If for some reason you have not yet wandered through this delightful online exhibition on Yeats, you really ought to, if for no other reason to take a look at some of the occult paraphrenalia on display there. My favorite piece, tucked in the bottom of the Golden Dawn case in the Celtic Mystic section of the exhibit, is Yeats’s magic wand. In all its glory, it looks like nothing so much as a crudely painted chair leg or, perhaps, a bedpost. Yes, this is what the great poet of Irish nationalism, mystic and sage, brandished for his magical rites.
I don’t mean that admiration in an ironic way; there’s something humane, silly, and charming about the wand. It also makes clear to me just how quirky the Golden Dawn was. It talked a good game, no doubt, adopting all kinds of elitist jargon and expectations, but when it comes right down to it? Painted chair legs, baby.
That’s a useful corrective because the Golden Dawn and its various spin-offs get too much credit. They were well-located at the center of the British Empire, well-connected to the cultural elites, well-spoken, and wrote a ton. Yet, for all the positioning, all the writing, they weren’t really all that sophisticated. They were one of at least a thousand streams of occult experimentation in the late 19th and early 20th century, but because they spoke the language of empire, literally and figuratively, have had an influence well-beyond their merit.
It’s worth dwelling on that figurative language of empire, too. The Golden Dawn tradition has tended to frame its practice in terms of universality, of tapping into what is true across the board for magical practice, not just their own. They treated their terms (from the elemental to the kabbalistic) as massive files into which anything and everything could be stuffed (yeah, that’s not imperial). They didn’t have all that much experience with magic outside of their own work, but they seemed convinced that their terms would hold easily enough for all cases with just a little jiggering.
I’m obviously less optimistic, in part because while the Golden Dawn work has been useful to me, it has been so as intellectual ancilla to spiritual work that looks very little like theirs. To the extent that I do use it, I do so by bending and twisting it, making it more peculiar and specific than they intended (e.g., the coil discussions here). In larger part, though, it’s because when you take a good long work at it, you start to realize that the work really is peculiar, really is just another fascinating mish-mash of techniques fused into a coherent whole.
The centrality of visualization to the ceremonial current of the Golden Dawn is simply fascinating. It clearly has its roots and parallels in the popular fascination with the yogas of India and Tibet at the time, but has been integrated into the ars memoria of the Renaissance to create this imaginative and flexible system for modulating the Yesodic sphere. It can absorb quite disparate symbols and put them to use there and it is easy to see how it got people excited (and still does). For a bunch of people concerned that they had lost their ancestral magical traditions, this seemed like the perfect tool for reviving them. Just add the right mix in and voila, away you go.
Unfortunately, its peculiarity has been concealed by the habit of seeing the symbols taken up by that practice as always having had the magical significance they acquire through its use. Because the Yesodis sphere is malleable and does adjust to diverse symbols, magicians have been able to freely adopt symbols and explore thier integration at the Yesodic level. Their success in using those symbols magically has led to some significant confusions. First, where employing bona fide magical symbols of foreign systems, it has led more than few magicians to identify the work they are doing as identical to the work being done by those using those symbols magically in other contexts (Bertiaux’s gnostic voodoo has this in spades).
Second, where the symbols were not necessarily magical in the first place, it has led magicians to read history through a distorted lense. The transformation of alchemy from a practical science with to a spiritual one is a case in point. While alchemy had an archaic symbolic tradition, it was almost an entirely practical one, a code to protect its practices. Outside of an occasional poetic reverie, it wasn’t all that spiritual. The transformation of it into a codified system for manifesting changes in the spirit? Pretty much modern. That doesn’t make it ineffective, but it also doesn’t mean that folks like Newton were engaged in some kind of proto-Golden Dawn magical work.
If we are going to get closer to a genuine understanding of different practices and their functioning, we need to stop taking Eurocentric assumptions like this for granted. That means not having ready answers, but that’s a big plus when many of those ready answers are mediocre. We need to get messier before we get cleaner.
I’m picking on the Golden Dawn a bit, but I should make clear the same could be said of a many other intellectual currents. Theosophy and Jungian psychology suffer from similar issues, all related to their privileged positions within the imperial system. Things aren’t just coming together at the center of empire, though, and we should get excited about those, too. The system that pulls the wealth toward the center also sets the whole world churning and that brings people into contact all over. And where the magical people meet, cool things happen.