The Golden Dawn



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.

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

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.

Moina2Annie’s initiation went through increasingly complex ritualistic procedures revolving around the symbols of the red rose and the golden cross. The bizarre climax was the submission of the candidate within a seven-sided vault painted with Egyptian and Eastern symbols set in rectangles. Drawing on all his Masonic and Hermetic lore, DDCF (Mathers) had created a tomb “symbolically situated in the centre of the Earth, in the Mountain of the Caverns, the Mystic Mountain of Abiegnus”. It could have come straight off a Wagnerian set to the rather dirty, noisy and cheaply rented room at Thavies Inn off Holborn Circus where the order’s meetings were held after DDCF and Vestigia (Moina) had moved from the lodge at Surrey Mount.

Annie Hornimans initiation determines a strong link with the theatrical elements of performance, visually and aesthetically. The mention of Wagner in ‘Shelia Goodies’ quote gives us an example of the relationship between the G.D and the theatre culture of the time (Wagner being an inspiration for the ideas of the avant garde theatre movement). It also depicts a dramatic ceremonial act that resonates with the symbolists of French theatre of the 1880’s.

Chapter 3

The initiation ceremonies of the G.D were concentrated on a small minority of members to the G.D. Public displays were more in keeping with the Spiritualists of the mid nineteenth century. The three original members of the G.D, Westcott, Williams and Mathers, set out to develop a secret society. However in 1899 Samuel Mathers and Monia moved to Paris where they set up  headquarters and also began to perform G.D rituals to a Parisian audience.

A show gives us something and nothing to respond to. The something is on the form of people doing extraordinary things with their voices, with their bodies, with the world around them. Even the ordinary becomes extraordinary when it is lovingly framed for our attention. The glance of an actress, the dash of a magician, the swirl of a costume can become something unforgettable.

In March 1899 at the ‘Theatre Bodiniere’ the Mathers performed the ‘Rites of Isis’. It is here that we start to unravel the practical uses of theatre performance within the G.D in terms of staging and presentation.

In the centre of the stage was the figure of Isis, on each side of her were other figures of gods and goddesses, and in front was the little alter, upon which was the ever burning green stone lamp. The Hierophant Ramses (Mathers), holding in one hand the sistrum, which every now and then he shook, and in the other a spray of lotus, said the prayers before this alter, after which the High Priestess Anari (Moina) invoked the goddess in penetrating and passionate tones. Then followed the “dance of the four elements” by a young Parisian lady, who, dressed in long white robes, had previously recited some verses in French in honour of Isis. A short time before this lady had become a convert. Most of the ladies present in the fashionable Parisian audience brought offerings of flowers, whilst the gentlemen threw wheat on the alter. The ceremony was artistic in the extreme.

It is interesting that the words ‘artistic in the extreme’ is used to describe an occult ritual. Although there is an audience witnessing the ritual, the general depiction of the piece is directly related to the G.D own membership ceremonies. The idea of the Mather’s to perform their ‘Isis’ ritual was to make a financial gain, more than an artistic motivation.

The Mather’s staged and performed the ‘Rites of Isis’ for three nights in Paris; it was to be in the words of Mathers ‘The start of the Isis Movement’. Mathers himself is not appreciated by the critics for his performance; however Moina demonstrated more theatrical knowledge and appeal in her presentation. His wife, on the other hand, completely won their sympathy by her graceful attitude and dignified manner. More than that, she is very handsome, she has beautiful oval face with large black eyes, mysterious eyes- and beauty always tells in Paris.

The performances demonstrated many of the themes and elements of ‘Symbolist’ theatre that would emerge in the late nineteenth century and start the avant garde movement.

In the theatre, the most noticeable effect of symbolist theories was an undramatic progression into abstraction and stasis, a withdrawal from the audience epitomised by the number of plays that followed Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas and Melisanda (1882) in being performed behind gauzes. But certain aspects of their work do anticipate subsequent productive developments. Thematically a great many symbolist plays were associated with religious revivalism of the time, whether in traditional terms of Edmond Harancourt’s updated mystery play, La Passion (performed on Good Friday 1890, in Holy week 1891 and at Easter 1882), or in the esoteric and occult Babylonian spectacles of Josephin Peledan’s Theatre de la Rose Croix.

One can only speculate that both Mathers and Moina were influenced to some degree by the French symbolist plays (although there only a little proof of this) while living in Paris. Critics were impressed by the scenery, which was designed by Moina Mathers and it is also claimed that some audience members fainted during the performance of the ‘Rites of Isis’ due to its overpowering theatrical nature. It is also noted that a majority of the audience were mainly occultists instead of theatre goers of the time. However this is the G.D first venture into the practical forms of theatre, and with their roots already developed by certain members who were involved in the theatre, for example Florence Farr, who would have added to the performance of the ‘Rites of Isis’ when practiced internally for the G.D. In the same year 1899 of the performance of the ‘Rites of Isis’ a man by the name of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was initiated into the G.D. He was to become an important part of the future of the G.D and would also develop the theatre culture of the occult group. Crowley quickly moved up the G.D ranks, attaining the highest grades, before embarking on a solo journey of ritual magic that would end up with him being labelled the ‘wickedest man alive’. However in 1910, just over ten years from when Mathers performed his ‘Rites of Isis’, Crowley performed to an audience the G.D ritual the ‘Rites of Eleusis’.

The individual rites that make up the seven Rites of Eleusis can be viewed as acts or scenes in a single drama which, as it moves from one plane of consciousness to the next, presents the play’s central idea in a manner appropriate to that plane. The main point of interest in Crowley’s production was the technique he used to transport his audience to those planes and to induce in them- through a bizarre marriage of cabbalistic ritual and performing arts-specific ecstasies.

Crowley had begun to blend the idea of the occult and performance through his reworking of the GD, ‘Rites of Isis’. However it is the theatricality of the performance that we begin to see how the G.D used this in their theory and practice. Again the description of the performance seems to base its gravitas in ‘Symbolism’ in art and theatre.

The aim was to reach a deeper level of reality than deceptive surface appearances-to embody the inner nature of archetypal man in concrete symbols, in contrast to the naturalistic depiction of socially defined individuals.

In the introduction to the ‘Rites of Eleusis’, Crowley gives the audience a clear direction of how he wanted the audience to attend the performance adding to the theatricality of the event.

For the Rite of Saturn you are requested, if convenient, to wear black or very dark blue, for Jupiter violet, for Mars scarlet or russet brown, for Sol, orange or white, for Venus green or sky blue, for Mercury shot silk and mixed colours, for Luna white, silver, or pale blue. It is not necessary to confine yourself to the colour mentioned, but it should form the keynote of the scheme. The etiquette to be observed is that of the most solemn religious ceremonies. It should be particularly borne in mind that silence itself is used as a means of obtaining effects.

Upon arriving at the artistic event, the audience were drawn to an unusual set of circumstances witnessed by the reviewer Raymond Radcliff.

The room was dark, only a dull red light shone upon the alter. Various young men, picturesquely clad in robes of white, red, or black, stood at different points round the room. Some held swords. The incense made a haze through which I saw a small white stature, illumined by a tiny lamp hung high on the cornice. The audience was seated on floor cushions placed along the wall.

The G.D were very conscientious of the appearance of one participating in a ritual, therefore full regal garments were a normal activity for the group. Crowley as many photographs from the period suggest was a keen advocate of ‘playing the part’ weather it be the Hierophant or the Devil. Crowley experimented with the idea of performance and ritual from his ceremonies in the G.D. However one critic gives a  better account of the ‘Rites of Eleusis’.

The brothers led into the room a draped figure, masked in that curious blue tint we mentally associate with Hecate. The lady, for it was a lady, was enthroned on a seat high above Crowley himself. By the time the ceremony had grown weird and impressive, and its influences was increased when the poet recited in solemn and reverent voice Swinburne’s glorious first chorus from “Atalanta” that begins, 2When the hounds of spring.” Again a libation, again an invocation to Artermis. After further ceremonies, Frater Omnia Vincam (Victor Neuberg) was commanded to dance “the dance of Syrinx and Pan in honour of our lady Artemis (He) astonished me by a graceful and beautiful dance, which he continued until he fell exhausted in the middle of the room, where, by the way, he lay until the end. Crowley than made supplication to the goddess in a beautiful and unpublished poem. A dead silence ensued. After a long pause, the figure enthroned (Leila Waddell) took a violin and played –played with passion and feeling, like a master. We were thrilled to our very bones. Once again the figure took the violin, and played an Abend Lied so beautifully, so gracefully, and with such intense feeling that in very deed most of us experienced that Ecstasy which Crowley so earnestly seeks.

What is described here appears to be a very visceral and physical performance that bears a resemblance In dance and poetry to the ‘Rites of Isis’ while also conveying a manipulation of all the human senses. It also reflects the heavy use of symbolism that Mathers also used in his dramatic ceremonies. However the theatricality of the performance used heightened expectations and unnatural behaviour, particularly with Victor Neuberg’s dancing and Leila Waddell’s (Crowley’s then mistress) passionate violin playing which transcended the audience, similar again to the works of the symbolists, that also demonstrates theatre and drama practices that the G.D used in their ceremonies.

In a number of ways, Crowley’s ceremonial stage is reminiscent of the performances of symbolist works at the Theatre d’Art in Paris twenty years earlier. Crowley was evidently aware of the Symbolist style of staging. He once remarked, regarding the production of the Rite of Saturn: “Nothing of Maeterlinck’s ever produced so overpowering oppression as this invocation of the dark spirit of time.

It is worth at this point to go back to the original G.D rituals, for they cast a light on many of Crowley’s ideas for performance and staging. The blending of the occult and performance is by no means a new concept. Ritualistic theatre that would become a beacon of hope in the twentieth century, derived more from anthropology which entailed many cultures who were aware or practiced the supernatural, for example the shaman. Indeed in the history of theatre, many of Shakespeare’s plays are heavily laden with occult references, ghosts, witches, fairies and superstition. What the G.D explored was the demonstration of the occult and magic in a practical environment that forged a strong link with theatre traditions influenced from the groups own membership. Crowley’s performance of the ‘Rites of Eleusis’ at Caxton Hall in 1910, highlighted the theatricality of practical ceremonial magic. However could this have been performed without Crowley being a part of the G.D? I have not found in my research any other occult group who practiced and performed in the same way as the G.D. The Theosophical society did experiment with séances and mediumship circles, but they were on a much smaller scale, there was no ‘playing parts’ in other words acting involved, unlike the G.D. The Chief Adepts who in the G.D were, Westcott and Mathers, both  would portray a ‘character’ or ‘spirit’ in the rituals. This would entail dressing in particular coloured robes and the staging of symbols to represent that ‘person’ that they were demonstrating. The drama practices of this would be an emphasis on the voice and movement of the ‘body’ they were supposedly possessed by. Crowley a known exhibitionist within the G.D also represented a threat to the older members including Yeats. The question arises, is Crowley’s ‘Rites of Eleusis’ a representation of the G.D ceremonies as held by Mathers and his wife? Undoubtedly the G.D was a formidable influence on the young Crowley. Their theatrical leanings and practical use of magic made it possible for Crowley to find a creative output. The practical side of the G.D performance is explored in both the ‘Rites of Isis’ and the ‘Rites of Eleusis’ which included the use of spoken poetry.

Crowley hoped to apply the methods of Swinburne’s sleep-trance poetics to the traditional ritualistic oaths and formulaic speeches of ceremonial magic. “There is no more potent means than Art of calling forth true Gods to visible appearances”, he wrote in his instructional manual of Magic. But it was not a particularly new idea. Twelve years before the Rites, W.B Yeats had “poeticized” the sacred rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn for its founder.

Crowley’s usage of performance and theatre, to explore the occult, would continue even after the ‘Rites of Eleusis’. However Crowley was only one member of many in the G.D who demonstrated the practical use of the theatre. The author Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) saw parallels’ between the occult and theatre, after trying to commit suicide one evening; somebody slipped an occult book under his door about the afterlife. Meyrink saw this as a symbol of the performance (suicide attempt) and the occult (book) as being entwined with theatrical with each other as one event. With each passing year that the G.D continued, new members who were from a theatre background would become important in the development of the G.D legacy. Pamela Coleman Smith (1878-1951) an actress in 1904 designed the Rider Waite Tarot cards with A.E Waite (1857-1942), both prominent members of the G.D. However by 1904, the G.D had begun to dissemble into fragments until the original ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ had ceased to exist. Various splinter groups that practiced the ritual G.D magic came into being, however these were pale imitations, whose influence was hampered by egos.

The ‘Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn’ was born at a time of huge interest and exploration into the occult, with A.P Sinnett’s books ‘The Occult World’ and ‘Esoteric Buddhism’. The flowering of ‘Spiritualism’ and ‘Theosophy’ before the G.D helped to propel the movement into new territory. There were also a high percentage of members of the G.D who were also members of the  ‘Theosophical Society’. This included members who were involved in the theatre at the time. However the G.D drew a large population of theatrical people to become part of its movement and objectives. It is worth speculating that the practical essences of the G.D and its exploration into ritualistic magic would have greatly appealed to the more theatrically inclined. These members of the G.D were to bring forth a high degree of theory and experience to the G.D rituals.

A preoccupation with symbolism was in many ways a passport into the Order, and it was no coincidence that the Golden Dawn attracted aspiring artists and those of a creative bent.

In researching the G.D theatrical methods and their rituals the symbolist movement becomes attached as an influence or resemblance particularly the work of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949).

To penetrate deeply into human consciousness is the privilege, even the duty, of the thinker, the moralist, the historian, the novelist, and to a degree of the lyrical poet, but not the dramatist. What ever the temptation, he dare not sink into inactivity. become mere philosopher or observer. Do what one will discover what marvels one may, the sovereign law of the stage, its essential demand, will always be action. With the rise of the curtain, the high intellectual desire within us undergoes transformation and in place of the thinker, psychologist, mystic, or moralist there stands the mere instinctive spectator, the man electrified negatively by the crowd, the man whose one desire it is to see something happen.

Maeterlinck’s ideas expressed contrast well with Mather’s desire for the G.D to become a transformational experience of all the senses, as Yeats when joining the G.D wanted to experience for himself and explore in his playwriting.

By 1890, before he learned about the French symbolists, he (Yeats) had been writing symbolic poems for several years. When Symons and others told him about the French poets, Yeats welcomed them as fellow travellers on the road he was following, as fellow transcendentalist and occultists who had, like Blake and Shelly, hit upon symbolism as the only possible way to express what they had experienced. It is notable that, aside from professional occultists and Huysmans, the only Frenchman whom Yeats read was Maeterlinck, who was a kind of theosophist, and Villiers, who was also a student of Eliphas Levi and of the Rosicrucian’s. Occult considerations led Yeats to the laborious reading of Axel. It was probably Mathers, the Rosicrucian, who introduced him to this congenial play.

aleistercrowleyThe ‘Symbolists’ as the author Frantisek Deak recognises ‘had an interest in metaphysics and mysticism’. However the ‘Symbolists’ were looking for a deeper meaning to theatre and art that transcended the audience. The occult as a word and subject gave an easy access to creativity for the ‘Symbolists’ because of its own varied identity like the theatre. Magic, Mediumship, Tarot cards, Astrology and the Paranormal in general, were under the guise of hidden knowledge which assumed an importance in discovery of ones powers as a human. This all comes at a time in history when the western world was changing at a rapid pace through technological and scientific advancement.

The ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ went against the current climate and changing world views of the west. It delved into the ancient scriptures of Egyptian and Arthurian mythology, the past becomes the future for the group. For Mathers and Crowley to cultivate a theatrical event from rituals of the G.D, they must have each felt confidence in their ability to portray and perform. The G.D as many organisations, would have been influenced by many factors of the time and the past in their ethos. But, how much of an influence has the G.D had on theatre in theory and practice after  the demise of the G.D?

Chapter 4

The dramatic ceremonial rituals that were staged by the G.D members MacGregor Mathers, Moina Mathers and Aleister Crowley, were an outing of occult practices. The audience reaction of the ‘Rites of Isis’ of fainting due to the overload on the senses of the performance, seem to resonate Artaud’s own ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ in its intention of creating a physical or emotional reaction to a performance. Artaud, who was a great advocate in the use of the occult, he studied tarot cards and believed in a greater spiritual force, saw the potential of imagery and symbolism. The G. D also came at a time when the ‘avant garde’ theatre movements had began to develop with symbolism first and then Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, Expressionism and the Absurd.

These movements all good defy logic and go against the scientific world view that the west had encroached on its conscious. Considering that the ‘Symbolist’ movement was the first to ignite the avant garde, the performed rituals of the G.D should also stand along side as important theatrical events. One of the pioneers of the avant garde was the writer and artist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) and his performance in 1896 of ‘Uber Roi’ that is held by some theatre scholars as the start of the avant garde. At its opening night, Yeats was in the audience, and he quoted famously, regarding the performance as stating ‘After us, the savage god’. We can also come back to the term of theatre culture and its connotations with the avant garde. The avant garde movements were a protest against the ideology of realism in a theoretical and practical application. What is concluded is that the theatre of the avant garde and the life of the G.D ran in parallel with each other, often crossing each other to gain understanding and influence. It is no surprise that many of the symbolist writers at the time were keen occultist themselves involved in the Theosophical Society or the G.D.

The “theatrical properties” for Mathers 5=6 ritual required the physical reconstruction of the vault, complete with alter and coffin. However, since the descriptive information in the Fama was vague he used his own lively imagination, and with the help of his wife Monia, who had been trained as an artist at the Slade School, produced a full scale ‘replica’ of the vault, in which fantastically complicated symbolical decorations were painted according to so- called occult colour scales, which were the vaults predominating feature. Psychologically this was a major achievement because no candidate for initiation who was in a sufficiently receptive state of mind could fail to be impressed.

The relationship between the theatre and the audience is an important one where a connection during a performance must be clearly identified. This can be done emotionally, physically or mentally, the same can be said between the G.D adept and the initiate. By using objects and props to support and create a dramatic effect was widely seen for the symbolists as an added and important feature to their work. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Edward Gordon Craig’s (1872-1966) ideas on theatre design played a fundamental part in the symbolist movement. Both Mathers and Moina also discovered the effect of symbolic staging that dominated their rituals. The question arises in regard to who influenced who? Were the symbolist inclined to be advocates of the occult through their work, or is the G.D trying to portray a symbolist play in their rituals. At the time of both movements there had been dramatic changes on a technological and social scale. The industrial revolution of the early to mid nineteenth century led to the demise of the natural world. It also comes at a time when a scientific world view dominates the west. The G.D wanted to collect and practice hidden knowledge, while the symbolists wanted to delve into the hidden mysteries of life. The crossover of similarities deserves recognition because each influenced the other. Mathers claimed that the only reason for displaying the ‘Rites of Isis’ is for financial reasons. But in contradiction to that he also stated that it was to be the beginning of the ‘Isis movement’. The conclusion that I speculate here is that Mathers wanted to spread the name of the G.D to Paris, since he and his wife had just moved there and the theatre was the best medium to do this. From the descriptions of the theatrical events of the Mathers, the symbolic gestures become as important as the spoken word. It also resonates with the future ritualistic theatre, particularly with Crowley’s ‘Rites of Eleusis’. Professor Richard Schechner wrestles with the idea of ‘performance genres arise out of the great variety of human activities as hills arise from the plains, they are connected but separate, performing critical as well as celebratory tasks’. Crowley’s performances in private can be just as dramatic as his public demonstrations.

One by one the worshippers entered. They were mostly women of aristocratic type. Their delicate fingers adorned with costly rings, their rustling silks, the indefinable elegance of their carriage attested their station in life. Everybody wore a little black domino which concealed the upper part of the face, making identification impossible. The complexions of the women seemed as white as wax. There was a fitful light furnished by a single candlestick having seven branches. Suddenly this went out, and the place was filled with subterranean noises like the sound of a violent wind moving among innumerable leaves. Then came the slow, monotonous chant of the high priest (Crowley) “There is no good, Evil is good. Blessed be the principle of Evil”. A sound of evil bleating filled the pauses of these blasphemous utterances, men and women danced about, leaping and swaying to the whining of internal discordant music. They sang obscene set to hymn tunes and gibbered unintelligible jargon. Women tore their bodices, some partially disrobed. One fair worshiper, seizing upon the high priest’s dagger, wounded herself in the breasts. At this all seemed to go madder than ever.

This is an important account of theatrical performance and ritual magic coming together. It demonstrates the dramatic effect that the visual and spoken element has on an audience member. What Crowley performed is again from the ‘Rites of Eleusis’, however this extract was not performed in a theatre, but Crowley’s abode in Fulham, London. Again the ritual resonates with Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ with its manipulation of the senses. Crowley took the rituals of Mathers and heightened the expectation and dramatic tension. Within the G.D it is the key members who have a direct or are influenced by the theatre in some form. The initiation of prominent members as W.B Yeats and Florence Farr certainly added to the theatrical guise of the G.D. However less known members were active in the group, Sara Allgood (1879- 1950) the Irish stage actress use to perform the readings at the G.D ceremonies. Allan Bennett (1872-1923), who became a pioneer for western Buddhism which influenced theatre practitioners in the twentieth century, for example, the polish director Jerzy Grotowski. Bram Stoker (1847-1912) and his novel ‘Dracula’ became an influence for whole generation of writers and occultists. The historical importance the G.D had, and is still operating in the twenty first century within texts and various splinter groups, is  questioned academically by being labelled as a bunch of Victorian eccentrics. However the impact of their rituals in magic, and their performances of these, has caused a question as to the impact that the theatre had on the G.D and the influence that the G.D had on theatre. The relationship between the two is of one influencing the other in a time when social and artistic forms were changing at a rapid pace. The two become inspirational for each other, the occult has always fascinated artists. But it is the direct connection between the theatre culture and the G.D that is the most prolific. The members of the G.D who came from a theatrical background enabled the G.D to explore performance and staging that had not been investigated by any other occult group. The myths and legends that are attached to the G.D are one of odd characters and secret chiefs in Victorian England. Most of their rituals were performed in basements and the secrecy that was involved was immense. What is known is that the G.D is renowned to this day for its dramatic ceremonies and connection with the theatre of the late nineteenth century. What can only be coined in  G.D terms as ‘Magical Theatre’.

Religion has its word, science its promises and demonstrations, philosophy its systematized theories, art its creations and ideals, and yet these in their fundamental separations fall short of that synthethetical ideal which the spirit of humanity unceasingly demands.

Moina Mathers

London, July, 1926


Primary Sources

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

Yeats W.B The Countess Cathleen Ernest Brown 1929


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Cavendish, R Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained (Arkana 1997)

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Gilbert, R A Revelations of the Golden Dawn (Quantum 1997)

Goodie, S Annie Horniman, A pioneer in the Theatre (Methuen 1990)

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