The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

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Esoteric and Occult Overview



The Hermetic Society

Macroprosopos and Microprosopos

Yeats was famously and intimately involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as was his wife, George. Although the Golden Dawn’s teachings were greatly diversified by elements from the paganism of Europe and Egypt, the Judaeo-Christian basis of its core teachings of Cabbala and Rosicrucianism was central. MacGregor Mathers was associated with Anna Kingsford, a proponent of Esoteric Christianity, and had dedicated The Kabbalah Unveiled to Kingsford and her collaborator, Edward Maitland; Moina Mathers, in her preface to this work’s second edition, claimed that Kingsford had introduced her husband to Blavatsky, who had tried to interest him in Theosophy, but that ‘he was more in sympathy with Anna Kingsford’s ideals of esoteric Christianity and of the advancement of woman’. He certainly also lectured to Kingsford’s Hermetic Society on ‘The Kabala’ and ‘The Lower or Physical Alchemy’ in 1886, as did Mohini Chatterjee and William Wynn Westcott. In his introduction to The Sepher Yetzirah, Westcott indicates that the ‘substance of this little volume was read as a Lecture before the Hermetic Society of London in the summer of 1886, Dr. Anna Kingsford, President, in the chair’, while he also noted that the ‘late Madame Blavatsky, my esteemed teacher of Theosophy, and my personal friend, at whose suggestion a friendly alliance between the Hermetic Order of the G. D. and the Inner Group of Theosophic students was made, expressed to me her recognition of the value of the “Sepher Yetzirah” as a mystical treatise on cosmic origin, and her approval of my work in its translation, and of my notes and explanations’, which witnesses the way in which the threads of the period’s esoteric groupings tend to intertwine.

The history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is complicated and told in many places, most notably Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn, Francis King’s Modern Ritual Magic: The Rise of Western Occultism, and R. A. Gilbert’s The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians. Although the Golden Dawn proper ceased to exist in 1903, its influence on Western occultism and hermeticism has been huge. There were several offshoots of the original G.'.D.'. but none of them continued with the name; conversely, there are several groups that use the name of ‘Golden Dawn’ nowadays, claiming varying degrees of ‘apostolic succession’ and following the original teachings to a greater or lesser degree. The site of one of these modern groups carrying on the traditions of the Golden Dawn has interesting archival resources and there is a list of resources at the Hermetic Fellowship.

It is impossible to summarise the work involved in the Golden Dawn, not least because the written records only take us so far. However, it should not be thought that the 'magic' of the Golden Dawn was primarily involved with casting spells or changing the outer world, as its focus was very much on raising the consciousness of the individual her or himself. The system of exams in geomancy and alchemy or magical grades may sometimes seem reminiscent of Harry Potter’s world, but in the end ritual magic is about aligning the forces of microcosm and macrocosm.

Ritual magic makes philosophy and doctrine into drama and symbol in order to create ceremony. By means of symbolic space and costume the participants prepare the physical and mental arena, taking on their various roles, which may include assuming 'masks' in their imagination (‘god forms’). The rites themselves rehearse stories and doctrines both explicitly through words and implicitly through symbol and action. For the Golden Dawn the underlying philosophy was an eclectic synthesis of Hermetic and Cabbalistic thought organised according to the Tree of Life. Individual ceremonies are founded upon the correspondences established in this scheme together with specific additions, such as the symbolism of the Fall or the legend of Christian Rosenkreutz. The rites' use of symbolism and narratives, and their pacing and structure are not very different from religious ceremonies, particularly those of the traditional Christian churches, though they are cast in a different 'language'.

The Outer Order, the Golden Dawn proper, involved no actual magic and was primarily concerned with using ritual to consolidate the theory studied by the aspirants and to explore and balance their elemental energies within the aspirant.
Diagram of the Grades of the Golden Dawn upon the Tree of Life
Diagram of the Grades of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn upon the Tree of Life. Click the image for a larger image in a new window.

After the crucial introductory ceremony (the Neophyte ceremony 0°=0°), each further ceremony was associated with one of the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life, and expressed by two numbers, the first indicating the place of the grade and the second the relevant Sephirah. The Sephiroth are connected to each other on the Tree of Life by Paths, and in preparation for a grade the aspirants would study the Paths by which they could reach the relevant Sephiroth (these are numbered from 11 to 32, since the Sephiroth used the numbers from 1 to 10). These Paths are have a multitude of associations, but especially a letter of the Hebrew alephbet, one of the Tarot trumps and an astrological association. The ceremonies used the Paths and their assocations as part of the structure of the ritual as the symbolic space moved its location upwards upon the Tree of Life during the course of the ceremony. Each ceremony of this Outer Order was also related to one of the four elements in succession, Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and was designed to ‘tune into’ the corresponding universal principles and to purify and equilibrate the corresponding energies in the aspirant. These were then brought together in the Portal Ritual, associated with the Quintessence or Spirit, as the controlling and equilibrating principle. This ceremony was not related to a Sephirah but to a transition or Veil, and it prepared for approach to the Second or Inner Order, the Ruby Rose and Golden Cross. As its name referring to the Rose and Cross suggests, the Inner Order used more explicitly Rosicrucian imagery and the temple space was based upon the seventeenth-century description of Father Christian Rosenkreutz’s legendary tomb. See note for further details.

Yeats passed through the elemental grades relatively quickly between 1890 and 1892, and underwent the Portal Ritual on 20 January 1903. Normal procedure would have required a delay of nine months before reception to the Inner Order, but Yeats, by special dispensation, went through the first part of the three-part ritual on the same day and the other two on the following day. The balance point of Tiphareth is in many respects the symbolic goal of system and originally this was the only Inner Order grade, though with distinctions between various levels, but relatively soon further grades for 6°=5° and 7°=4° were introduced. These were the highest level considered attainable in life in the Golden Dawn system, with further grades related to the Secret Masters of the Third Order. That the structure of the Order and respect for the hierarchy of the Degrees were of vital importance for Yeats is evidenced in a pamphlet that he circulated in 1901 during a crisis caused by groups within the Order, specifically the Sphere Group of Florence Farr Emery, "Is the Order of the R.R. & A.C. to remain a Magical Order", where he almost sounds like Ulysses in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: "Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows" (see Yeats's Golden Dawn, Chapter 5 for a full account and the appendices for the text of the pamphlet). The pamphlet also shows how Yeats conceived all magical activity as creating independent entities that represented the group consciousness in some form, with the form depending on how deliberately and carefully the group identity or 'egregore' was fashioned and directed. He also writes of the Degree of Theoricus as "the highest Degree known to us" and "our link with the invisible Degrees", so that it seems that he regarded the Degree of Theoricus Adeptus Minor, the second point of 5°=6° at Tiphareth, as the highest true degree, at least in 1901.

Although Yeats’s failure to seek the level of 6°=5° at Geburah until October 1914 has puzzled some, therefore, it may show not so much lack of zeal as possibly a sense that it was an unnecessary detail, a symbolic rather than a real advance. It also seems that his energies had been directed in the 1890s to establishing his own order of Mysteries, now usually referred to as the Celtic Mystical Order, and that he suspended even his preparations to be fully invested as Theoricus Adeptus Minor, passing the first parts in 1895 and then completing the rest in 1912, by which time the Golden Dawn had given way to the Stella Matutina. However, some details of the symbolism in these two grades are significant, as they centre on the dying and rising god: in the ritual of 5°= 6° the aspirant is shown the celebrant dead within the coffin of Father Rosenkreuz and a resurrection, while in 6°= 5° the aspirant himself or herself goes into the coffin and undergoes symbolic rebirth. A notebook entry from 1915 contains ideas for a ceremony of 7°=4° (Adeptus Exemptus at Chesed):

For initiation 7 = 4
We are weighed down by the blood & the heavy weight of the bones
We are bound by flowers, & our feet are entangled in the green
and there is deceit in the singing of birds
It is time to be done with it all
The stars call & all the planets
and the purging fire of the moon
and yonder in the cold silence of cleansing night
may the dawn break & gates of day be set wide open.
The PIAL Notebook (National Library of Ireland, MS 36,276)
See Yeats: The Man and the Masks, 259, and The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats’ Search for Reality, 170.

Much of the symbolism of the ceremonies of the elemental Grades centres on the Fall from the Garden of Eden, and how the centres of human consciousness were dragged down from the upper part of the Tree of Life to the lower part, and invaded by the forces of evil and disorder. One of the underlying goals of the Golden Dawn system, within the Inner Order, was to raise the centre of consciousness from the lower Sephiroth to the upper again, especially from Yesod to Tiphareth, and, by doing so, to seek to bring the Higher Genius into the consciousness. This was based upon the Golden Dawn’s teachings about the human constitution, which brought together Rabbinic exegesis, Neo-Platonic pneumatology and the structure of the Tree of Life.

The Constitution of the Human Being

The change of focus for Yeats, in the transference of his interest from Theosophy to the Cabbalism at the centre of the Golden Dawn’s teachings, would not necessarily have entailed a difficult transition in terms of thinking about the human constitution, since the Golden Dawn proposed a Cabbalistic hierarchy, similar enough in outline, though in reality very different in structure. Blavatsky tends to treat Cabbalism as a limited, but informative resource, which lacks the scope of her Eastern sources while still representing another historical example of the ‘Secret Doctrine’: ‘The difference between the two systems, taking the Kabala as contained in the Chaldean Book of Numbers, not as misrepresented by its now disfigured copy, the Kabala of the Christian mystics—the Kabala and the archaic esoteric Vidya, is very small indeed, being confined to unimportant divergences of form and expression’. In The Secret Doctrine she gives an extended comparison of ‘Kabalistic Pneumatics’ with her own ‘Esoteric Pneumatics’, showing the essential identity of both, though the latter, of course, demonstrates a fuller understanding of the science of soul. Her analysis is based on a ‘diagram (Plate VII. in Mr. Mathers’ Kabala) ‘the formation of the Soul’ from the same ‘Key of the Great Mysteries’ by Lévi’, which she gives ‘with both the Kabalistic and Occult names attached’:

Secret Doctrine Vol.1 p.242
(The Secret Doctrine 1, 242)

The diagram appears, as Blavatsky mentions, in the introduction of The Kabbalah Unveiled by MacGregor Mathers, though with some variations, which show that she has silently altered details to create both greater similarity between the two schemes and also to make the Cabbalistic version an easier target for her jibes.

Kabbala Unveiled Plate VII

Blavatsky’s changes in labelling and terminology are justified by the accompanying text, but the lower forms, labelled Michael and Samael, are composites of Ruach and Nephesch in different relationships, with or without the influence of Neschamah, rather than independent elements; each one is only the ‘synthetical hieroglyph’ of good or evil Karma respectively. Blavatsky tries to create a greater congruence than exists, and then goes on to dispute her own attributions, in order to show that ‘there are many such strange and curious transformations to be found in the Kabalistic works— a convincing proof that its literature has become a sad jumble’ (SD 1, 242). Yeats’s approach to the ideas may therefore initially have been coloured by Blavatsky’s negative attitude, but he would also have learnt that the ideas were fundamentally linked and approximately transferable from one system to the other.

The actual teaching of the Golden Dawn, as far as we can know it accurately from the later versions published by Israel Regardie and the extant Flying Rolls, is less easily reconciled with Theosophical thought however. According to the papers, the Cabbalistic constitution of man was touched on in the Third Knowledge Lecture, but not dealt with properly until the Fifth Knowledge Lecture concerning the duties of the Theoricus Adeptus Minor, a Grade which Yeats himself attained in July 1912. (See Third and Fifth Knowledge Lectures in Regardie’s Golden Dawn: RGD Vol. 1, 129 and 203-227]; Flying Roll XX [Mathers] & Flying Roll XXI [Moina Mathers] in Ritual Magic of the Golden Dawn: RMGD 145-159; and for Yeats’s grade see Yeats’s Golden Dawn, 126. Regardie’s A Garden of Pomegranates contains an interesting chapter on Adam Kadmon, ‘Heavenly Man’, which relates the Cabbalistic constitution to the Indian and Theosophical ones, as well as Egyptian, but does not necessarily represent the Golden Dawn’s teaching in the 1890s and 1900s.)

The details of the interrelation of the forces within the soul were less important in the Golden Dawn than in Theosophy, and Mathers explains that the construction of the Order’s teaching was designed so as not to lead the students into the trap of that ‘subtle selfishness which arises from too much study of oneself’ and ‘continual dwelling on one’s own nature with the idea of reforming and making oneself better’ and ‘too great asceticism’. He therefore points out that ‘in our system of Occultism we are contrary or converse to that taught by the Theosophical Society’, studying ‘the Microcosm before the Macrocosm’, rather than starting with ‘the study of the Universe’, which brings ‘the danger of that spiritual or thought-selfishness’ (RMGD 148). Mathers went on to exhort students of clairvoyance, therefore, ‘to repress that form of it which tends in his own direction’ since it would lead to spiritual selfishness and ‘a period of depression’; this may be akin to the state of bewilderment, which Yeats experienced, where ‘image called up image in an endless procession, and I could not always choose among them with any confidence. . . . the region a cabbalistic manuscript, shown me by MacGregor Mathers, had warned me of; astray upon the Path of the Chameleon, upon Hodos Chameliontos’ (Au 270). Mathers’ warnings may also have planted in Yeats’s mind the idea of cultivating the anti-self in order to balance the innate tendencies of his own nature, in the related area of artistic creation.

The Golden Dawn material is generally vaguer than the pseudo-science of Blavatsky’s pneumatology, and in sketching the constitution of the soul, the Third Knowledge Lecture demonstrates how different the functions of the constituents are from those alluded to by Blavatsky in her description of Cabbalism:

THE SOUL is divided by the Qabalists into three Principal Parts:-
1. NESCHAMAH The Highest Part, answering to the Three Supernals.
2. RUACH The Middle Part, answering to the six Sephiroth from CHESED to YESOD, inclusive.
3. NEPHESCH The lowest, answering to MALKUTH.
(RGD Vol. 1, 129)

Neschamah ‘answers to the higher aspirations of the Soul’, Ruach ‘to the mind and reasoning powers’, and Nephesch ‘to the animal instincts’; Nephesch is therefore very far from being ‘what we name Manas’ as Blavatsky notes in her diagram. A further level of differentiation is introduced without gloss in this Lecture, though no doubt the text forms only the skeleton of the instruction, and divides the ‘Highest Part’ further according to the three individual Sephiroth: Yechidah corresponding to Kether, Chiah to Chokmah, ‘while NESCHAMAH itself is referred to BINAH’ (RGD 1, 129). The Fifth Knowledge Lecture deals with the complex interrelations and the dynamics between all the elements of the soul, though the presentation Regardie gives is disorganised and far from perspicuous.

The Cabbalistic anatomy is far more patterned on the physical human than the Theosophical view and its symbolism is expressed in a Tree of Life arranged in the body or rather the ‘subtle body or aura which surrounds the physical body like an egg of light’, called the ‘Sphere of Sensation’ (RGD 88; I 177). There is some similarity with the Indian Yogic concept of seven Chakras or wheels of energy in the body and, like the highest of those Chakras, Yechidah or Divine Consciousness, located in ‘Kether is above the Crown of the Head’, within the aura rather than the body, while ‘In the crown of the head is placed the faculty of Neschamah, which is the power of Aspiration unto that which is beyond’ (RGD 1, 203). The intermediate Chiah is ‘the real Life Principle’, and together the three form the more general Neschamah, associated with the Tree of Life’s Supernal Triad. Like the triangle formed by the Triad this faculty points upwards, while the energies are linked to the lower level of soul, Ruach, through the shadow Sephirah of Da’ath or Knowledge (RGD 1, 210), ‘which is not properly a Sephirah, but rather the conjunction of Chokmah and Binah’ (RGD 2, 117), placed on the Middle Pillar of Equilibrium or Reconciliation, so that the crucial elements are all effectively placed along the central axis of the Tree. It is at Da’ath that the forces are synthesised into the Spiritual Consciousness, which ‘is the focus of the action of Neschamah’ and the ‘faculty of the spiritual consciousness is the seat of Thought’ (RGD 1, 210-11) so that man’s ‘object is the development of the Daath principle which is in the head. . . . the link between Ruach and Neschamah’ (RMGD 146).

The ‘Higher Will manifests itself through Yechidah’ at Kether, which in turn is conveyed by Chiah, ‘the Life of the Spirit’ placed at Chokmah, into Neschamah at Binah, which is the will to aspire, and together these forces form the broader Neschamah, focusing downwards onto the Spiritual Consciousness (RGD 105; I 213).

& Constitution

(RGD 1, 180), and extracted in diagrammatic form from the text of ‘The Microcosm - Man’ (RGD 1, 203-216).

Neschamah itself reflects downwards through Da’ath into Ruach at the centre of the Tree, linked with all the Sephiroth from Chesed to Yesod, but most closely with the Sephirah of Tiphareth and placed in the ‘part above the heart’, which:

is the central citadel of the body and is the particular abode of the lower and more physical will. The higher will is in the Kether of the body. For the higher will to manifest, it must be reflected into the lower will by Neschamah. . . . But the human Neschamah exists only when the higher Will is reflected by the agency of aspiration from Kether into the lower body, and when the flaming letter Shin is placed like a crown on the head of Microprosopus. . . . The lower will is the human Jehovah-an angry and jealous God, the Shaker of Elements, the manifestor in the life of the body. But illuminated by the higher Will, he becometh Yeheshuah, no longer angry and jealous, but the self-sacrificer and the Atoning and Reconciling One.
(RGD 1, 205-06)

In this sense Neschamah often exists only in potential, like the largely unrealised levels of Theosophy’s Atman-Buddhi, but it is a medium to transfer the force of Kether rather than a force itself. Though the exaltation of self-sacrifice might have been less congenial within the antithetical bias of A Vision, the transformation of the jealous Jehovah, (Yod, Heh, Vau, Heh), into the esoteric Christ-principle Yeheshuah, (Yod, Heh, Shin, Vau, Heh), through the crowning fire, represented by the addition of the central letter Shin, associated with fire, would have had particular resonance for Yeats from the work of Blake, where the limiting Jehovah is linked to the fallen form of Urizen, the antagonist of Jesus as Divine Mercy in The Four Zoas. The dual form of higher and lower Will, linked by Neschamah, recalls the bridging function of Manas which can be split into its higher and lower forms in the Theosophical scheme, and may also indicate why Yeats chose the term ‘Will’, with echoes of magic and the Cabbala, over ‘Ego’, with echoes of Blavatsky’s Theosophy, for the dominant Faculty.

Ruach, ‘the reasoning mind’, is also the central co-ordinating power of the soul, the trunk with its four limbs, and these limbs manifest the four Sephiroth surrounding Tiphareth: Chesed and Geburah, the hands or ‘the executive power of the Ruach’, and Netzach and Hod, the feet or ‘the sustaining force of the Ruach’ (RGD 1, 206, 204, 207). The next central Sephirah, Yesod linked to the genitals, ‘is the seat of the lower desires’ and ‘the automatic consciousness. That is, not the Will, but the simulacrum of the Will in Tiphareth. Yesod is the lowest of the Sephiroth of the Ruach, and representeth “Fundamental Action”’ (RGD 1, 208). Yeats’s formulation of ‘Automatonism’ has affinities with this conception, arising ‘from the Mask and Creative Mind, when separated from the Body of Fate and Will’, and is perhaps particularly linked with the Mask or Image, the aesthetic object of desire, just as Yesod is associated with the Tzelem or Image. Yeats’s Automatonism represents an abdication from struggle towards the nature of the Tincture in which the soul is incarnated, which is natural so long as it is only temporary, and is even linked to the appreciation of art through the repetitions of rhythm and pattern, but pernicious if sustained (AV B 95), in the same way that the automatic consciousness of Yesod is only a simulacrum of even the lower form of Will.

Nephesch, though not the body itself, is intimately tied to the physical body, after the manner of the Theosophists’ Etheric Double: it ‘is the real, the actual body’, ‘the subtle body of refined astral Light upon which, as on an invisible pattern, the physical body is extended’, which ‘shineth through the Material body and formeth the Magical Mirror or Sphere of Sensation. This Magical Mirror or Sphere of Sensation is an imitation or copy of the Sphere of the Universe’, wherein ‘are represented all the occult forces of the Universe projected as on a sphere, convex to the outer, but concave to man’ existing inside its shell ( RGD 1, 209, 208, 203). This truer body is the Microcosm and in many ways analogous to Yeats’s Husk, with the Faculties reflected onto the circumference of the Wheel in the same way that in the Knowledge Lecture the astrological Ascendant is said to be fixed within the Sphere of Sensation. Similarly, Ruach can usefully be compared with the Passionate Body, and perhaps Neschamah with Spirit and Yechidah with Celestial Body another point of comparison is the possible parallels between the levels of consciousness, divine, spiritual, human and automatic and the Principles. Ultimately, though, the conceptions are very clearly separate and the Cabbalistic ideas are interesting more as analogous ways of anatomising the human condition, which both Yeatses would have known well, than as their sources.

Extended Tree of Life

There are other ideas and concepts which the Yeatses studied in the Golden Dawn, which contributed to their understanding of the System as it emerged. The human Sphere of Sensation is only a Microcosm of the lowest of the four realms of manifestation, while ‘the Shining Ones (whom we call Angels) are microcosms’ of the next higher level (RGD 106; I 215). Within this hierarchy therefore, the highest human manifestation is the lower manifestation of a higher being: ‘Behind Yechidah are Angelic and Archangelic Forces of which Yechidah is the manifestor. It is therefore the Lower Genius or Viceroy of the Higher Genius which is beyond, an Angel Mighty and Terrible’, while below the Nephesch is a further Tree of Qlippoth, Imbalance or Evil, focused in the Evil Persona, ‘and of it the part which toucheth the Malkuth of the Nephesch is its Kether’ (RGD 1, 215-16). The task of the Theoricus Adeptus Minor is to attempt to lift the Tree of his or her being, so that the Higher Genius takes control of the Yechidah, the Lower Genius or Higher Will takes control of the Ruach, and the evil forces of Qlippoth are expelled from the Nephesch, but dominated by it and turned into ‘a strength unto his physical base of action’ (RGD 1, 218).

If the emphasis is changed from spiritual aspiration to Romantic individuation, there are distinct parallels here as well with the antithetical perfection of A Vision. The Daimon is no angel in the conventional sense, but it is certainly ‘Mighty and Terrible’, and, of the host of beings which surround and connect with the human individual during life and afterwards, it is the only one that is permanently associated, a form of Higher Genius. In order to seek fulfilment, the human needs to respond to the challenges and direction of the Daimon and to master and expel the forces that would lead it to live out of phase, such as the Evil Persona, the Automatic Script’s first designation of False Creative Mind. This situation occurs when ‘in antithetical man the Daimonic mind is permitted to flow through the events of his life (the Daimonic Creative Mind) and so to animate his Creative Mind, without putting out its light, there is Unity of Being’ (AV A 28). It is probable that such Daimonic existence is open only to those few in the Phases around the Full Moon where true Unity of Being is possible, and only Yeats’s own Phase 17 merits the title ‘The Daimonic Man’ (AV B 140). The perfections of the primary incarnations accord more easily with conventional spirituality, but also show the need for Daimonic control; the individual is ‘pursued with hatred, or with love’ by the Daimon, but if the situation is accepted, the Daimon achieves antithetical exaltation, and the primary Unity or Union is with God or Nature (AV A 29-30).

Extended Overlapping Tree of life

Though the Automatic Script and its associated notes do not use many terms from the other traditions which the Yeatses knew, some from the Golden Dawn’s teachings did appear, most notably the concept of the ‘Evil Persona’ and the ‘Automatic’ Consciousness or Faculty. The Evil Persona entered into the very earliest communications, when the distinctive ideas and terminology of A Vision remained to be formulated, as the product of the clash between the ‘daily self’ and the ‘antithetical self’, and was distinguished from their harmonious product of the ‘artistic self’ (YVP 1 65). The Evil Persona was concerned with both artistic creation and its frustration, and was at one point defined as the ‘conquering of Anti by Primary’ (YVP 3; 145) and becomes increasingly distinct from the Golden Dawn’s forces of Qlippoth as it was gradually absorbed into the emerging construct of the Faculties, identified with the Evil Genius and from there evolving into the False Creative Mind, though the evolution entailed changes and adaptations in its formulation.

The concept of the Automatic Faculty persisted rather longer, quite naturally given the method of the Script’s communication, being used in AV A but omitted from AV B, and is one of the sources of the imagery of dreams and hypnagogic vision, a record of impressions independent of memory (AV A 245-46; YVP 1 286). It also enables the mind to think in sequence by letting it rest (YVP 1 294), and to prolong ‘an act that was in the first instance voluntary’ (AV A 246) or can thereby enable a form of dexterity or skill that is otherwise beyond the conscious mind (AV A 247-48). It is particularly associated with mediumship, and is described as being as ‘an element of personality’ analogous to the plasticity of the Spirits at Phase 1; in association with an external spirit it can create a form of ‘automatic personality which resembles the spirit, more or less accurately’ (AV A 246), an idea which Yeats expressed in non-technical terms by stating that every mediumistic phenomenon ‘is first of all a secondary personality or dramatisation created by, in or through the medium’ (VPl 967; Ex 364). The operation of the Automatic Faculty is neutral in itself, and ‘if the man desires truth itself that which comes will be the most profound truth possible to his fate’ (AV A 249); however, in negative terms what enables mediumship is a form of abdication from the personal Will allowing external influence to dominate, in the Cabbalistic view an emptying of Tiphareth. For Mathers, it is ‘vice’ which ‘brings about a species of automatic condition’, a failure of the lower or human Will, so that rather than striving to bring the Higher or Divine Will through Neschamah to inform the Lower Will of Ruach, the individual lets the human Will sink to the level of Yesod, still within Ruach, but at its automatic and unreflective level (RMGD 147). In Yeats’s System, lacking the moral connotations of Cabbalism, the equivalent of vice is the refusal to struggle which leads to sustained Automatonism.

The Cabbalistic formulations taught by the Golden Dawn were also significant in preparing the Yeatses for the geometry that so dominates A Vision. For instance, the meeting points of the Trees of Life in different worlds involve a ‘convoluted transmission’ of the forces from one world to the next, so that the transference is shown by an ‘Hour-glass symbol or double cone’. A consequence of the transference from one level to the next is that the ‘forces are caught up and whirled about by the upper cone of the hour glass symbol into the vortex where through passeth the thread of the unformulated, i.e. the Ain Soph. Thence they are projected in a whirling convolution (yet according unto their nature) through the lower cone of the hourglass symbol unto Kether’, so that the lower Kether is titled ‘the commencement of a whirling motion’ (RGD Vol. 4, pp. 248, 251, 247).

The Cabbalistic HourGlass

(RGD Vol. 4, 247, 250 & 253.) (1) The Malkuth of the higher Tree is projected into the Kether of the lower through Ain Soph, the Infinite, placed above Kether in the simple Tree. (2) The forces are transmitted through the Pole to the Equator involving a reversal and interchange in which the highest level does not take part, since it does not reflect downwards. (3) The constellation of Draco, which abuts the North Pole, is used to show the most powerful form of projection into the Zodiac, specifically touching the four fixed signs: Taurus (Fixed Earth), Leo (Fixed Fire), Scorpio (Fixed Water) and Aquarius (Fixed Air) which are also identified with the Living Forms or Kerubim of Ezekiel’s vision (Bull, Lion, Eagle and Man, with the Eagle regarded as an alternative symbol for Scorpio).

The interchange involved in the transfer from the Tree of one level to the next has kinship with the transfer from the Principles into the Faculties, from concave into convex mirror, where the relationships are reversed in the more material manifestation. Whether or not there is any influence, the complex geometry involved in such symbolism, which both husband and wife had studied over years, made them perfectly ready to deal with the ‘arbitrary, harsh, difficult symbolism’ (AV B 23) of A Vision and which would have made the symbolism of vortices and transference relatively familiar.

To move a little further into speculation on the forms of geometry which the Yeatses could have derived from the Golden Dawn’s use of the Tree of Life, there are certainly forms of the Diamond and the Hourglass on the Tree: the hour-glass centred on Tiphareth, Human Consciousness and Lower Will, while Spiritual Consciousness, centred on Da’ath, is placed within a diamond form with Higher Will at one point and Lower Will at the other. As with the similarities between the Cabbalistic divisions of the soul and the Principles, it is certainly instructive to compare the ideas of the hourglass and diamond with their use in the Yeatses’ System, where the hourglass represents the lower Principles of Husk and Passionate Body, while the diamond represents the Spirit and Celestial Body.

The Diamond and Hourglass on the Tree

The hourglass cones of Husk and Passionate Body meet at Phase 1 and 15, the latter like Tiphareth termed Beauty, while the Husk sustains the soul, like Netzach and Hod ‘the sustaining force of the Ruach’, and to an extent Passionate Body is, like Chesed and Geburah, ‘the executive power of the Ruach’. Within the diamond cones, which represent the sphere of the Celestial Body, the Spirit moves through a complete Solar year during a Phase of incarnate and discarnate existence, reaching the Summer Solstice at Beatitude, the equivalent of Lunar Phase 1, and the Winter Solstice at maturity of life, the equivalent of Lunar Phase 15 (see the After-Life and the Principles). The Cabbalists locate a ‘veil’ between the three Supernals and the rest of the Tree, and if one takes Yeatses’ diamond gyre as analogous to the diamond or kite formed by the three Supernal Sephiroth together with Tiphareth, then the passage across the veil into the Supernal realm is linked to the after-life, consummated at Kether (Phase 1), and the passage back across the veil as the descent into incarnate life towards Tiphareth (Phase 15) and back.

Such speculation is not idle. At one stage during the Automatic Script the Tree of Life was correlated with a ten-fold division of the Wheel, with Kether at Phase 1 and Tiphareth surrounding Phase 15:

The Sephiroth on the Cones

from 2 to 6 - Malkuth

from 7 to 9 - Yesod

from 9 to 11 - Hod

from 11 to 14 - Netzach

14 to 17 - Tiphareth

17 to 20 - Giburah

20 to 24 - Cheseh

24 to 26 - Binah

26 to 28 - Chokma

1 - Kether

(YVP 1 280)

The Sephiroth on the Wheel

This attempt at further syncretic correspondence was abandoned along with other potential correlations with the twenty-two Trumps of the Tarot and their associations with the Hebrew alphabet, and they probably owe more to Yeats’s passion for lists and correspondences than to any useful parallels. He later decided in 1924 that ‘all about the Tarot etc [was] frustration’ or disinformation by the spirit Leo, and it is clear that the numbers do not fit well, but he notes the Instructors’ use of a different tenfold division in the attributions of general characteristics of Creative Mind and Body of Fate, which he felt unable to regularise into twelve groupings (AV B 101-02), though the groupings of the Phases are rather different there is some broad similarity (note). In many ways the hierarchical Tree of Life is little suited to a circular schema, certainly in its simple form, although the connection between the Kether of a lower Tree and the Malkuth of a higher shows that within a continuous spiral there is no difficulty in progressing from the zenith of one Tree to the nadir of the next, as the soul proceeds from the end of once Cycle of incarnations to the beginning of the next Cycle.

For further consideration of Yeats and the Golden Dawn, see the essay "Esotericism and Escape," by C. Nicholas Serra in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
This title is available for free download from Clemson University Digital Press.

Esoteric and Occult Overview

The Human Being

The Principles

The Daimon



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last revised: 29/10/06