new age spirituality

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or "Golden Dawn", as it is commonly referred to) is a tradition of magical theurgy and spiritual development. It is probably the single greatest influence on 20th century western occultism. Concepts of magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema and other forms of magical spirituality popular today, are drawn from the Golden Dawn traditions.


The original "Order of the Golden Dawn" was a magical fraternity founded in London in 1888 by Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a London physician and municipal coroner. His partners were another physician, Dr. William R. Woodman, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. All three men were Freemasons. Dr. Woodman was the head of a reputable Rosicrucian fellowship made up of well respected, high ranking Masons in London. The three founders were also members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), an exclusive lodge founded by the noted Grand Lodge Freemason Kenneth MacKenzie, author of The Royal Masonic Encyclopedia. The S.R.I.A. was established in 1866 with Lord Bulwer-Lytton as honorary patron. Important members included Frederick Hockley, who collected esoteric writing and engaged in practical experimentation; he is reliably known to have been taught by a pupil of Francis Barrett, and was a teacher of Kenneth MacKenzie. The Christian spiritualist leader Rev. William Stainton Moses was also a member of the S.R.I.A.

Westcott, also a member of the Theosophical Society, seems to have been the initial driving force behind the establishment of the Golden Dawn. Woodman, as Supreme Magus of the S.R.I.A., was undoubtedly recruited to lend credibility to the new organization. Mathers was an antiquarian, translator, researcher and had a great talent for composing ritual works and integrating occult symbolism. In addition, Mathers insisted on women being allowed to participate in the Order in "perfect equality" with men. This was a marked change from the men-only tradition of Masonry. And unlike the S.R.I.A., which required its members to be Christian, the Golden Dawn was open to any man or woman who professed "belief in a Supreme Being or Beings".

The Cipher Manuscripts

According to its founders, the Golden Dawn was based on a charter from a supposedly ancient German Rosicrucian Lodge, which had written a coded record of their secret occult rituals into a document dubbed the Cipher Manuscripts. Westcott claimed to have acquired these mysterious manuscripts in 1886, from the effects of Reverend A. F. A. Woodford, an elderly Masonic scholar. Copies of these records were subsequently discovered by Westcott among assorted papers of the Swedenborgian Rite that MacKenzie had left to Woodford after his death in 1886, which were turned over by Woodford's widow to Westcott, in his capacity as an Officer of the S.R.I.A..

According to Westcott, the Cipher Manuscripts also contained an address of an aged adept named "Fräulein Sprengel" in Germany, to whom Westcott wrote inquiring about the contents of the papers. Fraulein Sprengel responded, and after accepting the requests of Westcott and Mathers, issued them a charter to operate a Lodge of the Order in England. Westcott's first Golden Dawn Temple was the Isis-Urania Lodge, styled "No.3". Temple No.1 would have been Fraulein Sprengel's lodge, and No. 2 was supposedly an abortive attempt at a lodge by some unnamed persons in London, (possibly a reference to MacKenzie and other S.R.I.A. members some years earlier.)

The Golden Age of the Golden Dawn

In its heyday, many cultural celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr and Irish revolutionary Maude Gonne. Some well known members included Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats, and Aleister Crowley. (Bram Stoker is rumored to have once been a member.) But many men and women of the 19th century Fin de siècle social culture were members of the Golden Dawn.

The original Lodge founded in 1888 did not teach any magical practices per se (except for basic "banishing" rituals and meditation), but was rather a philosophical and metaphysical teaching Order. This was called "the Outer Order", and for four years the Golden Dawn existed only in "the Outer". The "Inner Order", which became active in 1892, was the circle of Adepts who had completed the entire course of study and Initiations of the Outer Order contained in the Cipher Manuscripts. This group eventually became known as the Second Order (the Outer Order being the "First" Order).

Mathers and Dr. Westcott have been credited for developing the ritual outlines in the Cipher Manuscript into a workable format. Mathers, however, is generally credited with the design of the curriculum and rituals of the Second Order, which he called the Rosae Rubae et Aureae Crucis ("Ruby Rose and Golden Cross", or the RR et AC.) Some Golden Dawn practitioners believe that Mathers received his materials from the "Secret Chiefs" connected to his German Rosicrucian predecessors, which is what he stated to his followers. Some believe that S.L. Macgregor Mathers and his wife Moina channelled the materials, and later refined and developed them, as was done with the Cipher Manuscripts. Mathers' exegesis of the Cipher materials as practiced by the original Temples is known as the "Z-2". The Order tradition is to designate it's important "secret" instructional papers as "Z Documents".

The primary Lodges were the original Isis-Urania Temple in London, the Amen-Ra Temple in Edinburgh, and the Ahathoor Temple in Paris. It is unknown how many members the Order had in its heyday, as some lodges' records were lost or destroyed, but estimates range from three to five hundred. Only a small group, probably well under one hundred, ever became part of the Second Order. There were a few other Temples, consisting of small groups scattered in Europe and America, generally meeting in private homes. Mathers left London in 1894 to live in Paris, and his temple there became the nominal center of the organization, though it was notable chiefly for his presence. Westcott remained in London as Chief Adept in Anglica (England.)

By the end of the 19th century, Dr. Woodman had passed away, and Dr. Westcott had curtailed his participation in official activities after several occult manuscripts of the Order, in a case bearing his address, had been left in a London taxicab and came to the attention of his superiors in the city government. Not wishing any hint of scandal over "secret occult societies" that had officials of the Crown in their ranks (especially a coroner, who could conceivably cover up a suspicious cause of death), Westcott's employers insisted he disassociate himself with the Order. There are accounts of a similar incident in 1889 which caused him to stop lecturing for the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. Aleister Crowley later alleged in his autobiography that Mathers deliberately planted the documents to consolidate his control of the Order by forcing Westcott's resignation, as this was rumored at the time. While there is no proof of Mathers's complicity, it appears that the relationship between Mathers and Westcott all but ended after this point. After Westcott's departure, Mathers appointed Florence Farr to be Chief Adept in Anglica. (Although Westcott publicly resigned, he must have continued in some capacity since there are Lodge documents bearing his signature dated years after his "resignation.")

This left Mathers as the only active founding member and in charge of the Order. Due to personality clashes with other members, and being absent from the center of Lodge activity in Great Britain, challenges to Mathers' authority as leader began to develop amongst the members of the Second Order.

The Breakup of the Original Order

After 13 years of operation, a majority of the high-ranking members in London fostered a schism of the British lodges from Mathers in 1900, which led to further schisms and more splinter groups. The original Golden Dawn ceased to exist under that name in 1903 but which continued under at least two spin-off organizations, the Stella Matutina (Morning Star) and the Alpha et Omega, as well as a renamed faction headed by Arthur Edward Waite.

In 1900, Mathers had entered into a disastrous relationship with a husband and wife known as Mr. and Mrs. Theo Horos. This couple had carved out a living for a number of years as "confidence frauds with an occult slant." The Horos' had apparently developed some kind of relationship with one of the American temples and had either acquired or forged some Order papers and credentials. Based on these credentials and their mesmeric personalities, the Horoses were able to con Mathers out of Order documents, which they used to set up spurious "temples" and operate confidence schemes. Word of their illicit operations eventually reached Mathers, who subsequently denounced them as frauds, and they were tried and convicted of fraud and sexual misconduct in 1902.

By 1903 the name "Golden Dawn" was dropped by both Mathers and by the various splinter groups to avoid the growing public scandal. The Stella Matutina closed its doors in the United Kingdom before WWII, but continued to function under the popular name Whare Ra in New Zealand until the late 1970s. Mathers' Alpha et Omega had a few members in America in the early 20th century, but no groups are known to have continued after the death of his wife Moina in 1928.

The Modern Revival

In 1914, Aleister Crowley published the texts of the Initiation rituals of the Outer Order in his serial publication, "The Equinox". Real circulation of the materials didn't happen until after World War I, when they created quite a stir in the occult community. The secrets of the Golden Dawn became available to the general public, and were a major part of the occult "revival" of the 1920's. Israel Regardie, who was once Crowley's secretary, published the complete initiation rites, along with a selection of the workings and instructional documents that were in his possession, of the Stella Matutina (essentially identical to the original Golden Dawn rituals and teachings) in the early 1930s. While this action supposedly violated the Order's oaths of secrecy, Regardie claims he believed at the time no functioning lodges remained, and feared the work of the Order would otherwise be lost forever.

In the 1920s and 30s more schisms occurred, and by the onset of World War II most of the original Lodges were gone, except for a few small groups (notably in America and New Zealand) that could claim direct descent from the original Lodges, finally dying out in the 1970s. But even as the original lodges died away, new adherents and Initiates of the old Adepts began to revive the Order, reclaiming the name of the Golden Dawn. Lodges currently exist in Europe, the Americas, South Africa and Australia. Numbers are hard to estimate, but there are likely hundreds if not thousands of people currently involved in organized Golden Dawn groups, and many solo practioners. Some can claim lineage of one kind or another to the original lodges by "apostolic succession" (i.e. Adepts having gone on to establish their own Lodges without any official charters), others simply follow the legacy of the original Order according to the wealth of published material available to the public, either in organized lodges or as solo practitioners. This being the case, there is no universally recognized central authority, though there are lodges and individuals that lay claim to it.

There are a few organized Golden Dawn groups today that lay claim to the "undiluted" lineage of the original Temples. Generally, this takes the form of issuing claims (especially on the Internet) of being chartered by an offshoot Temple of Isis-Urania Lodge No.3.. Moina Mathers, having assumed the role of Imperatrix after her husband's death in 1918, chartered a few Lodges in Europe and America after her husband died. Claims of lineage are usually by connection to one of these temples.

The publication of the Golden Dawn corpus figured prominently in the occult "revival" of the 1960s. Before his death in 1985, Regardie was involved in initiatives to reestablish the Golden Dawn tradition. Other groups founded by former Golden Dawn associates, such as the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) of Paul Foster Case and the Society of Inner Light of Dion Fortune, continue to exist today. The historical and cultural legacy of the Golden Dawn has been more influential on modern occultism than any other esoteric organization or body of knowledge. Although the original Golden Dawn teachings showed a strong influence of esoteric Christianity, almost every expression of Western occult spirituality and neo-paganism today owes a debt to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.


The primary basis of the Golden Dawn philosophy is an integrated Western Hermeticism, organized into a more or less coherent structure. The Golden Dawn's Hermetic roots came together from the philosophies of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, with Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism merging in the second and third century; with influence from the Moslem Sufis brought to Europe by Crusader orders; the Qabala — itself influenced by Neo-Platonism - and alchemy, merging in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The philosophy of the Inner Order, more so than that of the Outer, was also heavily influenced by mystic Christianity and Rosicrucian ideals. By the mid-1800s, the final additions to what we recognize as Western Magic Tradition are complete—the Tarot, Astrology, and Talismanic Magic. To this mix the Golden Dawn added Enochian Magic, a system developed in the late 16th century by Dr. John Dee, astrologer and cartographer to Queen Elizabeth I, and the Hindu meditation system of Tattvas, along with the Tantric principles of the Chakras.

Before the Golden Dawn, attempts to draw the mass of Western tradition together into a coherent system had been flawed, or incomplete. Barrett and Constant (Levi) had both attempted a system that unified Western tradition. But it would be the Golden Dawn which produced a balanced and harmonious system which included all the disparate elements of Western Esotericism.

At its core, the philosophy of the Golden Dawn is one of perfectible humanism; that by use of the esoteric tools and techniques passed down from antiquity, a human being can advance in spiritual knowledge and magical power, and with hard work and discipline, come to control his or her own destiny.

The Structure of the Order

The Golden Dawn follows a "fraternal lodge" model similar to freemasonry, with titles, degrees and initiations. The Order purports to be a meritocracy, with advancement based on tests of knowledge and demonstration of skills.

In the Outer Order, both the layout of the Temple and the functions of Officers seem to closely mirror those of the Blue Lodge of Masonry. The names of the Grades, or degrees of initiation, as well as the titles bestowed upon initiates, were taken from old sources such as the German Masonic "Gold und Rosen-kreutzers", and Pianco's 1781 book, Der Rosenkreutzer in seiner Blosse. In the Inner Order, the Rosicrucian drama enacted in the initiation rituals is reminiscent of that in the "Rose Croix" degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, and is certainly related to the ceremonies of the S.R.I.A. The Grades in the Golden Dawn are based on the symbolism of the Qabalistic Tree of Life.

The Grades of the Golden Dawn

First Order:
Introduction—Neophyte 0=0
Zelator 1=10
Theoricus 2=9
Pracitcus 3=8
Philosophus 4=7

Second Order:
Intermediate—Portal Grade
Adeptus Minorus 5=6
Adeptus Majorus 6=5
Adeptus Exemptus 7=4

Third Order:
Magister Templi 8=3
Magus 9=2
Ipsissimus 10=1

The paired numbers attached to the Grades relate to positions on the Tree of Life. The Neophyte Grade of "0=0" indicates no position on the Tree. For the others, the first numeral is the number of steps up from the bottom (Malkuth), and the second numeral is the number of steps down from the top (Kether).

The First Order Grades are related to the four Classical Elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire, respectively. The Aspirant to a Grade receives instruction on the metaphysical meaning of each of these Elements, and must pass a written examination and demonstrate certain skills to receive Admission to that Grade.

The Portal Grade is the initiation for admittance to the Second Order. In most Lodges, the Circle of existing Adepts must consent to allow an Aspirant to join the Second Order.

The Second Order is not, properly, part of the "Golden Dawn", but a separate Order in its own right, known as the R.R. et A.C. The Second Order directed the teachings of the First Order, and was the governing force behind the First Order.

After passing the Portal, the Aspirant begins to be instructed in the techniques of practical Magic. When another examination is passed, and the other Adepts consent, the Aspirant attains the Grade of Adeptus Minor 5=6. (In the original Order, there were four sub-Grades of instruction for the Adeptus Minor, again relating to the four Outer Order grades.)

A member of the Second Order has the power and authority to initiate aspirants to the First Order, though usually not without the permission of the Chiefs of his or her Lodge.

Light in Extension

The original Golden Dawn left behind a legacy that continues to inspire students of the esoteric arts to this day. Modern neo-pagan practices such as "circle casting", use of the pentagram, hexagram and other geometric forms as sacred symbols, "out-of-body" experiences, the Tarot cards, talismans, astrology and many others, can find their roots in the Golden Dawn. While the Order may not have originated all these forms, they synthesized them into a coherent body of work that continues to appeal to occultists and esoteric scholars more than 100 years later. The Light of the Golden Dawn continues to be extended to this day.

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