I am crossposting this on both of my blogs, since the subject matter is germane to both of them in different ways; I have different subscribers on both blogs, so I wanted to make sure no one missed it.
Dion Fortune’s “Book of the Dead”
published by Weiser Books
Amazon link: Book of the Dead
This book, which is probably better called a “pamphlet” at it’s very short 77 pages, was originally published in 1930 under the title, “Though The Gates of Death”. It’s not usually listed among her works due to its brevity, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon it while searching for new books to read on my Nook. This version was originally published in 1995 by the occult group she founded near the end of her life, “The Society of Inner Light”.
You’ve maybe heard of her before, because she was a strong influence on authors and occultists who created the Pagan traditions and thea/ology that we take for granted today. Diana Paxton and Doreen Valiente both credit her writings as a go-to when they were beginning what we now call Wicca. She’s also written one of the best books ever on the subject of psychic self-defense, titled “Psychic Self-Defense”. That is a book I frequently make students read and digest.
She was very active in the burgeoning occult underworld in the 1920’s and 30’s. Interesting to me, she had a nervous breakdown and went into a psychiatric institution right before she began having psychic and other magical experiences (madness path, anyone?). She studied various occult systems, including Crowely’s Golden Dawn, the Freemasons, and the hottest parlor religion, Spiritualism – a form of Christianity that held strong beliefs about being able to contact and interact with spirits of the dead and astral travel. She was also a “lay psychotherapist” (not far from what I do, sometimes) who had taken classes on the roles of psychology and psychic phenomenon from the Theosophists. And if that isn’t cool enough, there is scuttlebutt that she was one of the occultists the British government employed during WWII.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to find an E book version of her Book of the Dead. Working with spirits of the dead, and traveling to various other planes of existence, is something Ms. Fortune was very well known for. I was eager to hear what her thoughts were on the process of dying, and what the living can do to assist the dying in their crossing over.
These are the two things that the book focuses on the most – what the body and soul go through when one begins to die/what the soul can expect upon severing itself from the body, and what the living can do to assist the dying in making a gentle transition from life to death.
The first place that felt like a slap in the face (there were a few) is that she very strongly felt that there was no way that “natural death” could occur before “three score and ten years” (70). She explicitly states that dying from disease was not a “natural death”, because it meant that you were less than vigilant with your body. I believe this, like some of the other things I strongly disagree with her on, is a product of her era. This was before cancer was really known or understood, and although there still lingers some attitudes that some cancers are the patient’s “fault” (lung cancer, I’m looking at you!), I think our society’s view on those who contract terminal illnesses has radically changed since the 1930’s.
She describes three stages that a soul goes through after the last breath is released. The first is the disentanglement from both the “clay body” (your physical form) and the “etheric double” (how you envision yourself when you’re not looking at your body, basically). This can be assisted by those present at this stage by attempting to connect telepathically with the dying and give them permission and encouragement to move on. Also, having a source of prana (energy) present is useful – thus, the tradition of lighting candles and spreading flowers for the dead. Otherwise, the dying may use the prana from someone present, which she says explains why loved ones who suddenly feel tired shortly after the last breath have no explanation for it. I don’t know if I buy that entirely, since I know there’s a release of stress and energy when you know someone you’ve been sitting with is finally dead, and that might be confused for “stolen prana”. But it can’t hurt to have a good source handy if you’re sitting vigil for someone.
The second phase she calls “Purgatory” (remember, she was still seeped in Christian framework, even though she was an occultist). Supposedly, the soul is shown visions of their unrealized or unsuccessful desires. She talks about Karma a lot in this section, but I wonder if she only uses this term because it was the one accessible. The soul either has to overcome its attachment to these desires and failures (and thus move on to become a Master on the Higher Planes) or be reincarnated in order to live out another life to learn how to overcome them. Interestingly, Fortune states that while souls are in this phase, which starts “a few months after death”, they are not contactable, and cannot hear the summons of their loved ones on earth.
The third phase, “Heaven World” depends on what the disposition of the soul is – it can either ascend and become a “higher being” – a soul that assists in God’s work, or works with other freshly dead souls, or some other purpose – or you prepare to be reborn into a new incarnation. There is a time between phase 2 and 3 where a soul may be communicated with again, but Fortune warns that if you continually contact a soul in this phase, or bring them to mind/heart on a regular basis (like on their birthday, or an anniversary), you may be inadvertently keeping them from moving forward. If the departed does not feel like their old life is sorted, and their loved ones can move on and live their own lives apart from them, they cannot either ascend or be reincarnated. This meshes with some of my experiences working with dead who have been trapped due to similar circumstances.
I found many of her insights incredibly interesting, especially her thoughts that those who are psychically or magically aware have a much different death experience from those who are unused to fairing forth from their earthly bodies. She gives very veiled references on some exercises one can do to make that transition easier, and to retain consciousness during these processes. She attributes that most people cannot remember past lives, or what the after life is like, because their souls were “asleep” during them, and they attribute the experiences to a dream. She points to those who have a good handle on who they were in past lives as being more magically gifted in one way or another, because they are closer to becoming “masters”.
However, there was some stuff in there that I just found wacknutty. As I posted on Facebook, she states forthrightly that if a soul is severed from their body traumatically, like in a car accident, that soul will find itself inside the body of a baby about to be born. She claims that it is old midwives wisdom that if a baby is born with “old eyes”, it will die prematurely. Yes, she says that the traumatically severed soul jumps into a baby’s body so it can die properly, shortly after birth. I really wonder if she had a friend/friends who had lost children and were looking for some occult reason for it, and this was what Fortune came up with. Otherwise, it just seems too cruel, even for me.
I found this to be a really great read to get me in the mood for Samhain, which I will celebrate this weekend. It made me think very hard about what it must be like for a soul to leave a body and find out that it is more than the flesh, and gave me much to think about not just about where we go when we’re dead, but how we get there. It also gave me some incredible insights on things I can do should I find myself sitting vigil next to someone who is terminal. Some of it is definitely a product of the era it was written in, and there’s a lot of Christianity to translate to your own belief system, but the translation isn’t that hard. (She might have even been using it because it made it easier to publish in that time.) I suggest giving it a read, and it’s super short (77 pages). If you are a Nook user and wish to borrow my copy, complete with my own notes and thoughts, drop me an email and I’d be happy to lend it out.