The Golden Dawn (G.D.) is an esoteric ceremonial magic organization. It is also a series of teachings, practices and rituals. It is not a cult, nor is it Satanism. Perhaps it is best described as a form of “spiritual science”.
The Golden Dawn was born out of the late 18th century explosion of secret societies in England, France and Germany. It is the brainchild of Dr. William Westcott, a London physician. Here is what he wrote of its inception: “In 1887 by permission of S.D.A., a continental Rosicrucian adept, the Isis-Urania Temple of Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn was formed to give instructions in the mediaeval occult sciences. Fratres M.E.V. with S.A. and S.R.M.D. became the chiefs, and the latter wrote the rituals in modern English from old Rosicrucian manuscripts (the property of S.A.) supplemented by his own literary researches.”
From this beginning, a turbulent history has emerged. Many of the facts surrounding the founding of the order, the rituals and workings are cloudy, and the organization itself self-destructed by the turn of the century. Most active in setting up the organization was S.L. MacGregor Mathers, himself a Rosicrucian adept. After Fraulein Sprengel, the German adept that authorized the G.D., died, her associates ceased correspondence, saying that if the G.D. wanted further information, they could get it using the knowledge they already had (meaning they should use the magical powers they gained to make contact with the Secret Chiefs of the Order.) Mathers announced that he had made this contact, and formulated the more advanced rituals of the order. A complete unified system of attainment, working and ritual resulted. Much of it follows Rosicrucian lines, with a bit of Egyptology, Kabbalah and Enochian magic thrown in as well. Some criticism has been leveled that Mathers never made the contact, and that he appropriated the system from several sources available at the British museum. Whatever the method, a very complex system emerged, with significant substance contained therein.
Several rather notable people have been associated with the order. Among these are Aleister Crowley, A.E. Waite, W.B. Yeats and Dion Fortune. Various offshoots, splinters and pretenders have arisen over the past century, and non-G.D. groups have used the information contained in the G.D. corpus. Some of these groups are the Stella Matutina, the Ordo Templi Orientis (Crowley’s), A.`.A, Alpha et Omega, Whare Ra, B.O.T.A., Wicca (Gardnerianism), etc.
The Golden Dawn is a grade order, meaning that there are several levels of increasing knowledge that must be learned, projects completed and tests passed to move up a grade. At each grade, there is a ritual that prefigures the knowledge contained in that grade. There is an inner and outer order, several officers and a number of study documents.
The grades contained in the outer order (G.D.) are: Neophyte, Zelator, Theoricus, Practicus, Philosophus. The grades contained in the inner order (R.R. et A.C.) are: Adeptus Minor, Adeptus Major, Adeptus Exemptus. There are several higher grades, contained in an order called S.S: Magister Templi, Magus, and Ipsissimus. (Note: these highest grades are not part of the “official” G.D. grade progression. I include them from Crowley’s work, as a more or less natural progression formulated by a G.D. adept.)
Each of the grades has a ritual associated with it. Each ritual has a specific attribute-for example, the Theoricus ritual is associated with Air. The rituals act as a way to focus energy towards a goal. It is important that not only the outer form of a ritual be learned, but the internal activity and the meaning of each part of the ritual.
Generally the ritual consists of an opening, an initiation and reception, and a closing. The opening sets the stage, cleansing the temple and invoking the appropriate figures. The initiation and reception prepares the aspirant by pledging and instructing on the symbolism of the grade and conferring the grade. The closing banishes the appropriate figures. Of the main rituals, the Neophyte ritual is the most important. This ritual prefigures the entire Order and sets up the aspirant for the road ahead.
There are several lesser rituals, three of which are used often. These are the Lesser and Greater Rituals of the Pentagram and Hexagram. These are rather short, and are used to cleanse the individual and for basic invoking and banishing. Other rituals are used on the equinox and for consecration.
The officers of the G.D are as follows: Imperator, Cancellarius, Praemonstrator, Hierophant, Hiereus, Hegemon, Kerux, Stolistes, Dadouchos. These officers serve specific roles in the grade rituals, and represent specific attributes, such as the elements, Sephiroth, directions, etc.The information to be learned is quite vast, but fairly easy to categorize. There is kabbalah and Hebrew, divination, talismans and flashing tablets, skrying, evocation, invocation and Enochian magic. These are very general, and each contains quite a bit of material. For instance, the kabbalah/Hebrew section includes the alphabet, sephiroth, angels, archangels, houses, planets, elements, and signs. Divination includes geomancy and tarot. Talismans include making elemental weapons, lamens, talismans, sigils and tablets.
Together, the grades, rituals and information are the G.D. Looking at each grade, there is natural progression of more and more detailed spiritual knowledge. Knowledge of both lower and higher spiritual realms is first learned as theory, then applied through journeys into these realms, and finally realized by working in the realms.
The rituals provide a map of each grade’s scope and purpose, the projects are practical applications of the knowledge to be learned in the grade, and the tests are objective confirmations of the factual content of the grade. Sufficient knowledge and success are the sole criterion for passing a grade, although minimum time periods are enforced to allow for “gestation” of the aspirant.
There are three goals to all of this work and information. When a person is initiated into the G.D. as a neophyte, their unconscious spiritual protection from external influence is removed. One becomes as a “babe in the woods” and protection is now provided by the elders of the order. A goal of the instruction is to enable the aspirant to protect himself again. This is accomplished by making the aspirant aware of spiritual realms and enabling him to work for his own protection in these realms.
The ability to perceive spiritual realms allows for contact between the student and his Holy Guardian Angel, as well as with many other spiritual beings. Contact with the guardian angel is important to making the student aware of his ultimate goal and what type of work is required for him to attain that goal.
Finally, becoming aware of spiritual realms enables the student to perceive the nature of the Great Work of mankind. He is now able to participate more fully in this work.
The G.D. was founded as a successor to Rosicrucianism. As a part of the Great White Brotherhood, it was intended to work for the benefit of all mankind by providing spiritual instruction and furthering the advancement of individual souls. As an ideal, this goal is the goal of all people, and the G.D. is intended as a method and path of attainment specifically suited to Western temperaments. This is shown by the emphasis in specific grades and compartmentalized instruction, the format of the rituals and the information packaged in them, and by the emphasis on activity and “working”.
The impact of the G.D. on the world at large is hard to gauge. Then, as now, it is a curiosity and the recipient of charges of occultism and Satanism. As an ongoing organization, it carries only limited effect, as groups are not common, do not spread, are only loosely unified, and carry a very low profile.
Former members, such as Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune do carry some weight, but primarily as “New Age” writers. Crowley is especially reviled as a Satanist, and is more of a cult figure (especially in heavy metal music!)
Perhaps the most significant effect of the G.D. has been the loosening the ties of secret societies on the secrets they contain. Several very good books on the G.D., with significant information have been published and are readily available to those who wish to explore.
The Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN 55164
Secret Inner Order Rituals of the Golden Dawn, Patrick J. Zalewski, Falcon Press, Phoenix, AZ 85012
Magick In Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley, Dover Publications, New York, NY 10014
The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, Dover Publications, New York, NY 10014
The Greater Key of Solomon, L.W. de Laurence, Health Research, Mokelumne Hill, CA 95245
Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Their Attainment, Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY
The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, Samuel Weiser, York Beach, ME