The ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ stands in the history of time as a practicing occult group from the late nineteenth century who explored elements of ritual magic gained from ancient scriptures of a dubious nature. The members who were involved in the ‘Golden Dawn’ (G.D) were an eclectic mix of actors, artists, writers and occultists. What has not been explored in the many past literary works that refer to the group is its strong links with theatre as a practice and influence. It is the bridge that is forged between the G.D and the theatre that I want to investigate and uncover within this article.
To explore this relationship I intend to concentrate on the historical background that led to the formation of the G.D as well as its influences. I also researched into the G.D members and the practice of theatrical performance within their rituals, public or private. I want to focus on the idea and develop the relationship between the G.D and the symbolist theatre of the avant garde, to show the importance that drama practices of the late nineteenth century influenced the G.D. One of the fundamental problems in researching the G.D is that there are very few scholarly works available to read, there is also a high dose of mythical attachment to the G.D and its history. Therefore I have had to separate the myth from the reality to unearth the practices and theories behind the G.D. At the time of formation of the G.D the work of the ‘Symbolists’ became prominent in the theatre across Europe. It is by the term ‘theatre culture’ that I imply the symbolist movement as being at the forefront of the G.D and theatre practices. I have researched into the G.D rituals in the modern day including interviews with leading G.D Adepts to gain a broader perspective on the G.D influence within the occult and the theatre, and I have had access to the G.D rituals which are still practiced today. The theatre and the occult are two subject matters that are not clearly defined in their meanings and practices. I have researched terminologies and practical elements to gain an understanding of both subjects in the late Victorian era.
The ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ was created on the 31st of March 1888 in London at a time in history when interest in the occult was at its most potent. The arrival of ‘Spiritualism’ came into Europe from the United States of America in 1848 with the Fox Sisters. On the 31st of March, the Fox sisters began to hear rapping sounds coming from their house in Hydesville. The rapping’s continued for many months and the Fox sisters found that they were able to communicate with the entity by means of primitive code. The phenomenon, caused the press to report and investigate, and it is at this time the term ‘medium’ is coined, meaning one who is able to communicate with the deceased. The movement quickly spread to Europe, which was now beginning to explore new religious codes and moral values. Modern Spiritualism gave rise to the first signs of the occult being performed in front of an audience in what was to become known as séances.
The procedure was very much the same as that of almost all such “materializing” séances. The medium (one who is able to contact the dead) sat in quiet and privacy, behind the curtains of her cabinet, to get together the forces with which she would produce the spirit. In the room outside the curtain, the audience waited. There were certain rules, unwritten but strictly imposed, which always applied. It was taken for granted that no one ever tried to touch the spirit certainly without consent.
Séances, as ‘Ruth Brandon’ comments, would become a common feature of after dinner activities for the bourgeois Victorians. Ectoplasm, materializations, levitation, table rapping were all part of connecting with the dead. These theatrical elements were used in conjunction with an audience, a heightened expectation and the exaggerated behaviour of the medium. However ‘Spiritualism’ would only be a drop in the ocean of knowledge that the occult could bring to Victorian seekers, asking the inevitable question, is there life after death? The Victorians began to challenge and explore the esoteric with the help of technological advances such as photography and radio waves helping them to expand their knowledge of the possibilities of the future.
It is through this rediscovery of the occult that the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ enters the historical picture. When focusing on the theory of the G.D in terms of their relationship with the theatre culture of the time, particularly in their ritual magic ceremonies, we must look to their influences to gain an idea of the heritage and focus that brought the formation of the movement. The three founding members of the G.D were Dr William Wynn Westcott (1943-1925), Dr William Robert Woodman (1828-1891) and Samuel Liddell Mathers (1854-1918) who all came from a Freemason background. However, Mathers who became the main leader, previously had joined a new occult movement in the 1880’s that was to have a profound effect on Mathers views on the occult and the ethos of the G.D.
The goal of the Theosophical Society was in effect, to fulfil the seventeenth-century Rosicrucian programme by building a bridge between science and religion, through the investigation of powers latent in man. The Theosophical Society was led by the enigmatic Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891). This Russian born woman had spent time travelling in the United States where Spiritualism had begun to develop and spread to Europe. Blavatsky claimed that she had been contacted (spiritually) by the Tibetan Masters. Theosophy blended Eastern and Western occult practices, Blavatsky a renowned psychic and medium and consumer of hashish began to create her own spiritual ideas. This became automatic writing (channelling the Tibetan Masters to help her put pen to paper) which developed into the texts ‘Isis Unveiled’ and the ‘Secret Doctrine’. The Theosophical Society was an international organisation that had a large membership that included Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Steiner, Aldous Huxley, Piet Mondrian and W.B Yeats among others. What the Theosophical society wanted to achieve was an exploration of the unexplained through scientific means as well as occult practices. Unfortunately in 1875 the ‘Society for Psychical Research’ investigated Blavatsky and found her to be an impostor of the paranormal. This was the start of a disinterest in Spiritualism, many mediums at the time were found to be fraudulent and Spiritualism began to falter under the pressure. However there was still a great amount of curiosity in the late nineteenth century in regard to the unexplained and hidden knowledge which led to a fanatical interest in Freemasonry and Egyptian mysteries that began to dominate the occult world. However Blatvatsky and her Theosophical Society would become an important influence of the twentieth century occult movement and today’s New Age market. Mathers, who socialised with Blatvatsky, would regularly hold talks on Freemasonry and the Kabbalah at the Theosophical Lodge in London in the 1880’s with the feminist Anna Kingsford (1846-1888) whose ideas on male and female equality would have resonated with the G.D views on equal rights. Mathers also spent a majority of his time at the British Museum reading room unearthing occult material to study and in 1887 produced his first written work ‘The Kabbalah Unveiled’ which would become with the ‘Cipher manuscript’ the main basis for the G.D ceremonial magic.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with its Inner Order of the Rose of Ruby and the Cross of Gold was the crowning glory of the occult revival in the nineteenth century. It synthesised into a coherent whole a vast body of disconnected and widely scattered material and welded it into a practical and effective system, which cannot be said of any other occult Order of which we know at the time or since. The Theosophical Society dealt mainly with the academic side of the occult, the G.D explored the more practical essences of ritual magic. However anyone who wished to join the Theosophical Society could without difficulty, the G.D created an ambience of a secret society, joining was accepted by invitation from a present member only. Indeed, many members from the Theosophical Society joined the G.D hoping to deal with a more tangible study of the occult.
Order of the Golden Dawn. For the purpose of the study of Occult sciences, and the further investigation of the Mysteries of Life and Death, and our Environment, permission has been granted by the Secret Chiefs of the R.C. to certain Fraters learned in the Occult Sciences. (and who are also members of the Soc. Ros, in Ang.) to work the Esoteric Order of the G.D. in the Outer, to hold meetings thereof for Study and to initiate any approved person Male or Female, who will enter into an undertaking to maintain strict secrecy regarding all that concerns it. Belief in One God necessary. No other restrictions.
The ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ was a magical secret society, whose main aims and ethos was the practice of ritual magic and general occultism. They extracted elements of theosophy and spiritualism to create a group that serious occultists could develop and investigate hidden occult practices safely. The early and mid nineteenth century had seen the rise of the industrial revolution and the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origins of Species’ in 1859 that had a profound effect on evolution that led to a scientific world view. The G.D came at a time of great sociological changes, and it raises the question whether the members of the G.D were rebelling against the backdrop of the industrial revolution? However the G.D soon flourished and the ‘Isis- Urania Temple’ a separate order was granted by the Chief Adepts in 1889.
Westcott and Mathers developed a grading system for new members to achieve status within the group, thereby creating a hierarchical organisation. The grading structure was taken from the ‘Tree of Life’ cabalistic approach, to represent a mystical journey for each member. However, it was agreed by Williams, Westcott and Mathers (who were now Chief Adepts) that male and female members would be treated equally in the hierarchical grading. As a consequence the women of the G.D were to become important contributors to the theatrical elements used within the magical rituals.
Moina Bergson Mathers born in 1865-1928 met Samuel Mathers in the British Library in 1887; however it is her background that gives us an idea of her future capabilities. Born from Jewish parents, they moved from Dublin to Paris in the early 1870’s, Moina was the sister to the French Philosopher, Henri Bergson (1859-1941) who was once chairman of the ‘Society of Psychical Research’. Moina, enrolled into the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied with Annie Horniman (1860-1937). Moina was the first woman to enter the G.D and became the pivotal figure in creating backdrops, flyers, costumes and designing sets for their later performances. She also is claimed by the author ‘Ellic Howe’ to have invented the collage twenty years before Picasso claimed the collage as his new art form. She became extremely gifted in the occult rituals and gave up her artistic career (like Florence Farr) to concentrate on studying the occult in more depth. She married Mathers in 1888 and became the high priestess of the G.D. She was the most significant female member of the G.D and her creation of costume, set and props suggests strongly that she viewed the rituals as a performance that needed a dramatic quality to transcend the initiate. The equality of male and female and practical magic appealed to the bohemian circles, and no doubt created a chance for the theatrical types to be curious. Three members were to become a major force within the theory of theatre and performance assigned to the G.D. W.B Yeats (1865-1939), Florence Farr (1860-1917) and Annie Horniman, all of which were initiated into the G.D in 1890. Yeats in particular had a fascination for the supernatural and occult matters and had been a keen member of the Theosophical Society before joining the G.D.
If we preserve the unity of the order, if we make that unity efficient among us, the Order will become a single very powerful talisman, creating in us, and in the world about us, such moods and circumstances as may best serve the magical life, and best awaken the magical wisdom. Yeats involvement in the G.D would cast a powerful figure in relation to his creativity. In 1889 Yeats met and fell in love with Maud Gonne (1866-1953) the revolutionary feminist and actress (who became a member of the G.D herself) that would also help Yeats as his inspiration for many of his plays like ‘Countess Cathleen’ or ‘Shadowy Waters’ in their supernatural references. However it was Yeats who informed a young actress who had also starred in ‘Countess Cathleen’ by the name of Florence Farr who would become pivotal in the history and theatre culture of the G.D. Florence’s knowledge of dramatics and staging and her melodious speaking voice were central elements of the Golden Dawn rituals. The Golden Dawn was a group that wanted to explore the theoretical and practical elements of magic. Nick Farrell who runs the ‘Order of the Round Table’ comments that ‘when one is taking part in a ritual the sound and volume of the voice becomes as important as the ritual itself’. Florence Farr experimented with the theory of theatricality and incorporated it into the G.D practices. Before joining the G. D, Florence Farr was held in high esteem by Yeats and George Bernard Shaw (who she had an affair with) and seen as a very promising young actress with a glittering career ahead of her. It was only when she joined the G.D that she began to dedicate her undivided attention to their rituals and the general running of the occult group. Florence Farr’s knowledge of the theatre help to create an ambience of the theatre culture that helped to bring forth the G.D rituals to a larger audience. It is also worth noting that Yeats himself commanded a mass of theatre experience that helped him unite the theatre with the occult. Yeats, known from his earlier work as a ‘Symbolist’ within the artistic circles of London and Paris, would help compliment the G.D heavy use of symbolism in their dramatic ceremonies, which included, Arthurian imagery, full robes, pentagrams and colourful backdrops.
In the first part of the ceremony, the initiate was bound to a cross. There he undertook a solemn obligation to keep secret, even from those in the First Order, all that he learned in the Second Order and all the practical work he did, and to “apply myself to the Great Work, which is to purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature so that with the Divine Aid I may at length attain to be more than human”. In the second part, the Chief Adept (either Westcott or Mathers), dressed in full regalia, was discovered in the Pastos, his eyes closed: he was playing the part of Christian Rosencrantz. In the third part, the Chief Adept was found having risen from the tomb, the symbolism of the fault was then explained to the candidate. Anyone who had undergone this extraordinary ritual with the proper disposition must indeed have thought that something of great significance had happened.
What is extraordinary about this description of a G.D ritual is the amount of theatricality that is attached to it. First of all we have voice (the secret) action (bound to the cross) which also can be included in the symbolism of the work, acting (Chief Adept) and performance (rising from the tomb). This dramatic ceremony would have affected the mental, emotional and physical scenes of the initiate. On the metaphysical side, Annie was a gifted astrologer, diviner with Tarot cards, and ceremonial magician, and much of her theatrical knowledge probably went into the staging of Golden Dawn rituals. Annie Horniman, another theatrical member of the G.D, became a great financial support for Mathers and his wife Moina. Annie on the G.D membership list was initiated at number seventy seven, Yeats was seventy eight, and through the G.D they became very close friends. She was also co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and friends before the G.D with Mini Bergson who would later become Moina Mathers, again Annie experienced the theatrical element of the G.D.
The Atlantis Bookshop Golden Dawn Conference 1/03/08
The Rites of Eleusis, Raymond Salvatore Harman, performed 07/03/08 at the Horse Hospital, London
‘Science and the Séance’ / produced and directed by Samira Osman 2005
‘Masters of Darkness, The Wickedest Man in the World/ Produced by M Sulley / Directed by N Rawles / 2002
Brown J F The Drama Review; Vol. 22, No 2, Occult and Bizarre Issue (Jun 1978) pp 3-26