originally published March 9, 2012
So you’re looking for a new religion to follow, but the old standbys seem so last Thursday, and you can’t afford a sci-fi religion that requires monetary input to achieve higher awareness (I’m looking at you, Scientology). You want some magic and mysticism, but without a dreary back-story of sacrifice and betrayal.
Have you considered the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? No, you probably haven’t. Well, maybe it’s time.
The HOGD grew out of the late 19th century, when a handful of Brits decided they wanted a bit more out of life than large-front-wheel bicycles and chimney sweeping.
William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers were not only name-hogs, but Freemasons with a fascination for ritual and mysticism. They set up their new order in a similar fashion to the Masons, but they allowed women entry on an equal plane as the men. Freemasonry was awesome, but it was a bit of a secret-sausage-fest-society, if you know what I mean.
The Golden Dawn actually refers to three intertwined orders. The first taught philosophy, but also gave a primer on tarot cards, astrology and geomancy, which involves throwing dirt into the air and reading the way it scatters on the ground like you would tea leaves. It’s all very scientific.
The second, or ‘inner’ order taught real magic, including astral travel, alchemy, and pulling a lot of tied-together scarves out of your sleeve. The third order are the highly skilled “Secret Chiefs”, who direct the goings-on of the other two orders through spirit communication, because verbal communication is for lower-order losers.
The documents that are at the root of the Golden Dawn (because there has to be something on paper to make this all seem… sane?) are the Cipher Manuscripts. These were written in English, but using a Trithemius Cipher, which is a pretty basic form of code in which each letter is shifted over so many spaces and substituted by another letter. Luckily, William Westcott got hold of them in 1887 and decoded them for the common man.
Well, the ‘common man’ in this case just happens to be a handful of wealthy white British Freemasons who were looking to start their own society.
In October of that year, Westcott started corresponding with Anna Sprengel, a German lady whose name and address were encoded in the Manuscripts. The internet was not around back then of course – had it been, it probably wouldn’t have taken much effort to discover that Sprengel didn’t actually exist. But Westcott’s word was good enough, and the first temple, the Isis-Urania Temple, was founded in London to start teaching the first-order materials.
It took until 1892 for exploration to begin on the second order. Mathers is generally credited with coming up with the ‘curriculum’ of this order, which seems to amount to a virtual cornu-crapo-copia of magical baloney. The first folks to have graduated (or more likely, gotten tired of) the teachings in Isis-Urania were granted access to this inner order.
The impetus for this second order was Westcott’s claim that his correspondence with Sprengel had suddenly ceased – maybe she was dead, maybe the Secret Magical Unicorns were displeased with her association with the Golden Dawn. Who knows? But Mathers claimed he had a link to the Secret Chiefs (think Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin at the end of Jedi), and that the second order needed to happen. He called it the Red Rose and Cross of Gold.
By the mid 90s, the Golden Dawn was attracting a Hubbard-esque caliber of celebrities, including actress Florence Farr, poet William Butler Yeats and writer Aleister Crowley. In 1897 Westcott left the group suddenly. No one knows for sure, but the accepted rumor is that someone found some occult papers in a hansom cab that linked Westcott to the organization, and he was forced to either quit or lose his job.
Things started to turn ugly in 1899. A number of the higher-ups at the outer-order temples were getting a little miffed at Mathers’ leadership, and his friendship with Aleister Crowley wasn’t helping things either. Crowley was initially refused membership to the London temple, but Mathers pulled rank and got him in. Discord arose, and Mathers felt that Westcott was behind it all (he wasn’t).
The Temple heads formed a committee and ousted Mathers, the final founder, from the organization. This did not bode well for the society’s future. The Isis-Urania Temple had branched out on its own, and now Yeats was sending around a self-penned pamphlet to see if there was any viability in the inner order continuing. I think he just wanted to know if he should bother to have his sacred robes dry-cleaned.
So some members went their own ways, founding their own off-shoot temples. Mathers did the same; he had the loyalty of two temples in England, so he put together enough people to keep channeling the mystical hoobie-joobies for at least another dozen years or so. He then branched out in the US, forming three temples in America by the start of the first World War.
Most of the temples drifted into non-existence by the 1930s – the founders and earliest members had all moved on (presumably to become Secret Chiefs in the astral plane of… whatever), and the younger generation just wasn’t as interested. The Hermes Temple in Bristol kept running until about 1970, and the Whare Ra Temple in Havelock North, New Zealand (which, as we learned yesterday, is just bursting with fascinating tales and a toothbrush fence) kept operating until 1978.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was inspired in part by Christian Mysticism, Qabalah, the religion of Ancient Egypt, and a myriad of other spiritual thought-streams. Its members were searching for something greater in this world, and for that I can’t really fault them. Where most religious folks are tethered to centuries-old stories, these guys (and gals) were trying to pull some of that mystical magic into thin air.
The Golden Dawn seems to be a dead tribe now, but of course with the advent of World-Wide-Webbery, nothing is truly obsolete anymore. Sure, the mysticism of Wicca and Thelema are linked at a few levels with the HOGD, but for those who really think Westcott and his buddies were on to something, you can hop on the Golden Dawn revival train through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn Inc, or the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn.
No great and truly nut-jobical idea ever really goes away.