Monday, 13 June 2011 21:22

Mathers

The theory and practice of magic seems to have undergone two major periods of revolution and revival in the last couple of centuries, the first began towards the end of the nineteenth century and the second began in the last third of the twentieth century.

Of course esoteric and occult endeavors always continue behind the façade of mainstream culture, but in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in the last few of decades of the twentieth, revolutions in magical theory occurred which led to huge changes in practice.

The intellectual lineage of modern magical thought seems to begin with Eliphas Levi who provided us with two basic insights, firstly that we might find correspondences between seemingly unrelated symbolic systems. Specifically he managed to find or forge correspondences between Kabala and Tarot, and between various ‘god forms’ such as ancient nature deities like Pan and the Horned God and the Templar’s Baphomet and the Christian Devil or Lucifer.

Secondly Levi started a breakout from the ‘Spiritist’ paradigm, which had previously dominated esoteric thought, with his idea of an ‘Astral Light’ as the medium of magical effects. Whilst his musings on the subject remain sketchy, they did at least introduce the idea of some kind of potentially understandable ‘mechanism’ for magic that didn’t depend on the capricious whim of mysterious ‘spirits’.

After Levi the most influential Mage of recent times arises, a man whose influence on Magic equals Darwin’s influence on Biology, Marx’s influence on Politics, and Freud’s influence on Psychology, and I don’t mean Aleister Crowley, I mean Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers.

The synthesis that Mathers achieved would come to dominate western magical thought for the 20th century, yet he remains an elusive figure, he wrote a great deal, but he wrote little or nothing about himself. He appears as the leading light in the formation and leadership of the Magical Order of the Golden Dawn and the probable author of the great majority of its papers and rituals and practices.

We need to realize that at the time Mathers worked on translating manuscripts and setting up the Golden Dawn, popular western esotericism consisted largely of tawdry Spiritualism, the faux orientalism of Theosophy, and a few remnants of Rosicrucian ideas supported within fringe freemasonry.

Mathers set to work in the British Museum reading room and translated medieval and rennaissance grimoires and books on kabala into English, at a time when such texts remained the province of specialized academics only. He worked with a fringe Masonic group, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, with whose members Eliphas Levi had had some contact, and by combining some of their ideas with the fruits of his own scholarship and imagination he seems to have conjured up the whole Golden Dawn system pretty much by himself.

Now as with Darwin’s Origin of Species, or Marx’s Das Kapital, or for that matter Newton’s Principia Mathematica, few people in the respective fields nowadays read the extremely longwinded original texts. Yet everyone in those fields understands the fundamental and seminal ideas.

Mathers attempted an omniscient eclecticism in which he sought to bring together all esoteric knowledge under an umbrella decorated with a late form of kabala, motifs from late classical paganism and ‘pagan-monotheism’, hermeticism, Egyptology, renaissance magic, rosicrucianism and freemasonry. Despite that it didn’t all dovetail neatly together he just kept adding more and more; alchemy, enochiana, goetia, even bits of orientalism like tattwas and chackras, and semi-spiritualistic things like astral travel. He effectively created a fairly accessible encyclopedia of esoterics, and an order to teach it.

So where does the great breakthrough lie in all that?

I think it lies precisely in the insight that the magician can and should use ideas from all those kinds of traditions because they all have their uses in structuring the quest for perception, will, imagination, psychic ability, genius and alternative wisdom that the magician pursues.

Whilst this idea seems standard enough now, it would have seemed revolutionary at the time.

Mathers did of course employ the hierarchical gambit, and pretended to deliver his knowledge from ‘hidden chiefs’, following the model of theosophy. Whilst this tactic facilitated the formation of his order it proved a poor long term strategy and led to an eventual calling of his bluff and to schism.

All of Aliester Crowley’s ideas about magic came directly from Mathers. Crowley merely added sex and drugs and a near-psychopathic personality to the mix. Crowley seems to have virtually worshipped Mathers for a while, but after a time the rich, loud and wild young Crowley and the quieter more reclusive older Mathers fell out terminally, probably because Crowley wanted to usurp the top dog position and take over the whole system, which in many ways he did eventually.

All of the western esoteric traditions of the twentieth century have borrowed from the encyclopedic corpus that Mathers brought to light and developed. They all consist of ‘revivals’ and most of them didn’t need to look further back than Mathers to find plenty of material to re-clothe the bare bones of lost or non-existent historical traditions.

Chaos magic didn’t even bother to pretend to antique historical precedent; it simply worked forward from the Golden Dawn through Crowley and Austin Spare and added some unashamedly modern ideas as well.

Of Mathers the man, scholarship has uncovered surprisingly little so far.

Samuel Liddell(or Liddel) "MacGregor" Mathers (January 8 or 11, 1854 – November 5 or 20, 1918)

Doubt remains about his exact dates of birth and death, and nobody has attempted a biography of him yet, although many have made references to parts of his astonishing career, for he met with many famous or later to become famous people.

It seems that he rarely had much money and that he did a bit of part time soldiering and quite a bit of boxing. The few photographs of him show a tall athletic handsome man. He apparently displayed many eccentricities including vegetarianism and styling himself a Scottish laird. He enjoyed a lifelong marriage to Moina who he met in the British Museum, they appeared devoted and she kept fragments of his order going for a decade after his death. Her assertion, in a letter to Annie Horniman, that their marriage remained unconsummated and celibate sounds suspiciously like a ruse to ingratiate herself with Annie, a very rich spinster who financially supported the order for a time. However the marriage produced no children.    

Mathers could apparently read an astonishing variety of modern and ancient languages, yet he never seems to have had any sort of proper profession, apart from Magus of course………

 

Someone should write his biography. If you have any leads to unpublished material please email them to me and I will endeavor to pass them on to someone who might just do so.

Oops, a biography does exist, as someone just pointed out, http://www.scribd.com/doc/13033799/Ithell-Colquhoun-Sword-of-Wisdom- interesting stuff.

 

The theory and practice of magic seems to have undergone two major periods of revolution and revival in the last couple of centuries, the first began towards the end of the nineteenth century and the second began in the last third of the twentieth century.

Of course esoteric and occult endeavors always continue behind the façade of mainstream culture, but in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in the last few of decades of the twentieth, revolutions in magical theory occurred which led to huge changes in practice.

The intellectual lineage of modern magical thought seems to begin with Eliphas Levi who provided us with two basic insights, firstly that we might find correspondences between seemingly unrelated symbolic systems. Specifically he managed to find or forge correspondences between Kabala and Tarot, and between various ‘god forms’ such as ancient nature deities like Pan and the Horned God and the Templar’s Baphomet and the Christian Devil or Lucifer.

Secondly Levi started a breakout from the ‘Spiritist’ paradigm, which had previously dominated esoteric thought, with his idea of an ‘Astral Light’ as the medium of magical effects. Whilst his musings on the subject remain sketchy, they did at least introduce the idea of some kind of potentially understandable ‘mechanism’ for magic that didn’t depend on the capricious whim of mysterious ‘spirits’.

After Levi the most influential Mage of recent times arises, a man whose influence on Magic equals Darwin’s influence on Biology, Marx’s influence on Politics, and Freud’s influence on Psychology, and I don’t mean Aleister Crowley, I mean Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers.

The synthesis that Mathers achieved would come to dominate western magical thought for the 20th century, yet he remains an elusive figure, he wrote a great deal, but he wrote little or nothing about himself. He appears as the leading light in the formation and leadership of the Magical Order of the Golden Dawn and the probable author of the great majority of its papers and rituals and practices.

We need to realize that at the time Mathers worked on translating manuscripts and setting up the Golden Dawn, popular western esotericism consisted largely of tawdry Spiritualism, the faux orientalism of Theosophy, and a few remnants of Rosicrucian ideas supported within fringe freemasonry.

Mathers set to work in the British Museum reading room and translated medieval and rennaissance grimoires and books on kabala into English, at a time when such texts remained the province of specialized academics only. He worked with a fringe Masonic group, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, with whose members Eliphas Levi had had some contact, and by combining some of their ideas with the fruits of his own scholarship and imagination he seems to have conjured up the whole Golden Dawn system pretty much by himself.

Now as with Darwin’s Origin of Species, or Marx’s Das Kapital, or for that matter Newton’s Principia Mathematica, few people in the respective fields nowadays read the extremely longwinded original texts. Yet everyone in those fields understands the fundamental and seminal ideas.

Mathers attempted an omniscient eclecticism in which he sought to bring together all esoteric knowledge under an umbrella decorated with a late form of kabala, motifs from late classical paganism and ‘pagan-monotheism’, hermeticism, Egyptology, renaissance magic, rosicrucianism and freemasonry. Despite that it didn’t all dovetail neatly together he just kept adding more and more; alchemy, enochiana, goetia, even bits of orientalism like tattwas and chackras, and semi-spiritualistic things like astral travel. He effectively created a fairly accessible encyclopedia of esoterics, and an order to teach it.

So where does the great breakthrough lie in all that?

I think it lies precisely in the insight that the magician can and should use ideas from all those kinds of traditions because they all have their uses in structuring the quest for perception, will, imagination, psychic ability, genius and alternative wisdom that the magician pursues.

Whilst this idea seems standard enough now, it would have seemed revolutionary at the time.

Mathers did of course employ the hierarchical gambit, and pretended to deliver his knowledge from ‘hidden chiefs’, following the model of theosophy. Whilst this tactic facilitated the formation of his order it proved a poor long term strategy and led to an eventual calling of his bluff and to schism.

All of Aliester Crowley’s ideas about magic came directly from Mathers. Crowley merely added sex and drugs and a near-psychopathic personality to the mix. Crowley seems to have virtually worshipped Mathers for a while, but after a time the rich, loud and wild young Crowley and the quieter more reclusive older Mathers fell out terminally, probably because Crowley wanted to usurp the top dog position and take over the whole system, which in many ways he did eventually.

All of the western esoteric traditions of the twentieth century have borrowed from the encyclopedic corpus that Mathers brought to light and developed. They all consist of ‘revivals’ and most of them didn’t need to look further back than Mathers to find plenty of material to re-clothe the bare bones of lost or non-existent historical traditions.

Chaos magic didn’t even bother to pretend to antique historical precedent; it simply worked forward from the Golden Dawn through Crowley and Austin Spare and added some unashamedly modern ideas as well.

Of Mathers the man, scholarship has uncovered surprisingly little so far.

Samuel Liddell(or Liddel) "MacGregor" Mathers (January 8 or 11, 1854 – November 5 or 20, 1918)

Doubt remains about his exact dates of birth and death, and nobody has attempted a biography of him yet, although many have made references to parts of his astonishing career, for he met with many famous or later to become famous people.

It seems that he rarely had much money and that he did a bit of part time soldiering and quite a bit of boxing. The few photographs of him show a tall athletic handsome man. He apparently displayed many eccentricities including vegetarianism and styling himself a Scottish laird. He enjoyed a lifelong marriage to Moina who he met in the British Museum, they appeared devoted and she kept fragments of his order going for a decade after his death. Her assertion, in a letter to Annie Horniman, that their marriage remained unconsummated and celibate sounds suspiciously like a ruse to ingratiate herself with Annie, a very rich spinster who financially supported the order for a time. However the marriage produced no children.    

Mathers could apparently read an astonishing variety of modern and ancient languages, yet he never seems to have had any sort of proper profession, apart from Magus of course………

 

Someone should write his biography. If you have any leads to unpublished material please email them to me and I will endeavor to pass them on to someone who might just do so.

Oops, a biography does exist, as someone just pointed out, http://www.scribd.com/doc/13033799/Ithell-Colquhoun-Sword-of-Wisdom- interesting stuff.

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