strange death occult


Occult Mystery on Iona - The Strange Case of Netta Fornario

Netta Fornario was a student of ritual magic, a member of the esoteric organisation the 'Alpha et Omega Temple' (an offshoot of the pioneering ritual magic / occult group the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn'). On a Tuesday afternoon in late November, 1929, the body of 32 year-old Netta (Norah) was found lying on a bleak hill-side on the lonely island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland. The place where she was found was apparently a Fairy Mound to the south of Loch Staonaig, an area rife with superstition and magic.

Apart from a black cloak her body was naked. Around her neck was a blackened silver chain and cross, and in her hand, or lying close by (accounts differ), was a large steel knife or ritual dagger. The knife had been used to cut a large cross into the turf, on which her body was lying. It seems Miss Fornario had been running for some distance before arriving at the mound as the soles of her feet were torn and had bled a great deal, although the heels were unharmed. The examining doctor's diagnosis was that she had died of heart failure in this position and her death certificate says 'exposure to the elements and heart failure'. She was buried by the islanders of Iona on the following Friday.

Netta Fornario was an unusually intellectual student of occultism, and member of the Alpha et Omega Temple. She was for some time a close friend of well known occult author Dion Fortune, to whom she was known as 'Mac'. She had an Italian father who was a doctor (whom she seems to have disliked) and an English mother. Before deciding to set off for Iona she had been living for some years in London, at Mortlake Road, Kew. Netta's appearance was that of a typical member of the arts-and-crafts movement popular at the time (of which eccentric collector Charles Wade was also a member), dressing in long hand-made silken or woollen tunics, wearing her dark hair in two heavy plaits, and never wearing a hat.

Mrs. Varney, her housekeeper at Kew, stated that Miss Fornario did not believe in doctors and 'was always curing people by telepathy' and that she was generally cheerful and happy, if somewhat unorthodox. On one occasion Netta announced that she was going to fast for 40 days, but was persuaded to stop after a fortnight. 

In August or September, 1929, Miss Fornario set off for the 'Holy Isle' of Iona for some purpose connected with her occult studies. She took with her an unusually large amount of luggage, including packing cases containing enough furniture to equip a small house - obviously intending to stay some time in Iona. 

Iona, Occult Mystery.On arriving she moved into lodgings at Traymore, run by a native islander Mrs. MacRae. There was a mutual fascination between the two women. Mrs. Macrae intrigued her lodger with tales of mysterious happenings and Hebridean folklore, while Miss Fornario fascinated her host with her knowledge of the occult, what she later called her  'mystical practices'. However, this fascination quickly turned to alarm when Miss Fornario described a recent trance she had undergone which had lasted a full week, and she was worried by signs that her strange guest would undertake such a trance in the near future. Mrs. Macrae was told by Miss Fornario that, under no circumstances, should she call a doctor.

Netta spent most of her time on Iona roaming aimlessly around the moors and walking along the beaches. At night, she would apparently put herself into a trance to try and communicate with the island spirits. A few days before she disappeared, she sent a letter to Mrs. Varney at Kew, stating - 'Do not be surprised if you do not hear from me for a long time. I have a terrible case of healing on.' 

One Sunday morning, Miss Fornario was up very early, which was unusual for her. She seemed to be uneasy and nervous, telling Mrs. MacRae that she had to leave for London immediately,  'certain people' were disturbing her telepathically she added, and went on talking incoherently about a 'rudderless boat that went across the sky' and 'messages she had received from other worlds'.

Not surprisingly Mrs. MacRae was disturbed by this and also by the fact that Miss Fornario's silver jewellery had turned completely black overnight. However, no boats sailed from the island on a Sunday, so Miss Fornario spent the day arranging and packing her belongings. Then there was a sudden change of plan.  The young woman went into her room for while and emerged shortly after with 'a calm look of resignation on her face'. She told her hostess that she had decided stay on Iona indefinitely.

The next morning (Monday) when Mrs. MacRae went to Miss Fornario's room she was gone. She was not initially worried but as the hours passed with no sign of her strange young guest she began to fear for her safety, and a search was made of the local moors and beach. About two and a half miles away from the cottage were the remains of an ancient village in which Miss Fornario had expressed some interest, though she had never visited it, as access was difficult. It was within half a mile of this village that her body was found. Soon after the recovery of the body there were strange stories in circulation in the Western Islands concerning the mystery of Netta Fornario. Weird blue lights were said to have been seen near her body and also ' a cloaked man'. A number of letters of 'strange character' were also taken by the police, who passed them on to the Procurator-Fiscal for 'consideration'. Nothing has ever come of these stories. 

In such an unusual case there are of course unusual explanations. But are they necessary? Could Miss Fornario have simply become lost and tired and lay down to rest and died of exposure in the freezing temperatures? Possibly, she could also have committed suicide, or died by accident while performing a ritual. The manner in which the body was arranged would suggest that the last possibility is the correct  one. Her lying in this position with only a black cloak to cover her nakedness and the cross cut into the turf with the large knife suggest she was performing some kind of ritual, and perhaps as Dion Fortune has suggested she had 'been on an astral expedition from which she never returned'. 

There are also hints of darker possibilities. In 'Psychic Self Defence' Dion Fortune suggests that Netta Fornario's association with occultist Moina Mathers (head of the Alpha et Omega Temple of which Netta was a member), had something to do with her death. However, Mrs. Mathers had been dead over sixteen months at the time of the incident. Dion Fortune also alludes to scratches found on Miss Fornario's body which had also been found on other victims of Moina Mather's 'psychic attacks'. Francis King (see sources below) thinks it possible that Miss Fornario was the victim of some sort of magical attack, though he admits that the most people will think that Netta was suffering from extreme schizophrenia and only believed she was being attacked, which seems now the most likely explanation.

In 2001 the case of Netta Fornario was again in the news as a reinvestigation was organised by a private detective interested in the paranormal - Dr. Ron Halliday, and a psychic, both of whom believed Miss Fornario may have been 'killed by black magic'. But if anything new was discovered it was not made public.

Sources and Further Reading

'Fate of an Iona Visitor - London Woman Found Dead.' Oban Times, (30 Nov. 1929).

Fortune, Dion. Psychic Self-Defence. London, S.I.L. (Trading) Ltd., 1997 (1930). pp114-115; p179.

'Iona Mystery - London Woman Found Dead. Mysterious Circumstances.' Glasgow Herald, (27 Nov. 1929).

King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England. London, New English Library, 1972. pp118-121.

Lengthy review by Netta Fornario (under the name Marie Fornario) of 'The Immortal Hour' (an opera by Rutland Boughton).  

Copyright 2004 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.


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