Have you ever wondered where The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came from? Or how about what other occult schools it spawned? In this article, you’ll learn all there is to know about the Golden Dawn. I explore its history, magical practices, initiatory degrees, contemporary influence, and much more. Strap in for a serious deep dive on The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
THE HERMETIC ORDER OF THE GOLDEN DAWN BEGINS
Jacques Bergier, a famous Ukrainian-born French writer, in the early ’70s, told a fascinating story in his work about forbidden books (Les Livres Maudits). He mentions a manuscript written in code that led to what he called: “the most extraordinary hidden adventure of our time: that of the Order of the Golden Dawn.” Bergier was a prolific writer, and even though some of his facts were not precise, given the limitations of his era, he did spotlight many interesting subjects throughout his life.
Tracking the history of occult societies can be a bit tricky. More often than not, their origin is intricate and a bit obscure. Such is the case of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
A CIPHERED MANUSCRIPT
It is 1880, and the Reverend Adolphus Frederich Alexander Woodford walks down Farrington Street in London. He enters a second-hand bookstore, probably Charles Higham’s, which specializes in Theological books and tomes. There, he finds a ciphered manuscript along with a letter written in German. He knows German, so he reads the letter, finding a promise: whoever deciphers the document will find a communication method with a German secret society through a woman named Anna Sprengel.
He shares his discovery with his friend Dr. William W. Westcott, a coroner of the Crown. Wescott was a member of one of today’s oldest surviving Rosicrucian groups, called S.R.I.A. (Rosicrucian Society in England), which remains exclusive for Christian Freemasons. Woodford becomes fascinated with this manuscript and goes on to decipher it.
The newly-cipher documents provide the basic structure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They are written in English from right to left using a key first described in the fifteenth century by the German Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (a personal instructor for two of the most notorious magicians: Agrippa and Paracelsus).
After deciphering the document, Westcott wrote to an address that accompanied the manuscript. Soon he received a reply granting him permission to establish a Golden Dawn temple and conferring the highest honorary grades to the three founding members: Westcott, Mathers, and Woodman.
Dr. Woodman, a physician and personal friend of Westcott, was involved in many occult groups and highly exclusive masonic bodies. He did not, however, have a chance to see The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn take flight. He died soon after its creation, and although Freemasonry considers the necessary number of masters for a temple to be three (a triangle), he was not replaced at any point.
A NEW OLD SYSTEM OF MAGICK
Though a Christian influence can be perceived in The Golden Dawn, it was founded as an open order. This means that unlike the S.R.I.A., members did not have to be Christians, Freemasons, nor men to enter the Order. In The Golden Dawn, all religions were equally respected, and there was no distinction regarding the sex of a member.
As for the name, the term “Hermetic” refers to the influence of the Egyptian tradition in particular through the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. The word also has come to allude to tightly-held secrets. Hermes reportedly invented airtight seals for glass containers as a method of preservation. Over time, this attribution merged with the proclivity for secret-keeping and the term “hermetically sealed” was the result. Membership in the Golden Dawn was not secret but discreet. Still, the Order became quite famous in occult circles at the time.
Studies within the Order involved Egyptian religious elements, the Kabbalah, masonic symbolism, theurgy, alchemy, astrology, Tarot, and geomancy. Several philosophers and magicians were analyzed in the early days of the Golden Dawn, but the writings of John Dee and his Enochian system had a tremendous sway from the outset.
The Golden Dawn also pulled from the traditional Jewish Kabbalah in that it invited participants to drift escalate through increasingly dense tiers of understanding.
The training the Golden Dawn shared was rooted in many important aspects of the western esoteric tradition. Fortunately, the courses of study are similar to those of current groups. So one need look no further than one’s own local Golden Dawn gathering to discover the source documents of the order.
MAGICK IN THREE ORDERS
A masonic design stood at the core of the organizing principles of the Order. The name “Golden Dawn” applied explicitly to the outer Order, to which anyone could apply. It taught the basis of esoteric philosophy using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as a glyph representative of progressing levels. Each level being a grade, membership started outside the Tree. The first level or sephirah (sphere) followed, which corresponded to the physical world and earthly matters.
Each initiation ceremony opened a sephirah for the student, which meant a set of skills to be acquired and theoretical knowledge. The advance was then a symbolic movement up the Tree of Life.
The Second or “Inner” Order, called “Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis” (Order of Rose of Ruby and Cross of Gold), used the First Order’s knowledge but approached its practical applications lightly. A practice was developed, leaning on the knowledge gained in the outer Order, to assist the initiate on their spiritual path to explore fulfill their will.
The Third Order referred to the “Secret Chiefs.” These were entities, probably human, but not incarnated. Contacting them was part of the work of the Second Order.
MAGICK AND MYSTICISM
Spiritual development was the aim of every initiate, and it was at the core of each grade and magical operation. Imagination was an essential aspect of this process, as was visualization, as it was thought to direct the mind toward a particular course, which provided access to altered states of consciousness. This is why members could continue to belong to a religion while considering the Golden Dawn as a “magical system,” or a sort of spiritual technology. In modern times, the Western tradition sees itself as a network of symbols and meanings that mirror human experiences, creating a language to express diverse realities and interact with them. The Kabbalah, from this perspective, sees each man and woman as individual universes that seek awareness in the expansion of their individual and collective minds and spirits. Such technology would teach, at its base level, that humanity’s true nature rests beyond the limitations of the ideas that entrap the Self.
The effort put on getting the correspondences between colors, entities, astrological forces, etc. loosely ordered the initiate’s unseen reality. It became the vessel of comprehension but also the jumping-off point for awareness. In this way, it acted as a very tangible and easy-to-comprehend access point for this spiritual technology.
Those correspondences were grounded in traditional elemental representations, such as gods, angels, and other archetypes. They are meant to engage the mind and create extraordinary channels for the spirit to interact with deeper levels of reality.
A NEW DAWN
The structure that the founders intended lasted for many years, but disputes among its members led to a fracture. This gave rise to several new groups, which worked independently and kept their own inner Orders. These groups were:
Several other offshoots would appear over time from these, including: The Thelemic Golden Dawn, The Society of Inner Light, Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.), and The Fraternity of the Hidden Light.
The first three groups operated within the framework proposed by Wescott. Crowley’s group kept a structure inspired by the Golden Dawn but with a very different curriculum and outlook. This viewpoint was very much Crowley’s own design. It continued, eventually splitting into different lineages; a few of which remain uninterrupted to this day.
PSYCHOLOGY AND MAGICK
Israel Regardie, a disciple of both Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune, became a link between the old guard and Magick’s new perspectives. Israel came from the Stella Matutina tradition, but would go on to integrate new psychological theories with these magickal models.
Regardie was an avid reader of magical books and became a fan of Aleister Crowley’s writings. He introduced himself to Crowley and. afterword, began working in Paris as his personal secretary in 1928.
As was the experience of those who knew The Beast, working with Crowley proved to be a very difficult task, and after a few years, it was time to move on.
FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD
A very interesting occultist and clairvoyant, Dion Fortune (whose works remain in print to this day) took an interest in Regardie and invited him to her house. She helped him through the time he was unemployed. He then severed all ties with Crowley.
Dion Fortune became a strong influence on Israel Regardie’s view of Magick, as she introduced him to the deep connections between Spirituality and the modern science of psychology.
She wrote a collection of short stories under the title The Secrets of Dr. Taverner. These tales were centered on a nursing home. The residents featured included those with unusual, spiritual conditions like psychic influence, mind control, and vampirism. Dr. Taverner then cures these patients through mixed therapies that included magical means.
Regardie then became interested in Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung. He employed both of the therapeutic practices practiced by these physicians: psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis.
These techniques led him to an understanding of the issues in his own relationship with Crowley. He saw infantile traumas as the primary causes of disruption within occult groups, bringing havoc to the point of destruction. He became known for asking future members to spend at least a year in psychotherapy before studying the occult. Regardie later also combined Wilhelm Reich’s body therapy in order to heal aspects of the mind-body connection.
Owing to Regardie’s influence, being interviewed by a psychologist before admission is now a common practice in several French, English, and South American mystery schools.
Regardie was eventually admitted to Stella Matutina to work with Dion Fortune in the system of the Golden Dawn. He would later consider it appropriate to make public the system’s method and its initiatory guides and rituals. He did not believe there was a need for secrecy. When he did go on to share this system, he did it in a book titled The Golden Dawn, even though the practices within actually refer more to Stella Matutina.
ART AND MAGIC
Very famous artists became members of the Golden Dawn. Though some recognizable names may have been included among these by mistake, it is clear that the Golden Dawn had a prominent place within the art scene of London for quite some time. As would happen again with other mystic paths, many artists found themselves at the forefront of the ongoing spiritual revolution, even if their participation was away from the public eye. But you can still spot Golden Dawn artists if you know what to look for. Their inner work’s effect translates into expression in whichever artistic field they pursue. This inevitably leads to subtle hints of their involvement contained within their work itself.
William Butler Yeats, for instance, referred to Magick in an interview as the “most important pursuit of my life.” And he is very much not alone in that regard.
INITIATION AND LIFE
The intention of achieving this deep contact with our True Self was conceived within the Golden Dawn as a gradual process that prepares the terrain for unexpected sudden breakthroughs. Magick revolved around practice, continuous development, and learning. Its reach within the Western Tradition has not yet found an outlet in organized religion. But it has fostered freedom for its members by cultivating magical societies that do not bother themselves with dogma. Instead, they provide the best-known tools for experimentation and personal development with the hope of being a positive force in the world at large.