Rosaleen Norton died over thirty years ago but remains a strong and powerful presence within the Australian magical community. Her art, hardly commercially successful in its day, still produces the same potent resonance and awareness of the otherworld as it did at her zenith. And Pan’s Daughter by Nevill Drury remains the only meaningful study not simply of her life, but also her magical life. It is therefore a delight to read a revised and expanded version of this wonderful book.
To be an honest reviewer, I was pretty sure I’d enjoy the new edition, having loved the first, published back in 1988, less than a decade after Norton’s death. Now thirty years on, the story of her life, her unique magical unfolding and otherworldly yet visceral art is as relevant and as interesting as ever. Only recently I heard two more tales of ‘Roie’, as Norton was affectionately known; tales that seek to cast the teller with some of the magic and power inherent in this amazing woman.
Pan’s Daughter is superb as it traces the simple threads of Norton’s life to give us a rounded background before focusing squarely on several key themes: sexuality, art, the otherworld and magic. In none of these areas was Norton bound or confined by the thought and theories of the day. She was largely self-created and self-determined, in relationship with her Gods, who she saw as distinctly real, but again within a unique magical cosmology. Yet, as Drury simply and deeply reveals, Norton was not rebelling, as many faux pretenders and rich kids of the 60s and 70s were to do. She was simply unfolding into who she really was.
Drury’s writing is engaging and lucid, and his approach to a person who is complex and still surrounded with an aura of diabolism is sympathetic and reasoned. Drawing on decades of experience in the art world, publishing and magical writing, Drury gives background and expertise to help the reader enter the magical world of Norton. He also places her life in the context and stream of two important traditions of modern magic, one which came before Norton and one emerging at the time of her death – sex magic and modern Women’s Mysteries. These themes he explores in two excellent appendices, which are worthy of publication in their own right.
Drury shows how Norton, an ‘unconventional’ child with a ‘flair for disobedience’, was always moved by her own lights. She slept in a tent in the family garden, befriending spiders and other creatures who entered her domain. While still in her teens she starting developing the style of dark and powerful, somewhat macabre art that would become her hallmark, and later bring her before the courts on a charge of obscenity. In her 20s and 30s Norton was strongly influenced by her reading of Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and other writers in the magical tradition. The impact of this study, and the immense inner awakening it produced in Norton led a reviewer to describe her as having:
…developed a most exceptional ability to actually enter the psychic sphere, to transport her personality to other planes than the physical one, and to sensually perceive that which, to most of us, remains for ever hidden (p.39).
Drury however, does not simply describe Norton’s magical art, her reviews, or art, or even simply recount her own words. He presents all of these, places them in context, gives an interpretative framework and allows the reader to discern for herself just what an amazing psychic visionary and artist Norton was. This is one of the great strengths of the book: its ability to reveal the depth and power of Norton without imposing a meta-interpretation. Chapters each on trance journeys, Norton’s cosmology, group magic, sex magic and transformation within the inner realms all display this quality and skill. It was well appreciated.
It should be noted here that Drury gives extended pieces of Norton’s own words, describing her unique and powerful magical cosmology and ontology. This is actually quite incredible:
This extraordinary account of utilising altered states of consciousness to access the magical universe is one of the most lucid descriptions of its type that I have come across. One needs to remember this text was written in 1949, long before such topics as meditation, visualisation and ‘consciousness expansion’ became popular in the late 1960s’ counter-culture (p. 66).
Anyone, any magician or modern Pagan who takes time to read these notes will be enriched. There is a lot here, much which has never been overtaken or supplanted. Nor, as Drury elucidates was this magical work simply a means of producing ‘trance-art’ as it is called nowadays:
Like a traditional Shaman, accessing mythic realms of awareness while in a state of consciously willed dissociation, Norton was endeavouring to transcend the barrier of physical death through her inner plane encounters. (p.68).
Norton’s artwork, lifestyle, and sexual magic brought her into conflict several times with the Australian police and authorities. This was an Australia still heavily conservative and restricted, before Oz magazine and the hippy awakening. While I would love to see a more detailed and extended study of Norton’s sexuality and sex magic, Drury delivers the goods in this expanded version. There is a comprehensive, informed and detailed study of Norton’s sexual magic and its manifestations. Owners of the first edition will be well rewarded for purchasing this edition for this section alone. Drury is well placed to review this material and its place in the sexual magic stream of the western tradition. And he does so admirably.
Drury also shows his acumen in reviewing the material concerning Norton in Doreen Valiente’s The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Valiente was informed about Norton by Leslie Roberts, a journalist who visited Norton in 1959. Rather than accepting some things, such as putative passages from Norton’s own Witchcraft liturgy and supposed connection to Celtic traditions, Drury analyses the material, based on Norton’s own distinctive style and spiritual connections. He suggests the passages are unlikely to be Norton’s own compositions, having a likely ‘British origin’ and concludes:
…Norton’s ritual practice … indicate[s] that she was more influenced by the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema than by Celtic tradition. (p173).
Norton’s own compositions are as deep as they are evocative, and Drury includes a few such as this one, written to accompany her controversial drawing ‘Black Magic’, which begins:
Light’s Black Majesty : Midnight Sun: Lord of the wild and
Soul of Magic and master of Death;
Panther of Night… enfold me.
Take me, dark Shining One; mingle my being with you,
Prowl in my spirit with deep purring joy
Live in me, giver of terror and ecstasy
Touch me with tongues of black fire. (p.144-45).
Overall this is a very rewarding and well composed work. Its production values are great, the index really useable and helpful and the copious reproductions of Norton’s art, a joy. The only slight concern I had was the name given to Norton throughout the text. Some sections, whole chapters, address her using the familiar and warm ‘Roie’ nickname, other chapters as ‘Norton’. This was a bit distracting and may show a pastiche of previously composed essays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It was a very minor thing in the scope and sweep of a lovely, engaging and expert work. This is a must have volume for all people – Australians and others – interested in Rosaleen Norton or the manifestation of the magical tradition through individuals rather than groups. It is highly recommended.
Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton by Nevill Drury. Mandrake of Oxford. 2013.