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 21, “The Lords of the First Three Swarms and Natural Laws,” pp. 100-103.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 23, “Teaching Concerning Other Evolutions Inhabiting A Planet Simultaneously,” pp. 135-140.
In this chapter we are still tabulating all the various influences that bear on human evolution; if you’ll page back to Chapter 18 of the Revised Edition or Chapter 19 of the Millennium Edition, we’ve gotten to 2 (d), “Influences of other evolutions sharing the same planet.” At this stage in Fortune’s great metaphor, the laws of nature as we normally experience them come into play, and so do the beings behind those laws—on the one hand, the Lords of the first three swarms; on the other, the elementals.
Here, of course, we run headfirst into one of the great differences between the occult and scientific worldviews. One of the central (though usually unmentioned) principles underlying the entire mindset of modern science is the quest to abolish personality from the universe. From the earliest days of the Scientific Revolution, it’s reliably been the case that a theory only counts as properly scientific if it reduces phenomena to the mechanical level and excludes every trace of personhood from it.
It was in that spirit that the scientists of Port-Royal in 18th century France insisted that animals didn’t actually feel pain—no, of course not, they were simply clever mechanisms contrived by God to make sounds that resembled cries of pain if you cut them apart while they were still alive. That same depersonalizing agenda explains much of the rapture with which Newton’s theory of gravity was greeted by the scientifically minded public when it was first published. By reducing the cosmos to a great machine, Newton made it possible to pretend that the planetary spirits and intelligences had been abolished once and for all.
As we saw in last month’s post, this is a phase that every being has to pass through, and the fact that so many people have passed through it over the last few centuries suggests that a great many souls in our swarm have been going through the initiation of the Nadir at this time. Occultism, however, is intended for those who have passed through that initiation and are beginning to reawaken to a world full of life and light, and so the occult tradition rejects the depersonalized cosmos of science root and branch. To the occultist, every energy is an entity, and the cosmos is not a machine but a vast community of living, conscious, intelligent beings of many different kinds and levels, whose interactions create the phenomena that we experience. Fortune places herself solidly in this tradition throughout The Cosmic Doctrine, and the present chapter is one of the places where this becomes most obvious.
She has already pointed out that on any planet there are two great classes of beings, one on the descending, involutionary arc, and the other on the ascending, evolutionary arc. On the physical plane, the plane we currently inhabit, those classes belong to the same swarm of Divine Sparks: those who have not yet finished the descent into matter form the involutionary class, while those who have completed the descent and begun to awaken into objective consciousness form the evolutionary class. As we’ve already seen, however, there are beings who are not of our swarm also inhabiting this planet. The most important of these are the elementals, and Fortune devotes much of this chapter to a discussion of them, their origin, and their destiny.
She assumes, of course, that her readers already know what elementals are and how they are classified, and that’s no longer a safe assumption to make. Elementals, then, are spiritual beings who inhabit the material substances of the natural world. They have been classified in various ways, but the taxonomy almost everyone in the occult scene has used for the last four centuries was the work of that astonishing force of nature, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus von Hohenheim, whose fourth name is responsible for the English word “bombastic” and who most people know these days as Paracelsus.
According to Paracelsus, the elementals are divided among the four traditional elements: gnomes for earth, undines for water, sylphs for air, and salamanders for fire. (The word “salamander” originally meant a fire spirit, and only later on became another word for a newt.) If for some reason you dislike the traditional names of the elements, you can call them solid matter, liquid matter, gaseous matter, and energy, and be equally accurate. The elementals are embodied in these elements, and guide and govern them; they are, as Fortune points out, the personal side of those repeating patterns that scientists call the laws of nature.
The Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind are responsible for the creation of the elementals, and create them by the same process we’ve observed in so many other contexts already. A Lord of Flame, let’s say, expresses the will of the Logos by setting up a particular pattern of movement in space. Through repetition, that movement becomes an enduring pattern, and the Lord of Flame can then do something else, while the pattern of movement repeats itself endlessly and gradually draws other patterns of movement into harmony with it. This is the same process by which every kind of being comes into existence, but there’s a difference—we and the elementals start the process at opposite ends of the ladder of the planes.
We have seen in earlier chapters how each of us begins on the seventh plane, the upper spiritual plane, as a seed-atom and a Divine Spark which gradually clothe themselves in a body of seventh plane atoms, and descend the planes from there. Elementals, by contrast, begin on the first plane, the physical plane, and gradually build upwards from there. We start by becoming Individualities and then develop personalities to learn the lessons of the planes of manifestation; they start by becoming personalities and then, in some cases, develop Individualities to learn the lessons of the Unmanifest.
Since we and they inhabit the same planet, humans and elementals come into contact constantly. Most of these contacts are casual and harmless. When you light a fire, climb into a full bathtub, breathe in fresh air, or stand on the earth, you’re interacting with elementals. So long as you do so in this purely material way, you run no risks.
Once you set foot on the path of occult training, on the other hand, you begin to develop the skills that can bring you into contact with the inner side of the elemental world: your personality and the personalities of the elementals can interact. This is where problems can creep in, because the human etheric body (or as Fortune calls it, the etheric double) is both the vehicle by which we can interact with the elemental realm and the vehicle of the passions. To come into contact with elementals on a personal level thus tends to shift the passions into overdrive. If you can control yourself under those conditions, you’re fine—but if you can’t, it’s possible to land in serious trouble.
There used to be an immense occult literature about sexual relationships between humans and elemental spirits, some of it serious, some of it less so, and Fortune was writing when that subject was routinely discussed in occult circles. Nowadays the occult scene is less well educated about that among many other things, so a few basic points have to be covered so that readers can figure out what she’s talking about. The crucial point to keep in mind is that sex is not just a matter of the dense physical plane. The involvement of the etheric and astral bodies is what makes sex different from other kinds of friction. Elementals don’t have physical bodies of the kind we do—their bodies on the dense physical consist of processes within the world of “inanimate” matter—but they have etheric and astral bodies, and yes, sexual intimacies can take place on the subtle planes. (If you’ve had sex in a dream, you’ve had an experience of this kind.)
That’s what Fortune is talking about when she explains that it is possible for a human being to be mated with an elemental. Does this happen? Certainly that’s what the traditional lore claims, and there are enough accounts of the type that it seems unwise to dismiss it out of hand. Such relationships are addictive and obsessive for the human partner, since the elemental partner stimulates the etheric body to overwhelming states of passion which no amount of ordinary sexual activity will satisfy. There are various ways this can end up, none of them particularly good for the human partner.
There is also, as Fortune points out, the risk that the elemental personality will absorb the human personality or simply replace it, linking up with the human’s Individuality for the rest of that incarnation. (This doesn’t require sexual interactions, though those can foster it). This is one of the ways that a nonhuman soul can end up in a human body. Such individuals are a distinct type, one that was once well-recognized, and not just in occult circles; they tend to be highly attractive and charismatic, especially in a sexual context, and completely heartless—not malicious, but simply incapable of understanding that they ought to care about what happens to the human playthings they so easily break and cast aside.
Does all this mean that elementals are too dangerous to deal with? Not at all. It simply means that you have to deal with them the right way, and this starts by mastering the elemental passions in yourself. (Please note, however, that “mastering” does not mean “getting rid of”!) The advice of the Golden Dawn Theoricus degree remains sound: “Be thou therefore prompt and active as the sylphs, but avoid frivolity and caprice. Be energetic and strong as the salamanders, but avoid irritability and ferocity. Be flexible and attentive to images as the undines, but avoid idleness and changeability. Be laborious and patient as the gnomes, but avoid grossness and avarice.” Develop the elemental powers within yourself in a balanced fashion, and you gain the ability to interact with the elementals themselves in an equally balanced fashion.
Some occult schools make a point of working with elementals from this condition of balance—the Rosicrucian lineages are particularly well known for this, and Fortune’s own Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light worked extensively with elementals in her time. Other schools are less interested in elemental magic. The Cosmic Doctrine doesn’t deal with the fine details of magical practice, of course; the reason Fortune included information about the elementals in this chapter is that she was going through the whole range of occult factors that influence human life, and the elementals are part of the cosmos we inhabit and affect us directly and indirectly at every moment of our existence.
On the last page or so of the chapter (in the Revised Edition) or the first and last pages (in the Millennium Edition), however, Fortune veers onto two other subjects in a way familiar from previous chapters. One of these is the relation between the Lords of Flame and the Lords of Form. These two primal swarms form a polarity of influences—force and form, potentiality and actuality, life and death. The role of the Lords of Mind in all this? Fortune leaves that unanswered. The answer, of course, is that the first two swarms establish the basic polarity of being and the third resolves it into a ternary: between force and form, consciousness; between potentiality and actuality, the act of manifestation; between life and death, that broad middle ground we brush against in dreaming and see clearly in the great transformations of the soul.
That’s one of the two subjects. The other is an assignment of the primal swarms to specific sets of laws of nature, which raises far more questions than it answers. The Lords of Flame, Fortune tells us, are behind the laws of physics. The Lords of Form are behind the laws of chemistry, and the Lords of Mind are behind the laws of biology. Finally comes a fourth swarm—the Lords of Humanity, which is what we will be when we finish our long pilgrimage back up the planes of being—to whom are assigned the laws of sociology.
What makes this neat tabulation difficult to square with the rest of The Cosmic Doctrine is that the explanations of previous chapters either imply or state outright that the three primal swarms completed their journey up and down the planes long before we set out on our pilgrimage, and that other swarms have gone before ours—enough other swarms, for example, to provide the twelve rays with their Star Logoi. Here, by contrast, the sequence is laid out in a way that makes it look as though we’re following right behind the Lords of Mind. Are there classes of laws of nature that come between biology and sociology, which will be ruled by the swarms ahead of us when they get back to the seventh plane? Or is something else going on? As so often happens, this is left for the student to contemplate.
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 June 10, 2020. Until then, have at it!