Olivia Robertson

Catherine Maignant

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OLIVIA ROBERTSON TIMELINE

1917 (April 13):  Olivia Melian Durdin-Robertson was born in London. She spent the first years of her life with her family in Surrey, England.

1925:  The Durdin-Robertsons left England and settled in the family’s ancestral home, Huntington Castle, Clonegal, County Carlow, Ireland.

1938–1939:  Olivia Robertson, as she became known, studied at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London and held her first art exhibition in 1938.

1940:  In the context of World War II, Olivia Robertson briefly served as a nurse in the Voluntary Air Detachment in Bedfordshire.

1942:  Robertson graduated in European Art History at University College Dublin.

1942–1945:  Robertson worked with Dublin Corporation inner-city playground scheme and made drawings of children, some of which were published in the Irish Times.

1946:  Olivia Robertson received her first “spiritual awakening from Isis.” That same year, she published her first novel, St Malachy’s Court.

1946:  Field of the Stranger (winner of London Book Society’s Choice Award) was published.

1949:  The Golden Eye was published.

1950:  Miranda Speaks was published.

1953:  It’s an Old Irish Custom was published.

1956:  The Dublin Phoenix was published.

1960:  Olivia Robertson moved back to Clonegal and settled permanently with her brother Lawrence Durdin-Robertson and his wife, Pamela (née Barclay).

1963:  The trio founded the Huntington Castle Centre for Meditation and Study.

1975:  Olivia Robertson published The Call of Isis, which she called her “spiritual autobiography.”

1976:  Following a visit to Egypt, Olivia, Lawrence and Pamela Durdin-Robertson founded the Fellowship of Isis.

1977:  The first Iseum was launched in the United Kingdom.

1986:  The College of Isis was founded at Clonegal Castle.

1987 (December 8):  Pamela Durdin-Robertson died.

1989:  The first Fellowship of Isis World Convention was held in London. The Noble Order of Tara was founded at that time.

1992:  The Druid Clan of Dana was created.

1993:  Olivia Robertson took part in the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.

1994 (August 4):  Lawrence Durdin-Robertson died, leaving his sister Olivia as sole leader of the Fellowship of Isis.

1999–2009:  Olivia Robertson progressively restructured the Fellowship of Isis and decentralized the organization.

2002:  Robertson published Isis of Fellowship: How the Fellowship of Isis was Founded.

2005:  Robertson exhibited paintings of the Goddess in an international artists’ exhibition in Bunclody, County Wexford, Ireland.

2011:  Olivia Robertson appointed her niece Cressida Pryor as her successor.

2013 (November 14):  Olivia Robertson died in Wexford, Ireland. The Fellowship of Isis organized a private ceremony at the temple, Clonegal Castle. A public Church of Ireland funeral service followed.

BIOGRAPHY

Olivia Melian Durdin-Robertson was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in London on April 13, 1917. [Image at right] She was the second eldest child of an old Anglo-Irish aristocratic family descended from the first Lord Esmonde, who erected the family castle on lands given by King Charles II. Olivia’s father, Manning Durdin-Robertson (1887–1945), was a successful architect and town planner. He was also the author of several books on architecture, one of which, Approach to Architecture, was co-authored with his wife, Nora Kathleen née Parsons (1892–1965), who later published Thrifty Salmon Fishing (1945).

Olivia Robertson (as she came to be known) was born in a period of profound changes in Ireland. Her family belonged to the old ascendancy of wealthy Protestant rulers of English origin. The Durdin-Robertsons were unsurprisingly affected by the Anglo-Irish War and the revolutionary turmoil starting in 1916. Even though Olivia Robertson’s maternal grandmother, Lady Florence Belinda Parsons, and her family were moderate nationalists, the Irish Republican Army seized Huntington Castle, [Image at right] which became their headquarters, and expelled the family. “We were Protestants in southern Ireland,” Olivia Robertson recalled. “We lost all our power” (Sideman 2000). They did not recover their ancestral home until after the independence struggle.

Robertson spent the first years of her life in London, and then Reigate, Surrey, England. She only returned to Ireland in 1925, when her father inherited the estate after the death of his mother. By then Ireland had been transformed: “We then arrived in this extraordinary place where the poor had won,” she noted. “The kids from the council school had taken over—they were the government. The local Protestants called them murderers” (Sideman 2000). However, Olivia and her brother “decided to be Irish” (Clarke 2012), and a new, happy life started.

In The Call of Isis: A Spiritual Autobiography published in 1975, [Image at right] Olivia Robertson vividly recalled her arrival at the castle as a passage into a dreamland of sorts: “The isolation of the Valley” surrounded by hills, “the sombre yew walk,” the ruins of “The Abbey,” the ghosts, but also the house itself, which “provided its own psychic doorways,” contributed to creating a fairyland atmosphere. She wrote:

Some places have a strange atmosphere that seems to belong to both spheres at once. The veil between this world and the sphere of the soul seems to be thinner there. When I was eight, I was brought to such a place in Ireland. The transition from Reigate to a South Ireland valley was in itself fantastic (Robertson 1975:chapter 1).

From the age of ten, she and her brother Lawrence regularly visited a certain Mr. Fox, a hermit who lived by the River Slaney and who initiated the children to pre-Druidic and/or Druidic beliefs and practices (Robertson’s accounts of this episode in her life diverge). In an interview with Alex Langstone (1993), Olivia Robertson explained that “He actually saw the ancient race of Ireland in vision” and that he “introduced [her] to the Sidhe.” Following that initiation, she “began to see a White Lady Who told [her] that Her name was Dana.” Dana was the emblematic mother goddess of the Irish Celts, who gave her name to the Tuatha Dé Danann (Tribes of the Goddess Dana), the pantheon of gods of Ancient Ireland. Olivia Robertson added, “At the time I didn’t want to give Her a name but She told me three times, so I had to accept it! She is Queen of the whole earth.” These youthful experiences were to inspire one of her novels, Field of the Stranger (1948), but they also announced her later interest in the Great Goddess and the Sidhe, the Irish Celtic Otherworld, and its inhabitants.

In the meantime, Olivia’s parents rapidly integrated into the Irish intelligentsia of their day. They were on particularly friendly terms with the mystical writer and Theosophist George William Russell (A.E.) (1867–1935) and the poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). In an interview with Steve Wilson, Olivia Robertson said: “I remember once they were going to a séance at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Yeats, and that I had tea there. I try to remember what W. B. Yeats said, but all I remember is having chocolate cake!” When Yeats died in 1939, his widow asked Olivia’s father to design the tombstone. [Image at right] It was to carry the famous inscription, “Cast a cold Eye on Life, on Death, Horseman, pass by.” Late in life Olivia Robertson recalled this episode: “Later, my mother met Mrs. Yeats and asked her if she liked the tombstone, and she said “Yes, and Willie’s delighted too!” (Wilson 1992). No doubt the atmosphere in which Olivia grew up influenced her young mind. She was also convinced that the taste for the occult ran in the family as she was related to Gaelic revivalist Robert Graves: “It’s in my family blood, I think. My cousin Robert Graves wrote the book The White Goddess and my mother said that the Graves family went in for things which she regarded as very strange” (Wilson 1992).

In this context, Olivia Robertson grew up to become an artist and novelist. In 1938 and 1939 she studied at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, a privately-run British art school based in London. She had the opportunity to hold her first art exhibition in 1938. After the war with Germany was declared by Britain and France on September 3, 1939, Olivia Robertson briefly served as a nurse in the Voluntary Air Detachment in Bedfordshire, but she eventually decided to go back to Ireland and there completed her undergraduate education in 1942 in European Art History at University College Dublin, the Catholic national university, an unusual choice for a Protestant of her generation. Vivianne Crowley notes that she obtained first place in the History of European Painting (Crowley 2017:145). She then started her career as an artist by illustrating the books her parents were publishing.

Yet Olivia Robertson’s left-wing political orientation induced her to work also with the Dublin Corporation inner-city playground scheme. This new experience was far removed from the comfortable life her family background had allowed her to lead thus far. She was confronted with inner city poverty, and children who had “shaved heads and sharp red bite marks on the back of thin necks; the ubiquitous T.B., and rickets, and ringworm and impetigo” (Robertson, quoted by Crowley 2017:145). Crowley suggests that “the ethos of this, her first and only sustained experience of employment, may have influenced her later leadership style” (Crowley 2017:145).

It was immediately a source of inspiration for her first novel, [Image at right] St Malachy’s Court, published in 1947. Her experience as a supervisor of playgrounds also impressed on her the feeling that children’s songs and stories teemed with esoteric references, a topic that inspired her two novels, Miranda Speaks (1950) and The Dublin Phoenix (1956). Commenting on Olivia Robertson’s work as a writer, author Linda Iles states:

Lady Olivia’s novels are filled with a mixing of myth and satirical social criticism. Her writing can be compared to James Stephens, who employed satire and myth in his work to explore the human condition. However, her commentary on the condition of human society combined with her psychic awareness, her spirituality and sensitivity to the power of symbolism make her writing unique (Iles 2007).

Robertson’s last novel, The Dublin Phoenix, sold out on the first day it came out.

In the meantime, in 1946, Olivia Robertson at age twenty-nine had her first psychic experience of the Goddess. She described her vision in chapter three of The Call of Isis:

A woman stood before me. I was wide awake. Her body seemed to be made of crystallized white light. Her hair was raven-black and pulled neatly into small dark curls. About it was tied a white veil, the ends hanging loosely. Her form was smooth, and her arms bare and roundly shaped. As for her dress, this intrigued me, for it appeared to be without any seams, although it was made up of strips of pale green and lilac material. I noticed the strong white shoulders. In fact shoulder, neck and arms gave an impression of concealed strength. But what struck me most forcibly was her way of speaking, which was through thought, but as clear as a musical instrument. What she said was:

“It is customary to stand in my presence.”

Olivia Robertson wrote that she immediately knew that she “was in the presence of a Goddess or an angel.” She recalled having an interview with that strange being, but afterwards she could not remember a word she said. This experience made a deep impression even though she claimed that she was at the time “of a sceptical turn of mind and knew well how deceptive the psychic sense can be.” Yet she “knew that the Lady was as real as myself and not an hallucination,” and she wanted to “tell people about her” (Robertson 1975, chapter 3). She indirectly did so in her novel, The Golden Eye, published three years later in 1949. But she wanted to do more to explore the world of psychic manifestations so as to control them. She joined the London College of Psychic Studies and attended a Spiritualist course at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. In addition, she started reading about as many religious traditions as she could.

In 1960, she settled permanently with her brother Lawrence and his wife Pamela at Huntington Castle in Clonegal. Lawrence Durdin-Robertson had inherited Clonegal Castle in 1945 and it became Olivia’s residence until she died. Her brother had become a Church of Ireland minister in 1948, but his understanding of the divine had evolved. He had resigned as an Anglican minister in 1957 and identified as a “universalist,” believing in “the necessity of the Divine Feminine to balance the Divine masculine” (Maignant 2011:263). His wife was also a psychic who communicated with nature spirits and believed in the harmony of all forms of life. The trio then decided to launch the Huntington Castle Centre for Meditation and Study. Around that time Olivia Robertson discovered that she had “a talent for leading others in guided meditation, or ‘magical journeys’. . . .” This was the starting point of “the work she was led to do later with the Fellowship of Isis” (“Lady Olivia Robertson” [2019]).

In the foreword to Isis of Fellowship (2002), [Image at right] Olivia Robertson, then in her eighty-fifth year, explained how the Fellowship of Isis was founded:

In 1946 I was alone. In 1952 I was joined by my brother, an Anglican rector, who also had the Great Awakening. We were joined by his wife, who for a whole month was able to sustain the experience. We awaited spiritual guidance, wondering what we were to do. To quote a new version of the words of St Patrick: “On earth at this fateful hour, Isis cometh in Her power.” The Goddess came to us. In 1976 we were ready to begin (Robertson 2002).

The three founders then devoted the rest of their lives to the elaboration and promotion of their religious movement that resulted in the founding of the Fellowship of Isis in 1976. Olivia in particular wrote all of the numerous liturgical texts that now serve as a basis for worship. She was the last of the trio to survive, and when she finally died at the age of ninety-six, the Fellowship of Isis had spread over the five continents and numbered thousands of members.

TEACHINGS/DOCTRINES

The Fellowship of Isis (FOI) Manifesto (Fellowship of Isis website n.d.), first issued in 1976, claims that the organization was founded to answer the needs of the “[g]rowing numbers of people” who “are rediscovering their love for the Goddess” and wish “to help [Her] actively in the manifestation of Her divine plan” (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-a). In 1973, when Olivia Robertson “still went to Church and accepted Christianity as part of the package of world religions,” she had suddenly “realised the missing factor was the total ignorance of, and deliberate attack on the religion of God the Mother” (Wilson 1992). In her estimation, “the rebirth of the Goddess” (Robertson 1990) was a necessity to counter the nefarious consequences of male supremacy in the world. The “over-emphasis of the brain” at a certain stage of human evolution led to “the cessation of spiritual evolution.” “Divine inspiration, no longer available to a new race of male priests, was relegated to the past,” while men were taking control of the world’s religions. Women for their part were eliminated from the picture, in spite of their “greatest gifts for psychic awareness,” but also their “innate gifts of homemaking, understanding people, caring for children.” She believed that as a consequence, these talents “received no real appreciation” (Robertson 1990:33–34). Olivia Robertson found the results of male supremacy catastrophic, and she placed the blame on men’s brutality and lack of empathy for the disastrous side effects of scientific development. She was thus among the women who felt pushed into action by “the dangers of atomic warfare, holes into the ozone layer, pollution of air, seas and plant life” (Robertson 1990:33–34). Her approach to environmental problems was religious. In a BBC interview, she explained that the creation of the Fellowship of Isis

was direct spiritual experience . . . that I had direct spiritual vocation to do this from God—the feminine aspect of God, God who is also feminine—to emphasize this because the world is threatened by destruction through pollution, through misuse of nature, often through stupidity and greed. We’re destroying the planet and the Divine plan appears to be to emphasize the feminine—charity, kindness, care for nature, nurturing, motherhood—all that side. Not to get rid of the male aspect, but to balance male aggression and materialism (BBC Radio 5 interview on June 21, 1992; quoted in “Lady Olivia Robertson” [2019]).

Olivia Robertson’s understanding of religion is evocative of the New Age belief in the advent of the Age of Aquarius following the Age of Pisces characterized by male brutality and violence. This New Age feminist frame of mind is further confirmed in an interview in which Olivia Robertson declared: “I was born during a war when women were totally under the thumb of men, and I devoted my life to try to help women and children to find their true selves,” because women are not “the spare rib of a man.” Robertson said she liked “to see women spontaneous and happy,” and rejoiced in “the liberation of [the] confidence” induced by communion with the Goddess (Divine Media 2013).

Her own psychic experience of communion with the Goddess further explains Olivia Robertson’s beliefs and teachings. She believed she had been “awakened by the God” and had “[become] the Goddess” (Robertson 1990:31). This is not to say that she had lost her individuality: she felt that the “Goddess was in the relation of mother and daughter” with her, an experience accessible to everyone. Indeed, according to Robertson, “the Divine Mother is Origin, so each of us has her unique originality within ourselves” (1990:40). In this altered state of consciousness, she realized that “the physical world was but a symbol for the innate, eternal reality hidden behind physical matter.” In other words, one could only “gain access to the true reality of things through communion with Deities and [the] cosmic consciousness or anima mundi” (1990:40). True life was inaccessible in this world, which she described as “a transient world of appearances, entrapped in delusions.” (Robertson, n.d.-a:8).

At that stage of her psychic experience, she “became aware of a silver figure of Light and from Her head emanated two streams of white power that looked like giant stag’s antlers or lightning. This figure gave [her] the name of Isis and [she] felt [she] had a new identity” (Robertson 1990:31). Isis, as she was understood by the founders of the Fellowship, was the Goddess known as Isis Myrionymous, “of the ten thousand names,” who was regarded in Greco-Roman culture as the Goddess, or even the God under whatever other name might be used. The ambition of Olivia Robertson, and Lawrence and Olivia Durdin-Robertson, was therefore not to revive the religion of ancient Egypt but to venerate deities in all their possible names and shapes, while celebrating the divine feminine.

Olivia Robertson claimed that even though adepts of the Fellowship of Isis venerated pagan gods, she did not consider it as a fully Pagan or Neopagan religion since it welcomed people of all creeds, including Christians. She saw it as “multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-racial” (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-a). In 2002, she wrote:

I would like to correct an inaccuracy in the definition of the Fellowship of Isis as a Pagan organisation. We are happy to have thousands of Pagans among our . . . members in so many countries. But we also have Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Spiritualists and Hindus as members. All love and follow the religion of Isis of the 10,000 names (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-b).

Even gods could be venerated, and “[a]ll members retain their own faiths and beliefs and are encouraged to blend their own practices with those of the Fellowship’s own Liturgy” (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-b). Anti-dogmatism and syncretism were therefore central principles of the Fellowship of Isis from the start. Having grown up in a country where Protestants and Catholics were violently opposed, Olivia Robertson sought to restore the supposed harmony and universality of religious origins. She was convinced that religion should not be divisive, but should bring people together to promote the three most important aspects of the religion of the Goddess: “Love, beauty and truth,” as well as ecology, which she associated with women. “Men tend to conquer nature whereas women nurture,” she said (Langstone 1993).

The founding of the Noble Order of Tara in 1989 must be understood in that perspective. It was indeed the Robertsons’ response to an attack on Mount Leinster, their “sacred mountain,” which was “threatened with open-cast mining—desecration.” The mission of the order was “to save the Earth from pollution and destruction through entirely non-violent means,” and Olivia Robertson expected its members to “really work for the environment” (Wilson 1992). The need to protect Mother Earth, one face of the Great Goddess, was a crucial aspect of her teachings. Goddess Tara was anchored in Ireland, but members throughout the world could become activists of the environmental cause in the name of local mother goddesses. There was no antagonism between local and global concerns, which merged in the promotion of the divine feminine, a means to a sacred end: namely celebrating life, symbolized by the Egyptian ankh, an attribute of Isis.

In the same way, Olivia Robertson’s syncretistic approach led to the hybridization of traditions and the re-creation of supposedly age-old practices according to new interpretations that echoed her understanding of the divine. The creation of the Druidic order of Dana (Druid Clan of Dana) in 1992 is an interesting illustration of this phenomenon. Olivia Robertson said she initially had little sympathy for Druidism, which she found “very patriarchal.” Yet she launched an order of Druids to venerate Dana adequately, in complement to her veneration of Tara and her environmental engagement. She explained: “I realised that the Gifts of Tara would be more Yin—more receptive. Dana was Yang—active. I felt guided by my original vision of Dana” (Wilson 1992). Then she proceeded to create a Druidic order that would be in conformity with what she perceived was of Irish origin, a new instance of her attachment to the land as embodied by goddesses: in fact she believed that “the poor Irish druids who are among the oldest seemed to be totally ignored” by the Neo-Druidic movement (Langstone 1993). The new order was also unexpectedly to be oriented towards the glorification of the divine feminine since “the time had come for the Goddess aspect of Druidry to be manifested” (Wilson 1992). It was also to be anti-racist and a way to counter the usual rumours of “Celtic racism” often connected with Neo-Druidism: “Dana is Queen of the whole earth, and we have no racism in the FOI. Anyone can join and use the holy spirits of their own lands” (Langstone 1993).

Olivia Robertson’s beliefs and teachings were decidedly late modern, a mix of old and new, a reminder of the late-nineteenth-century “hermetic spiritualist tradition of the Celtic Twilight” (“Writer, Artist, Visionary” 2013), merged with contemporary feminist and ecological preoccupations, and influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s.

RITUALS/PRACTICES 

Although Pagan blogger George Knowles may be right to argue that “Lawrence as the main theologian among the three founders also introduced the need and importance for the creation of a ritual liturgy to be used by the Fellowship” (2016), it was his sister who composed all of the organization’s numerous liturgical texts. By so doing, she arguably invented a full-fledged religion, one that was inspired by her innermost intuitions. Robertson’s most obvious personal contribution was the aesthetic, almost theatrical, dimension of the Fellowship of Isis liturgy, conceived as it was by the imaginative writer and painter she never ceased to be. Her mystical experiences and her conversion to the Goddess led her to put her talents at the service of the deities.

Robertson derived her inspiration from the books she had read in her “period of reading” after her first experiences of Isis. She reported that during that time she “read every book going” about all religious traditions before she “began to get spiritual guidance and was told that [she] could stop reading” (Wilson 1992). Yet her approach remained very literary: she thus acknowledged her debt to Irish mystical writer A.E. and explained that the style chosen for the various rituals was inspired by medieval mystery plays. She stated: “I realised this world is a delusion put on for us as a mystery play, which is why I write so many mystery dramas, so that the participants can act the parts of deities” (Wilson 1992). She also defined herself as “a school mistressy type” who wanted to make “the jewels” (Wilson 1992) to be found in great religious writings known to everyone: the Bhagavad Gita, Plato, Hesiod, Ovid, Apuleius, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, G. I. Gurdjieff, and also the Bible, the Buddhist sutras, the Upanishads, and the Ramayana, in fact “everything and anything dealing with religion” (Robertson 1990:36). As a result, “instead of continuing as a novelist,” she commented, “I have devoted myself to writing the mystical dramas of the Fellowship of Isis Liturgy” (Iles 2007).

In the same way, she reoriented her artwork so that it might glorify the Goddess. Most of her paintings were used to illustrate her booklets, or other Fellowship of Isis publications, Isian News, in particular. [Image at right] In 2005, she also exhibited paintings of the Goddess in an international artists’ exhibition. Olivia Robertson’s approach to rituals was therefore that of an artist and it is not surprising that she should have insisted on the importance of the arts in the expression of religious feeling. The message in the Fellowship of Isis is that art must be understood as a way of celebrating beauty, the creativity of goddesses, and the dance of creation. In her tribute to Robertson, Linda Iles wrote that she “lived her role of priestess as an artist would” (2013), and she quoted her as saying “Enjoy those delights that belong to the eternal spheres, such as the love and care of each other, of animals and plants, philosophy and religion, the practice of arts and crafts. Thus you will strengthen your spiritual body with the nectar and ambrosia of the Deities. . . .” The distinct aesthetic orientation of the liturgy and rituals of the Fellowship of Isis echoes that of many New Age alternative spiritualities or that of some progressive Catholic thinkers in Ireland (Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, for instance).

None of this, however, seems to have been planned in advance. Lawrence Durdin-Robertson had converted Huntington Castle’s Anglican chapel into a temple and, Olivia Robertson recalled, “we began getting groups together for Goddess rituals and I gradually discovered that ritual was important. Until I saw how important it was for my brother, I had not used ritual at all” (Robertson 1990:38). The first rite she conceived was the wedding ceremony, which she elaborated for her niece Melian’s marriage to an East Indian, from whom she learned “about the Indian use of symbolism through the ritual use of the elements” (1990:38). Many others followed, and the Fellowship of Isis eventually became an extremely ritualized religion structured around four main rites: baptism and naming, initiation, rebirth or experience of other spheres, and the funeral ceremony, “when the soul enters a new spiral of life through the Matrix” (Robertson, n.d.-b:Introduction).

What induced Olivia Robertson to write new texts was that she “realized that communion with the Goddess was happening as a result of our rituals.” She added:

Like many spontaneous mystics, I had never used rites nor belonged to an Order. At first I assumed that our rituals were a trial run for actual inner experience but I discovered that actual happenings occurred during our ceremonies (Robertson 1990:42)

These, she claimed, were divinely inspired, which explains why they resulted in “communion with the Deity, changing their lives for good” (Robertson 1990:42). Robertson then created new ceremonies, writing twenty-two books or booklets of rituals as a whole, [Image at right] all listed on the Fellowship of Isis website. Eight more “entry and consecration rites” were added to the initial list. They are used for the consecration of adepts, Archdruid/esses, Dames and Knights, Hierophants, and Priest/Priestess Alchemists, but also for the ordination of Priests/Priestesses. The two entry rites concern Companions of the Druid Clan of Dana and the Noble Order of Tara. Olivia Robertson also issued oracles (that is predictions and prophecies she received in meditation) and guided meditation for members. Besides the above-mentioned elaborate rituals, a small body of simple prayers for daily use is also available on the Fellowship of Isis website.

Nevertheless, Robertson remained attached to her initial method of communication with the Goddess, telepathy, which she wove into the daily practices of her followers. She taught them that telepathy was an essential channel through which they could experience communion with deities, [image at right] but also communicate with one another. Initiates were therefore invited to develop their intuition, their imagination, and their aptitude to forget themselves so as to reach the higher spheres, where the Goddess would come to them. They achieved this when Robertson got them into a trance through meditation techniques and guided their souls to the “etheric plane.” In this way, Olivia Robertson thought she helped others to awaken (Robertson 1990:32), since “once in the astral plane, the reincarnation experiences would happen” (Robertson 1990:38). By “reincarnation” here, she meant the birth to a new self as the result of psychic experiences. In her view, people in that state could identify with any goddess they chose; this was the starting point of what she called “rebirthing.”

Telepathy was also used to perform key rituals: the daily “ceremonies of attunement.” Every morning and evening from 6:30 to 8:30 Greenwich Mean Time, Olivia Robertson invited members to pray and connect with the group if they felt the need to do so. She explained:

I get up at 5:30 am every day and at 6:30 I go into the Temple of Isis and anoint my brow. Here I meditate until 8:30. Then in the evenings, again from 6:30 until 8:30 we have meditation in the temple. I feel these attunement times are important. Many people attune with us from all over the world at these times (Langstone 1993).

Even though Robertson claimed at the end of her life that what she had “avoided as a matter of principle [was] to be personal” (Robertson 2002), she put a lot of herself into the rituals and practices of the Fellowship of Isis. She believed she had been guided by the Goddess in everything and was only a mediator, a Sibyl, in the words of Caitlin Matthews (Matthews 1990:9). But her strong personality and creativity and her followers’ belief that she was in contact with the Goddess left a deep imprint on the organization she co-founded.

LEADERSHIP

Olivia Robertson did not like to be called the leader of the Fellowship of Isis and considered herself primarily as “a priestess of the Goddess Isis” (Sideman 2000). In a 2012 interview by journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, Robertson insisted that she could not see herself as the Fellowship of Isis head on the grounds that every member is equal (Clarke 2012). It is true that the Fellowship of Isis was conceived as a completely democratic organization, and its Manifesto states that all members have equal privileges (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-a). But it may convincingly be argued that the reality is more complex than this simple statement suggests.

First of all, Robertson’s incessant work in the service of the Fellowship of Isis and her engaging personality made her the very embodiment of the movement even before her brother’s death in 1994. In 1993 she was invited to speak at the plenary session of the second Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, where she caused a sensation. [Image at right] She recalled her experience as one of confrontation with patriarchy. There, only one other woman had been invited to speak, and other speakers “were being patriarchal” (Sideman 2000). Robertson recalled:

I got up and gave the “Blessing of the Goddess.” What was interesting was that an Orthodox bishop walked out. The people on the platform sat stony-faced, but I got an ovation (Sideman 2000).

She also claimed that she had then been secretly escorted back to her room on account of a threat against her life made by a Christian (Sideman 2000).

The Fellowship of Isis mostly developed thanks to the internet, which was in its infancy when Lawrence Durdin-Robertson died. The first website of the organization went online in 1996, so it was the central figure of Olivia Robertson who was identified as being the main organizer and leader of the Fellowship. This was confirmed when she started traveling tirelessly to the various Fellowship of Isis temples that had been created around the world and when she agreed to create an order of priests and priestesses.

As with the need to create rituals, the creation of a Fellowship of Isis priesthood in 1976 had not been anticipated, but when it became a necessity, it was Robertson who devised the new structure. She explained that she had initially been asked “by a lady who wanted to be a priestess.” She said that nearly everything the founders did was because someone asked them to do it. And she concluded: “The FOI is non-hierarchical because we are modern. I mean all this prostrating and bowing and occult orders bossing people around. We just don’t like that” (Langstone 1993). [Image at right]  Yet success and the internationalization of the movement made the creation of a structure necessary, and the result was an extremely elaborate and complex organization involving a rigid hierarchy of structures, daughter organizations, levels of initiation and priesthood. In 2009, the structure of leadership reached its point of completion with the creation of the Fellowship of Isis Union Triad, comprised of three Unions: the Archpriesthood Union (Fellowship of Isis archpriesthood, created in 1999), The Archdruid Union (Druid Clan of Dana), and Grand Commander Union (Noble Order of Tara). The Triad was organized on an international basis, and its leaders were the numerous dignitaries of the three orders. All of them were granted elaborate titles and rights. They also became the “guardians and custodians of the legacy of the Fellowship of Isis” (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-d). Olivia Robertson explained: “We have a triad of centres which embody the 3 primal Ethics listed in the Manifesto—Love, Beauty and Truth. These are shown forth through the Priesthood, the Druid Clan of Dana, and the Order of Tara” (Fellowship of Isis, n.d.-c). All this stood in sharp contrast with the democratic ideals expressed by the founders, Olivia Robertson in particular.

Only recently was the spirit of equality restored. Indeed, following Olivia Robertson’s death, her successor, her niece Cressida Pryor commented that Robertson’s “huge well of creativity and love of drama fostered the development of these colourful and elaborate structures.” [Image at right] The new Steward (Pryor’s official title) feared that “this complexity imbued with heraldic and Masonic overtones” might flatter egos. She thus set herself the task to simplify the structure and do away with the “complex hierarchical structures of ‘adepti’; the arch-priesthood, the grand orders with Knights and Dames Commanders” (Pryor 2014). She added:

How can some fellow member be a “grand commander” over and above another? No, they served a purpose when created by Olivia a while back but the need for them has passed. We now stand shoulder to shoulder as companions along this divine Goddess blessed path and are able to celebrate and serve as equals” (Pryor 2014).

Olivia Robertson’s attitude to leadership and to the structure of the Fellowship of Isis was in reality fraught with ambiguities. One further ambivalence concerned the place of heredity in her understanding of the organization. This was to cause very serious dissensions after her death.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Olivia Robertson’s social background ensured that she could live happily in the Catholic society of Ireland in spite of her eccentric ways. The Catholic Church had established its authority soon after independence in 1916, and by the 1960s and 1970s dominated culture and religion. Women’s rights were limited. The 1937 Irish Constitution recommended that women should stay at home where their natural place was supposed to be. The Catholic Church for its part was granted a “special position” within the state (Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937, article 44), which meant that it held a position to influence legislation. In this apparently unfavorable context, Olivia Robertson, a Protestant, grew up in privileged circumstances, far from the hardships that characterized the life of her contemporaries in a country that confronted serious economic problems. She went to college, which was unusual for a woman of her generation, and she became a fairly successful (and certainly respectable) Anglo-Irish writer, as she called herself. It even seems that she was not affected by the very severe book censorship imposed by the state from 1929, although some of her novels were fictionalized tales of her early religious experiences. The censor targeted “indecent” literature and Robertson’s works were harmless in that respect.

Yet the revelation of her conversion to the Goddess came as a shock to the Irish populace and her neighbors in Clonegal. Both The Call of Isis and The Wedding Rite were published by Cesara Publications in the 1970s, and the latter was reviewed on Irish television. Around the same time, Lawrence Durdin-Robertson [Image at right] published his first books on the Goddess and he, too, received wide press attention, even in Britain and the United States. Reflecting on this sudden attention, Olivia Robertson came to the conclusion that they “had touched the funny-bone of the establishment.” They “had added ‘ess’ to God.” As a result, they were made “the target of humour, astonishment, speculations,” which she linked with “the total contempt the twentieth century held for women in the priestly role” (Robertson 1990:39). Newspaper headlines offer a significant illustration of contemporary reactions. Olivia Robertson particularly remembered, among others, “Goddess Rites Shock Rural Eden,” “I Am No Witch Says Rector,” “2000 AD: Women’s Rule,” and her favorite: “Bizarre Rites of the She-God Cult.” She noted that the term She-God was used with “the same kind of contempt as one would use the term she-goat,” and that journalists were on the lookout for sensational revelations about orgies, nudity, and bizarre rites. Interestingly, none of this seems to have placed the Durdin-Robertsons in a particularly difficult situation. “We did not permit this entertaining spate of rubbish for no reason,” Lady Olivia later commented. “It brought us so many new friends” (Robertson 1990:39–40).  Media publicity actually had a positive effect over time as it brought new recruits and friendly contacts.

In the village of Clonegal itself, initial reactions were negative. Locals were “horrified” at the thought they “were all witches. It absolutely freaked them,” Olivia recalled. But there again things went well for the Durdin-Robertsons because, according to Robertson, they “left the outside door of the castle open at every ceremony so [the people] could come round and participate.” It also attracted many people to the village, and probably village shops and pubs. Tourists and “bands of New Age spiritualists . . . converged on the castle to pray, meditate and perform in pagan dramas and tableaux” (“Olivia Robertson—Obituary” 2013), no doubt dressed in colorful exotic clothes of the unconventional kind Robertson loved. People must have gotten used to the strange sights at the castle and they were probably curious to see the celebrities who occasionally came to visit: Van Morrison, Hugh Grant, and Mick Jagger. The many press tributes that were published when Olivia Robertson died showed respect for the old lady, who was presented as a harmless and charming eccentric.

A much more serious challenge in the long run came from Robertson’s lack of clarity over the place of heredity and hierarchy in the Fellowship of Isis, which eventually caused a split in the organization after her death in 2013. As a result of a reorganization in 1999, the custodians of the movement’s legacy and its future leaders had become the members of the international Archpriesthood Union, in which only a tiny minority were Irish (two out of thirty-two). It was believed in the early 2010s that the center of operations might eventually shift from Ireland to the United States, but things dramatically evolved after Robertson’s death, when her appointed successor, her niece Cressida Pryor, ordained to the priesthood in 2009, decided to re-centralize the organization. Both sides based their claims on statements made by Olivia Robertson, but Cressida Pryor’s ultimate argument, focusing on family or dynastic considerations, was a reminder of the historical importance of heredity in the group’s understanding of leadership.

In spite of these dissensions, the Fellowship of Isis warmly paid tribute to Olivia Robertson on the 100th anniversary of her birth in 2017, as did the Neopagan community in the British Isles and beyond. It is impossible at this stage to know what the long-term legacy of Olivia Robertson and her movement will be. A perpetual optimist, she thought that only the present moment mattered and that “Death is for the ignorant!” (quoted in Iles 2013).  A few lines taken from Field of the Stranger (Robertson 1948:70) invite readers to avoid anticipating:

The only moment that is real for us is the passing moment,
because only now have we the power of using our free will.
The past is a phantom world unalterably fixed which is slipping away from us,
and the future, until it becomes the time for present action, has no existence. 

IMAGES

Image #1: Olivia Robertson at Huntington Castle.
Image #2: Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Ireland.
Image #3: The Call of Isis cover.
Image #4: W. B. Yeats’ tombstone, Drumcliff, County Sligo, Ireland.
Image #5: Young Olivia Robertson.
Image #6: Isis of Fellowship cover.
Image #7: Olivia Robertson. The Lightning Flash of Isis on the cover of Isian News, no. 119 (Brigantia 2006).
Image #8: Photo of  Olivia Robertson’s paintings in the Temple of Isis, Huntington Castle.
Image #9: Olivia Robertson. Eye of Vision on the cover of Isian News, no. 115 (Brigantia 2005).
Image #10: Olivia Robertson at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, 1993.
Image #11: Olivia Robertson, Ordination of Priestesses and Priests, front cover.
Image #12: Olivia Robertson.
Image #13: Olivia Robertson and her brother Lawrence Durdin-Robertson.

REFERENCES

Bunreacht na hÉireann [Constitution of Ireland]. 1937. Accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Ireland_(consolidated_text) on 20 February 2019.

Clarke, Victoria Mary. 2012. “Lady Olivia Durdin Robertson/Fellowship of Isis.” Irish Daily Mail. July 18. Accessed from https://vmcjournalism.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/lady-olivia-durdin-robertsonfellowship-of-isis/ on 20 February 2019.

Crowley Vivianne. 2017. “Olivia Robertson, Priestess of Isis.” Pp. 141-64 in Female Leaders in New Religious Movements, edited by Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen and Christian Giudice. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Divine Media Ltd. 2013. “Olivia, Priestess of Isis.” YouTube, November 28. Accessed from  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSO0go533Go on 20 February 2019.

Fellowship of Isis. n.d.-a. “The Fellowship of Isis Manifesto.” Fellowship of Isis. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/manifesto.html on 18 January 2019.

Fellowship of Isis. n.d-b. “Introduction to the Fellowship of Isis.” Fellowship of Isis. http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/intro.html. Accessed on 18 January 2019.

Fellowship of Isis. n.d.-c. “The Foundation Union Triad.” Fellowship of Isis. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/au.html on 18 January 2019.

Iles, Linda. 2013. “Tribute to Olivia Robertson: April 13, 1917–November 14, 2013.” Fellowship of Isis Central. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisiscentral.com/Olivia-Robertson—A-Tribute on 20 February 2019.

Iles, Linda. 2007. “Satire, Myth and Spirituality: The Novels of Olivia Robertson.” The Mirror of Isis—An Official Fellowship of Isis Publication 2, no. 1. Accessed from https://mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com/id105.html on 20 February 2019.

“Lady Olivia Robertson.” [2019.] Isis House Publishing. Accessed from http://www.isishousepub.com/?page_id=18 on 18 January 2019.

Knowles, George. 2016. “Olivia Durdin-Robertson.” Controverscial.com, May 31. Accessed from https://www.controverscial.com/Olivia%20Durdin%20Robertson.htm on 20 February 2019.

Langstone, Alex. 1993. “Interview with Olivia.” Fellowship of Isis Central. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisiscentral.com/fellowship-of-isis-history-archive— interview-with-olivia-by-alex-langstone on 20 February 2019.

Maignant, Catherine. 2011. “Irish Base, Global Religion: The Fellowship of Isis.” Pp. 262–80 in Ireland’s New Religious Movements, edited by Olivia Cosgrove, Laurence Cox, Carmen Kuhling, and Peter Mulholland. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Maignant, Catherine. 2018. “Fellowship of Isis.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from https://wrldrels.org/2018/02/09/fellowship-of-isis/ on 20 February 2019.

Matthews, Caitlin, ed. 1990. Voices of the Goddess: A Chorus of Sybils. Wellingborough, U.K.: The Aquarian Press.

“Olivia Robertson—Obituary.” 2013. Telegraph. November 22. Accessed from  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10468198/Olivia-Robertson-Obituary.html on 20 February 2019.

Pryor, Cressida. 2014. “Letter from Cressida Pryor, Samhain 2014.” Fellowship of Isis. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/letters/samhain2014.html on 20 February 2019.

Robertson, Olivia. 1948. Field of the Stranger. London: Peter Davies/The Book Society.

Robertson, Olivia. 2002. “Isis of Fellowship: Foreword.” Fellowship of Isis. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/isisoffoi.html on 20 February 2019.

Robertson, Olivia. 1990. “The Rebirth of the Goddess.” Pp. 30–44 in Voices of the Goddess: a Chorus of Sybils, edited by Caitlin Matthews. Wellingborough, U.K.: Aquarian Press.

Robertson, Olivia. 1975. The Call of Isis. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/callofisis.html on 20 February 2019.

Robertson, Olivia. n.d.-a. College of Isis Manual. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/originalcoimanual.pdf on19 January 2019.

Robertson, Olivia. n.d.-b. Panthea: Initiations and Festivals of the Goddess. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/liturgy/pantheacover.html on 18 January 2019.

Sideman, Matthew. 2000. “Among Pagans.” Chicago Reader, January 13. Accessed from https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/among-pagans/Content?oid=901200 on 20 February 2019.

The Fellowship of Isis website. n.d. “The Fellowship of Isis Manifesto.” Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/manifesto.html on 20 February 2019.

Wilson, Steve. 1992. “An Interview with Olivia Robertson, Co-Founder and ArchPriestess.” Fellowship of Isis Central, August. Accessed from http://www.fellowshipofisiscentral.com/fellowship-of-isis-history—interview-with-olivia-by-steve-wilson on 20 February 2019.

“Writer, Artist, Visionary and Priestess of Isis: Olivia Melian Durdin-Robertson, April 13th, 1917–November 14th, 2013.” 2013. Irish Times, December 7. Accessed from https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/writer-artist-visionary-and-priestess-of-goddess-isis-1.1619650 on 20 February 2019.

Publication Date:
23 February 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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