(1854 - 1918)
Brief Biography © 2008 Fra. Petros xristos Magister (8=3)
Samuel Liddell Mathers was the most important of the group of founders of the Golden Dawn, and is responsible for most of its written rituals and other documents that are still in print and in use today by a wide variety of Golden Dawn offshoots.
He was born a Capricorn on January 8, 1854 in London. Despite his English birth and surname, he claimed to be a descendant of the clan MacGregor and of Highland Scottish blood, and thus added the Scots name to his own. Later he would incorporate the MacGregor clan motto as his G.D. name: "S' Rioghail Mo Dhrem," i.e., Royal are my people. His love for Scotland made him a devoted Jacobite (an advocate for the restoration of the Scottish house of Stuart to the English throne); his mysticism led him to frame his persona as a reincarnation of the Scottish king James IV, himself a purported necromancer of some repute.
He had a lifelong interest in ceremonial ritualism in addition to his more secular interest in warfare and the theory of military technique (thus explaining his other G.D. motto, taken from a Mars talisman, viz.: "Deo Duce, Comite Ferro," or "God my Guide, my Companion a Sword.") Despite this Martial tendency, Mathers was a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist, as well as an early advocate for women's rights, and a non-smoker -- all of which endeared him to his early mentor, Anna Kingsford, a suffragrette and hermeticist. Mathers was apparently an autodidact and was proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Celtic and Coptic. He met Helena Blavatsky at least once, and perhaps it was she who gave him a vital clue to seek out the "Secret Chiefs" who would come to inpsire him to create a magical Order. Or perhaps it was the Secret Chiefs who saw to it that Mathers would meet Blavatsky first?
It was Mathers who made the first English translation of part of the Kabbalah Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled.) This work was commissioned by Mathers' two other associates of the formative Golden Dawn, Dr. Woodman and Dr. Westcott, whom he met as a member of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), a proto-Golden Dawn and quasi-Masonic group. It was about this time that the first discussions leading to the creation of the Golden Dawn were taking place. Mathers as well as other early founders of the G.D. often met at the British Museum or haunted the nearby bookshops to study and discuss Masonry, Rosicrucianism, and the Western ceremonial magic tradition.
Upon Woodman's death in 1891, Mathers assumed leadership of the Order. In 1894 Mathers and his wife moved permanently to Paris. By 1900 the Order had suffered from a fatal schism; Mathers' authoritarian administrative style proved to be too much for some of the members. He found himself temporarily in league with Aleister Crowley (himself a colorful character, also given to Highland fashion accoutrements and pompous declarations) and in opposition to W.B. Yeats and the majority of members across the Channel in England. By 1901 the original G.D. no longer existed, at least by that name, having given way to several splinter-groups with various names and lengths of life. Mathers still continued to oversee several SRIA temples until his death in 1918, however.
Mathers was the author of almost all of the important Golden Dawn teachings and documents. In addition to making accessible to a wider audience of initiates the work of John Dee and his Angelic Magic, Mathers also developed the underlying theory of the Tarot that most users of it are familiar with today. He also made some of the first groundbreaking contributions in the areas of magical technique, invocation, and various forms of divination which are still useful to this day. He also was responsible for incorporating the ancient Egyptian pantheon and theological concepts into the Golden Dawn, an event without which the entire Order would be very different (and metaphysically poorer) today.
For those who follow Aleister Crowley, it is important to realize that the two men were in league for a while and that Mathers' translation of The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage was held in very high regard by Crowley, who actually followed its instructions and attained the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel by means of its potency. Although Crowley is not generally held in much esteem by modern afficianadoes of the Golden Dawn, the Order was one of the most significant influences on Crowley's magical life, and that influence derives its personal connection directly from MacGregor Mathers.
Mathers was, from the outset, not so unlike Crowley, if less extreme: he was an eccentric and recalcitrant egotist, as is an almost inevitable occupational hazard among magicians. It is also an indispensable quality for a leader of a group of ceremonial magicians, and Mathers certainly was in some ways an exhibitionist who loved the drama of ritual and ceremony. It was inevitable that the two men would become associates for a time, and equally inevitable that they would have to part ways with characteristic fire and lightning.
Though Mathers died in 1918 at the age of 64, no cause of death was listed on his death certificate, and the location of his grave was never publically made known.
Following are some selections from the well-known Manifesto of Mathers, originally intended for newly-initiated Theoricus Adeptus Minores, but revealing in that it shows how he saw himself (and wished others to see him) in the framework of the whole Order, as well as giving a glimpse of the nature of the Secret Chiefs and the powerful energies invoked through them:
Prior to the establishment of the Vault of the Adepti in Brittania. . . it was found absolutely and imperatively necessary that there should be some eminent Member especially chosen to act as a link between the Secret Chiefs and the more external forms of the Order.
It was requisite that such a member should be one who, while having the necessary and peculiar educational basis of critical and profound Occult archaeological knowledge, should at the same time be not only ready but willing to devote himself in every sense to a blind and unreasoning obedience to those Secret Chiefs; to pledge himself for the fidelity of those to whom this wisdom was to be communicated; to be one who would shrink neither from danger physical, astral or spiritual, from privation and hardship, nor from terrible personal and psychic responsibility; one who, while receiving for transmission the Hidden Wisdom of the Rosy Cross, should be willing to pledge himself under the severest penalties possible that the Order should be worked in conformity with the principles laid down by those Secret Chiefs not only for the present time but in future also; and who should further possess an iron Will unable to be broken by any unlooked for opposition that might arise in the carrying out of those duties; he must further pledge himself to obey in everything the commands of the aforesaid Secret Chiefs, body and soul, without question and without argument whether their commands related to magical action in the external world, military action in the external world, or to psychic action in other worlds and planes, whether Angelic, spiritual or demonic, or to the Inner administration of the Order to which so tremendous a knowledge was to be communicated.
And that he must further be prepared to abide in any country; to undertake any journey at a moment's notice, or to confront the chances of death, pestilence, or elemental upheaval, if called upon in the course of fulfilling their commands to do so; that he would further undertake, whatever might occur, never to lose faith in the Chiefs of the Order, and to keep his body in such a condition of physical health and especially of vital energy that the ordinary chances of corporeal illness and exhaustion should not be permitted to become any bar to his constant efforts and exertions.
All this and yet further conditions were insisted upon as the only pledges under which this Divine Wisdom was to be permitted to be given out; and these had to be confirmed by the most terrible obligations. I, MacGregor Mathers, S. Rioghail Ma Dhream (5=6), Deo Duce Comite Ferro (7=4), was the Frater selected for this Work. . . .
The working of the Second Order having been thus initiated I was enabled to proceed to the acquirement of the Wisdom of the Zelator Adeptus Minor Grade for transmission to you. A work, the enormous strain and labour of which it would be impossible for me to exaggerate. For you must not think that the obtaining of this knowledge of the Second Order for you has been merely and simply the somewhat commonplace labour of translating a heap of unclassified manuscripts ready placed in my hands for that purpose. This might indeed be difficult and fatiguing, but it would be the merest childs' play compared with the herculean task I have been called upon to execute.
Concerning the Secret Chiefs of the Order, to whom I make reference and from whom I have received the Wisdom of the Second Order which I have communicated to you, I can tell you nothing. I know not even their earthly names. I know them only by certain secret mottos. I have but very rarely seen them in the physical body; and on such rare occasions the rendezvous was made astrally by them. They met me in the flesh at the time and place which had been astrally appointed beforehand. For my part, I believe them to be human and living upon this earth, but possessing terrible superhuman powers. When such rendezvous has been in a much frequented place, there has been nothing in their personal appearance or dress to mark them out as differing in any way from ordinary people except the appearance and sensation of transcendental health and physical vigour (whether they seemed persons in youth or in age) which was their invariable accompaniment. In other words, the physical appearance which the possession of the Elixir of Life has traditionally been supposed to confer.
On the other hand, when the rendezvous has been in a place free from easy access by the Outer World they have usually been in symbolic robes and insignia. But my physical intercourse with them on these rare occasions has shown me how difficult it is for a mortal, even though advanced in occultism, to support the actual presence of an Adept in the physical body; and such meetings have never been granted by my own personal request but only by their own special appointment, and usually only for some reason of extra vital importance.
I do not mean that in such rare cases of physical converse with them that the effect produced on me was that intense physical exhaustion which follows depletion of magnetism, but, on the contrary, the sensation was that of being in contact with so terrible a force that I can only compare it to the continued effect of that usually experienced momentarily by any person close to whom a flash of lightning passes during a violent storm, coupled with a difficulty in respiration similar to the half strangling effect produced by ether . . . .
Almost the whole of the Second Order knowledge has been obtained by me from them' in various ways by clairvoyance, by astral projection on their part and on mine, by the Table, by the Ring and the Disc, at times by a direct voice audible to my external ears. . .and at times copied from books brought before me, I know not how, and which disappeared from my vision when the transcription was finished, at times by appointment astrally at a certain place, till then unknown to me, an appointment made in the same manner and kept in the same manner as in the case of those rare occasions when I have met them by appointment in the physical body.
The strain of such labour has been, as you can conceive, enormous. . . .
The Temples of the Order are places for the performance of Sacred Ceremonies, and the petty criticisms and uncharitablenesses of social clubs and drawing rooms shall be rigidly banished from them.
To invoke carelessly or inadequately the Divine White Brilliance and the Forms of the Eternal Gods while permitting your mind and lower personality to be filled with uncharitableness towards your neighbour, self-righteous pride, and trivial social considerations, is an abominable blasphemy. . . .
It is possible for you to be word perfect in all the knowledge of the Zelator Adeptus Minor Grade, and to know all its ceremonies by rote, and yet unless you can really and profoundly grasp their inner meaning, an uninitiated person who has a strong will, faith, reverence, self-sacrifice and perseverance, may be more truly a Magician than you. . .
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