Friday, 2 December 2011

Old Books for New Times

I’ve recently been reading Dion Fortune’s book Psychic Self Defence. I realise that it was first published in 1930, and in so many places that really shows, but it leaves me questioning some of the validity of older books.
Psychic Self Defence is widely recommended as being a great book for any who follow a spiritual path, and many do read it and in turn recommend it on to others. I feel that it certainly is an interesting book, but there are things that any new reader needs to understand and take on board when reading this.
Occultism in the 1920s and 30s was mostly the realm of Christian Magicians. The Lodges that Fortune refers to were founded on Ceremonial Magic principles – such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Their practises were based around a Westernised version of the Jewish Kabbalah system. As such, there are several situations where she recommends calling on Christ, recalling the blue robe of the Virgin Mary and using the Light of God and names of God as the best and at times only way of exorcising an occult attack. This can be a bit heavy going if you’re not of the Christian faith.
Pagan was how you described the natives in distant countries who had yet to be brought into the light of the Christian faith. Anti-Witchcraft laws were still in effect until the 1950s in Britain. So at first it was rather disconcerting to read all descriptions of Witchcraft as being malevolent and evil. Any mention of Witches was that of those who were the wrong-doers. It’s easy to forget that Witchcraft in its modern incarnation is such a new thing and it would be easy for the new witch to be offended at all the references to witch-cults and the wonderful work done in stamping them out.
Modern medicine and science have also come a long way since Fortune’s day. In several places she describes ‘devil-children’ and ‘changelings’ who are distinctly ‘non-human’. She describes physical and emotional characteristics of these people, and goes on to say that the mothers are usually visited by the children’s demonic fathers and the child got upon them when the mother is well gone in drink. Her descriptions sound to me (in my perfect armchair expert capacity) like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome was only clearly recognised and named in 1973, so I’m guessing that prior to that there were any number of interesting beliefs and explanations about why some children look or behave differently from what was considered ‘normal’.
There is also mention of cases of sexual misconduct. When investigating these, the book reads, one should always take note of the demeanour of the victim. The more willing the victim is to talk about abuses of a sexual nature, the more likely it is that it is untrue. Women are never keen to share their shame. While this may have been true 80 years ago, and sometimes is still true, it is not the normal state of things in our day and age. Women (and all children really) have been taught from a young age to speak out when they feel they’ve been assaulted in any way.
There are quite a few mentions of dominating personalities that in Fortune’s opinion are using hypnosis techniques or telepathic suggestion to completely cow others and bend them to their will. What they seem to be performing is what we would call verbal and mental abuse – something that in individual incidents is not always easy to spot, you have to look for the pattern. This is like the workplace bully who messes with your mind and will find subtle ways to control you or push your buttons but this is not an occult attack by any stretch of the imagination.
I did find it curious that listed in the Bibliography are a number of books which have publication dates of 50 years after Dion Fortune’s death. While I haven’t checked, I’m assuming that either they’re reprints of older works or added by the Society of Inner Light – Dion Fortune’s own order which holds the publishing rights to her works.
However, for all that, there is some real value in this book, and some practical advice that I do believe is valid, the problem lies in sifting through the information that is now out of date or invalid to find it. I would still recommend this book as being well worth the read, and a good one for any students of psychism, witchcraft and the occult.
In modern Paganism and Occult studies there seems to be a preference for older works – for some reason they are believed to be more valid than the bulk of modern literature on the same subject, even though many of the modern works list the older books in their source material.
I personally don’t believe that either works have an edge over the other, but each must be taken in context with the times and culture in which they were written. It might be easy to say, for example, that 1930s Britain is pretty much the same culture that we live in now, but this was a completely different world. There was limited electricity – something we take for granted. This was before World War II, something which changed society forever. This was also before the social revolutions of the 1960s, and 70s. Married women didn’t work outside the home. This was not even remotely the same culture that we know and have grown up in.
I’m sure, for example, that many of the antics of Aleister Crowley would have caused quite a stir among polite society in his day, but for us I think it would get a response of “yawn, just another celebrity too big for his boots... what’s on tv?”
Any occult book will have its message and lessons in there to learn, and I believe that re-reading them after a while will provide new information that you missed before. Possibly because you weren’t ready to spot it, and now your understanding of the inner workings of magic have grown somewhat. I’ve certainly found much to ponder over mixed in with my giggles about what seems to me to be a superstitious explanation of now obvious phenomena and how normal society behaves.


  1. I find some of the older books useful because they require extra thinking. That extra thought and analysis is what makes the ideas part of ones' own belief.
    Modern products are often that. Manufactured products, written from the need to get it out there or for publishers to make a buck. Thus they're often "MacDonalds" spirituality. Lots of prepackaged dried processed idea, quickly heated and sweetened for quick consumption and no need for effort such as chewing. We end up with a flashy surface type spirituality (or magic) which looks and sounds good on the surface... but just doesn't seem to provide the nourishment that one sees in the ads/brochures.
    The alternative is to worth with actual trained people and think through their stuff, and to do some of the classic experiences so we have proper context....

  2. I agree :)

    I've found it quite useful when reading some of the books in older language, to keep a pen and paper beside me. First I 'translate' into language that is more easily understood, and then I read through my notes. I find that I get more layers of understanding when I do this.

  3. Another area that has changed culture dramatically is television. After read the confessions of aleisterr Crowley, I was surprised at how much of a renaissance man he was, at least in his earlier days. But that's what people did.
    Movies and tv wasn't an option. They went to plays or poetry readings instead.
    Neither was food on the run an option. The equivalent to grabbing macds or 2 minute noodles was ordering the roast of the day at a public house, and sitting in to eat...almost universally with company.
    So much more personal interaction and personal involvement in entertainment (one actually has to think and process mentally with poetry) in think this affects much of our lives, our rituals and possibly modern spirituality.