Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 10 - The New Age
Log 10 - The New Age

The Strange World Of Rosaleen Norton
Anna Hoffman

The Horned God

Rosaleen Norton, known to her friends as 'Roie', was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 2 October 1917. Rosaleen's father was employed in merchant shipping with the New Zealand Steamship Company. In June 1925, the Nortons emigrated to Australia, settling in Lindfield on Sydney's North Shore. Rosaleen attended the East Sydney Technical College and studied Art under the noted sculptor, Raynor Hoff. She also worked as a model for Norman Lindsay, a close friend, whose early line drawings were both controversial and notorious. It was at this time that Rosaleen became Australia's first woman pavement artist.

Although her talents were mainly artistic Rosaleen Norton also had considerable talents as a writer of macabre and exotic tales. A selection of these was published in a limited edition by Keith Richmond in 1996. An association with Gavin Greenlees, the poet, and Wally Glover in the fifties, led to the publication of a book - The Art of Rosaleen Norton (with poems by Greenlees). This is now a collector's item.

In 1940 Rosaleen Norton had an exhibition at Melbourne University. However, two days after it opened, police descended on the gallery and seized four of the exhibited pictures.
Charges were laid under the Police Offences Act that these works were decadent and obscene, and likely to arouse unhealthy sexual appetites in those who saw them. One of these paintings was the well-known work, Black Magic. This depicted a black panther copulating with a naked woman. Many of her works were full of erotic symbolism.

Rosaleen Norton's paintings were a strange mix of magic, mythology, fantasy and Freudian symbols. They were the product of visions seen during self-induced trances and dreams or while carrying out occult experiments. She used symbols such as the serpent crown of initiation, the winged Globe, the yoni, angels and demons, rites of the black mass, sinuous forms, lascivious devils and paintings of Pan in her own image. She worshipped Pan - life and death, order and chaos, creation and destruction, and elemental forces. Rosaleen defended her religious practice of Pantheism which she described as the heathen worship of ancient Greek Gods.

While living in Sydney's Kings Cross in the fifties, Rosaleen Norton achieved notoriety as a bohemian witch and artist. She was known throughout Australia as "the witch of Kings Cross'. Her life has all the ingredients of a good film - sex, black magic, high and low society, drugs and melodrama. She will soon be immortalised by another self-confessed occultist and experimental film artist Kenneth Anger, author of the top-selling movie-scandal books Hollywood Babylon I, II and III. During a visit to NZ in 1993 to show some of his short films he announced his intention to make a feature film about her life. He said that she inspired the Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil".

When I met Rosaleen in 1955, 'Roie' was already famous - perhaps one should say notorious - as an eccentric artist and bohemian practitioner of witchcraft. Her paintings depicting naked hermaphrodites, phallic serpents and passionate embraces were hanging in the Appolyon and Kashmir coffee bars. She told me that she always knew she was a witch because when she turned seven, two small blue marks, traditional signs of a witch, appeared on her left knee. She said that as a child she had a passion for the grotesque and a crush on Dracula. She was one of the best-known and strangest personalities around the Cross.

I also yearned to be a witch and made an absolute neophyte of myself hanging around her basement flat at 179 Brougham Street. I was hoping she would divulge to me her occult secrets. She was very generous and leant me books from her vast collection of esoteric literature on the Kabbalah, comparative religion, pre-Christian and primitive beliefs, Satanism and psychology studies. Other times she acted mysteriously and wouldn't even let me in the door when I called. I once smelt a secret perfume wafting from the smoke-filled room behind her. I knew she smoked hashish to open doors to her subconscious for painting, and to prepare for magical rites while in a self-induced hypnotic trance.

Her interest in the dark or negative forces, called Qlipha in the Jewish Kabbalah, helped produce images of Lilith, Queen of air and darkness, a horned devil named Fohat with a snake for a phallus, and a deity called Eloi, who resembled an ancient Persian monarch. She was a practitioner of occult and psychic phenomena including automatic writing and could write Boustrephedon, an old Kabballistic form of writing - using ideograms for mental or spiritual states as letters of an alphabet.

In 1952 Wally Glover, a publisher, printed and published 500 leather-bound books on Rosaleen Norton's art. It created an uproar and the book was withdrawn. The Postmaster General threatened prosecution over what was claimed to be an indecent publication because certain figures had pubic hair and phallic appendages. This attracted widespread publicity. Copies of the book were confiscated and burnt by the US customs. Wally Glover was officially charged with producing an obscene publication. Wally went bankrupt.

Rosaleen attracted extraordinary coverage in the press and caused a sensation by appearing at a court-case flamboyantly dressed in a red skirt, black top and leopard-skin shoes. She confessed to casting spells on her enemies and was once charged with "committing an unnatural sexual act" with a male friend. The papers were full of sensational journalistic stories and photographs purporting to show black magic rites, ceremonial sacrifices and Satanic orgies. Following the publicity and extended court-hearings, which in every way impinged upon her personal though unorthodox mystical beliefs, she began to withdraw from the public eye.

When she died in 1979 Rosaleen Norton was a legendary figure, but for the wrong reasons. Her art, representing supernatural imagery has now become more acceptable following the revival of interest in fantasy and surrealistic art. But in her own day her paintings were regarded as bizarre, obscure and pornographic, and she was not accorded the recognition she deserved. She was certainly one of the most interesting, intriguing persons I have ever known and that is why I have chosen her character as the central figure of my novelette, Tales of Anna Hoffmann: part two.

In her day Rosaleen is said to have predicted the outbreak of AIDS, the dismissal of the Whitlam Government and even the exact time of her own death. Many of her predictions proved amazingly accurate, astounding students of psychic phenomena. And before she died on December 5, 1979, she imparted some gloomy prophecies of life in the nineties. One was a national economic collapse - she said the country would be divided and there would certainly be civil insurrection by 1992.

Three Macabre Stories by Rosaleen Norton is available from Keith Richmond, The Basilisk Bookshop, 407 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia.

Tales of Anna Hoffmann: part one and two are published by Bumper Books, PO Box 7356, Wellington South.


Anna Hoffman's [Pisces with Leo rising, Tiger] visiting card was respelendent with a creepy bat and read "artiste, ecrivain, peregrinator, soothsayer, somnambulist, adviser to Madam Osmosis". As a young New Zealander, violinist, and starry-eyed adventurer, she ran away with the circus. She now resides in Napier.




Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room