By Chic & S. Tabatha Cicero
The story of the Golden Dawn, like that of any human organization, is replete with high points and low points—with human achievements and human failings. There is no need for us to try to whitewash or sugarcoat the faults of some of the individuals who contributed to the Order’s colorful history. Nor should we place them on lofty pedestals and worship them as if they were infallible gurus. They were not. The founders of the Golden Dawn were intelligent creative individuals who came together to craft a unique system of magical teachings and initiatory rites.
In spite of the shortcomings of some of its founding members, the accomplishments of the Golden Dawn have benefited many people as is evidenced by just how much of the system has been borrowed by other magical groups. Teachings and rituals that were originally created by the Golden Dawn are now standard fare in many esoteric organizations. This is because the teachings themselves are valid and useful. And for those whose first love is the Golden Dawn tradition, there is no question about its value. In fact, when Golden Dawn magicians are able to come to terms with the mixed bag of the Order’s history, they are less likely to fall into the trap of egotism—the scourge of magical Orders and religions alike. Instead, they are more likely to concentrate on what is really important in the Order—spiritual growth. The Great Work.
The Years before the Golden Dawn
In the mid-1800’s Europe was experiencing a huge growth of interest in general occultism, and the Hermetic Tradition in particular. This interest was seen in England and especially in France. By the mid-1850’s the French Occult Revival led by Alphonse Louis Constant, better known as Eliphas Levi, was well underway. In 1854 Levi wrote The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic which would become a cornerstone of the Western Magical Tradition. Levi was the first person to point out the correspondences between the Tarot and the Qabalah—a theory that would later become an important part of Golden Dawn teachings.
This was a time of discovery as England continued to explore the farthest reaches of the world. There was much interest in ancient Egypt, as well as the archaic traditions of the Celts, and the mysticism of the Far East. However most occult studies at the time were strictly theoretical. But there was definitely a change in the air in regards to spiritual beliefs. Many people were dissatisfied with the status quo of the orthodox religions. They were hungry for something new and stimulating. The Spiritualist movement evolved to satiate this hunger.
Spiritualism was established as an alternative form of religious belief in America in the late 1840’s. Founded in 1848 by the Fox sisters (Margaretta, Leah, and Kate), the focus of Spiritualism was on communication with the dead. A deceased person was said to speak through a medium in order to give information to the living. This was sometimes accompanied by certain physical manifestations such as rapping on table, the moving of objects around the medium, and the materialization of the deceased spirit.
Spiritualism caused great excitement and attracted many followers when it came into being, because it provided direct and personal experience with the spiritual. It was dynamic and exhilarating, especially when compared to the tamer, dogmatic experiences of the orthodox churches. However, the limitations of spiritualism were many. It seemed to offer contact with only the lowest levels of the spiritual world—the shells and spirits of the dead. (Magicians have a saying about Spiritualism—“Just because someone has died, doesn’t mean they’ve gotten any wiser.”) Spiritualism was also intellectually unsophisticated, and had no tradition to back it up. In addition, there was a disturbing number of mediums who were frauds.
In the 1860’s and 1870’s there was also an increased interest in Freemasonry, a world-wide fraternity of men, supposed to have been founded at the building of King Solomon’s Temple. Freemasonry taught basic morality and required a belief in God as the divine architect of the cosmos. Because of an influx of men who wished to become Masons, there were many new lodges formed during the later part of the 1800’s.
In 1875, an organization known as the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City by a group of Spiritualists, Qabalists, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians. It was headed by Madame Helena Petrova Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott. Theosophy (meaning “Divine Wisdom”) was welcomed by many educated people in America and in Britain, because it offered a vital and stimulating alternative to the religion of the masses. It also offered an alternative to material science, which was busy destroying all spiritual ideas of the universe. Theosophy was spiritually and intellectually satisfying to people who were looking for a new kind of spirituality. Instead of dead relatives, the Theosophists sought the advice of enlightened Masters—higher spiritual beings. Theosophy also made an intriguing claim to represent an archaic secret tradition. Its aim was to bring the esoteric knowledge of the ancients to the modern world, and to study comparative religions, the laws of nature, and humanity’s spiritual faculties. In addition to promoting the idea of brotherly love, Theosophists also popularized the idea of an esoteric wisdom-teaching that was common to all humanity.
It is interesting to note that there was not a single representative of the Eastern Mystical Tradition among the founders of the Theosophical Society. At this early stage, Madame Blavatsky (or HPB as she was often called) identified her inner contacts, or Secret Chiefs as non-physical masters from an Egyptian Order that was carrying on the work of Zoroaster and Solomon. In other words, the Theosophical Society was founded as a Western esoteric society. Blavatsky’s western masters were called Serapis Bey, Polydorus Isurenus, and John King.
It was years later that Blavatsky and Olcott converted to Buddhism. The Theosophical Society then shifted to an Eastern orientation. Blavatsky gave up her Western Secret Chiefs for three oriental Masters: Koot Hoomi, Morya, and Djwal Khul. If HBP and Olcott had not become Buddhists and changed the focus of the Theosophical Society, it is possible that the Golden Dawn might never have developed. But there was still a need for a group that emphasized the Western Esoteric Tradition.
Another important figure who influenced the creation of the Golden Dawn was Anna Kingsford. Along with her spiritual partner, Edward Maitland, Mrs. Kingsford revived the idea of esoteric Christianity. Both Kingsford and Maitland were mystics who were said to have frequent spiritual visions. They called their work Christian Pantheism, which explored the Bible in terms of esoteric symbolism, Qabalah, and the mythologies of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Their doctrine had similarities to certain Neo-Platonic, Gnostic, and Alchemical ideas.
In the early 1880’s Kingsford and Maitland were members of the Theosophical Society, and by 1884 they were the heads of the London Theosophical Lodge. However, they resigned when they realized that the Eastern focus of the society could never truly be reconciled with their own Western beliefs.
In 1885, they formed the Hermetic Society which attracted people like S. L. MacGregor Mathers and Dr. W. Wynn Westcott, the founders of the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn. There is no doubt that Anna Kingsford impressed both Mathers and Westcott with the idea that men and women should work together on the spiritual quest, as did the Theosophical Society.
The Founders of the Golden Dawn
In 1888, three Qabalists, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians founded the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn, to carry out the work that was abandoned by the Theosophical Society. These founders of the Golden Dawn intended that the Order should serve as the guardian of the Western Esoteric Tradition—keeping its knowledge intact, while at the same time preparing and teaching those individuals called to the initiatory path of the mysteries.
The primary creator of the Golden Dawn was Dr. William Wynn Westcott. A London coroner who was interested in occultism, Westcott was a Master Mason and Secretary General of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia or the Rosicrucian Society in England (also called the SRIA). Westcott, along with two others founded the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn in 1888. However, the Golden Dawn was definitely Westcott’s brainchild.
Westcott’s colleagues in this endeavor were Dr. William Robert Woodman and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Dr. Woodman was a retired physician and a leading member of the SRIA. Along with Mathers, Woodman was asked by Westcott to become one of the leaders of his new Order in 1887. Woodman was an excellent Qabalist who had probably had a leading role in developing in the Qabalistic studies of the Golden Dawn. However, he died in 1891, before the Order was fully developed.
The true magician of the Golden Dawn, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, was an accomplished ritualist. Of the three founding members of the Order, Mathers was the one most responsible for making the Golden Dawn a truly magical and initiatory Order.
The Cipher Manuscript
No history of the Golden Dawn can be given without some reference to the Cipher Manuscript – the enigmatic document upon which the rituals and Knowledge Lectures of the Golden Dawn are based. According to Westcott, some sixty pages of a manuscript written in cipher were given to him in 1887 by the Reverend A. F. A. Woodford, an elderly Mason who, it was claimed, received the manuscript from “a dealer in curios.” The manuscript, which seemed to be old, was quickly deciphered by Westcott using the cipher found in Abbot Johann Trithemius’ book Polygraphiae. The manuscript proved to be a series of ritual outlines of an occult Order. Westcott fleshed-out the outlines into full working rituals. Shortly after the grade rituals from Neophyte through Philosophus were completed, Westcott, asked Mathers and Woodman to join him as chiefs of his new Order.
There continue to be many questions about where the Cipher Manuscript came from. Some people tend to think that Westcott created them. Others think that they were written by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the author of an occult novel called Zanoni, A Strange Story, or by Frederick Hockley, a famous Rosicrucian “seer” and transcriber of occult manuscripts. There have been several other theories put forth as possible sources of the Cipher Manuscript, including a Masonic Lodge in Frankfort called the “Loge zur aufgehenden Morgenrothe” (with an offshoot Lodge supposedly founded in London), and a “Qabalistic College” in London headed by an influential Qabalist by the name of Johann Friedrich Falk. Both of these groups have been suspected by some to have been tied to the enigmatic second Hermanoubis Temple of the Golden Dawn. However, there is no evidence to support any of these theories.
The real truth about the Cipher Manuscript is probably as follows. It now seems certain that the Cipher Manuscript was written by Kenneth Mackenzie, the author of The Royal Masonic Encyclopia and a leading member of the SRIA. Mackenzie had known Eliphas Levi, and was a friend of Frederick Holland, another high-grade Mason. Leading Golden Dawn historian R.A. Gilbert suspects that the real Hermanoubis Temple was a Golden Dawn prototype founded in 1883 founded by Holland. This group was known as the “Society of Eight.” Mackenzie wrote the ritual outlines of the Cipher Manuscript for Holland’s order, a group which never fully manifested, or for the Sat B’hai which admitted both men and women. Westcott acquired the papers after Mackenzie’s death.
With such a strong Masonic background, Westcott was familiar with the notion of organization through hierarchy. Masonic lodges could not exist without a legitimate charter from the Grand Lodge. Westcott must have felt the need to provide evidence that the Golden Dawn was not something that was merely created out of thin air—that it had a written history. He needed a “pedigree” of a sort to prove that the G.D. had legitimate hierarchical succession from some distant authority. Since such no hierarchical authority existed for the Golden Dawn, Westcott fabricated one. Why did he do this? It was probably the only way he could attract Freemasons and other serious occultists to his new Order.
An additional paper, written in cipher, was inserted into the manuscript by someone—more than likely Westcott himself. This was a letter containing the credentials and address of a woman in Germany named Fraulein Sprengel, Soror Sapiens Dominabitur Astris. According to Westcott, he wrote to Fraulein Sprengel and was informed that she was an Adept of an occult Order (Die Goldene Dammerung, or the Golden Dawn.) She supposedly authorized Westcott, through a series of letters, to establish a new temple in England and gave Westcott permission to sign her name on any document that was needed. And in the spring of 1888 Westcott produced a Charter of Warrant for the Isis-Urania Temple #3 of the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn in London.
While the Cipher manuscripts are genuine, it is certain that Westcott made up the story about Anna Sprengel and her letters. By making her a high-ranking official in an obscure German Order, Westcott made her authoritative, credible, and unreachable. And once the mythical Soror SDA had served her purpose, she conveniently died.
By the end of 1888, Isis-Urania Temple in London had thirty-two members, nine women and twenty-three men. That same year, two more temples were established. These were the Osiris Temple #4 at Weston-Super-Mare, and the Horus Temple #5 at Bradford. Amen-Ra Temple #6 in Edinburgh, Scotland was not founded until 1893. The Osiris Temple was active until 1895, but the Horus Temple at Bradford prospered until 1900.
The R.R. et A.C.
During its early years from 1888 to 1891, the Golden Dawn was primarily a theoretical school which performed the initiation ceremonies of the Outer Order, and taught its members the basics of Qabalah, astrology, alchemical symbolism, geomancy, and tarot, but no practical magic other than the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. In the later part of 1891, Isis-Urania Temple had over eighty initiates, while other temples had a couple of dozen members.
In December of 1891, Dr. Woodman died and no one was chosen to take his place. Around this time, Mathers finished a magnificent ritual for the 5=6, (the Adeptus Minor grade), the first grade of the Second or Inner Order of the Ordo Roseae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis, also called the R.R. et A.C., or the “Order of the Rose of Ruby and the Cross of Gold.” With the creation of a functional Second Order, Mathers accomplished a restructuring of the Order and became its primary Chief.
The 5=6 ritual was based upon the legend of Christian Rosenkruez (or CRC) and the accidental discovery of his burial chamber one hundred and twenty years after his death. The story, as described in the Fama Fraternitatis is as follows: The great spiritual teacher and founder of the Rosicrucian fraternity, Christian Rosenkruez, died and was secretly buried. Years later, members of the Order chanced upon the tomb, which was hidden behind some masonry. The tomb they found was a seven-sided room inscribed with elaborate symbolism. Each wall of the tomb was eight feet high by five feet wide. In the center of the room was a circular altar over a sarcophagus, in which lay the perfectly preserved body of CRC.
For the 5=6 ritual, Mathers and his wife, Moina, created an elaborate full-size version of CRC’s tomb, known as the Vault of the Adepti, which displayed the strong Rosicrucian element that was woven into Golden Dawn’s Inner Order. Moina Mathers was an accomplished artist, a gifted clairvoyant, and MacGregor’s personal “skryer.” Her visionary experiences may have greatly influenced her husband in the writing of the Second Order rituals and gradework. Moina painted most of the wall decorations, godforms, and temple furnishings for the mother temple, Isis-Urania, in London. Since the Fama did not give many details on the symbolism of the room, the Matherses were able to draw upon their own formidable creativity to produce this impressive chamber. (Anyone initiated in such a Vault could testify to its potent psychic impact.)
Admission to the secret Second Order was gained by invitation as well as examination. And the work of the Second Order was also extensive. Whereas the First Order of the Golden Dawn was a basically theoretical, the Second Order of the R.R. et A.C. was where magical theory was put into practice. Members were required to make and consecrate several magical implements. MacGregor Mathers also created a curriculum and a series of eight examinations which led up to the subgrade of Theoricus Adeptus Minor. Few members had the time or stamina to complete the gradework and all eight examinations. Those who did could rightly profess to have obtained a complete education in nearly every facet of Western Hermetic magic (It was comparable to a university degree in magic.)
In the spring of 1892, the Matherses moved to Paris and sent up the Ahathoor Temple #7. Dr. Westcott became the Chief of the Order in England. Through his correspondence with Mathers, he received additional material for the ever-expanding Second Order curriculum. The Order continued to thrive from 1892 to 1896. Shortly after this, a handful of American temples were chartered by the A.O.: Thmé Temple No. 8 in Chicago, 1897; Thoth-Hermes No. 9 in New York, 1897; Ptah No. 10 in Philadelphia, 1919; and Atoum No. 20 in Los Angeles, 1920.
Trouble in the Order began 1895 when MacGregor Mathers’s relationship with his financier, Annie Horniman, began to deteriorate. Horniman, a long time member of the Order, was the daughter of an affluent tea importer. She was a close friend of Moina Mathers when the two attended art school together. After their move to Paris, Horniman supported the Matherses financially from England with a generous subsidy. In return, she expected Mathers to dedicate all of his time to the work of the Order. But instead he become increasingly distracted by Jacobite politics and other pursuits.
MacGregor Mathers was a talented magician, but also a demanding, eccentric, and autocratic Chief. In the spring of 1896, a disagreement erupted between Horniman and Mathers over the matter of his politics taking time away from his Order responsibilities. Mathers accused his benefactress of trying to weaken his authority, and she in turn withdrew her financial support from him.
Increased restlessness on the part of the Second Order Adepts in London, resulted in swift action from Mathers. In the fall of 1896, he sent each of them a copy of a manifesto demanding complete obedience to him on everything related to the First and Second Orders. All but Horniman submitted to the demand. Mathers promptly expelled her from the Order, which shocked many of the members and only added to their discontent.
Another problem developed in March of 1897, when Westcott’s association with the Golden Dawn become known to the authorities. Westcott resigned from all offices within the Golden Dawn and the R.R. et A.C. Florence Farr, the famous stage actress, then became the head of the London branch of the Order. But without Westcott’s enthusiastic supervision and propensity for orderly paperwork, the extensive gradework and examination system of the Second Order in London began to decline.
A major crisis for the Golden Dawn occurred in February of 1900. Mathers was governing the Order from a distance, and he was increasingly out of touch with the English temples. Florence Farr was growing tired of Mathers’s personal quirks and domineering behavior. In a letter to Mathers, she suggested that the Order should be dissolved. Mathers suspected that this was part of a scheme to bring back Westcott and replace him as head of the Order. Consequently, Mathers revealed to Farr that the letters from Fraulein Sprengel had been forged by Westcott.
This bombshell shook the trust of the London members. Even more exasperating was the fact that Westcott declined to give any explanation or even defend himself against Mathers’s accusations. To make matters worse, an individual named Aleister Crowley, who had been in the Order for approximately one year, became eligible for initiation into the Second Order in December 1899. Florence Farr, along with several of the London Adepts, saw Crowley as a questionable initiate, and rejected his initiation. Crowley immediately went to Paris and was initiated into the Second Order by Mathers. This did not sit well at all with the London Adepts, who refused to acknowledge Crowley’s initiation. A full-blown rebellion was at hand. The Second Order members in London formed a committee to investigate the allegations of fraud. In April of 1900, Mathers declared the Second Order committee annulled. He sent Crowley to London as his emissary in order to take possession of Second Order’s private rooms and implements. However, this plan was foiled by the diligence of William Butler Yeats and some of the other London Adepts, who promptly expelled both Mathers and Crowley.
In the ensuing confusion, Yeats took control and became Imperator of Isis-Urania Temple. The committee attempted to restructure the Order along more democratic lines. The result was only more confusion. Meanwhile, Annie Horniman had been reinstated into the Order. But she found to her dismay that many of the rituals had been meddled with, and the examination system had been virtually abandoned. Even worse, some of the Adepts, including Florence Farr, had created a separate secret group without the approval of Yeats and some of the other Adepts. This group, called the “Sphere,” specialized in astral visualization, astral traveling and communications with “Masters.” Because of these abuses, Horniman began to argue with nearly everyone in the Order. Yeats tried to maintain peace for a while, but finally resigned from office in February of 1901.
Another blow to the Order was on the horizon in 1901. This problem was named Madame Horos. And in 1901, she was responsible for bringing unwanted publicity to the Golden Dawn. Mr. and Mrs. Horos were a couple of charlatans and con-artists who had somehow managed to convince MacGregor Mathers that Madame was actually the real Anna Sprengel. Mathers was fooled for a while, but when he started to get suspicious, they stole some copies of the Golden Dawn’s rituals and fled to London.
Once in London the Horos couple set up their own personal Order—The Order of Theocractic Unity which—unknown to its members—featured fraud, extortion, and sex. Mr. Horos was eventually arrested for rape. When charged by the authorities, the Horos couple claimed to be the leaders of the Golden Dawn. The result was that many of the most arcane secrets of the Order were made public. The initiation rituals of the Golden Dawn were printed in the London newspapers. The Order was scandalized by the whole episode.
The original Order now began to split apart. Florence Farr resigned from the Golden Dawn which changed its name to the Hermetic Society of the Morgenrothe. A small group of initiates gave their allegiance to Mathers and consequently formed the Order of the A.O., the Alpha et Omega. In 1903 a schism occurred within the Order. The remnant of the original Isis-Urania Temple was taken over by Arthur Edward Waite, a mystic, occultist, and prolific writer who studied several branches of esoteric wisdom. Many of the remaining Golden Dawn members went with Waite’s group. However, Waite did not care for magic. Mysticism was more to his taste. In his new Order, The Independent and Rectified Rite, Waite reduced the emphasis on ritual magic in favor of the mystical path that he preferred. The more magically-inclined members of the original Order, including Dr. Robert William Felkin and John William Brodie-Innes, formed the Order of the Stella Matutina. Felkin’s main temple in London was called Amoun.
In addition to the Paris temple, the supporters of MacGregor Mathers established A.O. temples in London (1900, 1913, 1919), and Edinburgh (1912). There was also a hybrid group known as the Cromlech Temple (1913) which was a joint effort created by the Edinburgh A.O. temple and some Anglican clergymen.
Some individuals who were initiated into the A.O. would later establish new magical groups. Dion Fortune, a student of psychology, left the Order in 1922 to form the Fraternity of the Inner Light. Paul Foster Case would later go on to create his own organization, the Builders of the Adytum.
Meanwhile, Dr. Felkin established the Smaragdum Thalasses Temple of the Stella Matutina in New Zealand in 1912. The New Zealand Order became known by the Maori name of Whare Ra or “the House of the Sun.” Back in England, Felkin established three more temples of the S.M. in 1916. These included the Hermes Lodge in Bristol, the Merlin Lodge, and the Secret College in London. The primary focus of Felkin’s group was on astral traveling.
Felkin’s abilities as the leader of a magical Order were somewhat lacking compared to Mathers. He went searching all over Europe for the Secret Chiefs of the Order in physical form. The teachings of the Order suffered as a result from public exposure by Miss Stoddart.
In the 1930’s Israel Regardie came upon the scene. Regardie had been Aleister Crowley’s secretary from 1928 to 1930. In 1932 he had written a book on magic called The Tree of Life and had earlier published a study of the Qabalah, A Garden of Pomegranates. These books caused quite a stir in the temples of both the Stella Matutina and the Alpha et Omega. Regardie joined the Hermes Temple of the Stella Matutina in 1933 and became an Adept in 1934.
Unfortunately, the Stella Matutina was dying a slow death. The leaders of the group were claiming to hold highly exalted grades with little understanding of the basic material. Many of the Knowledge Lectures had been changed or dropped altogether. In 1937 Regardie made the decision to publish most of the Order’s lectures and rituals in his book, The Golden Dawn, thus keeping the teachings from being forever lost. Regardie is often credited with keeping the traditions of the Golden Dawn alive by insuring that everyone who is interested has access to the teachings.
The Adepts of both the Stella Matutina and the Alpha et Omega were unable to deal with a very different approach to secrecy, now that most of their arcane teachings were in the public domain. In the next couple of years, most temples of the A.O. and the S.M. (with the exception of an offshoot temple in New Zealand) stopped doing group work.
Did Israel Regardie do the right thing by publishing the documents of the Golden Dawn? We believe he did. We personally believe that he was carrying out the work of the Order by helping to preserve it. There are very many magicians who owe Regardie a huge debt of gratitude. Several magical organizations, also, have been enriched by the availability of the Golden Dawn’s material, primarily through Regardie’s efforts. By and large the Order teachings have survived and regained popularity in recent years because Regardie had the foresight to save them through publication.