Mary Poppins and the Occult

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 24, 2006 — 4 Comments

The New York Times takes a closer look at the most famous literary creation of P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins. The article is quick to point out that the Disney version we all know is a far cry from the real personality of Ms. Poppins. In the books, Poppins is strict, acerbic, and averse to being touched. But as the Times points out, this outer appearance was necessary to house the magic contained within.

“She is a caricature of the most authoritarian form of adulthood; she is outraged by any suggestion that things might be otherwise. Eventually the children learn that “Appearances are Deceptive.” They learn, that is, that there is a split between the inner life and outward appearance, between the magic of Mary Poppins and her thoroughly adult facade. This is not a reflection of hypocrisy. Both realms are necessary. Authority, order, precision – mocked in the film and on Broadway – are intertwined with her magic. In part this reveals how children perceive adulthood. Children are asked to submit to formal restrictions they don’t fully grasp; they see exaggerated manifestations of responsibility and authority. Yet underneath the adult exterior they also sense strange, half-threatening and half-alluring forces that promise a realm of magical freedom. Travers captured that double vision – that confusion and melding of realms – that makes childhood so powerful.”

Even more interesting is that Mary Poppins (now the subject of an award-winning musical) was a product of the same era in Britain that produced Wicca. Travers had many similar interests to the founders of Wicca. This included a fierce devotion to the poet and mystic William Butler Yeats (a member of the Golden Dawn), and becoming a student of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff*. These influences (among others) blended to help create her unique version of a magical woman.

“With Mary Poppins, though, she turned that mystical conception into a domestic one, and actually made it more compelling. Mary Poppins regularly opens a door into dimensions outside ordinary space and time for the benefit of her charges: a star from the Pleiades constellation comes to Earth in the form of a girl, a statue of a Greek god comes to life to play with Jane and Michael, an ancient crone grows fingers made of barley-sugar. Mary Poppins herself seems a creature of the heavens temporarily brought to Earth.”

It is easy to imagine that if these influences had been a shifted a bit, Mary Poppins could easily have been an adherent of the “old religion” of Pagan Witchcraft. Travers, only ten years younger that Gerald Gardner, and traveling in some of the same mystical subcultures could easily have gone that direction. For more on the mystical (and poetical) subcultures percolating at that time, Ronald Hutton’s “Triumph of the Moon” is a decent place to start. Imagine how close we came to a Pagan Poppins!

* Fun fact: Both Gurdjieff and Yeats shared an extreme dislike of Aleister Crowley. Read about Gurdjieff’s account, here, and an account of Crowley’s and Yeats’ mutual dislike can be read, here.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Mam Adar

    I loved the Mary Poppins books and have always disliked the movie (my father warned me never to trust the Disney version of anything *g*). I think Mary’s magic lies in her mysterious ability to remember things that very small children know, but adults forget: how to talk to starlings, how she came to be born, where the in-between places are in the world, such as the space between the first stroke and the last stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. They truly are beautiful, magical books.

  • fritter

    WOW! I had no idea. I remember reading the original novels that Disney used to make the film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and it was similar in that Ms. Price was a very serious occult person with a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. Maybe I need to go an revisit these children’s works again? Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I loved the books and I absolutely love the movie (and have seen it more times than I can count).The Mary Poppins of the books is no singing Julie Andrews, but the cinematic Mary Poppins is extremely subversive in her own way. It’s been years since I read the books (the film I saw again only just a few weeks ago), but as a child and adolescent completely unaware of Wicca, I did not make any connections there. I may have to take a look at them. Certainly, in both film and book form, Mary Poppins is a powerful woman: a picture of propriety who attempts to show children more of the world and what is possible than they are learning from their own parents.

  • Anonymous

    I had the misfortune of trying to read the books after seeing the movie. I wasn’t prepared for the “meanness” of the Poppins character in the books and was too young, I guess, and became confused then disinterested. I’m intrigued by this new (new for me) information. A dancer AND she knew Yeats? Well, she’s just my kind of gal. Guess I’ll have to give those books another look.