Occult Influences on the Golden Dawn
The History of Western Hermetic Thought
The Ancient West
|Aleister Crowley, posited that "Magick is the Science and Art of causing
Change to occur in conformity with Will," (Magick
in Theory and Practice, 1929). Without doubt throughout most of mankind's
past, Magic, Religion, and Science were seen as a whole cloth.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks we first see the beginnings of the intellectual separation of Religion and Science. Even this should not be overrated - understanding that Pythogoreanism was much more important as a religious and philosophical teaching than as a system of geometry gives some insight into the degree to which religion, magic, and science, are one element. At the Greek colony of Croton where he settled in the late sixth century BC, Pythagoras was identified as Apollo.
In The History of Magic (1977), Richard Cavendish says: "From the seventh century B.C. Greek rationalism made inroads into magic's territory by looking for natural explanations of what had previously been considered supernatural. The Roman world, however, experienced a resurgence of interest in magic comparable to the modern occult revival. In the melting-pot of the Roman Empire influences from the East, Greece, Rome itself and the barbarian cultures of western and northern Europe mingles and fused together to form the western magical tradition."
To the Romans and Greeks, "Magic" was something foreign and dubious - mystical practices that were a part of local tradition were, of course, religion. The Romans and Greeks also tended not to have powerful "specialist" priesthoods. The peoples they associated with magic - the Egyptians, Persians, Chaldeans, and Jews, did have dedicated priestly casts, and their arts were believed to give them special knowledge and insights into the nature of the divine, and the working of the universe. The Romans and Greeks also had a healthy respect for the magic of the Brahmins, and the Celts, though they had much less knowledge of their culture and practices.
A useful philosophical distinction to make here would be the general difference between "high magic" and "low magic." High magic can be considered to be those magical practices that aim at gaining a greater control and understanding of the self and the atmosphere - learning to transcend human limitations, and apprehend the divine. Low magic focuses on comparatively minor results - the discovery of treasure, revenge, and love spells, having its low end in fortune-telling and lucky charms.
Undoubtedly many of the magical practices of those peoples the Romans conquered and traded with were primarily oriented towards "High Magical" practices in the beginning. But the vast urbanization of the Roman Empire, as well as the fact of Roman sovereignty must have caused a tremendous boom in low magical practices and writings.
Numerous Pseudo-messianic figures such as Pythagoras in the sixth century, Apollonius of Tyana and Simon Magus in the first century C.E. and Julian the Chaldean in the second century, dot the landscape of Hellenic magical culture. Various foreign "mystery" cults which were imported to Rome as novelties in the centuries of Imperial expansion. The cults of Dionysius, Attis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras, and others - arguably including Christianity - certainly played a part in the homogenization of a "western" occult tradition.
Gnosticism is, in simplest form, the belief in religious enlightenment through direct, personal, apprehension of the divine. This may sound quaint and rather simplistic in a day when many or most Protestant churches acknowledge the validity of personal divine experience, and some radical Christian churches even encourage "Gnosis" through aisle-rolling, or "speaking in tongues." An implicit element of Gnosticism is the notion that the human body, and indeed the physical universe, are a "prison" for the spirit, which yearns to rise and escape into an ephermal realm transcendent of matter. Gnosticism is "Dualistic" which means that it sees a universe in which a divine spirit of light is balanced in the creation by a malign "creator" who imprisoned the world in flesh - a concept which it probably drew from Persian Zoastrianism, in which Ahura-Mazada and Ahrimann war for control of the universe. As an interesting side note, it is exposure to Persian belief during the Babylonian exile that introduced the dualistic figure of "Satan" into Judaism, and thus eventually Christianity.
The principal figure in the early Neoplatonist movement is Plotinus, who rejected Gnosticism because he could not tolerate the idea of a dualistic universe. Neoplatonism is "a revival and reinterpretation of Plato's doctrine of essential, pre-existing 'forms.'" In actual belief however, it maintains many of the qualities of Gnosticism. There is one great infinite perfect "one" which emanates reality and intelligence, and creates the lesser souls of human beings. The souls of humans, however, can either remain pure, and preserve their image of the infinite, or become corrupt through immersion in the sensual world. The act of seeking unity with the infinite is an inherently positive act. Neoplatonism was the last great intellectual movement of paganism, and its extinction ushered in the era of Christian dominance in western theological thought. Christian writers borrowed a great deal of Neoplatonist philosophy, but it would not be until the time Cosimo De Medici that the core works of Neoplatonism would again see the light. It is notable that the Renaissance - and the rediscovery of classical learning, is considered by many scholars to have specifically begun with the translation of the Corpus Hermetica under the patronage of Cosimo De Medici.
The Corpus Hermetica is a jumbled and contradictory body of texts which have survived from the second and third centuries C.E. The primary thread which holds this writing together is its attribution to "Hermes Trismegistus" (Thrice Blessed Hermes) - mythical figure personifying the perfected scholar. It is fairly clear that the idea of Hermes as a real human being was considered irrelevant by his students - they were aware that their theoretical teacher was a personification of the Roman Deity Hermes. There was also a close link to the Egyptian scholar cult of Thoth (bearing in mind that by this time the culture of Egypt had been long subsumed by the Ptolemaic Greek culture). Hermeticism shows strong, and sometimes contradictory influences from Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.
The Corpus Hermetica is considered to include, or closely relate to, a vast array of "magical papyri" which were authored at roughly the same time. The magical papyri address Neoplatonic and Gnostic Hellenic theology, but they also contain a huge quantity of "low magic" - spells, incantations, and cantrips.
The repression of Neoplatonism was largely complete by the fourth century. Gnosticism flourished into the seventh century before it was finally and firmly put down by the growing power of the Orthodox church. From this point until the late fifteenth century, the history of magic in Europe is largely one of surviving folk customs, (such as the practices of the Sicilian hereditary witches or strega), paranoia, and periodic revivals of Gnostic Dualism in the form either of organized heresy, or ignorant diabolism. The focus of progress in western occult thought must shift to the south, to the Islamic realm, and to the Jewish Culture.
The Islamic Al-kimia is the next tradition. Alchemy is among the most poorly understood of the great Western traditions. Interestingly the name has a derivation to a similar Islamic term AAl-jabr@ (Algebra).
It is important to understand that Alchemy predates both the term, and the rise of Islam. Alchemy seems to have first been documented as a specific art in Egypt in the early third century B.C.E., and survived into the late second and early third centuries. By about C.E. 300, Zosimus of Panopolis had drawn the parallel between gold-making and spiritual refinement which was to become central to alchemy.
Islamic scholars did not have the reluctance of Christian scholars to explore classical antiquity, and the spread of Islam led to the translation of Greek works into Arabic. The Sufi mystic Gerber, who died in the early 9th century C.E. was one of the earliest Islamic experimenters with alchemy, and he incorporated Pythagorean and Neoplatonist elements into alchemical practice. Some europeans studied the Arabic works on alchemy, notably Arnald of Villanova, Roger Bacon, and Raymond Lull. It is notable that all three men had difficulties with the church and the law, and were suspected of witchcraft - the atmosphere of Europe was not overwhelmingly conducive to occult research or speculation. Not only alchemy was preserved, and enlarged upon, by the Arabs. The Arabic writer Abu Mashar of Baghdad (805-85) left a great body of astrological writing.
A principal concept of Alchemy was developed by the Hellenes, and refined by the Arabs. The AChemical Wedding@ goes back to Hermetic roots. Essentially, the idea is a wedding of the elements which symbolizes the spiritual joining of man with God. The entire idea of Aturning iron to gold@ is found here. First of all, it was quicksilver, not iron. Second of all, the alchemist=s search was to make a Aphilosopher=s stone@ which would transmute base metals to gold.
The process was symbolic. Through observance of long, careful rites and process, the initiate would make a stone which could turn iron (lesser metals) into gold (which was thought to be the purest form of metal) just as the heart and mind were purged of base thoughts and beliefs, and left pure. The process of transmutation was intended (and in fact usually practiced) as a transitory rite of purification, not as a means to quick financial gain. Most alchemists were theoreticians who studied philosophy rather than chemistry.
The Cabbala is a body of Jewish mystic learning and teaching that dates back at least to the 12th century A.D., and probably goes back in rudimentary form much farther. Jewish faith is based on the "written law" the Torah (the Judaic scriptures, which are very roughly the same books as the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, and the "oral law" which is tradition handed down through generations. During the last four centuries B.C.E. traditionalists (primarily Sadducees) who adhered strictly to the written law were slowly marginalized by sects (primarily the Pharisees) who felt that oral law had equal weight. The tradition of adherence to the written law only was snuffed out in the C.E. 70 Jerusalem Rebellion. Modern Rabbitanial Judaism is descended from the oral-traditionists, who in subsequent centuries wrote down the Talmud as a repository of the oral-law. In the middle-ages, and later times, various scholars added Commentaries to the Talmud. At the same time, some scholars believed in a body of "secret" written law, set down in the Torah, and set out to study it. The "proto-cabbalistic" work Sefer Yetzirah was probably written down in the near east between 200-600 C.E.
Jewish mysticism dates back into the shadowy past, and can be traced back to works such as the Testament of Solomon, concerning commanding demons and angels which were recorded in Greek, possibly as early as the second or third century C.E. The names of demons are from Jewish, Hellenic Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Christian sources. Later versions have different lists. The Sword of Moses which reliably dates back to the tenth century resembles the magical papyri. Books purporting to be authored by Solomon are referred to in the eleventh century, and a Greek copy in the British Museum has been dated to the twelfth or thirteenth century.
The intellectual thrust of Jewish mysticism is Cabbala. The earliest "formal" work in this body is attributed to Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1236 C.E.). As with earlier bodies of work pure Cabbalism is "High Magic," introducing the concept of the Sephiroth, and a series of "shells" which constitute overlaid "worlds" which range from the world of matter to the world of the divine. Jewish Cabbala centers around the concept that everything in the universe is built up from a series of symbols (the letters of the Hebrew) alphabet. The symbols have complex interrelations.
The Cabbalist pursued divine revelation by seeking secret knowledge
through the Torah. A fundamental belief is that the Torah, reduced through
Gematria (the application of numerology since Hebrew Letters can also act
as numbers) yields the true name of God, of which the Tetragrammaton YHWH
is merely a reflection.
Cabbala emanated from the East, but eventually reached its peak in Moorish Spain. Jewish writers enjoyed comparative freedom in Spain under the Moors, and produced a series of deeply philosophical works. Cabbala strays from mainstream Judaism as far as Alchemy or Hermeticism do from their inceptual faiths.
In form, the influence of Cabbala on Western Hermeticism occured early, and had a profound effect. Certainly the introduction into Christian Europe of the concept of controlling the Devil through magical summons, and the concept of Demons having secret names is heavily founded in Cabbala (though it may have been borrowed from a cross of Jewish folk tradition and Roman mythology). Formally, the connection between Hermeticism and Cabbala dates to Giovanni Pico, Count Mirandarola, a student and peer of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the Hermetica. Pico translated several Cabbalistic works, and began the "alchemical admixture" that would meld Alchemy, Cabbala, and Hellenic Hermeticism into the Western Hermetic tradition.
The Renaissance began in Italy in the fourteenth century, and spread to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A key feature of the renaissance was the rediscovery of classical through, literature, and architecture.
The grandfather of the Western Hermetic tradition was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), who lived in the household of Cosimo de Medici. Ficino as we have seen above translated the Hermetica. He also began the systematization of magic, focusing primarily on "defensible" practices linked with astrology, such as talismanic magic. It is clear from his work that he culled through the drek of European "low magic" - the volumes of witchcraft, mostly cribbed from cabbalistic sources, which had fueled the likes of Roger Bolingbroke and Gilles de Rais. The most famous of the medieval grimoires was Picatrix - a melange of late Hermetica and folklore, circulated in numerous badly transcribed editions.
What Ficino began found its culmination in the person of Giovanni Pico, Count Mirandola (1463-1494). Pico "created the synthesis, which has been the foundation of high magic ever since, by blending the Cabala with gnostic-hermetic-Neoplatonist tradition. Because Neoplatonism and Gnosticism had influenced the Cabbalists, the two systems were "genuinely complimentary."
In the next century, more than a dozen brilliant minds would refine the Hermetic tradition. Johann Reuchlin related Cabala to Pythagorean numerology, and suggested that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet could be used to control the angels, a concept which lay beneath the famous "Enochian" system of Dr. John Dee. Later in the century, Johann Trithemius, a Benedictine Abbot, contributed a body of astrological work.
Without doubt the most important contribution of the sixteenth century was the Occult Philosophy of Henrich Cornelius von Nettesheim, better known as Cornelius Agrippa (c. 1486-1535). It is a worthwhile diversion at this point to note that De Occulta Philosophia was a Latin work, and that it was customary for writers to use a Latin "pen name" when writing latin. Heinrich Cornelius' use of "Cornelius Agrippa" does not carry with it the same degree of pretension that one cannot help but attribute to "Eliphas Levi" (Alphonse Constant) and "MacGregor" Mathers.
Agrippa sets forth an entire system of Hermetic practice - talismanic magic, the summoning and control of angels and demons, numerology, divination, and "astral travel." This was not a new idea, and dates back to some medieval Christian and Cabbalist writings, but Agrippa certainly codified and popularized the concept, which would be so important to the Golden Dawn.
The early 16th century saw the pinnacle of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the growing intellectual movement that would spawn Rosicrucianism. Dr. John Dee (1527- 1608) was the consummate Renaissance mage. Along with Edward Kelley, he developed the system of Enochian magick, supposedly through skrying in a crystal. The details will never be firmly known. Edward Kelley is often portrayed as a near imbecile, "idiot-savant" medium for Dee. Certainly this is not the case - Kelley was literate and had some Latin, though he was not proficient in it. His poetry was not particularly good, but it was certainly average for the day, and he had a private library. The Enochian System is of extreme importance to the Golden Dawn, and we'll look at it separately in a later bluesheet.
A final voice among the Renaissance Magi was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). Bruno was an ex-Dominican, who fell out with the Calvinists and the Lutherans as well. He sought the re-establishment of the Egyptian Religion, and was the first Hermeticist to break openly with Christianity. He directly attacked the power and basis of the Renaissance church, and in 1600 he was burned alive at Rome.
While it was unusual for a Hermetic Scholar to be burnt alive, other classes were being burned with swift certainty during this period. The sixteenth century saw the witchcraft craze. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, and continuing until about 1525, there were tremendous numbers of witchcraft persecutions and executions. The craze dwindled from 1525-1560, a stable and economically prosperous period. But the persecutions began again around 1560 and roared to a peak in the 1630s and 40s in Germany, closely matching the religious hatreds of the Thirty Years' War. Witchcraft persecution sputtered and failed on the Continent as it passed to England, where a milder hysteria raged during the late 1640s and for several decades thereafter. The last gasp of "witch hunting" was in the backwaters of the American Colonies, where a serious Witchcraft panic in Salem in 1692 marked the effective end of a two and a half century phenomenon. The Catholic Inquisition is often associated with witchcraft persecutions, but the Protestants of Switzerland and Germany hosted the most spectacular excesses of mass carnage, and Witchcraft persecution was a sport for Protestant and Catholic alike.
Traditionally we view the Witchcraft Persecutions as a product of the "Dark Ages," and associate them with the ignorance of the Middle Ages. Until recently, a psychopathological model was common for understanding the witch hunts, suggesting that "demonology overwhelmed psychiatry in the late Middle Ages, with the result that the mentally ill were executed by thousands as witches," (Schoeneman, 1996) however in recent years this has fallen to a better understanding of history.
First, we know that they persecutions were a product of the Renaissance, and ended with the first flickers of the Enlightenment. It has been suggested in twentieth century scholarly writing that Witchcraft Persecution was, in fact, a scientific reaction to the question of evil. Before the Renaissance, the concept of "cause and effect" was a dim notion in Europe. William of Ockham certainly embraced the concept, and in the centuries before the Renaissance, issues such as the material existence of the divine were threshed out.
The same general rise in literacy, education, and understanding that was the Renaissance deeply shook the foundations of the Medieval understanding of evil. The concept that evil "just happened" was no longer acceptable - God certainly permitted evil to try his creation. But Evil must have an "agent" a way to act in the world. The logical establishment for this necessity led to the formation of the notion of a vast Satanic conspiracy. But the concept itself was Renaissance not medieval. Medieval witchcraft trials focused on the use of evil magic for personal gain - the concept of a body of humans who acted in league with the devil in an organized fashion was not medieval - where it did occur it was seen largely to be an element of heresy - thus the Templars were linked with Cartharism.
The Witchcraft phenomenon is interesting to note in regards to how little actual effect it had on Hermetic tradition. Few Hermeticists were put on trial, and when they did they usually defended themselves within the law. A few were imprisoned, or forced to reconcile with the church. Certainly the penalties for practicing magic were greater during the Renaissance than they had ever been. Yet learned and literate men seldom found themselves on trial for their lives unless very real issues of poisoning or murder were at stake. And a vast body of magical literature emanated from the Renaissance.
Realistically, of course, there were no vast conspiracies of Satanic witches executed, because there were no vast conspiracies of Satanic witches. Certainly there must have been an upsurge in covens - the tremendous publicity of the rewards which various confessed witches obtained from the devil would have led the unscrupulous to form and maintain them, hoping themselves to avoid execution. But in all cases we can assume that the vast majority of those burned knew nothing of magic.
Still, there can be little doubt that the focus of interest that the trials brought into the "invisible world" must have spurred an intellectual interest evinced by the writings of Cornelius Agrippa and the like.
Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Enlightenment led to the formation of various Ainternationalist@ groups in Europe. These groups supported the basic mission of the enlightenment, which was the spread of logical and scientific knowledge of the universe, and the defeat of the Roman Catholic Church=s perceived chokehold on learning.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries continental universities were in Church controlled, and were, practically, religious institutions. Copernicus= case is an excellent example of how Ecclesiastical Courts, rather than scientfic study, established scientific reality. In defense it should be noted that Copernicus was wrong: planets do not orbit in circles, and that given the elliptical orbits of the planets, the existing theory of epicycles explained the observable motions of the planets better than Copernicus theory of a sun-centered solar system.
The Protestant countries became centers of Enlightenment learning, including Copernican theory. Most Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomers were also Astrologers, and Astrology was a Anoble art@ and a University subject. A contemporary of John Dee, Simon Forman was a practitioner of "low magic" in London. He was in constant trouble with the Royal College of Physicians - because they questioned whether his knowledge of Astrology was adequate. The world was discovering that there was an explanation, and a pattern for many things which had never been questioned. Needless to say, for every great discovery, there were a thousand dead ends.
This was the atmosphere - the century of transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment, which gave birth to Rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry. Rosicrucianism was founded at Cassel in 1611-1614 based on a manuscript called the "Fama Fraternitatis@ probably made up by Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654). The influence of these two linked movements was to be immense. Descartes and Leibnitz would be influenced by Rosicrucianism, and the founding fathers of America were Freemasons nearly to the man.
Freemasonry apparently grew out of the RC (R.C. for Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucian) myth. The Freemasons simplified the Rosicrucian myth, and adopted various legends of ancient secret knowledge handed down from Hiram, who was supposed to have been the master architect of the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem. This secret knowledge, they claimed, had been handed down generation to generation through guilds of Afree masons.@
While medieval Europe did have guilds of Afree masons,@ and while they did have craft secrets, it is unlikely they were handed down from the time of Solomon around 1000 B.C.E., and it is still less likely that they contained sociological and metaphysical commentary.
Michael Maier (1566-1622) - a German Lutheran doctor, and Robert Fludd (1574-1637) who wrote works merging cabbala and alchemy both wrote eloquently of the Rosicrucian secrets, and firmly melded the Rosicrucian legend with the history of Western Hermeticism. To believers - down to the time of the Golden Dawn, the history of Rosicrucianism, and the mystery of Christian Rosenkruetz were the history of Hermeticism. As a symbol for the transmission of classical knowledge to the modern world, they endure to the present day.
Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was another influential force in Hermetic history. A true "renaissance man" he was a founder of the Royal Society, an authority on the history of the Order of the Garter, an alchmist, astronomer, and botanist. He was initiated as a Freemason in 1646 in London.
Not surprisingly, Freemason lodges, which attempted to recruit men of science and intelligence, also accumulated men of wealth and power. At this time, science was largely a hobby, requiring either a rich and noble patron, a life of poverty, or independent wealth. Most scientists were also "occultists" - science was the unknown.
One often hears the story of Issac Newton (1642-1727) studying alchemy presented as a sort of Astrange contradiction.@ ADid you know that Issac Newton, the mathematician who invented modern math, and discovered the law of gravitation was also a superstitious alchemist?@ This is a twisted point of view brought about by applying a twentieth century perspective to a non-twentieth century culture. In the seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries Astrology and Alchemy were no different from other sciences. But Hermeticism and magic were diverging. Emmanual Swedenborg (1688-1772), who explored the occult in spirit visions would be a major influence on 19th century occultism - but his work was more mystical and philosophical than scientific.
Newton=s discoveries about math and gravity grew out of his pursuit of Alchemy. Alchemy was, at the time the state of the art in theoretical sciences. That Newton pursued it is no stranger than that the fathers of applied Ascientific@ psychology, Freud and Jung, followed and studied the generation of Atheoretical@ or Asocial@ psychologists, such as Kant and Neitzsche.
The Masonic ideal was an Aold boys network@ of learned men whose common interests exceeded petty nationalism and boundaries. This was especially attractive in Germany, divided into an endless array of petty principalities, with virtually no central government.
As much as the Hermetic ideal and Rosicrucian internationalism had helped usher in the Enlightenment, ultimately they were its victims. Hermetic philosophy fell away first. The rise of a doctrine of scientific rationalism during the Enlightenment moved philosophy to focus on human motivations. Little room was left except in the Catholic world for the relation between man and the infinite. The18th century was an era of humanism and pragmatism. Classical ideas would influence the philosophy of the day, but esotericism had become all but irrelevant by the early 19th century. Freemasonry was Rosicrucianism devoid of esoteric teaching.
The "Sturm und Dang" (Storm and Stress) literary movement spurred by Goethe in the late 18th century led to a revival of Romanticism which we have already referred to in Bluesheet II. It also led to a general revivial of interest in Rosicrucianism.
Even as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry gained in popularity, they were losing their magical and Hermetic associations. By no means were the classical antecedents of Freemasonry forgotten, the way they are by the typical small town "Mason's Lodge" of the current day, however. Mozart was a mason, and The Magic Flute is a masonic work, based on the mysteries of Isis and Osiris.
A historically important order, the Golden and Rosy Cross, was founded in Germany around 1750 (although of course, claiming greater antiquity - it is an essential element of Rosicrucian lodges to trace their origin to the lodge of the Fama Fraternitis). The grade order of the Golden and Rosy Cross would be adopted by the English S.R.I.A. a century later - and eventually by the Golden Dawn.
The zenith of power of Freemasonry occured during the last two decades of the 18th century. The great Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Josef was a freemason. And the Freemasons for the first time got their own country. An amazing majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were Freemasons, and the U.S. Constitution is without question an essentially Masonic document. It reflects the Egalitarian ideals of Freemasonry. Every member of the Virginia delegation to the Philadelphia convention of 1787, which largely drafted the Constitution, was a Freemason. The Eye and Pyramid of the U.S. Great Seal is a Masonic symbol. It has also been linked to the Barvarian Illuminati.
For the most part, however, we see a decline in the quality and caliber of individual associated with Hermetic thought throughout the 18th century. At the beginning of the century brilliant men like Newton would embrace alchemy. By the end of the century the luminaries of Hermeticism were pretenders and charlatans, such as Giovanni Casanova (1725-98), Giuseppe Balsamo "Count Cagliostro" (1743-1795) and the Comte St-Germain (who flourished from about 1770 until the early 1800s, but was born and died in obscurity).
Somewhat more legitimate Hermeticists would include Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who founded a Rosicrucian Order, Francis Barett an English Magus who published a complete system of magic, and taught magic in London at a school that was probably the inspiration for the Golden Dawn, and Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725-84), a Protestant Pastor and Mason who wrote the first major book on the Tarot, in which he gave formal birth to the theory of its Egyptian origin - a fact which was known to be incorrect by the heyday of the Golden Dawn, but which exercised a profound influence on 18th century Occultism.
Freemasonry in the Industrial Era
The dawn of the Industrial age was a death-knell for Freemasonry. One tremendous change was that the educated class doing scientific work was no longer predominantly made up of nobleman or gentleman hobbyists. As soon as Science had real applications, the old Arenaissance man@ began to give way to Engineers, Architects, and other practical scientists. The change was already well underway by the time Victoria came to the throne. The very culture that Freemasonry had helped to build no longer needed it.
Religious toleration also set in. The bitter rivalry between Freemason and Catholic seemed petty and prosaic in the 19th century, whereas it had been the fuel that moved nations to war only a little more than a century earlier.
Rising philosophical awareness on the part of the average man did as much as anything to kill off the elaborate and structured Freemason rites of the 18th Century. The pure philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau drew off existential concepts first explored by occultists, however the modern rationalist philosophical movement had little use for the complex rites of a century earlier. Occult traditions survive however. The mildly esoteric themes of Byron and Shelly at once served to keep the romance of Occult belief alive, while relegating it to a past day. A quick read of Frankenstein shows how occult teachings stood at the beginning of the 19th century. Mary Shelley is well aware of scientific-occultism, as is her student, Dr. Frankenstein.
For the next ninety years from 1780-1880, Freemasonry slowly declined. By the late 19th century, it meant little more than it does today - the Masonic Lodge was a cigar lounge for the local middle class, where they could have pretensions to some sort of nobility and importance, while exchanging political favors. There were a few innovations which breathed periodic life into the movement, but altogether, Freemasonry was in a slow decline as it lost its relevance to modern life amidst the rise of Victorian capitalist imperialism. Intellectuals with interests in the political ideal of internationalism found Lenin and Marx to be more meaningful subject matter. By the 1880s esoteric Rosicrucianism was represented almost exclusively by the S.R.I.A. the common organization of which the Golden Dawn founders were members. It was a desire to magnify and refound the Rosicrucian tradition that led to the foundation of the Golden Dawn in 1888.
The Victorian Age
The supremely liberal, prolterian and religious wave of hysteria that gripped England in 1815 eventually spread to America, and before it was over the ancien regime had been erased forever by a wave of populism. Thomas Jefferson=s noble farmer was replaced with men who would before the turn of the century run William Jennings Bryan for U.S. President.
The populist rise - which was really the result of the first massive swelling of the until then very small ranks of the middle class with new entrants, began to abate by the 1850's. Esoteric themes and novels again become popular. But with a generation lapsed, most of the old orders were unlikely to revive of their own accord. There were certainly mystics and Masons during the mid nineteenth century, but their work is mostly either historical, or unoriginal. There are exceptions of course. The Swedenborgian movement maintained some momentum, and strange pseudo-esoteric religions were a craze in America - Mormonism being a prime example.
Three movements set the stage during the 19th century for the emergence of the Golden Dawn in its last decade. Mainline Hermetic/Rosicrucian practice, Spiritualism, and Theosophy.
The mid 19th Century belonged to the Spiritualists. While the Spiritualist movement is seen as primarily having to do with Seances and Ghosts, the fact is that it had a great deal more Theological significance.
The premise of contact with the dead was a direct rocket into the conventional Christian theology of Aheaven and hell.@ The dead, we were told by spiritualists, did not go to hell, or heaven, but to a sort of pleasant place of light. The concept was not new, but it had never been received by a mass Christian audience before. It was born of the rising influence of Eastern thought, and out of classical influence. The change to our way of thinking was profound. Up until this point the vision of Hell as a place of physical fire, and Heaven as a city with streets of gold had prevailed. Certainly scholars were capable of thinking of Heaven in more advanced ways. But the idea of a non-coporeal, existential heaven is a distinctly intellectual concept, and Spiritualism first brought it to a mass-market.
The Spiritualist phenomenon had a very definite beginning. Margaret Fox (1834-1893) and Kate Fox (1836-1892) claimed in 1848 that they could communicate with the dead through "rapping" noises. Historically it has been fairly well established that the noises were produced by one or both of the girl's toe-joints, and that they were probably frauds. Evidence along these lines came out as early as 1850, but did nothing to slow the half-century progress of the movement.
Spiritualism rose in the U.S. in the 1840's and 50's, largely in the excitement of the "knocking". The aftermath of the Civil War made the new religion very attractive, but it also caused a tremendous upswing in conventional church attendance, and conventional churches generally did not care very much for the Spritiualists. After her husband's death Mary Todd Lincoln turned to Spiritualism - the legitimizing and popularizing effect can be acquainted to that which would have occurred had Jackie Onassis Kennedy turned to a new religion after her husband's death.
The Spiritualist movement contained a very large number of the things that we today would call ANew Age@ religion. In fact the ANew Age@ revival of the 80's was, absolutely without question, a revival of 19th century Spiritualism, down to the fine details. The methodology was somewhat more sophisticated.
The real weakness of Spiritualism is that it was largely based on fraud. The ideals were sound, but the actual results of seances called for willing suspension of disbelief. By definition a good spiritualist was a good showman. No doubt even legitimate mediums produced Aspecial effects,@ in order not to be outdone by the next Spiritualist Church over. Margaret Fox confessed to the New York World newspaper on October 21, 1888 that the original seances were a sham.
After a series of revelations of Fraud, the Spiritualist craze began to dwindle in the 70s, and the Spiritualists were vanishing by the 80s. Despite a brief resurgance in the years before and after the First World War, Spiritualism ceased to be a driving force in Esotericism. It would retain some importance until the 1920s, occasionally attracting prominent writers such as William T. Stead. Probably the final death blow was when Conan Doyle, who had given it some credibility in The History of Spiritualism was made a laughing-stock by the faked "Cottingley Fairy Photographs." A few Spritualist Churches remain today, mostly in the UK.
By the 1870's the concept of communication with the beyond was well impressed in the minds of the English.
In 1881, A.P. Sinnet published an account of the Eastern travels of Helena Blatavasky. By the time Blatavasky came to London in 1884, she was already a major celebrity, and the head of an order called AThe Theosophical Society," founded in New York in 1875
Blatavasky is an interesting character. Certainly she was somewhat charlatanish, particularly in her claim of support by a set of ASecret Chiefs.@ The idea of invisible or hidden chiefs who run mystic and secular affairs was introduced in the German lodges in the 1780s, and is intrinsic to the Masonic belief system. The popularity of X-Files indicates it has not entirely gone out of vogue today.
However, Blatavasky had genuinely lived in the East, and had become a real authority on Indian Mysticism. Thus the West had its first real taste of non-deity oriented teachings of the East. The principles of Yoga first became accessible to the average westerner through the Theosophists. The Indian concept of Yogis and Aascended masters@ fit well with the ASecret Chief@ concept and gave it a new life.
Anna Kingsford had been elected President of the English Theosophical Society, an insignificant entity, in 1883. She was independently wealthy, the daughter of a shipping line owner, and she went to Paris to study medicine, where despite opposition she gained a medical degree. In 1885 she founded the Hermetic Society, of which both Westcott and Mathers were members. She died in 1888, a week before the Golden Dawn Charter was signed - many members of her organization gravitated to the Golden Dawn.
Blavatsky maintained a cordial but cool relationship with the G.D., which was always much smaller than the Theosophical Society. On 9, October 1888 she founded the "Esoteric Section" of the Theosophical society, though membership was restricted to those close to her. Blavatsky originally circulated a rule against membership in any other occult order, but at the urging of Rev. Ayton and some others rescinded it, with the result that Westcott, and a fair number of other G.D. members joined. The Esoteric section of the Theosophical Society focused on more western tradition, but in this area the larger group was never a serious rival to the Golden Dawn.
The main thrust of Hermetic learning in the 19th century was symbolized in the person of Alphonse Constant "Eliphas Levi." He wrote prolifically, publishing Le Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1856. His work shows a strong gothic influence, and he influenced the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton who wrote The Last Days of Pompeii, and the occult-masonic thriller Zanoni (1842). This book would lead the generation of the Golden Dawn to esotericism in the way that many of the modern generation have been led by the novels of fantasy writers such as Katherine Kurtz.
In England the pinnacle of 19th century Rosicrucianism was the fringe masonic group Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.) It was founded in 1866 with Bulwer Lytton as honorary patron. Important members included Frederick Hockley (1809-85). Hockley collected esoteric writing, and engaged in practical experimentation. He is reliably known to have been taught by a pupil of Francis Barett, and was a teacher of Kenneth MacKenzie (1833-86), who authored the Royal Masonic Cyclopedia. The spiritualist leader Rev. William Stainton Moses (1839-92) was a member of the SRIA
The S.R.I.A. took its system of grades from the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, and would pass that system of grades along to the Golden Dawn. In many ways, the S.R.I.A. was the direct ancestor to the Golden Dawn - the G.D. would even meet at Mark's Masons Hall, the meeting place of the S.R.I.A.
Whatever the provenance of the cipher manuscripts, it is no coincidence that the Golden Dawn came into being in 1888. The death of Hockley and MacKenzie left a vacuum in terms of occult leadership and scholarship, as did the death of Anna Kingsford.
The primary thrust of the Golden Dawn was Western Hermeticism. We have seen how the elements of Hermeticism came together. Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism merging in the second and third century, Cabala - itself influenced by Neo-Platonism, and alchemy, merging in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the 1880, the final additions to what we recognize as Western Magic are complete - the Tarot, Astrology, and Enochian ritual.
Yet before the Golden Dawn, attempts to draw the mass of Western tradition together into a coherent system had been flawed, or incomplete. Barett and Constant had both attempted a system that unified western tradition. But it would be the Golden Dawn which produced a balanced and harmonious system which included all the disparate elements of Western Esotericism.