Occult Revival in the Origins of the Victorian Hermeticism

Alison Butler
Alison Butler

In early spring of 1888, a temple devoted to the study of magical arts opened its doors to the occult world of England. The Isis-Urania Temple in London was the first temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In an era of an immense occult and esoteric activity, such an establishment was scarcely remarkable on the surface.1 The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, however, proved to be truly unique in that it appeared to have no precedent for its focus on practical and ceremonial magic. Emerging in a society accustomed to the hierarchical and secretive nature of Freemasonry, the ghostly realm of the spiritualists, and the mysticism and mythology of the theosophists, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn stood out for its emphasis upon magic. It was an esoteric society for practising magicians.

The emergence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in late nineteenth-century England represents the development of a new dimension in Victorian intellectual history and marks an important turning point in the history of Western magic. There is a tendency in the academic study of magic to characterise magical belief and practice as irrational. This tendency is the result of a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the nature of magic and of its historical role in Western culture. This misrepresentation is dependent upon two erroneous interpretations of magical practice and belief.

The first interpretation is derived from a religious view of the world and the second from an apparent scientific view of the world.2 Early biblical religion provides us with some of the first written documents that deal with magic. In this forum magic is depicted as evil and forbidden yet, most importantly, it is portrayed as being quite real. This understanding of magic prevailed in the Middle Ages when unorthodox and deviant religious practices were classified by the Church as magical. The scientific viewpoint dismissed magic in favour of the more objectively verifiable applications of scientific practices and beliefs. The Age of Enlightenment furthered this early scientific approach by characterising magic not only as inefficient but also as irrational when placed under the scrutiny of newly established scientific and empirical methods. These two understandings of magic, one as terrible and real, and the other as inefficient and wrong, continue to taint the western comprehension of magic.

It is not only general cultural and social interpretations of magic that have misdirected our understanding. Academics across the disciplines have contributed to the chaotic conglomeration of notions that characterises the average Western definition of magic. Early academic study of magic was based on an understanding that magic belonged to more “primitive” and “irrational” times. The theory of magic that held sway in most academic examinations was that of Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) who defined magic by a law of similarity and in its differentiation from religion and science. James George Frazer argued that all magic functioned under some sort of sympathetic union between the magical intention and the physical object to be acted upon.3 The problem with his definitions can be found in his claim that magic was logically more primitive than religion and that the most backward culture was prolific in magic and barren in religion. James George Frazer believed that it was through the eventual recognition that magic was inefficacious that cultures turned to religion.

This Frazerian view of magic as being at the bottom of the totem pole of a linear notion of intellectual rationality is slowly disappearing from academic research. Important contributions to the study of magic from the ancient world to the modern day have been made throughout the last forty years. Dame Frances Amelia Yates has progressed the interpretation of magic as rational through her work on Renaissance Dollarspe and Elizabethan England. She presents the view that magical belief and practice are indicative not of delusion, superstition or ignorance, but rather of an ontological philosophy, a way of interpreting and participating in the world.4 Dame Frances Amelia Yates also contributes to the history of magic by arguing for a continuity of the occult philosophy from the thirteenth-century right up to the seventeenth-century by linking Christian cabalism with Rosicrucianism and tracing its path through some of the magical world’s most important thinkers.5

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, in his ‘Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality’, dismisses earlier definitions of magic, such as that of Dame Frances Amelia Yates, for their dependency upon an understanding of history as a progressive and linear process. He uses the example of Renaissance magic to show that while humanity is reaching new heights scientifically, which implies a progression in rationality, there is also a corresponding revival of interest in arcane magical texts, which also infers a reversion to the superstition and apparent irrationality of an earlier time. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah goes on to use this example to undermine the notion of history as a rational process.

North American anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann’s outstanding study of magic practitioners in late twentieth-century London breaks down the polarity, established by earlier anthropological and historical research into magic which categorises a magical mindset as irrational while viewing a Western mentality as rational. Tanya Marie Luhrmann disproves the notion of a magical mindset being exclusive to the Western world, explaining this magical mindset not in the context of the objective imposition of rational boundaries, but rather in the context of subjective interpretations of the world. As Tanya Marie Luhrmann rightly points out, a magician understands magical theory as coherent, ordered and rational.6

Antoine Faivre and Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff are two other contemporary scholars of magic who share and support the view that magical belief is part of a rational system of interpretation. Both Antoine Faivre and Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff argue for the recognition of Western esotericism as a worldview characterised by magical belief and practice, amongst other things.7

It has become obvious through this new and remarkable scholarship, that if the role of magic in society is ever to be understood, it must be accepted as part of the modern Western world as well as part of its past. Despite the recent work of scholars such as Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Antoine Faivre and Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff, which marks the beginning of sound scholarship in an area sadly neglected or poorly represented by past scholarship, the earlier biases still linger. The understanding of magic as an irrational and primitive intellectual viewpoint that is inferior to a scientific one is difficult to eradicate.

Through an examination of the origins of the revival of ritual magic in Victorian England, I will show how the continuation and expansion of the Western magical tradition in an era of scientific advancement and secularisation reflects the ongoing relevance of magic to intellectual history as a valid, popular and rational interpretation of the world.

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