The Veil of Isis
A Player’s History of the Golden Dawn
The following information summarizes the founding of the Golden Dawn and the first few years of the group’s existence. It is intended for players, and represents what a typical Golden Dawn member would know when he or she joined the Dawn.
Origins of the Golden Dawn
In 1888, as the turn of the century loomed ever closer, spiritualism began to fall from favour with Victorian occultists. Initially their attentions had been drawn to the eastern mysticism of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. For a few, the normally closed doors of Freemasonry were briefly opened to allow them entry. But throughout the year rumors were circulating in both Theosophical and Masonic circles that an ancient, secret Rosicrucian Society existed in England.
The Rosicrucian Legend
Legend has it that Christian Rosenkreuz was born in 1378 in Austria and at the age of five was placed in a German monastery by his parents. Before he was sixteen he knew both Greek and Latin and he and another of his brethren were chosen to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. Unfortunately his companion died in Cyprus and the young monk continued to Damascus alone. There he learned of the wise men of Damcar in Arabia.
Now sixteen, Rosenkreuz set off to find them. He found a warm welcome awaiting him at Damcar, as if he had been expected. From these wise men he learned Arabic and translated Arabic texts into Latin, and also excelled in mathematics and the natural sciences. His studies completed at Damcar, he moved on to Egypt, then Fez, and finally Spain, at each place accumulating more secret knowledge. Finally he returned home to Germany.
Along with his monastery brethren he set about recording all that he had been taught. The Fraternity Of The Rosy Cross, as they were known, had to each choose a successor to whom the knowledge could be passed in the event of their death, in order to preserve both the knowledge and the Fraternity itself. When Rosenkreuz himself died in 1484 most of the writings of the Fraternity disappeared, along with the body of the founder.
A hundred and twenty years later, in 1604, alterations were being made to the building and a bronze tablet listing the members of the Fraternity was discovered. When the tablet was removed a vault was uncovered. The vault had seven sections, each divided into ten panels covered with arcane symbols and inscriptions. Set into each of the seven walls was an alcove containing a chest. Inside the chests were the original works of the founder. Illuminated from the centre, light shone down on a stone altar, beneath which lay the tomb of the undecayed body of Christian Rosenkreuz. His followers replaced the altar and resealed the vault.
In 1614, documents referred to as the “Rosicrucian Manifestos” appeared, by unknown authors claiming to be acting on behalf of the Rosicrucian fraternity. It is these documents that first described the above story. Societies who identified themselves as Rosicrucian in origin are first recorded in the early-to-mid 1700s. In 1888 there was already a group of occult-oriented Master Masons calling themselves the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (the Rosicrucian Society Of England), though despite their name they didn’t claim to be true Rosicrucians.
The Genesis Of The Golden Dawn
In 1886, Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a member of the Rosicrucian Society of England, had been told of a manuscript, written in cypher, containing Rosicrucian secrets. By August of the following year Westcott had obtained and translated the cypher. It contained the outlines for five Masonic-style grades and their accompanying rituals.
Within the leaves of the manuscript he also found the coded address in Germany of a Rosicrucian adept named Fraulein Sprengel. A flurry of correspondence then ensued, in which it was learned that Fraulein Sprengel was the head of a German Rosicrucian society.
Westcott received Fraulein Sprengel’s permission to found an English branch of Die Goldene Dammerung (the Golden Dawn). In October 1887 he invited fellow Mason Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers to join him and to help expand the rituals contained in the manuscript. The triumvirate was completed by Dr. W. R. Woodman, Supreme Magus of the British Rosicrucian Society. Woodman played little part in the founding of the Order, as he was known as a student of the more obscure elements of the Cabala and Masonic Symbolism. That the Order existed at all was due to the Westcott’s efforts alone. A coroner by profession, he was, by all accounts, a scholar and a gentleman with a true fascination for all things occult.
Westcott received a letter of authority to act on behalf of Fraulein Sprengel in January 1888 and on the first of March a warrant was signed creating Isis-Urania, Temple No. 3 of the Golden Dawn. Temple No. 1 was Sprengel’s own Licht, Liebe, Leben in Germany. Temple No. 2, Hermanoubis, was an earlier unsuccessful attempt to establish the Order in England. Hermanoubis Temple No. 2 had apparently been responsible for losing the cypher manuscript, lent to them by the renowned occultist Eliphas Levi. This temple had ceased to function due to the deaths of its officers.
Westcott’s Golden Dawn was less of a temple and more a university of the occult. It operated a degree system not dissimilar to that of Freemasonry. Unlike Freemasonry, however, the Golden Dawn admitted women as well as men. All initiates were to undertake a rigorous curriculum of occult theory and a series of exams in order to progress through the initial grades:
1 = 10 Zelator
Portal (this interim grade had no number)
These were the Outer Order grades taken from the cypher manuscript. These were followed by the Inner Order grades, whose rituals and teachings were created by Mathers.
5=6 Adeptus Minor
6=5 Adeptus Major
7=4 Adeptus Exemptus
Finally there were the grades of the Secret Chiefs, the mysterious true leaders of the Order who appeared only on the Astral Plane.
8=3 Magister Templi
The numbers associated with each grade follow a pattern, which should be clear if you look closely. From the Outer Order to the Inner Order, the first number runs from 0-10; the second number runs in the opposite direction. These numbers represent different branches of the Tree of Life (a concept found in Jewish Cabalism) and placed as they are in pairs, represent various attributes associated with the Tree of Life that apply to the various levels. The 1=10 level (Zelator), for instance, was tied to the element of earth (1) and to the divine center of human consciousness (10). This meant that the Zelator was a being of the mortal realm, but also acknowledged that said realm was still part of the greater divine whole. At the 10=1 level (Ipissimus), the reversal is complete: the Ipissimus is a dweller of a realm whose entire substance is that of the ethereal and the transcendent.
Each degree had its own unique ritual and each member had their own motto (usually in Latin) which was used instead of their name when conducting Order business. Members who reached the Inner Order took a new motto, and learned of the Secret Chiefs above them. As the visible Chiefs of the Order, Westcott (motto: Sapere Aude), Mathers (motto: ’S Rioghal Mo Dhream), and Woodman (motto: Magna Est Veritas Et Praevavebit) all held the 5=6 grade.
Fraulein Sprengel (Sapiens Dominabitur Astris) held the 7=4 as did Non Omnis Moriar, Deo Duce Comite Ferro and Vincit Omina Veritas — who were the Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn in England.
In 1888 a Neophyte could expect to be charged 10s for the privilege and charged an annual fee of 2s 6d. His ceremonial sash would also cost 2s 6d, and a copy of the 0=0 ritual cost 5s. He could also purchase a copy of the Order’s history for 2s. The ritual itself had Egyptian overtones and culminated in a pledge of secrecy and obedience at the risk of being struck down by a “Current of Will” from the Secret Chiefs. This effect was described as leaving its target “as if blasted by a lightning flash.”
Studies in elemental occult symbolism (alchemical and astrological), the Hebrew alphabet, the Cabalistic Tree of Life, the Tarot and geomancy ran through all of the Outer Order grades. The only practical magic taught was how to create a protective pentagram, which came as part of the Neophyte grade.
Those that were already students of the occult often found that the early grades taught them nothing they did not already know, but they soon progressed through the grades to those which brought fresh enlightenment.
The goal of the Golden Dawn was not to produce powerful sorcerers; rather, its goal was to foster a form of personal, spiritual development among the members. This development followed paths of hermetic magick and occult knowledge rather than, say, the paths of Christianity or the Golden Rule. Golden Dawn members were expected to be studious, sincere, and to possess the desire to improve their mind and their spirit through study and devotion.
At the end of March 1888 the Order numbered nine, meeting regularly at Mark Masons Hall, the venue of the Outer Order throughout the turbulent times to come. By the end of the year another dozen had joined from the Rosicrucian Society. In October of that year, in an attempt to stem the steady flow of her membership to the Golden Dawn, Madame Blavatsky formed the Esoterical Section of the Theosophical Society.
1888 also saw the founding of two more Golden Dawn Temples, the short-lived Osiris Temple no. 4 in Weston-Super-Mare and Horus Temple No. 5 in Bradford. The Order continued to grow throughout 1889, and 1890 saw a number of significant events for the Order and its future.
In 1889 Blavatsky banned any of her Theospohist members from holding membership in any other secret society. A minor rebellion ensued and she relented, forming a “Compact of Mutual Toleration” with the Golden Dawn, accepting Westcott as a member of her own Esoterical Section.
In March of 1890 the Inner Order was given a name: “The Order Of The Rose Of Ruby And The Cross Of Gold,” thereby underlining its Rosicrucian heritage.
August of 1890 brought grave news from Germany. Westcott received a letter notifying him of Fraulein Sprengel’s death. To make matters worse it appeared that she had been acting alone in supporting Westcott and the English branch of the Golden Dawn, against the wishes of her peers. The Secret Chiefs of Temple No. 1 withdrew their support and the Golden Dawn was cut off from the established Order. And thus the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn stood alone as the greatest magical society in England.
Education in the Golden Dawn
Because the Dawn was conceived as something of a magickal university, the dissemination of knowledge was an important part of Order activities. As a result, lectures were held with varying frequency. The lectures covered a wide range of magickal topics that were of interest to the Dawn. Typical topics would include astral projection, alchemy, the use of willpower, esoteric psychology, mysticism, scrying, and divination. Some lectures were only for Inner Order members, as they addressed teachings not given to the Outer Order.
No gameplay rules for the lectures is provided, as it is assumed that attendance at such lectures contributes to the investigator’s rise in Occult skill at each grade.
Knowledge Lectures: One ‘Knowledge Lecture’ was prepared for every grade in the Order. Each was essentially a lengthy essay discussing all the topics and knowledge that a member was expected to know to achieve the next grade. This served as a study guide of sorts, in preparation for the examination for each grade. (These weren’t lectures per se, as they were distributed in written form.)
Flying Rolls: Another written form of education was the practice of the Flying Rolls, which were essentially essays composed and mailed out to every Inner Order member; often they were transcriptions of Inner Order lectures. These began in 1892, and Dr. Westcott was mostly responsible for doing the Flying Rolls. Topics discussed included the usual magickal practices, but they also discussed the morality of magickal workings, translating occult ciphers, and drawing correct pentagrams with pencil and compass.