The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded 1888 by William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925), Samuel Liddell Mathers (1854-1918) – better known as MacGregor Mathers, and the main controlling force in the GD – and William R Woodman. The purpose of the order was the study of occult science and Magic, especially as laid down by Hebrew doctrine; it drew heavily from Rosicrucianism. Many of its members were also either active or lapsed Theosophists, and likely the GD was established to provide a body for the study of the Western alchemical tradition (see Alchemy) in the same way that Theosophy drew upon Eastern wisdom. By a process of study and examination it was possible for initiates to rise through a series of Grades to the level of Philosophus in the First Order. Only a few were allowed through to the Second Order, whose members were known as Adepts. The first temple opened in London in March 1888, and was followed by temples in Bradford, Weston-super-Mare, Edinburgh and Paris. The GD later spread to the USA.
The GD proper lasted only until 1902. Dr Robert Felkin (1858-1922), by then the Imperator of the London Temple, renamed the GD the Order of the Stella Matutina, but another leading member, A E Waite, established his own Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, which lasted until 1914. The original GD continued to function through the Stella Matutina and other temples until 1972, although various offshoots still exist.
The GD attracted a number of members with literary interests. Most notorious was Aleister Crowley, who joined in 1898 and contributed to its initial collapse. Probably the best-known member was W B Yeats, who was not only an Adept but held the post of Imperator 1900-1902. Little of Yeats's writings directly reflect his experiences in the GD, although most of his poetry and tales produced during the 1890s reflect his joint interests in the GD and Theosophy, particularly some of the stories in The Secret Rose (coll 1897). John William Brodie-Innes (1848-1923), a Scottish lawyer, was an active member from the time he founded the Edinburgh Temple in 1894 until his death. He was also a student of Folklore and witchcraft; his four occult novels focus more on those subjects than on the GD, although there is some interesting background in Old as the World (1909) and For the Soul of a Witch (1910).
The writer who best expressed the GD beliefs in his fiction was Algernon Blackwood, who joined in 1900 and later shifted to Waite's Order. Several of Blackwood's early stories utilize GD teachings, such as "With Intent to Steal" (1906), but the two most detailed expositions arising from his studies in the GD are the stories in John Silence (coll 1908) and especially The Human Chord (1910), which explores in detail the effects of harnessing the power of the Word (see Magic Words). It is quite likely that both M.L.W., the original of John Silence, and Richard Skale, the clergyman in The Human Chord, are based on unidentified members of the GD. It is also probable that some of the episodes described in Julius LeVallon (1916) are drawn from Blackwood's GD experiences.
Arthur Machen joined the GD in 1899, but probably soon lost interest. Like Blackwood, he was more concerned with the mystical aspects of the supernatural, in particular the Grail legend, than in hermeticism. Most of his more creative Supernatural Fiction had been produced before he joined the GD, though it is possible that "The White People" (1904) utilized some of the impressions arising from his GD studies, while The Hill of Dreams (1907) draws some autobiographical parallels with his researches.
A E Waite had already produced his first fiction, Prince Starbeam (1889), before he joined the GD in 1891 and neither this nor The Golden Stairs (coll 1893) draw especially upon GD teachings, although his subsequent mystical beliefs did figure in his revision of these books as The Quest of the Golden Stairs (fixup 1927). The fiction of Evelyn Underhill, a member of Waite's later Order, is likewise too mystical and obscure to throw much light on the GD. The last major writer to emerge from the GD was Dion Fortune, who joined the revived Order in 1919 and then established her own Fraternity of the Inner Light in 1922. All of her fiction centres on her occult studies, and her Occult Detective, Dr Taverner, is based on an amalgam of characters including GD Adepts.
Other members of interest include Violet Tweedale (1862-1936), who produced a few occult novels plus some saccharine romances and a number of books about Ghosts and psychic research, Maude Gonne, the actress Florence Farr and, perhaps surprisingly, the wife of Oscar Wilde, Constance Lloyd, who was one of the earliest members. Authors associated but not in fact members were Bram Stoker, Sax Rohmer and Arthur Conan Doyle. Both William Sharp (see Fiona MacLeod) and E Nesbit had connections with GD initiates. Later writers who drew upon their knowledge of the GD (often secondhand) were Dennis Wheatley and Charles Williams. [MA]
further reading: The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972; rev 1985) by Ellic Howe; Yeats's Golden Dawn (1974) by G M Harper; Sword of Wisdom, MacGregor Mathers and The Golden Dawn (1975) by Ithell Colquhoun; The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians (1983) by R A Gilbert.