What Is Occultism? by Dion Fortune and Gareth Knight - Read Online
What Is Occultism?
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Offers the reader an in-depth look at what occultism can be to the rational and well-trained practitioner. Fortune presents a clear discussion, sweeping aside our cultural assumptions and stereotypes. She is able to place occultism in its proper place asa philosophy that employs scientific and rational methodology to explore the meaning of life, while retaining religious overtones. She reveals the heart of occult ethics and ideals that occult research seeks to aid people in achieving enlightenment.

Published: Red Wheel Weiser on
ISBN: 9781609254605
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What Is Occultism? - Dion Fortune

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by Gareth Knight

WHAT IS OCCULTISM?, formerly titled Sane Occultsim is vintage Dion Fortune, written when she was beginning to make her presence felt upon the occult scene during the mid-1920s. Commissioned as a series of articles for The Occult Review, a monthly magazine issued by Rider, a leading publisher of occult books between the two world wars, she set about her task with a will, giving no nonsense opinions about what was right and wrong with the occult world as she found it. Needless to say, she soon found that some of her remarks were striking home, and in some quite prestigious quarters, too.

She later described something of the intense reaction to her comments in her book Psychic Self-Defense. Although she mentioned no names, the main source of hostility came from Moina MacGregor Mathers, then head of the Alpha et Omega Temple of the former Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which Dion Fortune was a somewhat junior member.

Not that Dion Fortune was short of enemies at the time. She may be regarded as a leading figure in the modern occult tradition now, but then she was rather regarded as the tiresome Miss Firth, who had ideas of her own importance rather beyond her station.

She had been studying occultism seriously for ten years by the time that she wrote Sane Occultism, first with Theodore Moriarty from 1916, and also, from 1919, in what is generally called the Golden Dawn these days. Strictly speaking, however, it had long since abandoned its original title and split into different branches, of which the Alpha et Omega was now headed up by Moina MacGregor Mathers, the widow of one of the founders of the original Hermetic Order.

Moriarty founded a lodge of co-masonry in 1919 and it was from this that Dion Fortune appears to have taken the pattern for her own group after Moriarty's death in 1923. The leading ladies of Moriarty's group were somewhat put aback when Dion Fortune, a comparative newcomer in their eyes, suggested that she take over from Moriarty in running the lodge. However, being informed that she was on her own, in no uncertain manner, she went ahead anyway, and attracted her own group around her.

So successful was she in this venture that by the end of 1924 she had a group with a headquarters in the west end of London and also a base in a chalet she and her friends had erected at the foot of Glastonbury Tor.

In the meantime she had begun experimenting with trance mediumship at a deeper level than is usually sought by spiritualist mediums, under the tutelage of her Golden Dawn mentor Maiya Curtis-Webb (later Tranchell-Hayes). She then cooperated with Frederick Bligh Bond, in September 1921, making contact with an inner group known as the Watchers of Avalon. Bligh Bond was famous, not to say notorious, for having excavated the ruins of Glastonbury abbey with the assistance of a clairvoyant skilled in automatic writing. This work had commenced in 1908, but he did not admit the secret of his success until he published a book, The Gate of Remembrance, in 1918. The fact that he had been successful in his work through psychic assistance did not endear him to the church authorities who had now gained ownership of the abbey site. He was therefore cold shouldered out of involvement with the abbey, and also beset with domestic difficulties, and eventually moved to America in 1924. Dion Fortune's work with him in 1921 was therefore something of a swan's song.

However, Dion Fortune teamed up with Charles Thomas Loveday in 1922, some sixteen years her senior, an avuncular figure with a keen interest in music, the new science of radio, and Harley Davidson motorcycles. He was to be a moral and financial support and general factotum to her virtually for the rest of their lives, and their bones lie close together in Glastonbury Municipal Cemetery. With him as her scribe, she systematically developed her inner contacts with the result that, by 1925, they had published a book based upon teaching received from these contacts, The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage. It was made apparent to them, however, that this was regarded only as a beginning and that greater things were expected of them. This came to pass from 1923 to 1925 with some high metaphysical teaching called The Cosmic Doctrine and the establishment of their physical headquarters in Glastonbury and London.

At the same time she had an eye toward the general public and published a series of short stories with an occult theme in the Royal Magazine during 1922, which were later published as a book, The Secrets of Dr. Taverner. These were inspired by her earlier association with Theodore Moriarty, whose demonstration of practical occult skills had caused her to throw up her budding career in psychotherapy in 1916.

In the midst of all this activity she began to contribute to The Occult Review, somewhat in the role of the new kid on the block, and sassy with it. It is not recorded how Moriarty's disciples viewed the fictional representation of their teacher, but Moina MacGregor Mathers, her hierarchical senior in the Alpha et Omega had strong reservations about the high profile activities of this junior initiate.

One may well sympathise with her to some extent, and it is perhaps somewhat surprising that she put up with Soror Deo Non Fortuna as long as she did. She considered that the contacts responsible for The Cosmic Doctrine teaching, whatever their merits might be, were not those behind the Golden Dawn. As for the publication of The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage, she was highly distressed on the grounds that they betrayed high initiatory secrets to the world at large. There has been some dispute about this as Israel Regardie, for one, has denied any knowledge of such teachings. This does not prove that they did not exist however, and in later years Paul Case, of the Builders of the Adytum, his own off-shoot from the Golden Dawn tradition, stated that he also had come under stricture from Moina MacGregor Mathers about revealing any sexual teaching in his Chicago Temple.

All this was successfully negotiated in Dion Fortune's case when it was pointed out to Moina MacGregor Mathers that the young initiate was not sufficiently advanced within the Order to have had access to any such teachings, and thus was unable to betray what she had not received. It has to be said, seventy-five years later, that The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage is hardly a work of startling sexual revelation, and among occultists of a younger generation, tends to be looked upon rather as a quaint relic of romantic innocence allied to elementary teaching upon the planes.

We have to ask ourselves what it was that caused Moina MacGregor Mathers, possibly among others, to find so much offence in the earlier pages of Sane Occultism. Dion Fortune was at something of a loss to explain the cause and in Psychic Self-Defense (published in 1930), speaks of this episode together with an account of what she regarded as a deliberate psychic attack upon her at the Vernal Equinox of 1927.

She writes: "I wrote a series of articles on the abuses prevalent in occult fraternities, and these were published in The Occult Review. My writing is largely inspirational, a great deal ‘coming through’ of which I have no previous knowledge, and in this particular case I evidently shot a great deal better than I knew, and got myself into serious trouble."

Feeling a certain sense of unease and restlessness, she found her natural psychism beginning to be stimulated, accompanied by a sense of menace and antagonism, including flashes of picture images of threatening demonic faces.

She continues: I was quite unsuspicious of any particular individual, though I realised that my articles had probably stirred somebody up pretty thoroughly; what was my surprise, then, to receive, from a person whom I looked upon as a friend and for whom I had the greatest respect, a letter which left me in no doubt whatever as to the source of the attack and what I might expect if any more articles were published. I can honestly say that until I received this letter I had not the slightest suspicion that this person was implicated in the scandals I was attacking.

She had to decide whether to try to get the articles back from The Occult Review, or whether to let them run their natural course and take the consequences. In the event, she decided that the strong impulse she had had to write the articles probably came from a higher source, and that she was being used to undertake a piece of work that obviously needed doing. She therefore decided to stick to her guns and see the matter through, leaving the articles in question to run their course.

It may be of interest to try to identify which elements in What is Occultism? caused such intense reaction in certain quarters. The source of the problem is likely to occur within the earlier pages, and a list of possible causes for offence might be said to include the following:

1) Why is it that occultism has produced such a crop of charlatans and few, if any, intellects of the first water?

2) Large chunks of unverified and unverifiable statements and a thick treacly smear of sentimental humanitarianism are the mixture from which all too many esoteric books are compounded, and they make one ashamed to call oneself an occultist.

3) Occult science is a very potent thing, and many people are protected in their researches therein by their own ineptitude; did they succeed in some of the operations they undertake, their natures, unpu-rified and undisciplined, would be shattered by the result. It is only because no power comes through that no disaster follows.

There seems to be no very great scandal attached to any of these statements, nor any offence offered to any but those who take themselves very seriously, indeed!

However, it may well be that comments such as these, which were applicable over a wide area, were the last straw to break Mrs. Mathers' back. Some of Dion Fortune's comments on the practices and personnel of the Alpha et Omega temple were less than complimentary, and although she did not put them into writing until almost a decade later, one may suspect that she did not entirely hide her dissatisfaction at the time.

In an article in her own magazine on The Occult Field Today in 1933 (which is reproduced in Applied Magic, a volume of her selected articles) she was very forthright in a thinly disguised critique of Moina MacGregor Mathers, Brodie Innes, and their like:

The Order suffered severely during the first World War, and Mathers himself died in Paris from influenza during the epidemic. When I came in touch with his organization, it was manned mainly by widows and grey-bearded ancients, and did not appear to be a very promising field of occult endeavour. … For some reason best known to themselves, the elucidations and interpretations had been withdrawn into the innermost Inner by the secret chiefs, who simply sat upon them like broody hens on china eggs. The organization had broken up into a number of disjecta membra, and everybody regarded everybody else with suspicion as not being of the true orthodoxy.¹

She also revealed considerable reservations about the worth of some of the magical training involved in Principles of Hermetic Philosophy (first published in her Monthly Letters in 1943–1944 and subsequently published in volume form by Thoth Publications, 1999) where she says:

I have never found it satisfactory to try to work with incompatible forces at the same time, and this, I think, is a weakness in the Golden Dawn method; it is altogether too eclectic and synthetic. I have dismal recollections of consecrating the Lotus Wand to all twelve Signs of the Zodiac in a single operation. They kept on neutralising each other, and at the end of the operation one felt like the Irishman who tried to take his pigs to market, each tied to a separate string. People to whom magic is a vain observance may be contented with such methods, but for my part I never saw that Lotus Wand again, and never wanted to.²

If that is how she felt at the time, and she seems never to have been one to keep her opinions hidden under a bushel, one may not be too surprised at a certain disenchantment with this bright young spark among her hierarchical superiors, not all of whom were gifted with her degree of psychism or occult contacts, and who were presumably all too content with these vain observances while being protected by their own ineptitude. Israel Regardie was to come to much the same conclusions a decade later with those whom he dubbed the inepti rather than adepti.

However, Dion Fortune was no mere scoffer at the Order or the system, and like Israel Regardie, she was well aware of the undoubted power that lay behind it. In this she soars above the petty, spiteful, and uncomprehending criticisms of later supposedly objective commentators attempting to judge the Golden Dawn from without. Her really positive contribution to the tradition is contained in the rest of What is Occultism?, which is, in effect, a forerunner of her articles in her own magazine from 1927 to 1940, through to her Weekly and Monthly Letters of 1939 to 1944, and her first major statements of training and intent in The Esoteric Orders and Their Work and The Training and Work of an Initiate in 1928 and 1930.

There is very little that escapes her survey within these pages. From her initial general remarks on the aims of occultism, including its deeper issues, she goes on to helpful practical advice on elements of personal development, from meditation and psychism through to intimations of past lives, and the role of techniques such as astrology and numerology. Much of what she says is as relevant today as it was on the day that she wrote it, nor is she afraid to take a stand in matters that may be considered controversial—whether it be drugs, hypnosis, sexual vampirism, homosexuality, vegetarianism, or yoga practices, some of which were to receive more detailed treatment in her subsequent volume Psychic Self-Defense (1930).

Nor does she pull her punches in the later parts of the work. For instance, on meditation and psychism she says: "When… I listen to the talk of some of those who are interested in occultism, I feel as if I had returned to the