My partner has had a copy of Alison Butler’s Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition lying about the place for a few weeks. I’ve cracked it open and start reading at random; so far, it has always been interesting. Besides thinking that the book would have sounded sexier had the title and subtitle been transposed, it is pretty much all I could ask for from a scholarly book on the matter. It embeds the Golden Dawn in a broader historical horizon and it does so with frequent appeal to biographical detail.
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.