When Grammy Award-winning vocalist Ciara appeared in a 2013 video wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” the legions of Illuminati-obsessed fundamentalist bloggers salivated with yet more proof of the ongoing Hollywood occult conspiracy to lead us all into worship of the Dark Lord.
Readers of this site would know better than most, however, that those foaming-at-the-mouth critics of the Hollywood/MKULTRA/mind control plot to enslave young minds through popular music have a very limited understanding of the rich and complex history of Western occultism.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which originated in late 19th century London among a small group of Masonic Rosicrucians, remains the most influential and well-known occult society in Western history. Its story has been told in a number of popular books, and its prominent members—Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, William Butler Yeats, A. E. Waite, Dion Fortune, and Israel Regardie—are icons of esoteric lore. Yet countless Neopagans and New Agers, along with those who dabble in esoteric practices like Kabbalah, Tarot, astral travel, and visualization, have no idea that their spiritual beliefs and practices are pulled directly from the pioneering work of this magical secret society.
Pick up any book on practical magic and you’re likely to find rituals, often without attribution, plagiarized from the Golden Dawn. One ritual in particular, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, is found in nearly every modern occult tradition, from ceremonial magic to Wicca and the latest flavor of Neopaganism. It is the Swiss Army Knife of occultism, intended to clear ceremonial space of malign or obtrusive energies and entities, but its origination in the Golden Dawn frequently goes unmentioned. Before Golden Dawn members started tracing glowing pentagrams in the air while intoning Hebrew names of God, the idea of summoning and banishing demons and spirits was wrapped in the archaic, complex (and often perplexing) rituals gleaned from old medieval grimoires and the obscure books of 19th century occultist Eliphas Levi.
Levi also built upon the writings of French Freemason (and friend of Benjamin Franklin) Antoine Court de Gébelin, who originated the idea of the Tarot cards as a book of ancient wisdom and a tool of divination. Before Gébelin, the cards were seen as nothing more than a game, albeit with simple moral lessons illustrated by the Trump cards. Mathers and his associates drew upon the writings of Levi and grafted the Tarot to the Jewish Kabbalah by matching the 22 Trump cards with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Rider-Waite deck, the most popular and influential of all time (recognizable from its ubiquity in pop culture), was created by Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith, both members of the Golden Dawn, and published in 1910. Although Waite changed some of the imagery on the cards to avoid breaking his vow of secrecy, their symbolism and meanings are clearly based, at least in part, on the order’s teachings, and any Tarot reader using the Waite-Smith cards or the many decks based on them is—often unknowingly—drawing from the deep well of the Golden Dawn.
The Kabbalah (or Cabala or Qabalah) was an obscure Jewish mystical tradition and virtually unknown outside of Judaic and occult circles until its popularization by the Golden Dawn. Mathers and company drew upon the syncretic fusion of this Jewish mystical tradition with Hermetic Christianity, most notably in the works of occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Eliphas Levi, and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (who also threw pagan and Egyptian elements into the mix). It’s hard to imagine the Kabbalah would have ever emerged from its religious niche into global pop culture had it not been for the Golden Dawn building a practical system of occultism on top of it. Even as the order disintegrated from the usual mix of battling egos and magical infighting in the early twentieth century, many of its practitioners—Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley being among the most prominent—took the Kabbalistic teachings and practices and formed their own schools of magic and mysticism (several of which are still in existence).
Other magical practices revitalized, reinvented, and popularized by the Golden Dawn included astral travel, scrying, alchemy, guided visualization, and astrology—all foundations of what later came under the broader umbrella of New Age philosophy. Although a number of Golden Dawn lodges still exist (and still sometimes engage in feuding and bickering about who holds the “true” lineage), the influence of the order now is much more pervasive where it is least known and acknowledged. Indeed, it’s hard to pick up a book off a shelf in a New Age bookstore that isn’t in some manner linked to the Victorian magicians of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—from the simplistic pop magic of The Secret to popular books on the Kabbalah and nearly every book of practical magical techniques. In many respects, the goals of the original society have succeeded beyond the wildest clairvoyant visions of its early members, and the Golden Dawn magical “current” is flowing more powerfully and more widely now than when its first fraters and sorores gathered to make magic in their secret lodges over a hundred years ago.