Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
- For the Greek far-right party, see Golden Dawn.
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The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a short lived secret society of occultists that flourished around the turn of the twentieth century, chiefly in the United Kingdom. During its brief existence its membership included famous cultural figures such as William Butler Yeats, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Sax Rohmer, Bram Stoker, Maude Gonne, William Sharp ("Fiona Macleod"), and Florence Farr, as well as a number of well known occultists including Aleister Crowley, Arthur Edward Waite, and Dion Fortune.
It was founded in 1887 with the discovery of some "cipher manuscripts", written in a simple cipher of monoalphabetic substitution (a secret alphabet, in other words) containing initiation rituals. Founding member S. L. Mathers worked them into a full fledged system of ceremonial magic, and with them launched the first temple, the Isis-Urania Temple, in London, in 1888. In addition to ritual magic, the curriculum of the Golden Dawn included Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot divination, astrology, geomancy, and Enochian language.
The cipher manuscripts also allegedly put the founder in touch with a German spinster and adept, a Fräulein Sprengel; she, in turn, was in psychic communication with a mystical body of adepts, whom she called the "Secret Chiefs". Given this founding myth, unlike many Freemason-inspired magical societies, this one pretty much had to allow women as initiates: perhaps their most fortunate innovation in magical tradition. Women associated with the Golden Dawn, such as Dion Fortune and Pamela Colman Smith, remain powerful influences on contemporary esotericism.
By 1900, doctrinal and financial quarrels had broken out within the organization; Crowley is often blamed for them, but it would appear that Annie Horniman, one of the society's financial backers, was in fact the instigator. The London members wished to be put in direct contact with the alleged European leaders and the Secret Chiefs; since the European leaders were likely mythical, and the Secret Chiefs existed on another plane of consciousness, this would be difficult. According to Mathers, Fräulein Sprengel died in 1891. Mathers' friendship with Crowley was also a bone of contention; Crowley wished initiation into the next level of membership; the London circle refused him, and Mathers overrode them. Accounts of the crackup differ, but Crowley was apparently centrally involved, if not the cause—one account has him trying to commandeer the London temple in kilt and mask on behalf of Mathers.
The fallout from this collapse was to seed the Golden Dawn's style of ceremonial magic to the English-speaking world, as dozens of later occultists claimed descent from or inspiration from its workings. The cultural prominence of its membership, a rather open secret, lent it prestige of a sort—even if many of the celebrity members lost interest in magic or occult symbolism after its collapse. (Yeats didn't.)
Its influence was also decisively spread when Israel Regardie published its complete 'secret teachings' and ritual from 1937 through 1940. Sales of the obscure tomes only took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Publishing the entire secrets of the group made them accessible to appropriation and re-interpretation in the best traditions of the occult, and as such the Golden Dawn's magical systems and ideas became a key influence on later occult and New Age thinking and Western esotericism.
Much of tarot ritual is derived from Golden Dawn writings on the nature of different Tarot cards. However Crowley's expositions on tarot cards are extensive and difficult to memorize so most card sharks just wing it rather than sticking to "orthodox" chicanery.