Deciphering the Golden Dawn
Darcy Kuntz, tr. and ed., The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript (Edmonds, WA: Holmes Publishing Group, 1996; ISBN 1-55818-325-6). Available from Holmes Publishing Group, PO Box 623, Edmonds, WA 98020 USA.
Nearly a century after its rise and fall, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn remains at once the most famous and the most puzzling of the magical orders of the modern West. The outlines and many details of its brief career have been traced out in a number of works, most notably Ellic Howe’s waspish but capable The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972). Still, conundrums aplenty await both the scholar who wishes to explore the Order’s place in history and the practitioner who hopes to gain a better grasp of the Order’s teachings.
The murkiest of these, unquestionably, have to do with the origins of the Order and its system of magic, and it has not helped that the document at the root of the whole phenomenon - the mysterious “cipher manuscript” which, according to the Order’s own mythology, gave Golden Dawn founders William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Mathers the framework of the Order’s rituals and the address of the mysterious Fraulein Sprengel - had been published only in incomplete form. Fortunately, this has now been remedied.
The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript is precisely that, a facsimile and translation of the core document of the Golden Dawn system, giving the grade rituals of the Order in skeleton form along with elements of the Order’s magical teachings. The whole is clear and readable, and has been ably annotated and provided with a useful bibliography of relevant works. An appendix includes a Golden Dawn knowledge lecture on the Tarot which was extracted from the manuscript.
In addition, this volume contains R. A. Gilbert’s fascinating essay “Provenance Unknown: A Tentative Solution to the Riddle of the Cipher Manuscript of the Golden Dawn.” Gilbert’s suggestion is that the original cipher manuscript came to Westcott from the papers of Kenneth Mackenzie, a major figure in Victorian esoteric masonic circles, and may well have been Mackenzie’s work. While the evidence involved is largely circumstantial, Gilbert makes a good case for his suggestion, and in the process helps to link the Golden Dawn more clearly with the murky realm of Victorian fringe Masonry from which it emerged.
This volume is presented as Volume 1 of a “Golden Dawn Studies” series, with at least eight other volumes forthcoming. If these reach the standards of this first book, the whole collection may well become required reading for scholars and practitioners of the Golden Dawn system alike.
— John Michael Greer