The Golden Dawn Order system is based upon a hierarchical structure in which certain information and knowledge is retained for students who have reached specific grades or levels of achievement in their esoteric training. This is in keeping with the paradigm of a school, and the Golden Dawn is a school of the Mysteries. The Hermetic Art is a true science; therefore would-be magicians “going through the grades” must commit the rudimentary knowledge of the system to memory, just as if they were students of medicine or engineering.

Training in the magical arts implies an examination of various regions of the student’s own consciousness or psyche—a process which is not always easy, and sometimes not always pleasant. Certain portions of the psyche, as well as certain areas of higher knowledge and training, should be left alone until the student has been thoroughly grounded and balanced by the step-by-step process of magical development established by the grade system of the Golden Dawn. The careful structuring of the Golden Dawn system includes built-in safeguards that are designed to furnish students with increased spiritual awareness, magical knowledge, and psychic integration in a manner that is both gradual and secure.

The various grades of the Golden Dawn correlate to certain spiritual ideas and cosmic principles. The main philosophy behind the grade system is the Qabalah, a Hebrew mystical system that describes all of Creation and encompasses knowledge of the universe’s fundamental essence, composition, and evolution. 

The grades of the Golden Dawn correspond to the sephiroth on the Qabalistic Tree of Life but also have elemental and planetary attributions. They are further divided into three separate groups known as the First or Outer Order, the Second or Inner Order, and the Third or Invisible Order (which is not attained by living Initiates but rather by inner-planes contacts.) The First Order is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which is a separate and distinct entity from that of the Second or Inner Order, known as the R.  R. et A. C. or the Ordo Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis.

The First Order includes the grades of Neophyte, Zelator, Theoricus, Practicus, and Philosophus. Between the First and Second Orders is a liminal grade known as the Portal. The Second Order consists of the grades of Adeptus Minor, Adeptus Major, and Adeptus Exemptus. The non-physical Third Order is comprised of the grades of Magister Templi, Magus, and Illuminatus.

There are three degrees in the Golden Dawn system.  Although the degrees are often confused with the three Orders, they are not the same and do not overlap the same Sephirotic divisions on the Tree of Life. 

The First Degree is comprised of the entire First Order, from Neophyte through Philosophus, and represents the magical stage of purification. The Second Degree consists of only the Portal grade and represents the stage of consecration. The Third Degree is composed of all the grades belonging the Second Order. This Degree represents magical stage of union wherein the magician works to align and commune with the Higher Self.

As a school of the Western Mysteries, the initiation ceremonies of the Golden Dawn are based on a series of mystery plays or ritual dramas in which the officers reenact specific mythologies that are essential to the Western Esoteric Tradition. To effect a psycho-spiritual change in the awareness of the candidate, the ritual officers work as team in initiation ceremonies using the magical methods of divine theurgy. If the entire initiatory process is successful, the candidate will have been given an infusion of divine energy, in the hope that he or she will indeed attain the increased awareness that is needed to exalt the soul and achieve the completion of the Great Work.

And while the initiating officers can provide the necessary magical impetus for this end, it is up to the individual student to travel the path of initiation “in essence as well as in form.” As the Hierophant tells the Neophyte, “Remember that God alone is our Light and the Bestower of Perfect Wisdom, and that no mortal power can do more than bring you to the Pathway of that Wisdom…”