Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

A late 19th-century occult society which was influential in the development of modern Western mysticism.

Religion: Occultism
Denomination: Hermeticism
Founder: William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, William Robert Woodman
Founded: 1888
Ended: Early 20th c
Location: United Kingdom (primarily London)
Other Names: Golden Dawn, Order of the Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, known in Latin as Ordo Hermeticus Aurorae Aureae, was a magical order founded in the late 19th century, focused on the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. Its foundations were laid upon the Cipher Manuscripts, a collection of documents using the Trithemius cipher, which outlined the Grade Rituals of the Order and a curriculum that included the Hermetic Qabalah, astrology, occult tarot, geomancy, and alchemy​​.

The Order was initiated by Freemasons William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, and William Robert Woodman in 1887, after Westcott decoded the Cipher Manuscripts. They contacted Anna Sprengel, a supposed Rosicrucian authority in Germany, who allegedly granted them permission to establish the Order. The Isis-Urania Temple, the first Golden Dawn temple, was established in London in 1888, marking the beginning of the Order’s formal activities. The Order was notable for including women in its membership, offering them equal status with men, which was a progressive stance at the time.

The Golden Dawn’s structure was hierarchical, akin to Masonic orders, and it encompassed three Orders. The First Order focused on esoteric knowledge and personal development, the Second Order, known as the Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis, delved into more advanced magical practices, and the Third Order consisted of the so-called Secret Chiefs, mystical beings believed to guide the Order’s activities​​.

The teachings of the Golden Dawn were based on a synthesis of earlier magical traditions, creating a modern magical system. This system incorporated fortune-telling rituals, such as tarot and astrology, with magical rites intended for communication with supernatural entities. The founders aimed to construct a curriculum for spiritual improvement and magical philosophy through the study and practice of these rites​​.

Despite its foundational goal of spiritual and magical enlightenment, the Order was plagued by internal conflicts, notably surrounding the contentious membership and subsequent initiation of Aleister Crowley, which led to a schism and the departure of several key members, including William Butler Yeats and Florence Farr​​.

The eventual dissolution of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn led to the formation of splinter groups, such as the Alpha et Omega and the Stella Matutina, which carried on the teachings and practices of the Golden Dawn into the 20th century. By the late 1930s, most of these offshoots had ceased operations or gone into abeyance, with a few notable exceptions lingering into the mid-20th century​​.

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