The Priestess of Avalon

A Memoir of Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999)

by Diana L. Paxson

Originally published in SageWoman magazine, Winter, 1999.

The Mists of Avalon was published in 1983. It made Marion Zimmer Bradley world-famous. For the women who were emerging from the feminist movement in search of a new spirituality, she was the voice of the Goddess, calling them home. But books such as Mists do not appear spontaneously, like heat lightning from an empty sky. For most of her life Marion had been developing the ideas and awareness, the knowledge of magic, and of course, the skill in writing, that made Mists possible. For half of that lifetime I was privileged to know her, as a part of her family, as her student, and eventually as her fellow-priestess.

Marion was neither a saint nor a guru. She was a Gemini, and above all she hated to be pinned down to any single set of beliefs or opinions. She could be exasperating and she could be wonderful. I cannot present the truth about Marion, only the truth as I saw it, with the attendant risk that this account will tell you as much about me as it does about her. To cover every aspect of Marion’s life would require a book–what I hope to do here is to provide some background regarding the magical and spiritual aspects of her career.

Marion Zimmer was born in 1930 on a farm a few miles east of Albany, New York. It is beautiful wooded countryside, but especially during the Depression, it was culturally as well as economically impoverished. Her mother was well-educated, and taught her to love books and music, but getting enough to eat was sometimes a problem, and there was certainly no money for luxuries.

A skinny blonde girl in hand-me-down clothes and glasses, Marion was far too intelligent and unfashionable for social success in a country high school. Instead, she took refuge in books, especially early science fiction and fantasy, and in music. Among her favorites were stories of King Arthur and the opera Norma. In the works of authors like Rider Haggard and Talbot Mundy she found the first hints of the esoteric tradition that would become so important to her later on.

Scholarships took her through the first years of college. She had a fine light soprano voice, and initially she studied music, hoping to become a singer, but proved not to have the physical stamina for life as a professional. It was at this time that she met an older woman who became her first magical teacher. Together they began to work on a novel of Atlantis, which much later was completed and published as Web of Light, and Web of Darkness (reissued in a single volume as The Fall of Atlantis). She was also becoming active in science fiction fandom through letter columns in the pulp magazines and the first conventions. Through correspondence, she met Robert Bradley, a railroad employee who was twice her age, and having come to the end of her college money, married him.

Life in a succession of little towns in the wilds of Texas was even more confining than upstate New York, and soon Marion had a son, David, to care for as well. She had been putting out a fanzine, Astra’s Tower, since college, in which some of her first writing appeared. She became a devoted fan of The Lord of the Rings as soon as it appeared (it was something of a cult among science fiction fans long before it became a best-seller). She put herself through Hardin-Simmons University, from which she received a BA degree in English, by writing for any market that would pay her, from true confessions to science fiction.

But she also continued her esoteric studies. Through an ad in one of the pulp magazines she discovered the Rosicrucians, and continued her occult studies through their correspondence course, and made contact with the surviving members of Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light. Until well into the seventies, virtually the only metaphysical writings available were Theosophical, or works by heirs of the Order of the Golden Dawn, including W.B. Yeats, A.E. Waite, William Butler, and most notably, Dion Fortune, who became a major influence on her ideas and practice. Her debt to Dion Fortune is especially visible inĀ Mists of Avalon, particularly in the references to Atlantis, and the characterization of Morgaine, who is clearly related to Fortune’s Vivian LeFay Morgan in The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic.

There was at this time no market for adult fantasy; Marion began to mine the “lost race” fantasy series she had been working on since she was in college for material for the early Darkover books, which were presented as science fiction. But the ruling families of Darkover (for those of you who have not read the books) possessed a technology for using the native blue matrix crystals to amplify psychic powers, and a system of Towers, where circles of adepts trained the talented and worked–magic. In the early sixties, the idea that a belief in such abilities could get you anything other than a quick trip to the local asylum was revolutionary, and all over the country readers who had feared to admit to paranormal experiences heaved a sigh of relief and blessed Marion’s name.

By this time the marriage to Bradley had ended. In 1964 Marion moved to Berkeley to marry Walter Breen, whom she had also met through science fiction fandom. Like Marion, Walter was interested in metaphysics, and since the Society of the Inner Light was no longer authorizing new groups, they decided to form an esoteric lodge of their own, which they named the Aquarian Order of the Restoration (the AOR). The stated purpose of the Order was:

To restore to mankind that wisdom which has become folly,
To restore to the world that equilibrium which has become unbalanced,
To restore to the material universe its proper relationship
with the unseen which lies behind the world of material things.

Later on, Marion was to say that this meant in particular the balance between the masculine and feminine in our image of the Divine, in other words, bringing back the Goddess.

This was well before anyone was talking about the “Age of Aquarius”, but Walter was an astrologer, able to identify the influences that would dominate the future. Among the first initiates were Marion’s kid brother Paul Edwin Zimmer and his adopted brother Jon DeCles, both budding writers themselves.

I first met Marion when I got involved in science fiction fandom in 1965, but I did not begin to get to know her until the following May, when I invited her and Walter to attend the first tournament of what became the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which I put on in my back yard. They attended in full garb with their two children, Patrick and Moira, who were then toddlers. Marion’s older son David was also present, as well as her brother Paul, who had just arrived from New York with Jon the week before. The event, if not a ritual, was certainly magical, and provided a nucleus for the formation of a remarkable community. It was Jon who turned the group from a happening into an organization, but legend has it that Marion thought up the name, and when she and Walter moved back East in 1967, she founded the East Kingdom of the SCA.

By this time, the culture of “the sixties” was beginning to bloom. Suddenly it seemed possible to change the world, and all around us, the world was changing. By the end of the summer the SCA was well-established. Soon, I was being courted by Marion’s adopted brother, and hearing endless stories of her exploits. By the time I married Jon in 1968 and set up housekeeping with him and Paul, Paul’s new wife Tracy, and Paul’s (and Marion’s) mother, who had also by this time come west, I was also becoming aware of the family interest in magic.

When Marion and Walter moved to Staten Island to edit Sybil Leek’s Astrology Magazine, they had left Jon and Paul in charge of the Elbereth Lodge, the west coast branch of the AOR, while they led the Orpheus Lodge in New York. I was initiated into the Order in 1968, but it did not meet very regularly until Marion and Walter returned to the Bay Area in 1973.

The years between 1973 and 1982 were the period of the Order’s greatest activity. It met for rituals on the solstices and equinoxes. After initiation, one took the Mirror Degree, and then others, such as the Orpheus or Prometheus degrees, depending on the interests and needs of the initiate. The oaths and teachings placed a strong emphasis on the search for wisdom. The Order eventually had about a dozen active members, including Anodea Judith, known today as a teacher of the Chakra system.

Initiates were required to seek to know in order to serve, and to renounce the use of power for evil purposes, control over others or self-glorification. The adjuration which was given them is a good summary of Marion’s understanding of metaphysics–

…hear the words which are the beginning of wisdom; here tonight you have seen and heard us invoke four elements, whereas science has told you that there are more than a hundred. Yet within these four symbols are contained a philosophy which encompasses all the elements of the universe and all those in the Reality beyond the Universe. These things are spiritual symbols, and as you meditate on these symbols and the reality behind them, you will gradually enrich your perceptions of the true nature of the Universe. For the Universe as we see it is not the Universe as it is; what we see is filtered through the imperfect lens of our senses and our material brain. It is not required of you that you express belief in any God or Goddess, nor that you dismiss your knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the material universe as science displays it to us; but that you acknowledge a reality beyond, and search for an inner or spiritual apprehension which will make that Universe more meaningful to you…

from the Ritual for Acceptance into the Order

It was a philosophy accessible to everyone, whatever their formal religion, especially suitable for a time when it had not yet really occurred to anyone that it might be possible to revive the open practice of paganism. Just as Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light worked with Western Kabbalah (incorporating Greek and Egyptian mysteries), with the esoteric Christian tradition, and with the nature religion of the “Celtic Ray”, Marion, as her religious practice developed, found no difficulty in simultaneously working with the emerging pagan movement and with Christianity, viewing all human religions as imperfect lenses through which to seek the Truth beyond.

Still, as the AOR continued, its rituals began increasingly to emphasize harmony with the changes of the seasons, the elements, and the Lord and Lady. In the wake of the sixties, esoteric religions of all kinds were going public, including the first West Coast Wiccan covens. Equally significant was the emerging feminist movement. By the end of the decade they had combined to produce Women’s Spirituality.

This was also Marion’s most productive period as a writer, at least in terms of output. In the 1950’s, she had begun a novel dealing with homosexuality in the circus, The Catch Trap, for which she could find no publisher until 1979. But with the Darkover novel Heritage of Hastur, she began treating same sex relationships with an honesty and compassion at that time unprecedented in science fiction, a development which was gratefully received by another audience which until then had not had a voice in the literature.

Between 1970 and 80 she published fifteen novels, sometimes at the rate of two or three a year. She also became a mentor to budding writers like myself, reading and critiquing their efforts and providing encouragement.

In the AOR, we were not yet really conscious of the other new religious movements, but the potential for the return of the Goddess was clearly in the air, or perhaps the Lady Herself had decided it was time to take a hand. In 1978, a young woman who was a member of the Order, daughter of an old friend of Marion’s, and at that time living in my house, asked me to write a womanhood ceremony. At nineteen, she had been on her own for some years, but felt she needed to make a formal transition into adulthood.

I recruited the women members of the Order and some other members of the local science fiction/SCA community whom I knew to be involved in Wicca. Drawing on my own background in mythology, it occurred to me that focusing on the Triple Goddess might be helpful, and I outlined the ritual, which we held in Marion’s living room. The results were well beyond expectations. Not only was the energy of an all-female working quite different from anything we had experienced in coven or lodge, but our sense of contact with the Goddess was immediate and powerful. Everyone present was eager to repeat the experience, and so Darkmoon Circle was born.

The next few years saw a flowering of religious development and activity. We became aware that other people were working along the same lines, and Marion and I began attending every workshop we could find, learning new skills, and sharing them with the circle. Reclaiming, Feminism, NROOGD, Shamanism and many more all contributed information and inspiration, and Darkmoon speedily became the most vigorous of the groups working out of the remodeled carriage house in Marion’s back yard.

The results began to show up in Marion’s writing, particularly in the Darkover books featuring the Free Amazons, such as Thendara House and City of Sorcery, which provided some desperately needed inspiration for yet another group of readers, women in parts of the country where feminism was still a dirty word.

It was at this time also that Marion began writing The Mists of Avalon, the most ambitious work she had yet attempted. In the introduction to that book she lists the major individuals and groups with whom we were then interacting, and thanks Darkmoon Circle for supporting her through the process of creation. I was privileged to see draft portions of the book at various times during the writing, and it was clear even during the early stages that this was going to be a significant work.

In 1981, Marion incorporated all the activities being held on the premises as the Center for Non-Traditional Religion (CNTR), and added the cross-quarter days to the AOR ritual year. In the following year, an esoteric Christian community, the Order of Divine Love, was added as well. This group was connected with the Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church, in which Walter and Jon had both been ordained many years before. The local bishop was Mikhail Itkin. In later years, Jon also became a bishop in the church, as did local poet Elizabeth Harrod. Katherine Kurtz, who had briefly worked with the AOR, was eventually consecrated a mitred abbess in a related esoteric church. Writer Randall Garrett was one of the priests as well, and advised Marion on some of the early Christian material in Mists of Avalon. And Marion herself was ordained as a priest in the Church.

The upper floor of the carriage house was remodeled as a temple. By June of 1981, the CNTR was host to the AOR, Darkmoon Circle, The Community of St. Martha of Bethany, which had replaced the Order of Divine Love, a short-lived Men’s Group, a Hermetic Rite for Gay men, a Druid group, and the Liturgy of the Lady, which I had written in 1981-2. This many activities constituted a serious drain on everyone’s energy, and by 1982 it was becoming clear that the AOR had served its purpose. Further reform and development were considered, but the most energetic of the groups was Darkmoon Circle, and as the AOR faded away, a new co-ed Wiccan group, Equinox Circle, was formed to include the male members of the community.

By 1982, not only was Darkmoon flourishing, but some of its members found themselves acting as clergy in a broader sphere. The first consecration of priestesses took place in January of that year, and Marion, Shirine Morton and I were consecrated together in July. Mists of Avalon had been completed, after much revision, and turned in. When, later on, women came to Darkmoon looking for the College of Priestesses of Avalon, I always felt it was somehow fitting, for the atmosphere and relationships in the book seemed to incorporate much of the feeling of the Circle.

But no one was more astonished than Marion when Mists became a best-seller. Accustomed as she was to interacting with science fiction fans, who are as quick to criticize as to praise, the adulation she received from some of the mainstream audience was to say the least, disconcerting. Midnight phone calls requesting spiritual counsel, and gushing letters from people who wanted to sit at her feet forced her to put up defenses. When asked how much of Mists was “channeled”, she responded that she was “…not a medium, but a Large.”

And yet, I think there was a sense in which it was true. Once again, Marion had demonstrated her ability to tune into the zeitgeist, and to say in print what some group of readers, in this case, a very large group, desperately needed to hear. In person, Marion was as likely to be tactless and abrupt as generous and inspiring, and sometimes it seemed her opinions altered with every shift in the wind. The essence of her creativity was to be always breaking new ground. The last thing she wanted was to be stuck on a pedestal as High Priestess of Avalon. But when she set her fingers upon the keyboard of a typewriter she was a great priestess.

As the eighties continued and her fame grew, Marion began to withdraw from participation in the CNTR’s activities. She developed adult-onset diabetes, and suffered several small strokes. In the meantime, the carriage house continued to be used by a variety of pagan groups for evening meetings. By 1986, she was tired of being awakened by departing groups tromping past her bedroom window, and decided to disband the CNTR.

After consulting with others from the groups who were still using the building, I requested that the incorporation be shifted to a new organization, not dependent on a physical location, which became The Fellowship of the Spiral Path. When I read her next major book, The Firebrand, it seemed to me that Marion had cut off her spiritual contacts. The book displayed all her old skill at writing, but the none of the gods except the earth goddess had any power, and she wasn’t listening. The sense of spiritual contact that had made Mists so potent was gone.

In 1989 Marion suffered a major stroke. She managed to complete The Forest House, a novel inspired by the opera Norma, which she had wanted to do since she was a teen-ager, but she no longer had the focus for sustained work. Since I knew both the historical and the esoteric background for Roman Britain and Avalon, she asked me to work with her in revising it, and later to do much of the writing of Lady of Avalon.

In the years that followed, Marion’s health continued to fail, complicated by the interaction of the diabetes, strokes, and heart trouble. When I took her out to lunch, our conversations were mostly about writing and the family. She put most of her energy into editing the Sword and Sorceress anthologies and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, both of which have made an immense contribution to the development of new (especially female) writers.

During these last years, when her health permitted, she attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Church with members of her household. St. Mark’s has always been noted for its music, which I suspect was part of the attraction, and she also liked the ritual. Those of us who have continued to serve the Goddess found that hard to understand, but as I reflect upon Marion’s life and career, I am coming to see that through all the changes, she held to the truth behind appearances. One of Marion’s favorite quotations, given in several places in the works of Dion Fortune, and repeated in Mists of Avalon, was:

For all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses one Goddess, and there is one Initiator…

In the end, I think that the forms of religion had ceased to matter to her at all.

Through her books and her teaching, Marion Zimmer Bradley passed on the truth that was given to her. The oaths she and I swore to the Goddess at our consecration provide that our service to Her shall be fulfilled “in this life or another”, and there is no provision for dispensation. For years I did not understand how Marion could abandon her responsibilities as a priestess, and yet when I look at the impact Mists of Avalon has had, I cannot help but wonder if indeed, writing that book was what the Goddess put her here to do.

As Morgaine reflects at the end of Mists of Avalon,

No, we did not fail. What I said to comfort Arthur in his dying, it was all true. I did the Mother’s work in Avalon until at last those who came after us might bring her into this world. I did not fail. I did what she had given me to do. It was not she but I in my pride who thought I should have done more.

(Mists, p. 858)

Marion did the work of the Goddess until the rest of us were able to take up the labor of bringing Her fully into the world.

Her work is done.