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October 2 will be the 96th birthday of Rosaleen Norton. She was originally from New Zealand, born into a middle-class English family; the Norton family emigrated to Sydney when Rosaleen was eight. She was an unconventional child who disliked other children and all authority figures, including her mother; she slept in a tent in the garden, and preferred the company of her many pets, which included a spider named Horatius. Later in life, she claimed that she had been born a witch, and bore physical proofs of this, including pointed ears and blue markings on her left knee.

From early in life, her favourite time was the night, and while still very young, she began to experience strange fantasies of mystical ghouls and spirits. She liked to draw, and the pictures she drew were inspired by her nightly fantasies. This got her into trouble, because teachers and classmates alike were disturbed by her drawings of demons and vampires, and when she was 14, she was expelled from her private Church of England girl’s school in the belief that she was a corrupting influence. It was not the last time she was to be condemned for her art.

Rosaleen went to art college, where her talent for drawing was more appreciated, and gained work here and there as a writer and illustrator. She lived at the Ship and Mermaid Inn in The Rocks, a run-down pub that attracted artistic types – Joseph Conrad and Jack London both stayed there while visiting Sydney (not together, I presume). It was here that she began reading books on Greek mythology, psychology, magic, occultism, demonology, and the Quabalah.

Rosaleen began experimenting with self-hypnosis and automatic writing as techniques to heighten her artistic perception; these methods were popular with surrealist artists like Salvador Dali and Andrew Breton. During her experiments, she received visions of supernatural figures, and from her occult studies, believed she had not merely accessed her subconscious, but an “astral plane”. She came to see the spiritual entities as having an independent reality of their own, and was able to communicate with them.

Rosaleen turned her symbolic visions into art, but attempts to exhibit or publish her work led to court cases where she was charged with obscenity, and attempting to corrupt public morals. It turned out the adult world still thought like the headmistress of a girl’s school. Rosaleen defended her work as pagan archetypes based on Greek mythology, but even when she won her case, the result was that the exhibition was cancelled, or the book censored. If you think Australia was peculiarly backward in the 1950s, her treatment was even more severe in America, where her book was banned entirely, and copies burned.

Already a notorious figure, Rosaleen settled in King’s Cross, the red light district of Sydney, which attracted many bohemians, artists, writers and poets. She became well known in the area and some of her artwork was displayed in local cafes. Curious visitors came to see the “Witch of King Cross”, who had decorated her house with occult murals, and put up a placard on the door which read: Welcome to the house of ghosts, goblins, werewolves, vampires, witches, wizards and poltergeists.

The police had her arrested for “vagrancy”, which in those days could be used against anyone not in steady employment, and a mentally ill homeless woman claimed that her life had fallen apart after taking part in a Satanic “black mass” with Rosaleen. Being a pagan, Rosaleen didn’t believe in Satan, and eventually the woman admitted she had made the whole thing up. However the tabloids went crazy and she was accused in their pages of doing everything from drinking blood to animal sacrifice – a practice she found abhorrent, for she had a very strong bond with animals.

Rosaleen had her own style of pantheistic witchcraft, based on worshipping Pan as the embodiment of natural forces, and rituals inspired by the works of Aleister Crowley. She was a practitioner of sex magic, and due to a couple of high-profile court cases where this led to further charges of obscenity by her coven, there is a public record of her religious beliefs and practices, given by herself, which make for fascinating reading for the student of comparative religion. You get the distinct impression that the courts were just slightly more interested in the sexual aspects of her magic rituals than strictly necessary.

Interestingly, Rosaleen herself said that her style of magic, called The Goat Fold Path, was not of her own devising, but what she thought was an old Welsh tradition which had existed in inner Sydney from the city’s earliest days, brought here by convicts. There is no way of proving or disproving this, but if correct, it means that European pagans have been in Australia from the beginning, along with Christians, Jews, and atheists.

Rosaleen estimated that she was in personal contact with hundreds of witches, which means that even in the socially repressive 1940s and ’50s, witchcraft was alive and well in Australia before the arrival of contemporary Wicca in the late 1960s. Witchcraft was illegal in Australia until 1971; one of the few religions to be banned in Australia. On the 2011 census, about 32 000 Australians identified themselves as Neopagan, and of those, over 8 000 identified their religion as either Wicca or Witchcraft.

Rosaleen Norton’s craft name was Thorn, perhaps a counterpoint to the Rose suggested by her birth name. The sharp name suited her, because she found spiritual energy in a dark approach to her religion, apparent in her artwork. By no means was she a “fluffy bunny” witch, and was keen on hexing people, and selling curses. She asserted the need to explore the dark parts of her psyche, and embrace them, rather than denying their power.

I think that by taking the name Thorn, she was indicating a willingness to face the pain of life unflinchingly. Even while dying from colon cancer, she said to a friend: I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.

Thorn is a nature nature which is seldom used, but one which I find very strong and attractive. In botany, a thorn is a branch or stem which ends in a sharp point; their function seems to be to protect a plant from being eaten, and also to provide shade or insulation. The English word thorn may be from an ancient root meaning “stiff”.

In Genesis, thorns are said to be one of Adam and Eve’s punishments, with the earth producing thorns and thistles in order to make food gathering more difficult, and generally ruin their day. In the New Testament, Christ was forced to wear a crown of thorns as a mocking punishment, seemingly a parody of the crown worn by the Roman emperor. In Christian tradition a crown of thorns is a symbol of great humility.

Thorn or thorn tree is also one of the many names by which hawthorn is known (see May). Hawthorn bushes are often used as hedging plants, so that their spiny thorns may protect livestock. The English surname Thorn probably denoted someone who lived near a prominent hawthorn.

Thorn is also a rune letter; despite the way it sounds, it is from the Old Norse for “giants”. However, the Anglo-Saxons do seem to have connected it to thorns, and it is often seen as a rune of warning or even misfortune, although others say that the power it represents can serve as protection – if you dare to grasp the thorn.

In the records, most people named Thorn are male, but I can imagine a girl named Thorn as well – the flipside of Rose (although strictly speaking roses don’t have thorns but prickles). I only found a couple of people named Thorn in Australian records, and they were both male, but as a middle name it was well used by both sexes.

The many associations of this name are double-edged, and some may think of pain and punishment, while others reminded of its protection and power. After all, from a plant’s point of view, thorns are healthy and necessary. It’s a glass half-full situation. Do you weep because roses have thorns, or rejoice that thorn bushes are laden with flowers?

POLL RESULT: Thorn received an approval rating of 44%. 20% of people couldn’t see the name Thorn on a real person, while 16% were reminded of the word prick, or the phrase thorn in my side. However, 15% thought it was an attractive and original nature name, and 11% saw it as strong and protective.

(Photo of thorn from Flickr)