Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn One of the most
influential Western occult societies of the late 19th century
to early 20th century. Like a meteor, it flared into
light, blazed a bright trail and then disintegrated. Members
included W. B. Yeats, A. E. Waite, Aleister Crowley
and other noted occultists.
The key founder of the Golden Dawn was Dr. William
Wynn Westcott, a London coroner and a Rosicrucian.
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn 161
Hermetic scheme of universe (After Thomas Norton,
Musaeum Hermeticum, 1749)
In 1887 Westcott obtained part of a manuscript written
in brown-ink cipher from the Rev. A. F. A. Woodford, a
Mason. The manuscript appeared to be old but probably
was not. Westcott himself is believed to be the author.
Westcott claimed he was able to decipher the manuscript
and discovered it concerned fragments of rituals for the
“Golden Dawn,” an unknown organization that apparently
admitted both men and women.
Westcott asked an occultist friend, Samuel Liddell
MacGregor Mathers, to flesh out the fragments into fullscale
rituals. Some papers evidently were forged to give
the “Golden Dawn” authenticity and a history. It was said
to be an old German occult order. Westcott produced papers
that showed he had been given a charter to set up an
independent lodge in England. The Isis-Urania Temple of
the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established
in 1888, with Westcott, Mathers and Dr. W. R. Woodman,
Supreme Magus of the Rosicrucian Society of Anglia, as
the three Chiefs. The secret society quickly caught on,
and 315 initiations took place during the society’s heydey,
from 1888 to 1896.
An elaborate hierarchy was created, consisting of 10
grades or degrees, each corresponding to the 10 sephiroth
of the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah, plus an 11th degree
for neophytes. The degrees are divided into three orders:
Outer, Second and Third.
One advanced through the Outer Order by examination.
Initially, Westcott, Mathers and Woodman were the
only members of the Second Order, and they claimed to
be under the direction of the Secret Chiefs of the Third
Order, who were entities of the astral plane. Mathers’ rituals
were based largely on Freemasonry.
In 1891 Woodman died and was not replaced in the
organization. Mathers produced the initiation ritual for
the Adeptus Minor rank and renamed the Second Order
the Ordo Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis, or the Order of
the Rose of Ruby and Cross of Gold (R. R. et A. C.). Initiation
was by invitation only.
Mathers was at the very least eccentric and possibly
was mentally unstable. He never consummated his marriage
with his wife, Mina, who, he said, received teachings
from the Secret Chiefs through clairaudience, or supernormal
hearing. His finances were erratic, and in 1891 he
and his wife were penniless. A rich Golden Dawner, Annie
Horniman, became their benefactor. Mathers and his
wife moved to Paris, where Mathers set up another lodge.
He continued to write curricula materials and send them
to London. He was obsessed with jealousy over Westcott
and became increasingly autocratic. He devoted a good
deal of time to translating the manuscript of The Book of
the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage, which he claimed
was bewitched and inhabited by a species of nonphysical
intelligence. (The book eventually was published in
In 1896 Horniman cut off her financial support to
Mathers. The same year, Mathers claimed that the Secret
Chiefs had initiated him into the Third Order. Horniman
disputed his claim and was expelled from the society.
In 1897 members began to discover Westcott’s
questionable role in “discovering” the Golden Dawn. He
resigned his post and was succeeded by Florence Farr.
By then, irreparable schisms were forming within the
Aleister Crowley was initiated in 1898 and rapidly rose
up the ranks. In 1899 he went to Paris and insisted upon
being initiated into the Second Order. Mathers complied.
The London lodge, under Farr, rejected his initiation. In
1900 Crowley went to England as Mathers’ “Envoy Extraordinary”
and attempted to take control of the quarters
of the Second Order. He appeared wearing a black
mask, Highland dress and a gilt dagger and stormed the
lodge but was turned away.
The Crowley-Mathers alliance was always troubled.
Crowley considered himself a superior magician to
Mathers. The two supposedly engaged in magical warfare.
Mathers sent an astral vampire to attack Crowley
psychically, and Crowley responded with an army of demons
led by Beelzebub. The London lodge expelled both
Crowley and Mathers. Crowley retaliated by publishing
some of the Golden Dawn’s secret rituals in his magazine,
W. B. Yeats took over the Second Order. He attempted
to restore unity, but the schisms in the Golden Dawn
broke into independent groups. Followers of Mathers
formed the Alpha et Omega Temple. In 1903 A. E. Waite
and others left, forming a group with the name Golden
Dawn but with more of an emphasis on mysticism than
magic. In 1905 another splinter group was formed, the
Stella Matutina, or “Order of the Companions of the Rising
Light in the Morning.” The Isis-Uranian Temple became
defunct. In 1917 it was resurrected as the Merlin
Temple of the Stella Matutina. The Stella Matutina went
into decline in the 1940s, following the publication of its
secret rituals by a former member, Israel Regardie, Crowley’s
Waite’s group, which retained the Golden Dawn name
and some of its rituals, declined after 1915 with Waite’s
departure. Some distant offshoots of the Golden Dawn
continue in existence.
During its height, the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn possessed the greatest known repository of Western
magical knowledge. Second Order studies centered
on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Three magical systems
were taught: the Key of Solomon (see grimoires); AbraMelin
magic (see Abramelin the Mage); and Enochian
magic (see john dee). Materials also were incorporated
from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, William Blake’s Prophetic
Books and the Chaldean Oracles. Instruction was
given in astral travel, scrying, alchemy, geomancy, the
Tarot and astrology.
The key purpose of the order was “to prosecute the
Great Work: which is to obtain control of the nature and
162 Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
power of [one’s] own being.” Some of the texts included
Christian elements, such as the establishing of a closer
relationship with Jesus, the “Master of Masters.” Members
circulated various Catholic and Anglican writings
and sermons. These were omitted from the materials
published by Regardie. Elements of Golden Dawn rituals,
Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry have been absorbed
into the rituals of modern Witchcraft.
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