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The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Origins of Wicca

Owen Davies—

As cheap printed magic books swirled around the world, in late 19th-century Britain a small group of middle-class men and women created a new secret, magic movement in the form of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, dedicated to Renaissance forms of mystical alchemy and kabbalah, as well as astrology, tarot, and geomancy. Their understanding was garnered from manuscripts and early-modern printed texts, and supplemented by the magical knowledge recently unlocked through archaeological discoveries from the ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic worlds. The founders of the Golden Dawn movement were Freemasons, and the hierarchical structure of the Order and its initiations were based on masonic organizational principles. While never numbering more than a few hundred, the Order attracted influential figures in the artistic world, such as the Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865–1939). Furthermore, the magic books published by some of its members would go on to inspire the imaginations of many artists, musicians, writers, and film makers across the Western world right up to the present day.

Samuel Liddell Mathers (1854–1918), one of the masonic founders of the Golden Dawn, published the first English print edition of the Key or Clavicule of Solomone. He pieced it together from several manuscripts in different languages, mostly 17th-century examples held in the British Library, which, in turn, borrowed from late medieval grimoires of spirit conjuration. First published in 1889, it has been through dozens of editions and is still in print today. In typically outrageous fashion, De Laurence also published an American edition in 1914 without permission, ensuring that the book reached a much wider and culturally diverse international readership through his catalogs than Mathers intended. Mathers produced another translation the following decade, this time of The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, a French manuscript from around 1700 kept in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, and supposedly the work of a medieval Egyptian adept. While Mathers practiced ritual magic with a passion, another leading member of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942), was far more interested in Christian mysticism. Mathers and Waite were the chalk and cheese of the Golden Dawn, and Waite dismissed Mather’s publications as arid material for occult insight.

Waite’s contribution to the modern imagination lies in the publication of the Rider Waite tarot deck, illustrated by fellow Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951), and which is the most widely used tarot pack today. He was also famed for his compendious collection of conjurations, the Book of Black Magic and of Pacts (1898). Subsequently published in a cheaper edition with the title, The Book of Ceremonial Magic, this was the largest compilation of conjuration rituals ever published in English, with Waite drawing upon the likes of the pseudo-Agrippa Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy and French cheap print grimoires such as the Grand Grimoire, Dragon Rouge, and Grimoire du Pape Honorius. For Waite, such books were magical trash and his purpose for printing their contents was to show their “absurd” and “iniquitous” nature. Of course, as a prolific author of books on mysticism and alchemy, Waite was also looking to make a bit of money.

The notorious Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was another important figure publishing old magic during this early 20th-century Magical Revival. As a youthful member of the Golden Dawn, Crowley was mentored by Mathers but both were in the possession of big egos, and they eventually fell out. Crowley went on to cofound his own ceremonial magic group the A∴A∴, also known as the Argenteum Astrum. As an act of revenge after their argument, Crowley published one of Mather’s transcribed manuscripts without permission—this time a 17-century grimoire held in the British Library that included a list of spirits, parts of which were evidently copied from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie. Although hardly a bestseller, The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King (1904) injected the word “goetia”—meaning the summoning of spirits—into the creative consciousness.

One of those inspired by all these works was a former colonial civil servant named Gerald Gardner (1884–1964). He claimed to have been initiated into a secret, pagan English witch cult that had survived centuries of persecution. According to Gardner’s story, he was given the ancient rituals and knowledge of the coven in the form of an old manuscript called the Book of Shadows. This became the founding text of his new pagan religion, known as Wicca. It was the sort of discovery story seen many times before in the history of grimoires. The physical book that he subsequently showed to his coven members was proven to have borrowed content from both Mathers’ Key of Solomon and Crowley’s rituals. The Book of Shadows that came to be used widely by Wiccans was a re-write by the High Priestess of Gardner’s coven, Doreen Valiente (1922–1999). She set about cutting out what she called the “Crowleyanity,” and added her own distinctive creative content. Several decades on from the founding of Wicca, contemporary Paganism would develop into diverse strands, and the idea of the solitary practitioner grew stronger and stronger. Rather than be tied to coven hierarchies and single texts, modern witches began to create their own Books of Shadows, inventing their own rituals and spells from published books of magic, both old and new.

From Art of the Grimoire: An Illustrated History of Magic Books and Spells by Owen Davies. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Owen Davies is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and president of the Folklore Society. He is the author of numerous books on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine.

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