I like to attune myself, imaginally, to significant moments in time, place and culture. I have always done this but I now think of it as an aspect of my Druidry. I have become more conscious about it.
Here I am contemplating an alignment of 1930’s Britain, Brean Down on the North Somerset coast (Bell Head in the book), and the occultist Dion Fortune. I am especially thinking of her determination to “bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed”. Rather than being a review of her book The Sea Priestess (1), this post is a reflection on spiritual ancestry, and an acknowledgement of her project’s success. As the publisher of the 2003 edition happily notes, “The Sea Priestess is a classic occult teaching novel with romantic overtones, and a foundation work for modern Wicca, paganism, and ritual magic”.
Gareth Knight outlines the main theme in his foreword to the 2003 edition. “The story concerns a high initiate, Vivien Le Fay Morgan – or Morgan Le Fay as she comes to be called – who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means, she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local real estate agent, Wilfred Maxwell, who has the necessary professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient skills to help her refurbish and redecorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.”
Wilfrid and Morgan get to know each other at weekends where he is busy turning an old army fort at the point of Bell Head, named Bell Knowle, into Morgan’s temple. They become close. But Morgan’s purpose is not personal. Working under the aegis of the Priest of the Moon, a discarnate being, she seeks to connect herself to “the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself. This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinox, whereby in the coming Age of the Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realization of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess, who, as our Lady Isis, comprises all goddesses – of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon”.
Morgan needs Wilfrid’s help in performing a ritual that depends on an exchange of sexual energy without involving physical sex. He needs to be in love with her, or at least infatuated, for the ritual to work. But there is to be no relationship thereafter. Morgan is completely honest about this with Wilfrid, but he finds it too difficult to take in. After the ritual, and the great storm and destruction of the temple that follows, Morgan disappears. Wilfrid is left with a brief letter re-emphasising that there is to be no further contact between them. There is no forwarding address. Wilfrid falls to pieces.
But this is not the end. Morgan has scrupulously adhered to an ethic of reciprocity in work of this kind. She has subtly nudged events so that he makes a connection with a young woman – his secretary at the estate agency – and they marry. There are pragmatic reasons for this too. Molly needs to escape from a violent and chaotic step father. Wilfrid (now aged 36) needs to stop living with his mother and older sister; he also needs to sort out his post-ritual depression and alcohol problems. Marriage as a solution is enabled by Wilfrid’s domestic neediness and Molly’s compulsive care-giving, shaky emotional foundations for a life-partnership. Morgan’s contribution is to lay the ground work for greater possibilities. She has already arranged to leave her magically imbued sapphires for Wilfrid’s wife to be.
After their marriage, the newly weds move out of town to Bell Head, where Morgan’s caretakers had kept a small farm. Morgan’s temple is ruined, but they inherit her books and magical working records. These influences inspire Molly to start “talking to the moon”. She begins to take on her own priestess role. Wilfrid recollects: “it was all different here from the fort, and yet it was taking on a life of its own. There was more of earth and less of the sea than out on the point, just as there was more of earth in Molly than in Morgan; yet it was cosmic earth, and I remember that the Great Goddess ruled both moon and earth and sea. Molly would never be a Sea Priestess, like Morgan, but there was awaking in her something of the primordial woman, and it was beginning to answer to the need in me.”
At the end of the book, on a midsummer’s night, the couple light a fire of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Such a fire is known as a Fire of Azrael, first prepared by Wilfrid when working with Morgan. It enables trance states and communication with the ‘inner planes’, especially if blended with moonlight. Molly receives an extended transmission from the Priest of Moon, and her subtle sexual energies are enlivened. For “the Astral plane is ruled by the moon and the woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force”. Molly initiates the consummation of the couple’s magical relationship. They have now received the touch of Isis and the gates of the inner life are open.
I experience The Sea Priestess now, on the third of three readings separated by many years, as a voice from long ago. In some ways it isn’t. My parents were born within a few years of the fictional Molly, and had nowhere near this sense of gender, sexuality or spirituality, let alone magic. I suppose my own sense of temporal distance is partly due to the dynamic evolution of her influence, and that of others like her, in successive generations – not least in the thirty years since I first read The Sea Priestess. If she now seems old-fashioned, it is a back-handed tribute to the creative power she helped to unleash. Before we think of her being old-fashioned even today, we have to ask ourselves: compared to whom?
(1) Dion Fortune The Sea Priestess Boston, MA & York Beach, ME: Weiser, 2003 (Copyright 1935 Society of the Inner Light)