Dion Fortune was an occultist the likes of which legends are made. Born in 1891 (some say 1890) she participated in the modern revival of the magical arts, much of which she learned, distilled, reformulated and brought forth anew in her own teachings. She was by nature a dramatist with a penchant for deep thoughts, with that sensitive yet tough character England often produces.
She studied with, taught or bumped horns with the most well-known occultists of our century: MacGregor Mathers, Robert King, W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, W.E. Butler, Gareth Knight and Christine Hartley are but a few of the names associated with Dion Fortune’s remarkable path. And, of course, she wrote magical and occult books in both fiction and non-fictional formats that give us a look into her world. Many have cloned her work, some have done a better job of one or rarely two books, but few have come close in communicating esoteric understanding.
Dion Fortune claimed, and others attested, that she was a natural psychic. She possessed the gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience along with the ability to read the Akashic Records in a manner similar to that of Edgar Cayce. She also claimed to be able to operate consciously on the etheric and astral planes and project her consciousness at will. Like Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophists she also claimed to be in direct contact with perfected beings who guided her work. There is little evidence to refute those claims; many witnesses have attested to Dion Fortune’s remarkable talents and the extraordinary events that took place around her.
Unlike most mystics, Dion Fortune generally drew admiration from even those on different paths for her integrity and revelations of life on both sides of the veil. Even Aleister Crowley, widely acknowledged to be highly egotistical and downright abusive, was known to admire her and sought unsuccessfully on several occasions to draw her into his work.
Who was Dion Fortune?
Born Violet Firth, she adopted the Anglicized version of her family motto as her magical name. Deo non fortuna (God not fate) is an expression of her faith in an Almighty Creator of the Universe with whom she seemed to have a personal relationship. A student of the famous Golden Dawn mystical order, she formed her own group after a falling out with Moina Mathers, ex-wife of Golden Dawn founder MacGregor Mathers.
The story of her life makes her seem larger than life, and perhaps she was. Those close to her also told of her sense of humor, delight in simple fun, and her reactions to hard times that say she suffered the very normal side of being human. She is revealed as quite a character and a truly remarkable lady.
Getting to know people who lived a long time ago can be difficult. Fortunately, any of several biographies can help you get to know this enigmatic figure. Alan Richardson’s Priestess is the best known and oft-quoted. Richardson’s book was criticized as sometimes poorly researched, something which Richardson sought purposely to correct in a retitled version. Charles Fielding and Carr Collins’s The Story of Dion Fortune gives more of a magical view and has been criticized in some areas for too much of a “true believer” stance. Most recently Janine Chapman’s Quest for Dion Fortune offers a more cozy and personalized perspective.
For a first-person view of Dion Fortune, the various writings of W.E. Butler and Chapman’s extensive interviews with Butler offer the only decently complete picture. These are fleshed out by tidbits in Butler’s own books, recalled from his many years as one of her inner-circle pupils. Unfortunately, Butler’s books are hard to find, with only the posthumously produced Lords of Light readily available (through publisher Samuel Weiser). Thankfully it’s well worth the read for a good many reasons. Other pupils of Dion Fortune, such as Gareth Knight, have unfortunately not yet shared their experiences in publication, but have carried on her work with many excellent releases.
The Non-Fictional Works
Reading Dion Fortune’s non-fiction gives the distinct impression that she and Winston Churchill were cut from the same cloth. They seem two of that rare breed that can dive into your pain, pull you out, help you heal while telling you to your face it’s your own damn fault. Her matter-of-fact approach requires facing problems head-on rather than avoiding them, apparently following that old axiom “crow is a dish best eaten hot.” No victim consciousness or “poor me” here; one doesn’t have to wonder what Dion Fortune would think of the modern American talk-show mentality.
If one book had to be singled out as her life’s work it would have to be The Mystical Qabalah. This work is encyclopedic in scope, ranging from mundane observation to absolutely mystical insight into all aspects of this complex topic. Every work on the topic written since (with the notable exception of theology from universities and such) either borrows heavily or builds on the vast amount of information and insight in Mystical Qabalah. While intended for the serious student, anyone interested in Qabalah or structure-of-the-Universe sorts of things really should look through it at least once.
Second on the non-fiction list would probably be Psychic Self-Defense. Only a few rituals and such are included, letting the reader perhaps think this book has been surpassed by later authors, but this turns out to be a mistaken conclusion. Rather than deal with psychic defense simply – do this ritual, burn a candle of that color, say this exact prayer – she takes the more complete approach of rooting out the cause, then determining the proper method of approach. Then and only then does she advocate going in with guns blazing. The method is always one of leading you ever onward, not giving you pat answers but pointing you in the right direction and letting you learn for yourself. As you may have discovered yourself, this approach leads to a much more enlightened understanding than the memorization of color or scent charts.
Other non-fiction, such as Through the Gates of Death, have a much more confined focus. While all the ‘textbooks’ (as her non-fiction is sometimes called) have a broad scope, Dion Fortune is able to restrict herself to the topic at hand, covering it with sufficient insight to allow students to find useful tidbits the first and fiftieth times through. It seems like the more times you read each book the more you get out of it.
What about the novels?
Her fiction, on the other hand, can be absolutely mind-blowing. Even sixty years later the topics covered in her novels thrills the imagination. In the context of the European post-Victorian 1920s and 30s they seem almost scandalous. No subject seems beyond her experience: reincarnation, mystical astrology, Atlantis, secret societies, magical orders, ancient mystery schools, astral planes, out-of-body experiences, crafting spells, confronting vampires, psychic attack and self-defense all had part in her life as revealed through her novels.
Dion Fortune’s primary purpose in writing fiction was to pass magical knowledge to a wide audience. While her novels are entertaining as simple fiction, the writing is occasionally clunky where she inserts keys to greater knowledge. But these aren’t so bothersome that they distract from the story. For the casual reader the occasional soliloquy is acceptable; to the discerning eye the slightly off-kilter sentence is a doorway to important aspects of psychology and occultism. In her later years she grew very technically proficient as a writer and more subtly handled the teachings and mini-lectures, but they are nonetheless there. In fact, her later books are better approached as magical textbooks than as fiction, Moon Magic being perhaps the best of these. But you will have to judge that for yourself.
Several topics appear in all of her novels. Especially prevalent is the notion that perhaps Nature has it right — a freed person is a happier, more fulfilled, more productive person in the long run than one repressed and squeezed into a socially acceptable mold. Foreshadowing today’s literary landscape, Dion Fortune’s novels tend to feature strong, functional women helping wayward males more than the other way around. In her view, men have the energy and women provide the purpose and direction, and only in the marriage of the two can the best work be accomplished. “Marriage” is viewed in its wider context, not simply that of a church-blessed union. Many of her novels feature relationships between distinctly non-married couples who have no intention of marriage. This must have raised many eyebrows in repressive post-Victorian England.
In particular, the Vivian Le Fay Morgan character is champion of the free feminine lifestyle. Vivian appears and controls two of the best novels, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic. It makes perfect sense that Dion Fortune, arguably the strongest, most balanced of the female occult workers of her day and herself divorced, would champion the cause of single women as effective people. Single women in her books are independent, making their own lives, though of course there are still romantic entanglements, flowers by post and sometimes weddings. Her leading men often begin as wimpy, frustrated or repressed characters who need a bit of unlimbering before they come fully into their own, always of course with the help of a female needing a bit of work herself.
Her early writing is punctuated with turn-of-the-century British colloquialisms, slang and drawn-out explanations, all efforts to draw the reader into the story. These sometimes leave the modern reader perplexed though their meanings can usually be deduced. The plots feature well-developed characters finding extraordinary causes and resolutions to their situations. As you read you get the distinct feeling that there is more than what is printed on the page, intangible wisdom moving behind the words. And there is.
You also get the feeling that you know much of the material — it is all so familiar somehow. Perhaps this is because she succeeded in her life’s work of implanting the seeds of magical thinking in the group mind of man. After all, a good deal of her own energy and that of her group, the Society of the Inner Light, was directed toward this purpose over many years. Judging by modern topics of conversation and the titles of new books she had considerable success indeed.
A book-by-book look at the novels
The Secrets of Dr. Taverner
The Secrets of Dr. Taverner is a collection of short stories that can, and should, be read somewhat independently from one another. A short introduction sets the required general background: these are to be read as experiences she had, roughly fictionalized and toned down from the real thing. In the intro she states that if she told the more fantastic details one might be tempted to dismiss the stories. Toned down or not (as her introduction claims) there is enough spice here for any thrill-seeker. The storyteller speaks of ‘his’ apprenticeship to the leader of the “Group of Seven,” this leader working in the human world as a psychiatrist of no mean talent. The various stories tell of souls exchanging bodies (not always willingly); of past lives bleeding through into present reality; of dances with elemental kings and primal entities; of astral hounds chasing men to their death; and finally of the storyteller’s meeting with ‘his’ own soul on a dark night. Toned down indeed — what must the reality have been like!
Dr. Taverner is a good example of Dion Fortune’s books. Each story explores occult, psychology and magical topics as they interplay with the life of one character and those around him or her. Each story is a thesis on one aspect of life, with the entire book composing a good all-around introduction into the work of the practicing occultist. The stories portray the occult path as long and arduous work, definitely not for the faint of heart or those seeking easy living. Unlike many modern New Age pundits Dion Fortune saw the mystical path as one which passed through all veils of existence, good, bad and evil, not just those of peaceful wishes and starry-eyed daydreams.
In Dr. Taverner’s world people face real problems which don’t go away with a simple meditation, haphazard banishing or pretty mental image — quite the opposite sometimes. One lady in a thinly disguised sanatorium turns out to be an ancient upper-grade initiate who has gone astray, paying in the present life for misdeeds done in the past. Rather than try to use her significant abilities to ‘get off the hook’ she incarnates in a paralyzed, debilitated body and must let go of the one man who loved her in order to pay off an old karmic debt. Such a storyline is definitely “not PC” in this day and age, but Dion Fortune thought this point significant enough to warrant significant attention.
If you could give a friend only one of Dion Fortune’s books this would be high on the list with just a few caveats. It is definitely not for the squeamish; such people would prefer the smooth style of Moon Magic. For those who like flashy story lines and intriguing situations, or those with a shorter attention span or limited time, this may be the best starter. If you tend to get hung up on the fantastic this book might give the wrong impression, and it is hard to not walk away with the feeling that it’s all a bit much. Once again much comes down to the perception of the reader. If you’re unsure start with Moon Magic and/or The Goat-Footed God for a more believable yet still thrilling introduction.
The Winged Bull
Robert Bly, today’s champion of unfulfilled manhood, could have taken his entire line of thought from this novel complete with conclusion. Ted Murchison, an unemployed ex-army soldier, wanders into the British Museum during one of those famous London fogs and confronts the Babylonian Bull face to face. The resulting inner upheaval finds him outside the Museum invoking Pan until he is fortuitiously interrupted by none other than his retired army commander. Colonel Brangwyn turns out to be a lifelong student of the mysteries and recognizes Murchison as an unfulfilled man, a character complete in times of war but out of touch in gentler society. Brangwyn had been researching mystical knowledge of the Cult of the Winged Bull with the help of his young and sensitive half-sister, who of course is in a bit of a state herself.
Turns out the “research” required a man and a woman willing to commit to each other for life. Brangwyn had located a suitable lover for Ursula named Fouldes. True to form, Fouldes was vain and possessed of a weak character, and the resulting power went straight to his head. As the story unfolds we find Fouldes giving Brangwyn fits as he attempts to wrest control of Ursula away. Recognizing the inner strength and integrity of Murchison, Brangwyn proposes taking up the work where it was left off, essentially marrying Ursula and Murchison for the benefit of both. Ursula, lacking in decisiveness, and Murchison, lacking in direction, find their completion and balance in one another through a long series of interesting events.
This book highlights the male and female aspects of personality and the need for both sexual poles in magical and psychological working. Completion and complementation are the operative words in this novel, which relays vital information on the increase of magical power and personal stability gained by the commitment of one man to one woman. As in The Goat Foot God Dion Fortune points out that the resulting commitment is for life and is not to be trivialized or scorned; no half-way measures here. The message is that there is a universal basis behind basic morality, and while mankind may over the course of time stray from this core of truth, the sources of magical power are not deceived. If one desires access to universal power there are certain rules which need to be followed regardless of the day, age or beliefs of the magician.
Like other Dion Fortune novels, The Winged Bull has an interesting history. First published in 1935, the book went out of print after Dion Fortune’s death. Publisher Samuel Weiser brought the book out again in 1980, just in time for students of occult power who were finding little of help in the sterile New Age offerings of that time. The Winged Bull teaches there is only so much power one can bring down by oneself; to really have a complete ritual one needs a well-matched partner of the opposite sex.
The Demon Lover
The Demon Lover is perhaps the most “occult” of all the novels, ranking only with The Secrets of Dr. Taverner for these honors. The dark side of occultism, the human ego thinking only of itself, is revealed and explored to a remarkable degree. Our heroine is Veronica Mainwaring, a naïve country girl who barely got through secretarial school. Our dark anti-hero is Justin Lucas, young secretary to a secret occult organization in the heart of London.
Lucas has been well trained in the occult arts by a wealthy mentor and now wants to use his powers to get ahead in the world. His ambitions are at present being thwarted by his society – recognizing his egotism, he is denied advancement to the highest grades of occult training. Young Veronica, innocent of innocents, is found to be an extremely sensitive psychic, and Lucas uses her natural abilities to gain the secrets of power by less than honest means. When his efforts are discovered he takes Veronica and flees to a hidden country estate which he inherits by controlling the mind of a dying rich man and forcing him to write a suitable will.
While in the country, the forces of Nature work through Veronica and win the heart of Lucas, all well explained by the author. Shortly thereafter, the astral hunting hounds of the London lodge find their prey, and Lucas is apparently killed by the use of the dark ray of power. Or is he? After a short absence, he begins appearing to Veronica by using some of her etheric substance to partially manifest on the physical plane. But of course Veronica cannot provide enough energy, so Lucas shortly turns to blatant vampirism, killing several children in the village for their energy. In a fascinating conclusion which explores the realm between the physical world and the true world of the spirit, Lucas redeems himself and is brought back to life in his exhumed physical body during a ritual led by an apparently immortal being.
This book is definitely not for the squeamish, though it is also not to be avoided for those aspects either. Many aspects of evolution, the dark side of the ego, psychism, the world beyond the physical, and the nature of vampires, werewolves and wraiths are explored in some detail. The ways of Nature are repeatedly stressed as the best ways, and the ways of the egotistical man are shown to be inherently flawed. For those who intend to work directly with the Powers and the Principalities this book is a must-read, not so much for it’s evoking techniques (which are thankfully sparse) as for the descriptions of what is required of the seeker. An honest measuring of oneself against the possible pitfalls may help avert rather distasteful results.
The Goat Foot God
The Goat Foot God deals with the effects of both psychological repression and past lives. Hugh Paston is the wealthy, depressed heir to a large tea company fortune. Controlled by his family and lacking any spine whatsoever, he wanders into an old bookstore shortly after his wife and her lover are killed in a car crash. There he meets the reclusive T. Jelks, a failed priest who delights in the mental world while avoiding the physical. Thanks to Hugh’s need for an ear and Jelks’ need for someone to psychoanalyze the two become fast if improbable friends. The intrusion of an apparently past life personality takes Hugh by surprise and provides the backdrop for the rest of the story. Ambrosius, a medieval monk, was walled up in the cellar of his old priory for practicing rituals dedicated to the Greek god Pan in the chapel of his remote priory.
Ambrosius gives Hugh a path to chase down and in true heroic fashion Hugh jumps in head first with both feet. Hugh and Jelks decide it best to draw forth Ambrosius in an attempt to fulfill his ancient desire. Hugh, having no lack of money and needing something useful to do, decides to pursue Ambrosius in high style. The need for an interior designer gives an excuse to introduce Mona Wilton, Jelks’ niece and general “cat on the tiles”, a footloose artistic type in both appearance and morals. It’s a long and interesting road, but eventually Mona and Hugh get to the bottom of their frustrated selves to find fulfillment. Through the invocation of Pan the missing parts of their souls are completed and they find completeness.
The Goat Foot God shows the many ways past life personalities can intrude on the present. Dialogues between Hugh and Jelks are lectures which illustrate the many possible reasons why people might do what they do, and to offer alternative explanations for what happens during the course of the story. As an ex-psychoanalyst (before the introduction of licensing in that field) Dion Fortune was well versed in the many possible explanations for human behavior and Jelks becomes her mouthpiece. During the course of this book it seems like every possible alternative is explored at least in discussion if not on the physical plane itself. Even magical working is explored as an option for the satisfying of ancient unfulfilled desires.
Besides the Pannist overtones, this book highlights the psychological and practical sides of life more than the magical. Some of the discussion gets a bit long, and sometimes Jelks’ frustrated cleric personality make you want to throttle him. But Hugh and Moina are especially well drawn and you sympathize with them right from the start. As usual, all the minor characters are completely believable and the locations appear before you in living color. The Goat Foot God is an easier yet no less rewarding adventure than the similarly toned The Winged Bull, which approaches the idea of manhood from the side of having too much instead of too little.
The Sea Priestess
It is a book with an undercurrent; upon the surface, a romance; underneath, a thesis on the theme: “All women are Isis, and Isis is all women,” or in the language of modern psychology, the anima-animus principle.
Vivian Le Fay is the priestess of Isis in full incarnation, the worshipper of the sea and tides, the recognizer of the feminine principle in action on the earth. But even Isis needs her male counterpart for completion; enter Wilfred Maxwell, of the spineless sort that makes you detest rich people. You know the type, all firm and civil on the surface with cottage cheese underneath. The book opens with the first-person perspective of Maxwell giving a rundown of his life thus far – well-to-do parents, success in the antique business and the usual set of hangups – right up until Vivian Le Fay walks in. Then things really get going.
Vivian, it seems, is looking to build a magical place to complete a natural cycle, while Wilfred falls madly in love with her. She, being of the cold-blooded priestly type, decides to propose an arrangement where he provides what she needs and she will provide what he needs, completion of his personality. An altogether left-brained notion for an altogether right-brained problem, one which Wilfred can’t really understand.
Of course it all works out in the end, but not in any way that one could predict. Wilfred gets a wild ride through his psyche, past lives, compulsions and flaws, with Vivian in apparently complete control. Her role as the priestess is to build the place and conditions where Nature can fully manifest; his role is to make the sacrifice of the priestess in the proper way at the proper time. He finds himself reliving a past life in almost the same circumstances where his animal desires got the better of his priestly training, corrupting the ritual and messing up his psyche for the next several thousand years.
In the end they do it right; a huge storm is summoned up right on schedule, destroying the physical surroundings but leaving both our heros intact. The ritual is completed and the participants go their separate ways, but not without some very interesting soul-level revelations from Vivian. The sea and its tides play a central role throughout the story, and are used to illuminate the tides which surge within every human psyche. The ritual washing away of debris is seen as a spiritual crisis which must be gone through before a pure product can emerge, dripping yet cleansed, on the other side. Much of the deep mystical meaning of this work is spelled out in no uncertain terms, the rest can be traced through meditation on the images and scenery drawn so well as the story unfolds.
This is one book you will truly enjoy if you are interested in the active feminine principle. Dion Fortune spares no effort making sure the reader sees the full scope of the goddess Isis and what she represents and rules, and what she needs in order to become whole. Unlike the image of Isis as all-powerful ruler of the galaxy this work presents a more powerful image of a goddess working through willing subjects, manifesting in very physical ways in an ignorant society.
This is perhaps Dion Fortune’s best-crafted fictional work, and bears annual rereading for many years. Dr. Rupert Malcolm is the foremost expert on the mechanics of the mind; needless to say he doesn’t do too well using it in his own life. In her second appearance, Lilith Le Fay, servant of Isis, puts in a masterful performance as the occult priestess, savior of Rupert, and all-round implanter of (then) radical ideas into the consciousness of mankind. With her writing technique at its finest, Dion Fortune crafts (or is it channels?) her smoothest and most entrancing work, easily veiling the usual magical soliloquies in discussions between the two central characters, or through watching the musings of Lilith’s cat-like mind.
As the book opens, Dr. Malcolm’s life is at its all-time low. Years ago his wife took up residence by the sea several hours away after the birth and death of their first child. All she does now is breath air, chat with her live-in nurse, and drain Dr. Malcolm’s pocket. He, on the other hand, is a king in his own land – that of the hospital psychiatric ward. He diagnoses with an air of utter finality: this one will live a normal life, that one is doomed to despair. He is revered for his ability and knowledge yet abhored for his mannerisms. Rude and obstinate would be high compliments given the way he treats those around him. Dr. Malcolm is a harsh and exacting taskmaster, hard on his students and worse on himself, a man completely without natural outlets for his needs, anxieties and frustrations.
An interesting set of machinations on the part of Lilith finds him walking almost unconsciously into her converted church-house, and the main body of the story unfolds from there. Over the next 100 pages Dr. Malcolm is trained in the use of the magical body, travelling the astrals, viewing auras and other such skills, and the reader gets to watch what goes on in both his and Lilith’s minds throughout his transformation into living priest. Enough detail is given that one can use the descriptions of various techniques as instructions; be sure to read the entire book first though, as in typical Dion Fortune style not all the warnings are next to where you might need them. And, as she warns, some of these things cannot be done alone but must be done with the help of a like-minded partner or you risk serious damage to your nervous and psychological systems.
Several topics really stand out. The descriptions of astral and etheric separation and travelling, though only a few pages long, are better than most modern books on the subjects. (And yes, as she points out, these two are very different things.) For example, very few authors warn of the strange “shorting out” and slow disintigration of the etheric body as it travels over water. Dion Fortune puts that warning out very strongly in the first mention of the technique, instructing the reader to use astral projection if large bodies of water must be traversed.
Similarly, the construction and use of the simalcrum, that ‘pretend’ body used by the consciousness to travel unseen in the physical plane, is given here in enough detail to allow experimentation. Some modern books claim to reveal it “for the first time” and then leave out important details; here is the entire description of the process in three sentences written in the 1930’s. How much we have forgotten in such a short time! If you are interested in astral travel or out-of-body workings there are enough techniques here to see you well on your way.
The history of this book alludes to its perception among serious occultists. Dion Fortune died in 1945 a few months before the end of World War II, and obviously finished this book well before then (some say as early as 1941). Yet the Society of Inner Light felt it too risky to release the book to press as they felt it contained too much magical instruction that could be used improperly. After much argument the book was finally published outside the Society in 1956, having been reserved for members of the Society until then. An old axiom states that a child will want whatever is denied them – in this case it proves true for occultists as well. Moon Magic has perhaps more useful keys for the beginner to true magical working than any other book available today.
The novels of Dion Fortune offer a rare look at how esoteric and occult principles play out in the world of man. Theory and pretty words are wonderful in and of themselves, but only by seeing how principles work in real life can true understanding occur. By all means pick any title that sounds like fun and dive right in – the mistress of occult fiction will surely hold your undivided attention.
Mike Hammer, 1998