What is The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn?
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, more commonly called the Golden Dawn, was a secret society founded in England in 1888.
The society was dedicated to the study and teaching of occult arts in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Most notably, study focused on alchemy, metaphysics and paranormal activity. It was also the first secret society to allow women entry, on an equal level.
Although short-lived and torn apart by internal conflicts by 1903, it has an important place in the history of Western esotericism as it practically invented modern occultism. The Golden Dawn inspired many modern-day ritual magic practices such as Wicca and Thelema.
The society took knowledge from ancient wisdom but incorporated new ideas from psychical research and psychology. The society was active in fin-de-siècle Britain, the dawn of a new century. Members believed they were part of an evolutionary shift in humanity’s consciousness, a golden dawn, and it was their job to connect with the hidden world and spiritual realms. As Aleister Crowley, a key member wrote, they were “engineers building a bridge to an unknown land.”
Note that the word hermetic, relates to an ancient occult tradition encompassing alchemy, theosophy and astrology. It is synonymous with the word ‘hermit’, which is someone who seeks knowledge in private, and does not communicate with others outside of their order.
Photo in image above, public domain: Samuel Mathers wearing Egyptian costume performing a ritual in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
- What is The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn?
- Who Founded The Golden Dawn?
- Famous Members of The Golden Dawn
- Structure of The Golden Dawn
- The Cipher Manuscripts
- Temples of the Golden Dawn
- Why Did The Golden Dawn Break Up?
- Vow of Secrecy with The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn
- Does The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn Still Exist Today?
- W.B. Yeats and The Golden Dawn
Who Founded The Golden Dawn?
A small group of occultists and Freemasons established the order. The key founders of the order were William Wynn Westcott (1848–1925) and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918). Both were Freemasons with connections to the British occult scene, especially the Rosicrucian Society, an order which limited its membership to Christian Master Masons.
The Golden Dawn culled many of its early members from the Rosicrucian, but gradually expanded to more than 300 members at its peak in the 1890s. Members included some of the best minds of the day.
Famous Members of The Golden Dawn
Who was a member of the Golden Dawn?
Poet, William Butler Yeats
Writer, Bram Stoker
Writer, Arthur Machen
Actress, Florence Farr
Theatre producer, Annie Horniman
Actress, Maud Gonne
Mina Bergson Mathers, the sister of philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson.
The Golden Dawn presented itself as a Western alternative to the Theosophical Society, which was a popular esoteric spiritual movement with an anti-Christian, oriental (especially towards Buddhism) bias. The Golden Dawn aligned itself with Christianity through Rosicrucian heritage and reinstated Egypt as the true source of ancient wisdom.
Egyptology was at the height of fashion at the turn of the 20th century due to the discovery of ancient tombs; and the Golden Dawn adopted a conceptual structure that made Egypt the source of Hermetic authority.
The order was able to attract clever people because of the system which was intellectually challenging, that Westcott, with the help of a few others, put together. Studies were graded, and focused on developing human consciousness; as well as expanding the individual’s mystic experience.
The Golden Dawn’s hierarchical structure, study plans and initiation rituals would set a new standard for magical ritual societies.
Structure of The Golden Dawn
Similar to the Rosicrucian Society, the internal structure of the Golden Dawn was divided into three orders. Correspondingly, initiates in the society were encouraged to move through the ranks.
The first order was called the Outer Order.
Teachings in the Outer Order level were focused on Tarot divination, geomancy and astrology. The First Order divided into 4 grades, which related to the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Each grade was categorized by one of the four elements, fire, water, earth and air. After passing a written exam on the metaphysical character of an element, you (now known as the aspirant) could proceed to the next element. On completion of the four elements, you were initiated as a Golden Dawn member, and could move to the Second order. At this point you were known as an adept. Most members did not graduate past the First Order.
The second order was called the Inner Order. Here one mastered the arts of practical magic such as alchemy, scrying and astral travel, as well as classic mystical techniques of invocation and evocation. Members of the Inner Order were also granted powers within the organization, like for example, being able to recommend initiate aspirants to the first level. Upon passing an examination in the Second Order, an aspirant would eventually reach the grade of Adeptus Minor.
The third order contained ‘secret chiefs’, of whom the members of the first and second order knew little about. The general belief was that the secret chiefs were alchemists who practiced in an unbroken tradition which went back to ancient Egypt. There are no records to show who the secret chiefs actually were. They were not even the founders themselves. Perhaps the chiefs were not even people, but symbolic or spiritual entities!
One of the many reasons for internal disagreements eventually, was that Mathers, one of the founders, was the sole correspondent with the secret chiefs. This wasn’t a problem initially, but in time members began to question his judgement.
In 1898, Mathers initiated a young Aleister Crowley, whose libertine lifestyle and bisexuality were renowned, into the Outer Order. But when just two short years later Mathers made him an Adeptus Minor, all hell broke loose.
Florence Farr, one of the most famous members at the time, resigned her position as Chief Adept. Mathers reputation further declined when, in 1901, he was drawn into the public court case of an American couple of con artists (Mr. and Mrs. Theo Horos), who, amongst other crimes, had tricked him into believing they held copies of Golden Dawns secret papers.
The Cipher Manuscripts
The texts that serve as the foundation of the Golden Dawn’s belief system are known as the Cipher Manuscripts. The origins of these documents have been questioned since their first mention. William Westcott, one of the founders of the order, claimed to have found the set of documents while browsing a bookstall in London, and suspecting they contained ancient magic, bought them immediately. Other versions of the story say they were found among the papers of the 19th century Freemason and occult scholar Frederick Hockley.
Arthur Waite, however, convincingly dates the writings to somewhere between 1870 and 1880, supporting the notion that they may have been written by writer and Golden Dawn member Kenneth Mackenzie. The founder, Mathers at one point even declared that it was Westcott who had forged the manuscripts.
The manuscripts initially, according to ‘legend’, needed decoding. When they were decoded, they turned out to provide rituals and teachings from an 18th century German Rosicrucian magical order called the Orden des Gold-und-Rosenkreuz.
Temples of the Golden Dawn
The Golden Dawn founded temples, which in practice were meeting places for their members. The first temple, the Isis-Urania Temple, was founded in London in 1888. Women were welcomed to participate in “perfect equality” with men, which broke with masonry tradition. In the same year, the Osiris Temple in Weston-super-Mare, and the Horus Temple in Bradford were established. The Amen-Ra Temple was founded in Edinburgh in 1893 and in the same year, Mathers founded the Ahathoor Temple in Paris. There were also two temples founded in the United States, Them No.8 in Chicago and Thoth-Hermes in New York.
Do any of the temples of the Golden Dawn, still exist today? No, at least not in their original form.
Why Did The Golden Dawn Break Up?
Towards the end of 1899, the London and Edinburgh temples were becoming unhappy with Mathers’ leadership, and his growing friendship with Aleister Crowley. Members were growing anxious to make contact with the secret chiefs themselves, without relying on Mathers as an intermediary.
In London, at the Isis-Urania Temple, disputes were also arising between a secret society within the temple, called the Sphere (run by Farr) and the rest of the Adepti Minores.
By 1903, the order had mostly splintered. Out of chaos, splinter groups formed, including the Alpha et Omega, the Stella Matutina and Aleister Crowley’s A∴A∴.
Vow of Secrecy with The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn
Golden Dawn members had to take a vow of secrecy, and yet, the survival of the orders tradition today, is largely due to the influence of three members who broke that vow.
Those members were:
Aleister Crowley, who later published information about the order’s magic rituals in his magazine The Equinox.
Dion Fortune, who encompassed teachings of the Golden Dawn in her book The Mystical Qabalah.
Israel Regardie, who published four large volumes on the mystical teachings of the Golden Dawn between 1937 and 1940.
Here is an outline of the breadth of esoteric subject matter on which the order provided knowledge:
- Kabbalah and the Sephiroth
- Meditation, including portal meditation
- Astrology and four elements
- Consecrations of Talismans
- Spiritual development
- Tattwa visions (see Shamanism)
- Astral travel
- Akashic records
- Rules of Karma
- Tarot Divination
- Tarot symbolism
- The Tarot court card table, including course of the Aces
- Enochian system, including sphynxes and the pyramids
- Ancient gods of Isis, Anubis, Hathor, Auramo-ooth, Osiris and Horus
- Polygons and Polygrams
- Symbolism of square in a circle
- Symbolism of the triangle and square
- Octagon and Octagrams
- Enneagon and Enagrams
- Dekagon and Dekagrams
- Endekagon and Endekagrams
- Dodekagon and Dodekangles
- Ritual of the cross and four elements
- Ritual of the pentagram and five paths
- Ritual of the hexagram
- Ritual of the rose cross
- Consecration ritual of the sword Ceremony of the Equinox
Does The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn Still Exist Today?
The order does not exist today. At least not in the tradition it was established in 1888.
The teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were gradually made public. However, the order was not really picked up again until the 1980s, when a new set of people took up the teachings and formed their own groups. There is no historical link between todays Golden Dawn and the original order.
Enjoy learning? Next, read about the history of Tarot cards. In-depth article.
Share This Article
W.B. Yeats and The Golden Dawn
The poet W.B. Yeats was perhaps one of the most famous members of the Golden Dawn. The Dawn was not the first esoteric society Yeats explored, but it was the only one to which he dedicated years of his life. Even after the order splintered into faction he strived to master grade after grade, initiation after initiation.
Yeats rose as high in the Order as it was possible to go without becoming an advanced administrator. He even married a fellow Golden Dawn adept in 1917, and the couple painted the ceilings of their home with Golden Dawn esoteric color-schemes. [ Source: To Never See Death: Yeats, Reincarnation, and Resolving the Antinomies of the Body-Soul Dilemma ]
Karina, author of Tarot in 5 Minutes.
Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn