Dion Fortune and Merlin
A talk given by Wendy Berg to the Dion Fortune Seminar 2018
held in Glastonbury Town Hall on Saturday 22nd September
I’d like to speak today about Dion Fortune and Merlin.
There has to be a Merlin with Dion Fortune! There is no way that the most influential and forward-looking occultist of the 20th century would not have had a connection with Merlin and would not have been guided by him in some shape or form. We know that Merlin was there with Dion Fortune, just as he is always here, somewhere, in the background to our magical work. Just as we know that of course there must be a Gandalf to guide the Fellowship of the Ring, or a Dumbledore to guide Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or a Yoda to guide the Jedi Knights.
When we think about the connection between Merlin and Dion Fortune, it’s important though to bear in mind that in the 1930s very little had been published about Merlin apart from a few versions of the Arthurian and Grail legends, and some academic studies of mediaeval literature. It’s only in the last 30 years or so that a great deal of new information has come to light, pioneered by folk such as R.J. Stewart, and John and Caitlin Matthews. Their research into and perception of Merlin brings to light much that is found for example in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain in which Merlin is depicted as a wild man of the woods, living alone, half mad, having been much affected by witnessing the death of his friends in battle, and at the same time inspired with visions and given to prophecy. Similar but earlier material is found for example in The Black Book of Carmarthen.
There’s a great deal in these stories of Merlin that we can relate to. They provide readable descriptions of his appearance and his life in the wilds which makes it easy for us to visualise him. He appears quite close to our own lives because he is dealing with recognisable human problems in a recognisable human world. But of course none of this more recently discovered material was available to Dion Fortune, so we can only look to her own writings for information on how she perceived Merlin, and how he appeared to her. And this is where it becomes a little more difficult because, surprisingly, she has left almost no written reference to how she was influenced by him or what her method of contact was with him, and although there are many word for word written accounts of her conversations with numerous other Inner plane guides, none refer to Merlin. Which came as a bit of a shock to me when I began to write this talk.
We find her fullest commentary on Merlin in her ‘Avalon of the Heart,’ which was first published in 1934. In this book, Merlin is very tentatively described as a possible guide who might have come from Atlantis and who might possibly have brought the magical powers of especially bred Atlantean priesthood, to Britain. It does sound as if DF is hesitant in putting these ideas into writing, presumably because they were new and quite revolutionary at the time.
She writes: “Is there any possibility that in the legends of Merlin and the drowned lands of Lyonesse we are touching the history of Lost Atlantis? Is there any possibility that Avalon, with its undercurrent of pagan legend, was originally an Atlantean colony? Is it possible that Merlin was an Atlantean - a priest-initiate; and in presiding at the birth of Arthur he was carrying out the Atlantean custom of kings bred for wisdom? In order to bring the higher consciousness of the evolved Atlantean race into the Celtic tribes of the colonized island, did Merlin in defiance of the strict laws of the sacred clan, and in pursuit of ends of his own, cross the Atlantean stock on the Celt, and so breed Arthur?”
In the early 1930s there was nothing untoward in these views but there is much here that we might now feel uneasy about. And I must say that it does provide us with a very positive affirmation of how we have changed over the last 80 years or so regarding these ‘Atlantean’ ideas of elitism, special breeding, forced marriages, segregation, privilege and a caste system which were thought of rather differently in the 1930s.
Now wouldn’t it have been interesting if someone had said to Dion Fortune: “No, sorry, no possibility whatsoever, silly idea, just forget it.” Wouldn’t the course of 20th century magic have been so very different if we hadn’t had these ideas of Atlantis, with its sacred clans, special breeding, forced marriages, segregation, superior blood-lines and elitism conveyed to us? Later, in 1940, she stated confidently and in very different terms: “Merlin was unquestionably a druid priest and tradition declares him to be an Atlantean.” A tradition, of course, which she had invented. (quoted in The Magical Battle of Britain ed Gareth Knight, published by Skylight Press, page 46)
However, it’s important to place these ideas within the context of Dion Fortune’s magical environment at the time. She was establishing a new, different, forward-looking, expansive and inclusive magical fraternity that would be based on the best of what was already in place, but would also speak to people who had just come through the 1st World War and were looking forwards to a new order of things; the new generation of the 20th century who were beginning to set the pattern for the coming of the Aquarian Age. So she needed on the one hand to emphasise the magical tradition in which she and her group could claim authenticity, while on the other hand she needed to find something new, some new way of thinking, some new magical impulse, on which to carry things forward.
As we know, all this is very necessary for anyone starting a new esoteric school - or a new school of anything, come to that - and a method which we all adopt when needs be. We claim our tradition and we name - or at least mysteriously hint at - our Inner plane teachers, and the longer and older that tradition, and the more exalted the teachers, the better.
So Dion Fortune’s position was that while she acknowledged the influence of those who had immediately preceded her: the Theosophists such as Blavatsky and Besant, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Masonry, spiritualism and so on, the something new and different was Merlin, and Atlantis. She herself believed that she was a Priestess from Atlantis. But up until then, although the concept of Atlantis was beginning to appear in esoteric theory, it was certainly not a name that was generally known and recognised as it is today.
However, no sooner had she introduced the possibility of recalling your past life in Atlantis and had given it some authority and credence, than everyone wanted to do it, so that it became, it seems to me, almost the pre-requisite of any magical priest or priestess worth their salt. It does seem to have created quite a pressure on the members of her Fraternity to recall the details of their life in Atlantis in order to be taken seriously. Some of their descriptions are interesting to read; others are a little less convincing.
So, for example, if we read some of the descriptions written by her and members of her magical Fraternity of the sacred mountain of Atlantis with its three levels of existence we find that although life for the priests sounds fine in their comfortable and privileged existence on the top level, conditions further down the mountain were not so good. “All slaves were branded on the chest with a hot iron; their skin was like leather and they made no fuss. They ate their dead, and in their little wattle hovels their pickled joints could be seen hanging about.” And it gets worse…. “There was no drainage system. Garbage was thrown over the side of the mountain and the lower population lived on it….much was left uncleared but in those days the sense of smell was not much developed.” Well, thank goodness for that. (quoted from The Arthurian Formula, ed Gareth Knight, published by Skylight Press, page 161)
Now I’m in no position to say whether or not this is a true and accurate description of life at the foot of the sacred mountain, or even if there was a sacred mountain, or even if there was an Atlantis. I don’t think any of us are, although the idea became thoroughly embedded in the magical beliefs of Dion Fortune's Fraternity, now the Society of the Inner Light, whose magical practice at all levels is based on these 'memories' of Atlantis and the 'recreation' of its priesthood. To my mind, the point is not that we should become embroiled in Atlantean garbage disposal systems but look a little higher.
As I mentioned, one of the threads of the magical tradition DF aligned herself and her group with, was that of the Theosophists such as Blavatsky, not least in Blavatsky’s description of what she called the seven root races of humanity. She named the first five of these root races as the Arctic, Hyperborean, Lemurian, Atlantean, the so-called Aryan root race of the present, and there are still two more to come. In this overview of the entire cycle of human history, the ‘root race’ acts as a sort of essential representative or central focus from which all else develops during that Age. As with any group or organisation, in accordance with natural law and the inevitable progress of evolution, each of these Ages, and each Root Race, eventually comes to a natural end but the best of their knowledge, achievements and wisdom are transmitted to the next Age in a series of evolutionary waves, so that each new human civilisation builds on the progress of the previous ages. This might all sound like remote and obscure occult theory but if we apply the same ideas to our own lives as a general principle of how things work, it makes common sense - which is what we want.
Another way of thinking about this seven-fold progression of humanity is to consider each Age as a stage in the gradual unfolding and development of our consciousness, both in the very general terms of the entire history of humanity’s life on earth, but also in the way in which we are each progressing during our own present lives. It is generally said in this vast overall view of history that the Atlanteans had reached the stage in human development where they possessed strongly developed natural instincts, so they were psychically well attuned to natural energies and were very sensitive to sound, colour and light. On the other hand what was just beginning to develop for them was the gradual opening up and exploration of their emotional bodies, perhaps as we tend to do in our youth, with all the turbulent upheavals that entails. Their emotional stage, according to this theory, was at what is now sometimes called the lower emotional body in which the instincts of fight or flight are the most pronounced.
What the Atlanteans hadn’t really developed at all, according to this scheme, was the use of the so-called concrete mind or lower mind: the rational, reasoning part of our consciousness that allows us to acquire knowledge, to learn, to make rational, logical and objective decisions - a faculty that we have now developed to a considerable extent. This means that although the Atlanteans were good at tuning in to, and using, the psychic energies and were effective in the practice of a type of instinctual magic, they lacked the higher understanding of what they were doing and why.
It is usually agreed that magically, things didn’t always go too well in Atlantis; inevitably their instinctual powers were not always used for the general good but for individual ego, power and advancement so that things could get out of hand, and that there was a conflict between the so-called ‘white’ magicians and the ‘black’ magicians which is said to have been in part responsible for the end of that Age.
Following this line of thought through to ourselves as the fifth ‘wave’ of humanity, and the future sixth and seventh root races, it seems that what humanity still has to develop is to gain understanding and control over our emotional bodies, to learn to become less ruled by our instincts towards fight or flight, and to develop our higher emotions of love, tolerance and compassion. Also to become less reliant on our so-called lower minds that acquire knowledge, until we relate to life purely through our higher minds which bring us the ability to intuitively understand the whole picture of things and to understand how everything is related to everything else - until ultimately we evolve into entirely spiritual beings. Still a little way to go yet, but I think we’re getting there.
I’ve emphasised this connection between Dion Fortune, Merlin and Atlantis for two reasons. First, that it’s easy to focus on the apparently glamorous ‘magic’ side of Atlantis - which I think DF is a little guilty of encouraging in novels such as The Sea Priestess - rather than get to the point of the exercise. Which is to consider that if indeed Merlin is bringing us the wisdom of the highest achievement of sacred and magical work practiced in Atlantis, what is that wisdom? What is the message that Merlin conveyed to Dion Fortune, and conveys now to us, regarding our magical and spiritual progress and our work on the evolutionary path for the benefit of all humanity? And how can we pass that on to those who follow us?
In this regard, we find that Dion Fortune does make one specific comment which wonderfully defines Merlin’s teaching as: “Knowledge of the use of the invisible forces for the Group Mind and racial consciousness.” (The Arthurian Formula page 72)\
What she’s telling us here is that although what we think of as magical work might be traced back to Atlantis, we now need to apply our knowledge of what these invisible energies or forces are, which will lead us to understand what we’re doing, and how, and why. In other words, we need to apply the ability of our rational, so-called lower or concrete mind which brings discretion. Although the Atlanteans may have been adept in instinctively tuning in to the unseen energies, we need to learn about what they are rather than rely on instinct or gut feeling.
The second point DF is makes in this statement is we should now, under Merlin’s guidance, think in terms of the group rather than our individual needs. By Group Mind, she means any group which we work in or identify with, from this temporary group gathered here today, to the esoteric groups we work in, to the land and nation we identify with and indeed to the group which is the whole of humanity.
And by ‘racial consciousness’ - not a term we would use nowadays - she’s referring to the way in which new ideas, or trends, or movements suddenly seem to take hold in many people’s minds simultaneously across the world. Movements such as the Arab Spring, or Populism, or the ‘Not in my name’ movement, or ‘Me Too.’
The Group Mind now, is moving towards thinking in Aquarian rather than Piscean terms. We are moving towards thinking in terms of synthesis rather than segregation, inclusiveness rather than hierarchy, individual gnosis rather than restrictive authority, and in terms of diversity, equality, good will and compassion. None of these qualities, it seems, were present in Atlantis. So again it’s encouraging to realise that we are moving forward.
But this presents us with quite a challenge if we try to identify anything specific that Merlin taught Dion Fortune, and which he is teaching us, because it means that Merlin is working at a higher level than we might suppose. It means that he has no concern for our individual lives, nor with providing us with specific information. It means that he doesn’t offer us personal guidance, or help us in making decisions as to whether to do this, or that. And even if it makes sense to us that Merlin was once in Atlantis, he certainly isn’t going to teach us about Atlantis! He’s going to teach us about how to develop the mental and spiritual capacities that we already possess in order to achieve a greater understanding of the Inner causes behind outward appearances. How to achieve a better understand the energies of the universe in which we live, how to develop a higher, more abstract, more universal sense of understanding of why things are as they are - and how to use them for the greater good.
And to all that, I would like to add something that I’m sure DF was aware of: the idea of Britain as Merlin’s Enclosure. That the very land and surrounding islands of Britain are somehow particular and essential to Merlin’s work. Another of her Inner plane contacts, some time in the early 1930s, told her that Merlin was the ‘Logos of the Green Ray in these Islands.’ And there is much in this statement that we can relate to. This places Merlin behind the inspiration and power that reaches us through the elemental contacts, through the Faery tradition, through the appreciation of the Earth as a living organism whose energy can be contacted through its sacred sites, standing stones and circles, ley lines and especially through the sacred landscapes of Britain.
So what can we say with certainty about Merlin? We can say that he Merlin is an initiator. He begins work which will some time later bring something new to birth. He directs that first spark of inspiration and illumination from which new ventures and new projects take shape. This type of guidance will usually come through as a faintly perceived impulse, an intuitively grasped concept or idea which may take time to bring down into full waking consciousness. He indicates the way forward for humanity, he indicates the way things are moving and the way in which we can align ourselves with each new impetus, and he does that through a particular connection with the land and landscape of Britain: “Merlin’s Enclosure.”
We can see how he did exactly this for Dion Fortune. In the 1920s she founded what was then a new, different, progressive, radical thinking, inclusive, wide-ranging, broad-based, magical Fraternity. She took the best that had been achieved at her time, developed it in leaps and bounds, made its wisdom more accessible to more people and moved us all forward on the path, even though that flame has now largely passed elsewhere. What Merlin didn’t do was to provide her, or us, with specific or detailed advice which can easily be put into words.
Here’s a suggestion of how we might put this into practice. In Glastonbury Tor, we have the perfect example of a sacred ‘mountain’. And, in whatever way we understand this, it is somehow connected to the whole of Britain. At the back of all magical work is our ability to make the connection in our own awareness between above and below, or between spirit and earth, or between within and without. A good way of doing this is to use the power of seven. We can make a connection between the seven centres of energy or chakras of our bodies, the seven levels of our aura or subtle bodies, the seven levels of our awareness - etheric, lower and upper emotional, lower and upper intellectual, lower and upper spiritual, the seven planes of manifestation through which spirit descends to physical matter - and even the seven Ages of humanity.
This sounds like a lot to keep in mind at one time, but it is possible to ‘just do it,’ by using the ‘as if’ technique. If we believe and act ‘as if’ it’s perfectly possible, it can become so.
So here’s a short meditation in which we can try this. If you like, close your eyes, or if you prefer, just listen with your eyes open.
Imagine yourself standing at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. And when you look up at it, it is transformed. It is no longer a physical hill of grass and earth, but a shining, crystalline hill which appears to have a golden spire rising from its summit. To rise the top will require no physical effort but can be achieved purely in your own consciousness. Be aware first of your physical body and ensure that it is quiet and still. Now move your awareness to your etheric body…. and you might like to take a deep breath as you connect with it.
Now, move your focus to your lower emotional body of instincts and passions. Ensure that it is at peace. Now, move your awareness upwards into your higher emotions of love, compassion and creativity. Ensure that they are awake.
Now move your awareness up into your lower mind with its qualities of reasoning, learning, knowledge, logic and deduction, and appreciate how you benefit from these abilities.
Now move your awareness up into your higher mind which shines with spiritual intuition, with faith and with wisdom.
And you find that you are standing on the summit of the shining, crystalline hill - although above you still, like a golden tower stretching upwards into the heavens, are the two remaining levels which represent your spiritual bodies.
From here, you can see all around you in a complete circle of the landscape. And you also have inner vision of the past, present and future. Where you stand, you become aware of a voice of guidance which is Merlin. Let us stay here, for a minute or two………..
When you are ready, visualise yourself returning back down into your physical body, and return to this place and time.