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'The Sea Priestess' is Dion Fortune's attempt to alert the uninitiated into the possibilities of esoteric wisdom. A lonely estate agent, Wilfrid Maxwell, is drawn to an apparently ageless woman of great psychic ...
'The Sea Priestess' is Dion Fortune's attempt to alert the uninitiated into the possibilities of esoteric wisdom. A lonely estate agent, Wilfrid Maxwell, is drawn to an apparently ageless woman of great psychic power, and embarks on a 'sexless affair' into other dimensions of reality, becoming drawn inexorably into contact with an ancient cult whose sacrifice he fears he will become.
A thrilling read in its own right, 'The Sea Priestess' is, in reality (like all Fortune's fiction) a teaching novel, with very clear accounts of practical rituals. Her magnum opus, 'The Mystical Qabalah', complements this information perfectly. As Dion Fortune herself admitted, "The 'Mystical Qabalah' gives the theory but the novels give the practice. ... [t]hose who study both get the keys of the Temple put into their hands." This is a book of ancient wisdom that will profit from by being read more than once.
A thesis upon the theme: "All women are Isis, and Isis is all women."
They say that adventures are to the adventurous; but one can hardly go seeking adventure with persons dependent upon one. Had I had a young wife to face the adventure of life with me, it might have been a different story, but my sister was ten years my senior and my mother an invalid, and the family business only just enough to keep the three of us during my salad days. Adventure, therefore, was not for me, save at a risk to others which I did not feel was justifiable. Hence the need for a safety-valve.
These old journals, volume upon volume of them, lie in a tin trunk in the attic. I have dipped into them occasionally, but they are dreary reading; all the pleasure lay in the writing of them. They are an objective chronicle of things seen through the eyes of a provincial business man. Very small beer indeed, if I may be allowed to say so.
But at a certain point there comes a change. The subjective becomes objective. But where, and exactly how, I cannot say for certain. It was in an endeavour to elucidate the whole business that I began to read through the later journals systematically and finally to write the whole thing out. It makes a curious story and I do not pretend to understand it. I had hoped it would come clear in the writing, but it has not. In fact it has become more problematical. Had I not had the diary-keeping habit, much would have safely disappeared into the limbo of things forgotten; the mind could then have arranged matters in a pattern after its own liking, to suit its preconceived ideas, and the incompatibles would have slipped into the discard unnoticed.
But with things down in black and white, this could not be done, and the affair had to be faced up to as a whole. I record it for what it is worth. I am the last person to be able to assess its value. It appears to me to be a curious chapter in the history of the mind, and as such, to be of interest as data if not as literature. If I learn as much from the reliving of it as I learnt from the living of it, I shall be well repaid.
The whole thing began with a dispute over money matters. Our business is an estate agent's business which I inherited from my father. It has always been a good business, but was heavily embarrassed by speculation. My father had never been able to resist the temptation to pick up a bargain If a house which he knew had cost ten thousand to build were going for two, he had to have it. But nobody wanted these great sprawling mansions so I fell heir to a stableful of white elephants. All through my twenties and well into my thirties I wrestled with these brutes, peddling them piecemeal, till finally the business assumed a healthy complexion once more and I was in a position to do what I had long wanted to do - sell it and be rid of it - for I hated it and the whole life of that dead-alive town - and use the money to buy a partnership in a London publishing company That, I thought, would give me the entry into the life that fascinated me; and it did not seem to me a particularly wild-cat scheme financially, for business is business, whether you are selling bricks or books. I had read every biography I could lay my hands on that dealt with the world of books, and it appeared to me that there was scope for someone accustomed to business methods. I may be wrong, of course, having no first-hand experience of books and their makers, but that was how it looked to me.
So I mooted the idea to my mother and sister. They were not averse, provided I did not want them to come to London with me. This was a boon I had never expected, for I had quite thought I should have to get a house for them, as my mother would never have put up with a flat. I saw the way opening up before me in a manner I have never dared even to dream of. I saw myself leading a bachelor life in Bohemian circles, a club-man, and God knows what not. And then the blow fell. The offices of our firm were part of the big old Georgian house in which we had always lived. You couldn't sell the business without the premises because it was the best site in the town, and they wouldn't agree.
I suppose I could have forced it through and sold the house over their heads, but I didn't like to do that. My sister came up to my room and talked to me, and told me that it would kill my mother to have her home broken up. I offered to set them up in any house they fancied that was within my means, but she said no, my mother would never settle. Surely I would let her live out her old age in peace? It couldn't be for long now. (It is five years ago, and she's still going strong, so I think she would probably have transplanted all right if I had been firm).
Then my mother called me into her room, and said that to give up the house would completely disorganise all my sister's work, for all her meetings were held in our big drawing-room, and the Girls' Friendly had their headquarters in the basement, and my sister had given her whole life to her work, and it would all collapse if the house were given up, because then there would be nowhere where she could do it. I did not feel justified in going my own way in the face of all that, so I made up my mind to stick to the estate agenting. Life had its compensations. My work took me about the country in my car, and I have always been a great reader. It was the lack of congenial friends that had really been my trouble, and the prospect of making them had attracted me to the publishing idea. Still, books are no bad substitute, and I dare say I should have been pretty badly disillusioned if I had gone to London and tried to make friends. In fact, as it turned out, it was a good thing I did not make the venture, for it was just after this that my asthma started, and I should probably not have been able to stand the racket of life in London. The firm I should have sold to set up a branch office in the town, and after that the opportunity for a good sale was over, so the choice was no longer mine.
All this does not sound much like a row over business matters. Neither was there any row over the actual decision. The row came after everything was settled and I had written turning down both offers. It was a Sunday evening supper. Now, I dislike cold suppers in any case, and the vicar had preached a particularly silly sermon that evening; so I thought, at any rate, though my mother and sister liked it. They were discussing it, asked my opinion, which I would not have volunteered, and I, being a fool, said what I thought and got sat on, and then, for no reason that I have ever been able to discover, I went in off the deep end, and said that as I paid for the food on the table, I could say what I pleased at the table. Then the fun began. My womenfolk had never been talked to like that in their born days, and they didn't like it. They were both experienced parish workers, and after the first burst I was no match for them. I walked out and slammed the door, shot up the stairs three at a time, with that dreadful cold Sunday supper inside me, and had my first go of asthma on the half-landing.
They heard me, and came out to find me hanging on to the banisters and were scared. I was scared too. I thought my last hour had come. Asthma is an alarming thing, even when one is used to it, and this was my first attack.
However, I survived; and it was to the time I was lying in bed after the attack that I can trace the fountain-head of all that followed. I suppose I had been pretty drastically drugged; at any rate I was only semi-conscious and seemed to be half in and half out of my body. They had forgotten to draw the blind, and the moonlight was blazing in right on to the bed and I was too weak to get up and shut it out. I lay watching the full moon sliding across the night sky through a light haze of cloud, and wondering what the dark side of the moon was like, that no man has ever seen, or ever will see. The night sky has always had an intense fascination for me, and I never grow used to the marvel of the stars and the greater marvel of interstellar space, for it seems to me that in interstellar space must be the beginning of all things. The making of Adam from the red clay had never appealed to me; I preferred that God should geometrise.
As I lay there, doped and exhausted and half hypnotised by the moon, I let my mind range beyond time to the beginning. I saw the vast sea of infinite space, indigo-dark in the Night of the Gods; and it seemed to me that in that darkness and silence must be the seed of all being. And as in the seed is infolded the future flower with its seed, and again, the flower in the seed, so must all creation be infolded to infinite space, and I along with it.
It seemed to me a marvellous thing that I should lie there, practically helpless in mind, body and estate, and yet trace my lineage to the stars. And with the thought there came to me a strange feeling, and my soul seemed to go forth into the darkness, yet it was not afraid.
I wondered if I had died, as I thought I should die when I clung to the banisters, and I was glad, for it meant freedom.
Then I knew that I had not died, and should not die, but that with the weakness and the drugs the bars of my soul had been loosened. For there is to every man's mind a part like the dark side of the moon that he never sees, but I was being privileged to see it. It was like interstellar space in the Night of the Gods, and in it were the roots of my being.
With this knowledge came a profound sense of release, for I knew that the bars of my soul would never wholly close again, but that I had found a way of escape round to the dark side of the moon that no man could ever see. And I remembered the words of Browning -
'God be thanked, the meanest of His mortals, Has two soul-sides, one to face the world with; One to show a woman when he loves her.'
Now this was an odd experience; but it left me very happy and able to face my illness with equanimity, for it appeared to be going to open strange gates to me. I had long hours lying alone, and I did not care to read lest I should break the spell that surrounded me. By day I dozed, and as it came towards dusk I waited for the Moon, and when she came, I communed with her.
Now I cannot tell what I said to the Moon, or what the Moon said to me, but all the same, I got to know her very well. And this was the impression I got of her - that she ruled over a kingdom that was neither material nor spiritual, but a strange moon-kingdom of her own. In it moved tides - ebbing, flowing, slack water, high water, never ceasing, always on the move; up and down, backwards and forwards, rising and receding; coming past on the flood, flowing back on the ebb; and these tides affected our lives. They affected birth and death and all the processes of the body. They affected the mating of animals, and the growth of vegetation, and the insidious workings of disease. They also affected the reactions of drugs, and there was a lore of herbs belonging to them. All these things I got by communing with the Moon, and I felt certain that if I could only learn the rhythm and periodicity of her tides I should know a very great deal. But this I did not learn; for she could only teach me abstract things, and the details I was unable to receive from her because they eluded my mind.
I found that the more I dwelt on her, the more I became conscious of her tides, and all my life began to move with them. I could feel my vitality rise and ebb and flow again. And I found that even when I wrote of her, I wrote in time to her rhythms, as you may have noticed; whereas when I write of everyday things I write in the staccato rhythms of everyday life. At any rate, be things as they may, I lived in time to the Moon in a very curious manner while I lay ill.
Presently, however, my illness ran its course, as illness will, and I crawled downstairs again, more dead than alive. My family were very attentive, having had a thorough scare, and everybody made a great fuss of me. However, when it began to be realised that these performances were going to be a regular routine, everybody began to get a bit tired of them, once the novelty wore off and they ceased to be so spectacular. The doctor assured them that I was not going to die in these attacks, however much I looked like it, so they began to take them more philosophically, and left me to get on with it until I had finished. All except me. I am afraid I never took them philosophically, but panicked afresh every time. One may know in theory that one will not die, but there is something very alarming in having one's air-supply cut off, and one panics in spite of oneself.
Well, as I was saying, everybody got used to it, and then began to get a bit sick of it. It was a pretty long haul with a tray from the basement to my bedroom. I began to get a bit sick of it myself, as those stairs took a lot of managing when I was wheezy. So the question arose of changing my room. The only other choice seemed to be a kind of dungeon looking into the yard - unless I dispossessed someone else - and I must say I viewed that dungeon with disfavour.
Then it suddenly occurred to me that down at the bottom of the long narrow strip of what we called by courtesy a garden were the old stables, and that it might be possible to rig up a kind of bachelor flat there. The minute I thought of it, the idea took hold of me, and off I went, down through a wilderness of laurels, to see what could be done about it.
Everything was abominably overgrown, but I shoved my way through, following the track of a long-lost path, and came to a small door with a pointed arch like a church door, set flush with the wall of ancient brick. It was locked, and I had no key, but a chase with the shoulder soon disposed of that, and I found myself in the coach-house. On one side were the horse-stalls, and on the other the harness-room, and in the corner a corkscrew staircase led upwards into cobwebs and darkness. I climbed this cautiously, for it felt pretty rickety, and came out into the hayloft. This was all in darkness save for chinks of light that came through the shuttered windows inner space.
Excerpted from THE SEA PRIESTESS by DION FORTUNE Copyright © 2003 by Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted November 2, 2011
Originally written (and self-published) in 1938, this novel is filled with wonder and wisdom. Wilfred Maxwell as a character is a superb representation of human nature at its most paradoxical. From his on-going battle with his narrow minded, domineering sister, to his passion for the mysterious Vivien Le Fay Morgan and his tenderness for the young Molly, Wilfred's spiritual growth is as fascinating as his sly wit is hilarious.
The style of the novel is a free-flowing and deep as the sea itself. When one remembers that it was written in the early part of the 20th century, it's all the more remarkable for the forward- thinking philosophies and topics it touches on. And yet the wisdom contained in those philosophies are as ancient as ocean from which all life emerged.
The first 70% of the story swept me along with vivid imagery, excellent characterisation and profound ideas which are often lacking in today's stories.
There was a section near the end of the story - where the occult rites were described in a lecturing tone, rather than a story telling one - where my interest waned, but in the last 10% of the novel, dealing with the aftermath of Wilfred & Molly's experience with the mysterious Priest of the Moon, the pace picked up again.
The strength of this novel lies in Fortune's compassionate understanding and insight into human nature. Her esoteric knowledge adds depth and imagination to a most unusual and interesting read.
(This review was for the eBook edition)
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Posted March 6, 2012
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