The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn: Origins and Overview
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, during the height of its power in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was a very influential group. The group shaped politics and social strata, and it is directly responsible for huge portions of modern new age theory, ranging from the founding principles of Wicca to the current layout of tarot cards that people buy and use to this day. However, to truly understand what the Golden Dawn was, you need to take a step back in time to when it was made and to take a hard look at the state of affairs at the time.
Travel back 100 and some years to the close of the 19th century. Europe and the United States are both caught up in a craze of mysticism and an obsession with the occult that leads to the meteoric rise of both stage magicians as well as seances, fortune telling and a resurrection of and interest in foreign religions and ancient myths. This is the craze that would lead Harry Houdini to travel around like a one man investigation squad debunking mystics, and which would help create the memorable product Ouija (which was designed explicitly to cash in on those who wanted to be a part of the mystical, including the made up, "ancient" origin of the board). Onto this scene comes Dr. William Westcott, Dr. Wiliam Woodman and Samuel Mathers.
All three of these auspicious, founding members were Freemasons. Specifically they were members of the Rosicrucian Society in London. It was through this position that the men came into possession of what's called the Cipher Manuscripts. These manuscripts, allegedly, form part of the basis of a much older secret society that was translated as the "Golden Dawn." These is some suspicion that these documents (it was asserted they were very old but they were likely nowhere near as ancient as the founders claimed), and that the original benefactor a woman named Fraulein Sprengel (who was supposedly an adept from another Rosicrucian Society in Germany) were forged to try and lend credibility to the idea of rebuilding an ancient society that was mentioned in a fragment found in a Freemason scholar's papers after his demise.
However, no matter how shaky it was the foundation was laid and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was created in the year 1888. This original lodge, founded in London, was not the image of a strange, occult society. Rather it was a place for philosophy, with only minor rituals like banishing for evil spirits and influences being taught. This area was called the Outer Order, or the First Order. Four years later, in 1892 many adepts who had completed courses of occult study (including the Cipher Manuscripts) formed the Inner Order, or the Second Order. It was considered more exclusive, more prestigious, and it showed that a member had truly devoted him or herself to the study and ideals the Golden Dawn was trying to embody (namely occut scholarship and mystical prowess). The development of this curriculum is generally ascribed to Mathers, though there is speculation as to whether he received instructions from more mysterious Rosicrucians in Germany, secret astral masters, or if he just composed it himself using Freemasonry as the basis for the ritual and combining it with elements of the Jewish magical system Kabbalah.
The Golden Dawn grew in popularity and influence, collecting highly placed people and occult philosophers of its time. Membership included famous persons like William Butler Yeats and the author Oscar Wilde. The group also created its own celebrities like the infamous Aleister Crowley (who often called himself the Beast, or 666), who is credited with large contributions to both occult philosophy as well as to moral bankruptcy (he was sometimes referred to as the wickedest man in the world). Crowley was inducted in 1898, and during the fruit of the Golden Dawn's influence there were branches in England and France, as well as scatterings of groups across Europe and even America.
The new century dawned with in-fighting becoming very prevalent among members of the Second Order. The original Golden Dawn ceased to exist by 1903, and the splinter groups where members had gone to show political support (like Stella Matutina or "Morning Star" which may or may not be a reference to the biblical Lucifer) were begnning to take the place of the original, mother group. While occult interest continued, interest in the Golden Dawn waned until 1914 when Crowley had many of the rituals published. This of course brought renewed interest, and more splinter groups formed up around the publicized rituals.
While the original Golden Dawn was dead, new groups slid on the old mantle and several claimed undiluted authenticity, though most of the original chapters were gone by WWII. The publication of the rites and rituals of the group though played heavily into the new age movement of the 1960s, which gave us Wicca, publicized Asatru, and which lead to the publication of the Satanic Bible and modern Satanism as created by Anton LaVey. These of course would go on to lay further ground work for future events like the inverse reaction that was the rise of the religious right and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. The Hermetic Order of the Golen Dawn was a big rock thrown into a small pond, and the ripples of the group can be picked out of history, and the chain reactions are still visible to this very day. Almost everything you know about the occult, from the term magick (which is attributed to Crowley) to the made-up demon prince Baphomet (discussed in Golden Dawn circles and in other prominent places), has the philosophical fingerprints of this now dead order.
"The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn," by Anonymous at New Age Spirituality
"Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn," by Anonymous at The Mystica