The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established in London in 1888 as a mystical fraternity bringing together influences from Kabbala, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and Theosophists. Traditions, rituals, and magic from the Golden Dawn has been since incorporated in many modern mystical organizations, Wicca, and New Age. The organization is credited to have been founded by William Wynn Westcott, a prominent London Freemason.
In its founding, the organization was called the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn and internally it was called the Order of the Golden Dawn in the Outer. In 1902 it was referred to as the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn. It was finally settled upon as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn by prominent member, Israel Regardie.
The organization was never intended to be a religion and like other mystical groups preferred to focus upon the philosophical and spiritual evolution of mankind. In a typically esoteric approach, the organization was more of a school than a fraternity, teaching students through a hierarchal system all of the different components of magic and philosophy.
The original order disbanded and split off into smaller groups in 1903. The smaller groups continued as the Stella Matutina, Alpha et Omega and the Independent and Rectified Rite who no longer used magic in its curriculum. Interests was sparked in the movement by Israel Regardie through the publication of several of his books including The Golden Dawn.
The Golden Dawn is rooted in Hermetic philosophy and is considered one of the few living Hermetic groups. While the discipline is not completely Hermetic there are many aspects that are. Following are the aspects of Golden Dawn philosophy that can be considered Hermetic:
- Focus on Western Mysticism (including Egyptian, Greek, and Roman traditions as well as the Greco-Egyptian Mysteries)
- Philosophies surrounding both Macrocosm and Microcosm
- Monotheistic in the context of Divine Unity
- Ultimate Divinity is both within and beyond the self
- Belief that humanity is separate from divinity and must return to the divine
- In path toward the divine, humanity must understand spirituality, magic and mysticism
The organization was created to continue the efforts of the Theosophical Society after it turned toward Eastern Mystical philosophies. A Master Mason and high official in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia named William Wynn Westcott established the Golden Dawn in 1888. Wescott was known for his expertise in esoteric and mystical studies and for his translations of mystical texts scuh as Sepher Yetzirah and The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum). Other founders included Samuel Liddell Mathers and William Robert Woodman. Woodman was also known esoteric circles as a Freemason and an editor for a respected publication called The Rosicrucian. Mathers was also a Freemason and SRIA and was known for his publication The Tarot: Its Occult Significance Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play.
The rituals and lectures were based on the Cipher Manuscript, a document most likely written by Kenneth Mackenzie and acquired by Westcott. He also had an influential influence from Freemasonry and so in effort to add legitimacy to the organization in the occult world, he likely fabricated the cipher. Additionally Westcott likely fabricated the history of Anna Sprengel who was allegedly the person that provided the history Golden Dawn needed to have legitimacy with other philosophers and thinkers.
The first few years from 1888 to 1891 the society was focused on initiation ceremonies, the basics of Kabbalah, alchemy, tarot, and geomancy but no practical magic. After Woodman died in 1891 Mathers became the leader of the organization when he created the ritual for the Golden Dawn Adeptus Minor grade.
Problems in the organization began in 1895 when Mathers had a fallout with his financer, Annie Horniman. The two argued about how much time Mathers was devoting to the order versus other endeavors and eventually Horniman resigned. Further conflict with other members of the order caused him to publish an 1896 manifesto demanding absolute obedience on his administration. Horniman did not fully comply and after refusing funds was expelled from the order.
Discontentment continued and eventually Wescott resigned his position under debated circumstances. Florence Farr took up Westcott's position and by 1900 was in conflict with Mathers eventually requesting that the order be dissolved. Mathers believed Farr was interested in bringing in Westcott as the order's leader so he revealed that Westcott forged the Cipher Manuscript. This created a great deal of mistrust and problems within the organization, compounded by the ill-received 1899 acceptance of Aleister Crowley into the Second Order. Many in the order distrusted Crowley and thought he was morally depraved. Eventually other members of the order expelled both Mathers and Crowley. William Butler Yeats then took control of the organization and Horniman was reinstated.
In 1901 Madame Horos deceived the Order and made off with their documents. When they were charged by the authorities they claimed to be leaders of the Golden Dawn. During the process the organization was publicly discredited and most of the private information was made public. This ordeal fractured the order and many smaller organizations split off.
The order is based on the Tree of Life of Kabbalah teachings. Equating advancement structure to the Tree of Life is a tradition based on the SRIA and other mystical orders. The order is scaffolded and measured in grades based on the level of knowledge the member has obtained. Each grade is named and corresponds with a numerical symbol wherein the first number states the number of steps of the grade and the second states the sephirah of the Tree of Life the step represents. (In the graphic, Sephirah 10 erroneously reads "Malkuth", when it should be "Kether".)
Some or all of this article used the following publication as a resource:
The Essential Golden Dawn: An Introduction to High Magic. Chic Cicero & Sandra Tabatha Cicero. 2003. Llewellyn Worldwide. St. Paul, MN.
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