Thursday 19 January 2017

Dion Fortune and Glastonbury

Orthodox Christians of a nervous disposition, please suspend judgment for a moment. Dion Fortune (née Violet Firth) was an occultist. She delved into the unseen worlds, was a medium, practised ceremonial magic and probably exercised psychic powers. She wrote books with titles like The Cosmic Doctrine and The Mystical Qabalah, occult novels such as Moon Magic and The Sea Priestess and founded a society called The Fraternity of the Inner Light. The Cosmic Doctrine purported to describe the formation of the universe and she claimed to have received it in trance from discarnate Masters, one of whom was supposedly Socrates. Unfortunately this esoteric cosmology is long-winded and verbose, reading like a sub-Theosophical production with interesting bits but on the whole pretty dull. It is quite unlike her other works so probably was received in the way claimed. I doubt the source was as claimed though since its dense style and obscure content do not speak of a true member of the Communion of Saints to me. It's much more an intellectual product than a spiritual one, like most occult revelations, and probably came, like most occult revelations, from one of the denizens of the inner planes who over-estimated his spiritual status. Her novels are more entertaining though not quite as good as claimed by her apologists. They are well written but their spiritual content is limited.

Despite all this I have a great deal of respect for her. She exudes common sense, and even wisdom, in most of her writings, and undoubtedly helped clean up the sensationalist mess that was early 20th century esotericism. I think she also revealed or uncovered previously unknown truths, perhaps better described as symbolic realities, to do with Atlantis and the Arthurian stories in particular and the Western Mystery Tradition in general, and these have now passed into much wider circulation. She drew a clear distinction between magic used for benevolent or evolutionary purposes and the sort advocated by her deeply unpleasant contemporary Aleister Crowley, and on matters of sex she had a lot more insight than most modern pagans, seeing it in a not dissimilar way to the Church. Which, of course, gets her branded a prude nowadays. All in all, she seems to have been a no nonsense sort of person, of great personal integrity, who worked tirelessly for what she believed in, possibly wearing herself out as a result and dying at the relatively early age of 55. She was also a Christian of sorts, albeit esoteric and unorthodox sorts, but still sincere in her love and respect for Christ.

One of her books which can be enjoyed by anybody, occultist or not, is Glastonbury, Avalon of the Heart. This is her love letter to the town and is a lyrical evocation of its special qualities. Dion Fortune was one of the first people to draw attention to Glastonbury as the spiritual heart of England, originally visiting it when Bligh Bond was conducting his psychic investigations of the Abbey ruins. She later bought Chalice Orchard at the foot of the Tor where she set up a retreat, and was eventually buried in St John the Baptist's church there. Her book describes the history of Glastonbury and the legends that surround it including those to do with the young Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur and the Grail. She seeks to harmonise the pagan past with the new and higher Christian way, seeing the former as fulfilled in the latter rather than just shown up as false, the correct attitude in my opinion.  Here's an extract which shows both her poetical style and true Christian feeling.

"There is spiritual power in Glastonbury. To stand in the centre of the great nave, looking towards the high altar, is like standing waist deep in a swift mountain stream. Invisible force is rushing past with a streaming movement. Only in one other place and on one other occasion have I felt the like force - at Christmas communion in Westminster Abbey, when, coming out of the transept into the slow-moving file of waiting communicants it was as if one had stepped from the bank of river into swift-moving water when the central aisle was reached.

What is this pouring power of holy places? Do we not miss the power of pilgrimage? The Reformation no doubt swept away many abuses in an age that had fallen on corruption, but with the abuses were destroyed also many good things. Some great truths of the spiritual life were forgotten when every man became his own priest.

Whatever may be the explanation thereof, experience proves there is power in holy places, power to quicken the spiritual life and vitalize the soul with fresh enthusiasm and inspiration. Where strong spiritual emotions have been felt for long periods of time by successive generations of dedicated men and women – especially if they had had among them those who may be reckoned as saints because of their genius for devotion – the mental atmosphere of the place becomes imbued with spiritual forces, and sensitive souls capable of response are deeply stirred thereby when they come into it."

Before writing this post I re-read Avalon of the Heart (it's quite short) and, in one of those odd little coincidences many people will recognise, I was struck by the similarity of the sentiments Dion Fortune expresses here and those in the piece on pilgrimage I recently posted. I include it for that reason but also because I think it shows that, whatever her other interests, her Christianity was genuine. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history and legends of Glastonbury even if some of it (it was published in 1934) has been superseded by more recent writings. 


Bruce Charlton said...

I've been meaning for some years to take a look at something by Dion Fortune, having read quite a lot *about* her - e.g. she features as a very important figure in Ronald Hutton's historical accounts of neo-paganism (she wrote some of the now widely-used Wiccan and other magical rituals, I think), as well as in all the accounts of the Glastonbury phenomenon. I like the sound of this book, and the extract, so I will give it a read.

William Wildblood said...

I doubt the book will tell you anything you don't already know but it is poetically written and she was one of the first people to bring the spiritual aspects of Glastonbury to mainstream attention. I know that neo-pagans use her writings for their own purposes but she was better than what that implies. Like any occultist she can be hit and miss but what I like about her is her common sense and honesty.