The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or, more commonly, the Golden Dawn) was a magical order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, practicing a form of theurgy and spiritual development. It was probably the single greatest influence on twentieth 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 tradition.
The three founders, Dr. William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers were Freemasons and members of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), an appendant body to Freemasonry. Westcott, also a member of the Theosophical Society, appears to have been the initial driving force behind the establishment of the Golden Dawn.
Influences on Golden Dawn concepts and work include: Christian mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Theurgy, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Enochian magic, and Renaissance grimoires.
The Cipher Manuscripts
The fundamental basis of the original Order of the Golden Dawn was a collection of documents known as the Cipher Manuscripts, written in English using a cipher attributed to Johannes Trithemius. The Manuscripts give the specific outlines of the Grade Rituals of the Order, and prescribe a curriculum of specifically graduated teachings that encompass the Hermetic Qabalah, Astrology, Tarot, Geomancy and Alchemy.
The manuscripts were passed on from Kenneth Mackenzie, a Masonic scholar, to Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, whom Francis King acknowledges as the fourth founder (although Woodford died shortly after the Order was founded). The documents did not excite Woodford, and in February 1886 he passed them on to Dr. Westcott and by 1887 Westcott managed to decode them. Westcott was pleased with his discovery, called on Mathers for a second opinion, and asked for cooperation in turning the manuscripts into a coherent system for lodge work. Mathers then called on William Robert Woodman to assist by being a third collaborator and Woodman, it seems, accepted. Likewise, Mathers and Dr. Westcott have been credited for developing the ritual outlines in the Cipher Manuscripts 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).
Another theory states that the Cipher Manuscripts had been received by noted Masonic scholar Kenneth Mackenzie from the Secret Chiefs of the "Third Order," a continental Rosicrucian mystery school into which Mackenzie had been initiated by Count Apponyi of Hungary. Using the Cipher Manuscripts, Mackenzie founded "The Society of Eight" as the first phase of what was to later become the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It should be noted in this context that Mackenzie's group was Temple No. 1, and Frederick Hockley, another member of "The Society of Eight", founded Temple No. 2. Thus when the Golden Dawn was founded, its first temple, Isis-Urania, was numbered as No. 3.
In October of 1887, Westcott wrote to Anna Sprengel, whose name and address he received through the decoding of the Cipher Manuscripts. A reply was purported to have been received with much wisdom, and honorary grades of Exempt Adept were conferred upon Westcott, Mathers and Woodman, as well as a charter to establish a Golden Dawn temple to work the five grades outlined in the manuscripts.
In 1888, the Isis-Urania Temple in London was founded, in which the rituals decoded from the cipher manuscripts were developed and practiced. In addition, there was an insistence on women being allowed to participate in the Order in "perfect equality" with men, which was in contrast to the S.R.I.A. and Masonry.
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).
In a short time, the Osiris temple in Weston-super-Mare, the Horus temple in Bradford, and the Amen-Ra temple in Edinburgh were founded. A few years after this, Mathers founded the Ahathoor temple in Paris.
The Secret Chiefs
In 1891 the correspondence with Anna Sprengel suddenly ceased, and Westcott received word from Germany that either she was dead or her companions did not approve of the founding of the Order, and that no further contact was to be made. If the founders were to contact the Secret Chiefs, therefore, it had to be done on their own. It was about this time that Dr. Woodman died, never having seen the Second Order.
In 1892, Mathers claimed a link to the Secret Chiefs had been formed, and supplied rituals for the Second, or Inner, Order called the Red Rose and Cross of Gold. These rituals were based on the tradition of the tomb of Christian Rosenkreuz, and a Vault of Adepts became the controlling force behind the Outer Order. Later in 1916, Westcott claimed that Mathers also constructed these rituals from materials he received from Frater Lux ex Tenebris, a purported Continental Adept.
Some followers of the Golden Dawn tradition believe that the Secret Chiefs are not necessarily living humans or supernatural beings, but are symbolic of actual and legendary sources of spiritual esotericism, a great leader or teacher of a spiritual path or practice that found its way into the teachings of the Order.
The Golden Age
y the mid 1890s, the Golden Dawn was well established in Great Britain, with membership rising to over a hundred from every class of Victorian society. In its heyday, many cultural celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne (Gonne left after she converted to Roman Catholicism). Some well known members included Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. Many men and women of the 19
Around 1897, Westcott broke all ties to the Golden Dawn, leaving Mathers in complete control. It is speculated that this was due to some occult papers having been found in a hansom cab, in which his connection to the Golden Dawn came to the attention of his superiors. He was told to either resign from the Order or to give up his occupation as coroner.
While there is no proof of Mathers having planted the papers, 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 Anglia. (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.
Towards the end of 1899, the Adepts of the Isis-Urania and Amen-Ra temples had become extremely dissatisfied with Mathers' leadership, as well as his growing friendship with Crowley. They were also anxious to make contact with the Secret Chiefs, instead of dealing with them through Mathers. Among the personal disagreements within the Isis-Urania temple, disputes were arising from Florence Farr's The Sphere, a secret society within the Isis-Urania, and the rest of the Adept Minors.
Crowley was refused initiation into the Adeptus Minor grade by the London officials. Yet Mathers overrode this and quickly initiated him at the Ahathoor temple in Paris on January 16th, 1900. Upon his return to the London temple, he requested the grade papers to which he was now entitled from Miss Cracknell, the acting secretary. To the London Adepts, this was the last straw. Farr, already of the opinion that the London temple should be closed, wrote to Mathers expressing her wish to resign as his representative, though she was willing to carry on until a successor was found.
Mathers replied to this on February 16th, believing Westcott was behind this turn of events. Once the other Adepts in London were notified, they elected a committee of seven on March 3rd and requested a full investigation of the matter. Mathers sent an immediate reply, declining to provide proof, refusing to acknowledge the London temple, and dismissing Farr as his representative on March 23rd. In response, a general meeting was called on March 29th in London to remove Mathers as chief and expel him from the Order.
The Structure of the Order
The Grades of the Golden Dawn
Adeptus Minorus 5=6
Adeptus Majorus 6=5
Adeptus Exemptus 7=4
Magister Templi 8=3
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 were related to the four Classical Elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire, respectively. The Aspirant to a Grade received instruction on the metaphysical meaning of each of these Elements, and had to pass a written examination and demonstrate certain skills to receive Admission to that Grade.
The Portal Grade was the initiation ritual for admittance to the Second Order. The Circle of existing Adepts from the Second Order had to consent to allow an Aspirant to join the Second Order.
The Second Order was 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 was instructed in the techniques of practical Magic. When another examination was passed, and the other Adepts consented, the Aspirant attained the Grade of Adeptus Minor (5=6). There were also four sub-Grades of instruction for the Adeptus Minor, again relating to the four Outer Order grades.
A member of the Second Order had 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.
th century Fin de siècle social culture were members of the Golden Dawn.