Chapter 3 What was The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn?

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a quasi-Masonic fraternal organization founded in 1888 and which focused on teaching an active form of esotericism through initiation ceremonies and a program of study for its members drawing from the mixed spiritual inheritance of western esotericism. The Golden Dawn attracted members from a wide range of social classes, many of whom were well-known figures in the world of the arts or within their professions, such as William Butler Yeats. These members dedicated years of their lives, sometimes decades, to the principles and techniques that were taught through the Golden Dawn’s rituals, lectures, and papers as devised by its founders. In order to discuss the role of the order within western esotericism and its teachings concerning the soul, it is necessary to delve into the order’s origins in order to give background and context to this discussion.

The Golden Dawn established itself in London, England on March 1, 1888 through three founders, William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers, and William Robert Woodman. These three were all active members of the Free and Accepted Masons (Freemasons) within the mainstream United Grand Lodge of England. They were additionally members of another organization, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (Rosicrucian Society). The Rosicrucian Society was a separate organization entirely composed of Master Masons with an interest “occultism, the Cabbala in particular, and Masonic symbolism” (Howe 8). It was a place for those masons interested in esoteric topics such as Rosicrucianism, Cabala and esoteric Christianity to find others of a like mind, attend lectures, and to discuss esoteric ideas in a fraternal atmosphere. All three founding chiefs of the Golden Dawn were senior officers in the Rosicrucian Society with Woodman actually being the ruling officer of the organization until his death, when Westcott took over the position until 1925 (Gilbert, The Golden Dawn Scrapbook 73-75). This organization has a special tie to the origins of the Golden Dawn as will be seen below.

Additionally, Westcott and Mathers had also both been members and lecturers in an organization named “The Hermetic Society” which had “the aim of promoting Western esoteric philosophy” (Gilbert, The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians 23). This organization was derived from a branch of the Theosophical Society popular at the time under the leadership of Anna Kingsford (Godwin 344). Under the auspices of the Hermetic Society, both Westcott and Mathers gave lectures relating to esotericism and the Cabala for its members (Gilbert Twilight 23). This society had focused on esoteric topics but as Godwin notes, it “still did not supply the thing that many Theosophists had come to find most signally wanting in their society: instruction in practical occultism” (346). This perceived need may have been part of the original impetus to form the Golden Dawn by Westcott and Mathers. Rather than simply lecturing on the Cabala, alchemy and esoteric topics, they wished to create an organization that would investigate them fully, ultimately in a practical manner by actually doing magic instead of discussing it. Neither the Rosicrucian Society nor the Hermetic Society offered the means to fulfill this wish so they set out to do it in their own manner. The model that they chose to use would be one drawn from their personal experiences as Rosicrucians and Masons.

The shared connection in the Rosicrucian Society and Freemasonry informs much of the structure of the Golden Dawn organization. They are the milieu from which the Golden Dawn initially developed as a fraternal order. The Golden Dawn was a Masonic organization at its heart, albeit an irregular one that admitted both men and women and which focused on esoteric activities. Freemasonry, with its focus on secret initiations and with knowledge passed through these initiations and associated lectures, provided the model form for the Golden Dawn and its temples. This focus on secrecy, in contrast to organizations like the Hermetic Society, would also allow them to keep their activities out of sight of a potentially unforgiving and unfriendly public.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn created its first organizational body (termed “temple”) on March 1, 1888 with the signing of its official charter. This body was “Isis-Urania Temple No. 3.” The charter states that Isis-Urania Temple No. 3 of the Order of the G.D. in the Outer was chartered to be run by three named individuals as its chiefs. These chiefs were the ruling officers of the temple and acted as triumvirate of equals in that role. For reasons of secrecy and symbolism, members of the Golden Dawn did not use their mundane names in the affairs of the organization but took on mottos to act as names, often abbreviated to the initials of their mottos in use. The charter lists the three chiefs by their mottos as “’S Rioghail Mo Dhream,” “Quod Scis Nescis,” and “Magna est Veritas et Praevalebit.” These are known to be mottoes used by Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman at that time (Howe 17). This charter states that the charter for Isis-Urania Temple No. 3 was granted under the authority of three individuals from the Second Order, “Deo Duce Comite Ferro,” “Sapiens Dominabitur Astris,” and “Vincit Omnia Veritas.” The Second Order formed, at least on paper initially, an inner or higher order in charge of the affairs of the First, or Outer, Order. As eventually became clear to other members of the Golden Dawn, these last three mottoes were also mottoes used within the Second Order by Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman (Gilbert, The Golden Dawn Companion, 31-32). “Sapiens Dominabitur Astris” was officially the motto of one Fraulein Sprengel in Germany, according to Westcott, and he simply signed her name on the charter for her (Gilbert, Companion 31)). Effectively, Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman issued a charter to form a body of the Golden Dawn by their own authority, simply changing their names on the document to obscure this detail. This fact was not shared with the other members of the order who subsequently joined Isis-Urania.

This pattern of misdirection concerning its history characterizes much of the founding of the Golden Dawn and its presentation of itself to its members. The story of the founding was related to the newly initiated members of the order in the “Historical Lecture” written in 1888 by one “Frater Sapere Aude” (which was another motto of Westcott’s) (Gilbert, Twilight 99-104). This lecture states that the Golden Dawn had existed for decades in England and for centuries elsewhere. It had included the famous masons or magicians Kenneth Mackenzie, Frederick Hockley, and Eliphas Levi in its ranks in earlier times. The first name is one worth noting in this context as we will see below. In this lecture, Westcott goes on to say that the order is derived from Christian Rosenkreutz (for whom “Rosicrucianism” is named) and ultimately dates back to 1398 but more immediately it derived from a German order named “Die Goldene Dämmerung” (Gilbert, Twilight 26). Westcott states that the founders of Isis-Urania were granted a charter as a successor to a defunct body, Hermanubis Temple No. 2 of England, through the permission of one Fraulein Sprengel, who authorized the creation of Isis-Urania Temple in letters sent in response to a query sent by Westcott from an address he had found in papers he had received. Hermanubis Temple No. 2 was ultimately derived from a temple in Germany, Licht, Liebe, Leben No. 1 (Howe 1). Beyond letters produced by Westcott claiming communication with this woman, no evidence of any individuals being members of the Golden Dawn or of any of its organizational antecedents existing previous to Isis-Urania has ever been found by many interested parties (Howe 13).

This convoluted deception concerning the origins of the Golden Dawn may seem to be much for very little gain for its perpetrators but this is not the case. The reason for the creation of a new body, Isis-Urania, as the “third” temple of an existing organization instead of as the first temple of a new one is very simple: legitimacy. In order to grant legitimacy to its teachings and to its leaders, it was necessary to create a grand and respectable history invoking the names of learned individuals and grand orders extending back through time. If Westcott, Mathers, and Woodman had simply admitted that they had created the Golden Dawn and developed its rituals and teachings by themselves, it would not have been as impressive or as respectable as being seen as the inheritors of an existing tradition. This pedigree allowed the order to loom large in the eyes of prospective members and to draw interested parties into the order. In addition to this reason, there was a precedent for such false histories. In the 19th century era of fraternal orders and societies, almost all such organizations claimed a mythic pedigree which was divorced from their reality. This practice was ultimately derived from Freemasonry, which claimed to date from the masons serving at the construction of King Solomon’s temple thousands of years before rather than from 18th century English gentlemen (von Stuckrad 116-117).

The one exception to the fabricated nature of the Golden Dawn’s history is a manuscript written in a cipher. This contained an outline of initiation rituals and explanatory lectures for them and it came into Westcott’s possession before the founding of the order. This manuscript forms the true kernel of the Golden Dawn’s rituals when combined with the work of Westcott and Mathers. Westcott claimed to have received this manuscript from another initiate in the years immediately before the founding of the Golden Dawn and to have used it as the basis of the Golden Dawn’s ritual workings with Mathers’ help (Gilbert, Twilight 101-103). In 1912, Westcott wrote in a letter to a member of the Golden Dawn that he had received the manuscript from A.F.A. Woodford, a fellow Freemason and Masonic researcher, who gave it to him in 1886 three months before Woodford’s death (Medway, Aurora Mysteriorum 164). Outside of Westcott’s testimony, how Westcott came to possess it cannot be proven, only that he had it in his possession by 1887. This manuscript is commonly known as the “Cipher Manuscript” by historians of the Golden Dawn (Kuntz, The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript 9). The original and transcriptions of it are in private collections of Golden Dawn papers but these have been examined by a number of Golden Dawn scholars, such as R. A. Gilbert, and facsimiles and decodings of its contents have been recently published in recent years (Gilbert, The Golden Dawn Scrapbook 98).

Fig. 1. The Opening of the Neophyte Ceremony in Cipher from Darcy Kuntz, The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript (45).

The cipher used to encode the text is a simple substitution cipher from the Polygraphiae et Universalle Escriture Cabalistique by Johannes Trithemius published in 1561 and with which Westcott was familiar (Kuntz, Cipher 33). A sample of this enciphered text can be seen in Figure 1, which is the first part of the Neophyte Ceremony of the Golden Dawn. Conveniently, given the claimed German origins of the Golden Dawn, the text encoded within the cipher was written in English. The Cipher Manuscript contains outlines of the first five initiation ceremonies and the lectures to explain them to initiates used for the Golden Dawn’s outer order. It also contains the titles of the officers of the ceremonies, images of ritual regalia, drawings of the paraphernalia, and diagrams used in these rituals. Most scholars investigating the matter today are of the opinion that the rituals contained in the Cipher Manuscript were written by the aforementioned Kenneth Mackenzie, who was a Masonic scholar with an interest in esotericism and who also had a background in cryptography (Kuntz, The Golden Dawn Source Book 20). Mackenzie was a member of a number of fringe Masonic organizations during his lifetime including the Rosicrucian Society (McIntosh, The Rosicrucians 98). The ritual outlines in the cipher manuscript are brief and not always very detailed. Kuntz notes that the names and attribution numbers of these ritual grades match those used within the Rosicrucian Society even while the rituals are entirely different (Source Book 16). The outlines seem to be either notes taken from the observation of the rituals of an unknown group or, more likely, they are the notes for the creation of a new set of rituals since they are entirely unique and no similar rituals have been found elsewhere (Medway 164). Gilbert believes that they may have been meant for either the Swedenborgian Rite of Freemasonry or an occult fraternity known as the “Society of Eight” (Provenance Unknown 19). Mackenzie was a member of both of these groups but this connection is speculation. The Frederick Hockley mentioned in the Golden Dawn’s “Historical Lecture” above was a member of the Society of Eight as well.

Mackenzie died in 1886 and, in the context of his work towards reviving the Swedenborgian Rite of Freemasonry, Westcott received many of Mackenzie’s papers from his widow (Gilbert, Provenance 20-21 and Kuntz, Source Book 23). This gives a reasonable connection between Mackenzie and Westcott through which the Cipher Manuscript may have passed following the former’s death. This is strengthened by the fact, noted by Gilbert in the preface to The Golden Dawn Source Book, that the drafts of Westcott’s decipherment of the manuscript were done on blank summonses for the Swedenborgian Rite, pages that Westcott could only have received from Mackenzie’s widow (11). Mackenzie was well known in the context of his work with the tarot, for his Masonic encyclopedia, for his membership in fringe Masonic organizations, and for having visited Eliphas Levi, the famous French occultist and author, in France in his youth (Gilbert, Twilight 23). His Masonic encyclopedia is also the first English language source for the names used by both the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Society of the names for their degrees of membership, which came from a 18th century German Rosicrucian order (Kuntz, Source Book 16-17). Overall, this makes Mackenzie the best candidate to be the author of the Cipher Manuscript with its inclusion of occult tarot symbolism within a Masonic ritual form. Additionally, Gilbert notes that the drawings in the Cipher Manuscript closely match those in Mackenzie’s hand for a transcription he did of Odd Fellows rituals decades earlier (Provenance 22).

Regardless of how Westcott came to possess the text, it contained previously unseen rituals of an esoteric nature, which included both men and women, were based on the symbolism of the Cabalistic Tree of Life, and which connected the tarot cards with this Tree of Life (the last being a new concept only recently published by Eliphas Levi in French) (Kuntz, Source Book 19). Westcott was able to decipher the rituals in the Cipher Manuscript but they were only in an outline form and could not be performed as written. On October 4, 1887, Westcott sent a letter Mathers in which he wrote of the Cipher Manuscript. Westcott stated to Mathers, “I hope that you will accept co-equality with me and write it up with all your erudition if I will do a simple translation of the cipher. We must then choose a 3rd and endeavor to spread a complete scheme of initiation” (Howe 12). This is the true beginning of the Golden Dawn and its three chiefs. In another letter from April 5, 1912 written by Westcott to fellow Golden Dawn member F. L. Gardner, Westcott stated that “I paid Mathers to translate and work out the rituals from my original cipher drafts” (Howe 12).

These seemingly trivial details of the Cipher Manuscript’s origins and use are relevant because it is important to understand that while the rituals and teaching of the Golden Dawn were founded on outlines within the Cipher Manuscript, the creation of a workable series of initiation rituals, the lectures associated with them and the later curriculum and teachings were the work of two individuals, William Westcott and MacGregor Mathers. The manuscript formed the basis of the order’s rituals but the full forms that the Golden Dawn developed and taught were the work of two individuals as was the functioning organization around them. There is no mention of any contribution by Woodman on these matters and he died in 1891, leaving Westcott and Mathers to run the order as it developed and grew. Some writers hypothesize that Woodman was included to add legitimacy to the order because of his status as the Supreme Magus of the Rosicrucian Society and not because of any specific contributions on his part (Gilbert, Scrapbook 73-74). This creation on Westcott’s and Mathers’ part was for the First Order or Outer Order of the Golden Dawn. Later, in 1892, Mathers independently produced an additional series of explicitly Rosicrucian rituals to create a Second Order in reality that was more explicitly Rosicrucian in basis (Howe 75-76). It is this Second Order that explicitly focused on teachings related to practical occultism and mystical techniques on the part of its members, not simply teaching occult and Cabalistic symbolism.

The heyday of the original Golden Dawn was between 1888 and 1900. This is the time its core rituals, lectures, and texts were created by Westcott and Mathers with some subsidiary papers created by adepts in the organization for the membership. Between 1900 and 1903, there were a series of disagreements and schisms which fragmented the Golden Dawn into a number of separate organizations when the true story of its origins was discovered, as well as in response to autocratic behavior by Mathers (Howe 241-244). One branch continued to be led by MacGregor Mathers and, following his death, by his wife, Moina Mathers, until after the First World War; but Isis-Urania, the original Golden Dawn temple, was closed in 1915 (Gilbert, Companion 175).

A branch of the Golden Dawn called the “Stella Matutina,” was created by members following the schism in 1902. In 1912, it chartered a temple, named “Smaragdum Thalasses,” in New Zealand. This temple survived under the name “Whare Ra” with an active membership until closing during the 1970s (Gilbert, Scrapbook 196). In England, Israel Regardie was initiated into the Stella Matutina in 1934. Following his disillusionment with the order, he began publishing the order’s teachings in a set of four volumes between the years 1936 to 1940. It is from these volumes that most people have encountered the teachings of the Golden Dawn, and through which their influence spread. The last English temple of the Golden Dawn, Hermes Temple in Bristol, closed its doors in 1972 (Gilbert, Twilight 79).

All of these later derived orders and temples were relatively small. In the 1890s, the Golden Dawn had hundreds of members in its temples and it was still a growing and developing organization with new teachings being written and new rituals created (see Howe 48-49 for membership numbers by year). It is this core period between the years 1888 and 1900 in which this study focuses for the purposes of discussing the teachings and practices of the Golden Dawn.

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