The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was the most influential occult group to emerge from the end of the nineteenth century occult revival. The main achievement of the group, and of its more influential individuals, was to create a working system of magic, bonded from the various separate strands of tradition in existence at the time.
The group was founded in the year 1888 by William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925), a doctor, and a master mason, William Robert Woodman, also a doctor and a mason, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918), who was also a mason.
The order claimed its pedigree from coded documents in Dr Wynn Westcott's possession; these claimed the group was a branch of a German Rosicrucian Order. They outlined five Masonic rituals, which were expanded upon by Mathers. It is highly likely that these papers were forged by Westcott, and it was this accusation that later led to the break up of the order.
The prime mover of the Golden Dawn turned out to be Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. He was responsible in main for the cohesion the Golden Dawns structure, rituals, and whole system of magic. Mathers, who was also a mason, was a flamboyant character with a romantic leaning to all things Celtic. He changed his name to incorporate the MacGregor, and claimed descendance from the Scottish Clan. It was his confidence and charm that lead to the orders great popularity among society at that time.
Like many other members of the Golden Dawn, he had a passion for reworking and translating some of the Medieval Grimoires, and a great deal of his time was spent researching in the British Library. Mathers wrote much of the Golden Dawn's material, he drew on information gleaned from his long researches into old magical texts. He used Eliphas Levi's system of magic, along with Egyptian magic, Graeco-Egyptian magic, and Jewish magic, fused with ideas from medieval grimoires, the Tarot and Eastern mysticism. Dee's strange Enochain language was also incorporated in places. This mass of varied material allowed them to say that their tradition stretched all the way back through the ages to Egypt, land of magic and mystery. The fact that Mathers managed to fuse all of this material into a working coherent system is his great legacy.
The hierarchical structure of the Golden Dawn was divided into ten degrees, based on the ten degrees of the Sephiroth from the Qabalah (Kabbalah). Members passed through each of the levels by sitting exams and partaking in theatrical ritual. The rituals took place in specially designed temples named after the Egyptian gods.
The main emphasis and motive of passing through the degrees was to develop the personality through the higher self, and achieve god like status by identifying with universal energies and archetypes.
These energies were seen as already present within the human psyche, they just needed to be brought to the surface and controlled with the force of the will and imagination.
As with many occult groups, the leading members, Mathers in particular, claimed that they were in contact with a secret order of higher intelligences or Magi. These beings guided the working material and controlled how the order developed. The secret order were unapproachable, which was a useful barrier to detractors.
The Golden Dawn had some very influential people within its ranks. W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Constance Wilde, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, Annie Horniman, Florence Farr, Gerald Kelly and Maude Gonne were all members. There was also a rumour that Wallace Budge, who was in charge of Egyptology at the British Museum, was also involved, although this has never been verified.
By the year 1900 the inflated egos of many of the group members had caused arguments, and created schisms within the group. Aleister Crowley (who joined in 1898) had a major part in this. He was not well liked, but he sided with Mathers (although they were later to have a magical battle of their own), Mathers accused Wynn Wescott of faking the Rosicrucian documents on which the Golden Dawn was founded. It seems now that the allegation was probably true, but this undermining of the orders foundations did not go down well, and Mathers was expelled.
Mathers left England for Paris with his wife Moina in 1892. While in Paris he founded a splinter group of the Golden Dawn, but the order was never as powerful as it had been in Britain. Mathers died in Paris in 1918.
William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet (who joined in 1890 from the Theosophical Society) took over the Golden Dawn Core group after Mather's departure, but it was A. E. Waite, gaining control in 1903 who took the order down a different path. He changed the name to The Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, and pushed the order towards more Christian leanings. He finally closed the Order down around 1914 because of apathy, and dwindling membership.
By the time the core of the Golden Dawn had fizzled out there were temples as far apart as Bradford and Paris. There were also groups in Weston Super Mare, Edinburgh and Chicago. Many occult groups now claim descent from the Golden Dawn, and its advancement of the Western Mystery Tradition cannot be underestimated.
Probably the most notorious magician of his period, if not of all time, Aleister Crowley has had far more influence after his death than at any time during his overindulged life. His reputation as a drug fiend and evil man aside, his early writings show a keen intellect, and a good sense of humour in the more staid climate of his era. What follows is a brief summery of his life.
Born Edward Alexander Crowley, on the 12th of October 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Crowley was brought up in the strict ruling of the Plymouth Brethren. His rebellion against his upbringing, and the fact that his mother identified him with the Great Beast of the Revelation, was something that would steer his life on the course of overindulgence and theatrical evil.
Crowley's father died in 1887, and Crowley was sent to live with his mother's brother, an alleged viscous bully called Tom Bishop, during that time he attended a school run by the Plymouth Brethren. Crowley's childhood was a very unhappy one; he later described his experiences saying that it was only his iron will that got him through the whole experience.
Crowley soon came of age, and at 21 made a final split from his family. He became an undergraduate reading moral science at Cambridge University. Crowley seemed set for life; he had inherited his father's fortune, and was mixing with people who were soon to become high movers in society.
While at Cambridge he wrote poetry and started mountaineering, gaining a respectable reputation in both pursuits. He was a driven and courageous mountaineer, undertaking ambitious adventures in the Himalayas, his one problem being an inability to stand weakness in others. With regard to his poetry his pornographic and demonic prose was more notorious than critically acclaimed, but he managed to get much of his work published at home and abroad.
The real turning point in Crowley's life came on November 18th 1889, when he was initiated into the Golden Dawn, the most influential occult group in Britain. He took the name Frater Perdurabo, which means I will endure.
In 1905 Crowley's mountaineering pursuits once again beckoned. He set off to conquer Kangchenjunga, which is the world's third highest peak. There was great controversy during this abortive adventure; Crowley was accused of beating porters, and leaving men to die alone in an avalanche. There was also a slight mutiny within the camp. The trip added another black mark to his already growing reputation as an evil man.
In 1907 he formed the Argentinum Astrum or the Order of the Silver Star, A.A. for short. This was his own magical society allowing him complete control, he plundered much of the Golden Dawn's system of rituals adding to them his own brand of sexual magic.
During 1909 he started the magazine Equinox, in which he published some of the Golden Dawn's second order secrets. He also divorced his wife Rose in the same year. She was a hopeless alcoholic by this time, probably through Crowley laying the blame on her for his daughter's death. She ended up in a lunatic asylum shortly afterwards.
In 1912 he visited Germany and met with Theodor Reuss, who was the head of the ten year old Ordo Templi Orientis. He was appointed the head of the British O.T.O, which was heavily influenced by erotic magic. He took the magnificent title of 'Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all other Britons within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis'.
In 1915 he moved to New York in the U.S.A, and spent the following years of the First World War writing anti British propaganda for the Germans. This was another black mark for the man the British press were soon to dub 'The Wickedest Man in the World'.
In 1916 he rose to the rank of Magus by crucifying a toad after he had baptised it Jesus Christ. The German branch of the OTO also severed links with the British chapter at this time, many of the German members were wary of Crowley, and there was also the fact that Germany was at war with Britain.
In 1920 he went to Cefalu with his current scarlet woman Leah Hirsig, and formed the Abbey of Thelema in a converted Villa. It was the resulting press coverage from his time here that gained him worldwide notoriety. He was accused of conducting sexual orgies, the black mass and animal sacrifices as well as all forms of diabolical magic. The real disaster came when one of the members of the Abbey, an Oxford Graduate called Raoul Loveday, died of enteritis at the Abbey. His wife accused Crowley of poisoning him by making him drink the blood of a cat during one of their ceremonies, and her campaign against him in London fuelled the increasingly bad press.
While reports were undoubtedly exaggerated, there is no smoke without fire, and by 1923 the Italian government had had enough of his apparent diabolical activities and expelled him. As always Crowley revelled in the accusations, and did not deny any of the allegations.
The expulsion from Italy was the beginning of an overall downturn for Crowley, he still travelled widely but his band of followers dwindled, and he never really gained the same influence over a large audience until after his death. He did however take control of the OTO, Theodor Reus retired in 1923 and named Crowley as his successor. There was some disagreement about the decision amongst members, but he was finally confirmed as leader in 1924. He continued as head until a 1946, when he relinquished control to Kenneth Grant.
In 1929 much of what now forms 'Magick in Theory and Practice' was published, 1929 also saw the publishing of one of his best occult novels 'Moonchild'.
In 1934 Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he tried to sue the actress Nina Hamnett for calling him a Black Magician. The evidence against him must have been overwhelming, and it is difficult to see why he ever took the case to court.
As old age beckoned he retired to Hastings, where he was still in communication with some of the leading lights on the occult scene at that time, including Gerald Gardner, Montague Summers and Isreal Regardie. He was not above commenting on the practices of others, and wrote vehemently about R.L Hubbard and Jack Parsons trying to raise a moonchild in the U.S.A. He also continued working on his interpretation of the Tarot 'The Book of Thoth', which was published in 1944.
Crowley died in Hastings on the 1st of December 1947 aged 72 years, he was still a heavy heroin user at this time, taking a dosage that would have killed at least five people.
The resurgence of interest in Crowley took off in the 1960's, a time of occult revival and freethinking in the western world. His work is still of value today and his books, although heavy going in some places, are intelligently written and form the beginnings of a psychological approach to magical practice.