HISTORY is littered with tales of occult and secretive societies, who claim a hidden knowledge about the universe. Often, they flare and fade; their riddles lost to time. Their members remain a mystery; their practices an enigma.
But there are a few who burn brighter, more intensely than the rest. It is from these magical societies that we catch glimpses of a forgotten and mysterious aspect to humanity. The yearning for the divine and transcendental. Amongst the most famous orders of recent history, are the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Practitioners of theurgy and spiritualism, the Golden Dawn existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Great Britain. However, it’s legacy on Western occultism persists to this day.
MYSTICISM AND SCIENCE IN THE VICTORIAN AGE
THE Victorian era was famed for its obsessions with the supernatural. Séances and psychics were rife; gypsies and their tarot cards dotted the country markets. Bizarre it seems in a time of revolutionary science, an era of steam and iron, for so many to embrace the mystic arts. Yet, in a time of radical change, should we be surprised so many turned to the ancient wisdom of the past? They clung to the mysteries of the world.
Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a London coroner and Rosicrucian (an esoteric order of Christianity), was one of the founders of Golden Dawn. In 1887, he produced a tattered manuscript that contained fragments of a set of rituals for ‘Golden Dawn’, a prior and unknown organization. Westcott took the manuscript to Samuel Liddell Mathers, an occultist, and friend, for examination. The two set to work recreating and elaborating upon the rituals, with Westcott producing further papers claiming Golden Dawn was an old German occult order.
In all likelihood, all the papers concerned were forgeries by Westcott himself. Nevertheless, in 1888 the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established, alongside the third founder Dr. William Robert Woodman.
THREE BROTHER JOURNEY EAST
HAILING from the world of Freemasonry – its three founders had all been Freemasons – the Order was based upon a hierarchical structure. Members must be initiated, although women were now allowed in as equals to men. An elaborate system of degrees and orders was established. Three orders were formed: Outer, Second, and Third. Within these orders were the degrees, relating to the Ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. A further eleventh degree was added for neophytes.
No human ever claimed the Third Order. The three founders were mere mortals of the Second Order, with the highest levels filled by the Secret Chiefs: ethereal entities who lived in the astral plane. To advance to the Second Order and become an ‘adept’ one must complete the study required in the Outer Order.
Through this cryptic system, Golden Dawn proved wildly successful. Famous members included Aleister Crowley, W. B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Florence Farr. In time, an Osiris temple was established in Weston-Super-Mare, the Horus temple in Bradford, and the Amen-Ra temple in Edinburgh. Between 1888 and 1896, a remarkable three-hundred and fifteen initiations occurred. Such new attendees were only allowed to join by invitation only. The secrets of the group were closely guarded.
It was reportedly for this reason that Westcott left Golden Dawn in 1897. Rumour had it that he had misplaced important occult-related papers in a hansom cab. His employers caught wind of his antics, and Westcott severed ties.
AFTER CHAOS, REBIRTH FROM THE ASHES
NOW under the full control of Mathers, Woodman having died in 1891, the Order began to see troubles. Increasingly members clashed with Mathers personality. By the turn of the century, the Isis-Urania and Amen-Ra temples were in revolt. Groups began to splinter. The secret knowledge Mathers had hoarded for himself was in demand. The members wanted to converse with the Secret Chiefs themselves.
Aleister Crowley, the novelist and magician, was preferred as the leader. However, when Mathers refused Crowley’s promotion, his decision backfired. In a general meeting on March 29th of 1900, Mathers was stripped of his titles and expelled from the Order. The London temples declared independence from the rest. One by one, the temples Balkanised.
From the ashes of Golden Dawn, numerous temples and orders were born. But these were just embers of their former glory. Mathers went onto the found temples in America, but he never regained his prominence. Like all cycles of earthly existence, the sun had set on the original splendor of the Golden Dawn. Whence comes its future rising and whither may it, once more, direct its sublime light, we know not.