Sometimes we give up looking for records especially if they are not easily accessible on the computer. Below I will present how understanding the context of an organization can lead to all kinds of amazing finds. Once the context is understood then the records seems to fall into place. The example chosen is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD), which included some very powerful and influential Irish members.
In the late nineteenth century, the HOGD arose as the most influential Western Occult organization in Great Britain. During this period, it was common for people to explore mysticism and occultism through various lodge-type organizations. Occult during this period simply meant hidden as opposed to apocalypse which meant revealed. The modern popular usage of “occult” as satanic or evil was not how members of these organizations understood their activities. They were simply seeking secret (hidden) knowledge.
The Context of the HOGD
Founded in 1888, the HOGD emerged out of the late nineteenth century occult revival. They were a secretive society. Their influence can still be felt under the surface of any number of New Age, and metaphysical groups.
Some of the more notable Irish members include Sarah Allgood (1879-1950), Irish stage actress and later film actress in America; Maud Gonne (1866-1853), revolutionary and actress; Bram Stoker (1847-1912), author of Dracula; John Todhunter (1839-1916), Irish poet and playwright; and W.B. Yeates (1865-1939), Irish poet and writer. Another, of Irish descent, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), author of Sherlock Holmes, doctor, scientist and Spiritualist.
To understand the philosophies rooted in the old HOGD would be to indirectly understand more about your ancestors.
The HOGD as a Secret Society
HOGD was founded by three men who were Freemasons and members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. They created the Golden Dawn system. This magical lodge had initiations. Women were admitted as equals with men. Its foundation document was the Cipher Manuscripts which outlined the rituals and teachings merging Hermetic Qabalah, astrology, occult tarot, geomancy and alchemy. Members would progress through orders based upon the teachings they had completed.
The founders claimed to be in contact with the Secret Chiefs, who formed a cosmic spiritual hierarchy and oversaw the affairs of humanity. Thoughts about whether these Secret Chiefs were human, supernatural personages or simply symbolic representations seems to have varied among the membership.
Lodges were established in England, Scotland, France and the United States. Its high point was the mid-1890s when the HOGD was well established in Great Britain, drawing several hundred members from all classes in Victorian society. However, by the end of 1899, dissatisfaction with leadership arose, and in 1901 the original Isis-Urania Temple in London, founded in 1888, withdrew and became independent. Others would follow and splinter groups would be formed with the original HOGD imploding. No temples from the original chartered lineage survived past the 1970s. Several organizations have since revived the Golden Dawn teachings and rituals.
Because the HOGD attracted such influential people; researchers and historians have been fascinated with the organization. This is where academics have done the foundational research for the genealogist. There is no shortage of articles online or published about the HOGD, all of which will mention names.
Sally Davis is compiling biographies on the members of the HOGD. She draws from and expands on R.A. Gilbert’s The Golden Dawn Companion (Northampton: The Aquarian Press, 1986).
Gilbert lists members in the original HOGD or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. His HOGD membership list is taken from the administrative records and its Members’ Rolls. Basically it is a large parchment on which all new members signed their names when they were initiated. This information is now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England. Records were kept by this secretive society and they are deposited in a major London repository. Davis’ additions tap into many records used by the average genealogist.
Conclusions about Secret Society Research
The HOGD seems to have been founded in the right place and at the right time. It collected the currents of late nineteenth century Victorian society. HOGD, academics and researchers have completed the legwork for the genealogist. The family historian, with a context for what the organization was all about, will be able to intelligently finish biographical sketches. Being able to document the HOGD early membership proves it wasn’t so secretive after all!
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