The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was the most influential occult group to emerge from the end of the nineteenth century occult revival.
The group was founded in the year 1888 by William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925), a doctor, and a master mason, William Robert Woodman (1828-1891), also a doctor and a mason, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918), who was also a mason.
The order claimed its pedigree from coded documents in Dr Wynn Westcott’s possession; these claimed the group was a branch of a German Rosicrucian Order.
The hierarchical structure of the Golden Dawn was divided into ten degrees. Members passed through each of the levels by sitting exams and partaking in theatrical ritual. The rituals took place in specially designed temples named after the Egyptian gods.
As with many occult groups, the leading members, Mathers in particular, claimed that they were in contact with a secret order of higher intelligences or Magi. These beings guided the working material and controlled how the order developed. The secret order were unapproachable, which was a useful barrier to detractors.
The Golden Dawn had some very influential people within its ranks. W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), Constance Wilde (1858-1898), Algernon Blackwood (1869 - 1951), Arthur Machen (1863-1947), A. E. Waite (1857-1942), Annie Horniman (1860-1937), Florence Farr (1860-1917), Gerald Kelly (1879-1972) and Maude Gonne (1865-1953) were all members. There was also a rumour that Wallace Budge (1857 - 1934), who was in charge of Egyptology at the British Museum, was also involved, although this has never been verified.
Mystically speaking, the group inherited a number of sources. The group was said to have actual initiatory material from ancient Egypt. This material could of been written, but might of come from material gained through reicarnational regregression. Material from members and ex-members has been the foundation for most modern occultism of the Hermetic nature, reavealing information that had be kept by secretive masters for centuries. It is from the Golden Dawn that the strongest links between the Tarot, Kabalah, and magic have been created. It is rumored that the group also had access to a a more complete translation of the Emerald Tablet and The Alexandrian Papyrus.
By the year 1900 the inflated egos of many of the group members had caused arguments, and created schisms within the group. Aleister Crowley (who joined in 1898) had a major part in this. He was not well liked, but he sided with Mathers (although they were later to have a magical battle of their own), Mathers accused Wynn Wescott of faking the Rosicrucian documents on which the Golden Dawn was founded. This undermining of the orders foundations did not go down well, and Mathers was expelled.
Aside: Mathers left England for Paris with his wife Moina in 1892. While in Paris he founded a splinter group of the Golden Dawn, but the order was never as powerful as it had been in Britain. Mathers died in Paris in 1918.
William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet (who joined in 1890 from the Theosophical Society) took over the Golden Dawn Core group after Mather’s departure, but it was A. E. Waite (the producer of the best known Tarot Deck), gaining control in 1903 who took the order down a different path. He changed the name to The Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, and pushed the order towards more Christian leanings. This was done for mostly political reasons, as a Christian Organization was more “socially acceptable”. He finally closed the Order down around 1914 because of apathy, and dwindling membership. Many of the “artifacts” reputed to be in the order’ posession disapear during the “great falling out”. Their locations are lost to history.
There are lots of connections to the the Rosicrucian Society of England (SRIA), est. 1865, the Theosophical Society, est. 1875, the Oriental Templar Order, est. c.1895, the Order of Illuminati, and high-grade Freemasonry (Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, York Rite).