Florence Farr, Priestess and Adept by Caroline Wise

Florence Farr, Priestess and Adept

by Caroline Wise

“We are priestesses of that pure flame, whose temple is the soul.” Spoken by Amaryllis, Priestess of Selene in A Sicilian Idyll by John Todhunter.

“Come to me. Come to me, for my speech hath in it the power to protect, and it possesseth life. I am Isis the goddess, and I am the lady of words of power." Spoken by Isis from The Egyptian Book of the Dead translated by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge.

Bickley in Kent in the 1860s conjures up images of dull and gentile suburbia. Zooming in closer, it becomes far more interesting, being a stone’s throw from those mysterious caverns the Chislehurst Caves. It is also near to the enigmatic Kent ‘Crays’ and to Scadbury Park, with its ‘Dragon Men’ intrigues. It was at Bickley that Florence Farr was born on the 7th of July 1860. She was named after Florence Nightingale, a colleague of her father’s.

Cheltenham Ladies College mentions Florence Farr as a “notable former pupil”. She later attended Queens College, the first college of higher education for girls in London. Despite her good and progressive education, in the 1910 publication In Modern Women, Her Intentions, Florence had this to say:

“... six years to get out of the shell my education [had] hardened around me. I don’t suppose I should ever have spread my own wings if the beak of my destiny had not been stronger than my overwhelming education, so that it succeeded in hammering through that shell at last.”

Breaking this shell, Farr had tried her hand at teaching, and then became an actress. She also tried directing; she composed, she was a novelist, a playwright, a journalist, an advocate of women’s equality, and a musician. All of these threads combined in making her a superb magician and priestess.

She mixed with the artistic Bohemian set around Bedford Park in West London; playwrights, poets, socialists and intellectuals. She counted the family of William Morris as her friends. It was among this circle that she met the poet W. B. Yeats who became a lifelong friend and collaborator.

Florence was initiated into the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in July 1890, around the time of her 30th birthday. Yeats had seen the magical potential in his friend Farr when she appeared as a priestess in John Todhunter’s romantic play A Sicilian Idyll. In the play, which was probably inspired by Farr, she played Amaryllis, a Priestess of the moon goddess Selene. She inhabited the part of the priestess well, her grace captivating Yeats.

The words from The Egyptian Book of the Dead that are attributed to Isis, and quoted at the beginning of this piece lend themselves well to Florence Farr. She had many associations with the Egyptian Goddess Isis, the mistress of Magic, and also with the Book of the Dead of which she had made of a study, the translation by Budge being completed in 1895. Florence understood the magic of speech. better than most members of the Golden Dawn. She knew the importance of the magical voice. The correct intonation in ritual and evocation, with patterns of speech and tone, brought about changes in consciousness and aided contact with the divine. She was interested in exploring the use of sound and music, and its correct application in magical and artistic endeavours. She saw the importance of rhythm, of chant, and of incantation.

Yeats said of her recitals: “Speech was music, the poetry acquired a nobility, a passionate austerity that made it akin for certain moments to the great poetry of the world.”

Farr’s Hermetic study was broad, as Darcy Kuntz shows here, but she was no dilettante. She was not an ‘air-head’ as I have seen her described by one academic pretender: her mystical interests were far-removed from those of a self-centered naval gazer. As well as her studies and writings, she was immersed in the running of the Order, in ceremonial work, in experimental work, and in teaching and training initiates and students.

Some of Farr’s evocations and scrying work were looked on with suspicion, being seen as daring and even dangerous. They brought about the ire of Annie Horniman for one. Certainly they were bold and innovative; but Farr the magician was not one for ‘incorrect practice’, and had confidence in her knowledge and skills that she had invested so much time in honing. Precision was her by-word in magic. She was also innately intuitive and sure of that inner speech too.

She wrote on Rosicrucianism, of symbols, of Kabbalah, Alchemy, Enochian, Vedanta, and philosophy. Along with her astral experiments, all were driven by her belief that adepthood was perfection of the mind and body. Control of the will led to becoming one with the divine. She said that:

“Only the merging of our human wills with the Universal Will can result in hastening the day of our perfection. If we labour against the world’s will we shall fail and our work will vanish from of the face of the earth.”

The Golden Dawn and its ceremonial rituals and correspondences rooted in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life would be the vehicle for this attainment. Her experimental theatrical and recital work “in the outer” complimented this.

The Egyptian arcana were especially important for the Golden Dawn and for Farr. She immersed herself in Egyptian studies at the British Museum, and of Ancient Egyptian cosmology she said, “The first necessity of the study of magic among the Egyptians was cultivated of all the faculties dormant in human nature.” Of the Egyptian adepts she said that they “gained power by the identification of themselves with the types of natural forces, known to us as gods.”

To Farr, “The most potent magical formula was the identification of the ritualist with the God whose power he was invoking.”

This magical philosophy is reflected in her play The Shrine of the Golden Hawk, which I produced for charity, at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in London, in 1993. In 1902, Farr had resigned from the Golden Dawn and had joined the Theosophical Society. In her play, written around just before this time, her protagonist Nectoris, who is “skilled in the mysteries of Isis”, declares:

“I look unharmed upon the face of the god because his eyes are my eyes, and his power is my power, his spirit is my spirit. I am an Egyptian and mistress of the mysteries. I have become one with Heru, for I have eaten of his substance and I have drunk of his spirit, and I am henceforth ruler of the holy places. Whoso is made one with the gods makes their holy places desolate, and himself becomes their sanctuary; and his being is greater than theirs, being made of their own substance. For he has devoured their mystical rites and symbols, he has swallowed their shining forms, he has eaten the power and wisdom of every god, and the period of his life is eternity!”

In Egyptian Magic she writes:

“To the Ancient Egyptians the most eminent man was he who had by hard training gained supremacy over the Elements, from which his own body and the Manifested World were alike formed; one whose Will had risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of his desires; one whose intuition cleansed from the stains of material illusion, was a clear mirror in which he could perceive the Past, the Present and the Future.”

The mystical, musical, philosophical and the political threads wove a seamless tapestry of this active, questing and pioneering life. She had great integrity. In this sense she was also a hierophant, a teacher who “showed forth”, taking the mysteries from the secret temple to function in the wider world.

Sapientia Sapiente Dono Data—“Wisdom is a gift given to the Wise”—was Farr’s Golden Dawn motto. Like the Ouroborus symbol of Wisdom, the serpent swallowing its tail, Farr’s life, though still progressive, had come full circle. In earlier years, Florence had attended the first college for the higher education of girls in London and had tried her hand at teaching; in the last years of her life she was a teacher and administrator at Ceylon’s first school for girls.

Florence Farr’s contribution to the modern magical and mystical corpus is immense. Her original and refreshing output is only now becoming fully recognised as she moves into the magical spotlight from the long shadows cast by her companions Yeats and Shaw.

Florence Farr was an adept. Not just in title, bestowed by S.L. Mathers as “Chief Adept in Anglia” of the Golden Dawn. The twin streams of magic and mysticism were balanced in her, like the double serpents of the caduceus wand. She carried the spirit of enquiry and experiment, always with perfect integrity. She studied hard for her magic, and believed that “to accept a ready-made belief blindingly is to commit mental and moral suicide.”

The scope of Farr’s magical exploration and understanding is impressive. It is surprising that it has been hidden in plain sight for so long. The writings and the battles of the male magicians of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are well known, the women only now coming into the light as serious contenders. Florence Farr is becoming better known thanks to the work of Darcy Kuntz and others such as Josephine Johnson and Mary Greer. The body of Farr’s occult writing gathered here speaks for itself; however, I think she will become recognised as one of the most significant and important magicians to have come from The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In Egyptian Magic she says:

“Now Isis was a Woman knowing Words of Magical Power, her heart was weary of multitudes of men, and she chose the multitude of Gods, but above all the multitude of the Shining Ones. And she meditated in her heart and said ‘Might not I, also, by means of the names of Shining Power become as the Sun God in Heaven?’”

This quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which in Egyptian Magic Florence calls “the Triumphant Death-song of the Initiated Egyptian”, is apt here: “I fly up to heaven and I alight upon earth and mine eye turneth back towards the traces of my footsteps. I am the offspring of yesterday. The caverns of the earth have given me birth, and I am revealed at my appointed time."

Thanks to Darcy Kuntz for compiling this great collection, which will be invaluable to scholars, historians and magicians.

Caroline Wise

London, 2012

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