyone else’s experiences or emotions. But I have no desire to inflict myself into a gathering of angry people who are so hostile to me—especially when they are hostile to me for the very thing that brings us together!

PQ: So let’s focus instead on the positives. What have been your best memories since you first identified as polyamorous?
OZ: Group sex would have to be high on that list for me! Many sweet and delightful threesomes, and a few wondrous orgies. I always say the biggest problem with monogamy is that nobody get to sleep in the middle. Our wonderful group marriage families, and all living together, working on family projects, raising our kids together, presenting at festivals and polycons, going on camping trips and other adventures, such as the International New Age Trade Show in Denver every Summer Solstice, etc. Especially when the whole Ravenheart clan all lived together in a beautiful and spacious eco-house on 94 acres near to Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm in Laytonville, CA. Publishing Green Egg magazine; traveling around the world with various lovers; living in a 6,000-are Hippie homesteading community and raising Unicorns; having a house full of animals when we were working with Wildlife Rescue; revivifying he Church of All Worlds and creating amazing rituals for our community, including reviving the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries; developing Mythic Images as a family business, and sculpting statues to produce and market. Our group handfastings (marriages). 20 years of this! Enough beautiful memories for several lifetimes!

PQ: How have YOU changed – other than years going by – since you first identified as polyamorous?
OZ: At 75, not a lot, other than growing older (which is far better than the alternative!). But I haven’t really slowed down much. I’m still quite sexually active, with a number of enthusiastic sweet lovers around the country, ranging in age from 38 to 77, who all know of each other, though not all have met in person. Polyamory has been one of the best things in my life, running neck-and-neck with Paganism and Magick. I cannot imagine how I could have gotten through the death of my beloved lifemate, Morning Glory, without my other lovers giving me a reason to go on.

PQ: Is there any regret you have regarding your role in the development of modern polyamory?
OZ: There is one that stands out, actually. It was our intention to write more articles on polyamory from the point of the subsequent partners (“paramours”) other than the original founding couple. In fact, MG, Diane, and I all wrote a book together, on the subject, titled “The New Polygamy” (yes, I know; it should have been “Polyamory,” but that’s what the publisher thought would sell) with a lot of potentially informative and interesting material. Unfortunately, the publisher went out of business before publication, and the manuscript was lost (sadly, we didn’t have electronic copy; it was all on floppy disks). Then Deborah Anapol and others started putting out books on polyamory, and we lost that momentum.

PQ: What is the most important message you have to share, whether people are new to poly or consider themselves veteran poly people?
OZ: Remember, it’s all about the Love. Be impeccable in your open honesty with each other, and with yourselves. Not everyone is cut out for polyamory, and that’s OK. I think the most common default relationship dynamic for most people is probably serial monamory, not polyamory. Be honest with yourself: is this really who you are? Can you handle your lovers having other lovers? Being poly means no cheating, no deception. And no jealousy. If you can’t handle that, don’t claim to be poly! But if you truly are polyamorous at heart and by nature, don’t try to mate with someone who isn’t. that will just result in everyone getting hurt. It’s like being gay; if you’re truly gay at heart, don’t try to get into a romantic relationship with or (Goddess forbid) marry a partner of the opposite sex! Also, never make unenforceable rules, such as “It’s OK to have sex with other people, but you’re not allowed to fall in love with them.” This is the major reason many poly agreements fail.

PQ: What is next for you?
OZ: I identify with no home; everything I own is in storage in Santa Rosa, except what I brought with me in my car for my Walkabout. Ultimately, I’m searching for a new (and hopefully final) home, and someone to share it with. Where that search will take me, and with whom, is still open. This could be a long journey, and since my lovers are so widely scattered, I will want to keep visiting with them from time to time, which will mean many trips away from whatever home base I may eventually settle into. I have cast my life (and my fate) upon the winds.

In closing, a favorite poem of mine:

Now every Wizard knows,
That the hard part of the Old Ways,
Is knowin’ when to keep your peace,
And when to pick a fight!
And the Gods gave you your magicks,
Well knowin’ you was mortal;
Expectin’ little save that you
Would try to use ‘em right!
–“The Wizard” by Isaac Bonewits