By in Sci Fi & Paranormal

Do You Grok? Heinlein's 'Stranger' Inspires Contemporary Pagans

Stranger in a Strange Land was published by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1961. The reworking of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book had taken about a decade to write. As befits the Space Age during which the story was composed, the protagonist was a man from the planet Mars rather than a human child raised by wolves.

One of the central themes in the book is that of the Martian, Valentine Michael Smith – Mike, for short – learning about relationships between people on earth. In a spirit of openness he also teaches his human acquaintances something of the Martian worldview. This exchange involves Mike coming to understand the human concept of God , and his explaining the Martian concept that to be divine is very simply to have a profound understanding of the world – to “grok,” which we learn in Martian literally means “to drink.”

While for many the novel is simply an interesting sci fi story with an alien and sometimes paranormal focus, for some people it was a truly seminal work. In 1962, a group of friends and lovers in the United States felt that many of the concepts of Stranger resonated deeply with them. They saw themselves as “ water brothers ” who shared a special link to one another.

This deep bond is symbolized by the sharing of water from a communal cup, as well as by sexual intimacy, which Mike declares is the deepest form of “growing closer.” The closeness of lovers, then, is the deepest, most godly way to grok another human. Rather than to devote oneself uniquely to a single mate, the Martian tradition is to form a complex and intricate series of bonds amongst a group of people who are all free to be lovers with one another. This group of water brothers is called a nest .

Timothy Zell (now known as Oberon Zell-Ravenheart) and his water brothers actually formed such a nest, and from it grew a church that was in many ways based on the Church of All World s that Mike founded in the book. In 1968 their church was granted legal status by the US federal government, and in 1973 Carolyn Clark became the first legally ordained Priestess of the church, now often referred to informally as “CAW.”

The concepts of divine immanence (as popularly expressed in Heinlein's phrase, “Thou art God/dess”) and of sacred sexuality were already part of the Pagan traditions of the British Isles. Once England repealed the last of its Witchcraft Laws, Witches like Gerald Gardner became public figures and British Traditional Witchcraft (BTW) made its way to North America.

But Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds provided both a vocabulary and a communal framework that spoke to many young people in the 60s and early 70s. By the late 80s, Oberon and Morning Glory Zell were helping to legitimize both polyamory and polyfidelity . What had once been a lifestyle that was practised quietly behind closed doors was now out in the open and has remained so, right into the 21st century.

If I were to tell you at the beginning of the 60s that the retelling of The Jungle Book would result in the creation of one of the earliest legally recognized Pagan churches and the legitimacy of a lifestyle that rejects most of the assumptions upon which the Western definition of marriage rests, what would you think? I wonder what Kipling would have thought about it – or Heinlein, for that matter?

This is my Sci Fi and Paranormal entry for DawnWriter 's A-W Category Challenge

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Image credit: Hoag's Object by NASA/Wikipedia (public domain)

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Ellis wrote on November 23, 2014, 12:59 AM

I think someone has hijacked this story for a bit of

MegL wrote on November 23, 2014, 1:41 AM

I used to love reading Heinlein and all the sci fi of that era but I don't recall that one, or maybe I did read it and it didn't resonate as deeply with me as it did with those others - that's very possible. The term "Grok" rang a bell for me but so softly, I could not recall how.

Kasman wrote on November 23, 2014, 9:15 AM

Although Heinlein is one of my favourite SF authors this is one of his books I just couldn't 'Grok'. I don't like to think too deeply about SF (I see it as escapist fiction) and, indeed, the book can be read simply as just another SF adventure without any deeper meaning. Heinlein himself said that he wrote the book not for people to 'believe' but to 'think'. I Guess I don't like thinking too deeply about some things.

celticeagle wrote on November 23, 2014, 8:31 PM

I think that an author that can make the reader think is the very best as his craft.

Ruby3881 wrote on November 26, 2014, 3:19 PM

It is rather different from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. It may be that you passed over it at the time because it didn't call to you. I know that I wouldn't probably have picked it up, had I not been aware of the connection.

Ruby3881 wrote on November 26, 2014, 5:08 PM

Heinlein was surely a deep thinker! He was involved in politics, and was concerned about the shape the world would take in the future. I think he'd be pleased to know that some of his writing, at least, made people think.

celticeagle wrote on November 28, 2014, 1:30 AM

I would think so. I think that is the ultimate any author could ask for.

OnlyErin6 wrote on January 3, 2015, 8:37 PM

I tried to read this book and I thought it was horrible. I usually like sci-fi, but I'm afraid I swore off Heinlien after that.

BodieMor wrote on January 4, 2015, 11:25 PM

Read the book multiple times back in the 70s and was always found it engaging and intriguing, but never enough to forego my deep and enduring satisfaction with monogamy. seren3 , check out this fascinating post!

seren3 wrote on January 5, 2015, 10:20 AM

First thing I read today! A wonderful and thorough accounting of this story and how it's affected the world.

caretakerray wrote on January 8, 2015, 12:20 PM

Stranger in a strange land is one of my favorites! It made me reconsider some of my beliefs!