by Nevill Drury
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Before Z Budapest and Starhawk, before Margot Adler and Janet Farrar, there was Rosaleen Norton…
Most people knew Rosaleen Norton simply as ‘Roie’. The Roie I remember was slight in build, with dark and rather untidy curly hair, quick darting eyes and mysterious arched eyebrows. During the 1950s she had become famous in Australia - perhaps one should say notorious - as an eccentric and bohemian practitioner of witchcraft. She wore flamboyant blouses, puffed on an engraved cigarette holder, and produced bizarre fantasy paintings which had a distinct touch of the pagan and demonic about them.
This was of course a time when a rather prudish and puritanical mentality prevailed in Australia and when society in general was by no means as culturally diverse or as tolerant as it is today. The public at large was astounded by Rosaleen’s risqué paintings and drawings which depicted naked hermaphroditic beings, phalluses transforming into serpents, and passionate encounters with black panthers. And while the work of fellow erotic artist Norman Lindsay was halfway to becoming respectable - a type of tempered voyeurism made it possible to admire the naked frolics depicted in his paintings and drawings and call them ‘art’ - it was by no means as easy for Rosaleen to be accepted. As she herself would say, Lindsay’s figures were creatures of the day and had frivolous, happy natures, whereas her compositions invariably focused on figures of the night - phantasms from the darker recesses of the soul.
Roie originally presented herself as a trance artist. From an early age she had a remarkable capacity to explore the visionary depths of her subconscious mind, and the archetypal beings she encountered on those occasions became the focus of her art. It was only later that Roie was labelled a witch, was described as such in the popular press, and began to develop the persona which accompanied that description. As this process gathered momentum, Roie in turn became intent on trying to demonstrate that she had been born a witch. After all, she had somewhat pointed ears, small blue markings on her left knee, and also a long strand of flesh which hung from underneath her armpit to her waist - a variant on the extra nipple sometimes ascribed to witches in the Middle Ages.
However, I feel that much of this was simply the development of her mystique. From her earliest childhood, Rosaleen wanted to be different. She revelled in being the odd one out, purporting to despise her schoolmates. She argued continuously with her mother. She ‘hated’ authority figures like headmistresses, policemen, politicians and priests. She had no time at all for organised religion, and the gods she embraced - a cluster of ancient gods centred around Pan - were, of course, pagan to the hilt. She regarded Pan as the God of Infinite Being. Traditionally Pan is known as the god of flocks and shepherds in ancient Greece. Depicted as half-man, half-goat, he played a pipe with seven reeds and was considered the lord of Nature and all forms of wildlife. He was also rather lecherous, having numerous love affairs with the nymphs - especially Echo, Syrinx and Pithys.
Pan was undoubtedly a rather unusual god for a young woman to be worshipping in Australia. But then Roie was different. And she was different in an age when it was quite a lot harder to be different than it is now. She was bohemian, bisexual, outspoken, rebellious and thoroughly independent in an era when most young ladies growing up on Sydney’s North Shore would be thinking simply of staying home, happily married with a husband and children. Roie was not afraid to say what she thought, draw her pagan images on city pavements, or flaunt her occult beliefs in the pages of the tabloids. To most people who read about her in newspapers and magazines she was simply outrageous.
I met Roie towards the end of her life, in 1977. She had already become a recluse but a friend of mine, Barry Salkilld, and I had tracked down a person called Danny who knew her. Danny worked in a jeweller’s shop in Kings Cross and we explained to him that we were genuinely interested in magical techniques and practices and wanted to discuss both her personal view of magic and her perceptions of the world at large. The message filtered through and we were granted an interview.
Roie was living then in a rather dark basement flat at the end of a long corridor in an old building in Roslyn Gardens, just down from Kings Cross in the direction of Rushcutters Bay. She was somewhat frail but still extremely mentally alert, with expressive eyes and a hearty laugh. She even invited us to share an LSD trip with her, but in the gloomy recesses of her basement flat we shuddered to think of the shadowy beings we might unleash through this powerful psychedelic, and we both politely declined. I later found out that Roie periodically used LSD to induce visionary states and that this was all about enhancing her awareness as an artist. She did not, however, use the drug simply for recreation, for she was well aware of its potency.
We talked at that meeting about the gods Roie encountered in trance, about her view that Pan was alive in the ‘back-to-Nature’ movement supported by the counterculture, and we also discussed her strong personal bond with animals. Roie told us that she believed most animals had much more integrity than human beings and she also felt that cats, especially, could operate both in the world of normal waking consciousness and in the inner psychic world simultaneously. She even remembered a time which may have been a previous incarnation in England. She believed she had once lived in a past century in a rickety wooden house in a field of yellow grass, somewhere near Beachy Head in Sussex. There were several farm animals there - cows, horses and so on - and she herself was a poltergeist, a disembodied spirit. She recalled then when ‘normal’ people came near the house they were frightened by her presence and could not accept the existence of poltergeists or any other ‘supernatural’ beings. But the animals accepted her as she was - as part of the natural order.
For Roie this went some way towards explaining her love for her own pet animals, and throughout her life she lived surrounded by creatures of all kinds - from pet lizards and spiders through to mice, turtles and cats. In the Cross, in her dark and very private living room, she still had her animal friends to comfort her, and she related to them more positively than to her human neighbours in the in the daylight world outside. One couldn’t help feeling that here in the twilight realm of her Kings Cross basement flat she felt thoroughly at home. She no longer felt any strong desire for regular contact with the external world.
Roie's personal beliefs were a strange mix of magic, mythology and fantasy, but derived substantially from mystical experiences which, for her, were completely real. She was no theoretician. Part of her disdain for the public at large, I believe, derived from the fact that she felt she had access to a wondrous visionary universe - while most people lived lives that were narrow, bigoted, and based on fear. Roie was very much an adventurer - a free spirit - and she liked to fly through the worlds opened to her by her imagination.
Roie’s art reflected this. It was her main passion, her main reason for living. She had no career ambitions other than to reflect on the forces within her essential being, and to manifest these psychic and magical energies in the only way she knew how. As Roie’s older sister Cecily later told me, art was the very centre of her life, and Roie took great pride in the brief recognition she received when the English critic and landscape artist John Sackville-West described her in 1970 as one of Australia’s finest artists, alongside Norman Lindsay. It was praise from an unexpected quarter, and it heartened Roie considerably because she felt that at last someone had understood her art and had responded to it positively. All too often her critics had responded only to her outer veneer - the bizarre and often distorted persona created by the media - and this was not the ‘real’ Roie at all.
Roie is long gone now.
Late in November 1979 Roie was taken to the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital. Shortly before she died she told her friend Victor Wain: ' I came into this world bravely. I'll go out bravely.' And she was true to her word. Unrepentant in her worship of Pan, unfazed by all the crucifixes around her at the hospice, and a pagan to the end, she departed this life on 5 December 1979.
There is no doubt in my mind that Rosaleen Norton would have flourished in the company of Starhawk, Z Budapest and Margot Adler if she were alive today, but sadly she was ahead of her time. Such frameworks of thinking simply did not exist in her day. While Rosaleen emphasized Pan as the universal life-principle, rather than worshipping the Mother Goddess as a giver of life and sustenance, there was nevertheless a comparable feeling in her approach to life. As Rosaleen told me in 1977, Pan was very much a deity for the present day, not simply an archetypal figure from antiquity. For her, Pan was the creative force in the universe who protected the natural beauty of the planet and conserved the resources of the environment. And like Starhawk, Rosaleen believed that magic had a political consequence - Pan was alive and well in the anti-pollution lobbies, and among the Friends of the Earth!
Like her contemporary Wiccan counterparts, Rosaleen shared a vision of magic as a way of re-sacralizing the world, of finding divinity in Nature. In a sense we can say that Rosaleen was a feminist in a time when there were no feminists, a witch at a time when witchcraft was still widely misunderstood. But more than anything else, she was a free spirit - an independent venturer in the magical cosmos. Her visions of the night - those eerie phantasms which haunted her imagination and opened doorways to other realms of mythic consciousness - serve as a reminder that there are always greater realities in the universe which we can acknowledge and explore. This, I feel sure, is the single message she would have wished to leave behind, for others to pursue.