By Nevill Drury
Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979) has been described as Australia’s best known witch. She was a controversial and ‘colourful’ character in Sydney’s Kings Cross district during the 1950s and 1960s and was known to the public as an eccentric, bohemian witch-lady and artist. She wore flamboyant, brightly coloured blouses and vivid bandanas, puffed on an exotic engraved cigarette holder, and plucked her eyebrows so that they arched in a somewhat sinister curve. Norton also claimed certain distinctive body markings that she possessed were a sign that she was “born a witch.”
Slight in build with curly black hair and a smile that revealed irregular teeth, Norton always had something of a magnetic presence that made her stand out in the crowd. The publication of her limited edition art book The Art of Rosaleen Norton in Sydney in 1952 – which also contained poems by her lover Gavin Greenlees – aroused considerable media controversy. Norton’s publisher and sponsor, Walter Glover, was charged in Sydney with releasing an obscene publication and copies sent to New York were confiscated and burnt by US Customs.
During this period of extensive media publicity Rosaleen Norton became known in the public mind as an artist whose provocative paintings of half-human, half-animal forms were even more controversial than Norman Lindsay’s risqué nude figures. Norton depicted naked women wrestling with reptilian elementals or flying on the backs of winged griffins, gods who were both male and female, and demonic forms with menacing claw-tipped wings. During the 1950s Norton’s controversial paintings and drawings seemed to embody a deep-seated pagan impulse and ran counter to orthodox religious sensibilities.
Rosaleen Norton was born in Dunedin in 1917, the third of three sisters. Her father, Albert, was a captain in the merchant navy and a cousin of composer Vaughan Williams. The Nortons migrated from New Zealand in 1925 and settled in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield. As a teenager Norton was expelled from high school because of her allegedly “depraved nature” which her headmistress claimed “would corrupt the innocence of the other girls.” She then studied for two years at East Sydney Technical College under the sculptor Rayner Hoff. During this time she became interested in studying everything she could find about witchcraft, sorcery and magic and she was soon well versed in the occult writings of notable magical practitioners like Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley and Eliphas Levi. In 1940, at the age of 23, she began to experiment with self-hypnosis as a means of inducing automatic drawing.
Norton was already familiar with the trance methods of the Surrealists and especially admired the work of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy who, like the other artists in their movement, had explored techniques of encouraging the subconscious mind to manifest its visionary contents. Sometimes the surrealists drew rapidly so that forms came through unimpeded by the intellect. Others experimented with drugs or documented their dream experiences with great detail in order to develop a greater knowledge of the ‘alternative reality’ of the subconscious mind.
Norton found that she could shut off her normal consciousness by means of self-hypnosis and could transfer her attention to an inner plane of awareness. As she noted in a lengthy interview conducted in an interview with the psychologist L.J. Murphy at the University of Melbourne in 1949: “These experiments [with self-hypnosis] produced a number of peculiar and unexpected results… and culminated in a period of extra-sensory perception, together with a prolonged series of symbolic visions.” Norton spent several years after this studying various systems of occult and mystical thought, including Buddhist and other examples of Eastern literature as well as standard works on Kabbalah, Theosophy and Western magic.
During this period Norton also began to focus more specifically on the magical forces associated with the Great God Pan, whose spirit she felt pervaded the entire earth. Her studies had taught her that the ancient Greeks regarded Pan as lord of all things – symbolising the totality of the elements and all forms of manifest being. He was therefore, in a very real sense, the true god of the world. Pan was a maintainer of the balance of Nature and also had at his command an invisible hierarchy of lesser spirits who could help him in his work of ruling and sustaining the earth.
Norton painted a large-scale interpretation of Pan, complete with horns, pointed ears, cloven hooves and musical pipes, and mounted it on the wall of her Kings Cross flat, where it effectively became the focal point of her magical altar. She also conducted magical ceremonies dressed in a tiger-skin robe to honour his presence, and would often experience him as a living reality when she entered a trance state. Meanwhile, her art continued to reflect the entities she encountered in her visions, including a variety of devilish creatures, half animal-half human pagan deities, and various supernatural motifs.
The Gods, In Their Own Right
Many occultists have drawn on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ to explain their relationship with the archetypal forces of the mind. Jung believed that at a deep, collective level of the psyche lay a rich and potent source of sacred archetypal imagery, and that these numinous forms provided the very basis of religious and mystical experience, irrespective of the cultural context involved. In other words, gods and sacred mystical images were really an extension of the universal human experience.
A number of occultists have rejected this view, however, claiming instead that the gods live apart from the collective minds of humanity and are not merely projected ‘thought-forms’. Rosaleen Norton agreed with this latter perspective. For her, the gods existed in their own right. She believed she was able to encounter Pan, Hecate and Lucifer, not as extensions of her own consciousness, but as mythic beings from a higher plane of reality who would grace her with their presence if it pleased them, and not subject to her will. She believed she had discovered some of the qualities of these gods within her own temperament, and that this provided a sense of natural affinity. This made their invocation much easier and more effective than would have been the case had there not been some sort of innate bond. Norton maintained that she entered the realm of the gods on the astral planes – an inner world of spirit accessed through magical trance – and that on different occasions the gods would reveal different dimensions of their own magical potency.
Rosaleen Norton regarded Lucifer, for example, not so much as an embodiment of ‘evil’ as humanity’s natural adversary. He bound and limited man when it appeared that he was growing too big for his boots. He tried to trick man, not out of malice but with the positive intent of exposing the limitations of the ego and revealing the essential falseness of man’s pride in his own existence. Rosaleen also regarded Pan as a very significant deity for the present day, a force in the universe which protected and conserved the natural beauty and resources of the environment. For her, Pan was alive and well in the anti-pollution lobbies and among the Friends of the Earth!
Hecate, on the other hand, she felt to be more imposing – an often frightening, shadowy goddess flanked by cohorts of ghouls and night-forms, a dealer in death and a purveyor of curses. But there was a magical bond to be found here too. Norton regarded magic and witchcraft as her protection and an inspiration in a hostile, ungenerous world. However, her own brand of witchcraft hardly brought her abundance. She lived simply, with few possessions, and certainly without any measure of wealth. If ever she cursed people with “witch current,” she said, it was a means of redressing the balance of events – a legitimate use of the magical art.
Rosaleen Norton’s paintings show a certain similarity of style to those of Norman Lindsay, for whom she occasionally posed as an artist’s model. But while for Lindsay the world of the supernatural could only offer decadent and exotic themes for his art-making, for Norton this realm was a perceptual reality – and this is very much reflected in her work. There are fire elementals, ablaze with light; devils with dual banks of eyes, indicative of their different planes of perception; cats with magical awareness; horned beings with sensual cheeks and a strange eerie light playing on their brow.
Norton maintained that her art arose as the result of the direct magical encounter. Energies filtered through her, she said, as if she were a funnel. She transmitted the current during a state of self-induced hypnotic trance. If the gods were alive in her, her artistic skills would then allow these gods to manifest, in varying degrees, in her drawings and upon her canvases. Norton always denied that she portrayed the totality of the god. She could depict only those qualities the god chose to show. The gods existed in their own right, on a plane far removed from the everyday world of human consciousness – but were directly accessible to her through her techniques of magical trance.
Was Norton a Satanist?
During her colourful career as the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’ Rosaleen Norton was frequently accused of being a Satanist. When she exhibited her paintings and drawings at the Apollyon and Kashmir coffee-shops in Kings Cross during the 1950s, both locations were described in the tabloid press as the haunt of the “Devil’s cult” and on occasions visitors to these coffee-shops would mischievously request a cup of “bat’s blood.”
When New Zealand migrant Anna Hoffmann claimed in September 1955 that she had attended a Black Mass with Norton in Kings Cross, the story was featured with sensationalist headlines on page one of a daily newspaper. Even though Hoffmann’s charges were later found to be fabrications and Hoffmann herself was jailed for two months and described as a “menace” by the presiding magistrate, the image of Norton as a ‘Satanist’ or ‘Devil-worshipper’ persisted during the 1950s, and even up into more recent times. For her own part, Norton went to great lengths, both during media interviews and sometimes also during various court proceedings, to explain that the “horned god” Pan was a pagan deity from the tradition of ancient Greek mythology and that her practice of witchcraft had no connection with the Christian Devil. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how members of the public may have misconstrued Norton’s occult imagery in the conservative social climate of post-World War Two Australia.
Norton was unquestionably drawn to the ‘night’ side of the psyche and she herself described her art in those terms. Black Magic, one of several controversial artworks exhibited at the University of Melbourne in 1949, and against which charges of obscenity were subsequently brought, could certainly cause offence to any practising Christian, with its imagery of bestial lust, a winking nun, and a bare-breasted woman mounted on a crucifix. However, while many of Norton’s paintings and drawings feature provocative and irreverent subject matter, it is quite another matter to assume they promote a Satanic perspective.
When Norton was accused in the popular media of overseeing blood-sacrifice rituals during a “Kings Cross Black Mass” she was both upset and offended by the remarks. Norton had always had a strong affinity with Nature, and with animals in particular, since her early childhood. As visitors to her apartment invariably attested, Norton was always accompanied by numerous pets, including cats, lizards, frogs, turtles and mice, and she always maintained that she would never cause animals harm. The very notion of ritualistic, Satanic ‘blood sacrifice’ was completely abhorrent to her. The evidence provided by her own artistic work and comments made to the popular press and in journalistic articles strongly suggests that while Norton was unquestionably both pagan and “heathen,” and often provocative in her presentation of “images of the night,” she was not a practising Satanist in the literal sense. Her witchcraft cult in Kings Cross included altars dedicated specifically to Pan and Hecate, and her coven rituals made no reference to the Christian Devil.
So how can we sum up the magical personality of the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’? Rosaleen Norton was a colourful bohemian eccentric, a gifted trance-magician and a controversial visionary artist who developed her occult persona during a conservative period of Australian history when the populace at large was unsympathetic to the pagan beliefs she espoused. Most did not understand her ritual homage to the Great God Pan and branded her simplistically as a Devil-worshipper – a distortion of her actual perspective. When Norton’s limited edition art book was withdrawn from sale in 1952 on a charge of obscenity it was only allowed back into the marketplace when two “offending” erotic magical images had been blacked out. So Rosaleen Norton can be seen as a perennial ‘occult outsider’, an urban misfit in post-War Sydney. Nevertheless, she remains one of Australia’s most significant esoteric figures and can be considered a precursor of the more recent worldwide neo-pagan revival. She was also a competent mystical poet. Norton regarded the following poem, Dance of Life, as an expression of her personal magical credo:
In the spiral horns of the Ram,
In the deep ascent of midnight,
In the dance of atoms weaving the planes of matter is Life.
Life spins on the dream of a planet,
Life leaps in the lithe precision of the cat,
Life flames in the thousandth Name,
Life laughs in the thing that is ‘I’.
I live in the green blood of the forest,
I live in the white fire of Powers,
I live in the scarlet blossom of Magic,
NEVILL DRURY (1947-2013) was an Australian editor, publisher, and author of over 40 books on subjects ranging from shamanism and western magical traditions to art, music, and anthropology. His books have been published in 26 countries and in 19 languages. He authored the only detailed biography of Rosaleen Norton, The Witch of Kings Cross (Kingsclear Books 2002, available from www.kingsclearbooks.com.au).
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Categories: The Occult