Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Magical Novels and Magical Rites

What seems likely to be the most popular esoteric title so far in the publications of Skylight Press is the recently published Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan containing scripts of the rites that were written and performed by Dion Fortune back in the 1930’s. They have rather been kept under wraps ever since, but there comes a time for everything, on this occasion sparked when Wendy Berg, out of the blue, asked me if Dion Fortune had ever written a Rite of Pan, and if so, was it likely to be hanging around anywhere? 

I passed on the enquiry to the Warden of the Society of the Inner Light, feeling prompted at the same time to suggest that, if there was, it might be a good idea  to publish it – along with the Rite of Isis. To my delight an answer quickly came back, not only in the affirmative but with a great deal of enthusiasm, along with copies of the original scripts.

It remained only for me to add some research of my own showing how the rites linked to her novels The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic. And in reading these through again I learned quite a lot as to their close links and mutual importance.

Along with this I was able to add a couple of articles that Dion Fortune wrote about her novels in The Inner Light Magazine at the time. Also an historically important article she wrote for The Occult Review in 1933, entitled Ceremonial Magic Unveiled, which hailed two new books by the young Israel Regardie, whom she took under her wing and supported his initiation into a Bristol branch of the Golden Dawn, (from which much upturning of apple carts would later ensue!) However, his Tree of Life and Garden of Pomegranates effectively ended the culture of secrecy that had hitherto surrounded the Golden Dawn tradition of magic, and Dion Fortune's own work, The Mystical Qabalah, was soon to follow.

She had been working on The Mystical Qabalah since 1931 and its publication led in turn to her writing and publicly performing her Rite of Isis and Rite of Pan, and illustrating their principles in her novels. Sexual polarity played a large part in their format although the topic, in the form of “etheric magnetism” is much broader than this, as she went on to describe in a series of articles called The Circuit of Force in 1939-40 – since published by Thoth Publications with a commentary by me that was much helped by my coming across an old text on etheric magnetism on a bookstall in Paris. Nice piece of synchronicity!

In her novels she gives some practical examples of this, notably in The Winged Bull where Ursula Brangwyn “charges up” Ted Murchison when he is in a particularly depleted state, and in the novels that followed she became increasingly open about its application in a ritual context.

The Rite of Pan is alluded to in The Goat-foot God but without very much detail, but the script of the Rite of Isis is quite extensively quoted in The Sea Priestess and in Moon Magic. What is perhaps more important, and which can tend to be overlooked, are her descriptions of what participation in a magical ritual may feel like – given the right conditions and attitude to what is going on.  Over the years she had also set out, in various articles in The Inner Light Magazine various hints about the technique of ritual, most of which have been collected together with matching articles by me, published by Thoth Publications as An Introduction to Ritual Magic in 1997.

 For example she is at pains to point out:

“Ceremonial magic is not primarily designed to produce objective phenomena, but to operate in the invisible kingdoms. The immediate results are not observed by the physical eye, but by psychic vision, and the end results are diffused and indirect, but nevertheless very definite. If we approach ceremonial magic from this point of view, we can learn a great deal, and we can also do a great deal; but if we expect of it what it is not designed to perform, we shall be disappointed...It must be clearly realised that magic can only be done effectually by a trained person, and that results are not a foregone conclusion, but in proportion to skill and experience. Natural aptitude also plays a part. The first requisite is the power to concentrate; the second, the power to build up an image in the imagination with the same clarity as a novelist visualises his characters; the third is the power to throw consciousness out of gear and let the subconscious mind ‘take over’. ... The result of such an operation, if successful, is to produce a profound psychological effect on all concerned and an extraordinary atmosphere in the room where it is performed.”

Such is the aim of the performance of scripts such as the Rite of Isis and the Rite of Pan. But what is the point of all this? She goes on to say:

“Now if temporary exaltation and nothing more were produced, ceremonial magic would rank with alcohol as an intoxicant with possible medicinal uses and a definite entertainment value; but such an exaltation extends consciousness, develops capacity, and affects character to a marked degree. It will not change a person’s character, making him something he is not, but it will bring out anything of a corresponding nature that is latent in just the same way that hypnotism will, and for the same reason – that it touches the deepest levels of consciousness and releases inhibitions. It is for this reason that ceremonial will do in an hour what can only be done by meditation in months or years.”

Although along with this come some caveats:

“The persons taking part must be carefully chosen, both for their own sakes and for the sake of the success of the operation; they must be properly trained and know what they are about, and they must gain experience with minor potencies and rites before they attempt the high-powered ones. Some exponent s of occultism decry all ritual as dangerous, and no doubt it would be so in their hands; but there is no reason why foxes who have got tails should cut them off!”

For this reason there was no doubt a discrete selection process in her performing these rites in public, but it was her theory that beneficial results without too much risk could be achieved by reading her novels and identifying with the characters. Not that this was entirely fool proof, as she notes in 1936:

The Winged Bull was published last year with results that were to be expected – the reviewers passed by on the other side; a fair number of folk wrote to express unbridled admiration; and a few let off screeches of  agony and abuse which showed that their complexes had been trodden on. In fact our library is enriched by a copy which was presented by a lady who was so horrified at it that she not only would not keep it in the house, but would not place it in the dustbin lest it corrupt the scavengers.”

Nonetheless, her esoteric novels have remained in print, off and on, for over seventy years – which is one celebrated definition of “literary immortality”. They are currently published by Weiser Books in the U.S.A. 

With this new book, discerning readers can now read them in the light of the actual Rites of Isis and of Pan, along with some of her own comments on her intentions in a couple of contemporary articles The Novels of Dion Fortune (1936) and The Winged Bull: A Study in Esoteric Psychology (1938), to which I have added an extract from her magical diary of 1931 on The Establishment of the Sphere of Yesod in the Aura; some notes on The Circuit of Force that was circulated to members of her Society in 1939 (some were a bit nervous about it!); and finally a transcript of a trance address to senior members of the Society of the Inner Light in December 1940 on the subjects of  magical and mystical polarity.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Dion Fortune's "novel approach" to Magic


In each of the novels that Dion Fortune wrote to illustrate principles described in her textbook The Mystical Qabalah – namely The Winged Bull (1935),  The Goat-foot God (1936), The Sea Priestess (1938) and its sequel Moon Magic (1956), she described a magical working. The circumstances varied but in each case the format was a three-handed one, consisting of hero and heroine overseen by a senior third party.

In The Winged Bull Colonel Brangwyn, who is credited with being a senior adept, is trying to save his niece Ursula from the clutches of Frank Fouldes, who was formerly her fiancĂ© before he fell in with Hugo Astley, an unsavoury figure with a penchant for even more unsavoury rituals. The Colonel seeks to have Ursula form a more wholesome liaison with somebody new, namely Ted Murchisan, an old army comrade down on his luck, and in the process teaching him a species of improvised ritual magic known as the Rite of the Winged Bull, as opposed to the ghastly Astley’s Rite of the Bull which owed something to the legend of Pasiphae. If you don’t know what that is – don’t ask!  After a number of alarms and excursions all is successful and ends with the marriage of Ursula and Ted.

In The Goat-foot God, the leading figure is old Jelkes, who makes no claims to being an adept but knows his way around, having been a Jesuit novitiate in his youth before becoming an antiquarian bookseller with a sideline in occult books. One of his customers is Hugh Paston, a wealthy socialite who is toying with the idea of diverting himself with a bit of black magic.  Jelkes saves him from this insalubrious course by introducing him to ancient pagan beliefs. This leads to Hugh sorting out some of his hang-ups with the help of the artistic and esoterically sympathetic Mona Freeman with whom he performs a spontaneous Rite of Pan in a bosky grove on an ancient site – having preserved their respectability by getting married earlier in the day.

In The Sea Priestess, the feisty adept Vivienne Le Fay Morgan entices Wilfred Maxwell, a provincial estate agent, into helping her locate and decorate a sea temple for her magical work, where she performs with him a Rite of Isis. Here the third and senior party is an inner plane being, a Merlin like figure who is referred to as the Priest of the Moon. In this case, although Vivienne plays fast and loose with the emotions of her occult apprentice there is no question of her becoming involved in any physical relationship with him – let alone marriage. Apart from allegedly being 120 years old, she is totally dedicated to the life of a lone adept. Although before she leaves the scene she instructs a local girl, Molly Coke, in the functions of a moon priestess which Molly, again overseen by the Priest of the Moon, puts into practice after she and Wilfred have wed.

Dion Fortune never completed Moon Magic, which features the same sea priestess, now resident in London and going by the name of Lilith, so we do not know whether Dr Rupert Malcolm, her new apprentice, might have gone on to find a suitable spouse or priestess. But at least he learned a lot about magic and, a changed man, was in a good position to get one.

So does all magical work of this nature end between the sheets we might ask, along with the prospect of wedding bells and orange blossom and holy matrimony?  We might be led to think so, if we did not take into account the genre in which Dion Fortune was writing. That is to say, popular romantic fiction for the patrons of 1930’s circulating libraries – a major institution in their day.

This novel approach (no pun intended!) to teaching occultism to the wider world was a somewhat risky experiment and, as Dion Fortune came to admit, did not  come off quite as she had hoped. She speculated on reasons why in a couple of articles in the Inner Light Magazine (The Novels of Dion Fortune and The Winged Bull – a Study in Esoteric Psychology), both of which are included in a forthcoming book from Skylight Press, Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan,  which gives the rites in full, with cross references to the appropriate novels.  

Whatever the outcome to characters in the books, a real life occult group should not be regarded as a dating agency or marriage bureau, let alone hive of debauchery. For as the sea priestess was at pains to point out, her magical aims transcended the physical and personal levels. Through the psychic tension of their magical working she and Wilfred Maxwell were committed to bringing through the godlike dynamics of a deep polar relationship, not just to themselves but to all men and women via the group soul, the collective unconscious, the astral light, or whatever one likes to call it. Thus in magical work, if sex creeps into the door of the lodge then magic tends to fly out of the window. For the sexual canoodling serves only to short circuit the force, which runs to earth via the physical channels – at best a lightning conductor for those unable to handle the psychic pressure, but with considerable risk of domestic collateral damage.

However, in real life Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and Pan were enacted in very different circumstances from the novels, for they took place not in private but in public, before  an invited audience. In 1936, a “new epoch” had been announced in the growth and organisation of the Fraternity, one consequence of which was leasing an old converted church in Belgravia called “The Belfry”. And here, as well as in lecture demonstrations with lantern slides and chanting at her Bayswater headquarters, Dion Fortune and two or three of her senior colleagues were able to present the Rites. In this respect she was by no means a trailblazer, for a Rite of Isis had been performed in Paris by the Golden Dawn founders S.L. and Moina MacGregor Mathers in 1899 when Violet Mary Firth was still a schoolgirl back in Weston-super-Mare.

She seems to have been quite successful in her endeavours. Bernard Bromage, a London University lecturer and researcher on oriental esoteric systems, who witnessed her Rite of Isis was much impressed. As he remarked in a retrospective article on Dion Fortune in Light, (journal of the College of Psychic Studies, Spring 1960) it remained in his memory “one of the best attempts I have ever witnessed to stimulate the subconscious by means of ‘pantomime’ drawn from the more ancient records of the hierophant’s art.”

The use of the word ‘pantomime’ may perhaps seem a little odd in the circumstances but the good academic is obviously using it more in the classical sense, rather than the modern, which was originally a form of performance by a single mute dancer playing all the parts with the help of masks backed up by a chorus of singers and instruments, where the dancer literally played (mimed) all the parts (panta). This is not quite the way Dion Fortune played it but a fair approximation if one does not want to use the dread word “magic”.

But what of the depiction of rites in her novels? Although, to conform to the conventions of popular fiction, the circumstances surrounding the set up of the magical workings could be quite unrealistic, there is considerable value in her description of what it can be like to experience different levels of consciousness when participating in a ritual. And this is where the value of Dion Fortune’s novels lies. She is describing from personal experience – far beyond the capacities of any popular writer whose knowledge is only theoretical or at second or third hand – and she also showed a gradually mounting confidence in presenting the details of the invocations of a magical working.

Thus it is quite unreasonable to think that in The Winged Bull a beginner like Ted Murchison was capable of spontaneously improvising the role of Priest of the Sun to Ursula’s Priestess of the Earth, even to the evocative violin playing of Colonel Brangwyn as High Priest. Indeed the action seems more in the nature of an exotic tea dance than a ritual working. But even if there was a formal Ritual of the Winged Bull (and there is no evidence that Dion Fortune ever wrote one) she would certainly not have published the script in the very secretive esoteric culture of 1935. After all, she felt she had taken something of a risk by publishing her innocuous textbook The Mystical Qabalah! Nonetheless the The Winged Bull gives a very accurate account of the typical feelings of a magical tyro about to be introduced to ritual working, and also of the possible heights of experience which can at times be reached.

In The Goat-foot God there is a similar unlikelihood of Hugh Paston and Mona Freeman being able to perform a Rite of Pan by making it up as they go along, however atmospheric the time and place. And although there certainly was a written Rite of Pan composed by Dion Fortune at the time of writing the novel, she did not feel it appropriate to include any of it – apart from a fragment disguised as a song sung by Mona as she goes about laying the breakfast table.

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.

And so on for three verses. The performance of the rite itself comes only after the last paragraph of the novel and is left entirely to the reader’s imagination.

            However, in The Sea Priestess Dion Fortune threw caution to the winds and almost the whole of the Rite of Isis is to be found scattered throughout its pages, which could perhaps be one reason why Williams & Norgate declined to handle it. She was obliged to publish it herself, a year later, in 1938. It is generally accounted to be her best novel although of course the plot is a highly unlikely one, and the sea priestess herself a somewhat unlikely adept in real life.  Nonetheless, the accounts of what successful magical working feels like from the inside are both accurate and revealing, as is also the case with Moon Magic.

 And although the emphasis of the working of the Rites rests upon the priest and priestess, the scripts are more in the nature of a four handed working, with High Priest and Lector taking up the other positions – in the accustomed well balanced four handed traditional system. In a lodge the positions would logically be taken up by priest and priestess in south and north respectively, and High Priest and Lector in east and west, with any supernumerary members in a circle round about. The Belfry performances took place on a stage with an audience looking on.  

Whatever the mode of working however, even reading the rituals today can be a powerful experience, bringing through a considerable surge of inspiration and energy and even healing. And this is probably their best use for the most part, without need for all the ritual trimmings. In other words, just as Dion Fortune hoped that reading one of the novels would stir the subconscious mind of her readers, particularly if they identified unconsciously with one of the characters, so an imaginative reading the rituals today in a meditative state, identifying with one of the officers, can be an invaluable exercise for those who do not have the facilities for actual well run group working.

And this is all now quite possible through the publication, with permission of the Society of the Inner Light, of “Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan” (Skylight Press), with links provided to the relevant novels, together with a series of appendices of contemporary articles by Dion Fortune from The Occult Review and the Inner Light Magazine between 1931 and 1938.