Golden Dawn, Hermetic Order of the


 
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England in 1887 as a secret society dedicated to magic and mysticism. Membership was open, subject to acceptance.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has achieved nearly legendary status, fora number of reasons. The most important is probably the notoriety (now much diminished, but considerable even as late as the 1950s and 1960s) of Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed "wickedest man in the world." Crowley was only one of the well-known figures of the movement, which also included the poet William Butler Yeats, the novelist Arthur Machen, and others. Another reason for the order's fame is the remarkable synthesis of a large number of magical traditions, which was accomplished by the founders of the G. D. - the arrangement of dots is traditionally used when writing of the Golden Dawn, but may be Masonic in origin; God or the Great Architect is sometimes written G . Yet a third major reason is the extraordinarily convoluted and jargon-ridden structure of the organization: It really sounds like a secret society ought to sound, with wondrous tides such as "Ipsissimus." This word (insofar as it has any meaning) may be translated as "most completely himself' or "utterly self-possessed"; ipse is the Latin pronoun for "himself' or "itself," and the -issimus suffix is the superlative form of an adjective.
The G. D. warrants an extended entry as a rare example of a secret society that was (pretty much) sui generis, and that really was centered around "secret knowledge," which arguably could confer real power upon the holder. It borrowed heavily from all kinds of other societies, it is true, and especially from the Rosicrucians; but much of the content, and almost all of the way in which the content was put together, make the G. D. a special case. Also, it attracted numerous literate and critical adherents, some of whom turned apostate, some of whom founded their own versions of the order, and some of whom "developed" the concept within the mainstream. For this reason, for its notoriety, for the fact that the order epitomized a great deal about late 19th-century secret societies, and for the relatively short and therefore easily studied life of the original order (1887-1923, approximately), the G. D. is the subject of a very large body of literature. It is also a particularly interesting study in that it all happened in recent historical times.

The Origins of the G. D.

The G. D. was founded by Dr. William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell McGregor Mathers, and Dr. A.F.A. Woodward upon an extremely flimsy basis. In 1887, Dr. Westcott acquired an old manuscript, perhaps from a Reverend Woodford (the number of similar names, all beginning with "W," is fruit for a conspiracy theory all on its own). This manuscript contained the outline of a magical ritual. Although commonly referred to as "ancient," the manuscript is in fact on paper hearing an 1809 watermark, and it is possible - though not likely - that it was a fabrication by the founders of the G. D. , written on some old paper.
The manuscript may not have been complete, and the ritual most certainly was not, so Dr. Westcott - a respected London coroner, but also a devotee of ritual and a student of the occult - called on his friend Mathers to flesh it out.
Mathers was well described by Yeats as a man of "much learning but little scholarship, much imagination but imperfect taste." His critical faculties were not well developed, and his enthusiasms were unpredictable, but he studied magic with great eclecticism. He was able to enlarge the "cipher manuscript" (it is in a Hermetic cipher of the Middle Ages) without difficulty, drawing heavily on the work of Eliphas Levi, who is not highly regarded among scholars.
The cipher manuscript may have been a draft of a secret society ritual by some other pers on, now unknown, or it may have been notes on a ritual that someone had seen or read about, but when Mathers had finished with it, the result was a glorious hodgepodge. For example, where the original manuscript reads, "H. recites prayer of gnomes" ("H" being the "hierophant" or priest), Mathers translated the Oraison des Sylphes from Levi's Dogme et Rituel, and inserted that wholesale, instead.
The source of the manuscript may be doubtful, but, on balance, it does not seem to have been a deliberate fabrication by anyone involved with the Golden Dawn; with the accretions that Mathers added, it did not need to be. There is a much more doubtful provenance, though, for the letters Dr. Westcott produced in an attempt to build a history for his new organization. The so-called Sprengel letters were supposed to have come from a German Rosicrucian initiate who chartered the G. D. and legitimated much of its ritual. Ellis Howe, in his Magicians of the Golden Dawn (London, 1972), makes an extremely strong case that the letters were spurious, written by Westcott himself, and this is only the earliest taint on the organization. The arguments against the authenticity of the letters are lengthy, but a telling component is that they all read as if they were written by an English-speaking person whose command of German was imperfect.
Be that as it may, the three chiefs plunged ahead with their new group. Five degrees were mentioned in the cipher manuscript, and four of them bore the same names as the first four grades of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (a Masonic derivation on the Rosicrucians), but with different numbers. To satisfy his love of degrees and ritual, Westcott appears to have continued the system, using the next two "orders" of Rosicrucianism and then creating the grade of Ipsissimus from the whole cloth. The five manuscript grades are astericked in the following list:


Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
 
0 = 0 = Neophyte*

First Order
 

1 Zelator

l
= l Zelator*

2 Theoricus

2 = 9 Theoricus*

3 Practicus

3 = 8 Practicus*

4 Philosophus

4 = 7 Philosophus*

Second Order
 

5 Adeptus Minor

5 = 6 Adeptus Minor

6 Adeptus Major

6 = 5 Adeptus Major

7 Adeptus Exemptus

7
= 4 Adeptus Exemptus

Third Order
 

8 Magister Templi

8 = 3 Magister Templi

9 Magus

9 = l
Magus
 
10 = 0 Ipsissimus

 
As is clear from many other examples, degrees were dear to our Victorian forebears, and the G. D. started out with plenty. Perhaps modestly, the chiefs reckoned themselves only 7 = 4; the Third Order was originally available only to inhabitants of the Astral Plane.


The Initial Recruitment

Unlike their predecessors and perhaps rivals, the members of the Theosophical Society, the G. D. next decided to make entry into their new club difficult. The way the G. D. was initially promoted shows a systematization of the way in which many other secret societies must have grown: by personal invitation and by carefully fostered repute. Recruits were sought among many Master Freemasons, and the earliest initiations were held at a Masonic hall. At this point, the "black magic" aspect of the society was negligible; it was promoted as a group for research into Hermetic traditions.
The Golden Dawn fostered its reputation through the pages of publications appealing to occultists and by a well orchestrated whispering campaign. The chiefs created a "controversy" about the legitimacy of various organizations that claimed Hermetic knowledge. At least one of these organizations may never even have existed, at least not as described, but was a fabrication by G. D. members, who created it in order to denounce it. There were also disingenuous letters in the same papers asking whether a society that matched the description of the G. D., and that had formerly existed in Paris and elsewhere, was still in existence; and replies that confirmed that is was. Those who were au fait with the surprisingly extensive British occult "scene" of the late 19th century used such phrases as "abuzz with talk about" and "everyone had heard of."
Leads that made it easy for prospective members to find the organization were deliberately left open, and the G. D. netted some surprising fish; for instance, the eminent physicist William Crookes (later Sir William Crookes) joined in June 1890, though he allowed his connection with the society to lapse a few months later. He was already a member of the Society for Psychical Research.


The Heyday, 1890-1900

The G. D. flourished in the last decade of the 19th century as a fairly exclusive club with a great deal of mumbo-jumbo ritual and a pseudoscientific attitude toward the investigation and practice of magic. It may have been the purported rigor of its approach that initially attracted the likes of Crookes. The ritual was focused on a fairly standard darkness-into-light theme, which is not surprising given the Masonic antecedents of Westcon and his associates from the Rosicrucians. But it was spectacularly ornamented by Mather's eclectic elaborations.
The Golden Dawn also purported to give genuine instruction on the practice of ritual magic. There were instructions for the consecration of "lotus wands" and for the drawing and consecration of pentacles, the use of arcane symbols and symbolic colors, and much more. At this stage, though, everything was still fairly genteel. There was nothing that could frighten even a Victorian maiden lady. The idea seems to have been that the initiate learned the theory, but abstained from the practice. There may, however, have been a more sinister "inner circle" of magical initiates, though it is still important to distinguish between the kind of ritual magic that they practiced, and satanism.
Ritual magicians may well work within the framework of Christianity. Though most sects frown upon it, magic is not necessarily incompatible with the Christian religion, and some of the most prominent Victorian occultists were clergymen, usually of the Church of England. More often, though, ritual magic regards Christianity as of minor relevance. Satanism, by contrast, needs Christianity. It is a reaction against the Christian religion, which it deliberately parodies and blasphemes. Most ritual magicians regard satanism as the poor relation of ritual magic. Satanic rituals may or may not work, and if they do work, they are rarely controllable, depending on raw energy (mostly hate, with a good close of sexual frenzy in some cases) rather than controlled forces.


Decline and Fall, 1900 Onward

As early as 1892-93, the difficult personality of Mathers was leading to friction and dissent within the G. D. . Some of the other members were treating the order with less respect than the chiefs thought proper, and there were expulsions and resignations. Around 1900, shortly after the raising of Frater Perdurabo (Aleister Crowley) to 5 = 6 by Mathers in Paris, that matters really came to a head. By then, relationships between Mathers, who had taken up residence in Paris, and the English side of the G. D. had grown so bad that the Britons refused to acknowledge Crowley's exaltation. Crowley entered the order on November 18, 1898, and reached Philosophus 4 = 7 in May 1899. Later in that same year, he had moved to Boleskine, Scotland, as a suitable location for his "Abra-Melin Operation," a fearsome scheme of practical magie.
Crowley's "magick" (as he spelled it) was excessively strong meat for the rest of the G. D. , with the exception of Mathers, and he was denied access to the Second Order (which the attentive reader will recall begins at 5 = 6, Adeptus Minor) in London; whereupon, he journeyed to Paris to be initiated by Mathers. After a battle that included an invasion of the London "Vault" by Crowley as an emissary of Mathers, Mathers was thrown out, and W. B. Yeats was elected Imperator of the Isis-Urania Temple on April 27, 1900.
From then on, great squabbling broke out over the "secret groups" (inner organizations, with their own magical theories), but this was of far less interest to the outside world than the Horos trial.
Mr. and Mrs. Horos were shadowy figures whose orbits had intersected with those of the G. D. on several occasions. They were a mixture of adept and charlatan, with more emphasis on the latter. Early in 1900, they had first ingratiated themselves with Mathers, then stole a copy of the G. D. from him, after which they seem to have set themselves up as unauthorized G. D. operators. They had left Cape Town in mid to late 1900, with the South African police snapping at their heels, and they arrived in London toward the end of the year. In September 1901, Mr. Horos was tried for the rape of a young girl called Daisy Adams, and his wife (a.k.a. Swami Vive Ananda) was tried for aiding and abetting him in the offense. He was sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude, while his wife drew seven years' detention.
The problem for the G. D. was that the stolen ritual surfaced, and was simultaneously denounced as blasphemous (by the judge in the case and others) and ridiculed. There was wholesale panic within the order. Faction fought faction. The existing rituals were denounced (by A. E. Waite) as "spurious archaisms with the worst style of journalistic English," though his proposal to bring the rituals "back as closely as possible to the original cypher manuscript in order to shorten and improve the working" argues that he was not familiar with the cipher manuscript, nor yet with the fact that most of the ritual was Mather's invention. Howe (in Magicians of the Golden Dawn) sums up the factionalism. One group, headed by Waite, "wanted to throw overboard the old 'Magical' tradition ... and be free to pontificate about the Graces of the Spirit"; the Brodie-Innes faction wanted to restore and preserve "Mather's authoritarian concept of the order"; while Dr. Felkin actually wanted to find the Secret Chiefs, "and continue from that point."
Thereafter, the G. D. seems to have been dominated by very sincere would-be ritual magicians, each of whom pursued his or her particular version of the Truth (and especially of the Golden Dawn) with greater tenacity than reason.
Mathers died in 1918, while Westcott survived the closure of that last relic of the original schisms, the Stella Matutina Lodge (which lasted from about 1901-23), dying in 1925. Crowley went on to pursue his own spectacular career, not dying until 1947. An Israel Regardie Foundation in the United States flourished in the early to mid-1980s, but it was a "New Age" version of the G. D. as a "loving and growth-oriented system."


Order of the Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the Outer


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