The Golden Dawn

It is no coincidence that the three most important Tarot decks of the modern era, those of Waite, Crowley and the Golden Dawn, were produced by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. That fraternity, the intellectual heir of the Renaissance Qabalists and Baroque Rosicrucians, placed greater emphasis on the Tarot than any other group whose activities have yet been made public. Their attitude that the Tarot synthesizes the principles of the Hermetic Qabalah has been pivotal to modern esoteric studies.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, particularly insofar as it represented a social phenomenon, is best viewed against the backdrop of its own period.

London today is a sprawling and sophisticated metropolis, a center for international trade and communications. Even the traditional reserve of the English themselves does not serve to mask the vitality and rapidity of life there. London of the 1890's was more tranquil and picturesque. One imagines streets lined with trees and quaint shops, horse drawn carriages moving leisurely across cobblestoned streets carrying ladies in long gowns and gentlemen in top hats. The tranquil quality of some of London's streets however, was in sharp contrast to the squalor of the same city's slums, or to the factory areas of the emerging industrial nation ruled by Queen Victoria. This was a time and place of great polarities.

This was the society which acted as a crucible for the ideas of the modern Hermetic Qabalah, a society very different in tone and quality from that which we know today. The Order of the Golden Dawn emerged during one of the most interesting periods of modern history, the Fin de Si├Ęcle, La Belle Epoque. It was a time when people were beginning to assess and place in perspective a great deal of knowledge gained in previous decades.

Many historians view the extraordinary interest in occultism at that time as a reaction against industrialization and its concomitant materialism. There was definitely a fear in some quarters that machine technology might overwhelm and destroy individuality. Others tend to view the interest in esoteric matters as the result of politically-based contact with eastern ideas, relating to England's involvement in India and the subsequent birth of Theosophy. Yet, however one may choose to assess the development of occultism in the late nineteenth century, like the other threads of the social fabric, it represented the fruit of generations of exploration. The same may be said, at this time, for the sciences, for politics, for industry, and for all phases of the arts. Expressed in another way, there was more change in human lifestyle and philosophy at the turn of this century than at any other time in history. It was overwhelming, it was rapid, but it did not happen overnight. An analogy could be made with a balloon that fills with air slowly, but bursts suddenly. The Golden Dawn was a bursting forth of pressure that had begun to build in the Qabalistic philosophies of the Renaissance.

Those who criticize the Golden Dawn for its theatricality should appreciate that it emerged from much the same social forces which were producing the modern theatre, to say nothing of modern literature, modern art and modern music. This was the age of Ibsen, of Stravinsky, of Henri Bergson (Mrs. Mathers' brother), of William Morris, of Oscar Wilde, of Rimbaud and Verlaine, of Van Gogh and Gauguin.

It is in this light that the Order is best understood. What the Order did, essentially, was to collect, focus and expand upon all of the previous experience of the Western Mystery Tradition. The elements of the Hermetic Qabalah were very different after undergoing the refinements and critical definitions of the Golden Dawn.

It was in 1888 that the Order was founded under the joint leadership of William Wynn Westcott, S.L. MacGregor Mathers and W.R. Woodman. Its authority, as well as its claim to have descended from Christian Rosencreutz (father of Rosicrucianism) was based on a mysterious set of "Cypher Manuscripts" which came into Westcott's hands in 1887.

The story is very complicated, and made even more so by the likelihood that at least some of the materials issued to the members by Mathers, et al., and claimed by them to be of great antiquity, were their own invention.12

The "Ancient Cypher Manuscripts" were (suspiciously) in English, translated into a very simple cypher-for-letter code invented by the Abbot Trithemius (patron of Agrippa) in the sixteenth century. These pages outline the rituals and grade structure of an occult fraternity, and supposedly originated in Germany. And while there is a serious question about the authenticity of these documents, they were definitely written by one with a profound knowledge of occult tradition.

It was, at any event, on the basis of this claimed authority that members were solicited for the new order. They came from a wide range of pursuits and included, by 1890, William Butler Yeats, Annie Horniman and the actress Florence Farr. A.E. Waite was a member of the group for somewhat more than a year. Later he rejoined but eventually wrote disparagingly of his experiences with the fraternity.

It was in 1892 that Mathers became sole Chief, and the Second, or Inner Order (offering the grade of Adeptus Minor) was established. Mathers was a skillful organizer, though perhaps addicted to small deceits aimed at agrandi-zing his own image, or adding to the lustre of the Order in the eyes of its members. Serious problems began to appear in 1895, stemming largely from Mathers' autocratic leadership. While Mathers claimed to be in contact with three "Secret Chiefs," unseen Masters who guided the course of the Order, the members had become increasingly reluctant to accept Mathers' statements on faith.

Aleister Crowley joined the Order in November of 1898 and was soon apprenticed to the legendary Alan Bennett. He also earned the respect of Mathers for his intelligence and talent for esoteric work. But the same qualities of investigative independence, albeit genius, which so attracted Bennett and Mathers, tended to be viewed as abrasive by other members. In 1899, after MacGregor and Moina Mathers had moved to Paris to establish a continental branch of the Order, the leaders of the London Temple decided to reject Crowley's application for membership in the Second Order. That decision led ultimately to the final disintegration of the Order as it had been originally.

In Paris, Mathers conferred the Adeptus Minor degree on Crowley. But this incurred the wrath of the London members, who refused to accept the initiation as valid, and voted to expel Mathers himself from the Order. Undaunted, Mathers proceeded to found a new group. Others, including Crowley, eventually did the same, each claiming that his fraternity was authentic, and in contact with the Secret Chiefs.

Thus, the teaching of the Order was disseminated around the world, as splinter groups formed in England, America and other countries. The methods of the Order became public knowledge between the years 1937 and 1940 when Israel Regardie's four volume Golden Dawn appeared.13 This work contains all of the Order's significant lectures and rituals, as well as a very thorough explanation of their underlying principles.

Continue reading here: The Golden Dawn Tarot

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