Mary Poppins and the Occult

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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.