A Brief History of Golden Dawn and Other 19th Century Occult Groups
No organization better represented the late 19th and early 20th century
flowering of Western ceremonial magic than did the Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn (Golden Dawn or OGD). Golden Dawn was part of a larger occult
revival that occurred after Enlightenment intellectuals, such as the
philosopher David Hume, had heaped scorn on all religious and occult beliefs
for more than a century. A magical world-viewpoint, however, perfectly
suited the late-19th century Romantic mind.
Two other very different organizations that promoted this occult revival
were the Theosophical Society, which preceded Golden Dawn by a dozen years
and to some extent served as its model, and the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO),
an early 20th century group focusing on Tantric sex magic. Three influential
occultists described in this article are Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie
and Dion Fortune. Each of them helped to preserve much of what we know about
Golden Dawn's magic. I will also touch on what is known about the influence
of Aleister Crowley on Gerald Gardner.
The Beginning of the Magical Revival - Barrett and Levi
The return of magic to a position of respect among the educated classes
began in London in 1801 when Francis Barrett published his book The Magus.
It extensively described magic and the occult, covering topics such as the
natural magic of herbs and stones, magnetism, talismanic magic, alchemy,
numerology, the elements, and ceremonial magic, and also provided
biographies of famous Adepts.
Because it was a unique source of occult information in the early 19th
century, The Magus was very influential. Barrett wrote from the perspective
of a devout Christian who professed to abhor Witches, but his book captured
much of the information still known about traditional Witchcraft. Hence,
according to Doreen Valiente, his book was much prized by those folk Witches
literate enough to read it.
Two generations later, Eliphas Levi, the most influential French occultist
of his time, highly praised The Magus. Levi, whose given name was Alphonse
Louis Constant, had originally pursued an ecclesiastical career but never
completed his final clerical vows.
Levi's first and most important book was The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic first published in French in 1856. In The Dogma he linked the twenty-twoMajor Arcana of the Tarot with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He also stressed the importance of the magick worker's will
power for accomplishing his/her goals. Levi attracted a group of followers
including some English occultists. A decade after his death in 1875, his
magical theory was incorporated into Golden Dawn by its founders.
The Theosophical Society - The Eastern Masters Go West
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) was the Russian-born founder of the
Theosophical society. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a prominent New York
lawyer, teamed with Blavatsky to start the society in 1875. Olcott and
Blavatsky first met at the Eddy brother's farm in Chittenden, Vermont in
1874. Olcott was deeply involved in defending the spiritualist movement,
which was populated with many fraudulent mediums and Blavatsky was drawn
to the farm by Olcott's newspaper reports of the appearances of the deceased
relatives of seance participants. Blavatsky and Olcott quickly became great
friends, and, although they soon shared an apartment in New York City, they
never were lovers.
Blavatsky followed the occult chiefs of the Asian 'schools' or 'lodges'
which had an unbroken heritage extending back thousands of years. Their
Adepts or Masters, who lived on the astral plane, allowed only worthy
neophytes to know them and receive their teachings. Her first book, Isis
Unveiled, was written, she claimed, while she was under the influence of the
Masters. In today's New Age jargon, this was an early 'channeled' book.
Theosophy literally means 'God-knowledge' but it was Blavatsky's occult
society that came to completely represent this term. She felt that the
Theosophical Society was selected by the Masters to bring a new message to
new age. Her second book, The Secret Doctrine, described distinctive
Theosophical doctrine, including a description of the controversial guiding
Masters. In Theosophy, the rate of each individual's personal evolution to a
God-like status is determined by the type of karma (good or bad) accumulated
over several reincarnations. Many Theosophists also believed in astral
travel and communication with their Eastern Masters.
Blavatsky lived in London from 1887 onward and was a friend of Dr. William
Wynn Westcott, one of Golden Dawn's founders. After her death in 1891, the
Theosophical Society split into American and European sections.
The Theosophical Society was the most active occult group from the 1880s
to the 1920s. However, its emphasis on Eastern Masters turned off many
potential members. Some of these found Golden Dawn's approach, based on
the Western Hermetic tradition, to be a more comfortable spiritual path.
Golden Dawn - Ceremonial Magic's Grand Organization
Most of what is worth knowing about Western ceremonial magic was either
developed or compiled from other sources by the original Golden Dawn or by
one of its later splinter groups. Most modern esoteric schools can trace
their descent from Golden Dawn.
In their words the purpose of Golden Dawn according to Israel Regardie was
'to prosecute the Great Work,' which meant that each member was to obtain
control of the nature and power of his/her own being in order to become more
God-like. Within Golden Dawn the first order consisted of ten grades
(degrees), each corresponding to a Sephirah on the Qabalistic Tree of Life.
Like Theosophy, Golden Dawn also claimed to communicate astrally with
Secret Chiefs, also known as hidden Masters.
Three of the four founding members of the Golden Dawn were also members of
the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (the English Rosicrucian society) whose
members had to be Master Masons. These were Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a
London coroner; Samuel Lidell MacGregor Mathers, a noted occult scholar; and
Dr. William Robert Woodman, a retired physician.
Golden Dawn's story began in 1885 when the Rev. A. F. A. Woodford obtained
a manuscript written in cypher among some papers belonging to the late
occultist Fred Hockley. Woodford, an elderly Mason, but not a Rosicrucian,
gave Westcott about sixty leaves of this manuscript. It appeared to be old,
but probably was written around 1870 by an unknown author. Its key was found
in the Polygraphic of Abbot Johann Trithemius (1462-1516). The decoded
manuscript outlined five rituals of an unknown 'Golden Dawn' organization.
Westcott then invited Mathers to compose full-scale rituals based on the
outlines in the cypher manuscript. His completed rituals largely followed
those of Freemasonry.
One page in the cypher manuscript mentioned a certain Anna Sprengel of
Nuremburg, Germany, who was an alleged high-grade Rosicrucian. Westcott
claimed to have contacted Sprengel through the mail. She responded by
conferring honorary grades of Exempt Adept on Westcott, Mathers, and Woodman
and providing them with a charter for a Golden Dawn Temple in England. These
men started the Isis-Urania Temple in London in 1888, and within a short
time, three Golden Dawn lodges were operating in England and Scotland.
In 1891 Westcott said Sprengel had died. However, her actual physical
existence is doubted by Francis King and many other Golden Dawn scholars.
The next year, Mathers claimed to have re-established the link with the
hidden Masters, broken by Sprengel's death. He then supplied the rituals for
the second level (order) of Golden Dawn degrees, which was called the Red
Rose and Cross of Gold Order. The third level, or order, consisted solely
of the Secret Chiefs.
Mathers, an arrogant and flamboyant personality, was financially dependent
on the stipend that the tea heiress Annie Horniman provided him and his
French-born wife, Mina, after they moved to Paris in 1894. He soon quarreled
with Horniman and she cut off his stipend. Mathers responded by expelling
her from Golden Dawn in 1896, claiming that he was acting on the orders of
the Secret Chiefs. Many Golden Dawn members protested her expulsion to no
By 1899, many Isis-Urania members were dissatisfied with Mathers' autocratic
rule and his growing friendship with the young Aleister Crowley, who had
been initiated the year before. These members also wanted to contact the
Secret Chiefs directly instead of relying on Mathers. A new crisis began when the Isis-Urania officials refused to initiate Crowley, who they considered mentally unbalanced, as an Adept Minor (the lowest grade of the Second Order). Crowley then journeyed to Paris where Mathers initiated him. The Isis-Urania officials responded to Mathers' initiation of Crowley by expelling both of them. Crowley, who was at that
time a devoted disciple of Mathers, traveled back from France to London. He
attempted to take possession of the Isis-Urania temple, but was repulsed by
some alert members who were aided by the London Metropolitan police.
During the next year, further personality conflicts arose among the
remaining members; in 1900, Golden Dawn's irreversible splintering into
hostile factions began. Mathers' followers, both inside and outside OGD,
formed the Alpha et Omega (AO) Temple. A.E. Waite, a Christian mystic and
later author of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and some original members
reformed Golden Dawn into a group that focused on Christian mysticism rather
In 1905 another splinter group formed the Stella Matutina
(Morning Star). After bitterly quarreling, Mathers and Crowley split.
In Ritual Magic in England, Francis King writes that '[m]uch of the Golden
Dawn system was not original, for component parts of it can be found
scattered through the occult writings of a thousand years of European
history.' OGD founders, with Mathers as the main contributor, fashioned a
coherent and logical system of practical occultism out of these scattered
Crowley Discovers Sex Magic in OTO
After his expulsion from Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley traveled extensively
in the Orient and Middle East. He was in Cairo in April, 1904 with his first
wife, Rose Kelly, when he had three major trance visions. They occurred on
three successive days, and each was an hour in length. While in trance, he
wrote Liber AL vel Legis, or the Book of the Law. Later, Crowley said that
this book was communicated by a non-human entity called Aiwass. Its message
was The Law of Thelema, summarized as 'Do what thou wilt shall be the
whole of the law.
In 1907 Crowley began to build a Rosicrucian-style order called Astrum
Argentum (or Silver Star) with himself as its head. Its official magazine,
the Equinox, began publication in 1909. A couple years later he published
some abbreviated forms of Golden Dawn rituals in the Equinox. Mathers then
went to court to prevent the publication of the Golden Dawn Second Order
rituals, which Crowley had announced that he planned to do. The court
injunction was dismissed and Crowley published abbreviated versions of the
rituals in the Equinox in 1912. However, the magazine's distribution was imited.
Crowley then learned about and joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). This
German organization was inspired by the ideas of Dr. Karl Kellner, a German
high-grade Freemason, occultist, and wealthy industrialist who had a
theoretical knowledge of Eastern Tantric sex magic. Theodor Reuss actually
founded OTO in 1906, a year after Kellner's death. OTO taught that sex magic
was the key to all Masonic and Hermetic secrets, and ultimately the
explanation of all systems of religion. Among the OTO's nine grades of
initiation, only the 7th to 9th grades included the practice of sex magic.
Specific sexual activities varied from 'magical masturbation' (a 7th-grade
rite) to full, heterosexual coupling (9th grade). The 10th grade addressed
only administrative duties. Crowley, a bisexual, later added an 11th grade
focusing on homosexual magic. He also rewrote the rituals for many of the
other OTO grades.
The OTO appointed Crowley the Supreme and Holy King of Ireland and the
British Isles after he received his 9th-degree initiation in 1912. In 1915,
during World War I, he left England for the U.S, as the British government
objected to his pro-German stance. In 1919, he returned to the Continent to
live first in Sicily, where he was expelled for sexual misconduct, and then
In 1922, he was appointed head of what was left of the German OTO. Shortly
thereafter, a German translation of The Book of the Law shocked many German
OTO members and they withdrew their recognition of Crowley as their leader.
He continued as the head of the British branch of OTO. After 1924, Crowley
focused primarily on 9th-degree heterosexual magic and ignored the lower,
After 1929 Crowley again lived in England, and spent the last two years of
his life quietly residing in a boarding house in Hastings, where he was
visited several times by Gerald Gardner. Crowley died in 1947.
Gerald Gardner's Relationship with Aleister Crowley
According to Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner was first introduced to
Aleister Crowley in 1946 by the late stage magician and Witch Arnold
Crowther. Before he died, Crowley granted Gardner a charter to operate an
OTO lodge (which he never did) in exchange for a 300- pound 'initiation' fee.
Valiente, who was an initiate in Gardner's 1950s coven, points out that the
Gardnerian correspondences for directions and elements are the same as that
of Golden Dawn and the general Western Mystery Tradition. Furthermore,
dipping the point of the athame into the cup during the Wiccan symbolic
Great Rite is derived from the 6th-degree OTO ritual. However, Valiente adds
that Gardner's Wiccan rituals have a different flavor than those of Golden
Dawn's ceremonial magic, which suggests other origins in addition to Golden
Dawn and OTO.
Francis King, a critic of Gardner, wrote in Ritual Magic in England that
'He [Gardner] accordingly hired Crowley, at a generous fee, to write elaborate
rituals for the new ‘Gardnerian' witchcraft-. King states without providing
evidence that Gardner had known Aleister Crowley for some time, presumably
well before 1946.
Who is correct about the extent of Gardner's relationship with Crowley?
Valiente or King? I believe that no hidden relationship between Gardner and
Crowley is required to explain the presence of Golden Dawn materials in
Gardner's Wiccan rituals. Gardner was a prolific borrower, as Valiente has
noted more than once in her books. It would be more surprising if he had not
borrowed from the Golden Dawn's rich magical tradition.
Israel Regardie - Golden Dawn's Chronicler
Israel Regardie's lengthy book, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic is
the source from which almost all present day formal ritual instruction has
been adapted, Doreen Valiente believes.
In 1928 at age twenty-one, Regardie traveled from the U.S. to Europe to
become Crowley's unpaid secretary and companion. He had learned about
Crowley through reading old issues of the Equinox. During the following
three years, Regardie acquired a thorough knowledge of Crowley's magical
tradition. He finally parted with Crowley after suffering too much abuse
from him. For example, Crowley called him ‘the Serpent' or ‘that worm,'
depending on his mood.
Regardie joined the Stella Matutina (a splinter branch of Golden Dawn) in
1934 and soon learned it was in an advanced state of decline. To preserve
the complete Golden Dawn magical system, he left Stella Matutina, broke his
oath of secrecy, and published the majority of the Golden Dawn manuscripts
in four lengthy volumes between 1937 and 1940. He also wrote many other
books on the occult.
Dion Fortune's Novels Still Define Magickal Practice
Dion Fortune's novels, written in the 1920s and 1930s, continue to serve as
a model for modern witchcraft and neo-Paganism. Fortune, however, was never
a Witch and relied on inspiration from both Christian and Pagan sources. She
was a leading occultist of her time and also knowledgeable of the
psychological component of all occult work, which modern Witches also
acknowledge. Her last two novels, The Sea Priestess (1938) and Moon Magic
(1939/40) are the finest novels on magick ever written, according to Patrick
Benham in The Avalonians. However, in 1938, she had to publish The Sea
Priestess herself, 'because no one else would touch it,' Doreen Valiente
noted in The Rebirth of Witchcraft.
Fortune was born as Violet Mary Firth in 1890 in Wales, of transplanted
Yorkshire parents who were Christian Scientists. As a child she had acute
powers of visualization. A pivotal event in her life occurred at age twenty
while she was working at Stadley College, an agricultural training center.
There she was subjected to a psychic attack by the woman doctor who was her
supervisor. In reaction, she turned to the study of psychology to understand
and heal her psychic damage. After training as a lay analyst, she began a
profitable psychological practice. No advanced degrees or licenses were
required at that time.
In 1919 she initiated in the Alpha and Omega (AO) Temple offshoot of Golden
Dawn. Deo non Fortuna (God not Fate) was the Firth family motto she took as
her magical name, but she soon shortened it Dion Fortune.
MacGregor Mathers had died in 1918 and his wife Mina (later called Moina)
Mathers carried on as chief of the AO organization. Dion Fortune soon
suggested to her that a public or semi-public organization modeled on the
Theosophical Society should be formed. Her plan was to recruit younger
people into AO, whose membership was then elderly. Moina Mathers agreed, and
in 1922, Fortune began the Fraternity of the Inner Light, which operated for
several years as part of the Christian Mystic Lodge of the Theosophical Society.
Soon, however, Moina Mathers became jealous of Fortune's success with the
Fraternity. She expelled Fortune for allegedly betraying the inner secrets
of the Order in her book Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage. Fortune
then established her own AO Temple, but by 1929 she had made the Fraternity
of the Inner Light independent of both the Christian Mystic Lodge and AO.
Fortune married Dr. Thomas Pennry Evans in 1927. He was a fiery Welshman and
a nominal Christian with a strong leaning toward Pagan magic. They separated
in 1938 after almost twelve years of stormy marriage. Dion Fortune lived in
London during World War II and died from leukemia in January 1946.
Today the Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light survives in London,
honors Fortune's memory, and carefully keeps its distance from the
Wicca has diverse roots and the Golden Dawn tradition is just one of them.
However, the Wiccan rituals practiced today would be quite different if
Golden Dawn's elaborate system of ceremonial magic had not been made
available to us first Aleister Crowley and later by Israel Regardie. Some
modern Witchcraft traditions include parts of OTO sex magic in their
rituals. Most notable is the actual Great Rite, which is based more on
Crowley's revised OTO rituals that on traditional village Witchcraft. Dion
Fortune's novels continue to serve as a model for the practice of Witchcraft.