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

the major themes

goddess spirituality Colquhoun lived at a time when women were becoming increasingly aware of their own, unique, female perspective on life and contributions to culture. One of the ways in which this change was made manifest was in the emergence of a specifically female contribution to the occult. This was seen not simply in the acceptance of women as participants in occult activity, but also in the development of a specifically female spirituality. Colquhoun was one of the first generation of women who took part in hermetic activities as of right. Prior to the pioneering work of women such as Moina Mathers and Helena Blavatsky a generation earlier, the occult had been an all-male preserve.  One aspect of this development was interest in the Mother Goddess. In a late text, “Pilgrimage”, published in 1979, Colquhoun went so far as to declare that spiritual power spouts from the body of Hecate, the Great Earth Goddess. (1) Mother goddess The idea that prehistoric hunters and foragers, as they developed into farmers and agriculturalists, worshipped a goddess figure has become a central tenet in New Age goddess movements. The identification of the earth-force as specifically female is an ancient belief that can be traced back at least as far as the Chaldean Oracles. The narrative goes like this. Archaeological discoveries indicate the importance of the female role in the fertility of crops. Rites performed to encourage crops to grow developed into fertility cults. The Goddess established the bond between animal fertility and plant fruitfulness. She regulated the seasons and the courses of the planets. In her original Phrygian form the Goddess was associated with mountains, hollows and wild places. She was the life-force; the mistress of life and death. She was womb, tomb, and all that came between. Because the lunar cycle has the same periodicity as a woman’s menstrual cycle, worship of the goddess is a lunar religion. In time, however, society became more patriarchal and the peaceful goddess religion was replaced and suppressed by an aggressive, male, solar religion. Even within the Christian framework a matriarchal rather than a patriarchal tradition can be traced, although it too has been systematically attacked and driven underground. For example, Colquhoun argued that the rendition of the Hebrew Elohim as God is a serious, possibly deliberate, mistranslation. She suggested that the accurate translation is ‘twin goddesses’. Conventional scholarship disputes (when it does not ignore) all of this. The academic view is that, far from dating back to prehistoric times in the Middle East, the Goddess is a social and cultural construction that originated in France and Germany as recently as the nineteenth century where it represented the imaginary female ideal of Romantic male writers. One of the key figures in this was the Frenchman Alphonse Constant, better known as Eliphas Levi. It is well known that Levi’s work exerted a deep influence over André Breton when he was developing the philosophy of surrealism. From Levi and the Romantic Movement comes the importance of women’s sexuality and her link with nature. Levi’s ideas were highly influential in the developing occult world of Victorian Paris and London. His writings were certainly known to Mathers and the founders of the Golden Dawn. From Levi and Mathers it is but a short step to Robert Graves who, within the pages of The White Goddess developed the idea of a tripartite moon goddess. From Graves it is but another short step to Gerald Gardner’s Wicca and subsequent derivatives. Colquhoun dedicated a suite of drawings of dryads, and associated poems to the Goddess: In 1971 I made a number of drawings based on the automatic process known as decalcomania which evoke the spirit of various trees: Beech, Rowan, Ash, Willow, Oak, Vine and Silver Fir. Some of these, and the poetic sequence, I offer to the White Goddess at a time when wasteful technology is threatening the plant life (and with it all the organic life) of earth and the waters. (2) The nurturing mother A central role of a mother, be she Goddess or mortal, is the provision of food. In Colquhoun’s late constructions the emphasis on food is striking. The association lies not only in the subject matter, it is built into the very fabric of the works. Many of the constructions are made from food-related packaging. At a mundane level an artist will find and use objects from her local environment. It may be, therefore, that in later life Colquhoun was not an enthusiastic cook and preferred convenience food. (3) At a deeper level, according to Breton, the discovery of a found object fulfils a previously unarticulated personal desire or obscure need so that the object is, in some strange way, linked to the finder’s destiny. From Breton’s perspective, it might be said that Colquhoun found nurturance in rejection. Discarded cardboard packaging (Ripples, 1971), disposable wooden forks (Angel with a Gold Collar, 1980) and foil trays from ready meals (Byzantine Cross, 1964) were conjured into fresh identities. She saw that a discarded plastic fruit tray could become the multiple breasts of Diana of Ephesus, goddess of fecundity; containers of a different nourishment (Ephesian Diana, 1967). She saw, too, that a collection of egg-boxes could become a robotic fetish figure (Embryo Fetish, 1965). Of relevance to the understanding of this work is Freud’s notion of the Uncanny: the confusion that can arise between the animate and the inanimate. Embryo Fetish is a good example of this and offers, in fact, a tripartite correspondence: the animate, the inanimate and the robotic. There are similarities in the imagery found in these reliefs and in the imagery of objects made by other female surrealist artists. In La Gouvernaute (1936) for example, Meret Oppenheim dealt with food, containers and sexuality, whilst in La Couple (1957) she made the association between containers and sexuality. The writings of Leonora Carrington, too, contain frequent references to food and eating. However, for these artists the preparation and consumption of food is not necessarily an harmonious domestic activity. Carrington associates food with oral aggression a struggle for survival and dominance in a competitive untamed word, far removed from the nurturing qualities it represents for Colquhoun. Just as the increasing importance of women in occult societies had mirrored the increasing independence of women in Victorian society, so too the development of pagan and goddess spiritualities in the mid 20th century reflected the increased secularization of Western society coupled with a suspicion of institutional religions and a steady decline in their authority. The Druid Order, for example, encouraged its members (which included Colquhoun) to discover their own individual relationship with the divine, Similarly, The Fellowship of Isis, (of which Colquhoun was also a member), has always simply required members to love the Goddess, irrespective of any other beliefs or affiliations they might hold. notes 1. Reprinted in Shillitoe, R.W. & Morrisson, M.S. (eds.) I Saw Water. An occult novel and selected writings by Ithell Colquhoun. Pennslyvania, Penn State University Press, 2014. 2.  Colquhoun, I. Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket. Stevenage: Ore Publications, 1973. 3. Someone who knew her well confirms this, telling the story that she overcame the reluctance of some friends to accept her invitation to a meal by promising them something hot. When they arrived she offered them - crumpets.