Dion Fortune and Egyptian Magic
A talk presented by Wendy Berg at the Dion Fortune Seminar, Glastonbury, September 2015
Almost everything that we know of Dion Fortune’s interpretation of ancient Egyptian magic can be found in her novel ‘Moon Magic.’ The type of magical work she describes in this novel has had quite an influence on how we tend to think of Egyptian magic, perhaps more than we realise.
In ‘Moon Magic,’ the character we have seen previously as the Sea Priestess appears again, but this time as a priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis. She is now called Lilith le Fay, and clearly represents an aspect of Dion Fortune’s own thoughts and magical experiences. Lilith describes how she has been sent to that present time and place - London of the 1930s/40s - “…..to bring certain new concepts to the mind of the race; not to its conscious mind, but to its subconscious mind.” More specifically, her aim was to help break down the old order of what was still quite a repressive morality, in many ways the legacy of the Victorian era, particularly in the restrictive attitudes towards the emotions and towards love and sex. These attitudes were exemplified by the man who became Lilith’s magical partner: Dr Rupert Malcolm, a brilliant doctor who had loyally remained in a loveless and sterile marriage to an invalid for twenty years.
In order to achieve her purpose, Lilith le Fay constructs and dedicates a temple to the goddess Isis in an abandoned church in London. She dedicates her temple by evoking and bringing down the astral form of an Egyptian temple of Isis to empower her physical temple, which is all very sound and effective magical practice. This Egyptian temple of Isis is described in detail in the novel: the temple, she says, has a long approach through an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, then the great entrance into the temple itself through the pylon gateway in the vast walls of the temple’s outer enclosure, then a pillared courtyard with a lotus pool, rows of shadowed columns and finally a great pillared hall, at the end of which, behind a curtain, is the inner sanctum.
This is where the novel begins to part company with historical accuracy. The 'Temple of Isis' she describes is in fact the great temple of Karnak in the ancient city of Thebes which was dedicated to the god Amun and his wife Mut and had very little to do with the goddess Isis. In fact so far as we know, almost no temples in ancient Egypt were dedicated to the goddess Isis. The Egyptian civilisation dates back to at least 3200 B.C but it was only when the Greeks occupied Egypt from c 330 B.C, and after the Greeks the Romans (from c 30 B.C.) that newly built temples were dedicated to Isis. Naturally enough the Greeks and Romans brought their own pantheon of deities with them and their concept of Isis was strongly influenced by their own goddesses Athene and Hera.
Anyway, having consecrated her temple, Lilith’s magical work takes place in two phases. First, she invokes the dark, negative potency of the aspect of the goddess whom Dion Fortune calls ‘the Black Isis’ and whom she associates with the powers of the dark moon, in order to bring about the breaking down of the old restrictive patterns within her priest, Rupert Malcolm. In the magical rituals they undertake together, he stands for all men while Lilith represents all women. Having achieved this stage of the work she invokes the new patterns of life and light and liberty onto her priest by calling down the regenerative power of the Bright Isis of the Moon. They work in close partnership in a magical ritual that depends primarily on the invocation of the etheric energy of the moon which is then raised to a higher level. Through their work together, these new patterns of behaviour are initiated and made available to the 'Group Mind' of the nation.
So this was her magical purpose; it’s very clearly described, and I have no doubt that Dion Fortune performed it herself. It was a successful piece of magical ritual which undoubtedly had an effect, and continues to have an effect, far beyond the confines of the novel.
But, bearing in mind that this is described as 'Egyptian Magic' there is very little in this that the ancient Egyptians would have recognised. They didn’t practice this type of intense, exclusive priest/priestess relationship in their magical work. They weren’t concerned with introducing new concepts into the mind of the race but with protecting, conserving and maintaining an existing harmonious balance of form and energy between the starry heavens and the physical land of Egypt. This concept could be summarised in the single word Maat, which means ‘balance, order, harmony;’ a name which was also ascribed to a goddess. And they didn’t practice ‘moon magic’ at all, at least not in the sense described in the novel. They didn’t think of the moon as a source of etheric power as is it is described in the novel and in any case they regarded the moon as male, not female, so they made no link at all between the moon and the goddess Isis. This connection was only made much later in the Greco/Roman reinterpretation of Isis and of course by Dion Fortune herself.
I'm sure that Dion Fortune did not deliberately set out to mislead her readers or to misrepresent the magical work of the ancient Egyptians. The problem was that very little was known about Egyptian magic in her time, as has been the case for most of the last 2000 years. The ancient Egyptians didn’t write down much of their magical belief and what they did record was of course in the sacred language of the hieroglyphs. Unfortunately from about 300 A.D. until the early 19th century nobody knew how to read the hieroglyphs, so almost all information about ancient Egypt was lost. This meant that what the ancient Egyptians actually got up to, apart from building colossal temples and pyramids with their bare hands, was a mystery for nearly 2000 years until the Frenchman Champollion famously rediscovered how to translate the hieroglyphs in the early 19th century - and even then it was quite a while before the ancient texts could be properly understood.
The aspect of Egyptian magic that came through the most strongly in Dion Fortune’s time - as it still does today - was of the striking images of the gods and goddesses which are so evident in the ancient temples: the colossal statues, the engravings, the wall paintings which still retain some of their bright colours. If you stand in an Egyptian temple you can’t help but think that Egyptian magic is all about gods and goddesses and it can quite naturally seem as if Egyptian magic is based upon their invocation and presence.
My own understanding of Egyptian magic is that in addition to - or perhaps together with - the preservation of the balanced harmonious state of Maat and the relationship between the stars and the earth, it was concerned with the opening up the immense potential of human consciousness, through the development of the higher powers of the mind and imagination. Their ultimate aim was that each individual should achieve a level of consciousness which has progressed up through the Inner levels of the earth and to the sun, then to function eventually at a level which is the equivalent of the stars, to reach a state of spiritual being that we might call ‘stellar consciousness.’ When the ancient Egyptians looked at the night sky they saw an individual soul in each star, just as Osiris had become transformed into the constellation of Orion or 'Sahu.' They believed that each star in the sky was quite literally the shining light of an individual spirit, and that in a very real sense what we see ‘out there’ when we look at the night sky is as it were a projected image of the spiritual light we contain within us, ‘in here.’ But very little of this was known or understood in Dion Fortune’s time, so she focussed, necessarily, on what was known then - and perhaps also on what she conjectured.
The question of course is: “does it matter?” Does it matter that Dion Fortune’s interpretation of Egyptian magic is not accurate. Well, no, because the magic described in Moon Magic is comprehensible, it can be replicated, and it works. But, on the other hand, yes, because it’s best to have the facts about anything that we undertake, especially in magical work, so that we can make a clear choice as to the best and most appropriate way forward. Dion Fortune's understandable emphasis in the novel on the invocation of goddess Isis, on the moon, and on the concept of magic worked between a priest and priestess can prevent us from looking further when we seek to understand the real magic of ancient Egypt.
And yet there are aspects of Moon Magic that are extraordinarily ahead of her time. For example, as I mentioned earlier, an aspect of the goddess Isis which is emphasised in the novel is the aspect Dion Fortune calls “the Black Isis,” a term which so far as I know she invented although I’m very happy to be corrected on this! I’ll quote from Moon Magic again - and we must bear in mind that this was written some eighty years ago and therefore not in the language we would use today: “At the far end of the long pillared temple…...was a sloping passageway that led underground from this temple to another, a temple in the distant hills. ….It was a temple of a more ancient faith, being predynastic. It must, I think, have belonged to the black Hamitic people who preceded the red Egyptian stock, for its goddess was of black basalt and Her features were negroid.” So Dion Fortune is saying that this temple in the desert hills that can be accessed from the main temple dates from before the documented reigns of the first Egyptian Pharaohs, i.e. before c 3200 B.C.
This passage is surprising in a number of ways. First, she was extraordinarily ahead of her time in her recognition that what we think of as the ancient Egyptian civilisation was possibly the descendant of a black African culture that had existed thousands of years previously. This culture, as we now know, had existed in what is now the Sahara desert but which until around 3,500 B.C. had received plenty of rain and was fertile savannah. But when Dion Fortune described this Black African people as the predecessors of the ancient Egyptians there was very little available evidence of it; it has really only been brought into the public eye in the last 20 years or so. What she accurately recognises as the Black origin of the Egyptian civilisation was strongly resisted in academic circles for many years and I can only imagine the ruffling of feathers that this paragraph might have caused at the time if it had been read by the academic community.
But there is no evidence, either physical, written or mythological, that such a temple to a 'black' goddess actually existed in the desert hills as an extension of any Egyptian temple. It certainly wouldn’t have existed as an extension to the temple of Karnak as she suggests, as this would have involved digging a tunnel for many miles under the soft mud of the Nile valley.
Dion Fortune also says that this temple of the Black Isis was used for human sacrifice, and I have to say that I think she is wrong in this statement: there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever practised by the ancient Egyptians and I think the very idea would have been anathema to them. Whether or not it was practiced by their remote ancestors - well, we don’t know that either.
So having seemingly dismissed much of Moon Magic as having nothing to do with Egyptian magic, what are we left with? Well, quite a lot!
An important element in Egyptian magic was that it was founded on certain qualities and features which are inherent within the land of Egypt itself, as if the very land is a mirror of the heavens. This means that the actual land of Egypt can function as an archetype or template of universal patterns which can be transferred to other lands and times. Dion Fortune’s remarkable achievement was to transfer these features to central London and the River Thames so that in effect she brings the essence of ancient Egypt into the heart of London.
For example, a unique feature of the Egyptian landscape is that the River Nile travels more or less due North through the entire length of Egypt - and it is the only major river in the world to do this. So there is the constant impression in Egypt of a perpetual movement of energy flowing into the North. And the North, to the ancient Egyptians, was the region of their ultimate goal in the stars, particularly the circumpolar stars which they called the Imperishable Stars - because they never set below the horizon and therefore represent the imperishable spirit. Together with Orion and Sirius, these groups of stars were the goal of the deceased in the after-life - and the goal of magical initiates in their journeys into the Inner worlds.
There’s another important element of Egyptian element in Moon Magic which I don’t think has been noticed before. We tend to think of Egypt as consisting of the River Nile and the temples and cities along the Nile valley. But 96% of Egypt is desert, and Egyptian magic is equally based on the symbolic powers of the desert. It has to be. The desert is of equal importance to the Nile because the juxtaposition of desert and river forms the primary expression of the polar opposites of spirit and matter which underpin the whole of creation and which underpinned the whole of Egyptian magical thought. The desert is intensely hot, arid, sterile, prone to strong winds and a fiercely hostile environment; it is the earth at its most raw, powerful and intense. It is an embodiment of a type of energy that has sometimes been called ‘chaotic’ or even ‘evil’ but in magical terms its energy is equal and ‘opposite’ to that of the Nile: it represents the essential ‘resistance’ or ‘negativity’ to the ‘positive’ force of the Nile. So on an inner level we can think of the desert as the ‘thrust-block’ which provides the necessary resistance to the energy represented by the Nile and enables impetus to be achieved and maintained.
The desert isn’t mentioned as such in Moon Magic but it is certainly present in the novel. The Egyptian god of the desert was Set, who embodied the raw and fierce qualities of the red desert sands and was described as having red hair. Dr Rupert Malcolm embodies these qualities of raw, fierce strength and power, and also has red hair. I don’t know if Dion Fortune gives him red hair coincidentally, intuitively or as a deliberate but veiled reference to the god Set, but in the novel he certainly represents the magical qualities of the desert. If we think of Dr Malcolm in this way, this transforms the novel into something quite different and much more relevant to our present understanding. It is empowering and magically more effective to think of Rupert Malcolm as representing the power of the desert in his Egyptian partnership with Lilith le Fay rather than seeing him as a 1930s version of the hapless sacrificial priest.
There is also a fundamental distinction in Egyptian magic between the East bank of the River Nile which is the land of the living and symbolic of the outerworld, and the West bank of the Nile which was where the tombs were located and which was symbolic of the Inner worlds. Dion Fortune beautifully recreates this in Moon Magic by setting the novel in the small area of central London in which the Thames runs due North: the section between Vauxhall Bridge and Waterloo Bridge which, as it happens, is marked in the North by the Egyptian obelisk known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needle.’ Rupert Malcolm lives in Pimlico which, if we mentally superimpose a map of Egypt onto this small section of London, coincides with the southwestern part of Egypt that was once home to a major group of their remote ancestors. When you read the novel it’s good to get these directions clear in your mind’s eye. The Nile, and this section of the Thames, run from South to North. Rupert Malcolm lives on the ‘West’ bank of the river. The disused church which Lilith le Fay transforms into a temple of Isis is on the ‘East’ bank, which is the side of the river on which almost all the Egyptian temples were built. It is the light from the setting sun which catches the West-facing window of this temple which initially attracts Rupert Malcom’s eye. Later in the evening he watches the lights shining through the window from the candles that have been lit inside, as Lilith opens her temple to ancient Egypt.
We too can stand in vision in the West and look over the river towards the temple on the East bank, and see lights shining from within the building, as if the window is a gateway to another brighter, sunlit land of ancient wisdom. We may find that images or symbols appear in this window, as if it was a great lens or magnifying glass that brings images from ancient Egypt into our own land and time.