I - General Introduction

A Brief Overview of the Golden Dawn

Welcome to Golden Aeon

Most of you probably know something of the background of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  This is a short summary.   In writing Golden Aeon, I have been acutely aware of the importance of the order, not simply as a source of original esoteric ideas, but in relevance to art and political history. 

In order to understand the Golden Dawn, we must understand the time in which it grew, and the cultural influences on its founders.  I think it is also very useful to understand what happened to the Golden Dawn afterwards, and its influence on modern thought, particularly on the popular culture of the 1960 and early 1970s. 

In this document alone, you will find an “accurate” history of the Golden Dawn.  The author is fully aware of the shortcomings of the cipher manuscripts, and the various theories as to their origins, the most likely being that they were forged by someone close to William Wynn Westcott, and that Westcott – and most likely Mathers – at least knew perfectly well that the ciphers were of no notable antiquity, and were probably aware of their true origin.  Here we will also mention briefly the “revolution” of 1900, in which the English Temples defied Mathers, and the organization split into factions.  In the other documents for this game, you will find few references to these matters.  The cipher manuscripts and the ephermal “secret chiefs” of the order can be taken as gospel.  This event is not about the Golden Dawn as it can be understood historically ninety-nine years later, but rather about the Golden Dawn as its participants understood it in its heydey, the last few months of 1899, leading into the turmoil of 1900.   Our drama will be set in the universe as the Golden Dawn understood it. 

For that reason, it is not necessary to believe or practice the things which the members of the Golden Dawn believed and practiced.  Even to the most conservative of occultists many of the Golden Dawn beliefs – particularly the belief in “Secret Chiefs” seem ludicrous at best.  Golden Aeon is not about believing the teachings of the Golden Dawn, but about understanding them, in historical context, and if there is one strength to live roleplaying it is that there is no better context than “being there.” 

What we refer to as  the “Heremetic Order of the Golden Dawn” was two organizations, formed in 1888 and 1892 respectively.   The organization was the brainchild of Dr. William Wynn Westcott, an amiable London coroner.  His partners in the affair were Dr. W.R. Woodman, and Samuel Lidell “MacGregor” Mathers.  Westcott seems to have been the initial organizational mind behind the Golden Dawn.  Woodman was the Supreme Magus of a reputable Rosicrucian organization, and was doubtless selected to lend credibility to the new organization.  Mathers was chosen because of his quirky, but irrefutable genius with ritual and all things magical. 

The Golden Dawn had a charter from a supposed German Rosicrucian Lodge, issued by an aged German adept named “Fraulein Anna Sprengel.”   The basis for the Golden Dawn’s rituals was a “cipher manuscript” discovered by Westcott, and deciphered by Mathers.   Westcott’s initial temple was styled “No. 3.”  Supposedly temple No. 1 was the German Lodge which issued the charter, and Temple No. 2 is supposed to have been an initial abortive experiment at a smaller, “secret” temple in England about ten years earlier, which had initially held the cipher manuscript. 

The initial Golden Dawn was the “Outer Order” which did not teach practical magic, but existed for the most part as a philosophical and esoteric group.  The Outer Order members did work grades and initiation rituals, but they did little in the way of practical operations.  For the first four years the Golden Dawn existed only in the “Outer.”  In late 1892, the “Inner Order” rituals – and the physical “Vault of the Adepts” which plays an important part in the rituals – were completed. 

From this point on the history of the Golden Dawn is really the history of the small “Inner Order.”  Those who were actively interested in the occult progressed quickly to the “Inner Order,” which had separate meeting places and facilities from the “Outer Order.”  When we talk of the “Golden Dawn” after 1892, we are speaking of the “Inner Order” to all intents and purposes. 

The Golden Dawn prospered, more or less, for ten years.  It had a number of temples, most of them quite small.  The primary temples were the original “Isis Urania” temple in London, the “Amen-Ra” Temple in Edinburgh, and the “Ahathoor” Temple in Paris.  Mathers left London in 1892 to live in Paris, and his temple there became the nominal center of the organization, though it was notable chiefly for his presence. 

Historically the Golden Dawn underwent its first collapse in 1900.  Amid accusations that the organization’s charter was forged, and arguments over Mathers’ authority, the original structure crumbled, and over the next three years the Golden Dawn divided, and divided again. 

While none of the “splinter” organizations have the cachet of the original, many of them were significant in their own right, and certainly the membership of Golden-Dawn descended organizations was greater, not smaller, twenty years after the split.  The Stella Matutina, the Alpha et Omega, and the Independent and Rectified Rite were all direct descendants of the Dawn’s first schism.  Another set of disagreements in the early 1920s split some of the larger descendant groups again, and by the 1940s most of the original groups had vanished, though a few tiny groups survived into the 1970s with a tenuous claim on direct descent. 

The “Apostolic Succession” of teachers, and the literature of the Golden Dawn, was more important than the actual direct descendants.  Before the First World War, Aliester Crowley published the essential rituals and teachings of the Golden Dawn in a serial issue called “The Equinox.”  For the first time the “secrets” of the Golden Dawn were available to the public.  “The Equinox” created a stir in the small and fading occult community, but it was not until after the First World War that interest in the occult exploded. 

 Figures such as “Dion Fortune” (Violet Firth) popularized the teachings of the Golden Dawn in novels, and serious, but simply written, books like “Psychical Self Defense.”  Groups organized by pupils of Dion Fortune prosper to this day.  Aliester Crowley published a wealth of somewhat more obtuse material which forms the core teachings of the modern Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) in America.  Israel Regardie, who was once Crowley’s secretary, published the workings of the Stella Matutina (essentially identical to the original GD teachings) in the twenties and earned himself expulsion, but his volumes remain in print to this day.  Groups such as the original and the modern OTO, Paul Foster Case’s “Builders of the Adytum”, and dozens of less well known groups are indirect descendants of the Golden Dawn. 

Moreover, the Golden Dawn has a place in cultural history that far exceeds its importance as an occult oganization.  The “Occult Renaissance” of the 1920s spawned ideas that were resurrected in the 1960s.  The “Age of Aquarius” owes a great deal to 19th century Theosophy, and Spiritism.  When the Beatles travelled to India in the mid 1960s, they were not embarking on a bold new quest, but were resurrecting an idea that had echoed through British culture since Blatavasky – that wisdom and enlightenment could be found in the East. 

But the writing that preserved the ideas of the 19th century mystics owes drastically more to the Golden Dawn than to Helena Blatavsky.  While her writings, and indeed her organization, still exist, they are obtuse and have never been widely read.  It is the simplified synthesis that came out of the Golden Dawn descendants in the 1920s that was produced in mass market editions through the 20’s and 30’s and found its way into popular culture.  The break between Blatavasky and the Hermeticists came with her rejection of all things western for all things eastern.  The essential teaching of the Golden Dawn was the unification of all things esoteric – eastern and western.

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