Founding Chiefs of the Order of the Golden Dawn: Dr. William Wescott and Dr. Robert Woodman



1. Dr. William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925)

Dr. William Wynn Westcott was born in Leamington, Warkwickshire, England (the same area that Aleister Crowley hailed from). He was orphaned as a child and was adopted by his uncle, a medical doctor. He studied medicine at University College (London) and went into medical practice with his uncle; by the 1890s he was serving as Coroner in London and may have lent a hand in the investigation of the notorious "Jack the Ripper" murders in East London.

In 1875 Dr. Westcott joined the Masonic Lodge and sometime later joined the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.) which was open only to Master Masons (i.e., third degree or above.) Dr. Robert Woodman, another founding Chief of the Golden Dawn, was a fellow member of this society.

Westcott and MacGregor Mathers were members of the Theosophical Society. It is unclear if Dr. Woodman (below) was a member. Westcott was admitted to the nucleus of the Society, the Esoteric Section. W.B. Yeats was also a member of this section. When the members of the Esoteric Section broke away from the Theosophical Society, they formed the Hermetic Society in 1884, and Westcott was invited to join as an honorary member.

An amateur scholar claimed to have found the Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscripts in a cupboard where a leading Masonic figure of the time had stored them. He showed the manuscripts to Dr. Westcott, due to Westcott's reputation as a scholar of ancient lore. The cipher used in the Golden Dawn manuscripts was similar to one used in the 15th century by Abbott Trithemius to encode some of his writings. This cipher was already known to Westcott when he received the documents since he possessed a copy of Trithemius' works on the cipher. Westcott was fully conversant with Masonic rituals, and immediately realized that the Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscripts were a series of five summarized grade initiations.

He commissioned MacGregor Mathers to re-write the rituals into a workable shape. He chose Mathers due to the latter's reputation as a translator of occult texts and his particular experience and erudition with occult lore and the fact that Mathers was both a Masonic Brother and a co-leader of S.R.I.A.

Westcott, Woodman, and Mathers were all IVth degree initiates of the S.R.I.A., and thus formed its governing triad. Outwardly, the Golden Dawn represented a deepening extension of S.R.I.A.. with its emphasis on Ritual Magic, Alchemy, and the Qabalah.

Dr. Westcott was very influential in the formation and working of the Golden Dawn. He was responsible for running the Golden Dawn in its early years. He was Praemonstrator of the Isis-Urania Temple in London and was the order's organizing genius. His duties included being "recorder of minutes," superintendent of the 5=6 admission, corresponding secretary and treasurer, not to mention the order's Chief Adept in Anglia from 1896 until the schism. Many manuscripts exist to this date written by his hand, which are principal instruction documents for the Golden Dawn and its Second Order. This multiplicity of functions and offices, in addition to his duties as Coroner, must have filled his every minute.

Both Westcott and Mathers taught Qabalah, Alchemy, Astrology, Geomantic and Tarot Divination, Tattwa Vision and the Pentagram Ritual to G.D. members. Much of the background material for these teachings came from Westcott; his occult and metaphysical library was unrivaled in his day, and served as the library of the S.R.I.A.. The grade structure of the Golden Dawn paralleled that of the S.R.I.A., with the exception of the highest degree of Ipsissimus, which was reserved for Jesus in the mythology of the S.R.I.A.

Westcott stressed the essential nature of having ten grades, for they represent the ten Sephiroth of the Qabalistic Tree of Life. In the Golden Dawn document entitled "Historical Lecture”, Westcott states: "The S.R.I.A. and its branches in the several countries, and the Golden Dawn Order both descended from the same parents and predecessors; the one developed into a masculine and Masonic system; the other remaining the ancient and more extended basis of the admission of all bona-fide students: rich or poor and without regard to sex, may alike go on and prosper without interfering with the tranquillity of the other and can lead true and patient students who can Will - Dare - Learn - and Be Silent to the Summon Bonum, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness."

By 1896 the Golden dawn was having many internal problems. Also around this time Westcott was requested by political authorities to cease his occult activities with the Golden Dawn. The Order was achieving notoriety in the press, and it was not seen fit for a man of Westcott's station to be associated with such vulgarities. Westcott ceased all outward activities with the Golden Dawn but was still very much involved with its functioning, through either the Masonic or the S.R.I.A. channels. In 1900 Dr. Westcott again joined the Golden Dawn in the rival Isis-Urania Temple of the Stella Matutina and became its Praemonstrator. Westcott never sided against Mathers during the entire schism.

Westcott published a large number of works, besides his medical treatises. Many of his writings were in the form of brief handbooks, dealing with such subjects as Alchemy, Astrology, Death, Divination, Numerology, Serpent Myths, Talismans, and Theosophy. He also translated the Sepher Yetzirah into English.

He retired in 1918 and emigrated to South Africa, where he continued work with the Theosophical Society and probably the Masons as well up until his death in Durban in 1925.

 

2. Dr. W. Robert Woodman (1828-1891)

Tthe least known of the three original Chiefs of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Dr. Woodman was described in a Rosicrucian Society pamphlet written by Westcott as "a student of Old Hebrew Philosophy (Qabalah) and Egyptian Antiquities. He was familiar with works of Gnostics, Platonists, Neo-Platonists, and Medieval Sciences such as: Astrology, Alchemy and the Tarot." He was a physician in London and became Secretary to the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA) in 1867.

Mathers and Wescott were fellow-Masons in this group with Woodman, thus providing the "missing link" to the evolution of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Dr. Woodman was clearly the eldest of the three when the group was formed, and served as a mentor to Wescott just as Wescott would serve as mentor to Mathers (who, in his turn, would serve as mentor for Allan Bennett and Aleister Crowley; and Crowley served as mentor to Israel Regardie.)

The trio (Mathers, Wescott, and Woodman) created the G.D. out of what they perceived as a need among the esoterically-inclined members of the public for a group devoted to the study of occultism and ritual, separate from the ossified Masonic lodges, and not dependent upon Madam Blavatsky's Theosophical "orientalism," which they found alien to their experience.

Woodman stayed out of the limelight. His advanced age, ill health, and the fact that he lived some distance away in the suburbs, kept him apart from the egregore to some extent. Still, his age and experience lent the fledgling Order the air of respectibility it needed, and rarely possessed anytime thereafter. Unfortunately, Dr. Woodman died in 1891, when the Order had barely begun; perhaps had he lived longer, the fatal schism of 1900 may have been delayed or averted.

BACK TO BIO INDEX