As well as her work as a practicing occultist and leader of a magical fraternity, Dion Fortune wrote extensively about the subject of magic in her textbooks and novels. Many have attempted to define the mysterious ‘energy’ or ‘activity’ we call magic, but their descriptions differ to such an extent that we might be justified in wondering if they are all describing the same thing! Here is a brief sample of definitions taken from the internet and although there are many other - and arguably better - descriptions available, the following statements do tend to reflect the current general perception of the magical arts.
‘The use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible, such as in stories for children.‘ (Cambridge English Dictionary online)
’The secret power of appearing to make impossible things happen by saying special words or doing special things.’ (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary)
‘The art or practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.’ (The Free Dictionary online)
‘The use of paranormal methods to manipulate natural forces.’ (Wikipedia)
All these statements agree on two key points: first, that magic is the product of certain strange, special and mysterious powers possessed by the magician, with the implication that these powers are not comprehensible or accessible to ‘ordinary’ people. Second, that the purpose of these strange powers, however they might be acquired, is to enable the magician to exert control over nature or external forces. The identity of these external forces is not specified but the presumption appears to be that there is little which does not potentially come under the control of the magician’s powers, whether traffic jams, the weather, personal wealth or the destiny of nations!
Although the above statements reflect the popular understanding of magic rather than that held by those who study and practice it, they are probably a good indication of the prevalent attitude in Dion Fortune’s time. In 1938, writing for The Inner Light journal, (the magazine produced by her magical group then known as the Fraternity of the Inner Light) she said:
‘Magic . . . is a much simpler and less formidable thing than popular imagination believes it to be, and is a technique for the utilisation and direction of the astral forces, which are the immediate causes behind the world of appearances.’ (Quoted by Gareth Knight in ‘Spiritualism and Occultism,’ Thoth Publications, page 133.)
Written in Dion Fortune's usual clear and forthright style, this statement seems deliberately designed to remove any mystique that lingered about the subject of magic and to dismiss any superstitious belief her readers might have in the magician’s ‘mysterious’ (ie obscure and inexplicable) powers. Magic is less ‘formidable,’ she says, than the magic of popular imagination, suggesting that it is not something that should alarm, overawe or intimidate us. In fact she describes it as a ‘technique,’ a word which suggests that it can be studied and learned as a method or set of acquired skills just like any other technique such as cooking, playing the guitar or motorcycle maintenance. As to the details of this technique, they are set out in her textbooks and described in her novels and, we can assume, were then and are still taught in her magical school.
She also asserts that magic is ‘simple,’ although this statement comes as a bit of a surprise! Perhaps we tend to equate ‘simple’ with ‘easy and effortless,’ but those who have undertaken any work in the magical arts generally agree that the experience is challenging and demanding. By ‘simple’ she probably means that it makes sense on a fundamental level; that it is based on rational and comprehensible fact rather than being a confusion of obscure and mystifying mumbo jumbo.
Another significant piece of information in Dion Fortune's definition of magic is her assertion that it takes place within the forces of the astral plane. This presents us with another question: what or where is the astral plane? A full answer will take us well beyond the scope of this brief essay but the salient point is that magic, according to Dion Fortune, does not have a direct effect on the physical plane but takes operates upon a level of reality which lies behind or beyond the everyday world of dense matter. She tells us that magical practitioners learn how to recognise and attune themselves to these astral forces or energies, so that they can use them and direct them. ‘To what purpose?’ we might ask. She continues: ‘…...in dedicated hands they are enormously potent for good, for the healing of body and soul, and for regeneration, not only of individuals but of races.’
But her next sentence may come as even more of a surprise: ‘….the mastery of these powers (ie those of the astral plane)... is based upon self-mastery….’ (My italics.) It would appear from this that she considers the astral plane essentially to be a part of ourselves rather than the more usual understanding of it as the region of dreams, imagination, storytelling, myth and legend, elemental spirits and inner world beings. ‘Self-mastery’ is a phrase not much used nowadays as it tends to suggest self-control in a repressive sort of way, whereas she is likely to be describing what we would now call self-awareness or self-knowledge.
Does this mean that magic, according to Dion Fortune, is purely a matter of understanding yourself? Partly, but not entirely, and it is worth keeping in mind that she would have considered ‘self’ to mean not only our self in the sense of our personality, our feelings, thoughts and everyday behaviour but our Soul or Higher Self and even our essential Spirit. Self-knowledge is the necessary first stage in magical work; the second stage, Dion Fortune tells us, comes when you learn ‘….to contact the great cosmic forces which are spiritual in nature and are as far superior to the astral plane as the astral plane is superior to the physical plane.’ Although she affirms the link between our selves and the astral plane in this particular instance, those who are familiar with her work will be in no doubt that she also considered the astral plane to have its own, objective, reality.
One of the most frequently quoted (and mis-quoted) definitions of magic, and one which has evidently struck a chord for many people, is widely attributed to Dion Fortune: ‘Magic is the art of causing changes to take place in consciousness in accordance with will.’ So far as we can discover (and please contact us if you have any further information) there is only one reference to this phrase which is quoted in an essay written in 1934-5 by one of her magical colleagues, Charles Seymour, entitled: ‘Magic in the Ancient Mystery Religions.’ (The essay is reproduced in ‘The Forgotten Mage,’ edited by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowick, Aquarian Press, page 24.)
This definition immediately raises another question: what is meant by ‘consciousness?’ This is another vast and complex subject but for the present purpose it is perhaps sufficient to define it as awareness, sentience, wakefulness or mindfulness. It involves our memory of what we have learnt and experienced, our imagination, our reasoning and our intellectual understanding of ourselves, the physical world that surrounds us and, especially for occultists, the non-physical worlds. It is our ‘mind’ in its widest possible sense and is linked with what we know and understand as ‘reality.’ Dion Fortune would also have included the various meditative states of mind which are achieved by those involved in magical work, including the trance mediumship which she was able to achieve.
Here again we find Dion Fortune mphasising the purpose of magic as a means of causing change by changing our consciousness, although with the implied sense that if we manage to achieve a real understanding (and consequent change) of our self, beneficial changes may also naturally be brought about through the means of our changed perception.
There is another difficult word in her apparently simple definition of magic, which is that these changes (only) take place ‘in accordance with will.’ Our next question of course is: what is meant by ‘will?’ And whose will? When we say: “I will do something” we usually mean that we intend to do something at some point in the future. The magical will referred to by Dion Fortune however seems to be connected with desire, or a strong, energetic conviction that some change must be brought about. In fact ‘magic’ according to this definition seems to depend on ‘will’ for its success. Will, Dion Fortune tells us, is the essential, directing energetic principle and magic only takes place in accordance with, and conforming to, the nature of this force. Although she does not specify the source of the will which moves and shapes the magic we can only assume that it is the will of Deity, not our own personal desire. How do we tell the difference? That must be another question.
Written by Peter Nascien