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

the major themes

ordering the cosmos Humans attempt to make sense of a complicated world through classification. By saying what something is, one is also saying what it is not. In this way the world begins to take shape and become ordered. With a sense of order comes predictability and the possibility of security. This urge to classify and structure a seemingly senseless or potentially hostile world was particularly strong in Colquhoun. It is seen to its best advantage in her study of hermetic correspondences, described more fully under the “occultist” tab, and is also apparent in some written work, for example The Streams of St Bride, but it was evident from an early age. As a youngster it showed itself as a straightforward making of lists. Aged eleven, she had a clear view of how, in the future,  she would clothe her children: in the summer months, her daughter, when aged 8½-10½ years, would wear ‘cotton frocks, knickers, brown or white socks, sand shoes, blazers, straw or thin felt hat with her hair plaited’; a slightly younger boy (5½-7 years) would wear ‘sailor suits or white jumpers, serge knickers, black or tweed socks, black shoes and with cut hair.’ She then noted that of 94 birds eggs ‘collected by myself’ between March 1918 and August 1920 there were 24 duplicates, whilst her cabinet of butterflies, collected between May 1917 and August 1920, contained 36 species of butterflies and 24 species of moths. None of this is particularly uncommon, but in the same notebooks we find her assigning colours to the days of the week and to the cardinal points, the first indication of her life-long search for order through the pursuit of hermetic correspondences. This esoteric dimension assumed progressively greater prominence as she moved beyond the world of nature to the world of the spirit, from the contemporary to the eternal and from the material to the mythological. The late essay “The Other Echidna”, written circa 1982 for Melmoth magazine but never published, shows an almost obsessive concern for detail as she attempts to untangle the lineage of the fabled monster who was half woman and half serpent:  When Chrysaor, the Gorgon Medusa’s son by Neptune, married his aunt Callirhoe and thus fathered Echidna, the latter was both daughter and niece to him, since Callirhoe was half- sister to the three Gorgons through her father’s incestuous union with Ceto. Serpentine genes came to Echidna through her father but ultimately from her paternal grandmother Medusa, and these may also have influenced her in choosing a monstrous husband, Typhon. Typically, she ends by attempting to draw parallels with other spiritual traditions: A transition at a deeper level is also perceptible, that from Matriarchy and the Triple Goddess (grown horrendous as the 3 Gorgons and the 3 Harpies) to patriarchy, which inevitably maligns her. Medusa, the only Gorgon who is not immortal, appears (like Eve) as the source of the world’s evil. TGA 929/2/1/44. Colquhoun also subjected Egyptian deities to this classificatory scrutiny. In “The Blue Anubis”, she analysed Egyptian deities according to their morphological features, and related them to the signs of the zodiac. Sometimes, this was straightforward: The Rams: Amoun-Ra and Khnoum; Osiris as Ba-Neb-Tettou but sometimes her conclusions were more tentative: The Fishes: Perhaps Hat-Mehet, consort of Ba-Neb-Tettou, is the most appropriate since she wears a fish on her head; but other water-divinities – the crocodiles Sobek and Mako, the hippopotamuses Ta-Ourt and Auromoth and the frog Heqet may also be placed here.  TGA 929/2/1/6/8. Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, the performing arts were subjected to a similar analysis. In “The Erotics of Ballet” Colquhoun attempted to analyse the symbolic content of dance. Sexual behaviour in all its manifestations could be discovered underlying dance forms: The Solo: Masturbation, auto-eroticism. Infantilism. Narcissism. The Hermaphrodite. The ‘self-born, self-begotten’. The Duet: Any relationship ‘à deux’, whether hetero- or homo-sexual. Duality enclosed to produce a new entity. Contrast or ‘polarity’, resolved in the climax or ‘adagio’. TGA 929/2/1/4. Concerning the personae that commonly occur in ballet, she proposed that sylphs and nymphs represented liberated sexual forces, whilst animal characters were indicative of ‘Totem and Tabu. Sodomy.’ In a similar vein, “Pied Beauty” attempted to group and classify birds not scientifically by genus and species but by a more personal and idiosyncratic taxonomy in which, for example, the magpie hints at the ambivalence of all magic, here symbolised by [its] dual aspect of light-and-dark, day-and-night, good-and-ill-fortune — often closely linked — conscious and unconscious, hate- and-love, holy-and-unclean, as contrary aspects of the same thing.   TGA 929/2/1/48. It is surely not too fanciful to see her own membership of multiple societies, spiritual and otherwise, as a reflection of this; the need to classify herself in terms of the aims and objectives of the groups of which she was, or sought to be, a member?