The Order of the Golden Dawn in The Irregulars

‘The Irregulars’ Explained: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Secret societies are notoriously difficult to illuminate. By their exclusive nature, collegial groups delving into the occult don’t leave behind much paperwork. Some secret societies, like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, managed to balance keen self-promotion and mystery. Their infamy and notoriety have kept the now-defunct Victorian-era group on the periphery of cultural knowledge, exemplified by the Order’s recent appearance in Netflix’s The Irregulars.

The Irregulars pits young investigators, colleagues to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson, not Sherlock Holmes, against supernatural foes and a fictionalised Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD.) A secret society of magicians on Netflix is one thing, but what about the actual clandestine community which inspired the fiction?

According to Merlin Coverley’s Occult London, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was either the product of an ancient secret revealed or a load of bunk designed to compete with other mystic societies popping up around London. Formed sometime around 1888 by Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, Macgregor Mathers, and Dr. W. Wynn Westcott, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn immediately attracted London luminaries from W.B. Yeats to Aleister Crowley. The group arrived as the natural successor to the mid-19th century Spiritualist Movement and organisations like Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.

But what was it that attracted a mix of Theosophists and mystic Christians to the U.K.’s newest occult society? What was it that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn could offer and deliver? Simple, the group could offer men and women access to and mastery of magic. In Making Magic Modern, Allison Butler wrote that drew “upon aspects of traditional Western magic and reformulating a Renaissance synthesis of cabalistic magic.”

According to Charles A. Coulombe in Hermetic Imagination: The Effect of The Golden Dawn on Fantasy Literature, the founders saw the organization as a “complete academy of occult knowledge.” The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, said Coulombe, introduced “tarot, geomancy, astrology, alchemy,” as well as skrying, sigil creation, and demon summoning.

A potent and heady mix of skills could be had by simply committing to the Order’s hierarchical and occult structure. Reportedly based on the Kabalistic idea of sephirot, or the multi-tiered configuration borrowed from Kabbalistic “Tree of Life,” the mysterious organisation briefly thrived as London’s trendiest secret society. While they attracted many leading names from around the U.K., like its best-known alumnus Yeats and Crowley, horror scribe Arthur Machen joined in 1898. According to Machen, his exposure to the dark arts brought fiction to life.

The Irregulars Order of the Golden Dawn

Coulombe noted that in a letter to a French authorial friend, Machen reported after penning The Great God Pan and The White Powder, he could never imagine “such strange things had ever happened in real life, or could ever have happened.” However, while at the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Machen claimed he had experienced things “which have entirely changed my point of view in these matters… I believe we are living in a world of the greatest mystery full of unsuspected and quite astonishing things.”

Machen’s powerful testimony to the knowledge and lessons teeming within the Order should have ensured future decades of success. Except, that is not what happened. By 1900, membership had peaked, and the Order began its decline. Within three years, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was no more. As most intense collegial orders rarely last long, the organisation’s members either lost interest, became involved in personality clashes, or simply were drawn to new occult organizations that promised answers to ever greater mysteries and access to significant power. Regardless of what the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn did or didn’t do inside its temple wall, its legacy is its enduring power to inspire and intrigue creators and the public over 120 years later.

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