THE MAGICAL LIFE
Talk given by Gareth Knight at Leaping Hare Annual Conference,
High Woods, Colchester, 1st April 2006
I have been asked to talk to you today about my magical life, although I am not sure that it is very much more magical than anyone else`s. It certainly seems to have been going on for rather a long time, which means I cannot include too much of it in one afternoon. And it could well keep us going well into the night, simply trying to define what magic is, let alone what my particular involvement in it may have been, in public or private.
However, I can say that anyone who has an inclination toward the magical life is rather prone to look for omens, portents and the inner significance of things. Therefore it intrigues me somewhat to have been invited to speak at this particular location, in High Woods, Colchester. For you have unwittingly brought me back close to where I started off in life - seventy six years ago, come the day after tomorrow.
On April 3rd 1930 I was born at Mile End, just across the fields from here, over what used to be called the Candy Meadows, but which I imagine is now a housing estate. And I recall High Woods as a magical kind of place, an extent of woodland where, in the spring, the ground was covered in a veritable mist of bluebells.
Not that the scene was always entirely idyllic, for I also recall my mother and I being ordered out by a gamekeeper halfway through a family picnic, for being on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. Thus do two kinds of reality tend to butt up against one another, in the nineteen thirties as well as today.
So whether you have pulled me back full circle this afternoon, to set me going on the next ring of some spiral of magical life experience remains to be seen. I think there unlikely to be much picnicking in the woods. Although there seems to be no shortage of parking at Tescos.
And I have to say that of late I have become increasingly aware of the magical dynamics of the woods, and fields, and the Earth itself. Indeed of the contours of the land, such as this high wooded point, overlooking across the Colne valley, the corresponding height of England`s most ancient recorded town, as Camulodunum, with its temple of Claudius, and before that home to Old King Cole the merry old soul overlooking the river Sheepen. The ups and downs of all of which I remember well, through pushing my bike unwillingly to school, in the shadow of the Roman wall, up Balkern Hill. To say nothing of tearing back down it, at risk to life and limb, in the afternoon.
But it was not until I had said farewell to Colchester as a young man that I found the magical direction to my life. When, at the age of twentythree, I came across a couple of books by Dion Fortune. One was called “The Esoteric Orders and Their Work” and the other “The Training and Work of an Initiate”. They struck me with tremendous force. I devoured them avidly, and determined that wherever this stuff was coming from, that was where I had to be. If there were such things as initiates I wanted to become one, and if there were such things as esoteric orders at work then I wanted to join.
Accordingly, I enrolled on the preparatory correspondence course with the Society of the Inner Light, became a member, and as soon as I could arrange it, took up residence in London as close as I could to its headquarters, and subsequently worked my way up the grades.
The Society had been founded by Dion Fortune some thirty years previously. I have been told on good authority from at least two sources recently that no-one under the age of 30 seems to have heard of Dion Fortune, in which case my sympathy goes out to a somewhat deprived generation. She may have died sixty years ago this January but most of her books are still in print, including a clutch of occult novels, upon some of which a couple of film companies currently hold options.
My own magical life, such as it is, has consisted largely of following and then promoting and researching the magical ways that Dion Fortune pioneered.
Magic has become quite respectable in academic circles these days, and in his history of modern pagan belief, “The Triumph of the Moon”, Professor Ronald Hutton cites Dion Fortune as being one of four modern figures, active between 1900 and 1950, who, he considers have had a direct and obvious influence upon it, and who has been acknowledged by many of its practitioners as a source of inspiration.
Well that is as may be, although I have to say that Dion Fortune cast her magical net rather more widely. In her youth she joined just about every major esoteric organisation in sight, from the Theosophical Society to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She assisted Bligh Bond in psychic endeavours to contact medieval monks at Glastonbury Abbey. She developed a clinic with her doctor husband that combined esoteric healing along with conventional medicine. She wrote and performed Rites of Isis and of Pan for public performance in central London. She organised public worship in a private chapel known as the Church of the Grail. And founded an esoteric school that still exists today, through the doors of which many well known writers and teachers have passed. And in her latter days she was researching kundalini yoga and the Arthurian tradition and speaking on spiritualist platforms.
So any label placed upon her, be it pagan, Christian or magical is likely to be somewhat short of comprehensive in terms of an esoteric trade descriptions act. But just as there is a movement today to get supermarkets to label their produce red, yellow or green according to the amount of salt or fat or whatever else may be in their products, so Dion Fortune tended to brand her magical goodies with different labels according to occasion. Her particular colours being Green Ray, Orange Ray or Purple. The Green of elemental energy and the nature contacts, the Orange of hermetic philosophy and ceremonial magic, and the Purple of spiritual and religious mysticism.
I have to say my own approach to things is similarly eclectic. However, this being an occasion which above all celebrates the Green Ray side of things, let us concentrate upon that particular aspect of the three-fold way. For it also happens to be, in my belief, currently the most important and one that we ignore at our peril.
I was talking to the Quest conference in Bristol just a month ago, on Dion Fortune and her work, and particularly the legacy of her novels, which she used as a means to present the more practical aspects of magic. She was always keenly aware of the importance of the land, which often features in her novels. And of particular interest to my west country audience was therefore her novel “The Sea Priestess” which features a promontory of land that juts out into the Atlantic some way south of Bristol, near Weston super Mare. It is known as Brean Down, and there her magical heroine, who goes by the evocative name of Vivienne Le Fay Morgan, builds a temple dedicated to the powers of the sea and the moon, and performs her Rite of Isis under the aegis of an inner Merlin like figure known as the Priest of the Moon.
Much of her inspiration for this came from an academic work published in 1903, written by a remarkable woman called Jane Harrison, who at a time when classical studies were an exclusive preserve of fuddy duddies of the male sex, not only stormed their Olympean ramparts, but chose to upstage most of the Olympean gods by concentrating on more ancient primitive Greek religion from which they had sprung. Her major work, somewhat formidably entitled “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion”, had great influence on Dion Fortune when writing her novels some thirty years later.
It was an examination of the primal dynamics of the cults of Orpheus and Dionysus – and indeed part of Dion Fortune`s Rite of Isis clearly derives from the inscription on an ancient funerary and initiatory gold tablet that is quoted and described by Jane Harrison. In Dion Fortune`s modern rendering of these dynamics we find the Sea Priestess, evoking an approach to the goddess of the inner Earth for the questing priest.
Sink down, sink down, sink deeper and more deep
Into eternal and primordial sleep,
Sink down, be still, forget and draw apart,
Sink into the inner earth`s most secret heart.
Drink of the waters of Persephone,
The secret well beside the sacred tree.
Waters of life and strength and inner light –
Eternal joy drawn from the deeps of night.
Then rise, made strong, with life and hope renewed,
Reborn from darkness and from solitude.
Blessed with the blessing of Persephone,
And secret strength of Rhea, Binah, Ge.
Now what is particularly significant about this approach is that she is directing the aspirant downwards into the UnderWorld rather than upwards onto cosmic Cloud Nine. In this she is a forerunner of such latter day teachers as R.J.Stewart and his book “The UnderWorld Initiation”, which has been the subject of many a powerful esoteric workshop. The UnderWorld in question, I hasten to add, has nothing to do with medieval conceptions of Hell, but is the inner side of the Earth upon which we live and move and have our being. The traditions of which, as R.J.Stewart discovered from his early experience as a folk musician, are enshrined in ancient ballad lore.
Not, I furthermore hasten to add, that Cloud Nine should be excluded from our vision of the inner side of things. For there is a place for angels in the cosmos as well as elemental beings. And here again in the last analysis we have to seek a just balance in the three fold way of things. But to deny the powers of the inner Earth is arguably responsible for many excesses of asceticism in medieval sanctity, considerable hypocrisy and an ineffectual prissiness in some avenues of esoteric studies.
Now although my friends in Bristol were particularly interested in her work as a priestess of the Rite of Isis, because the site of the temple of the Sea Priestess was upon their doorstep, Dion Fortune also celebrated another side of the polarity of the inner Earth. That is to say, through her Rite of Pan, which was featured in her earlier novel “The Goat-foot God” and is of particular interest to us, in that the location of her fictional inspiration seems to have been closer to our neck of the woods. Certainly her heroes turn east rather than west when they drive out of London and find themselves in wooded areas, which could well be Epping Forest, or Hatfield Forest, if not quite so far east as High Woods.
The site of Monk`s Farm, built upon the ruins of an ancient abbey that had turned heretical, has been conjecturally located somewhere along the Essex and Hertfordshire border, and rightly or wrongly, driving through the countryside around Takeley and Hatfield Heath always puts me in mind of it. Be that as it may, it was here that Hugh Paston, a wealthy socialite dumped by his wife and disenchanted with his former friends turns to investigate the inner worlds and his own psyche.
We are never quite sure which is which – and this is what makes it in some ways her most accurate and complex occult novel. Is he having memories of a past incarnation, or is he developing a schizophrenic secondary personality, or is he being overshadowed by the ghost of a medieval monk, who was walled up by the authorities in an oubliette for dabbling with pagan rites instead of studying his breviary?
Again, I detect the influence of Jane Harrison when Dion Fortune`s characters speculate upon the past history of the place:
“You think what it must have meant to these monks, shut up in their monasteries, when they got to work on the Greek manuscripts that the Renaissance brought to Europe. They were careful what Latin ones they let come into the libraries, because the old abbots could read those. But they couldn`t read the Greek ones, and the smart young fellows in the scriptorium got to work on them – and they must have had an eye-opener. Supposing they got hold of the “Bacchae” for instance, with the invocations to Dionysos? That must have livened up the cloister a bit.”
To cut a long story short, it appears that the prior must have experimented with some of this, fallen foul of the authorities and been walled up.
So it is thought that the spirit of the prior Ambrosius may still walk the place. Hugo Paston, begins to feel overshadowed by him, even to feel that it may have been his own former incarnation, and all this on top of being emotionally repressed in this life in the present. Whatever the facts of the matter, for better or for worse, the pathetic and ascetic Hugh, and Mona Freeman, the raunchy young lady who has befriended him set about reviving the spirit of Pan within the grounds of the old abbey.
One of the most evocative preliminaries is a curious song that Mona sings as she lays out their morning meal, prior to performing the rite:
Bowl of oak and earthen jar,
Honey of the honey-bee;
Milk of kine and Grecian wine,
Golden corn from neighbouring lea –
These our offerings, Pan, to thee,
Goat-foot god of Arcady.
Horned head and cloven hoof –
Fawns who seek and nymphs that flee –
Piping clear and draweth near
Through the vales of Arcady –
These the gifts we have of thee,
God of joyous ecstasy.
Come, great Pan, and bless us all:
Bless the corn and honey-bee.
Bless the kine and bless the vine,
Bless the vales of Arcady.
Bless the nymphs that laugh and flee,
God of all fertility.
Dion Fortune was good at describing the dynamics of magical experience. What it felt like. Of course she had the advantage of considerable direct personal experience, allied to a gift with the pen. And as they begin to get into the evocation of Pan, so they sense a change in the atmosphere within the woodland clearing in which they work:
“ Then the place began to fill with light, overpowering the oppressive heat so that they thought only of the light and forgot the heat. It was a curious light, neither of the sun, nor of the moon, nor of the stars; more silvery than the golden band that still shone amid it; less silvery than the pale moon-glow and the stars. And in this light all things were reflected. The earth spread away into space in a great curve, with their grove upon it. It swung through the heavens in a yet greater curve, the planets circling around it, and it was ringed like Saturn with luminous bands. This was the earth-aura, and within it was lived their life. Their psychic selves breathed in those bands of light as their physical selves breathed in the atmosphere. And within the earth was the earth-soul, all alive and sentient, and from it they drew their vitality.”
Hugh thinks that all this has come about through their invocation, but Mona knows that these things are there all the time, though in our normal state of everyday consciousness we are unaware of them. That magical invocation is a process of expansion of awareness. An opening the doors and cleansing the windows of perception.
And the polar connection between the Rites of Isis and the Rite of Pan is revealed at the end of the book, in a magical invocation chanted by Mona as priestess of these powers.
I am She who ere the earth was formed
Rose from the sea.
O First-begotten Love, come unto me,
And let the worlds be formed of me and thee.
Giver of vine and wine and ecstasy,
God of the garden, shepherd of the lea –
Bringer of fear, who maketh men to flee,
I am thy priestess, answer unto me!
Lo, I receive the gifts thou bringest me –
Life, and more life, in fullest ecstasy.
I am the moon, the moon that draweth thee.
I am the waiting earth that needeth thee.
Come unto me, Great Pan, come unto me!
And in the coming of the god, Hugh realises that the Pan that is being evoked is not the goat-god, crude and earthy, it is the Sun. Not the sun of the sophisticated Greek Apollo, but an older, earlier, primordial sun, the sun of Helios, the Titan.
And he remembers a favourite phrase of his occult teacher “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess…” The All-Father is celestial Zeus - and woodland Pan – and Helios the Life-giver. He is all these things, and having known Pan, a man might pass on to the heavenly gate where Helios waits beside the rosy fingered Dawn – of Aphrodite, the Awakener, arising from the sea.
And so it is with invocations, that seek to rouse the Pan within, who is by no means just a cosmic billy-goat.
So much for Dion Fortune as a pioneer, as Professor Hutton has hailed her. But if she has fulfilled her function as a pioneer what does it behove us to do? The function of a pioneer is to blaize a trail that can be followed and developed by those who come after. She has done her job. What are we going to do about ours?
Well I think that to a large degree this consolidation has been achieved by the modern neo-pagan movement. I also dare to believe that it is also beginning to impinge upon a wider front of public awareness. There is certainly of late a greater realisation of the importance of the being of the earth itself.
To some extent this insight that came to the environmental scientist James Lovelock some thirty years ago, when he began to see the planet as a great super-organism that regulates itself chemically and atmospherically to keep itself fit to bear life. That is to say, that to all intents and purposes, is a living being itself.
Being a scientist he put it in jaw breaking and mind crunching terms of “a biocybernetic universal system tendency” and it was left to the novelist William Golding to come up with a more appropriate name – of Gaia – after the Greek goddess of the Earth. She whom, in another of her aspects, Mona Freeman was evoking in the Rite of Pan.
So if we conceive of the Earth as being a great elemental being providing the means for the generation of life within and upon herself, what of the forms of life that she so nurtures and nourishes? This includes ourselves, as members of the human race. It also includes the animal kingdom in all its forms. And for those who have a certain degree of psychical and elemental awareness, along with breadth of vision to take in the fact, it includes the faery realm.
According to folk lore and myth and occasional sightings, this is as wide and diverse a kingdom as the whole of the animal species and the ethnic variations of the human race. It may include the little flower faeries that have crept into Victorian nursery tales and some of Shakespeare, but also the great “lordly ones of the hollow hills” – the Tuatha de Danaan and their like, - the children of the goddess Dana.
Time was when Irish mystics of a hundred years ago, such as George Russell and W.B.Yeats were scorned for believing in faeries. But despite the brash materialist and hedonistic tenor or our times there has become a general awareness of the possibility of the existence of such a range of beings, if only let in through the back door of fantasy fiction.
Thus we see, against all commercial odds, the massive success of works of the mythopeoic imagination such as J.R.R.Tolkien in “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings”, not only in terms of books, but latterly of their film production world wide.
One even finds evidence of the general acceptability of the tradition in the comic novels of Terry Pratchett, which have broken into the mass market despite the somewhat esoteric subject matter of witches of various grades and indeed of elemental beings. As for instance in the hilarious “Lords and Ladies”.
Here traditional witches in the form of Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax do their best to cope with the rash invocations of teenage wannabe`s who have conjured a somewhat stroppy elf queen out of a stone circle. There is sound wisdom too behind much of the laughter. For the inner worlds are very reflective. And in esoteric evocation we tend to get a mirror image of our own state of being. This is an elementary tenet of esoteric psychology and the reason why sound esoteric schools set great store by purity of motive and spiritual and emotional maturity.
I have spoken of the influence of Dion Fortune upon my magical life, who flourished half a generation before my time, so it is also appropriate that I speak of one or two teachers who come half a generation or so after my time, and who carry on the broad tradition I believe in.
To R.J.Stewart, whom I have already mentioned, we owe the concept of what is known as the Triune or the Three-fold Alliance. That is, mutual recognition and cooperation between the human, the animal and the faery kingdoms. This is no new age fad nor fancy for he supports it with an 18th century esoteric document in his possession, which he quotes in two of his books “The Living World of Faery” and “Power Within the Land”. And more recently he develops the concept in “The Well of Light”, in a form of spiritual healing based on folkloric tradition involving a working relationship between humans and the inner forces of the land or region in which they live.
Or, if you should want things straight from the horse`s mouth there is the record of an apparent confrontation between John Matthews and what appears to have been one of the Lordly Ones at a Neolithic site in Ireland, which he has revealed in a book called “The Sidhe – Wisdom from the Celtic Otherworld”.
I quote a key passage of this message from one of these lordly ones, who is plainly not best pleased with the way that the human race has been shaping:
“You would be better to see yourselves as allies of creation rather than its rulers. By choosing to work in harmony with the natural world – as once all living things did – you could still redress the balance.
“If your life brushes against that of another creature you feel something. If you take the life of another creature you feel something. It is no great step to extend this to feeling something when you touch a rock or a tree, when you feel the energy of a river or the sea.
“Many feel these things, yet your race continually shut out these feelings. Just as you attach devices to your horses so that they can see only ahead, so you have done to yourselves, limiting your vision until you can see nothing save that which is before you. Only when you learn to remove the guards will you experience true vision. You must seek to become reconnected to everything, end the separation you have created for yourselves.
“There are many things you can do to bring about a re-connection. Begin by noticing the world around you. By truly looking. By seeing past the surface of things to the level of Spirit.
“At the moment when you go out into nature you see only the surface of things. Trees, grass, water, plants. Yet the reality of these things is far greater. Once you knew this. You can discover it again if you truly wish. Next time you are outside look around you. Try to see beyond the surface into the true nature of things you see. Though you may find it difficult to do so at first, in time you will begin to see more.
“If you continue far enough and deeply enough you will even begin to communicate with the spirit within the things you are observing. In truth you will cease to be observers at all and become part of the thing you are looking at.
“This is what the ancient bards of this land meant when they spoke of having `been` a thing. This was more than a poetic image, but a very real truth. To truly know a thing is to become one with it. Just as to become one with it is to truly know it.
“When you do this you will begin to understand the true nature of things, and of your own relationship to them. Perhaps then, when plants and rocks and animals are no longer soulless things, you will cease to treat them as such, cease to take them and use them as you have now for so many of your ages. If you are truly ready to enter a new era then you must discover how to make such changes to the way you view things. Only when you have done so will you be truly liberated from the narrow place in which you have put yourselves.
“At present you are just as much prisoners as if you were truly locked up within stone walls. The walls of your prison are not ones that you can see with your eyes, but they can still be recognised.”
It seems to me that this may well be true of the great majority of the human race, although I venture to think that it may be less true of those of us who are assembled here. The very fact that we are present here demonstrates that we realise that there is something more to life than the surface illusion – hard, brash and self-sufficient though that surface illusion might appear.
This is something that challenges us in many different ways. It is not enough to confine our interest in such matters to a safe and purely intellectual level. We not only have to “believe in” faeries and other forms of elemental consciousness, but to understand who and what they are, where they come from, where they are going, and what our mutual relationship with them may be.
The Three-fold Alliance makes similar demands on us to think about how we relate to the animal kingdom, for the patience and suffering of the animal kingdom needs to come through to our awareness loud and clear.
So we should arouse ourselves and reach out to our companions on this planetary globe. Make ourselves known to these beings who are part of the evolution of the inner Earth in high and low degree. Seek out what lies within these parallel worlds behind appearances. And in particular the hidden evolutionary expression of the faery world that is often concealed behind the veil of literary fancy.
This is all part of that which is embraced in Dion Fortune`s Rite of Isis and Rite of Pan, and it is all perhaps a matter of taking fiction seriously, whether it be that of Dion Fortune, Tolkien, or even C.S.Lewis`s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, for whether or not you choose to accept any element of Christian allegory within his work, it nonetheless depicts a joint communication and cooperation between human, animal and faery against devolutionary forces. And who knows if something of the angelic may not be also somewhere in there.
So all you have to do is to go out into the woods, into the High Woods, and beyond, into the wider world, with all your senses and your imaginative faculties open. And as you develop your own magical lives, so will you help and heal your fellow creatures, and the Earth itself. All it requires is the courage to be amazed.
List of books cited
Dion Fortune: The Esoteric Orders and their Work
Dion Fortune: The Training and Work of an Initiate
Ronald Hutton: The Triumph of the Moon
Jane Harrison: Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion
R.J.Stewart: The UnderWorld Initiation
Dion Fortune: The Sea Priestess
Dion Fortune: The Goat-foot God
J.R.R.Tolkien: The Silmarillion
J.R.R.Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
R.J.Stewart: The Living World of Faery
R.J.Stewart: Power Within the Land
R.J.Stewart: The Well of Light
John Matthews: The Sidhe –Wisdom from the Celtic Otherworld
Terry Pratchet: Lords and Ladies
C.S.Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe