This week we continue a monthly discussion of The Cosmic Doctrine by Dion Fortune, which I consider the most important work of 20th century occult philosophy. Climb in and fasten your seat belts; it’s turning out to be as wild a ride as I expected. If you’re just joining us now, please go back and read the previous commentaries, which are listed here; the material covered in these earlier posts is essential to making sense of what follows.
As noted in earlier posts, there are two widely available editions of The Cosmic Doctrine, the revised edition first published in 1956 and the Millennium Edition first published in 1995, which reprints the original privately printed edition of 1949. You can use either one for the discussions that follow. The text varies somewhat between the two editions, but the concepts and images are the same, and I’ll be referring to both.
Revised Edition: Chapter 22, “Influences Which Humanity Exerts Upon Itself,” pp. 104-107.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 24, “Influences Which Humanity Exerts Upon Itself,” pp. 141-147.
In this chapter we’re in the final stage of wrapping up the explication of the list of influences on human evolution that was given in Chapter 18 of the Revised Edition and Chapter 19 of the Millennium Edition. That list doesn’t include a specific heading for the influences laid down by past generations of humanity, which may simply have been a typo; perhaps a new edition might include the following:
2 (e) Influences humanity exerts on itself.
Next month we’ll be going on to start exploring the second half of the list, in which Fortune lists some of the fundamental laws of magic. The chapters that follow are as instructive as they are evasive, and the chapter we are considering this month shares in that character, as the influences of humanity on itself that Fortune wants to talk about have to do with the religious and magical traditions of the past.
She begins with a crucial distinction that is too often overlooked. Under ordinary circumstances, human beings at our present state of evolution are conditioned and guided by the influences of the Planetary Spirit (or, in the Revised Edition, Planetary Being) of the Earth, the great elemental consciousness that has been established by past evolutions on this planet, and will pass on the results of our experiences to the evolutions that come after us. Those who have raised their basic level of consciousness above the physical plane, however, are conditioned and guided instead by the Planetary Spirits of the planet that corresponds to their level of consciousness, as set out in Chapter 20 of the Revised Edition and Chapter 22 of the Millennial Edition: for example, those whose consciousness has risen to the lower astral plane are guided and conditioned by the planetary spirit of Mars, those who have risen to the upper mental plane by the planetary spirit of Mercury, and so on.
This is important because this shift of conditioning influences is one of the things that initiation is intended to do. Initiation is the process of establishing a connection of consciousness to one of the higher planes; it can take place either through a ceremony conferred by others, followed by intensive personal work, or through sustained solitary effort; when it “takes”—which does not always happen—the soul of the initiate is no longer entirely under the sway of the Planetary Spirit of the Earth, and can proceed with evolution at a faster pace than humanity in the mass.
For humanity in the mass, by contrast, the Planetary Spirit that matters is that of the Earth, the Great Mother of countless ancient theologies. This is necessary but it’s also challenging, because the Planetary Spirit of the Earth embodies all those modes of consciousness that have been built up in the past. As Fortune comments, it’s dangerous for souls at one point along the arc of evolution to turn back toward the conditions of an earlier point along that same arc. It can be necessary to do this, if the lessons of that earlier point have been forgotten or distorted, but it’s always risky, because it can lead to retrogression and devolution, the process that Fortune describes as the Left-Hand Path.
The aftermath of Dion Fortune’s own career offers an opportunity to see both the positive and negative aspects of this kind of work in action. Later in her life, she became convinced that too much influences from an excessively narrow mode of Christianity had caused the lessons of the older Pagan dispensations to be forgotten or distorted, leaving a great many people unable to experience healthy sexuality or even inhabit their own bodies fully. Some of the major magical workings she performed in the 1930s—her Rites of Isis and of Pan, on the one hand, and her magically themed novels on the other—were intended to overcome this imbalance by exposing overcivilized English men and women to carefully measured doses of old-fashioned Pagan nature spirituality.
The sexual revolution and the revival of a robustly sexual Paganism duly followed—and in due time, significant parts of both these movements veered off into a variety of abusive and destructive dead ends. To some extent, this is simply another example of the way that the opposite of one bad idea reliably turns out to be another bad idea—excessive sexual repression, as it turned out, was no worse that excessive sexual expression—but it also shows how easily what starts as a helpful corrective to existing imbalances can lead to imbalances of its own.
The conditioning influence of the Planetary Spirit of Earth is also called the “Earth-pull,” and this is a useful turn of phrase because it expresses one of the core features of that influence. To feel the Earth-pull is to be drawn more deeply into material embodiment, to attend to the body, its passions, and its material surroundings. When a swarm of Divine Sparks is first descending to this planet, the Earth-pull is a wholly beneficial force, because it helps the members of that swarm attune themselves to the realities of material existence and learn the lessons of incarnation in dense matter. Once individual members of the swarm finish that process, awaken to objective consciousness on the material plane, and begin taking the first tentative steps on the Path of Return, the Earth-pull becomes an obstacle.
Three factors help these awakening souls overcome that obstacle. The first, as already noted, is the influence of initiation, which enables those souls who receive an initiation to balance the Earth-pull with the very different influences of one or more of the other Planetary Spirits in the solar system.
The second is what Fortune describes, in the Theosophical language of her day, as “the work of the Great White Lodge.” Elsewhere in her writings, she describes this as the way of the mystics, those people who live lives of renunciation and devotion, not to seek their own redemption but to help redeem others. This plays a crucial role in the collective karma of our species, and it also makes the struggle against the Earth-pull easier: the mystic who renounces every ordinary human desire is counterbalancing the Earth-pull, and laying down a track in space that makes it easier for others to lift their consciousness away from the purely material level.
The third of these counterbalancing factors is the planetary entity or archangel of the planet, the Lord of Flame who has taken on the role of guardian of the Planetary Spirit. In Cabalistic terms, the Lord of Flame who guides the Planetary Spirit of the Earth is the Archangel Sandalphon; other traditions have their own names for this mighty being. His work includes that of modulating the Earth-pull, so that individual souls who are ready to begin the Path of Ascent are not challenged beyond their strength—though they are always challenged, of course. As with anything else worthwhile, access to the Path of Ascent must be earned.
The influence of the Planetary Spirit has its complexities, though, and it’s worth taking some time to understand those. We can start with the individual human being. As Fortune comments, the whole range of evolutionary possibilities available to us as human beings can be sorted out into three categories. The first category comprises those that we have experienced in past lives, which have done their work and are now latent in us. The second comprises those that we are exploring in our lives right now, which are doing their work and are active presences to us. The third comprises those which have been reserved for future lives, which exist for us now only as untapped potentials.
The Planetary Spirit embodies those possibilities that, for most of humanity, belong to the first category alone. The evolution of a swarm is a slow process, to be sure, and there are human souls who are still exploring aspects of being human that most others internalized long ago, just as there are human souls who have proceeded far beyond the level most of us have reached. Fortune suggests, however, that on average, our present humanity is about two-thirds of the way through the work it has to perform on the physical plane. Most of us, in other words, are past the stage at which the Earth-pull is drawing us in the direction of our further evolution, and into the stage at which the Earth-pull becomes a challenge to be confronted and overcome.
One of the things that makes the challenge so serious is an intriguing detail of the way that the Planetary Spirit influences human souls. Inevitably, Fortune explains this through a metaphor. She imagines the human possibilities we’ve just discussed as forming a vertical sequence—think of a stack of schoolbooks, with kindergarten primers at the very bottom and college textbooks up at the very top. This stack or sequence is then reflected in the Planetary Spirit, and like any reflection it’s reversed, so that the first thing you encounter when you contact the Planetary Spirit is the most basic and primitive possibilities that humanity explored in its earliest days—the kindergarten primers of our image. Only by going further and deeper is it possible to reach the more complex and more nuanced possibilities explored later in humanity’s evolutionary journey.
It’s for this reason, Fortune points out, that when dealing with the influences of the Planetary Spirit it’s important to be able to do this from the standpoint of full objective consciousness. Approach them in a state where objective consciousness has been dispersed or eclipsed—in dissociative states such as trance, for example—and the mind is swamped by them, unable to think clearly or to shake off the domination of the atavistic influence that has seized it.
From a magical perspective, that was the trap into which a large group of German occultists had fallen by the time The Cosmic Doctrine was written, and all of Germany would fall over the decade thereafter. The primeval patterns in the Germanic group-soul that ultimately gave rise to Nazism could have been tapped in a state of full objective consciousness, using techniques such as individual meditation, and become a creative ferment in a society afflicted with too much rigidity and rationality. Instead, the occultists of the Germanenorden and the Thule-Gesellschaft used the first drafts of the ritual methods that saw their ultimate expression in the Nuremberg rallies, and they and the German nation ended up overwhelmed by the upsurge from the deeps, swept away in a flood of archaic contents that led them straight to genocide and catastrophe.
Fortune pauses at this point in her argument to insert two apparently irrelevant discussions that have a great deal to do with practical magic involving the Planetary Spirit and its influences: one relating to time and the other to space. She notes that the phases of the physical plane—the lunar cycle and the seasons of the Earth—are not given the importance they deserve in considering horoscopes. This is true in general, but it’s especially true when dealing with the magical influences of the Planetary Spirit. There are times and phases and seasons in which certain primal influences rise to their fullest strength.
Most people know, for example, that werewolves are supposed to show up at the time of the full moon. Very few remember that this bit of traditional lore reaches back to primeval shamanic warrior traditions in the northern reaches of Eurasia, whose initiates used possession by animal spirits and rituals enacted at the full moon to whip themselves up into states of superhuman strength and cruelty so that they could overwhelm their enemies in battle. Nowadays we’d call such states “acute homicidal psychosis,” and even in modern warfare there’s no place for them, but the influences remain and may explain some otherwise incomprehensible crimes.
As with time, so with place. The holy place of an ancient religious cult or magical initiation will retain the power to awaken corresponding energies in people who spend time there in a receptive state, for good or ill. That can be extremely useful for people in whom such energies are underdeveloped—your typical modern intellectual, for example, who lives a life too detached from earthy influences and the power of the blood, can gain a good deal by spending time in the holy precincts of some robust old Pagan faith—but they can be extremely destructive to those who already have such energies well-developed. Human nature being what it is, the latter are the ones most likely to seek out such places.
Here Fortune inserts a note that deserves close attention. Each religious and magical tradition of the past, she suggests, came into being to develop some specific set of human possibilities, and continues so long as there are still people who need help developing those possibilities. What makes an old religion or an old magical tradition fade out is that it has succeeded in its work—it has made the characteristics it set out to develop part of ordinary human consciousness. The school of Pythagoras, for example, had for its work the development of certain contacts on the mental plane; its initiates treated number theory and geometry as profound mysteries—as indeed they were at that time. Centuries passed, the initiates succeeded in laying down tracks in space that any human mind could follow, geometry became an ordinary school subject rather than a religious mystery, and the capacity for abstract mentation that geometrical training was meant to develop became a normal human capacity.
Does that mean that there’s no point in “picking up the contacts,” as occultists in Fortune’s time liked to describe the process, of initiatory traditions and religious cults of the past? Not at all—but it has to be done carefully, using methods that raise the archaic contents to the level of objective conscious awareness rather than those that submerge the mind in a flood of atavistic force. Done the right way, such work has robust possibilities. On the one hand, as already noted, it’s a fine way to clear up imbalances in the personality—a theme Fortune develops at great length in her novels, especially The Goat Foot God and The Sea Priestess.
On the other—well, here Fortune is being coy. The levels of the Planetary Being contacted by the old cults have close connections with the elementals, she says, and therefore “the contacts of an atavistic cult may be far-reaching.” Contacts with elementals are not particularly far-reaching—but each such cult, according to material that Fortune herself has covered in earlier chapters, was brought into being by a Lord of Mind, and contacts with such a being can be far-reaching indeed.
It’s worth noting that when ancient religious traditions are successfully revived, the new version of the tradition very often involves practices and traditions distinct from the old, though clearly linked to them by common threads of meaning and purpose. In this case, from within the perspectives of Fortune’s great metaphor, what has happened is that people working with the symbols of the old cult have made contact with the Lord of Mind who created it, and have been guided by the latter to reframe the tradition in forms better suited to the current phase of human evolution. The Druid Revival of the 18th century, the classical Greek Pagan revival of the 19th century, and the rebirth of Norse and Germanic Heathen spirituality in the 20th century are among the examples of this process at work.
Notes for Study:
As already noted, The Cosmic Doctrine is heavy going, especially for those who don’t have any previous exposure to occult philosophy. It’s useful to read through the assigned chapter once or twice, trying to get an overview, but after that take it a bit at a time. The best option for most people seems to be to set aside five or ten minutes a day during the month you spend on this chapter. During that daily session, take one short paragraph or half of a long one, read it closely, and think about what you’ve read, while picturing in your mind’s eye the image you’ve been given for that passage of text.
As you proceed through the chapter and its images, you’re likely to find yourself facing questions that the text doesn’t answer. Some of those are questions Fortune wants you to ask yourself, either because they’ll be answered later in the book or because they will encourage you to think in ways that will help you learn what the text has to say. It can be helpful to keep a notebook in which to write down such questions, as well as whatever thoughts and insights might come to you as you study the text.
Questions and comments can also be posted here for discussion. (I’d like to ask that only questions and comments relevant to The Cosmic Doctrine be posted here, to help keep things on topic.) We’ll go on to the next piece of the text on July 8, 2020. Until then, have at it!