An important, and convenient first, step to determining the nature of a thing is to look as its origins. Whether, in the case of a state or a work of art, the origin is a definite historical fact or is, in the case of most religious organizations
old enough to have any following at all, does not matter as much, for both types of origins tell us about the entity. In the case of the former, factual, origin account we are told what informed and affected the entity, what pressures caused it to come into existence. In the case of the latter, apocryphal
, tale we are told what the organization because, what traits it ascribed to itself and presented to itself and others as the true state of its nature. Indeed, most origin stories are a mixture of both, the eventual story taking those elements that most define it, elaborating on certain points and playing down others until the tale matches the told. One might suspect that an organization as recent in history as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, just barely a century old, would have very little in the way of untruth to cloud its origin, especially in this age of historical record and documentation. However there are many tales of origin for the Golden Dawn
to be found. Most are variations on a theme, but some of these variations are quite significant indeed.
The basic story of the Golden Dawn’s founding goes something like this: in 1887 William Wynn Wescott, a then-member of a Masonic Society in London called the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, got his hands on a manuscript written in some sort of cipher. Deciphering the manuscript, Wescott found it to contain many mystical rituals and a friend of his and also-member of the Societas Rosicruciana Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers , organized the rituals into some sort of system. The manuscript also contained the address of one Anna Sprengel, who turned out to be a high level Rosicrucian (more on the Rosicrucians later, suffice it to say Rosicrucianism was another ritualistic magical system that had been present in Europe for quite some time prior to the founding of the Golden Dawn). Corresponding with Sprengel, Wescott received additional rituals and a charter to found the Isis-Uriana Temple, the first temple of the Goldene Dämmerung, or the Golden Dawn. This, however, is only the basic story and there are many variations on it. In one source the source of the manuscript is given as a non-member of the Societas Rosicruciana, one Reverend A.F.A. Woodford, who had brought the manuscript with him from a group to which he had previously belonged. In another it is put forth that Wescott simply found the texts in a bookstall. In his book The Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie, a student of Aleister Crowley (a prominent member of the Golden Dawn towards its end who was instrumental in its fragmentation and who is responsible for much dissemination of Golden Dawn teachings, colored by his own mystical bent), addressed some of these as well as more possibilities, such as the manuscript’s placement in the library of the Societas Rosicruciana itself. However, if these seem minor variations, other stories revealed within the aforementioned sources claim that the cipher manuscript itself did not exists or was fabricated and some say that even Sprengel was an invention of Wescott’s in order to legitimate his own systems.
Having enumerated the variations on the origin story, we can now look at it, analyze it in order to see what sort of organization such a beginning points to. It seems that in most of these stories the Cypher Manuscript, whatever its origins, seems to play a central role, transmitting both the practical aspects of ritual as well as a link to some sort of living tradition in the form of Anna Sprengel. Also, the manuscript is always in some sort of cipher, making it a mystery that must be unraveled. Looking at the various different origins given for the manuscript gives us further information; sometimes it is found among the belongings of another ‘magical’ organization, sometimes it is transmitted down, carried from an older organization by a former member of that organization, and sometimes it is simply found somewhere like a bookstall.
Though it is this last story of the simple happening upon of the cipher text in a bookstall that appears least likely of all, it also gives significant clues as to how exactly to look at the Golden Dawn as an organization; as stated before, even the most apocryphal tales tell us something of the teller, for it is these tales that, despite their apparent falsehood and implausibility, have managed to be preserved rather than cast aside. It is these tales that tell something of how the teller regards the told. In the case of the bookstall origin, what we are being told is, at root, a story about Truth being found in a very mundane and ordinary place, completely by chance. What’s more, we are being told a tale of someone managing to find in something apparently completely ordinary something that is, in reality, most extraordinary. This mood is found, to one degree or another, in most of the other origin stories as well; even when the manuscript comes from an older organization, that organization is either seemingly unaware and unable to recognize the great truth which it has, in the case of the MS’s placement in the Societa Rosicruciana library, or that organization was ultimately not able to successfully use it, in the case of the MS’s having come from the defunct prior magical organization. Inherent in all of these origin stories is the notion that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is somehow special; that its members are set apart from others, from both the groups from which they came as well as society at large.