Book Review – King Over the Water

It is a funny old world. Because of publishing vagaries Nick Farrell’s projected second book on Samuel Mathers and the Alpha et Omega, ‘Mathers Last Secret‘ came out first, followed recently by the subject of this review, the excellent ‘King over the Water: Samuel Mathers and the Golden Dawn‘. However, because of the vagaries inherent in supporting local non-esoteric bookstores in an online age, I have yet to receive my copy. So, I was lucky to read the projected first volume, first 🙂 There have been hints of a third, “Mathers Last Torch” but we will see…

One of the selling points of this wonderful work is printed boldly on the back cover:

This is the first history of the [Golden Dawn] Order written by someone who uses the system and understands what this group was attempting.

And indeed, this is so. Mr Farrell has produced something unique here: a brilliant mixture of solid reporting of historical information combined with an experienced magician’s insights and publication of original documents.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one is a history of the Order and particularly Samuel Mathers. Part two focuses on selected Golden Dawn teachings, original documents and learned commentaries. The book is therefore a gold mine for any and all students of magic, the GD or anyone interested in the western mystery traditions. It has something for everyone, and everyone will be enriched for purchasing it.

As I read the first pages of part one I felt a little dissonance. I soon realised that this was because Mr Farrell, though writing a history, was actually engaged with his subject. Pretty much all other histories on the Golden Dawn, or biographies of Mathers are either polemics masquerading as history or written by people disinterested in the Order, critical of it or by their own choices are not engaged in the spiritual magic it promotes. I was not used to Mr Farrell’s approach, which I soon warmed to.

I want to be clear here: at no time in the book does Mr Farrell allow his personal engagement in the Golden Dawn to interfere with his historical reporting. Obviously we all have our own perspectives and when we write we carry them into the writing, but Mr Farrell does not distort the facts or established timelines. Indeed his solid magical perspective only illuminates a number of insoluble or unexplored questions within previous biographies of Mathers. An example of this is the Horos affair, when Mathers was duped by a decidedly nasty couple of con-artists. Previous commentators have assumed that Mathers thought Mrs Horos was Fraulein Sprengel, the link to the supposed original Order, but as Mr Farrell points out:

…if you look at the various letters Mathers wrote about her, it is clear that he did not think Horos was Sprengel, just someone who could channel her. He described her as one the best mediums he had every encountered and what appears to have happened was that Sprengel turned up during séance sessions. (p.93, italics in original).

Note well Mr Farrell’s turn of phrase here, ‘what appears to have happened…’ – throughout the book he clearly states when he is reporting fact or making sense by filling in a missing dot or two. This is a very important trait in a field filled with people who have little scholastic or academic sensibilities.  Other examples of this initiated reading of history include showing that Mathers’ contact with the Secret Chiefs was always interior, even when Mathers may have been acting in the exterior world. In fact, Mr Farrell gives the bare bones of a very powerful ‘contact’ process, which I had previously assumed stemmed from the Fraternity of the Inner Light:

For example, you are told to go to St Peter’s square and at a certain time you start to meditate. You are supposed to feel the contacts and suddenly one will stand out. This contact will come to you in your Astral vision to talk to you. To the lay person you are meditating with your eyes open. To you, the meditation is placed over the physical reality. The location is often a holy spot where the energies are supposed to help the message come through. (pp 82-83).

So many notes... so much good stuff

Mr Farrell also gives a much clearer indication of the type of reactionary politics that so interested Mathers than most previous commentators. This is important because so much of Mather’s energies, choices and resources seem to have been channelled into that arena as his Order flailed and foundered. Most modern magicians and pagans, who tend towards more open and liberal political expressions, would be aghast and shocked at the politics, extremism, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism espoused by our spiritual ancestors. But it’s all there to see, and Mr Farrell treats the subject very well.

Throughout the book, and linking parts one and two, is the theme that Mathers and Westcott in creating the Golden Dawn created something far more wonderful, far more intelligent than they knew. That the Order itself was and is guided by its own inner genius and that Mathers, after a few short years failed to be a vehicle for that genius and ended up producing some pretty mediocre magical material indeed.  Apart from people who, like Ithell Colquhoun, feel the need to kiss Mather’s portrait and adore his very memory, it has long been known that, to quote Mr Farrell, Mathers was “never the most stable of people”.

Mr Farrell traces the source of this instability to Mathers early life and inability to change or submit to anything that would not bolster his ego-need. It was to prove a disastrous situation for the Golden Dawn. Talking of Mathers’ connection to the Secret Chiefs (contacts), he writes:

Being off one’s contacts, in Theosophical terms, tended to happen if you had done something wrong. Ask someone who uses this system what they think might have happened and you would get the following answer. Mathers was given a choice. He had to choose between his fantasy politics, lose his income and split the Order, or uphold the contact he had already made and carry on. He was unable to surrender his Scottish-Synaric fantasy and so he was abandoned and soon everything came crashing down.” (p93).

Before everything started to fall apart though, there was a brief golden time where Mathers produced some essential magical texts. Mr Farrell rightly points out the supreme importance of the Z Documents, and in part two reproduces a complete older version of them than previously published. Now this is very, very interesting and a great service to the community. Similarly, there are reproductions in print of the Book of the Tomb and other documents, including a wonderful commentary on ‘Ritual W Minutum Mundum’ by an anonymous modern Golden Dawn magician.

Part two shines however with Mr Farrell’s commentaries on the Z document. Here he shows his own experience and skill as a magician and these commentaries are recommended reading for the all GD magicians, particularly the section on the Sphere of Sensation.

The overall thrust of the book is that the genius of the Golden Dawn spoke briefly to Mathers before his decisions rejected it, whence it was later explored and given voice in the more magically orientated Orders such as the Stella Matutina and Whare Ra. Mr Farrell provides plenty of evidence for this, including a big list of shortcuts to the Neophyte initiation ceremony Mathers used in later years, some of which really boggle this magician’s mind. Anyone of them would render the initiation less effective, or ineffective. Mathers also clearly, in later years, used the awarding of higher grades as method of bringing in money.

Some people have questioned the idea that the Golden Dawn system contains its own genius, that it is within the system, that it did not all come through Mathers and putative physical continental adepts. However, it is clear the system does function that way. Over the last 25 years I have seen several examples of groups working only with the Regardie compilation develop serious magical explorations, where the system literally speaks to them. Besides, as magicians we all know symbols, myths and rituals are alive, so much more a tradition.

That people can produce something beyond themselves, something they cannot fully understand is clearly shown in various literary works. Authors who engage deeply with myths are used by those myths. Mr Farrell in this lucid and open book shows clearly that Mathers and Westcott produced something that is still capable of, and in need of, being finished or expanded today, 120 years later. Some this work is being done by adepts like Mr Farrell and others across the world. Fruits of this work will no doubt be published in time.

As a youthful magician learning about the Order, I would trace the timeline from1888 with the foundation of the Order, through 1892 and the Inner Order to 1900 and the revolt and then… Well, back then there was very little to be said of Mathers in the nearly twenty years before his death in 1918.

Young and naive, I assumed since most of the AO material had not been published, that there was a still secret branch of the Order that had wonderful techniques, processes and wisdom produced by Mathers et al in these 20 or so years. It is exactly this kind of naive logic that modern shonky Orders have exploited in their claims to be torch bearers for Mathers. And it is exactly these sort of myths that Mr Farrell explodes in this book. This is a very much needed thing, as both naivety and shonky Orders remain today.

Overall, I think this book needs to be on the shelves of every Golden Dawn initiate, every magician and everyone who wants to learn from history and avoid the mistakes of Samuel Mathers. Well done, Mr Farrell!

Publishers website

Author’s website

On Amazon



  1. Mam Adar · March 14, 2012

    “Shonky”? That’s a term I’ve never heard before. 🙂

    I think Amazon may already have recommended this book to me, or else someone else reviewed it, but your review has made me definitely want to get it! Farrell’s conclusions about Mathers make sense of everything I’ve ever read about Mathers’ history with the Order.

  2. Anonymous · March 19, 2012

    Smarmy is another good word.

  3. Pingback: Interview with Nick Farrell « Magic of the Ordinary
  4. Pingback: King Over the Water, by Nick Farrell « WiccanWeb

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