Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Sea Priestess at Brean Down

If any Dion Fortune aficionados take the trouble to visit Glastonbury it is well worth going on to pay a visit to the sea side at Brean Down, the site of her novel The Sea Priestess. And having taken the trouble to go that far – it is well worth girding up the loins to walk the whole length of it to the rocks at the end where the Sea Priestess set up her temple, which is a thinly disguised copy of an old fort that stands at the end of it. At least I presume it still does and has not been made over into a fun fair or burger joint by now. Although as it comes under the protection of the National Trust so the worst excesses of popular tourism may be avoided.

I append a description of the place, along with much else, in an Introduction I wrote for an American edition of The Sea Priestess thirteen years ago. It is still available from RedWheel/Weiser but may have another Introduction by now. In any case, even if you have a copy of that particular edition, what follows is rather more extensive than was eventually published, as the copy editors, bless their hearts, felt I had banged on a bit too much on details of Brean Down, and cut out a few bits.  

However, much of this I gleaned from a most informative book called Brean Down Fort – Its History and the Defence of the Bristol Channel by Nicholas van der Bijl, BEM (Hawk Editions, Cossington Somerset, 2000) that may be hard to find as I bought from a remainder merchant some years ago. But I felt a bit of actual history would be appropriate as a background to the astral visions of Ms. Le Fay Morgan and the efforts of the long suffering Wilfred.  

Much of the ritual they performed appears in the novel although we have since been able to publish the complete script at Skylight Press in Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan that has turned out to be one of our best sellers. Whether you should try this stuff at home is of course up to you!


At the time Dion Fortune was writing The Sea Priestess, some time in 1936, she had a number of things in common with the main protagonist of her book, Vivien Le Fay Morgan. The most immediately striking was her mode of dress. Dion Fortune had a penchant for large very wide brimmed hats that partly concealed the face, together with a long cloak that descended almost to the ankles, rather like a once famous advertisment for Sandemann`s port; whilst underneath she might sport a scarlet dress. She was also very fond of furs and chunky jewellery, including rings with enormous stones.

            It would be a mistake however, on the strength of this form of esoteric power dressing to assume that author or character were no more than 1930`s poseurs. Beneath the façade was a woman of immense independence of mind and courage of her convictions. It might seem at times even to run to ruthlessness but it was balanced by a soul of great compassion and common sense. And what is more, a highly competent magician.

            The story concerns a high initiate who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic, for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a purpose-made temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local estate agent who has the necessarily professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient artistic skills to help her refurbish and decorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make of him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.

            Dion Fortune drew from her own experience in the setting of the novel, which takes place in the magical county of Somerset, not far from Glastonbury, reputedly “the holyest erthe in England” and closely associated in popular tradition with King Arthur`s Camelot, the Holy Graal, Joseph of Arimathea, and even more ancient legends that are exploited in the novel as colonial outposts of the lost continent of Atlantis.

The place that the Sea Priestess chose for her Temple can be visited and seen to this day. It lies on that relatively short stretch of English coastline that faces due west, directly upon the broad Atlantic Ocean, without Ireland being in the way. Here a spur of land juts into the sea, a limestone outcrop one and a half miles long and only a quarter of a mile wide. It is an extension of the Mendip Hills of that rise above the Somersetshire levels, and is part of a series of outcrops that include Glastonbury Tor, Brent Knoll, and the small islands in the Bristol Channel that stretch towards Wales, Steep Holm and Flat Holm, inhabited only by birds.

            It forms an impressive southern arm to a bay that embraces the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, whilst further to the south, in Dion Fortune`s day, was a rough unexploited expanse of sand dunes extending past the village of Brean as far as the smaller resort of Burnham-on-Sea, today largely subsumed by holiday parks. But the headland itself, Brean Down, at the end of which she built her temple, still stands wild and stark much as described in the novel.

Once the property of Glastonbury Abbey in medieval times, it was sold in the seventeenth century to a family of landed gentry, the Wyndhams, who sought to exploit its potential as a harbour to exploit their sideline as smugglers of brandy, cloth and wine. It is now in the care of the National Trust as a site of special scientific interest in terms of its archaeology and natural history, and it is also a designated bird sanctuary.

            To the esoteric enthusiast keen to trace the foundations of Dion Fortune`s imagination the importance of Brean Down lies less in its flora and fauna, or its Neolithic, Bronze Age, or Romano-Celtic remains, than in the rocky outcrop at the very end, which contains the remains of a military fort. This fort, with its moat, underground rooms, and a rough pathway running out to a little cabin that once housed a searchlight, retains an evocative resonance of the temple envisaged by the Sea Priestess.

 We can easily imagine the searchlight cabin as a place of meditation for Vivien Le Fay Morgan, looking out over the dark line of rocks that extend like steeping stones into the sea, over which she trod at night to the alarm of her colleague William Maxwell as the Atlantic rollers broke around her. Rollers which did indeed snatch and engulf the young half-wit boy who had been helping them - an incident which the Sea Priestess remarked with typical sangfroid, was probably part of the sacrifice expected by the gods at the building of any temple of significance. Nonetheless against this chilling assessment it is only fair to point out that she risked her life in a vain attempt to save him.

            The fort was originally built as a defence against invasion by the French in the 1860`s. Abandoned in 1900 it was reactivated during the Second World War when two naval guns were installed against the threat of German invasion. However the Brean Down of the novel is very much as the young Dion Fortune would have remembered it, for she spent her teen age years in the vicinity and returned to establish her own base in nearby Glastonbury from 1922. The road up to the temple of the Sea Priestess can be trodden to this day, as the old single track military road that took supplies to and from the fort.

The imagination of Dion Fortune reached back beyond historical time however, to a priestess from legendary Atlantis arriving in an ocean-going long boat to visit colonial outposts formed upon the western seaboards of Ireland, Britain, and mainland Europe.  Human habitation of the place in the very distant past is not quite so fanciful as might be thought, as proved by the recent discovery of well preserved roundhouse walls at least 15,000 years old on the southern side of the Down.

            In the novel Brean Down is known as Bell Head, and the nearby town of Dickmouth may be regarded as Weston-super-Mare, where the River Axe that has wound across the Somerset levels debouches into the sea. This river in the novel is call the Dick, with a certain play on words in that one part of it, the Narrow Dick, recalls the great River Naradek, of Atlantean legend, that ran past the City of the Golden Gates. Similarly the little town of Dickford upon the same river, may be identified with the village of Axbridge that nestles under the Mendip Hills not far from the Cheddar Gorge, famous for its caves and its cheese.

Of the other local topography the Bell Knowle of the novel may be equated with Brent Knoll and Starber with Burnham-on-Sea. Bell Knowle of the novel is on the course of the original Narrow Dick, and a small watercourse still runs from East Brent into the Axe. In real life Brent Knoll still holds a certain magical ambience. Within living memory, school children climbed it every Good Friday to collect posies, my wife in her childhood being one of them; and in more recent times local opposition caused the building of the M4 motorway to be diverted so as not to desecrate it, and as one drives south it seems, by the bends in the road, to swing from side to side of the carriage way in a magical and disconcerting manner.

            As Wilfred Maxwell and Vivien Le Fay Morgan begin to work magically together, so they recover ancient memories of a previous incarnation, and the local topography takes on the significance of Atlantean colonial times. Bell Knowle contains a cave-like temple, and vines are grown at the landward end of Bell Head, within the paws of the headland that reminds them of a couchant lion. Here they also see a port, and indeed one did exist in Roman times, for in the course of ages this low lying land has been in turn salt marsh or even shallow sea to make of the Down an island. 

            Vivien`s relationship toward William Maxwell is however the important theme of the novel to which this ancient landscape forms a background. It reflects Dion Fortune`s own feeling toward men in general during the period at which she wrote this novel. It was a time when she was also performing her Rite of Isis to invited audiences at the Belfry, that strange temple in London that she later described in her subsequent novel Moon Magic, and it is excerpts from this Rite that are extensively quoted in this novel too.

Its purpose is to awaken her male partner to his full potential by acting as a priestess mediating a goddess to him. At the end of this experience he should have achieved greater psychic and spiritual wholeness, having met and realised the deeper and subtler powers of the feminine.  He has become an initiate of the goddess if we choose to put it in esoteric terms – whilst she, as the adept, in pursuit of her own magical destiny, passes on, uncommitted, to her next assignment from the inner beings for whom she works, represented in the novel by the shadowy figure known as the Priest of the Moon.  

The Rite of Isis, with its evocation of the powers of the archetypal feminine, although largely the fruit of Dion Fortune`s genius, has in large part its source of inspiration in the Dionysian and Orphic traditions of pre-Olympian Greece. There is evidence to show that at about this time Dion Fortune had just read and been much impressed by Jane Harrison`s Prolegomena to a Study of Greek Religion.

This work, with its somewhat forbidding academic title, was first published in 1903. Its author was a remarkable woman who, at a time when it was extremely difficult for a woman to gain a university degree, had not only done this but had broken into the enclosed male preserves of classical studies, studying under Sir James Frazer, author of the famous work The Golden Bough.  With her book she shook to the core the cosy conservative male establishment of Edwardian academe by approaching the religion of the earlier ancient Greeks from the standpoint of  evolutionary anthropology.

Jane Harrison`s book also vastly stimulated Dion Fortune when she came upon it some thirty years later, and there are parts of ancient rituals quoted within the text that have a close resonance with phrases from the Rite of Isis, as the initiate or the newly deceased approaches “the secret well beside the sacred tree” announcing “I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven but my race is of Heaven alone.” 

            In practical psychological terms what Vivien Le Fay Morgan does for Wilfred is to release him from the hen pecking dominance of his mother and sister, release and develop his repressed imaginative and artistic talents, incidentally cure him of asthmatic attacks at the same time, and lead him to meeting and marrying a local girl with whom he seems set fair to live happily ever afterwards.

That this is done by recourse to ritual magic may be thought a little unorthodox in more conservative circles, but Vivien Le Fay Morgan evidently paid scant regard to these, whilst at the same time leading a life of virginal rectitude as uncompromising as the incumbent of an enclosed religious order. This is a side of the Sea Priestess which is apt to be forgotten by latter day aspirants to her as a role model.

            However, Vivien Le Fay Morgan is not going to the immense trouble of locating a likely site for a sea temple, and having it built and decorated virtually from scratch, purely for the regeneration of  William Maxwell. She intends to perform works of higher magic within it, and what he gets out of helping her with it is his incidental reward, or the just dues for the service he has put in. In all successful operations of magic the books have to balance at the end of the day.

Just what her magical aims and methods may be she tries to explain to Wilfred, in Chapter 17, and of course one aim of the novel itself was to give some instruction about practical magic to the reader, at a time when esoteric secrecy was taken very seriously and thought best not to be expounded as fact. Strange as it may seem, she had even felt uncomfortable about being accused of revealing too much in her innocuous textbook The Mystical Qabalah. Fiction was her way of slightly raising the veil of secrecy.

As she explains to Wilfred, her first aim is to make a “magical image” of herself,  but this is something that she cannot do unaided: “For me to make a magical image of myself is auto-suggestion, and begins and ends subjectively. But when two or three of us get to work together, and you picture me as I picture myself, then things begin to happen. Your suggestion aids my autosuggestion, and then – then it passes outside ourselves, and things begin to build up in the astral ethers, and they are the channels of forces.”

Something of what she means by this is immediately demonstrated when, stoking up the Fire of Azrael, she evokes within him a powerful vision of times from the remote past. And this is an experience which is not entirely subjective, for it has “signs following” in a great storm that lashes the place, together with the personal crisis of a severe asthma attack in which, slipping into unconsciousness, Wilfred, as he himself describes it, “meets the sea-gods”. There follows a passage of Dion Fortune writing at her evocative best, about the images he sees in the driving waves at the height of the storm on a fitful moonlit night between the dark of wind torn clouds.

As for Vivien herself, she reveals that she works under instruction from a discarnate being who is referred to only as the Priest of the Moon. It is under his instruction that she is undertaking this work, one of the goals of which is to contact herself to the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself.

This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinoxes, whereby in the coming Age of Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realisation of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess – who as Our Lady Isis comprises all goddesses, of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon. As she states, in Chapter 19, the magical work that they  do together is to break a trail for those who come after: “we shall bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed.”

This “something lost and forgotten” is something rather more than sexual relationship as a biological function, whether for reproductive purposes or for mutual diversion. Rather is it “a subtle, magical relationship that is very rare.”  As she goes on to explain: “People think that sex is physical and that love is emotional, and they don`t realise that there is something else between a man and a woman which is magnetic in just the same way as the compass turns to the pole; and it isn`t in them any more than it is in the compass, but it is something that passes through them and uses them, and it belongs to Nature. It is the thing that has kept me young, Wilfred, when I ought to be an old, old woman, and it is the thing that is making you, who used to be a mother`s boy, as quarrelsome as a cock on a midden.”

In this, is she is hinting at what alchemists of old referred to as the Elixir of Life or the Quintessence of the Elements or the Gluten of the White Eagle?

From explanations and beginnings such as this she teaches Wilfred how to help her in working of her Rite of Isis, and it should by now be obvious that there is more to working a ritual than reciting lines from a script. Magic is an art that requires the simultaneous linkage through the subconscious mind of the practitioner with an inner objective world that has been variously called the Anima Mundi, or latterly, if somewhat inadequately, the collective unconscious. 

In the course of realising this Wilfred comes to terms with the Priest of the Moon, the shadowy figure behind Vivien Le Fay Morgan in the ritual that they are working. It is an inner contact, and one about which he wonders, quite reasonably, whether it is but a figment of his own subconscious mind, implanted there by suggestion. To some extent it may be, but to leave it there is to be content with a mere half truth, for imagination and suggestion are but a priming of the pump. Once primed, the pump surges with objective force from a source that is beyond personality or the individual subconscious.

As Wilfred describes his contact with the Priest of the Moon,  the over riding impression is an awareness of a distinct dynamic personality: “The Priest of the Moon had personality in a very marked degree, and if he was a product of my subconcious, I am proud of it. There were times, not infrequent, when I used to wonder what he was, and whether I was deluding myself, or whether I was loopy; but each time I met him afresh I knew what he was, beyond all doubting, and he left his mark on me.” 

In his words, Dion Fortune is also confiding to us her own experience of this area of esoteric work, and her sentiments could be confirmed by most competent practitioners of the magical arts.

The Rite of Isis having been successfully performed, Vivien Le Fay Morgan disappears from the book and from Wilfred`s ken – to reappear in different circumstances in the subsequent novel Moon Magic. Her immediate disappearance coincides with a rock fall in the cave temple in which she has been working, perhaps suggested to Dion Fortune by the explosion at the fort that caused its closure in 1900. 

However, the magical function goes on. It has been successfully passed on to Wilfred and to his new wife Molly, together with the contact with the Priest of the Moon, who continues to work with them in what Wilfred can best describe as a waking dream. In these concluding chapters of Wilfred and Molly the development and work of two initiates in the world is described, indicating that magic is not only the prerogative of those rare examples of advanced initiation like Vivien Le Fay Morgan whose life is dedicated to nothing but the pursuit of the magical arts. 

Thus the novel, in addition to its narrower function of a demonstration of a magical operation evoking the powers of the Sephirah Yesod according to the theoretical principles outlined The Mystical Qabalah, serves also as a practical illustration of the principles that Dion Fortune outlined in her two earlier text books written immediately after she had founded the Fraternity of the Inner Light,  The Esoteric Orders and their Work and The Training and Work of an Initiate, upon which her earlier students were trained, and whose principles remain true to this day.



Lynn Morris said...

I truly believe that Dion Fortune was a reincarnation of Morgan Le Fay , I am sure they were from the same soul group and even Dion's style for red dresses long cloaks all reflecting her past soul connection to Glastonbury and this area of the Earth. I wonder if Dion realized that she was in affect channeling her her soul origins, and her origins as a high priestess of Isis.

Even the land she lived on in Glastonbury is the same land that Morgan Le fay lived on, as she was able to awaken the land and work with and its magical properties. Its a shame that as I walk past that land now it seems sad, like it holds many secrets, also that it has many tales to tell .
Lynn x

Anonymous said...

I visited Brean Down last year shortly after reading The Sea Priestess. It was an interesting experience making a visit to the site upon which the story is set. So much of the novel is imbued with very powerful and evocative imagery, and walking along the cliffs conjured up a lot of this. I see the moon and Isis in a very different way since reading this wonderful book, and many of its images and lines often come back to me in the still of a moonlit night.

Guy M

Worldbridger said...

I'm pleased to say that the Lodge of the Lion's Gate performed The Rite of Isis this last Saturday (Sept 5th). We used the text from your book and I have to say that it was an extremely powerful experience for all of us.

I think we might give the Rite of Pan a go next spring.

Best wishes,

Paul Blakey