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Women of the Golden Dawn

Women of the Golden Dawn
They Transformed Western Occultism - and the Politics,
Art, and Culture of their time.
 

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By Mary K. Greer

Our thanks to Mary K. Greer for granting us permission to post this article, 
which was originally published in Gnosis No. 21, Fall 1991.



The final two decades of the nineteenth century in England represented the last impulse of an era. The morals and ideals of the Victorian Age were deeply implanted in people’s consciousness. Decent women lived at home and were chaperoned when they went out; they were barely educated, and rarely did outside work unless they had to. It was a world in which a woman was expected to marry, renounce all self-interest, and dedicate herself to her family.

This was not the case for four women in particular: Florence Farr, a well-known actress; Annie Horniman, a wealthy heiress who built two world-renowned theaters; Maud Gonne, an aristocratic revolutionary and international spy who incited riots with her inflammatory speeches; and Moina Bergson Mathers, an innovative artist who also channeled inner teachings from unseen Secret Chiefs. They worked together in the 1890s as magicians and members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

This secret organization was founded in London in the 1880s by three Rosicrucian Masons: W. Wynn Westcott, Dr. William Robert Woodman, and S. L. MacGregor Mathers. It was unique in that for the first time both men and women were invited to work together as equals in magical ceremonies. The purpose of the Golden Dawn was to evoke angels, archangels, gods, and goddesses, as well as elemental spirits, in order to test, purify, and exalt the individual’s spiritual nature so as to unify it with the “Higher Genius.” From thence the members would be brought into the light of a new dawn. In other words, these men and women sought personal alchemical transmutation of their base matter into spiritual “gold.”

While the history of the Golden Dawn is well-documented and several of its male members became famous, little credit is given to their female counterparts. And yet, when one reads the original documents between the lines, these four women stand out as the true heart and soul of the Order. It was their imaginative skills, determination, and belief in what they were doing that worked some kind of great magic and created change in the world around them.

While exceptionally talented in their own fields, these women were also highly clairvoyant. They sought information from the astral and inner planes through divination, astrology, and clairvoyant visioning, and used it to play major roles in the development of the magic, literature, and politics of their time.

Examining the lives of these four Golden Dawn women yields interesting similarities. Two of them had mothers who died when their daughters were young, and fathers who followed suit not much later. The other two rebelled early and became alienated from their families. As a result, each was afforded unusual freedom to make her own way in the world. Although three of them married, none of these marriages was conventional and two of the women soon sued for divorce. Despite the prevailing emphasis on the maternal instinct, only one bore children, two out of three of them illegitimate.

These four women all rebelled in their own ways against Victorian social expectations and against the people and forces that tried to mold them. Extremely rare for their time, they were among the first examples of the heralded “new woman.” But, as so often happens in “his-story,” it is the men in their lives who are better known to us; three of them won Nobel Prizes.  

Moina Mathers
  Macgregor Mathers
Moina Bergson Mathers


I am looking at two old photographs and suddenly it is London, 1887. Twenty-two-year-old art student Mina Bergson, a cloud of unruly dark hair wildly escaping the clasp that holds it, turns from her pencil study of an Egyptian pharaoh in the British Museum to discover a man staring at her. His determined, aristocratic air, and tall, obviously well-muscled body, seem more fitted to a parade ground than to this mausoleum of the dead. His wide-spaced eyes are severe, as if he could actually see the cold pride and hauteur of the pharaoh slowly but inevitably crumbling to dust; could it be himself he sees, dispassionately, remorselessly?

Mina shakes herself and tries to return to her sketch, but the man’s eyes won’t let her. Although his face remains white and still, dark shapes form around him, coalescing into a pharaonic wig crowned by a ring of three stars. His hands are crossed on what could only be the shadowy hilt of a gigantic sword layered with jewels and Celtic knots worked in gold. “I won’t marry him,” Mina murmurs to herself, surprised by the absurdity of the thought. Yet in a few months she becomes the first initiate of his new magical order, celebrating its inauguration and maiden neophyte ceremony simultaneously with her twenty-third birthday. She agrees just one year later to a spiritual marriage that will never be physically consummated, and so commences a life of total devotion in which her husband, MacGregor Mathers, is the mystic master and she, the priestess of Isis. [1]

Mina Bergson was born to orthodox Jewish parents in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1865. Her father, a professor of music, had moved around Europe teaching piano and attempting to escape the prevailing anti-Semitism. After leaving one son, Henri, in Paris to be educated by special scholarship, the family finally settled in England, where they lived on the genteel edge of poverty. Nevertheless they found the funds for Mina to study at the Slade School of Art from 1880 to 1886. She spent much of her time at the British Museum drawing and communing with Egyptian art and artifacts. When she met MacGregor Mathers in 1887, he had just published his first work, a translation of Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Unveiled. Mathers, along with two other members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, had recently translated some mysterious cipher documents describing a series of ritual initiations. Writing to a Fraülein Sprengel whose address in Germany was included, they were allegedly authorized by letter to form a magical organization based on these rituals.

Mina (who now changed her name to the more Celtic Moina) and Mathers lived a life of ritual devotion and divined guidance in which each hour of the day was consecrated to particular gods and goddesses, and conversations with beings from other realms were commonplace. Mathers was the magician, creating rituals of great power and symbolism based on a doctrine of metaphysical correspondences. Moina was the high priestess of the goddess Isis, whom she perfectly embodied, not only for Mathers, but for the entire Order. She became their main clairvoyant, diviner, and channel for the visionary material used in the Inner Order rituals for evoking and influencing the gods. It was also Moina, using her artistic abilities and training, who designed ritual chambers creating grand and elaborate temple furnishings based on Egyptian motifs.

By all accounts Mathers was a dashing physical specimen: tall and slim, he was a former professional boxer scarred from a fencing duel. As a friend and associate of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, he had been a founding member of the Hermetic lodge of the Theosophical Society, along with the outspoken feminist Anna Kingsford, whose ideas influenced the male-female equality advocated by Mathers for the Golden Dawn’s magical workings.

Moina’s brother, Henri Bergson, raised and educated in Paris, became a famed French philosopher. His philosophy, which conceived of change and movement as being central to perceiving reality, stimulated the evolution of quantum physics, “stream of consciousness” literary technique, and the esthetics of abstract and expressionist art. He received the Nobel Prize for his physiologically- and psychologically-based concepts of human perception affirming the superiority of intuition to the analytic. Possibly influenced by Moina and Mathers, he also explored these areas as president of the British Society for Psychical Research.

Unlike the other three women, as we shall see, Moina Bergson upheld the Victorian mandate of genteel purity and devotion to her husband. On the other hand, she abandoned her family’s religious beliefs and chose to live a life of near-impoverishment dedicated to the goddesses and gods of the pagan world. Upon initiation in the Golden Dawn, each person chose a Latin motto reflecting ideas that became a theme in his or her life. Moina’s motto was Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum, meaning “I never retrace my steps.” Even when, years later, Mathers sank into depression and drink over the failure of his eccentric political fantasies, Moina, though worn by poverty, remained his staunch supporter, never admitting that he was less than the mystical genius she had first seen in him. (More on Moina Mathers.)    

Annie Horniman
Annie Horniman


In 1889 Moina’s closest friend from the Slade Art School, Annie Horniman, had just returned from a European jaunt observing the avant-garde theater on the Continent. There are indications that during these travels she had fallen passionately in love, which was either not returned or had ended disastrously. Moina and Mathers spent much time helping her through this difficult period. In return, Annie found Mathers a job briefly as librarian in her father’s extensive private library, and for many years thereafter she supported them almost entirely with quarterly stipends.

Alienated from her family, Annie devoted herself to practicing astrology and magic while following the latest movements in European theater through her yearly tours. After coming into her inheritance as the heiress of the Horniman Tea Company, she was able to do as she pleased, and became a patron of Mathers, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats. Among her triumphs were producing Shaw’s first successful play, Arms and the Man; financing the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which heralded the Irish literary renaissance with the works of Yeats and J. M. Synge; and creating and managing the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, England’s first repertory theater.

Annie Horniman was fiercely independent and outspoken, a staunch feminist, who smoked incessantly and was among the first to publicly wear bloomers (a daring—and much-ridiculed—gesture in that age). [2] Each year she traveled through Europe, going from place to place riding a bicycle, even through arduous mountain country, and then shocking the management of exclusive hotels by arriving in torn and dirty bloomers. Although considered by some of her acquaintances to be sexually prudish to the point of mania, and overly zealous about upholding laws and regulations, her vision was daring and ahead of its time.

“She was essentially a rebellious woman,” wrote Sir John Irvine about Annie Horniman. “She rebelled against the restrictions that her parents sought to impose upon her, and she rebelled even more heartily against those imposed upon her sex by society.” [3] Extremely fussy, absorbed by details, exacting in expectations, she was by all accounts an excellent administrator and business person. But she was also tactless and continually alienated those who were closest to her.

On the metaphysical side, Annie was a gifted astrologer, diviner with Tarot cards, and ceremonial magician, and much of her theatrical knowledge probably went into the staging of Golden Dawn rituals. She was the first person initiated into the new Inner or “Second Order,” and was selected by the Matherses to consecrate their Ahathoor Temple in Paris. But eventually Mathers expelled her for insubordination, saying that she exhibited “intense arrogance, narrowness of judgement and self-conceit” in demanding the expulsion of a member who was, she felt, espousing sexual rituals with elementals. She was known by the magical motto of Fortiter et Recte (“bravely and justly”), which aptly indicated her own feelings about her supposed rebellion.

To give an example of Annie’s metaphysical healing work: a friend had written her requesting help for a young boy who had developed epileptic fits attributed to obsession. Annie decided to do what she could by “scrying on the astral plane,” which was a Golden Dawn technique of staring at an appropriate symbol as a gateway to occult visualization. She describes the experience like this in her rough notes:

“December, 1892: Went through the golden Hexagram and red Cross to seated white Figure. Showed the child. He had a whirling black and blue ball following him, attached to his head by a string or tube. I was told to make my talisman on his breast, then to do the lesser banishing Pentagram round him and the banishment of Earth over his head. The ball which was alive seemed to die and the string withered. His home atmosphere was shewn me: full of black imps, like flies. Then I was told to make him hold my sword which he could scarcely do, so I guided his hand and made this before him—the lower HE resting on the [alchemical sign for Earth]—all surrounded by a circle. Then I was told to go to him and touch his forehead and tell him to pray when he felt ill. I then asked the Figure his name, he said (or rather showed me the letters) he was under. . . and I seemed to get his own name as Sharshpan. [4]

In other words, Annie entered a vision through an imagined veil emblazoned with a golden hexagram and red cross; this guaranteed her safety on the astral plane and assured that she would meet the figure she had probably also invoked. The sign she later made with the sword signified the four Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton (Yod, Heh, Vau, Heh), a name of God. The final Heh resting on the sign for Earth (an inverted triangle with a horizontal line through it) would bring the vitality of the Tetragrammaton into the physical body of the child, while all was protected by a sacred circle. By discovering the name of the figure—probably the boy’s guardian angel—it would then be possible to call on him or her for aid in the future.

While Annie’s father was still alive, she was forced to use subterfuge when backing theatrical productions (of which he would never have approved), so she asked the talented actress Florence Farr, who had recently joined the Golden Dawn, to produce a season of plays on her behalf. They chose fellow Golden Dawn member William Butler Yeats’ first play Land of Heart’s Desire. Shaw had written one of his earliest plays for Florence to act in, and now Florence and Annie commissioned a new play from him. The resulting Arms and the Man rocked the theatrical world and made Shaw famous overnight.(More on Annie Horniman.)    

Florence Farr
Florence Farr


Florence Farr (named by her father after his best friend and co-worker, Florence Nightingale) embodied Shaw’s idea of the “new woman”: independent, intelligent, self-educated, sexually liberated, practical in appearance (although she was also described as strikingly beautiful), and dedicated to her career. However, being her own person, she continually disappointed Shaw by refusing to do what he thought appropriate to his model. Yeats found in her “a tranquil beauty like that of Demeter’s image near the British Museum reading-room door, and an incomparable sense of rhythm and a beautiful voice, the seeming natural expression of the image.” [5] Yet he also found her ironic and deprecating: “She would dress without care or calculation as if to hide her beauty and seem contemptuous of its power. If she read out some poem in English or in French all was passion, all a traditional splendor, but she spoke of actual things with a cold wit or under the strain of paradox.…I formed with her an enduring friendship that was an enduring exasperation.” [6]

In June 1890, when she was almost thirty, Florence joined Yeats in being initiated into the Golden Dawn. She took the magical name of Sapientia Sapienti Dona Data (“Wisdom is a gift given to the wise”). She and Shaw became lovers, and at Shaw’s insistence she began divorce proceedings from her actor-husband who was already living separately in the United States. But Florence found herself devoting more and more time to the Golden Dawn and her magical studies, and to Shaw’s disgust, less and less time to him or her theatrical career. Shaw wrote her once saying: “I declare before creation that you are an idiot, and that there never has been, is not now, nor in any yet discovered fourth dimension of time ever shall be, so desperate and irreclaimable an idiot, or one whom Destiny mocked with greater opportunities.” [7]

Florence’s knowledge of dramatics and staging and her melodious speaking voice were central elements of the Golden Dawn rituals. To her these rituals were important personal experiences. In one of her later Egyptian plays, she has a priestess say lines that probably came from her own experience: “I am drunk with conquest, and I shake the sistrum and dance with my naked feet unscathed on thy golden floor! And the measures I dance are to me as the movement of a great army which has scaled the awful walls of thy majesty, and taken the fortress of thy wisdom!” [8]

Florence taught weekly classes in Tarot and Enochian magic, and wrote several books, including one on Egyptian rituals and another on Renaissance alchemy. In 1894, when Wynn Westcott retired and Moina and Mathers moved to Paris to start a new branch of the Order, Florence became head of the London branch. One of her most renowned magical achievements occurred on May 13, 1896, when with three male assistants she evoked the mercurial spirit Taphtharthareth to visible appearance.

Florence specialized in “scrying in the spirit-vision” and headed a secret circle called the Sphere Group (based on working within the kabbalistic “spheres” or sefirot) for this purpose. Many writers on magic caution against scrying (one called it “sinking into the murky delights of one’s own unconscious mind”), claiming that it is of no great spiritual value and can even be an obstruction on the magical path: a search for wonders rather than the raising of consciousness. Yet it is this very ability at which Moina, Annie, and Florence were expert and seemed to most enjoy. That this is a skill at which women tend to be more adept is one possible explanation of why male commentators label it a spurious ability, and suggests that other women may find it of value to explore. The following is a fragmentary description of one such vision by Florence and a co-worker:

“Used yachad as the password….yawningly for Snake and Serpent in its tail. It yawned & we walked into centre. A revolving stone tipped up & snake told us to go down…. We went down steps ‘to come to the Book of Thoth.’ At the bottom there were five passages with recesses at the ends….We brought offerings to each shrine & received spiritual gift from each. From (1) we received ruby wine the choice is shall it fall into ferment or be exalted into yellow flame of the intelligible life.... serpent says next time you must enter in Adytum of Isis.” [9]  (More on Florence Farr.)    

Maud Gonne
Maud Gonne


It was Willie Yeats who brought Maud Gonne into the Order. He deeply loved her and was to remain in love with her for most of the rest of his life. He introduced Maud to Moina and MacGregor Mathers in Paris as a person also interested in reincarnation and “other realms” of reality. Maud was initiated into the Golden Dawn in November 1891, [10] and took as her prophetic magical motto: Per Ignem ad Lucem (“Through fire to the light”), which indicated not only her willingness to go to any extreme to achieve her goals, but also her acceptance of her life as one that would severely test her mettle.

Upon joining the Order, Maud reported discovering only two exceptions to the drab and mediocre members she met: Florence Farr and Moina Mathers. [11] At the time, Moina was translating Irish folklore into French and illustrating these and other books of Celtic myths. With her husband, she was also producing and staging a series of public performances of ancient Egyptian mythic rituals and dance, which was reported to be the talk of the town. [12] Maud was amazed at Moina’s set designs and paintings; they used a technique never seen before, in which cut and glued pieces of colored paper formed a kind of mosaic. Thus Moina had invented collage as a method to get a large job done quickly, although the historical credit for this artistic invention went to Picasso twenty years later.

Maud, the daughter of a British colonel stationed at the Dublin Castle, was six feet tall with burnished copper hair. As a child she had witnessed the effects of evictions in Ireland and admired the Land League’s efforts toward agrarian reform. In her autobiography she claimed her father had decided that what the British were doing in Ireland was wrong and that he was about to stand for Irish Home Rule when he died. Though no one who knew her father believed this, Maud proceeded to dedicate herself to the vision of a free Ireland and to working against the British Empire whenever she could. At twenty-two, after the death of her father, she set out to travel, going first to France and eventually to Constantinople. She then returned to France from whence, as a secret political courier, she carried to Russia the draft of a Franco-Russian treaty that would be disadvantageous to England. According to Maud herself, “During Victoria’s reign alone, 1,225,000 people died of famine in Ireland; 4,186,000 emigrated; 3,663,000 were evicted from houses they or their fathers had built.” [13] To oppose this she condoned violence: “With England’s treatment of Ireland, whatever an Irishman may do in retaliation, should not be considered a crime. What England calls outrages, are acts of war and perfectly justified.” [14]

Maud herself was psychic, having foreseen the funeral of her father just before he died as well as the death of the daughter of a good friend. Once while visiting political prisoners with life sentences, she correctly predicted the specific times when each of them would be released, shocking herself in the process. In Donegal she earned the name “woman of the Sidhe [fairies]." [15] And in Belmullet she was considered the fulfillment of Brian Ruadh’s prophecy that a “woman dressed in green would come and preach the revolt. After that, men would rise and there would be fighting and many killed but that the English would in the end be driven out.” [16] Because of this prophecy, she was able to gather a mass meeting at which the people demanded and gained their rights to higher wages and seed-potatoes, which is credited with stopping the famine of 1898 in County Mayo. Maud was noted for her beauty and majesty by many of the chroniclers of the day, but the British considered her dangerous because her inflammatory speeches could easily incite crowds to action.

From her childhood she had visions of a dark woman with sad eyes, who stood by her bed:

“Willie, McGregor and his pretty wife, who was the sister of Bergson the philosopher, had arranged a sort of séance with some members of the G.D. to find out about my gray lady, as we called her, for she was always dressed in gray veils. She appeared. Mrs. McGregor gave me an exact description of her. Willie couldn’t see her. They said she had confessed to having killed a child and wrung her hands in sorrow and remorse. After this I began to think she must be evil and decided to get rid of her. It seemed to me I might not be able to control her. So, resolutely I put on the blinkers and denied her existence. It was not so easy, for, whenever I was with people who had mediumistic faculties, she could appear, in spite of me.” [17]

After only a short time in the Golden Dawn, Maud discovered the Masonic underpinnings of many of the rituals. Since Freemasonry was to her a British political institution, she felt obligated to resign from the Golden Dawn. Maud’s beliefs in magic were strong, but her belief in Ireland as the natural ground of heroes was stronger. The magic she honored most was that which awakened the soul of the masses. She continued to work with Yeats, Annie Horniman, Moina Mathers, and Florence Farr on the background material for rituals for a Castle of Heroes. Conceived by Yeats and Maud as a kind of child of their “spiritual marriage,” the castle was to be a retreat and teaching center, and eventually a spiritual alternative to Christian orthodoxy, grounded in the mystic forces of the land of Eire. The idea was to create a mythos using group visualizations to enter the inner worlds and bring back knowledge of the old ways. Their initiatic center

“…was to be in the middle of a lake, a shrine of Irish tradition where only those who had dedicated their lives to Ireland might penetrate; they were to be brought there in a painted boat across the lake and might only stay for short periods of rest and inspiration. It was to be built of Irish stone and decorated only with the Four Jewels of the Tuatha de Danaan…. The Four Jewels as Willie explained, are universal symbols appearing in debased form on the Tarot, the divining cards of the Egyptians and even on our own playing cards and foreshadowed the Christian symbolism of the Saint Grail, whose legends Willie loved to trace to Ireland.” [18]

Joining a group called the Fine, led by her good friend Ella Young (who later became a professor of Celtic mythology at the University of California), Maud recreated pagan ceremonies that attuned her to the life of the land. “The object of the Fine,” according to Maud, “was to draw together for the freeing of Ireland the wills of the living and of the dead in association with the earth and the elements which to Ella seemed living entities.” [19] Together with three other women friends, they went to sacred sites such as Ireland’s Eye to light Beltane fires, burning herbs from different parts of Ireland to unite all; the fires “sent up a sweet scent like incense….Ella would then talk of the ancient gods and invoke them to help bring back the Lia Fail [the coronation stone of Ireland, now in Westminster Abbey].” [20]

Yeats was deeply and expressively in love with Maud for more than twenty years, during which time he wrote some of his greatest poetry about her, but she was bound in a secret relationship with a married French politician, with whom she had two children. Her political work would be ended if it were known to the Irish people (whose rigid Catholic and Victorian morality had recently destroyed the politician Charles Stewart Parnell) that she had a married lover and illegitimate children. She was so discreet about her double life in Paris and Dublin that she did not even tell Yeats about it during their most intimate moments.

This stage of Maud’s life ended (as her autobiography makes clear) when in 1903, at age thirty-six, she married John MacBride, a hero who had led a regiment of Irish revolutionary soldiers against England in the Boer War. Here at last was someone who took action, who did what she could not do—physically fight for what she believed.

But MacBride became a drunkard, beat Maud, and then raped her half-sister. She sued for divorce and won custody of their son—in France. The decree of separation, not being legal in Ireland, prevented her from living there until MacBride was executed for his part in the abortive Easter Uprising of 1916. Their son, Sean MacBride, eventually became minister of external affairs for the new independent Irish government and chairman of Amnesty International; he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.  (More on Maud Gonne.)           

By 1899, eleven years after its founding, there were over three hundred members in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But the Order was destined to be shattered in the following year by a dramatic series of events in which Florence and Mathers were the central players.  

Florence Farr
Florence Farr

In 1898 the twenty-three-year-old Aleister Crowley was introduced into the Order and quickly moved through the stages of initiation. He and Florence, who was by this time head of the London Temple, seemed at first to have found areas of mutual interest and intellectual respect. But by 1899, when Crowley had advanced to initiation to the Second Inner Order, Florence refused his entry because of his eccentricities and “moral depravities” (and she was not considered a prudish woman). Mathers, ignoring her decision, initiated Crowley into the Second Order in January 1900 at the Ahathoor Temple in Paris. Soon after this, an infuriated Florence sent Mathers a letter of resignation.

Mathers wrote back that the Sprengel letters (which authorized the existence of the Order in accord with “Secret Masters” who directed its work) were forgeries. He also asked Florence not to leave the Order or to consult with others.

Florence had taken her duties as chief of the Order with utmost gravity. She had given up the theater entirely in the last few years and lived in penury (making a little money by doing embroidery), believing fully in the importance of her work in the Golden Dawn. Her sacred trust was now revealed to be a lie. Utterly dismayed, she retreated to the countryside where she had lived as a child to sort out her thoughts.

After three days of silence and meditation Florence came to a decision. She decided to share the contents of Mathers’ letter with a select group of people from the Second Order. [21] They jointly wrote to W. Wynn Westcott, one of the other founders who had received the Sprengel letters in the first place. He denied Mathers’ allegations in what seemed like an offhand way, but refused them any proof. Mathers himself refused to produce proof; at that point the original letters were found to have disappeared from the Second Order’s records.

Florence wrote Mathers: “I saw that if I kept silence, I should become a party to a fraud.” [22] What followed was a rapid exchange of ugly threats and accusations, the expulsion of Mathers, and a deep schism in the Order that was never to be healed. The remaining members— including Yeats, Florence, and Annie Horniman (recently reinstated after her banishment by Mathers)—formed the Stella Matutina Temple. But, perhaps as a result of a curse placed on them by Mathers, they could never agree or work comfortably together again.

The Matherses continued their temple in France and established new ones in America; several other members of the Order also formed their own offshoots. (More on Florence Farr.)  

  Annie Horniman worked closely with Yeats in the reorganization required when the great schism occurred. In the forming of the Stella Matutina, she found that she could establish direct communication with a Secret Chief she called “the Purple Adept.” How much this adept guided her we shall never know, but she certainly proved to herself her ability to find her own spiritual guidance.

Annie also devoted herself to assisting Yeats in his dramatic endeavors. As the result of a series of four Tarot readings done in 1903, she decided to build the Abbey Theatre as a home for the Irish National Theatre Company. Maud Gonne, observing Annie with Yeats, wrote in her autobiography:

“I had been much amused in Dublin watching the rivalry between Lady Gregory and a rich English woman, Miss Horniman; both were interested in Willie and both were interested in Irish theater. Miss Horniman had the money and was willing to spend it, but Lady Gregory had the brains. They should have been allies for both stood for art for art’s sake and deprecated the intrusion of politics, which meant Irish Freedom; instead they were rivals; they both liked Willie too well. Lady Gregory won the battle; Miss Horniman’s money converted the old city morgue into the Abbey Theatre, but it was Lady Gregory’s plays that were acted there. Miss Horniman brought back Italian plaques to decorate it but Lady Gregory carried off Willie to visit the Italian towns where they were made.” [23]

Annie was eventually ousted as Yeats’s patron and producer by the greater enticements of Lady Gregory, but this left her free to follow her need to create a theater of her own visioning. At the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester Annie created the first English repertory company, encouraging young writers and providing a venue for playwrights such as John Galsworthy, who was also to win a Nobel Prize. Since her death on August 6, 1937, she has been called the founder of the modern movement in drama. Yeats too went on eventually to win the Nobel Prize for his poetry. (More on Annie Horniman.)  

  Maud Gonne’s revolutionary acts continued to focus on social reform for the betterment of conditions for the Irish common people. She founded the Daughters of Erin, an educational and activist group that enlisted thousands of members who learned Irish language, history, and mythologies. She was a leader of the Women’s Prisoners’ Defense League, and during public demonstrations she regularly protested the inhumanity and brutality of the prisons. Photographs of her in her sixties show her as a striking, gaunt-faced figure, attired in narrow black French widow’s weeds and veil. She was responsible for creating one of the first children’s free-lunch programs in the schools. She consistently fought for laws protecting the rural and urban poor, and thus, as with many women before her, her work has been slighted by male commentators for being “socially philanthropic” rather than truly “political.”

Writing to her friend Ella Young in 1943 at seventy-eight years of age, Maud said:

“You remember saying how the world was passing out of the cycle of the Cup into that of the Stone, and that for us born of the Cauldron it would be hard to understand. It was terribly true, and though I am very happy lam feeling the limitations of those 4 cycles of Willie Yeats’s Tarot corresponding to the seasons and to the cycles of Celtic mythology and am longing for the cycle outside all limitations. To get into that will be such a wonderful adventure.” [24]

Because of her inflammatory speeches and actions Maud was jailed several times and underwent constant police surveillance. Despite a severe lifelong heart condition, she lived to be eighty-six, “a heroic and now cavernous beauty.”

Moina Mathers led the Paris branch of the Golden Dawn for several years after her husband’s death of a fever in 1918, but finally returned to England. Unfortunately, this later part of her life has left us with few public details, and these primarily come from those who seemed resentful of her role. She has been accused of authorizing the sale of Golden Dawn initiations in America through the mail, when she was probably most concerned that the work that she and Mathers accomplished would not go forgotten. She initiated Dion Fortune into her London temple, but their personalities clashed terribly. According to Fortune, Moina tried unsuccessfully to attack her psychically in retaliation for Fortune’s publishing of Golden Dawn secrets in such works as The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage. Worst of all, Fortune accused her of the psychic murder of Netta Fornario, a former student of Moina’s who died in mysterious circumstances, covered with scratches. As Moina herself had been dead for more than a year, this story is absurd.  

Moina Mathers

Moina died in July 1928 in London, at the age of sixty-three. All of her paintings and temple decorations seem to have been lost or destroyed, with only a rather haunting portrait of her husband surviving.

In 1902 Florence Farr severed her association with the Golden Dawn, consoling herself by writing and producing two Egyptian plays and by becoming more mystical in her practices. She also joined the Theosophical Society, which was now operating under the leadership of social reformer Annie Besant. About this time she went to hear Ramanathan, a spiritual teacher and future Tamil parliamentarian of Ceylon. She was so impressed with his educational plans for Ceylon that she committed herself to help him whenever he was ready to begin his school. A friend described visiting her that year:

“She made some excellent coffee in a frying pan, just like the gypsy she is. She watches a fire like an old Tent-Dweller, and does not let time interfere with her will. She plays with her life like a child with a toy, but she’s a good pal and a brave woman.” [25]

For several years Florence wrote articles and reviews for The New Age, “an Independent Socialist Review of Politics, Literature, and Art.” Hearing that Ramanathan had completed his College for Girls, Florence determined to “be off to Ceylon the end of the year to end my days in the ‘society of the wise’,” as she told her friend, the American art patron John Quinn. [26] She had written in her book Modern Women that the “object of life is to make experiments,” [27] so she sold all her books and odd possessions, and set sail in 1912, at the age of fifty-two, for the next and final adventure of her life. She became the Lady Principal in total control of the school. Enchanted by the culture, she characterized it as living in a mixture of the Middle Ages and the twentieth century. She became a surprisingly good administrator; though a firm disciplinarian, she was liked by the young women for her tolerance of their traditions. Fascinated by Tamil poetry, she tried different methods of translating it, playing with sound and sense, and sent the results to Yeats, who used some of the images in his own poetry. In 1916 she discovered a lump in her breast that was diagnosed as cancer. She bravely wrote Yeats: “Last December I became an Amazon and my left breast and major pectoral muscle were removed. Now my left side is a beautiful slab of flesh adorned with a handsome fern pattern made by a cut and 30 stitches.” [28] This is accompanied by humorous sketch of herself with the scar. But a few months later she entered the hospital again and died in April 1917.

Bergson, Farr, Gonne, and Horniman were agents of change who transformed the Western tradition of Renaissance alchemy, astrology, Hermeticism, and ceremonial magic from an intellectual exercise into a dynamic psychospiritual process of self-growth, creativity, and healing. They refashioned dry, pompous ceremonies into vehicles of altered states by “traveling in the spirit vision.” With their Golden Dawn “sorors” or sisters, they were pioneers in these journeys through the inner planes where they charted and mapped symbolic landscapes and spirit beings, and brought back knowledge that they encoded in what have become the most popular Tarot decks of the twentieth century. We have inherited, in our magical methods of today, the practical techniques they discovered for working on the inner planes and their methods for changing consciousness at will. It is time for these four women to be acknowledged as honored foremothers of our Western magical tradition.



Footnotes:

[1] This vision was evoked by a portrait of MacGregor Mathers painted by Moina and by a photograph of her which appears in Ithell Coiquhoun, Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and “The Golden Dawn” (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975).

[2] Rex Pogson, Miss Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester (London: Rockliff, 1952), p. 7.

[3] Ellic Howe, The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order, 1887-1923 (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1972) p. 66.

[4] Ibid., pp. 104-105.

[5] Josephine Johnson, Florence Farr: Bernard Shaw’s “New Woman,” (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975), p. 70.

[6] Margot Peters, Bernard Shaw and the Actresses (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1980), P. 68.

[7] Johnson, p. 65.

[8] Colquhoun, p. 155.

[9] Johnson, p. 91.

[10] George Mills Harper, Yeats’ Golden Dawn: The Influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on the Life and Art of W. B. Yeats (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Aquarian Press, 1974), p. 19.

[11] Maud Gonne MacBride, A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1983), p. 258.

[12] André Gaucher, “Isis a Montmartre,” L’Echo du Merveilleux (Paris), Dec. 1 and 15, 1900.

[13] MacBride, p. 225.

[14] Ibid., p. 88.

[15] Ibid., p. 134.

[16] Ibid., p. 240.

[17] Ibid., pp. 254-255.

[18] Stephen Gwynn, ed., Scattering Branches (London: Macmillan, 1940), p. 23.

[19] MacBnde, p. 266.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Johnson, pp. 84-85.

[22] Ibid., p. 86.

[23] MacBride, p. 333.

[24] Samuel Levenson, MaudGonne:  A Biography of Yeats’ Beloved (London: Cassell, 1976), p. 393.

[25] Johnson, pp. 90-91.

[26] Ibid., p. 181.

[27] Ibid., p. 185.

[28] Ibid., following p. 34.


Copyright © 1991 by Mary K. Greer




About the Author

Mary K. Greer, is the author of several books on the Tarot including Tarot for Your Self. She teaches Tarot and women’s mysteries in Nevada City, California. This article is based on her book Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. Click here for further details of her book on this site.


Mary K. Greer - Women of the Golden Dawn

 

 



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