Dion Fortune [1890-1946] was a prominent British Occultist and author who founded the Society of the Inner Light. Her focus was on the Western tradition -- the Mystery schools of the Greeks and Egyptians, the Qabala (as she spelled it), and esoteric Christianity.
Quite a bit of her biographical information is difficult to verify, as it is said to have been channeled from the astral plane after her death. This may indeed have been the case, but needless to say such sources are not ideal as reference citations, particularly since there are conflicting versions of some stories. Her biographers often do not give specific references to published works when they quote her. Thomas van Breda, a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, wrote a master’s thesis on Dion Fortune. In a very interesting podcast on Stephanie Shea’s Rejected Religion website, he states that the most reliable biography of Dion Fortune is in Susan Johnston Graf’s Talking to the Gods, which he describes as the “exoteric, confirmable version.” (Fortune is one of four occultists profiled by Graf). Mr. van Breda does not appear to be an occultist himself.
The magician, occultist, and prolific author known as Dion Fortune was born Violet Mary Firth on 6 December 1890, in the town of Llandudno, county Caernarvonshire, Wales. The Firth family in a previous generation were well-to-do steel manufacturers whose wealth derived largely from weaponry and the business of war. Dion’s paternal grandfather, John Firth, devised the family motto: Deo, non Fortuna, or “God, not Luck,” which apparently summed up his viewpoint on the vagaries of life and which was likely the source of her nom de plume. In 1890 her parents were operating a spa, the Craigside Hydrotherapeutic Establishment, which had heated pools and a medical practitioner on staff.  By the time she was a young teen her mother had become a registered Christian Science healer, which would have introduced Violet to ideas about health and wellness that were quite out of the mainstream.
Like many highly sensitive children, Violet Firth was aware of much more than the world visible to the adults around her. As an adult herself, she reported having had visions as a four-year-old, which – as an adult – she believed to be past-life memories of Atlantis.
Not much else is known about her childhood. Although well known in her day, she valued her privacy and never sought the limelight or encouraged personal questions. We do know she wrote two books of poetry as a teenager, both of which were likely published (in the early 1900s) by her family. The first was titled Violets; the second, More Violets.
When she was about 20, her parents enrolled her at a horticultural college for women, where she joined the staff after her student days were concluded. The “Warden” of the place was a woman medical doctor – highly unusual at the time. While Dr. Hamilton was obviously a strong and independent woman, she seems to have had what today we would call “issues.” Violet and other students and staff reported her to be both powerful and very, very controlling. While one of Violet’s biographers voices quite some approval of Dr. Hamilton – apparently the college was in crisis when she was hired, and she improved its fortunes – other authors are not so sympathetic. It has been suggested that the woman may have been a hypnotist; she was certainly capable of emotional abuse, and Violet suffered a nervous breakdown after a prolonged attempt to leave the woman’s employ. This was not the last time Violet would feel psychically attacked by other people. Her book Psychic Self Defense (originally published in 1930), on how to protect oneself from the negative energy of others, came out of these experiences.
She mentions in the book Psychic Self Defense that her experience with Dr. Hamilton and its aftermath led to her interest in psychology. Before the advent of World War I she studied psychology at the University of London, in particular the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. She found Jung’s theories regarding archetypes and the collective unconscious highly significant.
During the War she worked as a lay counselor in a psychotherapy clinic that was probably associated with the London School of Medicine for Women. She found – as have countless others – that occultism and psychology, particularly Carl Jung’s approach, were highly compatible. According to Gareth Knight, she once stated that “she began by trying to explain occultism in terms of psychology but ended by having to explain psychology in terms of occultism. ...[S]he strove to ... persuade occultists and psychologists to abandon their mutual suspicion and enter some meaningful dialogue.”
The Irishman Theodore Moriarty was her first occult teacher. She apparently became acquainted with him during her time as a therapist. She was also teaching at that time, and one of her students was treating a young man who seemed to be the cause of such odd events as doors suddenly throwing themselves open, while at the same time the dogs in the neighborhood began a hue and cry. Both the student and Violet were perplexed. Having heard that Moriarty was familiar with occult phenomena, she asked for his help. He obliged. The details of the case were rather gruesome,  and brought home to Violet Firth the realization that psychotherapy delved only so deeply into the human heart and mind. This was the beginning of her transition from psychotherapist to occultist. Moriarty would also become the acknowledged inspiration for her fictional Dr. Taverner.
Eventually she found that occultism answered far more questions than did the field of psychoanalysis. She wrote that “A number of threads were placed in my hands … but the ends … disappeared into the darkness, and those threads were human lives.” Given the “poor percentage of success” with her clients, she couldn’t justify continuing with the work. However, “ … when the doctrines of occultism were brought to my notice … I could trace the run of the threads; I could see whence they came and whither they were tending, and from the segment could calculate the circle.”
The town of Glastonbury, in Somerset County, England, is one of several places on the planet that is reputed to be a powerful spiritual center. The Historic UK website states: “In Glastonbury, history, myth and legend combine in such a way that most visitors cannot fail to feel the “vibes” and powerful atmosphere of the town.” Dion Fortune stated that the information in her books on occultism was obtained from inner plane masters, and it was in Glastonbury that she first felt their presence. Still known as Violet Firth, she was visiting the Chalice Well at the foot of Glastonbury Tor when she met Charles Loveday, who would become a lifelong friend and fellow student of occultism. In August of 1922, “through Violet Firth’s mediumship,” they received the first teachings from an inner plane group they knew as the Company of Avalon. The Society of the Inner Light, which she founded a few years later, would maintain a study center in Glastonbury.
She had previously met and would go on to meet other inner plane masters, and to investigate various occult societies. In general, she advocated that aspiring occultists focus on meditation in order to find their own inner plane masters. None of the societies she investigated seemed to meet her needs, or at any rate she did not find their teachings entirely satisfactory. She seems never to have stayed with any one of them until she founded her own Society.
Miss Firth became a member-at-large of the Theosophical Society on January 12, 1924 in London.
[Note: The following account is adapted from Richardson, pp. 66-70; he states that the long passage he quotes was from an article she wrote for the Journal of the Society of the Inner Light. Some of the information also appears in the original introduction to The Cosmic Doctrine.]
Violet Firth had been familiar with the Theosophical Society for some 10 years before she joined. Her first contact was around 1914, when she joined a Young Theosophists club which happened to have a public restaurant, “not because I was in sympathy with its aims, for I knew nothing whatever about them, but because it was near the clinic where I worked, and was a pleasant place to get a meal.” She found much of the theosophical talk about psychic phenomena to be “foolish, and with the arrogance of youth, I dismissed without further enquiry the whole philosophy and science from which it appeared to be derived.” One day, however, in a spirit of mischief, she attended a meditation class in which the group leader was discussing the transference of thought forms. To Violet’s surprise, she correctly perceived an image of the woman’s projected thought form well in advance of the woman announcing what the thought form was. This experience repeated itself three more times, leading young Violet to admit that she “was dealing with something genuine.”
She believed this thought transference might be very important to the practice of psychotherapy, and “experimented with it very carefully, and found it to be reliable.” However, “some power had touched me that produced a profound spiritual upheaval,” and she decided she could no longer continue with psychoanalytical work. World War I having begun, she joined the “Land Army” and eventually was put in charge of a food laboratory. She spent many hours “watching and waiting in a great empty building while bacterial cultures brewed in an incubator. … I suppose the enforced quiet must have had the effect of turning attention inward, for astral sight suddenly opened and gave me one of the frights of my life. I know of nothing more alarming than astral vision without the necessary knowledge to control it.” She “saw at once I was experiencing that which I had thought such nonsense when I had heard it discussed in those Theosophical circles.”
This experience led her to a theosophical library, where she found Annie Besant’s The Ancient Wisdom. Upon reading that the Masters are still accessible to those who seek Them earnestly, her “whole nature gathered itself up into a one-pointed desire to find the Masters.” After ten days of obsession — she says she reverted to her ancestral type and “went baresark in my quest of the Masters” — she had a dream which became a vision. She felt that she had spent about half an hour in the presence of two of the Masters. Then “Vision changed to dream … Was it a dream, or an actual experience? That is a matter of opinion; I only know that not only my inner consciousness, but the outer circumstances of my life were totally different thenceforth.” The next morning, she “found in [her] consciousness the certain knowledge that I had been accepted as a pupil by a Master” — although not the Master of Wisdom she would have preferred. Instead, she “had been handed over to the Most Holy, the Master of Compassion … in order that I might not develop the powers of the mind with the faults of character uneradicated.”
This seems to have been the beginning of her receiving teachings from inner plane masters. She encountered many of Them over the years. She also became involved in various other occult societies, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Society of the Inner Light
Violet Firth married Thomas Penry Evans (1892–1959) on 7 April 1927. He was a medical doctor from a working-class background, which he made no effort to hide, and he had served with distinction throughout World War I. It is not known how or where they met, but it is clear that the marriage, which lasted 12 years, was, shall we say, a dynamic one. Alan Richardson put it this way: “In Penry she met the incarnation of her dark side … the quintessence of Welsh manhood, who forced her to recognize and take stock of the dark areas within her own psyche.” Apparently they were reasonably well matched intellectually and spiritually, but on the material and emotional planes the relationship sometimes tended toward high drama.
She had joined the Theosophical Society in 1924, despite her doubts about some of its teachings, and, according to Richardson, by 1927 was the President of a group known as The Christian Mystic Lodge of the Theosophical Society. This was a study group which published its transactions (on esoteric Christianity) monthly. A year after her marriage, she had left the Theosophical Society and the group had become the Fraternity of the Inner Light. Dion was the “Warden” of this community and gave weekly lectures. Her husband, now known as Merl, also occasionally lectured on Gnosticism and related themes.
That organization, currently known as the Society of the Inner Light, is still in existence and is based in the United Kingdom. The group’s website states that it was founded by Dion Fortune in 1924. Admission is open to those who have passed a year-long correspondence course, which appears to be quite rigorous.
The principle work of the Western Esoteric Tradition is expansion of consciousness. It deals with the ‘ground of all being’, unmanifest, beyond time and space, which differentiates countless nodes of being evolving through a manifest universe. The purpose of these nodes of being is to realise the Divine Intention.”
Occult Work in WWII
When Britain entered the War in September of 1939, Dion Fortune decided to stay in London despite the dangers. She was no longer young and physically strong enough to aid the war effort in any material way, but she was determined to use her occult powers to aid and protect the country. Accordingly, she rallied her occultist colleagues, beginners and experts alike, to help her.
She sent out a letter every Wednesday (the contents of which were given to her by the inner plane masters) to prepare participants for that Sunday’s practice. A few of her more experienced colleagues met with her in the Inner Light Sanctuary at 3 Queensborough Terrace (3 QT) in London; everyone else joined from their respective homes. At the appropriate time they assumed the posture Dion described in the letter, and faced London. The group in London “would be generating power within the Sanctuary of 3 QT, creating a link between this new group and the group soul [of the British people] … enabling them to make contact with those spiritual influences at work behind the scenes.”
In the beginning the symbol they all concentrated on to create a group consciousness was “that of the Rose upon the Cross … surrounded by a golden light of great brilliance, while the Rose itself was limned in that diamond-light which was a sure sign of enormous power.” As this work went on, participants often found themselves viewing the Rosy Cross from within a “wondrous cavern,” an earthly symbol of Glastonbury Tor.
The results were excellent right from the beginning. In a radio address, the Archbishop of York gave a talk “that was almost a verbatim reading” from Dion’s most recent letter, and the Minister of War apparently did the same thing the following week. Richardson notes that these men did not have access to the letters, but were “giving utterance to those currents that Dion was now actively channeling.”
The instructional letters she wrote were collected into the book The Magical Battle of Britain, published several decades after her death.
Not that the Inner Light group was the only one doing this sort of practice --- many other occultists in Britain were performing similar work. “In the parlance of the time, Dion was simply ‘doing her bit’.”
Perhaps we really know Dion Fortune through her writings. Given the discrepancies between her various biographies, it is difficult to know just what is true regarding her life. Her writings, however, reveal a great deal about her. Her books were written before World War II and are still being read. They are a product of their times, and --- like much other literature of the times – occasionally reflect attitudes that are by modern standards rather sexist, and even racist. That said, it is also clear that many people still find many of her ideas valuable.
She was quite practical and down to earth in her approach to occultism, and it’s clear that she has a background in psychology. In Psychic Self-Defense, she notes that “... we have to distinguish very carefully between psychic experience and subjective hallucination; we have to be sure that the person ... is not hearing the reverberation of his own dissociated complexes. The differential diagnosis ... is an exceedingly delicate and difficult operation.”
In Sane Occultism, she notes that “Occult science, rightly understood, is the link between psychology & religion; it gives the means of a spiritual approach to science, and a scientific approach to the spiritual life. The experiences to which it admits us, rightly understood, form a stairway from rational brain-consciousness, dependent on the five physical senses, to the direct apprehensions of spiritual intuition.”
She was not a fan of what might be called “the woo-woo factor,” which is found often enough among those interested in occultism. To wit (from the late 1920s):
Ninety per cent of the books on occultism are conceived in the spirit and written in the manner of the penny gaff; they offend the taste of any educated person. As long as the occult doctrines are presented in such a guise they can never command the respect of those whose respect is worth having. ... Large chunks of unverified and unverifiable statements and a thick treacly smear of sentimental humanitarianism are the mixture from which all too many esoteric books are compounded, and they make one ashamed to call oneself an occultist. Such a book as [Annie Besant’s] The Ancient Wisdom commands respect as a literary production even from those who do not accept its conclusions, but some of the utterances that have been given to the world in the name of Occult Science are simply in execrable taste and would disgrace a patent medicine.
While some might find this a bit harsh, she does have a point, and it’s still a valid one. While New-Agers in the 21st century almost always mean well, the important faculty of critical thinking sometimes seems to be weak or missing altogether.
In discussing how to rise above the influences of our environment, Fortune notes that self-control is paramount.
Meditation should always precede any action or decision, and ... should be, curiously enough, not upon the subject of the problem that is to be solved, but rather upon spiritual development and unfoldment...
She recommends mantras and visualization as means of implanting healthier beliefs in the subconscious, and notes that we must begin to feel an inner change before we are capable of changing our outer circumstances. She also recommends accepting responsibility for whatever happens in our lives: “If we have been wrongly dealt with by some person, we should not hold that person responsible and ourselves blameless, but should condemn ourselves for having been foolish enough to trust them, or having lacked the courage to resist them.” Again, while this may seem rather severe, accepting responsibility for ourselves is a common teaching in spiritual traditions. This seems to be related to the idea of karma – that what happens to us, although it may seem random and unfair at times, is actually the just consequence of previous actions, whether in our current lifetime or a former incarnation.
In the 1988 edition of Dion Fortune's The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage – and the Problem of Purity (published by the Society of the Inner Light), this note appears following the Preface:
In December 1942 Dion Fortune wrote:
- There are things I wrote of Spiritualism twenty years ago which, in the light of wider experience, I would not write today, and to cite these as evidence against me is to deny the possibility of human progress.
This particular book was first published in 1924. We can’t know whether she would have revised it in the 1960s — or the 2000s — but it is certain that nearly 100 years later it reads as very dated, if not nearly obsolete. Her views on purity, in particular, would cause a fair amount of angst and outrage among the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters (although it’s not likely many of them will ever read it). Humanity has a long history of swinging from one extreme to the other: after hundreds of years of stringent repression, the boundaries of sexual behavior have been smashed up and blown away. Graphic novels in high school libraries are considered pornography by some; from another point of view, they just depict the way some teens live in the 21st century.
Certainly there is very little sense in modern Western culture that sex is in any way sacred. To Dion Fortune, however, sex was a completely sacred act, a very powerful form of magic about which most people were clueless. She talks about male-female polarity, of course, a concept that is still valid although no longer confined to one’s physical gender. She also discusses the idea that marriage partners need to be compatible on all levels, not just the physical. From the esoteric point of view, “love” that is based on physical attraction and personality traits alone is likely to be problematic; a lasting union requires deeper ties. We need to seek partners who are attuned to us on the astral (emotional), intellectual, and spiritual levels as well as the physical. This idea is not exclusively esoteric, of course; many people do seek partners with whom they are attuned on some or all of these levels. People with higher educational and income levels are less likely to divorce than those without college degrees, although whether this reflects conscious attention to their partner’s spiritual evolution is not clear. It could also be a reflection of economic uncertainty putting greater stress on a marriage.
In any case, her book on the esoteric side of love and marriage, dated as it must seem to modern sensibilities, still contains ideas that might possibly help modern, sensible people navigate the often turbulent waters of romantic love.
She wrote several books on occultism, and these generally reflect the similar teachings that have come down through the ages from various traditions. Her own detailed interpretations and experiences make for fascinating reading. Her novels --- which are still popular as well --- also impart occult teachings.
Her book The Mystical Qabalah is still very much in demand, and readers’ reviews are overwhelmingly positive. While there are a few complaints about the text being dated (it was originally published in 1935), most readers consider it the most straightforward and understandable text available on this esoteric system.,  The book can be somewhat baffling for those who are completely unacquainted with occult teachings, but even some rank beginners have found it helpful. As noted previously, Fortune tended to be very pragmatic in all of her writings, and her background in psychology generally shows itself.
Dion Fortune wrote articles for periodicals like Transactions of the Christian Mystic Lodge of the Theosophical Society, which she also served as editor, and The Occult Review. Often her writings were reprinted in other magazines, and there are over 80 articles by or about her listed in the Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals.
The Demon Lover
The Goat-Foot God
The Sea Priestess
The Secrets of Dr. Taverner
The Winged Bull
Machinery of the Mind
The Esoteric Philosophy of Love & Marriage
Psychology of the Servant Problem
The Soya Bean
Esoteric Orders & Their Work
The Problem of Purity
Sane Occultism (later What is Occultism?)
The Training & Work of an Initiate
Mystical Meditations on the Collects
Spiritualism in the Light of Occult Science
Through the Gates of Death
Glastonbury — Avalon of the Heart
The Mystical Qabalah
Practical Occultism in Daily Life
The Cosmic Doctrine
Gareth Knight also collected and edited many of her essays and articles in the decades after her death. The best known of these books are listed here:
The Magical Battle of Britain
The Circuit of Force
Principles of Hermetic Philosophy
Aspects of Occultism
Introduction to Ritual Magic
Rites of Isis & of Pan
A friend in the military who saw Dion Fortune in London in late 1940 found that “she had surrendered some of her seclusion and had taken a header into the world. She was meeting a more varied assortment of people: she was trying out aspects of herself which had formerly lain dormant. In a word she was trying to move with the times!” Dion had changed both her style of dress and her “reception room,” which was “now an exotic apartment rich in coloured silks and elaborate hangings.” Other people noticed the change in her as well, and she had a new group of pupils preparing to help the Society of the Inner Light resume its pre-war activities.
In the mid 1940s she once again began paying attention to Jungian psychology, thanks in large part to the publication of a book by Jolande Jacobi entitled The Psychology of C.G. Jung: An Introduction. Prof. Jacobi had worked with Dr. Jung for many years, and Dion made her introductory book required reading for Inner Light students. Like many others, she had found that it is only Jungian psychology that peers deeply enough into the human psyche to approach an understanding of the human soul.
As World War II wound toward its end, Dion found her energy and health declining. She came to suspect that one of Hitler’s black magicians was targeting her personally, which seems entirely likely given her previous work during the War. She had been the strongest of the occultists within her sphere, and apparently there was no one in London who could help her.
Still, she continued with her occult work. Gareth Knight writes that her “last trance address” (from the inner plane masters, through her to the Society of the Inner Light) was at the autumnal equinox in September 1945. She was not well enough to address the winter solstice gathering in December, and her health declined very rapidly in the days following. She died from leukemia on January 6th, 1946, at Middlesex Hospital, and was buried in Glastonbury.
As noted previously, Dion Fortune is reputed to have continued communicating with the Society of the Inner Light after her death, via a medium named Margaret Lumley Brown. This woman’s diaries have survived and make for very interesting reading.
All in all, Dion Fortune was a remarkable woman with an enduring legacy. Her books on occultism are down to earth and straightforward, qualities that have earned them a very large readership and kept them in print. She was opinionated and plain-spoken, committed to her work, and highly ethical. The world could use many more like her.
- https://www.rejectedreligion.com/podcast/episode/2e23b17f/rejected-religion-spotlight-with-thomas-van-breda-university-of-amsterdam-dion-fortune-servant-to-the-masters?fbclid=IwAR2RwLEgTOtP522Xdc5UC0ig3XVRa9yf6aakD-P3M2w_ltwokdY_2RSumNw; accessed 27 April 2022
- Graf, Susan Johnston (2015). Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune. State University of New York (SUNY) Press.
- Richardson, Alan (1991): The Magical Life of Dion Fortune, Priestess of the 20th Century. London: Aquarian Press (division of HarperCollins)
- Knight, Gareth (2000). Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. Loughborough: Thoth Publications, p. 14
- ibid., p.17
- Richardson, pp 31-32; & Knight, pp 14-15
- Knight, pp 21-23
- Richardson, pp 50 ff
- Fortune, Dion (2001): Psychic Self-Defense. Boston: Weiser Books; p. xxv
- Richardson, pp 52–53
- Knight, p. 66
- Knight, pp. 33–34
- Knight, p. 71
- Knight, pp. 73–76
- Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at http://tsmembers.org/. See book 10, entry 109399 (website file: 10B/17).
- Introduction to The Cosmic Doctrine, found at https://books.google.com/books?id=YUEOq2SxHnsC&pg=PT9&lpg=PT9&dq. This electronic version states that it is “the integral text recorded in 1924 by Dion Fortune. It has been neither edited nor amended.” In later print editions of The Cosmic Doctrine the Introduction appears to have been much condensed.
- Richardson, pp. 157–159
- Richardson, p. 161
- Richardson, p. 163–164
- Richardson, pp. 227–235
- Psychic Self-Defense, p. xxvi
- Fortune, Dion (1967; originally published in 1929). Sane Occultism. New York: Samuel Weiser; p. 19
- ibid, p. 25
- Dion Fortune, Practical Occultism in Daily Life (1971; first published 1935). London: The Aquarian Press. p. 13
- ibid., p. 14
- ibid., p. 15
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201702/what-is-the-divorce-rate-really; accessed 16 December 2021
- Richardson, pp. 234-235; 238
- Knight, p. 290
- Richardson, pp. 238-239
- Knight, pp. 292–293
- Knight, pp. 295–296