Interview with Nick Farrell

After reading Nick Farrell’s recent book King Over the Water: Samuel Mathers and the Golden Dawn (review here) I had enough residual questions and excitement to ask Nick for an interview about his Mathers research. He kindly consented and the result is below. I want to thank Nick for this, as he is a busy man with many projects on the go. 🙂

MOTO: Nick, your new book ‘King Over the Water: Samuel Mathers and the Golden Dawn’, seems to be attracting a lot of interest and comments. It’s your second published book on Mathers, the first being ‘Mathers’ Last Secret’ – what was your motivation for researching and writing these books?

NF: About six years ago, Melissa Seims said that a friend of hers had found and photographed a cache of Golden Dawn documents which were in the old Witch Museum.  The collection was about to be broken up, but the person had done a sterling job photographing them.  She sent me a copy of the files and I was surprised to see that they were AO and dated 1915.  These had never been seen before.  Mathers and his AO had been largely a mystery to Golden Dawn researchers.  They showed  adaptations of the GD material which no one had seen before.   My first idea was to get this out to as many people in the Golden Dawn community and I did share a few copies of the disk, but as I studied the material I worked out how important they were.

Most people’s understanding of the Golden Dawn rituals come from the later Stella Matutina. Either the badly hacked versions of the rituals which were published by Israel Regardie, or the fuller Whare R versions published by Pat Zalewski.   The AO rituals I had were complete Golden Dawn rituals for the 1=10, 2=9,3=8 and 4=7.  There was one Portal ritual which was completely different from the published rites and this turned out to be the original GD portal which had been lost.  Indeed the only major change that the AO did to the original Golden Dawn rituals was some changes to the 1=10.

Anyway from the perspective of a researcher this was interesting. I decided to write a history of the Golden Dawn to go with it.  What I found was that there was a huge discrepancies between the published sources which were mostly written in the 1970s and 1980s and what we know now.  The new material was available but spread through magazine articles, books and not in one “history”.  The other problem is that most of the people who wrote the histories either knew nothing about magic, or did not particularly like the Golden Dawn.  For example the best historical record of the Golden Dawn was written by Ellic Howe and he was a mason who wanted to prove that the GD were a bunch of flakes.  He did a good job of it too.

These holes in the GD history started to be exploited in the Golden Dawn Flame wars in the 1990s.  It was possible for someone to fabricate a “lineage” quoting the right bits of Howe and claim your group was a superior product. By pretending you have a connection with the AO, which no one knew anything about, you could get away with anything.   You could, and several groups did, claim that Mathers was the true magical current which, once it left the Golden Dawn, the whole lot faltered. What I had however was the proof that this was not the case.  Rather than being more magical, Mathers actually made his AO less magical and appears to have seen it as a cash farm.

MOTO: You make the point in the book that it is almost a GD tradition that manuscripts, papers, letters and other material from closed Orders and deceased adepts end up consigned to fire. I’ve experienced this myself too. So, I am wondering firstly, how easy was it find the source material you used in these books? And secondly, do many primary sources remain from the classical Golden Dawn era, before the death of Mathers and Westcott?

NF: There is a black market of original documents which have been photocopied from various libraries.  Most group leaders are involved in a trade of photocopies in an attempt to get the mythical “complete collection.”  The biggest for the AO was the Slater collection which used rituals and papers that were dated in the 1920s.    The library got fed up with the collection and broke it up, which was a tragedy.  The Westcott collection is in Grand Lodge in Great Queen Street.  There is other primary material available.

MOTO:  I’ve always wondered about the years after the 1900 revolt against Mathers. After a few years he seems to go very quiet, and not much is known about his life before his death in 1918. What do you think Mathers was doing in this period, and why is there little trace evidence in the historical record?

NF: If you look at Golden Dawn history most of it is recorded by Waite, Felkin, Crowley and Westcott. We also have letters from Yeats, Horniman etc. But these were all the people who broke away from  Mathers so his antics are not reported. Mathers gets a mention later when Dion Fortune starts recording things, but by then he is dead.   Practically, he was still obsessing with “politics” and trying to link up with Inner Contacts.  But nothing of that was flowing into his Order.  Indeed that was dumbing down rapidly.  In London they lost their vault and were not able to run a Second Order. How effective the magic had been under Berridge was anyone’s guess.  After being a member of the Order for years, he had to ask Westcott if he could borrow his Z documents when the AO was founded as he did not have a set. Given that the Z documents were how the ritual was to be performed magically, it means that when Berridge was in charge they can’t have been used.

MOTO:  It is quite common for people from the past to be mythologised beyond all sense and reason, with the myth growing year by year and in some cases connecting with some powerful archetypal forces and powers. Gareth Knight explores this well with Sir Francis Drake and others, and living in Plymouth as a kid I know what he means. Do you think the ‘myth of Mathers’ will grow and function in a healthy way as the years pass, or will he remain simply an imperfect human being serving as foil for all sorts of modern magical fantasies?

NF:  I really hope that King over the Water will make him human again.  Everyone sees him as a vaulting ego, but I think psychologically he was more interesting than that.  People who have egos that hijack them are complex beings with a lot of stuff not being dealt with.  During the book I wrote up a profile of both Mina and Sam Mathers and asked some pretty good shrinks how they thought they would turn out.  The answers surprised me.  One of the things I had believed was that Mathers would be controlling. However his main desire would be to protect.  This comes from a person who looked after his aged mother until she died.   All the fantasy symbolism that he surrounded himself was of being a great protector.  He created a magical image for himself and tried to become it.  Unfortunately it was not based on a realistic perception of a man, but more of a military romantic. You have to realise that Mathers’s male role models came from books.

MOTO: Now, what about Mathers’ wife, Mina or Moina? Your book paints her as a sexually repressed, passive counterpart to the man and light of her world, Samuel. What other aspects of her life are there which are relevant to the Golden Dawn? How do you think she coped after Samuel’s death – did she become a ‘spent force’ as Dion Fortune suggests for the remaining 10 years of her life?

NF: It is one of those myths that the order somehow depended on Mina.  She is particularly assertive in her writings to others both before and after Mathers’ death.  But what she is assertive about would give a modern woman a heart attack.  Her attitude to Mathers was idealised.  Even when he appeared to be drinking heavily she makes excuses.  This was probably what she learnt from her mother. Nevertheless she was dedicated to her husband’s world and fundementalistically carried it on after his death.  She would argue with Brodie-Innes over changing a word in the ritual for example.  It did not make her happy.  One of the shrinks I asked about her pointed out she had control issues and may have been diagnosed with an eating disorder in modern times.  She does appear to have starved herself to death.

MOTO:  I’d like to talk about the Secret Chiefs. You make a pretty strong case that Mathers’ vision of these beings was inherited from Theosophy and at no time was he in contact with a real, physical secret Third Order that lay behind the GD and which gave it its Charter, directions, wisdom and purpose. Given this, and what has been revealed previously, why do you think so many people are still invested in the Secret Chiefs as real, wise flesh and blood masters who have hidden wisdom handed down from the ancient Alexandria or wherever?

NF: I think it is the quest for a father figure. Many occultists have bad relationships with their parents and those that get to the top of an order are left with the question “what do I do now.”  What they want is for a parent figure to come down and tell them they are wonderful and give them further grades and honours. Because their parents have been so rubbish they invent supermen to be their new parent. One thing I find interesting is that there are no female Secret Chiefs, even if there are highly placed women within the structure of the Order. This would suggest that the Secret Chiefs phenomena is more to do with distant or abusive fathers than it is about super-humans.   To be fair, very few people believe that their Secret Chiefs are immortal.  They appear to just think that they are members of a wonderful secret order which has direct linage to  Alexandria or something like that.  If Secret Chiefs are human, then chances are they have same problems that every esoteric group has, it is just that an outsider who sees them as Secret Chiefs is acting a bit like a rabbit in the headlights.  As a general rule I don’t trust human Secret Chiefs and would rather take my chances with the astral ones.

MOTO: Your book gives the best reading of Mathers I have found so far. Yet there are still many unanswered questions, such as what motivated Mathers to move beyond the pale of respectable Victorian society in the first place; what attracted him to the occult. Do you think there is enough source material extant for a full, in depth objective biography?

NF: Mathers lived in a fantasy world for a good part of his life.   Occultists can be escapists who want to make their reality more like their fantasy world.  If you look at the book ‘Zanoni you can see a lot of the sort of romances that shaped Mathers, when he was not thinking about being a global military leader.  The one thing about Mathers that I could never work out is that on one hand he hung out with right-wing racist bigoted loonies in France and believed in military solutions, had an apparently sexless relationship, and yet was not a racist, was not anti any religion and was not interested policing other people’s morals. This is where psychological profiling falls down.  True he would have been right-wing but the Daily Mail style views that go with that seem to have passed him by.  At the moment there is not enough material to suggest why that is.

MOTO:  The second part of your book reproduces some original Order material, an earlier version of the Z document for example. Apart from historical or scholastic interest, how important is it to make public these earlier and unknown versions of core Golden Dawn documents?

NF: Vital. They create a magical Golden Dawn which I see as my remit.  The Z documents need expanding, Mathers was too lazy to do that, and that is what most of the Modern Golden Dawn orders are doing now.  Pat Zalewski has published his Z documents which make for interesting reading; in the Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea we go a slightly different way.

MOTO:  The Z documents, as you point out in your book were a wonderful leap of immense proportions that brought magic right into the heart of the GD. Mathers talks about the difficulty him and his wife had in ‘bringing through’ the text of this document. Given that Mathers had some measure of inspiration in creating these documents, how much do you think he subconsciously influenced the reception? Are there any passages or concepts that show more of Mathers than his sources of inspiration?

NF:  Mathers bought through the text of the 5=6 and moved the Second Order into Rosicrucianism, which was not there before.  Some of the ideas for the ritual no doubt came from the SRIA; the crucifixion, the vault etc.  There also seems to have been an influence from the ‘Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians.’  One of the telling things about the ritual is that no-one ever thought of making changes to it.  My guess is that the 5=6 is everything that anyone needs. I think it was this that was the high point of Mathers’ contacts with LeT (Raphael).

MOTO :You’ve mentioned on your blog and elsewhere, that you’ve finished writing historical works. So two questions – why is that? and what’s next for Nick Farrell?

NF:  Yeah I have done all I want to with histories.  I want to get back to writing about magic again.  I have to redo my Talismans book which is now nearly a decade old and update it with what I know now. I also need to write my own book on Tarot.  At the same time I am thinking of starting a small online apprenticeship course which is only partly rooted within the Golden Dawn and will train a small number of people in magical techniques.  It will probably be too serious to survive I am writing the basic manual at the moment, but it gets heavy quite quickly.  There is also the publishing business (Kerubim Press) and we are currently working on making an Enochian chess set.  My wife Paola is doing the artwork.

MOTO:  Thanks for the interview, Nick… just finally, Alan Richardson writes about how during research for his biography on Dion Fortune he ‘picked up’ on her on the inner planes and clearly felt her presence within his room one night – how about you – did you receive any royal visits when writing these books?

NF:  No I didn’t.  I have a few things in common with Mathers, but I don’t think I was ever close enough to get that sort of physical manifestation off the guy.  A younger Dion Fortune would be a little more appealing to wake up to.  Anyway I suspect that Mathers would snore.

Nick Farrell is a magician of many years experience, the head of the Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea, a publisher, an author and a journalist. He lives in Rome. His blog can be found here and website here.


  1. alexsumner · March 22, 2012

    Nick Farrell keeps talking about Mathers making the AO more masonic like its a bad thing, but from the little evidence he (Farrell) has published it only shows that Mathers was anticipating John Michael Greer’s “Inside A Magical Lodge” by 90 years or so.

  2. Nick Farrell · March 23, 2012

    I don’t think that John Greer advocates doing a ritual without an inner level behind it. I think a group which uses the highest form of magic dumps godforms and magic in favour of what would be a dull ritual, would be somewhat of a tragedy.

  3. alexsumner · March 23, 2012

    Nick: do you include evidence that Mathers dumped the god-forms from the AO in your book? Or are you just basing that assertion on a lack of mention of god-forms in the documents which you examined?

  4. Nick Farrell · March 23, 2012

    Yeah it is there. Specifically my comment is about the Z docs rather than just godforms which are part of the Z docs. Nisi showed that the Z documents were not used as they were incompatible with the instructions given for the 0=0. No one who has read the Z docs would cut the circumambulation for example. Berridge did not even have a copy until Westcott joined and had to borrow a set from him. He did not seem fond of using them and there does not seem to be any evidence he did. My guess is that he put them in the too hard basket. (Although it is possible they were there in Nisi but were lost at some point in history).
    The later AO under Brodie Innes bought them back in but did not seem to understand them as their notes on the Z docs (which I put in King) indicated a lack of practice.
    It is also important to remember that after about 1910 there was not even a vault in London. Most people were given the grade “nominally” and it is not clear if any got to the Tham grades until Mina showed up. When we look at the names who were in London, we cant see many teachers amongst them and the Z docs require some practical training.
    The Z docs are important to the SM and Later AO I am not convinced that Mathers ranked them as important as his rituals.

  5. alexsumner · March 23, 2012

    It is also important to remember that after about 1910 there was not even a vault in London. Most people were given the grade “nominally” and it is not clear if any got to the Tham grades until Mina showed up. When we look at the names who were in London, we cant see many teachers amongst them and the Z docs require some practical training.


    The nearest Vault was just over the other side of the channel! I know we’re talking about 100 years ago but Paris is a lot easier to get to than, e.g., Florida, which is where English adepts have to go nowadays.

    In lack of evidence to the contrary, I believe it quite reasonable that all of the London Adepti had the grade conferred upon them actually, not nominally.

  6. Nick Farrell · March 23, 2012

    Nominal 5=6s were extremely common even when they had the vault. Out of the GD names it is harder to find people who went through the full 5=6 ritual!
    It was a lot more expensive to travel during that historical period than it is today and it was a fairly serious journey which would take a couple of days with a stay required along the way. . Look how many times Mathers went back to the UK while he was living in Paris. The nearest Vault was Edinburgh and they didn’t go up there either.

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