Friday, August 7, 2009

Life Beyond the Golden Dawn

The Golden Dawn, that venerable organization whose secret initiations, rituals, practices and articles became the legacy of modern western occultism, is sincerely the most lauded and celebrated tradition in our time. Yet once this cache of secret lore was published and made available to the general public, first by Aleister Crowley, then Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune and numerous others, it became a part of the occult foundation of the western world. That legacy was reworked and extended with much additional lore, although faithfully built on the existing foundation. All of western occultism owes this organization a great debt of gratitude and respect.

Nearly everyone who is practicing western occultism has at one time or another studied this material or read books that were written by those who studied or practiced it. Even though it was the intention of the original founders of this semi secret order that this lore remain confidential, we are all better occultists for its revelation and extensive public evolution in print and in the teachings of active practitioners. This is especially true for anyone who has aspired to practice ritual or ceremonial magick in the Western Mystery Tradition. Such students often begin with the Golden Dawn corpus and then expand beyond that to creative speculation and experimentation. So we should consider that such individuals as S. L. MacGregor Mathers and William Wynn Westcott were far ahead of their time, and that they assisted in creating a tradition of occultism that continues to influence students and engage potential practitioners of magic to this day. That being said, we should first understand the nature of the specific magical lore of the Golden Dawn and its contribution to ritual and ceremonial magic. To do this we must turn to a period of time and its lore that much predated the Golden Dawn.

If one examines the ritual lore of the old grimoires, such as the Key of Solomon and the Lemegaton, one will find therein a magical system of Elemental, Planetary, Theurgic and Goetic ceremonial magic. Much of the basic practices of the ceremonial magician are omitted, since they are assumed to be known by the practitioner. The processes of self purification, atonement, fasting and the pious engagement of one’s religious foundation were all well known and basically assumed. Whether one was Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant Christian or Jew, the entire spiritual discipline of a practicing magician incorporated the religion that one was born into. All of the rites of pious self purification and spiritual engagement were part of the normal preoccupations of lay persons and clergy. No one was ignorant of these most important spiritual practices, and so they were not part of the written practices contained in the grimoires, unless there were special and ancillary practices that the practitioner needed to perform.

The religious faith and beliefs of the average person in those times were far more powerful than they are at present, even amongst the most orthodox and conservative religious individuals today. In those times, one assumed that if angels or demons were called, that they would invariably appear, especially if one were foolish enough to call upon the devil and his minions. Simply stepping into a world of extra piety and fervent religious practice is all that was required of an individual to prepare himself for the supernatural apparitions of ceremonial magic. One did not need to learn to see into the spirit world, assume a trance state or receive some kind of special initiation in order to be able to traffic with the spirit world. It was assumed to be out there, just as the material world was out there.

Unfortunately, we can no longer be as materially naive or as blindly faithful as our ancestors were five hundred or more years ago. For us the spirit world isn’t just out there, it can only be perceived or apprehended through a rigorous process of meditation, trance induction and the maintenance of powerful altered states of consciousness. Without these aids, we are locked into a mundane world that seems to be filtered of the exceptional and the preternatural, allowing our senses to only see what is average and natural. This doesn’t mean that we can’t at times sense something that is beyond our senses, it just means that under ordinary circumstances, we don’t typically see paranormal phenomena. Since these various practices were very much a part of the Golden Dawn regimen, and that Crowley added classical yogic techniques to this repertoire, we can assume that the members of the Golden Dawn saw the importance of learning how to acquire altered states of consciousness, too.

This because people’s basic level of faith and belief had become potently influenced by secularism, science and rationalism. Unlike our forebears, we don’t typically see fairies, earth spirits, demons and angels and such. If we see anything at all, it’s usually UFOs or perhaps Jesus’ face in a cereal bowl. Our rationalism has been reinforced by hand held video phones and digital cameras, which usually don’t capture such phenomena or show it to be illusory. Of course those who profess to seeing such things with or without some kind of visual proof are typically dismissed as incredulous fools or individuals who misinterpreted what they saw. The mundane world lacks any intersection with the paranormal world, unless one is rigorously trained to see it and happens to be in an altered state of consciousness when something paranormal occurs. The spirit world for the mass of humanity has become very subtle, almost invisible, inhabiting the same space as our material and mundane world, but incapable of being grasped or realized by anyone unless done with complete deliberation.

When we examine the practices of the traditional Shaman, we note that much time is spent learning to master altered states of consciousness, but that average folk in such societies admit to having paranormal experiences as a matter of their everyday lives. To be a specialist requires special training, and the Shamic training is so rigorous that some don’t even survive the transition. With this fact in mind, it would seem that there would be two paths for the magician of the late middle ages - the specialist and the intellectual dilettante. The old grimoires would not have differentiated between these two individuals. We could assume that the dilettante would have experienced the phenomena of spiritual manifestation and magic without a specialized training. However, such training would have produced a master magician compared to the average individual who just sought to bend fate with magic to obtain a quick fortune. We might assume that such a specialized training would have existed, since within the monasteries such rigorous practices were routine, and some of them were also part of popular knowledge.

However, specific practices, such as attaining clairvoyant sight, projecting oneself into the world of spirit, and learning to communicate intimately with spirits would have required an expertise that would not have been available to the public. So the true seeker of magical mastery in those times would have had to learn such a discipline from an expert. Yet the average person could sense supernatural good and evil as a matter of course, since the Church and the Synagogue would have inculcated this sensibility into its congregants. This being the case, then some practices outlined in the old grimoires would have required some kind of specialized training, others would have not required it. An examination of the Book of Abramelin, a supposed 15th century grimoire, is a case in point. All that is required of the adherent is an extreme piety that is subjected to eighteen months of an ordeal of self purification and atonement. Such a long and arduous ordeal would have undoubtably produced the expected results, and would have been something that the typical pious religious man could have been expected to accomplish. That is probably no longer the case, and the later adaptation of this ordeal, as found in Crowley’s Liber Samekh is a case in point. To this simple ordeal he added his own variation of the Golden Dawn rite of the Invocation of the Bornless One to give it more potency, and he greatly shortened the duration.

So as we can see, in the present time, the basic practices and the regimen of yogic exercises and trance techniques are the foundation upon which all ritual and ceremonial magic are performed. One learns to meditate, visualize, use various systems of divination and incorporate the Qabbalah into a methodology of assuming altered states of consciousness. To this are added the yogic practices of asana, prana-yama, mantra and mandala. This foundation is practiced and mastered until it is automatic, allowing the practitioner a methodology for immediately assuming an altered state of consciousness through which to experience the numinous world of magic, spirits and the inner planes.

The Golden Dawn also passed on to us techniques for purifying the temple space, inviting or opening it to subtle spiritual influences, exorcizing or invoking spirits, warding the self, aligning the self, and generating a powerful energy field for healing and protection. These techniques were found in the rituals of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, the Lesser Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram, the Lesser Hexagram ritual, the Qabbalistic Cross, the Middle Pillar and the ritual of the Rose Cross.

In addition, there were was a ritual used to project the four Elements, such as the Superior Pentagram rite, and a ritual used to project the seven planets, such as the Superior Hexagram rite. Added to this was a ritual mechanism for determining the signs of the Zodiac, which often was a combination of Element and Ruling Planet, and one had the whole spectrum of ceremonies used in the practice of magic.

There were also techniques of invoking planetary angels, such as Crowley’s invocation of Bartzabel, an angelic spirit of Mars, as published in the Equinox, volume I, number IX (p. 119). Beyond this lore were the old grimoires themselves, and the Golden Dawn members passed around manuscript translations of the Key of Solomon, the Lemegaton-Goetia, Book of Abramelin, and the Grimoire Armadel. Some members made use of the Greater and Lesser Key of Solomon, and a few others attempted the ordeal of the Book of Abramelin, but most of this additional lore was fairly beyond their abilities to use and incorporate.

One might ask why this additional lore didn’t just neatly fit into the Golden Dawn ritual lore? The obvious answer is that Mathers and others did not have the tools or the understanding of such books, even though they were fairly well translated and annotated. We may not have the tools today to understand them, even though there has been a great deal of historical analysis recently performed. It is also true that the Golden Dawn system was for the most part very different than the magic lore of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, since it was developed using occult principles and teachings that were modern. Times had irrevocably changed, and perhaps had Mathers or Crowley sufficient time and motivation they may have wed the two systems together, but this was not to be. One could even conceivably argue that the two systems of magic are incompatible, particularly since the magic of the old grimoires requires a deep and profound faith in orthodox religious tenets that can no longer be supported or believed in by anyone alive in the modern western world.

It is my opinion that there is a great gap between the beliefs and perceptions of the average modern individual and someone living five hundred years ago. That gap makes the grimoires of the previous epoch unworkable. We can extract out parts of the ritual lore of the old grimoires, or use the barbarous words of invocation, sigils, characters, talismans, amulets and tools, and plug these into modern practices and rituals, and they will work quite well. However, one can’t take the old grimoires and use them as is, since we’re no longer the same people with the same beliefs and culture that existed in those times. We require the use of an extreme regimen of practices, producing powerful altered states of consciousness, just to apprehend the paranormal world. We also need to use ritual structures and symbolism that makes sense to us in our present post modern times. These are the limitations in regards to the lore of the old grimoires, but these are also our opportunities to expropriate and incorporate various lore, elegantly crafted together with modern ideas and artistic sensibilities, to fashion a new magic for a New Age.

The Golden Dawn lore is our admitted and even admired foundation, but it is incomplete when compared to what the magicians of the previous epoch were capable of achieving. So we are now dedicated to building and crafting a new magical lore, based on what has been done, both in the previous two centuries, and inserting old designs and lore from the old grimoires to give our new magic an aesthetic appeal and sense of timeless antiquity. However, the magic that we perform today is not the original magic of the Golden Dawn, nor is it anything like the magic of the late Middle Ages. It is a new magic most appropriate and fitting to the early twenty-first century, and a marvelous part of the post modern occult world that we live in.

Frater Barrabbas Tiresius


  1. Great stuff. I look forward to reading where you will take it from here. Do you have a specific plan to develop a system of magick that will allow a 21st century magician to overcome his innate skepticism and experience the paranormal universe in a way comparable to the magicians of old? Do you think this is possible, or is the goal of the "average" modern magician something altogether else?

  2. Yes - I have plan, a complete system of magick that deals with the modern individual and their skepticism. The key to experiencing the paranormal world is deep trance states and intense altered states of consciousness. These forms are deliberately assumed as opposed to the magician of the previous epoch who was able to base everything on his deep seated piety. Nothing is assumed today. The goal for modern magicians is union with Deity, and then acting as an avatar to that Godhead to change the self and the world. The goal for magic in the previous epoch was to accumulate God's favor in this world as wealth and power. Transformation and enlightenment is now the goal for both mysticism and magic.

  3. I've often wondered why so many modern magicians simply repeat what the Golden Dawn did, rather than trying to forge new paths. Any magician will tell you that the Qabalah is constantly evolving, so why not magic itself? S

  4. Magicians usually study the Golden Dawn because that represents the beginning of the modern magical movement - prior to that, the tradition of magic was dominated by the old grimoires. However, it's up to each and every practicing magician to develop their own magical tradition, and evolve beyond the Golden Dawn.