Her name was Rosaleen Norton, “Roie” to those who knew her, a New Zealand-born artist and witch who made her home in Darlinghurst, near Sydney’s Kings Cross (Potts Point) in the 1940s and ’50s scandalising the conservative establishment.
For most of her adult life, Norton lived in dimly lit apartments where she made art and practised witchcraft with vagrants and bohemians, as well as members of her coven. Her unusual, passionate life is a rarely discussed part of Australian history but is worth remembering as a tale of marching to the beat of one’s own drum.
THE GOAT FOLD
Norton was a leading figure within the Sydney occult scene, practising a unique tradition of witchcraft that English witch Doreen Valiente called “The Goat Fold”.
Norton’s tradition drew upon diverse sources such as Kundalini yoga, tantra, voodoo and the works of Aleister Crowley, an infamous English occultist who established Thelema, a spiritual philosophy claimed to be scribed by an otherworldly being named Aiwass.
Norton’s personal deity was Pan, the hoofed Greek god of the wild, which the media consistently confused with Satan.
During rituals, Norton and members of her coven would wear animal masks and attempt to put themselves in trances to communicate with otherworldly beings. Norton was particularly adept at entering trances, with her sister once noting that she could maintain a state of altered consciousness for days.
Norton was in some ways an arch-traditionalist within the occult. While a new wave of occultists — inspired by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung — began to interpret gods and demons as representative of the human psyche, Norton was adamant that such beings existed literally.
“It is a very egotistical and self-centred approach which places man on a pedestal in creation,” she once said in an interview.
Depending on the reports used, Norton’s coven had as few as seven members or as many as 300. High-profile members included Sir Eugene Goossens, a knighted English conductor and composer, who was the director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music at the time. There were also rumours that ABC general manager Sir Charles Moses and prominent radio announcer Jack Harvey were members.
It was Norton’s dedication to what she called the “night side of magic” in both her spiritual practice and art that made her ideal tabloid fodder for the time.
Fuelling media sensationalism was the degree to which Norton would incorporate sex into her ritual practice.
“Sex magic” has a long history in Thelema-inspired occultism and Norton was particularly enthusiastic in incorporating this into her magical practice.
Norton would achieve orgasm and incorporate psychedelic drugs into her ritual practice, further helping sensationalist headlines.
Outside of her ritual work, Norton’s sex life was its own source of scandal. She was openly bisexual and interested in sadomasochism, explaining in one interview that after trying all variety of sexual acts her preference was to take on the penetrative role with gay men.
Norton and her lover, Gavin Greenlees, were charged by the NSW Vice Squad in 1955 for engaging in “an unnatural sexual act” to much media glee. The act itself was a photographed sexual ritual dedicated to Pan, in which Norton was bound and flagellated by Greenlees. During the first court session, Norton stood in the witness box in a red skirt, black top and leopard skin shoes and defended her occult practice. Both Norton and Greenlees were eventually acquitted.
Ultimately for Norton, sex was a sacred practice that helped push the boundaries of perception; she was not going to allow the restraints of sexual mores to stop her from finding divinity in pleasure.
Norton’s art, which did receive some recognition in her time, consisted of paintings and occasional writings depicting mythological beings along with sexual imagery: naked hermaphroditic creatures, mythical bestiality and serpentine phalluses.
Norton was scandalous in her artwork from an early age. While enrolled at a Church of England girls’ school, she would draw demons, vampires and other dark beings in class upsetting her teachers. She was eventually expelled for being disruptive.
Forty-six of her paintings were put on public exhibition in 1949 at the University of Melbourne, only for police to raid and charge Norton with obscenity. Luckily, Norton successfully defended the charges and received financial compensation for the lost work.
This wasn’t the only time her art would be the target of authorities. Some years later, Walter Glover published The Art of Rosaleen Norton, a collection of Norton’s work, only to be charged with the production of an obscene publication and for two images to be blacked out before the book could be sold.
Norton remains the only Australian artist to have her work destroyed by an order of the courts.
Norton continued her occult practice and gave interviews about witchcraft while also selling her “obscene” paintings until late in life. She lived in Darlinghurst until her death from colon cancer in 1979.
Today, Norton has developed a niche set of fans who either view her as representing a lost bohemian Sydney or as an early pioneer of sex-positive feminism, who refused to buckle to the patriarchal figures of her time. Norton herself would probably have baulked at these deeply human concerns.
When asked by a reporter what she “got out” of her life as a witch, Norton pushed back her cat mask, lit a cigarette and replied: “I get a life that holds infinite possibilities and is entirely satisfying to me in all planes of consciousness.”