British Occultist Florence Farr honoured by Theosophical Society

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LONDON —  On April 29, The Theosophical Society in London hosted a memorial day to honour the late 19th century occultist Florence Farr. For years, Farr has been seen merely as an adjunct of the men of the period due to her being the mistress of George Bernard Shaw and a friend of W B Yeats, among others.

But Farr is now taking her place in academic study, as well as occult history, as a polymath in her own right. Actress, magician, novelist, composer, musician, director and teacher, Farr was an instrumental part of the esoteric society of the Golden Dawn.

Farr at the Folly Theater [Public Domain]

Born in 1860, Farr was initiated into the Isis-Urania temple in 1890 under the motto Sapientia Sapienti Dono Data, or “Wisdom is a gift given to the wise”, and she remained an integral part of the organization for some years. During that time, she also continued with her acting career and was well known in her day; she was the first actress to perform in Ibsen’s plays in Britain.

Farr worked with Shaw, who hated her interest in the esoteric. However, Farr didn’t care, and lost interest in acting as she became increasingly involved in the production of the Golden Dawn’s rituals.

Aleister Crowley became enamored of her, but it isn’t known if they had an affair: Farr was determined, after a brief and unsuccessful marriage, not to be beholden to a man again.

Farr eventually worked with Wallis Budge at the British Museum, studying Egyptian texts, and became a prolific writer, producing numerous articles and two novels. The Liverpool Mercury, among others, reviewed her work positively, saying of The Dancing Faun: “The writing reveals in almost every sentence the cultured artist whose every stroke adds strength and beauty to the picture.”

In addition to her fiction, Farr produced a work on Egyptian magic, writing:

In studying Egyptian Magic one has at once a thoroughly scientific satisfaction. One is troubled with no vague theories, but receives precise practical details; we observe that every square inch of the Upper and Under Worlds is mapped out. The strength that such a system inherently contains was proved by the long duration of the archaic Egyptian civilization.

Like many occult and esoteric groups, the Golden Dawn became increasingly prone to rifts and schisms. Farr denied progress to Crowley on the grounds of his ‘sex intemperance,’ for instance. In 1902 she severed her ties to the organization.

She continued to perform, but after 1912 went out to Ceylon to run a school. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died on April 17, 1917.

One hundred years after her death, Farr’s achievements were honored by the Theosophical Society in Gloucester Place, London, which is an appropriate venue as Farr attended functions at this very building.

Performers at April 29 memorial day dedicated to Florence Farr [Photo Credit: Isabella Van Der Roux]

Organized by Isabella Van Der Roux, the event began with a series of academic presentations, beginning with an introduction by Christina Oakley Harrington of Treadwells Bookshop, followed by a short sequence of academic analyses of Farr’s work by Allan Johnson of the University of Surrey and others.

In the afternoon, a video presentation was given by American musician Robin Bier, featuring a replica of the musical instrument, similar to a psaltery, devised by Farr, and a collection of Farr’s recited verse.

Caroline Wise then gave a talk on the influence of Farr on British occultism, as well as on her plays. Wise’s discussion was was followed by two pieces of Farr’s dramatic work, The Beloved of Hathor and The Shrine of the Golden Hawk.

Approximately 40 people from a variety of traditions attended the event, which reflected the growing interest of academia in the history of the occult in the UK, as well as the continued interest of contemporary practitioners in the work of the Golden Dawn.

Speaker Allan Johnson, for example, lectures in English Literature at the University of Surrey, but is also the director of the Magic, Language, and Society project, a collaboration between the University and Treadwells Bookshop which “explores the connections between language and magic, enchantment, mysticism, esotericism, and the occult.”

The memorial day was considered a successful event of substantial interest to the British occult and pagan community, and the money raised during the event will be donated to a breast cancer charity.