ROSALEEN NORTON TIMELINE
1917 (October 2): Rosaleen “Roie” Miriam Norton was born in Dunedin, New Zealand to an Orthodox Protestant family.
1925 (June): Norton migrated with her family to Lindfield, Sydney, Australia.
1934: Sixteen-year-old Norton published three horror stories in the newspaper, Smith’s Weekly. On the merit of her work, Smith’s hired her as a cadet journalist and illustrator for eight months.
1940 (December 24): Norton married Beresford Lionel Conroy (1914-1988).
1943 (June): An article on Norton, “A Vision of the Boundless,” was published in the magazine Pertinent. Norton was portrayed as a mystic-artist, able to access astral realms through expanded states of consciousness.
1949: Searching for art exhibition spaces, Norton hitchhiked from Sydney to Melbourne with fellow poet and Pertinent contributor, Gavin Greenlees (1930-1983).
1949: Norton was indicted for indecency for her painting exhibition at the Rowden-White Gallery, University of Melbourne. Scholars came to her defense and charges were dropped.
1949: During her trip to Melbourne, Norton was voluntarily evaluated by psychologist, Dr. L.J. Murphy of the University of Melbourne. The resulting account stands as a richly detailed record of her esoteric practice and cosmology.
1951: Norton divorced Conroy.
1952: Norton was charged with obscenity for her book, The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1952), with unsold copies censored. In court, she defended her art, though unsuccessfully, through Jungian theories.
1953: Distinguished British conductor and composer, Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) joined Norton’s inner magical circle, which she described as her “coven.”
1955: Two men stole photo negatives from Norton’s home, which showed her engaged in sex acts with Greenlees. They attempted to sell the photos to the newspaper, The Sun. Police seized the negatives and Norton was charged with making an obscene publication.
1955: Homeless New Zealand Woman, Anna Hoffman, blamed her poor state on Norton. Hoffman claimed that Norton had corrupted her in a Black Mass involving “sex orgies and parties.”
1955: D.L. Thompson visited Norton and other coven members in her Sydney “studio-temple.” This visit was the source of the Australasian Post article, “A Warning to Australia: DEVIL WORSHIP HERE!”
1956: Norton’s magical relationship with Goossens ended when he was apprehended by Customs at Sydney Mascot Airport. Pornographic photographs, ritual masks and incense sticks were found in his luggage.
1957: Norton published a series of autobiographical articles in the Australasian Post, with titles such as “I Was Born a Witch.”
1960: Police seized twenty-nine paintings from Norton’s exhibition at Sydney’s Kashmir Café. This large body of work was later set ablaze by the censor’s fires.
1979 (December 5): Reclusive in later life, Norton passed away from colon cancer at age sixty-two. Shortly before her death, she declared: “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.”
Rosaleen “Roie” Miriam Norton (1917-1979) was a queer artist, poet, writer, occultist and media personality from Sydney, Australia [Image at right]. In esoteric circles, she was known by her magical moniker, “Thorn.” Sydney’s popular press called her “The Witch of King’s Cross” (Richmond 2009:ix). Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, she moved with her family to Lindfield, Sydney in 1925 (Drury 2017:20). From an early age, to the distress of her parents and teachers, Norton was writing Lovecraftian horror fiction (Richmond 2012:309). Her fascination with macabre, supernatural imagery sparked an early interest in occultism; she claimed that she was “born a witch” (Norton 1957:4).
Based in Sydney’s Kings Cross throughout her life, Norton was an ardent occult philosopher and practitioner until her death in 1979. She practiced trance-magic, using self-hypnosis to allegedly access vast astral planes of being. In these trances, she claimed to encounter the god-forms and other non-human entities of her magical cosmology (Drury 2008:248). Norton referred to herself as the “High Priestess at the Altar of Pan,” the horned Greek god (Drury 2012:52). Pan was the supreme deity in her esoteric system, though she worshipped many in a syncretistic fashion. Other prominent deities in her pantheon were Hecate, Lilith and Lucifer in his role as “The Adversary” (Norton 2009:11-34). Norton was also known to practice Crowleyan sex magick and pagan rites devoted to her “Great God,” Pan (Norton 2009:69,98-99). In various texts of the late 1950s, influenced by folklorist Margaret Murray (1863-1963), Roie aligned her magic with “the pre-Christian Witch Cults of Ancient Britain and Europe” (Norton 2009:69; Norton and Greenlees 1952:79). Her esoteric interests also extended to voodoo, left-hand path tantra, kundalini yoga, and the grimoire magic of Goetia (Drury 2008:247-48). Norton referred to her idiosyncratic esoteric system as “witchcraft,” initiating only several members (Norton 2009:46; Bogdan and Starr 2012:12).
Though Roie had a public image as a Devil-worshipper in Sydney, she was not a Satanist. She was offended when accused of orchestrating Black Masses and sacrificing animals in Satanic rites. The sentiment of animal sacrifice repelled her as a pantheistic neopagan. She abhorred all forms of animal cruelty and kept many pets by her side. In her “grim-memoire,” Thorn in the Flesh, she wrote: “animal sacrifice should never occur, because the natural instincts and perceptions of animals are perfectly attuned to Nature” (Norton 2009:38). Her coven rituals made no reference to the Christian Devil, and she went to “great lengths” to explain that Pan was not Lucifer, god of Satanists (Drury 2012:81). Lucifer was the third of the lesser triad in Norton’s magical system. In her poem, “Star of Satan,” she describes Lucifer as an “immortal adversary,” “Father of paradox,” “newness of all that is old” and “bringer of light.” His role is to bind an individual when he is “growing too big for his boots.” Norton’s Lucifer seeks to expose the limitations of one’s ego (Norton 2009:11).
Roie believed that her pantheistic occultism was her public duty. The national climate of mid-twentieth century Sydney was conservative. Until after the Second World War, eighty percent of Australia’s population was Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist or Roman Catholic (Drury 2017:12). Former Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies (1894-1978), instated patriarchal values and harsh censorship laws. Historian, Judith Brett describes him as “authoritarian, despite his professed liberal beliefs” (Snowdon 2013:221). In this ultraconservative 1940s climate, Norton began her career as an artist-occultist and Sydney media persona.
Critical of moderate Australian values, Roie was pangender and pansexual. Though comfortable with she/her pronouns, she viewed herself as a member of, and sexually attracted to all genders (Norton 2009:5,40,70-74). Norton’s unorthodox lifestyle, public identity as a witch, and confronting art disrupted Sydney’s middle-class social norms. She refused to embody the normative template of white Australian identity. Antagonized by the State, she was charged with obscenity for her paintings, which feature genderqueer deities and phalluses morphing into snakes. Impoverished and occupying squalid homes, she also faced vagrancy charges (Drury 2017:108,172). Norton remains the only “woman (sic) artist” charged with exhibiting obscene articles in Victorian history. Further, she is the only Australian artist to have artworks destroyed by judicial sanction, and to be prosecuted for obscenity on the grounds of a book (Richmond 2012:308).
Roie was what Denise Ferreira da Silva terms an “unacceptable” subject. At a time when identifying as pangender and pansexual was deplorable, she exposed the limits of the proper subject. Norton destabilized feminine/masculine binaries against “the modern grammar of the patriarch” (Ferreira da Silva 2018:19-41). Yet she also viewed feminism, Marxism, socialism and all other “-isms” as part of the institution (Johnson 2016). Her social identity was grounded in claimed esoteric epistemology. She publicly identified as a witch to express “her powerful, innate and lived experience as an occult practitioner” (Johnson 2015).
Norton performed a Bacchanalian, polytheistic mode of being for the press through highly publicized interview-performances. For three decades, she was an interface for the public circulation of claimed occult knowledge across Sydney. After reading about her occultism, people from all ranks of 1950s Sydney society began dabbling in magic (Snowdon 2013:236). Though Norton did not perform rituals beyond the elementary for the uninitiated, she created compelling, informative atmospheres for the media. In 1955, for example, Roie allowed Australasian Post journalist, D.L. Thompson into her home which doubled as a ritual space—her “studio-temple.” Amidst altars, incense smoke, and a host of masked magicians, she emerged as “Coven Master” in a witch’s apron and feline mask. Coven members referred to each other according to the masks they wore (Toad, Cat and Rat). Topless in ritual nudity, Norton contorted her body into animalistic postures, proclaiming Pan, Lucifer and Hecate worship. She stated that the purpose of the interview was to discredit misleading articles on her “witch cult.” Thompson asked whether the group practiced “certain cruelties” as part of its rites. Toad responded: “That is completely false … Cruelties have been only too common in all the so-called religions since history began, but the followers of Lucifer practice no cruelty to man or animal” (Thompson 1955:37).
The Thompson interview is invaluable, as details of magical activities of the coven were also written by Norton herself; she collaborated extensively with the author (Richmond 2012:332). Norton explains that her coven has seven members of both sexes who meet in her studio-temple. Initiates often “take the oath of allegiance to the presiding deities of the covens, male and female, sometimes called Pan and Hecate. A ritual to the four Elemental powers, either before or during the initiation, is also necessary” (Thompson 1955:37).
Beyond textual accounts, Norton also used her body, animistic ritual garb and ceremonial objects in media photos. These press images contributed to her local image as an occultist-celebrity. They were also a medium for communicating cosmology and activating the occult imaginal in readers. In the photo that appears in the Thompson text [Image at right], Norton kneels in ceremonial dress beneath her Pan altar. In other images of the same setting, before her, lie stag antlers and a lit ceremonial candle. She also wears the feline mask, acquiring a hollow animal’s or god’s face. With the face of the Cat, she removes “the projecting mark of the human being’s identity” (Naacke 2006:1165).
For the Thompson performance, the transmission of claimed occult knowledge was bound up in the act of wearing the mask. The coven’s animistic views, I argue, were reflected in their assumption of animal forms. In ritual settings, the mask can be a medium for staging “collective representations … embodied through masquerade (of transcendent beings and events) and of their presentation (dances, song, gesture).” The mask in ancient Greek theater served to illuminate the identity of the dramatic figures and their role (Naacke 2006:1165, 1167). Claudia Naacke writes that criticism was “mounted by the Fathers of the Church” against the use of masks. Theater was viewed as “an expression of polytheistic sentiments” and “cultic presentation in honor of Greek god Dionysus.” The mask was thus demonized. Parallel to this process, Church Fathers developed a “concept of person in which the identity of the individual in relation to an almighty God was established as authentic personhood.” The mask became a displacement; a “falsifying presentation … under suspicion of idolatry” (Naacke 2006:1167).
Norton’s mask use may have reflected her knowledge of its ancient heathen associations. Beyond its ritual use in the coven, she likely used the mask in media images as a potent cultural symbol of pagan worship and hedonistic revelry. She was well informed on the pagan associations of the mask in Greek and Roman theater. Norton’s reading on Bacchanalian rites and Dionysian mysteries is evident. She entitled one of her paintings, for example, Dionysus and another, Bacchanal [Image at right]. In Bacchanal, Norton paints her occult cosmology into a mystical, orgiastic scene of revelry. Pan presides over a swarming mass of supernatural creatures, mortals and animals. To his left, a woman copulates with a goat. To his right, one glimpses the black silhouettes of witches as they take flight.
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals in honor of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of ecstasy, intoxication, wine and freedom. The festivals came from the Greek Dionysia and their Dionysian mysteries, arriving in Rome around 200 BCE. As a mystery religion, little is known of Bacchanalian rites. Yet Norton was likely aware of the Bacchanal scandal of 186 BCE. Roman historian, Livy (Titus Livius, 64-59 BCE), describes depraved nocturnal rituals. According to Livy, they entailed “promiscuity, swearing an oath, and vowing to commit fornication and other crimes.” He denounces the wickedness of these rites, open to all social classes, ages and sexes—“riotous celebration among all citizens” (Walsh 1996:191). (Notably, the same openness applied to Norton’s coven.) Further, in The God of the Witches (1931), part of Norton’s library, Murray describes the sacred dances of ancient times. She writes of the Bacchanalian-esque revels of the Therapeutae: “They are so like the singing dance of the witches, that it is possible that both derive from the same source” (Murray 1960:44).
Like Livy, Norton used Bacchanalian imagery to make mystical drama out of moral crisis (Walsh 1996:191). In a conservative Sydney setting, her press acts served as pedagogical platforms, her philosophical mandates as a witch merged with theater. Through interview-performances, she illuminated Sydney’s public on esoteric beliefs. As she delivered occult theater to the journalist, they acted as medium for her claims to esoteric knowledge. She used journalists as envoys of esoteric gossip: spaces of irreverent worship were alive in Sydney. Roie’s studio-temple was, in Edmund B. Lingan’s words, a site of “alternative spiritual performance.” Since the nineteenth century, occult revivalists and neopagans have produced such sites. Lingan groups the theatrical works of various occultists, including Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), Katherine Tingley (1847-1929), Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), and Marie (1867-1948) and Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). In The Theatre of Occult Revival (2014), he writes that they “all valued theatre as a tool for promulgating their ideas and producing spiritual experience within human beings” (Lingan 2014:2). Further studies might consider Norton’s press performances against the esoteric theater of the above occultists. Christine Ferguson notes: “If we want to know how occult belief was not only understood but experienced by historic actors, we need to look beyond the printed page toward … ritual and performance.” Experiences and enactments of modern esoteric belief are “irreducible” to texts alone (Ferguson 2017:120). Lingan’s is the only lengthy study on theater as a performative occult medium, and new frameworks for esoteric performance theory are necessary.
As Norton capitalized on her media presence to perform occult cosmology, her aims in art-making were similar. She used art to map and aestheticize claimed experiences of supernatural realms [Image at right]. Through her artistic oeuvre, she also outlined the god-forms and non-human entities inhabiting this cosmos, accessed in trance states. In Roie’s time, there was a revival of magical techniques aimed at altering states of consciousness. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, documented countless trance states and out-of-body, mystical experiences (Drury 2008:189). They termed accounts of these journeys “flying rolls.” Golden Dawn priestess, Florence Emery (née) Farr (1860-1917), recounted her magical trances through Tarot. Her recollections share similarities with Norton’s records of trance experiences.
In November 1892, Soror Sapientia Sapienti Dona Data (Farr; magical name), met “deities upon the Tree of Life.” (Mapping the Major Arcana of the Tarot as a network of symbolic pathways upon the Kabbalistic Tree of Life was common in the Golden Dawn.) Farr writes of a “spirit vision” of “a woman of heroic proportions.” The woman is “clothed in green with a jeweled girdle, a crown of stars on her head, in her hand a scepter of gold, having at one apex a lustrously white closed lotus flower; in her left hand an orb bearing a cross.” Farr continues: “She smiled proudly, and as the human spirit sought her name, replied ‘I am the Mighty Mother Isis; the most powerful of all the world, I am she who fights not, but is always victorious’” (Drury 2011:167,178-79).
Farr’s trance experience is a blend of ancient Christian, Egyptian, Roman and Celtic elements. She converts an “eclectic listing of gods and goddesses into an experiential reality on ‘inner planes’” (Drury 2011:178-79). These vivid descriptions continue across several pages. Her alleged trance accounts of deities share similarities with Norton’s syncretistic mysticism. Norton’s cosmology and trance-induced art practice were thus in line with other occult praxes of the twentieth century. Her art expressed, in her words, “all that I have seen and experienced in this and other planes of Being” (Norton 2009:37).
Norton described her work as showing “traces, within a wide analogical field, of ‘systems’ and visionary maps of the universe.” These systems, she claimed, were shown to her by “various instructive Beings who inhabit the worlds of Thought (The Plane of Cosmic Mind in its greater aspect)” (Norton and Greenlees 2013:8). Roie’s art, one may argue, is thus an inventory of cosmograms. Cosmograms, as defined by John Tresch of the Warburg Institute, are diagrams representing cosmologies. They include images, objects, architectures, ritual gestures and actions (Tresch 2005:57; Tresch 2007:155). The significance of a cosmogram is its materiality; it maps the features of a worldview. Cosmograms “map points where the standard ontology slips, where there are cracks in reality, out of which a new, more complete world can emerge.” They might also be inventories of all that has existed. Tresch’s cosmograms are any objects that illustrate “an infinity of relations,” moving far beyond “this instant in time and space” (Tresch 2005:58,74).
Norton’s artworks are cosmograms, as they capture a specific “infinity of relations;” her Australian occidental trance encounters. Her Kabbalistic “ideagrams,” and other mystical paintings and illustrations aestheticize claims to an esoteric cosmos. Norton expressed to friends her belief in reincarnation. She purported that she had been incarnated “in the Elemental as well as the Human Order of Being.” She was thus well-acquainted, she believed, with entities from many “non-Human realms.” Roie wrote that she had been reborn human to act as their “emissary in the world of Man” (Richmond 2009:xiii). With the aid and protection of “familiars,” she claimed to freely traverse such realms of “Non-Human Intelligence.” In a draft of a letter to an unidentified journal, she writes:
… my own affiliations are mainly with what is called the Elemental Kingdom and the realm of Non-Human intelligences. These in Themselves are neither good nor evil (Norton in Richmond 2009:xiii).
Norton diagrammed such vast, astral outer spaces in her illustration, Creation of the World [Image at right]. In this work, “rhythmic lines of curving force” and “endless planes of dimensional form” circulate in deep space, illuminated by infinitesimal stars. Roie described these forms in trance records (Norton 2009:47). Richmond remarks that the spiraling elements “could serve to lead the properly prepared voyager along a pathway to other realms” (Richmond 2009:xv). Mandala-like, they spiral outward, moving clockwise in circular rotations. Norton placed emphasis on the mandala as a type of cosmogram. In The Art of Rosaleen Norton, she defines the mandala as a “geometrical map of the psyche, generally containing universal symbols” (Norton and Greenlees 2013:78). Over this mandala-esque, hypnotic cosmic scene, Pan the immortal Goat-God appears from above.
Creation of the World appears in The Art of Rosaleen Norton, alongside a poem by Gavin Greenlees of the same title. The reader is asked to absorb both works to French composer, Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) La creation du monde (1923). Greenlees writes: “From the mouth of original Spirit / Patterns implicit in all to slow tunes glide / Explicit swim—creation’s mental blue-prints / Moving, smooth in counterpoint.” Greenlees and Norton parallel the “ceaseless octaves” of Milhaud’s composition with the radiating forms of Norton’s composition. Her drawing may diagram “the Archetypal Plane, sometimes called the Divine World” (Norton and Greenlees 2013:20).
In trance states, Norton claimed to encounter the “Archetypal Universe.” This Universe is divided into three dimensions: Time, Place, and Space. The mind, said Norton, should regard these dimensions as “coordinates of understanding; the framework of all manifested Being.” They are the “eternal forms of nature in their original expression.” Norton drew on Jung’s term, “archetypes.” For her, archetypes were “the things in themselves rather than the anthropomorphic outlines made of them in folklore and cosmology” (Norton and Greenlees 2013:8). Creation of the World is likely a deep-space expression of dimensions of this Archetypal Universe. On her trance experiences, Roie wrote: “Beyond all time as we know it … I was in Space—Space itself, and not lesser semblance of nothingness—where through all planes and all permeating matter pulsed the infinite spirit of Life” (Norton 2009:47).
Later in the poem, Greenlees writes: “Aloof in the crystal sphere, crown of his watch-tower / Hooded, the Dubouros, changeless king of his Other, / Holds, clocked to his pulse, a miniature / Painted in jazz, of the wide circling Same.” In this passage, he describes the faceless, cloaked figure, the Dubouros. The Dubouros appears in Creation of the World in an orb of light, hand raised. Part of Norton’s esoteric belief system, she described the Dubouros as “a being representing mind … similar to the Egyptian god Thoth as the detached, enigmatic recorder.” The “detached” Dubouros mirrors Norton’s dissociative state of mind in trance (Norton quoted in Drury 2013:238-41). Norton writes:
I seemed, while experiencing a great intensification of intellectual, creative and intuitional faculties, to have become detached in a curiously timeless fashion from the world around me … (Norton quoted in Drury 2013:241).
Roie’s representations of liminal space also resonate with Tresch’s idea of the cosmogram. Tresch explains that cosmograms can map liminal time, where “ordinary relations are suspended” in a “symbolic recreation of the world and society, at the same time” (Tresh 2005:74). After the trance encounter, Norton claimed to come back to a transformed world. She used diagramming (in the form of art and journaling) to record how her conception of the cosmos had changed. In Tresch’s words, post-trance “the space of possibilities was closed up again” (Tresh 2005:74-75). For Norton, art-making was a reflective cosmos-imaging exercise after the fact. In visually amplifying her esoteric worldview, Roie continued her work as a public interface. Creation of the World is her attempt to delineate a belief structure, which in itself is impossible for others to see. On mapping alleged astral realms, Roie said, “I have commented several times that forms etc (sic) have no parallel in life as we know it.” These forms are “utterly impossible of delineation; consequently I have necessarily for my drawings selected only shapes and symbols as are to some extent recognizable” (Norton quoted in Richmond 2009:xv-xvi).
Norton’s claimed trance encounters are also aestheticized in Astral Scene [Image at right]. In this pencil drawing, Roie situates herself in her esoteric cosmos. She appears nude and comatose, in a liminal setting akin to that of Creation of the World. As with this previous work, bright, radiating forms emerge from dark space, spiraling around her. Her mass of black, unruly hair frames her face, as ectoplasm erupts from her mouth. In modern spiritualism, ectoplasm is an “ethereal substance,” which issues from the bodies of spirit mediums while in trance. The ectoplasm allows “deceased spirits to manifest themselves visually to the audience assembled at the séance.” Notably, Norton professed to use trances states to “project her astral body with magical intent.” She did not assume the passive role of a spiritualistic trance medium (Drury 2017:52).
In Astral Scene, with magical intent, Roie projects a sigil above her. The sigil appears to fragment into two magical horns, likely depicting the successful invocation of Pan (Drury 2017:51). Pan presides over the trance session, symbolizing the interdependence of all beings in Roie’s pantheistic worldview (Norton 2009:98). Self-induced trance sessions, as in Astral Scene, supposedly occurred while Norton was in her plasmic body. The plasmic body was “an ‘astral’ counterpart to her physical body, to which consciousness was transferred through an act of will.” Norton alleged that the astral plane was itself “governed and directed by thought and intentionality” (Norton quoted in Drury 2008:243). In the Murphy interview, she describes her conception of the plasmic body. Her first experience of visiting another plane “was a sensation of ecstasy, during which [her] entire being seemed to dissolve and disintegrate, then gradually re-form into a new whole … an entire change of body and consciousness.” She wrote that her “body felt as though it were formed of warm golden light.” “The physical body,” she recounted, “had become nearly an appendage, and all sensations were centered in the plasmic body.” For Roie, the plasmic body contained “the very essence of sensuousness to a degree that render[ed] the physical sensory organs utterly negligible by comparison” (Norton quoted in Drury 2008:413-22).
Astral Scene is significant as a cosmogram, as Norton maps herself across multiple dimensions. She is almost wholly inhabiting her plasmic body. Her physical form is lifeless aside from the erupting ectoplasm: “the physical body had become nearly an appendage.” She presents herself as a vessel for embodied esoteric experience, inhabiting many realms of shifting space and time. She thus diagrams the scope of her claimed esoteric epistemology. There is a sense of encountering Norton’s interior and exterior presence at once. She portrays a metaphysical, multi-dimensional act of seeing; the process of trance-induced cosmology-creation.
Roie also diagrammed cosmology using the principles of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (or Otz Chiim). She created “ideagrams” to reflect Kabbalistic ideas. The Tree of Life is relevant to her magical worldview, as it concerns the “ascent” to visionary or imaginal realms. Central to Jewish mystical tradition, the Tree of Life is itself a cosmogram. Within it are ten sacred emanations from the Godhead (Ain Soph Aur). These spiritual emanations are the sephiroth. There are ten sephiroth: Malkuth, Yesod, Hod, Netzach, Tiferet, Gevurah, Chesed, Binah, Chokmah and Keter. Medieval Kabbalists recognized the ten sephiroth and divided the Tree into four worlds. In Kabbalah, the four worlds are categories for spiritual realms of creative manifestation (Scholem 1961:1-39). There is Atziluth (Archetypal World), Briah (World of Creation), Yetzirah (the World of Formation), and Assiah (Physical World) (Drury 2008:68). According to the Zohar (The Book of Splendor; 2001 CE), God first taught the Kabbalistic doctrines to angels (Scholem and Hellner-Eshed 2007:647-64).
Kabbalistic mysticism was central to Norton’s practice. Many occult traditions draw on Kabbalah, as well as other ancient and medieval cosmologies. Roie named artworks after certain sephiroth and invoked Jewish archangels in banishing rituals. She was also familiar with Dion Fortune’s (1880-1946) Kabbalistic ideas, listing Mystical Qabbalah (1935) as an influence on her system (Norton and Greenlees 2013:79). Roie believed active imagination, in ritual magic and visualization, was required to ascend the Tree. In Tree of Life [Image at right], she diagrammed the ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life in a traditional format, which she likely learned from occult texts. She placed the sephiroth in three columns. The first three emanations appear at the top: Kether (The Crown), Chokmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Understanding). The seven remaining sephiroth in her Tree represent the creation of the universe (Scholem 1960:33,56,60). As the Tree of Life “encompasses all aspects of creation,” she visually maps mystical cosmology.
Tree of Life may be a straightforward rendition, but Norton’s other Kabbalistic cosmograms are not. In Ideagram [Image at right], for example, Roie maps levels of mystical consciousness in an unorthodox incarnation of the Tree. Ideagram thus highlights her idiosyncratic system of occultism. Like Tree of Life, this latter work features three prominent columns. Yet the columns are not composed of ruled lines. Rather, Roie scrawled the names of three realms vertically across the page: “EARTH,” “RUNELFINIA” and “HEAVEN.” Other scratched words, such as “INFINITE” and “FAERIE” weave throughout the composition. The letter-based elements of the work conceal a form that resembles a trident, or the hexagrams that connect the sephiroth. Norton described the ideagram in an abstruse paragraph:
Ideagrams are part of the work of entities belonging to Yetzirah (the world of Formation and angels) whose activity is to arrange and co-relate the details of Idea-forms from Briah preparatory to their ultimate appearance in Malkuth. Ideagrams are activable end-projections of directed force in terms of human languages. Every Idea conceived in Briah (as pure concept) is mobile: becoming a kind of detailed map in the Pre-Manifestation stage of Yetzirah—as distinct from the eternal Archetypal Ideas of Atziluh (Norton 2009:45).
Roie seems to suggest that ideagrams come from “entities” of Yetzirah, one of the four Kabbalistic worlds. She also connects her ideagram to the other Kabbalistic realms. She mentions Briah, Atziluth and Assiah (denoted by Malkuth, the tenth sephiroth of the Physical World). Ideagram thus captures the Kabbalistic cosmology in its entirety. The work is an inventive act of creative imagination. Norton, like many occultists, saw the Tree of Life in esoteric praxis as a matrix upon which the archetypes of Western mythology are interrelated. Drury describes the Tree of Life in Golden Drawn tradition as a potent symbol, “representing the realm of sacred inner possibilities” (Drury 2008:85).
Kabbalah was a pathway to Norton accessing archetypal and mythological images through alleged direct encounters. She emphasized that gods, goddesses and other non-human entities exist in their own right. For her, they are not mere projections of her unconscious/psyche. In trance, she experienced “the contents of the visionary realm as perceptually ‘real’” (Drury 2008:192). In Murphy’s psychological evaluation, for example, she states that she experiences the Adversary (Lucifer/Satan) as an embodied being (Norton quoted in Drury 2017:53). Her acts of representation visualize claimed tangible experiences of the psychic and magical. The idea that Norton was a Surrealist artist is thus worthy of further investigation.
Like Surrealist art, Norton’s work is not about a particular social subject, but a universal unconscious subject. As with Surrealist artworks, Norton’s cosmograms put forward arguments about life, not art. Australian art critics, Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, argue that Roie’s “striking” oeuvre is an Australian contribution to a world Surrealism. They are, however, quick to dismiss her claimed esoteric experience. “Her works were based on supposed trance encounters,” they write, “induced by self-hypnosis, with archetypal beings, who she considered had their own independent existence (although, they are all, in fact, disguised self-portraits)” (Butler and Donaldson 2013:2-3,12). The sentiment that Roie’s works are all disguised self-portraits, overlooks her oeuvre as renderings of what she claimed as lived, embodied encounters with non-human entities. Roie, in fact, denied that she should be called a Surrealist in exhibition catalogues.
Future research might compare Norton’s work with that of esoteric Surrealists, Remedios Varo (Spanish; 1908-1963) and Leonora Carrington (British-Mexican; 1917-2011); the occultist, Marjorie Cameron (American; 1922-1955); or the healer, Emma Kunz (Swiss; 1892-1963). Surrealist artists, including Varo and Cameron, were often drawn to occult iconography and esoteric content as imaginal exercises. Further, Susan Aberth writes, Cameron’s “drawings were not mere notations of occult concepts … they functioned as an integral part of spells and invocations, all channeled in trance … allegedly derived from supernatural forces” (Aberth 2018:238). Likewise, Kunz’s artistic oeuvre is comparable to Norton’s in its “transitional” nature, as a collection of diagrams, mapping a cosmology of claimed hidden forces. Kunz approached geometric abstraction not as formalism, but as a means of giving structure and visual access to esoteric experience. She used abstract, pendulum-divined diagrams to portray supposed “supersensible” elements of her metaphysical cosmology (de Zegher 2005:113-16).
Though comparisons of Norton’s artworks with those of other occultist-artists are rare, more predictable connections have been made. Norton decried that critics likened her art to that of Norman Lindsay (1879-1969), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) and William Blake (1757-1827). “This is a form of laziness among some critics,” she wrote. “They find it easier to link up work of an artist with a general tendency” (Norton and Greenlees 2013:9). Despite this, she accepted a certain affinity with Blake. They both, in her view, portrayed a pantheistic, “cosmic totality;” a personal cosmology where “everything that lives is holy.” Ancient gods and other non-human creatures are central to their compositions. In Blake’s The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795), for example, he portrays Greco-Roman goddess, Hecate. She is a primary goddess in both his and Norton’s cosmologies. In his portrayal of Hecate, he also depicts Enitharmon, a major protagonist in his personal mythology. For Blake, Enitharmon symbolizes spiritual beauty and poetic inspiration, ruling as Queen of Heaven in his works (Frye 1990:127). Blake and Norton both summoned claimed spirit worlds and “fractured,” “unevenly heterogeneous” time. In so doing, they revised the Western mythological imaginal. Their art requires mystical identification with figures and a cosmic “sense of sharing and being in common” (Makdisi 2003:1).
As Norton used art to map and aestheticize her occult cosmology, her oeuvre is an archive of imaginal cosmograms. Her artistic approach as an occultist aligned with her pedagogical, occult interview-performances and newspaper articles. She exploited plastic mediums, such as painting, text, performance, and illustration (as well as press prowess) to map and project irreverent, mystical visions throughout Sydney. During the 1950s and 1960s, Norton was a household name across the city. “Since I was about 15—or at least that was when I first noticed it,” wrote Roie, “I have had the psi ability … to project personal thoughts and ideas into the contemporary Collective Mind” (Norton 2009:61).
**All images are clickable links to enlarged representations. (Norton rarely dated or kept archival information on her artworks. As such, dating and locating them is often a task of guesswork.)
Image #1: Portrait of Norton as Pan, circa 1955.
Image #2: Norton in ceremonial garb,1955.
Image #3: Bacchanal, date unknown.
Image #4: Portrait of Norton drawing, date unknown.
Image #5: Creation of the World, date unknown. Walter Glover Archive.
Image #6: Astral Scene, circa 1940s. Private collection.
Image #7: Tree of Life, date unknown. Private collection.
Image #8: Ideagram, date unknown. Private collection.
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Drury, Nevill. 2017. Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton. Second Edition. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.
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18 December 2019