The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (referred to as the “Golden Dawn” henceforth) is the name popularly given to a late Victorian fraternal order which developed in England in the last two decades of the 19th century and which continued into the 20thcentury under a variety of names through successor organizations. This order drew members of both genders from the middle and upper classes of its day in the United Kingdom. Eventually, it had members throughout the British Commonwealth as well as France and the United States of America. The Golden Dawn has had a preeminent role in alternative or esoteric spirituality that still persists today even though the original body of the order did not last past the First World War.
The Golden Dawn developed a new synthesis of the earlier esoteric traditions prevalent in Western Europe from the Middle Ages through to its era. It drew from these existing traditions within European thought to create its system of practice and theory. As one element of their synthesis of earlier traditions, the creators of the Golden Dawn constructed a unique vision of the individual soul and its relationship to the universe. This vision acted as the focus point of the organizations spiritual endeavors and provided a mechanism to organize the spiritual practices that it taught to its members. This vision was created from Christian visions of the Fall and of redemption, elements of Jewish Cabala and sacred texts, and Renaissance Neoplatonism. The destiny of the individual human soul was connected directly with the ultimate purpose of both the universe as well as the individual within the mythology of the Golden Dawn. In addition to utilizing pre-existing traditions, the Golden Dawn founders also added unique components to their vision of the human soul as the organization developed. The Golden Dawn’s system of belief was more than simply a superficial amalgamation of disparate parts or traditions, but was a unified spirituality that drew upon these pieces to create a coherent vision for its adherents. This vision of human destiny gives the Golden Dawn’s teachings relevance with the realm of world spiritual traditions beyond their curiosity as a potentially dated 19thcentury creation.
As it is impossible for anyone alive today to have been present during the creation and development of the Golden Dawn, the body of written material that survives is the key means of accessing its thought and the tradition that was developed by the organization’s founders. As it was a fraternal order focused on rituals, initiations, and secrets, the Golden Dawn did not publish the details of its beliefs and practices for the public in an official manner. A core set of the rituals, internal papers or lectures, and other texts from the Golden Dawn are available from a select set of unpublished and published sources dating from the beginning of the 20thcentury through to today. Former members or those that had access to the private paper collections of members created these texts. As a supplement to these internal texts of the order, writings in the form of introductions to other texts and papers by the founders of the Golden Dawn can shed additional insight into the influences that shaped the organization and the interests of the Golden Dawn.
In addition to the written material directly linked to the order, its papers and the ideas in them can be compared with those of earlier traditions of esoteric and spiritual thought to show the influences that informed the creation of the Golden Dawn’s thought and, also, to highlight by the absence of antecedents, those contributions which were the unique creations of the organization and its members.
The Golden Dawn acted as one of the points where pre-Enlightenment traditions of esoteric or magical thought were combined with a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world. Because of this, the spiritual philosophy and practices of the Golden Dawn are not simply rejections of the post-Enlightenment or Modern world then coming into being, but are informed responses to it made by individuals living through a time of change. Some scholars, such as von Stuckrad and Hanegraaff, argue that 19thcentury occult thought and organizations such as the Golden Dawn came into being as thoughtful responses to the developing worldview of their era when previous assumptions of religiosity or philosophy were undergoing challenges in society. Von Stuckrad states “that modern esotericism may be understood as an example of the dialectic of the rationalization of religion and life on the one hand, and the quest for individual salvation and resacralisation of an indivisible cosmos on the other” (134).
If this is true, then these organizations and their beliefs or practices were a means to reconcile the earlier world with the new one as a joining of both into something new. More than simply being a reaction to modernity, these beliefs and practices were a creative response to this new era and its challenges to traditional thought. This helps explain the continuing influence and relevance of the Golden Dawn on individuals and spiritual thought throughout the 20thcentury, which survives to this day in religions such as Wicca. This influence and persistence also indicates the importance of examining the Golden Dawn and key aspects of its beliefs and practices instead of dismissing it as a marginal organization with fringe beliefs from the Victorian era.
Few Golden Dawn papers are available in original manuscripts outside of private collections closed to academic researchers. This forces scholars of the Golden Dawn to use published materials gathered by a variety of authors in order to study the work of the Golden Dawn. Fortunately, this published material is extensive and in multiple editions for texts dating from different years in the organization’s history. This allows data within this published corpus to be cross-checked or otherwise compared to verify that key elements of thought or practices were consistently within the Golden Dawn and not just a product of a single individual outside of the order’s official context. There is one collection of unpublished Golden Dawn papers transcribed in 1906 and 1907 by John Frederick Charles Fuller into notebooks from the personal copies of Allan Bennett, a key early Golden Dawn member. Fuller’s notebooks are stored at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, in their Aleister Crowley collection. These notebooks are made available to scholars and are an invaluable resource of original Golden Dawn material.
This thesis uses the unpublished and published Golden Dawn texts as the basis for studying the rituals, papers, and general thought of the organization. These are treated as primary texts for the purpose of discussion but the collections each come from a different date in the history of the organization. For this reason, whenever possible, the earliest material transcribed by Fuller has been used primarily. The Golden Dawn was a consistently evolving organization with variant texts and papers existing within its lodges or in different decades, but the themes or examples used here are consistent throughout all of the available materials and published sources have been compared when multiple sources are available.
The primary published text used is the collection by Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn: An Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Order of the Golden Dawn. This was initially published in four volumes in 1937 through 1940 and a single volume edition of these is still in print today. The papers and rituals in these four volumes derive from the Stella Matutina, a Golden Dawn organization dating from 1902. Regardie was briefly a member of the Stella Matutina during the 1930’s. The key additional text used is Francis King’s Ritual Magic of the Golden Dawn. This is a collection of the “Flying Rolls” of the Golden Dawn. These Flying Rolls were official essays and instructions produced by order members to explain various aspects of Golden Dawn thought or practice to their fellow members. These act as illustrations or discussions of important Golden Dawn concepts written by members. Because members wrote these papers for their peers with no expectation that non-members would see them, they can be held to be an accurate interpretation of Golden Dawn teachings as understood internally.
In addition to materials created for the Golden Dawn organization specifically, both MacGregor Mathers and William Westcott, the Golden Dawn’s key founders, were published authors and lecturers on topics within western esotericism. Both authors also wrote introductions or commentaries on existing esoteric material. With their roles as the creators of the Golden Dawn and primary authors of its teachings, these writings can be seen as illustrative of the overall thoughts or beliefs which informed their creative endeavors within the Golden Dawn. This allows their published material to be used as an illustration of their thoughts and influences.
It is necessary to note that the Golden Dawn made extensive use of Cabala in its thought. Cabalistic writings and terms are derived from the Hebrew language. Depending on the era, source text, and the English language author’s preferences, the same term may be transliterated into English in a number of different ways. When these terms have been used in this study, they have been left transliterated as they are in the original source material for the purpose of faithfulness to sources within quotations.
By using this body of material, the official materials of the order and the personal writings by order founders, an accurate portrayal of the beliefs of the creators of the Golden Dawn concerning the human soul and its nature, structure, and role will be given to illustrate the way that the spirituality of the Golden Dawn was connected directly to its teachings concerning the soul.