This article and interview was originally posted at The Eyeless Owl, in honor of Dion Fortune’s birthday.
Article & Interview by David Metcalfe
“What mathematics are to matter and force, occult science is to life and consciousness…” – Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism*
The 21st century for all of it’s scientific propensity rivals past civilizations in the widespread and popular acceptance of what is commonly called occultism. From indie bands like the Klaxons, to mainstream artists like Lady Gaga and Jay-Z, occult imagery and philosophies are spread far and wide with a surprising lack of reaction from all but the most fundamentalist branches of culture.
Chrisitan leaders like Rick Warren “cast their visions” on the culture, popular Kabbalah is a mainstay in Hollywood, Scientology (L. Ron Hubbard’s association with, and betrayal of, the occultist Jack Parsons is often overlooked) holds sway over established actors like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, even Oprah, a household favorite, is knee deep in mysticism and channeled teachings. When we begin to look there appears no place untouched by esoteric doctrines and ideas. In such a climate one would do well to acquaint themselves with the history and basic ideologies that are so easily passed back and forth without the blink of an eye.
The question now, as always, is where to go for a sober and rational explanation. How does the awakened seeker find something that doesn’t stink of fraud or hold a clever hook set by a savvy cultural fisherman looking for a mark. Fortunately a good teacher is as active after they’ve passed on as they are when they are alive, sometimes even more so. Violet Firth, better known as Dion Fortune, is one of those luminaries who stepped forward to say, in plain language, what is often obfuscated and left to confusion.
If we consider that what we call occult, or hidden knowledge, is more accurately designated as Sacred Science, it become obvious that the popular conception of this body of knowledge has undergone a darkening process that opens the door to superstition, mal-intention, and manipulation. The tradition that upheld the greatest spirits that humanity has produced is today given over to the most malignant intentions of our species. Sign posts leading upward to revelation and renewal have been turned around to point us on a path to dissolution and negation.
“If the light that be in us is darkness, how great is that darkness?” – Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism
Born in 1890 (or 1891) she saw the end of the 19th century and lived to see the end of World War 2. It was during the second world war that her most famous ‘practical’ application of occultism came into play with what became known as the Magical Battle of Britain. While so much of what we think of today in esoteric philosophy centers around self-help and personal gain, Dion’s focus went far beyond this limited application.
Gathering a group of like-minded practitioners she coordinated active visualizations of Arthurian and Christian archetypes to combat the fevered mytho-poesis of the Nazi party. There is much debate over how much awareness Adolf Hitler had of the occult sciences, however there is no doubt about the fact that Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, was more than active in his pursuit of esoteric knowledge.
Wewelsburg Castle formed a central place in Himmler’s conception of the mystical knighthood of the S.S. and it was his intention that it would become the “Center of the World” after the successful rise of the Third Reich. In direct opposition to this mytho-poetic scheme for the furtherance of a Nazi world order was Dion Fortune’s use of Glastonbury Tor as a center point for what she saw as a new Avalon. The Tor formed the focal point of her ‘magical’ attack against the Nazi party, and whatever the reality of the effect, her actions coincided with a renewed vigor of the British public to withstand the continued air raids and psychological assault against the United Kingdom.
In this battle can be seen the twin poles of the Sacred Sciences, on the one hand a group of ennobled souls striving for the health of society, on the other the mythic legacy of an entire people turned inward to selfish aggrandizement and destruction. This focus on practical applications for the health of society makes Dion Fortune’s work stand out against so many others who pursued the occult sciences for more personal goals. The same efforts that attended this dramatic exploration of mytho-poesis are evident in her courage and forthright approach to the topic.
“Great is Truth and shall prevail, and no one who is sincere need fear her.” – Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism
During her life Dion was no stranger to controversy, while still attending to her initiatic studies she openly published some of the most guarded secrets of the Mystery Schools. The secret, “spoken of by the Iman’s behind a locked door, with one hand under the thigh” as one 15th century Sufi author put it, was an introductory theme to an article which offered a very harsh criticism of the esoteric scene of the early 20th century. She seemed to have very little care for what polite society thought of her, pressing on as a healer not only of body and mind, but of the tradition itself.
The sobriety of her thought, the directness of her teaching and the boldness she showed in addressing the failures she saw in established traditions to maintain the Tradition, all carry through as powerfully today as they did during the early 20th century. Carrying the discipline of the 19th century into the experimentation and freedom offered by the Modern era, she exemplifies a strand of intellectual that is rare and valuable in any age.
Dion Fortune’s legacy is one which proposes an active purpose to the study of esoteric ideas. Moving beyond “large chunks of unverified and unverifiable statements and a thick treacly smear of sentimental humanitarianism” she sought “to make the Great Sacrifice which is Initiation, and to offer the dedication of the self to the service of the Powers of Light.” This self-sacrifice “dedicated to the service of God” is rare in contemporary occultism and it is a sign of her dedication that her strong presence stands out as strong today, and as offensive to so many, as it did during her time on this earth.
“There are many different roads leading to our English Jerusalem, ‘the holiest erthe in Englande’.” – Dion Fortune, Glastonbury – Avalon of the Heart
To further explore the myth-poetic resonance of Dion Fortune’s work I contacted Paul Weston, author of Avalonian Aeon, who was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding Glastonbury and Dion Fortune’s continued influence. In honor of her birthday on December 6th, Paul will be conducting guided visualizations in resonance with her original Glastonbury workings during World War II.
Did Arthur Machen & the Angel of Mons event in WW1 have a similar resonance/purpose to what Dion Fortune was doing during the Magical Battle of Britain?
There are a number of fundamental differences between these episodes but I
believe they tap into the same emotional mythic strata. Dion Fortune’s 1940
Glastonbury work was never public knowledge.
Even today it is not that well known. It was always conceived of as quite conscious deliberate magic. With the Angels of Mons story, we have a fascinating case study of something taking on a life of its own, probably with some encouragement from propaganda intelligence operatives, until it gathered around itself a potent emotional energy.
The fact that it seems to have been initiated by Arthur Machen, a writer on magical subjects with knowledge of the same Golden Dawn tradition as Dion Fortune is certainly fascinating. He became increasingly astonished and exasperated by the way his short story on the Bowmen of Agincourt returning to help the British army in 1914 rapidly mutated into tales of angels and St George in armour. He tried to stop the process.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Dion Fortune had this saga somewhere in the back of
her mind during the early days of her Magical Battle of Britain workings when
she and her associates visualised giant angels standing guard along the shores
of the North Sea. She believed that it’s possible to work with mythic archetypes
and essentially switch them on in the back of the collective mind. This can work
its way through people who have no conscious knowledge of it. Dion Fortune
was certainly intending to boost the spiritual morale of the nation in 1940 and the example of how the Mons myth had done this in the previous war may well have been an encouragement. Unlike 1914 we have no way of even remotely assessing in consensus terms whether she really did. I am willing to believe so but I have a strong personal involvement in the material. There are no accounts, even entirely unreliable ones, of people seeing visions of angels on the shores, or Arthur and his knights riding forth outside of the circle of her associates.
I think it’s also worth noting a moment in the Disney film Bedknobs and
Broomsticks that I rather feel taps into the same energy. The main Angela
Lansbury character is a witch who enchants the exhibits in a museum to fight
against a Nazi U Boat crew who have come ashore at an archetypal sleepy British seaside town. The Germans find themselves looking up to a clifftop where an army of knights, redcoats, and representatives of the whole continuity of British history are standing guard. They then see off the Nazis with no problem. The story dates, I believe, from 1943 and was written by an American. I’d love to know a bit more about it. The characterisation of the witch doesn’t seem too far off Dion Fortune. I think it might be an example of certain concepts being expressed from deeper levels whether consciously or not.
Watch it here.
Are there any contemporary examples of this kind of ‘weaponized’ mytho-poesis?
I have heard of “Cursing for Christ” where small groups get themselves a bit worked up to bring down a bit of fire and brimstone on perceived evil-doers.
During the first Gulf War, a psychic known to me became convinced that the Iraqis were employing ancient sorceries to raise djinn in the desert to mess with Desert Storm. Considering that Saddam was rebuilding Babylon and portraying himself riding about in a chariot wearing a leopardskin, I don’t find that hard to believe. It wouldn’t surprise me if an occult mythology gradually merges from those conflicts, Sumero-Babylonian demons and so on. It’s fertile ground. Jet planes over Abraham’s Ur is evocative stuff.
What is Dion Fortunes legacy like today? She seems to have slipped out of vogue (at least in the U.S.) due to the moral focus that she put on her work?
I think Dion Fortune has actually proved to be a hardy perennial and is perhaps
even increasing in popularity and influence but the modern focus tends to be on a select few of her books. The two late novels, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, still move people very deeply. I would imagine that any women who have ever contemplated the archetype of Priestess and wondered what it would mean to be one in the modern world would become familiar with these novels to some extent before long. Whether it’s in the form of the various types of Wicca or mystery schools like the Fellowship of Isis, Dion Fortunes work as a Priestess and her expression of it through her magical novels are a strong influence.
The Mystical Qabalah also remains an enduring favourite due to its accessibility. Psychic Self Defense has been much debated as to its autobiographical authenticity and magical usefulness but it is indubitably a fantastic read and full of inspiration.
It must also be remembered that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, an
epic retelling from a female perspective of the Arthurian legends, is infused with Dion Fortune’s ideas on a fundamental level. The depiction of Morgan owes a lot to the novels. The idea that the main characters were not singular historical figures but the holders of initiatory titles is also very evocative.
Fortune had a number of fertile ideas about the legends and this is certainly a major aspect of her ongoing legacy. Bradley proved the ideas have life in them. This book has probably been more responsible for bringing American tourists to Glastonbury than any other single factor.
In comparison to this powerful body of work, much of her earlier output has
certainly not fared as well and reads more as a product of its time. The Psychology of the Servant Problem isn’t likely to feature on many people’s reading lists these days! She evolved over time. The ebb and flow of Christian influence and her contact with inner plane discarnate entities is not to everyone’s taste now. The classics are assuredly classics though.
Do you think Fortune’s works like What is Occultism? and Aspects of Occultism (Sane Occultism) are still valuable for today’s practitioners?
They are worth a read. I don’t think anyone is going to get their head set on fire
by them in the way that the later novels and Mystical Qabalah can manage but not everyone needs that anyway. The Society of the Inner Light (the magical group that she founded) do mention at the start of the modern editions of all of her books that they represent products of their time and that some of the ideas may seem outdated so even her most staunch adherents acknowledge that.
What do you think is the U.S. version of Avalon? Seen from an outside perspective does the U.S. have anything as potent as this to focus a positive mytho-poesis?
That’s an interesting question and a difficult one. There’s no doubt that the USA
contains some major power spots like Shasta and Sedona. What Glastonbury has that renders it so distinctive is a long history and mythology with a continuity that carries through a long sequence of events important to the life of the greater nation.
In the end, when it mattered in 1940, the Christian and pagan elements came together in harmony focused on the iconic Tor. The Native American strata, indeed the whole indigenous strata of the entire Americas, suffered a traumatic disconnection more problematical than the gradual triumph of Christianity in Britain. Many people are working to heal those traumas and reclaim the wisdom.
I don’t feel the US has anywhere that carries that continuity and is so recognizable. Shasta is truly awesome but a lot of the current New Age mythology doesn’t go back very far and doesn’t tap into the roots of the nation’s consciousness in the way that the Arthurian cycle does in Britain.
That doesn’t mean that America is any way impoverished by that. It has a unique destiny to potentially fulfill that is characterized by the incredible alchemical blending of cultures in a climate of constant acceleration. The land can and does speak when it needs to be heard and the pioneers and prophets have always seemed to be able to hear it. We have the Grail cycle and the megalithic sites and so on. You have the American Dream and that is your quest for the Holy Grail in modern form.
Can you explain briefly what you mean by Avalonian Aeon?
Aleister Crowley believed that a new epoch began in 1904 that he called the Aeon of Horus. I have examined this idea at length in my book Aleister Crowley and the Aeon of Horus. If this concept has any veracity we should expect to see its qualities expressed globally but in ways distinct to the locations and cultures concerned.
The European Aeon, for example, has been dominated by the generation from a German centre-point of the two world wars. The American Aeon involves the incredible rise to global superpower with all that has entailed. To try and formulate ideas around African and Asian Aeon is fascinating.
After centuries in suspended animation following the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey, the location came back to life in the first decade of the last century as Crowley proclaimed the New Aeon. All aspects of its long Christian and pagan history and mythology were profoundly re-energised.
Phase one of this culminated in Dion Fortune’s 1940 magic where there was a definite interaction with the larger European and Global processes. Following another breathing space, from the hippy sixties onwards, the town mutated into its current form.
During this time its charisma, often best expressed simply through the haunting image of the Tor, has become known around the world and the town has become a global pilgrimage site, now considered to be heart chakra of the planet, and placed in the company of Shasta, Giza, Arunuchala, and so on. The unique blend, focused primarily around the associations with Arthurian mythology and an increasing awareness of the divine feminine, and the fact that’s it’s a place where people live and interact and play out their dramas, constitutes the transmission of the Avalonian Aeon.
You can also enjoy Paul’s lectures and explorations of his books on the blog talk radio program: Avalonian Aeon
*NOTE: Red Wheel/Weiser was kind enough to provide a selection of Dion Fortune’s work for review and study.