Exploring the intersection of magic, culture, spirituality, and humanity

Month: March 2021

All That’s Wrong with the Golden Dawn

After two full years of deliberation, I recently resigned from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  I had been a member for more than a decade, almost half of it as an Adept.  I had been struggling with this decision for two years, after I had a falling out with my mother temple in early 2019.  At the time, I exercised my right as an Adept to unaffiliate with that temple and continue on my Path as a solitary practitioner.  But in doing so, I felt adrift.  I had effectively lost not only my chosen family of 10 years, but all of the people in my life I held dear who spoke my own native spiritual language.  I had already experienced the Golden Dawn tradition elsewhere, first initiating into a different Order back in 2005, and anyone can walk that Path alone if they so choose–so my resignation didn’t mean that I couldn’t pursue my own spiritual journey anymore.  But my chosen family was irreplaceable, as was the experience of doing lodge-style magic with that family and having the rare and beautiful opportunity to walk hand in hand with others on the same Path.
Over the past two years, I have become more cognizant of how people outside the Golden Dawn tradition view those of us who follow it, as well as their opinions of the organizations which currently embody that tradition.  They see us as elitist gatekeepers, as out of touch magicians locked away in our ivory towers doing our little rituals together and not making much of a difference otherwise.
By and large, those people are right.
Don’t get me wrong, I have known plenty of Adepts in the tradition who don’t fit this description; in fact, I’d say it doesn’t apply to the majority of the people who were in the same temple I was, and the same is true of many of the Adepts whom I have met from farther afield.  Nor am I writing this from a place of personal bitterness:  I’ve taken the last two years to process my own pain over what I’ve been through, and I still consider myself at least in large part a devotee of the Golden Dawn tradition.  But structurally, I have come to believe that the temporal Orders which embody the tradition today are not pursuing it in the ways originally intended by its founders, and I believe that much of the culture of such Orders inevitably trends in problematic directions as a result.  Consequently, while it does not seem from the inside as though the shade thrown our way from those in the wider occult community is accurate or constitutes a fair assessment, the truth of the matter from my own experience is that despite the best intentions of everyone involved, the indictments largely hit home when the rubber meets the road.
The reasons for this are more complex than you might think.  To get to some answers for myself, I had to go back to the history of the Order–the original Order of the Golden Dawn, conceived in 1887 and given birth in 1888.  There are good reasons why it had the groundbreaking impact it did, and why its influences can still be seen even in many modern neopagan circles.  There are also good reasons why it exploded after only six short years into a series of offshoot Orders, which in turn birthed their own offshoot Orders, and there are likely equally good reasons why most of these ended up being merely a footnote in the long history of western magic.
I could choose to go into an exhaustive list of the problems in the contemporary Golden Dawn landscape (and I do indeed have a list); but despite this post’s title, I’m going to focus at present on what I see as the one core structural and cultural issue that appears to me most invisible from the inside, but which everyone else seems clearly able to see–and for which reason this issue is likely the single most pernicious one facing every modern-day Order and every individual magician that works in such an Order.  This problem is the reification of the system itself.
To understand what I mean by that statement, it’s important to understand a bit about the history and intent of the Order of the Golden Dawn and how the system has evolved over the years.  The skeletal framework of what would become the Golden Dawn system was set by the Cipher Manuscripts that William Wynn Westcott ostensibly obtained from Rev. Woodford, who had in turn inherited it from Frederick Hockley.  There was nothing especially new or hitherto unknown contained in the Cipher Manuscripts; rather, it was in drawing upon this as well as numerous and disparate other sources that Westcott and Mathers created the edifice that became the Golden Dawn system of magic.  It was the creation of a new Order itself, the masterful synthesis of the grimoiric magic and primordial myth and mystery traditions that had come before with the Masonic lodge system, that was the real evolutionary leap.
The ability to create such a lodge-based system was both a privilege of and perhaps a necessity inflicted by Victorian industrialized culture.  With less dire consequences for those who were discovered to be practicing magic than in previous centuries, the ability to congregate together for the purpose in a lodge or temple was a fairly new one–though the social consequences still made it necessary that the Golden Dawn remain a secret society.  At the same time, however, the Industrial Revolution had an incredibly alienating effect upon British culture.  The landscape and fabric of society had changed, and was becoming rapidly more distanced from the cultural context in which the grimoire authors worked their magic.  The vision of the Order of the Golden Dawn was to preserve these mysteries of the premodern world, and to give its aspirants the education in their symbolic language and provide an initiatory encounter with those mysteries in order for future generations to learn how to work the magic of the ancients–or at least the magic of a few centuries prior, which at that point might as well have been ancient history given the intellectual gulf between modern and premodern ways of thinking.
It is apparent from the histories of the Order and its members that the strategy proved effective.  While there were many Adepts who were not luminaries in their mundane lives, the magic that many of them were doing was experimental and at times revolutionary, and contributed back to the overall body of knowledge within the Order.  Innovation of technique and experimentation was encouraged, at least until it threatened Mathers’s power structure.  And as the Order served primarily to provide both a springboard for doing the real Work of magic and as a collegium for those who were doing it, the pace of a student’s advancement was effectively the pace at which they were able to copy and memorize the grade materials in order to internalize the symbolic language which served as a key tool both in working magic and in understanding how to work magic.  They were also given the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in order to begin familiarizing themselves with some basic rudiments of ritual practice in a safe and controlled manner.
This Outer Order work of language acquisition generally did not take very long.  Given the pivotal role that the Crowley-Mathers schism played in the downfall of the Order, it is easy to overlook the fact that the “Battle of Blythe Road,” which played out after Crowley was denied initiation into the Second Order by the London Adepts and went to Mathers in Paris to appeal their decision, took place only 17 months after his Neophyte initiation.  By contrast, I took approximately five years to advance to Adeptus Minor after joining the HOGD as a Neophyte, and my rise through the grades was faster than most of my peers.  This fact alone should indicate that something has changed in the past 125 years in the way that the Order experience is structured.
To put a finer point on it, the primary thing that has changed between 1888 and 2021 is that once the Golden Dawn system of magic was disseminated, new Orders sprang up–but those Orders became primarily dedicated to working the Golden Dawn system, rather than propelling initiates through the language acquisition process necessary to work the magic.  Real magic is always transformative and evolutionary, on a deep personal level.  It is wild and refuses to be fit easily into boxes, and makes mincemeat of preconceived notions.  I hope you are beginning to see the problem here.  Transformation is the enemy of stasis, and when the Golden Dawn system was handed down to us by Israel Regardie (after Crowley had already published much of it, albeit with a far less sympathetic eye) it became something akin to infallible holy writ rather than an expression at a moment in time of an evolving and living tradition.  To some extent all contemporary Orders have had to be reconstructionists in order to work within the tradition, but it appears to me that those Orders have become more about the reconstruction of the system rather than its evolution and transformation.

Unfortunately, this means that most of the Golden Dawn magic out there is essentially magic on rails, which is antithetical to the way that the experience of real magic actually works.  Magic is not an experience on rails, and I can attest to the fact that nearly a decade of training did not prepare me for my own experiences of magical encounter with the world of the gods and spirits when it came knocking with a vengeance on my own ivory tower.  Once an Outer Order member becomes an Adept, the work does not significantly change.  You make the tools, you perform the prescribed rituals, you start to do a little more scrying and divinatory work, but otherwise you continue to work the system and take the exams.  In practice, innovation is discouraged.  When those innovations involve departing from the script, or from traditional ways of doing things, they are even more strongly discouraged. This state of affairs is not reflective of an Order which holds a healthy perspective on the magical journey.

Whenever “the system” is enshrined to such an extent that it takes precedence over the magician’s own Higher Self and their own path, that system inherently fails to serve the magician’s interests.  When any system (magical or otherwise) becomes reified such that it grows static and inflexible, and takes on higher priority than the individuals who participate in it, that system becomes pernicious to those ensconced within it–despite the best intentions of good-hearted people who are custodians of that system.  To create something new is always perceived as threatening or bringing death to the old, and to some extent this is unavoidable.  It is when the adherence to the system becomes an impediment to evolution that it becomes a hindrance to magic rather than a help.

The Order of the Golden Dawn was not conceived in 1887 so that it could become a static, reified system.  It was always intended to be a living system—one which was capable of springboarding initiates to Adepts, of introducing them to the realm of the spirits and the gods with which Victorian industrialized society was rapidly losing touch.  For a time, this system worked admirably at its task.  The work of the individual initiates who passed through Mark Masons’ Hall and through the other hallowed halls of the Golden Dawn temples to become Adepts, both through their magical lives and in the fruits which they bore into the wider world, provides more than sufficient attestation to the system’s efficacy.  The impact upon history, even after the collapse of the Order, is evidence that the Golden Dawn made its dent upon the universe in disproportionate measure to the individuals who were responsible for its founding and operation.

One need not be a dedicated scholar of Golden Dawn history, however, to see that the experiment also imploded in rather spectacular fashion within the span of six short years.  Nor must one look far afield today to see that the legacy of the Order of the Golden Dawn in latter-day organizations that take up its banner has been a tortured and fractious one, beset by a number of dysfunctions.  These dysfunctions have often resulted in Orders that are unhealthy and conformist at best, and exploitatively abusive at worst.  I have been fortunate not to have the latter experience, but I have certainly known a number of Golden Dawn magicians who have.

We can do better than this.

We must do better than this.

And I am of the belief that we cannot do better unless we are willing to break with tradition, to dispense with the past when it becomes more of an impediment than an inspiration, to change the structures when better options and opportunities come along.  The fact of the matter is that the Golden Dawn as a tradition may be a living one in its own way, but the exaltation of the particulars of the system to the level of religious writ runs counter to the very ethos upon which the Order of the Golden Dawn was founded.  The system is still a living one after a fashion, but it has become far too homogeneous in its ivory tower through slavish adherence to what has come before.  The membership of the original Order was composed of artists, poets, actors, visionaries, and revolutionaries.  They were at the vanguard of their time precisely because they were revolutionary in their mindset, and saw the opportunity to create a new vision of their own.  I wish that many of today’s Golden Dawn magicians shared that mindset.  

Alas, in my experience most of those who speak most authoritatively on behalf of the tradition do not.  And this is precisely why I am no longer an Adept in any Golden Dawn Order, though I continue to hold the tradition itself dear to my heart.

Before I joined the Golden Dawn, there was a time when I looked at the overwhelming complexity of the system and voiced the opinion that it could really use an enema.  Since then, I’ve found the beauty in the complexity because I’ve spent the time with it to learn and speak the language and found that it has given me great tools with which to express myself.  These days, I believe that the system could use a long-overdue update to its largely antiquated and ineffective pedagogy, and thankfully we’ve learned a little bit about what constitutes good pedagogy since the 19th century.  But I don’t believe it needs an enema.
Now, I simply believe that the Golden Dawn needs a good revolution.

Walking Through the Fire

In my last post on this blog, I had reflected on the perspective voiced by the character of Henry Fogg in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians that the magician’s inner pain is what makes them stronger: that they “burn it as fuel, for light and warmth,” and in so doing have “learned to break the world that has tried to break [them].” I said at the time that I would leave an analysis of that question to my next post on the subject.

It turns out there’s no way to answer that question except through experience.  And if we hadn’t already had enough inner pain as it was, the novel coronavirus has affected us all in our own disparate ways, giving us plenty more of it to deal with.  It’s certainly left me with my own share of scars to bear.

So, what deep truths have I learned about the nature of magic and pain?  Was Fogg right after all?
Well, the jury’s still out.  Do those of us who are called to the magical path experience pain more deeply than anyone else?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Each of us only knows our own experience; the inner experience of every other person is uniquely their own.  Only the Mercurial art of communication can bridge the gap and give us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another.  What I do know is that it would seem to me a bit elitist and presumptuous if anyone other than a fictional character posited that magicians as an entire class of people experience life in a qualitatively different way from the entirety of the rest of humanity.
That said, there may yet be some truth in Fogg’s words if we dig a bit beneath the surface.  Whether one follows the psychological model or the spirit-driven model of magic, I believe most would agree that a universal feature of the magical path is finding healing and psychic re-integration from the traumas and other psychic damage that we have experienced as an unavoidable consequence of growing up human.  Magic–real magic, not merely rote performance and words read from a page in a voice bereft of feeling–moves you at a deep level.  It forces you to face uncomfortable truths, to grow in ways you never expected and quite often couldn’t have imagined, and to either get a real good handle on your shit while you go a bit crazy compared to the rest of the world, or do a lot of damage to your life in the process.  I’ve experienced a bit of both sides of that coin, and I’m here to tell you that magic itself can be a source of trauma as much as a source of healing.  Sometimes, it’s both simultaneously.  Magic is weird like that.
Despite all this, at the end of the day, my magical path and my relationships with my patron deities, angelic spirits, and my familiar and ancestral spirits have given me many of my greatest experiences of transcendent connection, and given my life much of its meaning, motivation, purpose, and direction.  In the search to understand the experiences I have had, in the exploration of the unknown, the constant inquiry and thirst for knowledge, I’ve grown far more comfortable with being uncomfortable.  In the process, I have become more accepting of people who differ from myself, I have grown more compassionate toward myself and others, and I have become stronger through adversity with the help of my guardians and guides, as well as my own Higher Self.
My relationships with the spirits have also put me through a lot of shit, because when you serve the gods and have those relationships with the spirits, they are relationships.  They are generally founded on loving reciprocity, and they make demands on your time and attention just like human relationships.  Except those demands are often far more subtle than offerings of candles or incense or food and water on an altar every so often.  And as myth will attest, the gods and the fates both have a deeply ironic sense of humor and care little about human ideas of consent–so the demands often tend to come in the form of things just happening in your life in serendipitous but highly inconvenient ways.  For those of us who enjoy safety, familiarity, and comfort (hint: that’s all of us), this can be really obnoxious.  There’s never a convenient time to experience a major realignment in one’s life when called to the service of a patron deity.  There’s never a convenient time to have experiences that look and sound batshit crazy to most people because you’ve crossed the Abyss, been possessed by a spirit, or performed an intense rite of initiation like the Abramelin ritual, and then have to work on re-integrating yourself with the rest of society afterwards.  And yet somehow those big upheavals, those experiences of the Tower struck by lightning, give us the opportunity to rebuild stronger after having been levelled to our foundations.  Magic, much like life, is paradoxical like that.
We know that evolution only occurs when challenges present themselves.  In the case of biological evolution, those challenges are things like mating opportunities and food scarcity and predators and other things that shorten the reproductive lifespan.  In the span of an individual human life, the evolutionary challenges that present themselves include many more subtle challenges.  Ones of meaning and motivation; of joy and depression; and of existing within structurally misogynistic, racist, and financially exploitative systems within our parent culture.  Challenges of trauma and healing.  Challenges of alienation from our selves, and the self-discovery and self-acceptance that reconnects us to ourselves.
Insofar as magic invites a new set of both opportunities and challenges into the practitioner’s life, ones which will inevitably create both healing and new sources of traumatic experience, it’s hard for me to argue that real magic isn’t very much about finding ways to burn that pain for fuel in some respects.  Hopefully, by the grace of the gods, that fuel is food for the lamp of the Hidden Wisdom that illuminates our way forward in the darkness and gives us the hope to keep forging ahead.
For all of you out there who have survived this longest of winters, may the warmth of the spring bring you new life and opportunities for healing.  With the spirits at your back, you are never in this alone.  Keep hope alive, friends.  We’re all in this crazy journey together.

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