ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

the occultist:

dreams and the occult
In an early statement, Colquhoun asserted that ‘my life is uneventful, but I sometimes have an interesting dream’. (1) This proclamation seriously downplays the importance of the dreaming state in her art and magic. Elsewhere I outline the extent to which her novels and short stories derived their content directly from her dreams. It is primarily in the context of the occult that her interest in her own dreams, which included the life-long keeping of dream diaries, must primarily be understood, although the influence of the theories of Sigmund Freud and André Breton was also great. Throughout history people in all cultures have felt driven to understand and explain the content of their dreams. Culturally-informed expectations influence dream imagery and socially constructed concepts about dreaming help determine the ways in which they are interpreted. Psychoanalysts hold the belief that dreams can be analysed and interpreted to reveal some deeper truth about the dreamer. To Freud, the interpretation of dreams was the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind. André Breton, who dedicated “Les Vases Communicants”, his own book on the nature of dreams to Freud, wrote: ‘it is my desire that [Surrealism] be best recognised for having attempted to set up a line of communication between the over-disassociated worlds of sleep and wakefulness, of interior and exterior reality, of reason and folly, of the calm of knowledge and of love, of life for the sake of life and of revolution’. (2) He used the phrase ‘communicating vessels’ as a metaphor for the relationship that he believed should exist between the dreaming and the waking states.  Occultists go further, claiming that dreams contain deep truths not merely about the dreamer, but also about the cosmos. Golden Dawn adepts taught that dreams can be a source of revelation, recommending that an aspirant should ‘impress upon his mind that he must recall on waking any teachings that has been given him in dream or vision’. (3) The basis for this is the belief that the real world and the unseen world are all created by the one God whose powers created and sustain the material world and whose guidance can be given through dreams. During sleep a person is released from the material world and can traverse, without limit, the astral planes. Aspects of these travels may be remembered by the sleeper as dreams. According to Dion Fortune, the universe is a thought-form projected from the mind of God. The Tree of Life is synthesised from the subconscious of the deity, just as a dream comes from the subconscious of the dreamer. Dream analysis, therefore, is akin to meditating on the Tree. (4) Golden Dawn magicians also believed that control over the dream world could be learned and that adepts could become skilled at astral travel whilst asleep. To facilitate this and to influence the content of her dreams and astral destinations, in common with other occultists, Colquhoun meditated upon magical symbols, such as the Tattvas, before sleep. The content of the subsequent dream would represent the astral territory visited. Not all of her astral voyaging was deliberately induced. As an instance of this, she cited her prose poem “Everything Found in the Earth is Found in the Sea” which came to her during a dream and was later incorporated into “Goose of Hermogenes”. (5) One dream exerted a particularly lasting influence. Dreamt in 1942, she reflected upon its meaning for many years. It became the subject of the oil painting Grotto of the Sun and Moon (1952). It inspired her to research the topography and archaeology of Nicaragua, where the dream grotto was located. She finally concluded that the Grotto was an occult centre used by an eponymous order which existed in the past or still exists, either in that state of being commonly recognised as reality today, or else in regions variously called the Higher Worlds or the Inner Planes. Colquhoun believed that she had been granted a glimpse of this mysterious centre: and now if I receive an idea or perception which does not seem to be a direct result of anything I have read, heard or thought, I take it to be a message from the Order. (6) A dream, as a channel for occult revelation, does not just provide the dreamer with a route into the spirit world. It also opens a channel in the other direction. During sleep, spirits or demons may visit the dreamer and leave a mark of their presence on the dreamer’s physical body. Colquhoun wrote about one such experience: Last night on my left thigh A purple ring was imprinted Seal of what obsession What numinous tooth?  (7) An instance of a different kind of occult revelation, the development of a new method of Taro reading, was disclosed during a dream in 1978. In this technique, the court cards were to be dealt into a four by four grid, the columns being attributed to the elements and the rows to the four worlds of the Qabalah. (8)  Historically, peoples in many cultures have believed that some dreams are predictive. Predictive dreams were distinguished by the ancient Greeks from false dreams by their mode of delivery to the dreamer, through the Gates of Hypnos. A watercolour, Gate of Ivory and Gate of Horn, (c.1951) refers to this belief, which is also referred to in the poem “Muin”: I drank from the horn-cup and swam into a trance So deep that only attraction amethystine Recalls me, after a voyage through gates of horn. I come now to bless and renew dreams that are true (9) Golden Dawn magicians believed that two dreaming consciousnesses might encounter each other on the astral plane, resulting in what might be experienced as telepathy. Yeats and Maud Gonne, for example, recorded several occasions when, separated geographically from one another, they simultaneously had identical dreams. An apparent instance of a telepathic dream, dreamt simultaneously by Colquhoun and a psychotherapist, resulted in the cover design for a book jacket. The design, consisting of a grid of horizontal wavy lines and parallel vertical lines, was ‘composed from two very similar forms which occurred in dreams of Dr. Alice Buck and Miss Ithell Colquhoun on the night of 14-15 February 1950’. (10) A more prosaic explanation is that the forms were experienced as part of hypnagogic states rather than true dreaming states. Geometric mental images are common in hypnagogic states, and undulating parallel lines are particularly frequent. (11) Colquhoun was unlikely to have known this, although she had earlier shown interest in hypnagogic states, painting two works, both titled Hypnagogic Image, in 1940. Alice Buck was a Jungian psychotherapist who also ran the London-based Buck Research Unit in Psychodynamics. The research interests of this group included investigating the extent to which dreams could be analysed and used to predict natural or man-made disasters. In her article on the work of the Unit, Colquhoun used Jungian terminology to suggest that such predictive dreams occurred when ‘something akin to the instinct for self-preservation forces its way out of the collective unconscious and into the individual unconscious when danger threatens.’ (12) How far Colquhoun was an active member of the Research Unit is uncertain, but she would also have been familiar with ideas concerning the predictive powers of dreams from a number of other sources, especially the occult, and from her knowledge of surrealism. Precognition is an important aspect of Breton’s theory of Objective Chance; the idea that there are patterns and meanings underlying seemingly random events and apparent coincidences. (13) Colquhoun’s contact with Buck was clinical as well as research-oriented. In the early 1950s Buck ran a therapy group of which Colquhoun was a member. Regular group meetings, supported by individual sessions, focussed on dream interpretation. Buck was willing to analyse Colquhoun’s dreams by letter when personal meetings were not possible. Surviving letters show that one recurring theme was Colquhoun’s relationship with her mother. In another letter, Buck’s interpretation of a dream concerning underwear contained a memorable example of inadvertent surrealism; the suggestion that ‘your knickers sound like a hair shirt to me’.  (14)   notes 1.  Colquhoun, I. “What do I need to paint a picture?” London Bulletin no. 17 (1939): 13. 2.  Breton, 1932, quoted by Carrouges, M. “André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism”. Alabama, University of Alabama Press, (19274), p. 13. 3.  Regardie, I. “The Golden Dawn. 6th revised edition. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications. (2002), p. 94. 4.  Fortune, D. “The Mystical Qabalah”. San Francisco: Weiser Books. (2000), p. 46. First published 1935. 5.  Tate Gallery Archives, TGA 929/5/21/12-13. 6.  See Colquhoun’s unpublished essay, datable to 1979, at TGA 929/2/1/43. 7.  Colquhoun, I. “Little Poems on Hidden Themes.” The Glass no. 7 (1951): [6-7]. 8.  See manuscript at TGA 929/2/1/63/1. 9.  Colquhoun, I. “Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket”. Stevenage: Ore Publications, 1973. 10. Buck, A. and Palmer, P. The Clothes of God: a Treatise on Neo-analytic Psychology. London: Peter Owen, (1956). The quotation is from the dust jacket. 11. See Lewis-Williams, D. and Pearce, D. “Inside the Neolithic Mind”. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005, p.48. 12. Reprinted in Shillitoe, R.W. & Morrisson, M.S. (eds.) “I Saw Water. An occult novel and selected writings by Ithell Colquhoun”. Pennsylvania, Penn State University Press, 2014. 13. See, for example, Breton, A. “Mad Love”. Translated by Mary Ann Caws. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. First published 1937. 14. Letters from Buck are at TGA 929/1/235-252. The phrase quoted is from a letter of 1960.