Book Review: The Sea Priestess, by Dion Fortune
Posted on June 28, 2018
The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher Weiser Books’ description: The Sea Priestess is the highly acclaimed novel in which Dion Fortune introduces her most powerful fictional character, Vivien Le Fay Morgan- a practicing initiate of the Hermetic Path. Vivien has the ability to transform herself into magical images, and here she becomes Morgan Le Fay, sea priestess of Atlantis and foster daughter to Merlin! Desperately in love with Vivien, Wilfred Maxwell works by her side at an isolated seaside retreat, investigating these occult mysteries. They soon find themselves inextricably drawn to an ancient cult through which they learn the esoteric significance of the magnetic ebb and flow of the moontides.
NB: Should you choose to read this book, I do not recommend the Kindle version pictured here (published June 1st 2003 by Weiser Books). The publisher put almost no effort into producing this, which is a shame and disrespectful to the author. Judging by the outcome, I assume a manuscript was scanned and then word-recognition software was used to translate it. The formatting is a muddle and it’s full of typos, some of which are so mutilated that I struggled to figure out what the words should have been: Imagine if the auto-correct function on your phone wrote a book for you; it’s like that.
Warning: Plot Spoilers Ahead!
The Sea Priestess is a novel about Pagan spirituality, ritual magic, and the archetypal Goddess representing the “divine feminine”, whose passions reveal themselves through the ever hypnotic Moon and the Sea in her infinite mystery.
And I saw in my imagination all the life that is behind the sea, and it seemed to me that there was intelligence behind it; a mind not unlike our own, but vaster, and vastly simpler. The life of elemental nature differed from our life in degree, but not in kind. It had the same kind of corporate being as a hive or a herd, which is not embodied, but overshadowed.
It is a lively and engaging read that made me feel a bit dizzy by the end with all the atmospheric goings on. I say “lively” and, while that is true, it’s also full of long passages of philosophical musings that not everyone will like. As I am a bit given to musing myself, I enjoyed it, but I would add that how you feel about The Sea Priestess will largely depend on your world view and whether you take it seriously as a spiritual text. I read it as fiction but the author meant for it to be much more than that.
Dion Fortune’s (1890-1946) novels were a medium through which she shared her spiritual beliefs and practices. She was a highly successful Jungian analyst, an occultist, a priestess of a pagan religion which worshiped the “old gods” as the embodiment of nature’s elemental forces, and a ceremonial magician. If you don’t know much about her, it’s worth perusing her Wikipedia page: Fortune is recognised as one of the most significant occultists and ceremonial magicians of the early 20th century. The Fraternity she founded survived her and in later decades spawned a variety of related groups based upon her teachings. Her novels in particular proved an influence on later occult and modern Pagan groups such as Wicca.
I learnt of Dion Fortune because I read a lot of Phil Rickman novels, which frequently involve the pagan elements and rituals of pre-Christian Britain and brings them into a modern context. So, knowing that Fortune, unlike Rickman, was writing truth (as she defined it) masked as fiction, I found some of the beliefs and practices sinister and disturbing. If you have ever seen the 1973 film The Wicker Man, you will have a good idea of what I mean.
Our hapless protagonist, Wilfred, feels himself to be a bit of a loser. He lives in a small English town in Somerset, near the coast, where he looks after his mother and sister in the family home, his father having died some years earlier. Wilfred runs an estate agency and, in turn, is run by his mother and sister. At the novel’s opening, he is a self-described mother’s boy who quarrels endlessly with his pushy sibling. Watching him change to embrace his manhood and its attendant virility as the novel progresses is satisfying in some ways and disturbing in others. (There is a phase in Wilfred’s development in which he becomes, for a while, an obnoxious drunk and a bit of a lout; but he overcomes this by the end of the novel.)
Wilfred’s catalyst for change comes in the form of a beautiful and mysterious woman who goes by the name of Vivien Le Fay Morgan. A long-term client of Wilfred’s real estate firm, the two meet after many years of doing business solely through letters. Wilfred, to his surprise, finds a young, vibrant, and magnetic female instead of the ninety-year-old granny he should, by rights, have encountered. He is immediately drawn to her as representing everything his life lacks: beauty, sex, vitality, strength, courage, and unconventionality. To be sure, Wilfred had been waiting for something or someone like Vivien his whole life, never having been content to go along with the mindless herd, whom he sees as beneath him. One also feels that he needs to give himself in subjugation to an object of worship, and Vivien is more than happy to receive his veneration. Wilfred’s faith in Vivien nurtures the Sea Priestess image that they both hold of her, which calls to them from their remote shared past and from the “fourth dimension” which is accessible to them only in dreams and visions.
The relationship between the two, while fascinating on a spiritual level, ends up being frustrating for Wilfred. In short, Vivien will not only not marry Wilfred, she will not even have sex with him. Frankly, I found this prudish and ridiculous and not what one would expect from a pagan priestess. She is willing to “sacrifice” him, or at least use his life force to her own ends, to feed him well, and to put him up for the weekends in her refurbished fortress by the sea; but hands off, little man! The priestess is a cold fish who does not sully herself on the physical plane! Poor Wilfred. He really is kind of a loser in life. Nevertheless, he persists, and the two become intimate emotionally and spiritually, if not physically.
There is a curious power in silence when you think alike without word spoken and each knows the other’s thoughts. As long as nothing is said, the thing you are thinking remains in another dimension and is magical, but as soon as you speak it, you lose it. It is the old story of the jewels bought in the goblin market, which you must only look at by moonlight or you find them to be a handful of dead leaves.
Over the weeks that follow, as Wilfred paints sea murals over the interior walls of the temple he has redesigned and refurbished for his goddess, from the remains of an old fort, the two spend many hours together, basically getting high on the elements. They spend evenings staring into fires made of particular woods that bring about visions. They stand on slippery rocks at the edge of the sea, beneath the full Moon, and let the sea water lap at their ankles. They are able to confirm through a series of visions manifested during ceremonial magic that they have been together in a previous life, she as the Sea Priestess and he as her sacrificial victim. Once this knowledge is certain and Vivien feels that Wifred is ready, all that is left for them is the playing out of an ancient ritual, in which Wilfred loses not his earthly life but certainly his reason for living. The Rite of Isis completed, Vivien leaves him cold, and he never sees her again.
Don’t worry though. Things turn out okay for Wilfred in the end. He marries a lovely and perfectly decent young lady and moves her out to the old farm down by the abandoned temple (at her insistence), where she begins to speak to the Moon and turn herself into a priestess, just as Vivien had been.
There are some really ludicrous ideas in this book, as you may have gleaned. Taken as fantasy, it was fun; but then, I am not into the woman-as-goddess mysticism, as a spiritual belief system or even as a useful metaphor. Also, several of the plot elements and their implications just irked me. Firstly, why do people who believe themselves to be reincarnated insist on being some character of legend or, at the very least, an important figure in history? In this case, Vivien is meant to be Morgan Le Fay (but of course!). One wonders if Dion Fortune thought herself to be a reincarnation of someone fabulous and legendary. Probably yes.
Regarding that “Probably yes”: Gareth Knight is one of the world’s foremost authorities on ritual magic, the Western Mystery Tradition and Qabalistic symbolism. He trained in Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light, and has spent a lifetime rediscovering and teaching the principles of magic as a spiritual discipline and method of self-realisation. (Source) I read this blog essay he wrote about The Sea Priestess. One of the comments which follows says:
I truly believe that Dion Fortune was a reincarnation of Morgan Le Fay , I am sure they were from the same soul group and even Dion’s style for red dresses long cloaks all reflecting her past soul connection to Glastonbury and this area of the Earth. I wonder if Dion realized that she was in affect channeling her her soul origins, and her origins as a high priestess of Isis. Even the land she lived on in Glastonbury is the same land that Morgan Le fay lived on, as she was able to awaken the land and work with and its magical properties. Its a shame that as I walk past that land now it seems sad, like it holds many secrets, also that it has many tales to tell .
I don’t know whether Fortune believed herself to have been the mythical Morgan Le Fay, but it appears that at least some of her fans believe it.
Secondly, the sacrificing of oneself to these elemental pagan gods really creeped me out. The earlier scenes describing men who were drowned in caves as offerings to the sea goddess were disturbing enough. (Oh but they are blessed because they will pass into the temples of the gods, under the sea, and live happily forevermore!). Talking men into killing themselves by promising them good fortune in the realms of the dead reminds me of Islamic suicide bombers who are told they will be blessed with virgins in heaven. It’s deeply perverse and profoundly wicked.
Humans (or any creatures) being sacrificed to ancient gods is evil, in my opinion, and cannot be justified. But the sex rite that completes the story was somehow even worse, to my mind. By the end of the book, Wilfred and his lovely new wife, Molly (who is no siren like Vivien but a very sweet and capable girl) have offered themselves up to the Moon Goddess, who represents ALL goddesses. In Fortune’s religion, all gods are one god, all goddesses are one goddess, and the masculine and feminine energies come together, physically and spiritually, in an eternal dance of give and take. These elemental gods and goddesses are ruled over, themselves, by the One, who is the great Initiator of all creation and whom, as I understand it, Dion Fortune believed to be Christ. Oddly, Fortune did consider herself to be a Christian, albeit a very unorthodox one, and considered both Christianity and the ancient Pagan religions of the West to be the right and proper traditions for the Anglo Saxon peoples. She believed it to be spiritually unhealthy and unwholesome to take on other races’ and cultures’ gods, saviors, rituals, and traditions.
Anyway, back to the sex rite. The upshot is that Molly offers herself sexually to her husband, Wilfred, after both of them have already offered themselves spiritually to the Moon Goddess. This takes their lovemaking to a whole new level, one in which they are no longer simply themselves but representative archetypes of All Men and All Women. In a shared vision, Molly and Wilfred make love in a pagan temple while the nature gods watch on with approval, and the elemental forces of the universe flow through them. This is supposed to be an awesome blessing from the gods, but it bothered me on a visceral level.
Why would anyone want to offer themselves, body and soul, to these supposedly sentient embodiments of Nature? For these beings are never depicted as sympathetic to and nurturing of our species. In fact, I kept recalling the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds: Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
To be fair, I do not understand women who need to envision themselves as goddesses or as figures of myth and legend. I mean, I can understand enjoying the fantasy for as long as the book or film lasts,* but not embracing this as one’s personal truth. Why isn’t being a human being, a real woman in the real world, sufficient for us and for our men? I am absolutely sure that my husband would not want to take me to bed whilst imagining some crumbling old god leering over us and nodding approval. Peter Beagle said, The grave’s a fine and private place … and, to us, so is a marriage bed. It’s a microcosm made for two and inviting onlookers would be a corruption, turning the sacred profane.
Here’s an excerpt from the sex rite:
(Molly speaks)Lo, I receive the gifts thou bringest me
Life and more life-in fullest ecstasyI am the Moon, the Moon that draweth thee.I am the waiting Earth that calleth thee.Come unto me, Great Pan, come unto me!Come unto me, Great Pan, come unto me!”
(Wilfred reflects while watching Molly)I knew that she was exercising her ancient right and giving me the mating-call in the name of the moon, far truer to Nature than any convention of duty and modesty. And I knew why Morgan had said that on the inner planes the woman is positive and should take the initiative, for the Astral Plane is ruled by the moon and woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force. And the answering power awoke in me from the very deeps of my being, far deeper than the overflow of desire that comes from a physical pressure; for she called up from me the reserves of vital force and brought them into action-the reserves that the law of our nature guards against the great crises when we fight for life itself—the things that give the madman his strength and the poet his creative frenzy. Not until these things are called up by the call of the beloved can we be said to have mated to the depths of our being. They are not called forth when the man wooes the woman because he feels like it, but they are called forth when she comes to him in the name of Great Isis and bids him worship the goddess with her and through her.
Interestingly, Fortune herself seems to have been more like Vivien, who, as a priestess, did not indulge in sex. Fortune married once but was … well, unfortunate. From what I can glean, sexual chemistry did not spark between Dion and her husband, and he sought partners elsewhere, which led to their divorcing. She seems to have been rather prudish sexually, which explains a lot about this book and her philosophies. Pagan priestess or not, Fortune was born in a time when bold female sexuality belonged only to whores. So perhaps she had to make something grand, cosmic, and sacrificial out of lovemaking, because she could not appreciate it in its (natural and human) right.
About the setting
My favourite part of the book was the setting. The old abandoned fort sitting atop a promontory facing the vast and lonely sea is a romantic image. Wifred undertakes to repair and redesign the fort as a temple for his goddess, sculpting bridges and arches festooned with sea creatures, painting wild sea murals on interior walls, replacing bricks with wide panes of glass to open up a panoramic view of the sea, and creating gothic arches over the windows to soften the stark facade. The setting was based upon Brean Down, which is described as follows in Wikipedia: a promontory off the coast of Somerset, England, standing 318 feet (97 m) high and extending 1.5 miles (2 km) into the Bristol Channel at the eastern end of Bridgwater Bay between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea.
Made of Carboniferous Limestone, it is a continuation of the Mendip Hills. Two further continuations are the small islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. The cliffs on the northern and southern flanks of Brean Down have large quantities of fossils laid down in the marine deposits about 320–350 million years ago. The site has been occupied by humans since the late Bronze Age and includes the remains of a Romano-Celtic Temple. At the seaward end is Brean Down Fort which was built in 1865 and then re-armed in the Second World War.
Brean Down is now owned by the National Trust, and is rich in wildlife, history and archaeology. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to both the geology and presence of nationally rare plants including the white rock-rose. It has also been scheduled as an ancient monument.
Image: Brean Down Fort (Source )
Image: Sunset from Brean Down (Source)
* Admittedly, I kept grabbing hold of the rubbish bin lid and yelling “shield!” to my husband for weeks after seeing Wonder Woman. I blame Robin Wright for being so fabulous in that movie.
** As my GR friend, Richard, points out, Beagle is quoting Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress but, honestly, I was thinking of Beagle and had forgot Marvell when I wrote this so I will leave it as is.