Netta’s last day on Iona was marked by the sudden onset of mania. According to Mrs. McRae, Netta complained that she was under telepathic attack and receiving messages from beyond the veil. Perhaps the most chilling clue from her final conversation is the vision of a “rudderless boat” crossing the sky that Netta claims to have had.
The symbology of a rudderless boat is deeply rooted in Christian mythology. The principal concept being the total resignation of one’s fate to the hands of God. Examples of this include the baby Moses drifting down the Nile in a basket or Constance, from the Canterbury tales, who was repeatedly set adrift in a rudderless boat, escaping peril only through a series of miracles. A fitting metaphor for Netta, who Mrs. McRae described as being resigned to her fate before succumbing to it.
Whatever killed Netta, she seemed at least in part, to have seen it coming. With that, let’s examine some theories.
Exposure to the Elements
Unfortunately, there are no details about any police investigation of the possible crime scene. What we know comes from contemporary news articles, Dione Fortune’s comments, and the narration from Alasdair Alpin MacGregor’s The Ghost Book: Strange Hauntings in Britain, published in 1955, which includes firsthand accounts from island residents.
What remains consistent is that Netta was found wearing nothing but a black cloak, resting upon a cross carved into the turf. Her right hand was placed under her head and her left hand was at her side with a long knife or dagger nearby. Around her neck, she wore a tarnished silver chain, from which hung a silver cross. Original accounts make no mention of scratches on her feet, the knife clenched in a “death grip,” or “a look of terror” on her face, as is often reported. Therefore, we will ignore those aspects as embellishment.
Iona in November is typically cold, wet, and windy. It’s not hard to imagine someone, especially nude, succumbing to exposure. However, the circumstances seem to contradict that assessment. Anyone suffering in such conditions would more likely have sought shelter or clothing, which would not have been far on a tiny island like Iona.
Another intriguing clue lending support to natural causes is the blackened silver jewelry. In my research, I did not find any magical significance for this, though there is a medical one. It has been hypothesized that Netta suffered from acidosis, a condition that can cause acidic sweat, which would account for the rapidly tarnishing silver. Even Netta admitted, “It happens to me all the time.” Acidosis can be brought on by several causes, commonly diabetes. Netta was known to be a vegetarian, as well, adding possible nutritional deficiencies to an already dangerous mix.
Imagine if Netta arrived at the location, made her preparations, then entered her trance. While in her trance, she suffers complications from acidosis and/or diabetes. Combined with the very real danger of hypothermia, it is easy to conceive of a circumstance in which Netta was incapable of waking up or suffered eventual heart failure, as was the original doctor’s determination.
On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable, if unsatisfying, explanation. It does, however, leave some unanswered questions. Where were Netta’s shoes and clothes? Did she walk nude and barefoot over two-and-a-half miles of rough terrain from the McCrae house on a cold November night? Why not wait and undress when she got there?
It is possible that Netta’s death was a homicide. The medical examination of Netta’s body was not advanced, perhaps something was overlooked. If she were drugged or poisoned, it would have gone unnoticed as there was no toxicology report done. Murder could also account for the lack of personal possessions found at the scene. Either they were carried away by the killer or, perhaps, Netta was not killed in that location, but placed there, perhaps by the mysterious cloaked figure mentioned in some reports.
Like Dion Fortune, Netta’s occult path was heavily influenced by esoteric Christianity. In fact, she was found with a cross around her neck. However, the cross carved into the turf is somewhat perplexing. If Netta were performing a magical operation, ostensibly to contact Green Ray elementals or Shee, some sort of protective circle or symbol would certainly not be out of place, though a single cross would be a strange choice. Certainly, to a Christian, untrained in occult principals, the symbol would offer some comfort as a ward against evil, but for Netta it is an odd choice, all things considered.
The cross could have been an offering from her killer. Depending on the mind and motive of the individual, it may have been an attempt to restore sanctity to the place or reconcile some perceived blaspheme. Iona was, and is, a very rural place with a long history both rich in folklore and piety. Beings such as the Shee, particularly in that region, would be respected if not feared. Could it be that someone did not appreciate her invoking such forces? Or, perhaps, perceived her beliefs as evil or witchcraft? She certainly wouldn’t be the first to meet such prejudice.
Murder is certainly a possible conclusion, though Netta’s distress on the day of her disappearance does not seem to describe a conventional threat and she had no known conflicts with the locals of Iona.
Netta believed she was under psychic attack, a phenomenon well-established in the Western Occult tradition, which can be perpetrated by both human and non-human entities. Her anxious and erratic behavior on the day of her disappearance was consistent with these symptoms. While unsettling and harmful, such attacks are typically not fatal, though they can be a catalyst to something else with self-harm, or even suicide, being extreme examples. But who would attack Netta in this way?
One possible answer would be her friend, Dion Fortune. Less than a year after Netta’s death, Fortune published Psychic Defense, one of her most widely read books. In it, not only does she speak about what happened on Iona, but she talks in great depth about psychic attacks and her personal experiences. If anyone was capable of such an attack, it would be her, but to what motive?
Occult societies at that time were notorious for the personal drama generated by conflicting ideas and philosophies. As Edison and Tesla battled over AC and DC currents, occultists regularly flung mud to discredit rivals and establish their own philosophies. Dion Fortune would go on to be one of the most influential British occultists, perhaps second only in popularity to Aleister Crowley. However, at the time of her friendship with Netta Fornario, she was just coming into her own and developing her own school, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, which survives to this day.
Netta and Fortune came from roughly the same school of thought and what Netta was working on would have been immensely interesting to Fortune, despite her downplay of the issue. Fortune speaks on these subjects from the perspective of a master, diminishing Netta’s skills and focus, further using her death as a cautionary tale. Considering the subject matter, who can really refute her? We could suppose that Netta might. Perhaps she was nearing an important revelation that would invalidate Fortune’s claims and theories? It wouldn’t have been the first time Fortune’s credibility was called into question and it serves as a compelling motive.
Fortune was extremely driven to make her mark on the occult movement, which often caused friction with others. For example, she audaciously claimed to be in contact with the Ascended Masters, aka “The Secret Chiefs,” through which she transcribed a work called The Cosmic Doctrine. These Secret Chiefs are keepers of sacred knowledge, existing on another, ethereal plain. Contacting them is no small thing. Fortune’s credibility and career no doubt pivoted on the acceptance of these claims. One person who doubted her contact with the Masters was Moina Mathers.
As you recall, Moina was the widow of Golden Dawn founder Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers. Of all the members of the Golden Dawn, Samuel Mathers was best known for his communications with the Secret Chiefs, a process that Moina claimed was ultimately responsible for his death. Curiously, Mathers had died in Paris a few years earlier, in 1918, under unexplained circumstances. Like Netta, there was no known cause of death. Rumors at the time, and through the years, claim his death was caused by psychic attacks perpetrated by Crowley, their relationship having turned toxic. There is said to be a two-week discrepancy between his death and the discovery of his body, a fact one would assume Moina could shed light on but did not. Curiously, Fortune, as Violet Firth, is on record claiming he died of the great influenza of that year, another fact Moina should have been able to verify but did not.
Moina, who had been with Samuel from the beginning, is often referred to as the “Mother of the Golden Dawn.” She was well respected in the community and her words as leader of the Alpha et Omega (AO) certainly carried weight. After Fortune’s expulsion from the AO, she claimed that Moina attacked her telepathically, employing cats, both ethereal and physical, to do her bidding. When Netta died in 1929, Fortune made the bizarre claim that Netta had been the victim of one of Moina’s psychic attacks. The only problem, Moina Mathers had been dead approximately 18 months at the time. In terms of backhanded compliments, to believe that she could kill from beyond the grave is high praise, indeed. One final oddity about this claim is that it perpetuated confusion between Moina and Netta. There are no known photographs of Netta, however an image of a young Moina with her wild, frizzy hair is commonly attributed as being that of Netta.
It is hard to know exactly what Netta believed the Shee to be, though her analysis of The Immortal Hour seems to suggest an esoteric force of nature, more allegorical than a literal race of demigods living inside hollow hills or parallel universes. Local folklore would contradict this, stating that the presence of the iron dagger was a clear indication that she was trying to “open” the faery mound. Legend states that doorways appear in faery mounds that can be propped open with a dagger. Personally, I find it more likely the knife was an instrument of ceremonial magic, which fits closer to Netta’s profile.
Another traditional folktale states that humans can be drawn into the faery mounds, leaving their human bodies behind. If the human remains, or is not allowed to return, their body dies. By the same principal, the Shee are known to inhabit the vacated bodies of humans, usually children, and carrying on in the human world. These beings are called “changelings” and the stories associated with them are truly unsettling. These themes are also very present in Macleod’s The Immortal Hour.
The idea that Netta stayed too long in the faery realm, or perhaps angered the temperamental beings, remains a popular theory to this day.
The Green Ray Elementals
Sharp, Netta, and Fortune would have been well familiar with these legends. Sharp wrote extensively about them and both Netta and Fortune studied his work, the latter quoting Sharp in several of her books. That said, when describing the Shee, Fortune uses the term “Green Ray elemental contacts,” taken from the context of her Three Ray philosophy.
In 2012, Gareth Knight, a Dion Fortune adept and biographer, described the Three Rays as such:
The three major strands to the Western Mystery Tradition, using the colour symbolism popular when the Society of the Inner Light was first founded, were called the Green Ray, the Orange Ray and the Purple Ray.
The Green Ray consists of the nature contacts in the broadest sense, and encapsulates most mythopoeic formulations relating to nature and to the Earth, including Elemental and Faery traditions. The Orange Ray describes the study of symbolism and its manipulation in ceremonial or visualized forms, frequently in terms of the Tree of Life of the Qabalah. The Purple Ray denotes religious mysticism, a direct approach to the spirit, and the devotional way usually expressed in the West in Christian terms.
Fortune’s Psychic Defense takes a long stab at describing these Green Ray beings, beginning with traditional folklore aesthetics, then veering wildly into abstract concepts. Paraphrasing, she describes them as a kind of one-dimensional being, comprised of their single element, water, air, fire, or earth, while humans are comprised of all four. Between us, there is the veil separating our worlds. When they are drawn to ours, they are weakened, struggling to operate in all four elements. However, when we are drawn into their world, we are easily overwhelmed by their single element, the way a sailor might fall off a ship and drown in the sea.
She seems to suggest that Netta became inundated or over-powered by these beings, further speculating that, if Netta were interacting with them on the wrong side of the veil, it may have been a fatal mistake. There is an interesting parallel here between the folklore and the occult. In either instance, Shee or elemental, there is a barrier that, when crossed, return is not guaranteed.
Who killed Netta Fornario? My gut tells me that Dione Fortune was in some way involved, though psychic attack is certainly a difficult case to make in a court of law. Netta Fornario left behind a clutch of letters said to be of “strange character” that would no doubt be enlightening. I suspect she would have also been taking copious notes, if not keeping a journal of magic. Sadly, like Netta, these items are lost to time.
In the end, we are left with a void where Netta once existed, both figurative and literal. In reconstructing her life, we can only imagine what she may have been like by the virtue of her reflections in Dione Fortune, the Alpha et Omega, and the ethereal places invoked by The Immortal Hour.