Odds are that any modern text you look at which purports to unpack “ceremonial magic” or the “Western esoteric tradition” will, on some level, owe a certain debt to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and whilst there might be a few people these days ploughing that furrow who don’t owe a certain debt to Israel Regardie’s original The Golden Dawn, they’re certainly making their lives harder if they are ignoring this particular source text.
As the most famous organisation of Victorian occultists out there, the Golden Dawn have had their material riffed on for over a century now. Founded by William Westcott, MacGregor Mathers, and William Woodman, working on the basis of some cipher manuscripts of dubious provenance and charter purported to be obtained from “Anna Sprengel”, a German noblewoman who almost certainly didn’t exist, the Golden Dawn purported to be a branch of the worldwide Rosicrucian order, the selfsame secret society which had inspired imitators ever since the Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 17th Centuries slipped out and purported to a history much older than that.
Riffing on ideas from the then-popular Theosophical movement, the Golden Dawn founders claimed that the true leaders of the Rosicrucian Order – the so-called Secret Chiefs – were immortal entities who might not exist on the Earthly plane at all, but who Anna Sprengel (and, later, Mathers himself) was in direct contact with, and who had prompted Anna to help Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman establish this new magical order.
Breaking from the Masonic traditions the three of them were all participants in (in particular the Societas Rosicruciana In Anglia, a Masonic body which both Woodman and Westcott were the Supreme Magus of at one point in time and whose degree structure the Golden Dawn extensively plagiarised), the trio decided to admit non-Christians, non-Masons, and (please sit down before you read this next shocking part) women into their cool new occult club.
Casting a broad net made sense in some respects, since the Golden Dawn seems to have been very keen on taking as syncretic an approach as possible in terms of mashing together various strands of esoterica – Enochian magic as devised by John Dee, Masonry and Rosicrucianism, Egyptian mythology, Christian and Jewish demonology and angelology, Qabalah, Theosophy, appropriated meditation techniques purportedly from “Eastern” sources, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, ancient Greek mystery religions, Renaissance Hermeticism, and so on and so on and so on.
In effect, this constitutes a worked example of how you can take a bunch of shit you quite enjoy and cobble them together into an occult worldview and magical system which is enriched by the extent to which you can see parallels between the different strands you have woven into it – a technique which arguably paved the way towards modern Chaos Magic, whose practitioners basically do exactly that whilst not feeling themselves bound to conform to the expectations of some ancient tradition because what you are able to invest belief in is more important according to that system.
In addition, the system has sustained people’s interest for over a century in its own right, both on its own terms and in terms of those it inspired. Pamela Colman-Smith joined the Order and produced a version of the Tarot inspired extensively by the Order’s inner doctrine on the subject; this became the so-called Rider-Waite Tarot deck, the most widely recognised Tarot deck these days. Writers from Yeats to Machen were members and would incorporate some ideas from it into their work. Aleister Crowley, as well as being instrumental in the drama that shattered it, incorporated an absolute ton of its concepts into his own Thelemic system, which when expressed in its most direct terms is at the end of the day a reskinned riff on Golden Dawn ideas with an updated aesthetic and substantially less Victorian adherence to top-down authority and stuffy protocol, and of course Crowley went on to inspire a great many others besides.
Crowley’s own Order of the A.’.A.’. – the magical society he formed himself (as opposed to the OTO which, contrary to popular misconception, Crowley didn’t establish himself so much as inherit the reins of when its leadership decided to go all-in on backing him) – was, in effect, a rip-off of the Golden Dawn with Thelemic symbolism substituted in for a lot of the Christian bits and a bit less coyness about getting lower-grade members doing actual magical work. Crowley was not alone in this endeavour either. There’s a quote by Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground, about how barely anyone bought their first album when it was initially released but everyone who did formed a band; sometimes it seems like much the same is true of the Golden Dawn.
Specifically, the Golden Dawn didn’t so much shut down as schism. Mathers, who had made his base in Paris, was prevailed upon by Crowley to invest him with the grade of Adeptus Minor, which the London temple had refused to give him because they didn’t approve of him. Mathers gave him the degree and sent him on his way, at which point Crowley demanded the papers he had a right to read and study as a member of that grade from the London chapter, who refused to recognise his standing.
Mathers already felt that his authority wasn’t being respected, and now his initiations weren’t recognised. This was a big deal: in any quasi-Masonic body, if one chapter isn’t recognising another chapter’s initiations, you no longer have one secret society, you now have two secret societies who each consider themselves to be the legitimate original society. Masses of drama unfolded, and the early 20th Century saw a proliferation of various splinter groups headed by various Golden Dawn alumni who’d thought “fuck this noise, I’ll make my own Golden Dawn with blackjack and hookers”. Naturally, this only helped to propagate the Golden Dawn teachings, since there were now a wide range of esoteric societies on the scene, all of which were largely teaching the same sort of thing.
This is where Israel Regardie comes in. There had been a certain amount of Golden Dawn put into the public domain before he came along – Crowley had dumped a bunch into The Equinox, for instance, inspiring much grumpiness on the part of his former fraters and sorors, though this was very much a rephrasing of the material through a Crowley filter. After spending a while in the 1920s working as Crowley’s secretary, Regardie joined the Stella Matutina, one of the Golden Dawn offshoots, and progressed quickly through the ranks during the 1930s.
Then, in 1938-1940, he published The Golden Dawn, a four-volume collection of the “Knowledge Lectures” (internal self-study documents), rituals, and magical techniques of the Golden Dawn itself, mostly as passed down within the Stella Matutina but with further documentation acquired from other members of Golden Dawn organisation who’d shared them with him. This set the information free, and in the wake of its publication new groups formed using the Golden Dawn magical approach with no prior connection to existing Golden Dawn factions.
This outraged many in the occult community at the time, who considered such information covered by vows of secrecy; it might have also posed a thorny copyright issue, though with the complication that much of the material was not, of course, originally developed by the Stella Matutina leadership anyway but was used by them without permission of the original authors. Regardie considered it necessary action to ensure that the material did not simply disappear into obscurity.
These days, it’s not considered a great source for actually learning the system if you are a practicing occultist, because it’s an encyclopedic collection of a mass of material made by educated Victorian occultists all trying to show off to each other how clever they were, much of which was intended as part of a pseudo-scholarly curriculum (the Golden Dawn actually had members, at least in its lower grades, sit exams before they got to go up a level) and therefore structured to be delivered in an operating lodge setting with more advanced members available to give you advice, and other sources have better explained the concepts therein for the purposes of beginners.
However, for those interested in the material less on a religious/magical basis and more out of aesthetic and historical interest, the book is a treasure trove of interesting information. The thing to bear in mind is that it’s very much presented through Regardie’s lens in some sections; the Knowledge Lectures and rituals are presented more or less intact, but in other cases Regardie is forced to do some editorialising to prevent redundancy and there’s some points where his priorities shine forth. (His characterisation of the “Tattwa” concept – a method of honing astral vision largely invented out of whole cloth by Golden Dawn members but appropriating a lot of Sanskrit terms out of Theosophical-style cultural appropriation – as an “alien” concept grafted onto the system is unappetising, though to be fair to him it may be spurred in part from how some of the material in question was taken out of circulation in some Golden Dawn quarters.)
In some respects it’s difficult to judge how deep into the mythology Regardie gets. He gives enough information to prompt suspicious minds to wonder whether Anna Sprengel actually existed, but seems to avoid giving a clear steer on whether he believed there actually was a real Rosicrucian secret society founded by Christian Rosenkreutz in the 14th Century and inheriting the lore of earlier societies dating back to ancient Egypt which the Golden Dawn received its information from. Regardie, outside of this and his work compiling Crowley’s material, was mostly known as an author on Qabalah, and he obviously puts a lot of weight on that, though to be fair the Golden Dawn system seems to have been positively obsessed with it as an organising principle so that’s reasonable enough.
That said, whilst Regardie clearly has his preferences and his areas of particular interest, his goal here is not to push his own ideas but to bring the Golden Dawn material into open circulation, and so he refrains from editorialising except for removing some material that is outright redundant or otherwise needs to be summarised to be rendered coherent.
It is also worth noting that, as expansive as the picture Regardie gives, it is also incomplete – not because Regardie leaves anything out (once you have broken your vows of secrecy to this extent, there really is absolutely no point being coy), but because the original Golden Dawn system was in and of itself incomplete. In principle, it was an occult system you worked through as you progressed up the 12 staged of the Order – the Neophyte level which acted as a sort of probationary period to see if you really were up for their approach to occultism, 10 numbered grades of increasing enlightenment after it, and a special “Portal” grade between the last grade in the First Order (the lowest levels) and the Second Order (the middle levels).
As it turns out, not only were the top three grades of the Order – Magister Templi, Magus, and Ipsissimus – not publicly claimed by Westcott, Mathers, and Woodman, but it isn’t even agreed whether they actually existed in terms of being levels of accomplishment available to human beings on the mortal plane. Some believe that the grades cannot be attained by living humans, or that they can be conferred only on the astral plane; others worked out rituals for them for their schismatic Golden Dawn sects, but there is little evidence that these weren’t just made up out of whole cloth by the breakaway groups involved. (Much of Crowley’s Thelemite material, for instance, seems to be predicated on strongly hinting that Crowley himself was, at the very least, a Magister Templi, if not an even higher grade.)
Furthermore, there’s some doubt as to whether any actual ritual existed for elevation to Adeptus Major or Adeptus Exemptus, the two grades between Adeptus Minor and Magister Templi. When the Golden Dawn was originally founded, its original chiefs simply conferred these grades upon themselves without any ritual, and almost nobody was elevated to these levels during the limited lifespan of the original Order. A few were purportedly given the grade by Mathers at his Paris temple, but considering the circumstances of the original Order’s disintegration, it is far from certain that Mather’s rituals for this purpose were necessarily agreed, official, “canonical” Order rituals or merely something Mathers made up for himself without the endorsement of the wider Order, and the rituals used for these grades by successor groups vary widely.
Based on the material outlined here, this may have been part of the point. In one of the rituals, it is explained to the candidate that part of the work can be accomplished by being demonstrated and taught to the aspirant by others, some must be accomplished by their own work, and some must be bestowed by the divine. Given the First Order/Second Order/Third Order breakdown of the Golden Dawn (the Third Order consisting of the top three grades and the Secret Chiefs, the Second Order consisting of the grades from Adeptus Minor to Exemptus, and the First Order consisting of the degrees preceding Adeptus Minor), it would be logical to assume that the First Order, with its emphasis on teaching via ritual and the study of Knowledge Lectures and the sitting of exams, constituted the portion based on being taught by others, the Second Order related to grades which you were given by acclaim in recognition of your personal accomplishment, and the Third Order consisted of degrees which only higher spiritual beings could confer.
Either way, what we get here is a fully worked-out system up to the level of Adeptus Minor, after which no initiation rituals into upper grades are given (because the mere legitimacy of the few initiations that were given into those grades by Mathers during the original Order’s lifetime is a matter of controversy, and there is no real consistency among Order splinter groups as to whether these grades even need associated initiations). However, it really does seem like this was the point: once you got to Adeptus Minor you were given the magical teachings of the order and encouraged to go do the work.
The current 7th edition of the book, edited after Regardie’s death by John Michael Greer, restores it to the general arrangement Regardie originally put out in the late 1930s. This puts the “Knowledge Lectures” or explanatory papers, aimed mostly at First Order members, first; then you have the rundown of the rituals, including the initiations from Neophyte to Adeptus Minor, and then you have the breakdown of the magical teachings and techniques promoted by the Order. A new addition is a section of colour plates, depicting diagrams which had previously been impossible to adequately reproduce in black and white (since the Order’s use of colour was a significant feature of its system).
What is revealed is, at the very least, a fascinating intellectual exercise in both constructing an extensive symbolic language and also yes-anding each other and admitting further insights into the true meaning of what it is the Golden Dawn are doing based on people’s intellectual unpacking of the material. For instance, among the Second Order documents is one which breaks down the various elements of the Neophyte initiation ritual – the one that Order members did way back when they joined – and breaks down its elements into a formula to develop magical practices from, so anything from enchanting a talisman to evoking a spirit can be done according to this formula. The material building on and elaborating John Dee’s Enochian system is incredibly intricate and ties in an astonishing range of influences.
At the same time, within this framework of disparate ideas you can see the built-in tensions here and there. The effort taken to attempt to match together Qabalistic concepts, demonology, angelology, and Egyptian myth is impressive, but it becomes pretty clear that there’s several points where what seems on the surface to be a set of rituals steeped in mystical Christianity is also an act of worship of the Egyptian pantheon; some may find this syncretism delightful, others may balk at it. The colonialism of the age seems to have seeped its way in when it comes to what aspects of the system remained essential and what parts were sidelined; yes, the “Eastern” aspects of the system were appropriated and garbled through the bullshitty lens of Theosophy, but the downplaying of those elements over time feels like a privileging of the occultism of Europeans over the occultism of people of other cultures.
Some subfactions of the Golden Dawn have descended into obnoxious far-right politics, which is annoying in the extreme when you consider the organisation’s origins as a group willing to admit women and confer upon them, at least in terms of their official rhetoric as recorded here, an equal status to men. Furthermore, whilst their syncretic approach could verge on outright cultural appropriation at points, it also implicitly conceded that Western Christianity has no monopoly on spiritual truth (and the idea that Christianity was a central and unavoidable plank of the system becomes increasingly tenuous the deeper you get into it). Although the Golden Dawn system in the end only gave a slight token nod to concepts from beyond Europe, the Middle East, or Egypt, Regardie’s compilation is a useful reminder that these existed.
The book is also fascinating for the insight it can give into the products of the Dawn’s various members. Take, for instance, the rather bizarre aside in one of the initiation rituals where the initiate is informed that if human beings are not careful the very animals will revolt against them – this is more or less the core concept of Arthur Machen’s World War I novel of nature in rebellion The Terror, enunciated decades before Machen wrote the book and in a context where Machen would have been likely to encounter it as a Golden Dawn practitioner.
In a world where hucksters still charge through the nose for revealing “esoteric secrets” which are little more than reheated restatements of the material here, Regardie’s text provides a valuable service in keeping the material available. In addition, it is also offers insight into precisely what all those Victorian magicians believed they were actually doing, and therefore will be of interest both to those keen on the history of secret societies and occultism but also with an interest in the artistic endeavours of the Order’s membership.