An organization exerting one of three most significant influences on Western occultism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The second and third influences were the Theosophical Socirty and G. I. Gurdjieff.
As a secret society the organization’s membership included some of the most distinguished and talented personalities of the times such as W. B. Yeats, Annie Horniman (who sponsored the Abbey Threatre, Dublin), Florence Farr (mistress of G. B. Shaw), S. L. MacGregor Mathers, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, A. E. Waite, Algernon Blackwood, Arthue Machen, and many others.
Some claim the society’s basis is dubious. Its key founder was Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a London coroner and a Rosicrucian, who in 1887 obtained part of a manuscript that was written in brown-ink cipher from a Reverend A. F. A. Woodford, a Mason. The manuscript appeared to be old although probably it was not. However, with his Hermetic knowledge Westcott deciphered the manuscript and discovered it contained fragments of mystical rituals of the «Golden Dawn» an unknown organization which admitted both men and women.
Westcott approached his occultist friend Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers who he asked to transform the ritual fragments into expanded and systematized rituals. Among the papers contained within the manuscript was a slip of paper bearing the name of Fraulein Anna Sprengel, a Rosicrucian adept living in Germany.
Through correspondence with this woman Westcott obtained her permission to organized the English branch of the occult society Die Goldene Dammerung (The Golden Dawn). However, the authenticity of this establishment of the English order has been suspect. It has been suggested the character on Fraulein Sprengel might have been mythologized by Westcott in order to fabricate the correspondence which established the new secret society.
The structured hierarchy of The Golden Dawn was based upon the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah: there were ten grades or degrees corresponding to the ten sephiroth, with a eleventh degree for neophytes. The degrees were divided into the Outer, Second, and Third orders. Such was the arrangement of the hierarchy of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn established in 1888. At first, Westcott, Mathers, and Dr. W. R. Woodman, Supreme Magus of the Rosicrucian Society of Anglia, were the three Chiefs Second Order, and to be under the direction of the Secret Chiefs of the Third Order who were entities of the astral plane. This secret society attracted many members and between 1888 to 1896 315 initiations were performed.
Subsequently selected candidates that passed the Adeptus Minor grade might qualiy for admission to the Second Order. This, also, was known as the Ordo Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis (Order of the Red Rose and Cross of Gold). The Secret Chiefs of the Third Order were equivalent to the fanciful Mahamas of the Theosophical Society who could also be contacted in the astral plane.
Prevalent in-fighting is recorded among the prominent members of the Golden Dawn. Woodman died in 1891 and was never replaced in the organization. Mathers produced the initiation ritual for the Adeptus Minor degree. Most of the rituals which Mathers produced were based on Freemasonry. Many thought Mathers a little eccentric if not a lunatic. He never consummated his marriage to his wife, Mina, who, he claimed, received teachings from the Secret Chiefs through clairaudience and supernormal hearing. Due to unstable finances he and his wife were penniless in 1891.
However a rich member of the Golden Dawn, Annie Horniman, became their benefactor. This allowed the couple to move to Paris where Mathers establish another lodge. He continued writing curricula material which he sent to London. However, he was obssessed with an autocratic jealousy toward Westcott. Mathers devoted considerable time to translation of the manuscript The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage which he claimed was bewitched and inhabited by a nonphysical intelligence. This translation was published in 1898.
Horiman stopped her financial support of Mathers in l896. In that year, Mathers claimed the Secret Chiefs had initiated him into the Third Order, which Horniman disputed and was expelled from the society. In 1897 members discovered Westcott’s questionable activities in founding the society. This led to the resignation of his position to be succeeded by Florence Farr. By this time, irreparable schisms had formed within the Golden Dawn.
In 1898 Aleister Crowley was initiated into the society and progressed rapidly through the degrees. The next year, 1899, he went to Paris and compelled Mathers to initiate him into the Second Order to which Mathers complied. The London lodge, under Farr, rejected this initiation. Crowley returned to England as Mathers’ «Envoy Extraordinary,» in 1900, attempting to control the quarters of the Second Order. Crowley wore a black mask, Highland dress, and gilt dagger. The staged attempt was in vain, for it was rebuffed.
Eventually both Crowley and Mathers were thrown out of the society as a result of the uneasy alliance between them which deteriorated. Crowley considered himself a superior magician compared to Mathers. Allegedly this led to magical warfare between the two men. Mathers sent an astral vampire to attack Crowley. Crowley then counterattacked with an army of demons led by Beelzebub. After this latter attack was launched against the quarters of the Second Order the London lodge expelled both men. Mathers received no compensation for his efforts; but, Crowley retaliated by publishing some of the Golden Dawn in his magazine, The Equinox.
Then W. B. Yeats assume control of the Second Order. He did attempt to restore order to the society, but it was so splintered that Yeats’ efforts were nearly fruitless. Yeats played a prominent part in the conflict between Crowley and Mathers. After the expulsion of both men Yeats took charge of the Ordo Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis and also became the Imperator of the Isis-Urania Temple Outer Order.
With all the splintering within the Golden Dawn it was not long until various groups were forming. Followers of Mathers formed the Alpha et Omega Temple. In 1903 A. E. Waite left with others to form a society retaining the Golden Dawn name but with more emphasis on mysticism than magic. In 1905 another splinter group formed known as the Stella Matutina, or «Order of the Companions of the Rising Light in the Morning.» This was the end of the Isis-Urania Temple.
It was resurrected in 1917 as the Merlin Temple of the Stella Matutina which lasted until the 1940s when it went into decline following the publication of its secret rituals by a former member Israel Regardie, who had been Crowley’s one-time secretary. There are some distant offshoots of the Golden Dawn still around.
During its glory, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn possessed one of the greatest repositories of Western magical knowledge. The studies of the Second Order focused on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Three magical systems were taught: the Key of Solomon, a grimoire; Abra-Melin magic; and Enochian magic. Also, materials were incorporated from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Prophetic Books of William Blake; and the Chaldean Oracles. Instruction was given in astral travel, scrying, alchemy, geomancy, the Tarot, and astrology.
The main purpose of the order was «to prosecute the Great Work: which is to obtain control of the nature and power of [one’s] own being.» Some Christian fundamentals were included in various texts of the society such as establishing a closer relationship with Jesus, the «Master of Masters.» Members circulated various Catholic and Anglican writings and sermons. Regardie did not include these in the materials which he published.
The rise and fall of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is thought, by some, to portray the history of many occult groups. They attract members of high intellectual and mystical caliber, but eventually suffer internal dissensions because their system of instruction and development does not fundamentally change the character of the members. Basically the talented and psychologically adjusted individuals strive to enhance their talents and achievements, but there is no elimination of the defects and weaknesses of others which will inevitably weaken the organizational structure. Here a comparison of Eastern and Western initiations may be made. The Eastern initiations incorporate various yoga systems which purify and perfect the individual; whereas, Western initiations do not include this essential preliminary training. A.G.H.