The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
The Most Influential Magical Secret Society in Modern Times
In 1886, a Freemason named Kenneth Mackenzie died and William Westcott (pictured in the image above, on the left) became the new Supreme Grand Secretary of the Swedenborgian Rite. As part of this process, he inherited all of Mackenzie’s Masonic manuscripts, among other esoteric documents. In some of those notes, Mackenzie had outlined rituals for a magical fraternity that he was going to call the Hermetic Brotherhood of Egypt. However, this never came to fruition. Instead, those instructions served as a template for two other Freemasons, named Woodman and Mathers (above in the center, and on the right, respectively), who formulated the ceremonies for their own group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In 1888, the Isis-Urania Temple was founded in London. To put things in proper perspective, in contrast to Freemasonry, women were allowed and welcome to participate in the Order in “perfect equality” with men. This was revolutionary. More to the point though, in the beginning, the Order offered the first five Grades, teaching occult theory, astrology, tarot divination, and geomancy. Of course, other than certain rituals and meditations found in Mackenzie’s Masonic manuscripts and developed further by Mathers and Woodman, magical practices were generally not taught when the Isis-Urania Temple first opened. Still, it soon became the premiere secret society in Victoria-era Britain.
Granted, it wasn’t just an occult study group or paranormal research team, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was becoming a legitimate mystery school that would soon offer complete courses of instruction in the theory and practice of ceremonial magic. After a well-thought-out rubric and curriculum were formulated, things really began to change. Members then began by learning about the rudiments of ritual regalia and paraphernalia, including a wide variety of occult symbols and their meanings. Then, as they progressed, the initiated would eventually learn to practice theurgy, alchemy, and other occult sciences.
Here’s how it happened. First, William Woodman, one of the founders of the Order, died suddenly, in 1891, after a brief illness. Up to this point, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was known as the “First Order” or sometimes the “Outer Order”. However, in 1892, Samuel Mathers claimed that a link to the “Secret Chiefs” had been established, and things really began to change. This is where it becomes important to understand that some followers of the Golden Dawn tradition believe that the Secret Chiefs are enlightened humans or supernatural beings (teaching at the “Invisible College”), while others believe them to be symbolic representations of legendary sources of spirituality. In other words, the term “Secret Chiefs” came to stand for a great teacher of a specific spiritual path that found its way into the teachings of the Order.
Regardless, the super-secret “Second Order” or “Inner Order” was established as the “Order of the Red Rose and the Golden Cross”. This consisted of members, known as “Adepts”, who had completed the entire course of study for the First Order of the Golden Dawn. Those individuals then took on god-forms and directed currents of magical energy in order to enhance the effects of the ceremonies they performed. As part of this, the aspirant to a Grade received instruction on the metaphysical meaning of certain occult symbols and esoteric concepts, such as the Elements. Then, they had to pass a written examination and demonstrate certain skills to receive admission. After those lessons were learned, the Portal Grade was an in-between level separating the First Order from the Second Order.
As part of this, in 1893, the Amen-Ra Temple opened in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Ahathoor Temple opened in Paris, France. By the mid-1890s, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had over a hundred members who came from every class of Victorian society. A number of celebrities belonged to the group, such as the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, the English author Evelyn Underhill, the Irish author Bram Stoker, the Welsh author Arthur Machen, and the Irish revolutionary Maude Gonne. In fact, by the late 1890s, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn even had temples in cities across America. For instance, there was the Thoth-Hermes Temple in New York. More importantly, by 1895 there were forty-five active members of the Second Order. So, to them, it seemed as though the Order might one day have temples in every corner of the globe.
However, in 1897, William Westcott was forced to resign from the Order after his employers realized that he was the head of a secret society. This left Samuel Mathers in complete control of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or at least so he thought. As such, Mathers appointed Florence Farr to be Chief Adept in Anglia, while Dr. Henry Burry succeeded Westcott as Cancellarius (one of the three “Chiefs of the Order”). However, due to personality clashes with other members and frequent absences from the center of temple activity in Great Britain, challenges to Mathers’ authority began to develop among many of the Adepts.
In 1898, the now-notorious occultist Aleister Crowley joined the ranks of the Order and quickly rose through them. Within a year of that, Mathers demanded that every member of the Inner Circle sign a pledge of loyalty to him. So, toward the end of 1899, the Adepts of the Isis-Urania Temple and the Amen-Ra Temple became dissatisfied with Mathers’ leadership, as well as his growing friendship with Aleister Crowley. The members of the Inner Circle had also become anxious to make contact with the Secret Chiefs themselves, instead of relying on Mathers as an intermediary. Within the Isis-Urania Temple, disputes were arising between Farr’s own super-duper-secret society within the Second Order and the rest of the Adepts. There were also plans to develop the Third Order, in the Golden Dawn system, as shown below:
- Neophyte (0=0)
- Zelator (1=10)
- Theoricus (2=9)
- Practicus (3=8)
- Philosophus (4=7)
- Adeptus Minor (5=6)
- Adeptus Major (6=5)
- Adeptus Exemptus (7=4)
- Magister Templi (8=3)
- Magus (9=2)
- Ipsissimus (10=1)
Here, the paired numbers attached to the Grades relate to positions on the Cabalistic Tree of Life. In this hierarchy, the Neophyte Grade of “0=0” indicates no position on the Tree. In the other pairs, 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). As part of this, Aleister Crowley was refused initiation into the Adeptus Minor Grade by the London officials, but Samuel Mathers overrode their decision and initiated him at the Ahathoor Temple in Paris on January 16th of 1900. Upon his return to the London temple, Crowley requested the papers acknowledging his Grade, to which he was now entitled. This was the final straw to the London Adepts, so a general meeting was called in London, on March 29th of 1900, to remove Chief Mathers and expel him from the Order.
In the wake of this, in 1901, W. B. Yeats privately published a pamphlet titled Is the Order of R. R. & A. C. to Remain a Magical Order?. Within two years of that, the Order had fractured into three separate groups. There was the A.O. (Alpha et Omega), which was a group of loyalists led by Mathers, the Order of the Morning Star headed by Robert Felkin, and the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, which A. E. Waite took over. This meant that the Golden Dawn replaced ceremonial magic with Christian mysticism. Meanwhile, Mathers concentrated on building up the Ahathoor Temple and extending his American connections. The thing was that, with Waite leading the old group, by 1914, the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn inevitably came to an end. Then, most of the temples of the A.O. and the Order of the Morning Star closed or went into abeyance by the end of the 1930s.
Fortunately, the Golden Dawn was kept alive by three rebellious members who chose to break the vow of secrecy that they took on initiation. Their names were Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, and Israel Regardie. It all began after the revolt of 1900 when Aleister Crowley started confiding in the readers of his magazine, The Equinox. In it, he published substantial parts of the Order’s rituals and knowledge lectures. Decades later, Aleister Crowley invited Israel Regardie to serve as his secretary, necessitating a move to Paris, France in 1928. This set the stage for Regardie’s big reveal. Then, in 1935, Dion Fortune published her masterwork, The Mystical Qabalah, which included many of the Golden Dawn’s Cabalistic teachings. It became the standard text on the subject for decades.
Two years after she published her masterpiece, Israel Regardie, a former member of the Order of the Morning Star, began publishing most of the Golden Dawn’s official papers. So, his magnum opus, The Golden Dawn, went on to become the most important book on occultism in the 20th century. This eventually led to a revival of the Order in the 1970s when about two dozen new temples opened throughout Europe, Australia, and North America. During the New Age movement, the time-honored teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn served as the basic framework upon which many spiritual traditions came to be made, including Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, and the A∴A∴ (Argentium Astrum). This also had an impact on Wicca and Scientology because Gerald Gardner and L. Ron Hubbard were members of another group called the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), along with Aleister Crowley.
With that all in mind, it’s also very important not to confuse the Golden Dawn with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The former is a far-right neo-nazi political party in Greece, while the latter is a secret society of sorcerers and sorceresses all around the world. More importantly, the core beliefs and practices of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn remain fundamental to more than half of the occult secret societies in the Western world. In this way, the great works of Westcott, Woodman, and Mathers have had tremendously far-reaching impacts on the study and practice of ceremonial magic, the likes of which seem to be unmatched anywhere else in history. Ultimately, thanks to the efforts that they (and a few others) made, the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient and modern mystery traditions will continue to be taught long into the future. Such is the never-ending legacy of the most influential magical secret society in modern times.