Dion Fortune (1890-1946, birth name Violet Firth) was one of the most influential figures in the birth of Modern Witchcraft. I think her shadow is not quite as large today as it was forty years ago (the sheer volume of Witch and magickal materials making some of her works unnecessary), but her influence remains strong. Fifteen years before Doreen Valiente wrote her Charge of the Goddess, Fortune expressed many of the same ideas, and perhaps just as elegantly.
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Fortune wrote twenty books during her lifetime along with numerous magazine and journal articles. She was an extremely committed occultist and was a part of several esoteric groups. The most famous of those was probably the order Alpha et Omega, an offshoot of the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She was also a member of the Theosophical Society, studied Freemasonry, and went on to found the Fraternity of Inner Light, known today as the Society of Inner Light.
Like many of the occultists of her day, Fortune had varied interests spiritually. She wrote on the Kabbalah and other forms of Western magical practice; and her book Psychic Self-Defense is still considered a classic eighty years after it was published. (And interestingly enough, found a new life in the 1960’s and 70’s with the boom in occult publishing.) The reality of lost-Atlantis was an important part of her world view and she also worked with secret-chiefs and ascended masters. Most importantly for us, she also wrote vividly about deities such as Isis and Pan, and she did so in ways that are familiar to most Modern Witches.
Where To Start
The most important book Fortune wrote of interest to Witches is The Sea Priestess (1938) and it’s the only book I truly consider essential (I know some of you think that’s blasphemous, too bad). Before anyone runs out to pick it up I should warn you that The Sea Priestess is not a great piece of literature. The first half of the book is kind of a slog and the casual racism scattered throughout is painful. It’s not a terribly difficult read but it’s a bit boring and Fortune’s rather hackneyed name for her priestess-figure (Vivien Le Fay Morgan) is more humorous than awe-inspiring. If you can get past all of that though you will be rewarded as a reader, because once Fortune finally gets to the actual spiritual stuff in her novel the book truly shines.
There are four ideas in The Sea Priestess that have directly impacted not just Modern Wiccan-Witchcraft, but also the broader Neo-Pagan movement, and Fortune writes about them clearly and without reservation. Her belief in their reality is so sure-footed that she can express all of them clearly in just a a couple of sentences:
‘You were more than a priestess to me in that cave,’ I said. ‘I thought you were Aphrodite herself.’
‘I was more than Aphrodite,’ she said, ‘I was the Great Mother.’
‘But the Great Mother is an earth goddess,’ said I. ‘How can you be her priestess as well as the priestess of the sea?’
‘Do you not know the Mystery saying that all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is but one initiator? Do you not know that at The dawn of manifestation the gods wove the web of creation between the poles of the pairs of opposites, active and passive, positive and negative, and that all things are these two things in different ways and upon different levels, even priests and priestesses . . . . .’
–The Sea Priestess, page 172
While The Sea Priestess only contains one major scene devoted to the concept that today we call drawing down the moon, the idea that deity can show up in the body of a human being fuels the entire book. Le Fey Morgan is more than just a person, she can become the Great Mother, which is another idea Fortune can just casually toss off. The idea that there might be one Goddess made up of many goddesses was not new, but Fortune expresses it so elegantly that you want to take her words and shoe-horn them into your next ritual.
In the excerpt quoted above Fortune presents yet another idea, the idea of polarity in magical practice. Again, perhaps not the newest idea, but the way it’s presented by Fortune makes it easy to grasp. In The Sea Priestess there can be no ritual activity like our drawing down the moon without a force equal and opposite her Le Fey Morgan, and this is achieved when High Priestess and High Priest come together:
“I felt a strange feeling stealing over me as if I were going into a trance; and I saw that Morgan’s hands were no longer upheld, but stretched out and parallel, palms facing; and between those outheld palms my very life was being drawn in.” –The Sea Priestess, page 221
Four pages later Fortune’s Le Fey Morgan recites a proto-Charge of the Goddess while again remarking on the powers of polarity:
“I am the star that rises from the sea—
The twilight sea.
I bring men dreams that rule their destiny.
I bring the dream-tides to the souls of men;
The tides that ebb and flow and ebb again—
These are my secret, these belong to me—
I am the eternal Woman, I am she!
The tides of all men’s souls belong to me.
The tides that ebb and flow and ebb again;
The silent, inward tides that govern men—
These are my secret, these belong to me.
Out of my hands he takes his destiny.
Touch of my hands confers polarity.
These are the moon-tides, these belong to me—
Hera in heaven, on earth, Persephone;
Levanah of the tides, and Hecate.
Diana of the Moon, Star of the Sea—
Isis Unveiled and Ea, Binah, Ge!”
–The Sea Priestess, page 225
There’s some argument among Fortune’s biographers and admirers over whether or not she was “pagan.” The simple truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter in any way, shape, or form. Her writings about deities were powerful and influential, how much she believed or didn’t in their reality is inconsequential. (Of course reading those bits up there, I think it’s obvious she was a believer, and if those ideas mixed with some Christian ones, so be it!)
Fortune didn’t limit her work to goddesses, she also wrote about male deities in her fiction, and did so most powerfully in The Goat Foot God (1936). What makes The Goat Foot God an also-ran when compared to The Sea Priestess is that it lacks the powerful ritual writing that makes the latter so essential. However, if you want to catch a glimpse of what one of Fortune’s Pan rituals might have been like you can find it in Gareth Knight’s Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan (2013) which present Fortune inspired and designed rituals without much fuss. If you were to ask me what book to buy after Sea Priestess I’d probably recommend Rites of Isis and Pan over any of Fortune’s actual works.
(You also might have a Dion Fortune Witch ritual in your library already and not be aware of it. Janet and Stewart Farrar’s Eight Sabbats For Witches/The Witch’s Bible contains a handfasting ritual that directly quotes from The Sea Priestess. It’s not an extensive amount of quotation, but it does illustrate just how easily Fortune’s words can be adapted for Witch Ritual. If you are wondering why there aren’t more Fortune/Sea Priestess inspired rituals out there in print, it’s because her Society of the Inner Light holds the copyright to her works. I’ve got a lovely Fortune-ritual I’d love to show you, but the hurdles I’d have to jump through to share it just aren’t worth it.)
Fortune wrote two additional fiction books that have (possibly) had an impact on Modern Witchcraft. 1935’s The Winged Bull is more love story than esoteric text and the story’s villain bears more than a passing resemblance to Aleister Crowley. 1956’s Moon Magic expands upon many of the ideas first written about in Priestess, but was left unfinished upon her death and was finished by another writer. For this reason I’m a bit more wary of it.
Fortune wrote several occult texts outside the realm of fiction, and for many decades they were considered classics. I don’t think they hold up all that well, but The Mystical Qabalah (1935) has been influential over the last seventy-five years, as has Psychic Self-Defense (1930). Fortune’s non-fiction work has value if you are interested in the topics she writes about, less so if you don’t.
Biographies of Dion Fortune
I’m not sure if every Witch needs to read a biography of Dion Fortune, but reading about her life is worth your time. Fortune occupies a strange moment in occult history. Her heyday occured in the quiet storm between the collapse of the original Golden Dawn and the first flowering of Theosophy, and the Witchcraft revival which would begin just a few short years after her death. She was a part of the less glamorous occult-world of the 1920’s and 1930’s and her life-story provides a strong entryway into that world.
Her most acclaimed biographer is Alan Richardson whose Priestess: The Life and Magic of Dion Fortune (Revised edition 2007) is (as of this writing) the definitive biography of Fortune. Richardson wrote a mini-biography of Fortune in 2009 in which her story is told side by side with that of Aleister Crowley. If you want to learn more about Fortune and want to do so quickly this is a pretty good option. However, the story starts at the end of her life and unfolds in reverse chronological order. As a reader I found this to be a really annoying way to tell a story.
Also worth reading is The Story of Dion Fortune by Charles Fielding (1985/1988). Fielding’s book has some excerpts from the magical works of Fortune and her working partner Charles Seymour. Janine Chapman’s Quest for Dion Fortune (1993) isn’t a biography in the classic sense but is fabulous story featuring appearances by many people who knew Fortune during her lifetime. Out of all the books written about in this section it’s the only one currently out of print, but is easily found used at a reasonable price.
I often recommend Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (1999) for its biographical bits and I’m going to do so again here. Hutton’s exploration of Fortune covers the essentials, but she was such an interesting figure that I think you’ll want to read more. If you liked this article and want to dig a little deeper you should find Chas Clifton’s article The Novels of Dion Fortune and the Development of Gardnerian Witchcraft online. I know how to find it but I’m not sure the site hosting it is doing so with his permission.
So there you go, Dion Fortune, hugely influential, get to reading!