In the footsteps of Dion Fortune (part 1)

Sep 6th, 2018 | By | Category: Articles, Uncategorized

Still some steps to climb…

This beginning isn’t entirely pertinent to the rest of the story, but almost three decades ago I was drinking with my soon-to-be life partner, in the George and Pilgrims hotel on Glastonbury High Street when we said, “One day, we should stay here for a couple of nights”. Fast forward to the penultimate weekend in August this year, marking our twenty-fifth anniversary together, and we’re doing a few things that feel special to us. One such was (you probably guessed, already) a two-night stay at the George and Pilgrims.

Having not been to Glastonbury for something like twenty-seven years, I rather expected to see radical changes. I didn’t. If anything, the town seems stuck in some kind of time loop. Many of the little shops I remembered from my earlier visit are still there. Phillippa Bowers, one of whose sculptures I bought on that previous occasion (it’s sitting by the computer on my desk as I type this), still has a gallery on the High Street. I must have seen more dreadlocks and tie-dyed clothing in the two days there than I’ve seen in at least the past two decades in my hometown.

But neither shopping, nor the observation of would-be New Age hippies in their natural habitat, was the actual purpose of our visit. Which brings me, in the usual roundabout way, to Dion Fortune.

Dion Fortune (birth name Violet Mary Firth) was a highly influential writer on occult matters, in the early twentieth century. Her work retains its importance, in my view, although from personal experience it seems much of the current neo-Pagan scene has quite forgotten her (and many other important occultists along with her, but let’s leave that for a future article). We were, in our way, setting out to follow in Fortune’s footsteps by exploring two places closely associated with her work; Brean Down, which I’ll come to later, and especially Glastonbury.

Fortune’s links to Glastonbury were profound and intimate. It was, in a very real sense, at the heart of her occult work over many years. There’s more to it, much more, than I have space to write about here, so I can’t do better than recommend her book Glastonbury – Avalon of the Heart, in which you can read about her relationship with Glastonbury in her own words, as well as the excellent biography of Fortune by Gareth Knight, Dion Fortune & the Inner Light.

Anyway, footsteps…this was something we took quite literally. Dear reader, we climbed Glastonbury Tor. I’m no couch potato, but even as someone whose martial arts and dancing habits mean I may be fitter than many at my age, that’s a noticeable climb. The thing is, if you’re going to climb the Tor with the intention of doing any kind of meditation or magical working at the summit, you have to be prepared for four problems. Needing a little recovery time when you reach the top is the first one…

Issue number two is the wind. Not the kind that comes from eating baked beans at breakfast, either. It is always windy at the top of the Tor. I don’t mean a light breeze, I mean seriously quite windy; be prepared for a buffeting. Don’t assume that candles will stay alight for more than a couple of seconds. Be nice to the Sylphs in advance of your visit and maybe you can call in a favour from them to keep the wind speed down…

Then there are the crowds. Not a vast press of people – it isn’t a big area – but on the Friday we visited there was a steady stream of folk making the ascent (and the descent), and plenty of typically touristy behaviour along with several rather boisterous children on the summit. I think this is a fairly normal situation. Be prepared for such company, and try to hone your meditation skills to the point that you are not disturbed by a small boy shouting at an unfortunate bird while hurtling past you on his scooter.

The fourth issue, and it’s a thorny one for many Pagans, is to do with the influence of Christianity. The history and presence of the Christian faith is not something that can really be avoided in Glastonbury. There’s the Abbey, or at least its ruins, for a start, right in the centre of the town. The hotel we were staying in originated as a hostelry for pilgrims to the Abbey, in the days before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. On the summit of the Tor itself, there’s a tower that is all that remains of St Michael’s church (demolished in 1539 with the dissolution of the monasteries). I’ll let readers consider the symbolism of a site dedicated to St Michael – regarded in Christian tradition to be leader of God’s army against the forces of Hell – plonked on top of an ancient and pagan sacred site.

The Christian connections were not a problem, as such, for Dion Fortune, whose work in many respects was an attempt to reconcile the Pagan and the Christian at least on the inner levels. Going entirely on my personal experience, it isn’t actually necessary for the determinedly Pagan to disentangle this much in order to learn from Fortune’s work. The practical advice in her books, while maybe dated in language and certain ideas, remains largely sound. And it seems the grip of Christian influence on the earth and air of Glastonbury itself is not as strong as might be assumed from the Christian ruins, however impressive their scale. Life grows from the roots.

Much of this may be old news for any readers who are already familiar with Glastonbury. But, along with Dion Fortune and her work, the town has apparently been lost from the radar of many Pagans. On my mentioning our anniversary trip, the response has often been, “Glastonbury? Oh, I’ve never been there”. Or even, “Glastonbury? Why go there?” Questions that imply a sorry chapter in the spiritual history of Glastonbury, irrevocably connected as it is to the great story-cycles of King Arthur and Avalon, to the underworld ruled over by Gwynn ap Nudd, and to the mist-shrouded labyrinth that may be found and walked within every one of us.

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