I recently read a very interesting article by the Rev Dr Gregory Tillett, ‘Modern Western Magic and Theosophy’ from the journal Theosophy and History (Vol XV, No. 3). Dr Tillett is an expert in a number of fields, including the history of the Theosophical Society (TS), so the article proved to be very interesting. It looks at how, despite Blavatsky’s misgivings and warnings about magic and theurgy, Theosophy went on to influence the course of western magic through the Golden Dawn and later traditions. Much of this is unknown to more recent magical students, which is a bit of a pity.
Now, Dr Tillett has probably forgotten more about the occult and theosophy than I know, and while there is nothing I would disagree with in his article, his analysis incidentally raised a few issues I wish to explore. He begins rightly with the following statement:
The influence of the Theosophical Society on the development of modern western esotericism can hardly be over-estimated. Directly and indirectly Theosophy served as both a catalyst and a fountain-source for almost all in Western esotericism that followed the publication of the teachings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) and the establishment of the Theosophical Society in 1875. (17)
No one can argue with this fact. Mathers, Westcott and other movers and shakers in the Golden Dawn tradition were members of the TS or TS influenced groups. This is not the case for the majority of contemporary GD folk, but the influence our GD spiritual ancestors have on us is huge, and they were pretty much all imbued with Theosophy.
With the ascendency within the TS of the main subject of Tillett’s paper (as well as his doctoral thesis), C.W. Leadbeater, this influence of Theosophy on modern magic increased. Many of the ideas we in the magical and pagan community take for granted had their western genesis or modern modification in the Theosophical or Leadbeater-Theosophical milieux: spiritual evolution through a series of incarnations, karma, astral plane beings and Masters, devas, Atlantis and more.
In fact, from reading and anecdotal evidence, I would say that the vast majority of magical practitioners in the west today – Wiccans, pagans, ritual magicians and others – practice within a mind set and worldview that is heavily Theosophical. We do not notice it, because it seems a natural and easy way to see the world, and more particularly the inner world, but it is there. I mean, we certainly are not practicing within a traditional esoteric Christian framework, which rejects the monism so easily assumed by most modern esoteric folk. We are not practicing within a classic or traditional pagan worldview, which had very little personal deity relationship at all and was responsible for a mindset which happily bred and sacrificed 8 million puppies for Anubis. And we are not thinking and viewing the world like the majority of cunning folk, who held a craft, not a philosophy and whom happily used a mix of pagan remnants and Christian motifs to get the job done, including combating those evil witchy poos.
There are a few dedicated souls and groups reconstructing genuine Hermetic, Celtic and other non-Christian and pre-Theosophical based worldviews, but they are in the minority. Most of us hold unconscious assumptions about the interior world that, if we follow them closely, lead back to Theosophy. Not that’s there anything wrong with that. (If you want to argue this point, please go ahead, but do me a favour and read Dr Tillett’s thesis on Leadbeater first. It’s all on line and free and all.) 🙂
So much for the worldview and in some sense the theory of modern magic, but what about the praxis? Did Theosophy and Leadbeater have a great influence on the practice of magic in our traditions? Initially, they certainly drew on the same raw materials – modernity, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, newly translated manuscripts and the western lodge tradition itself. Dr Tillett’s works are very good in tracing and exposing the early Theosophical use of ritual and traditional lodge practices, such as Masonic styled ritual, secrecy and signs, often unknown to modern Theosophists and others. These practices mostly died out early in the history of the TS, and today exist only in vestigial forms, with most non-Masonic Theosophical folk eschewing ritual entirely. But the ceremonial side was there from the beginning.
Later, Leadbeater would create or adapt a whole host of ritual and Masonic based ventures associated with Theosophy and fringe Christianity. Many of these, like the Egyptian Rite – created to be the most powerful occult order in the world – remain unexplored and secret to modern Theosophists and others alike. Again, most modern Theosophists and magicians know little or nothing about these ventures.
It is clear that Leadbeater believed passionately in the effectiveness of ritual magic, though he mostly avoided that term. Anyone who has taken the time to study his Science of the Sacraments will see what is essentially a ritual magic rationale being used to empower and explain both traditional Christian liturgy and Leadbeater’s own version of Christian ceremonial. A similar approach was used in Leadbeater’s revision of the Co-Masonic ceremonies, much of which remains unpublished.
Leadbeater’s rationale for and ideas about magical ritual are very similar in some ways to those of the Golden Dawn and later traditions. To quote from the article.
Leadbeater, however, went further: he claimed that the rituals themselves brought about (or at least had the potential to bring about) psychic changes in those who underwent them. The rituals stimulated forces on the inner planes and within the participants and invoked the participation of non-human entities.
Ultimately, Leadbeater taught that ritual magic could hasten the process of spiritual evolution in those who participated in it, and through the forces invoked in it positively affect those beyond, even if they had no knowledge or believe in the efficacy of the ritual, and indeed positively benefited the whole world. (31-32)
The same ideas are stated in several core texts of the Golden Dawn, the Inner Light and other modern groups. However, the similarity appears to be confined to the realm of ideas and principles, not the nuts and bolts of magical practice. Both Leadbeater-Theosophy and the Golden Dawn tradition seem to draw from the same source stock of lodge and esoteric ideas, but crucially there seems to something ‘extra’ within the early Golden Dawn, added before Leadbeater was any significant factor in the TS at all.
A classic example of the something extra are the Z Documents. To quote Nick Farrell, who recently published the earliest version of these crucial documents:
Z1, Z2 and Z3 are what made the Golden Dawn magical. Next to the Cypher Manuscript there is not a single bit of writing which is more crucial to an understanding of the Golden Dawn system of magic. (King Over the Water, 206).
These documents are still being explored by contemporary magicians and they are still yielding many treasures. The magical keys explored and outlined in these documents include:
- Internal transformation by the virtue of magical practice. Though Leadbeater would later re-state this, the GD was one of the very first groups to practice this principle in a coherent and systemised manner.
- The linking of the magical formulae that underlie group ritual initiations with personal magical and spiritual practice. This is a hallmark of the Golden Dawn and was an amazing innovation.
- The creation and utilization of Godforms in which the astral or interior presence of temple officers are cloaked. While the general mental level principles of an officer representing a spiritual force or being had been part of the lodge tradition for centuries, the Golden Dawn took the process much further.
- The use of colour in magic. Before the Golden Dawn colour was already a part of ritual magic, but without the depth and level of sophistication the GD would bring to it, with its Four Colour Scales. This was partly a result of the times: the range of paints and pigments needed for such an elaboration were not easily available before the Victorian era.
Leadbeater’s published works on ritual magic show none of these keys to any degree. Nor does it seem they were included as part of any secret teachings he may have passed on to selected students. As Tillett first showed in his work, The Elder Brother, Leadbeater’s secret teachings, given to selected young male pupils only, were of a sexual nature. To quote from Tillett’s thesis:
In simple terms, Leadbeater taught that the energy aroused in masturbation can be used as a form of occult power, a great release of energy which can, firstly, elevate the consciousness of the individual to a state of ecstasy, and, secondly, direct a great rush of psychic force towards the Logos for his use in the spiritual development of the world. (p.888)
Tillett traces Leadbeater’s sexual magic to tantric influences from his time in India and indirect or direct connection with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) via Vyvyan Deacon. Since Leadbeater passed on these teachings to his pupils without the formality of OTO authorisation, it seems to suggest that that he would have done the same with Golden Dawn secrets, the ‘something extra’, if he was in possession of them. It is therefore probably safe to say that the GD did not unduly influence Leadbeater’s ritual magic, and that the two streams developed side by side.
Tillett’s article also briefly recounts the Thesophical influence on Dion Fortune:
…her writings on the inner effects of magical ritual can hardly be said to have developed without significant influences from Leadbeater’s work, any more than her attempt at the establishment of something very much resembling a church – the Guild of the Master Jesus and the Church of the Graal – is unrelated to Leadbeater’s Liberal Catholic Church. Fortune had been a tentatively enthusiastic Theosophist but the real reasons for her break from Theosophy, other than her desire to establish her own organization and give her own teachings, remain unclear. (44)
While this seems opaque and indisputable, I think a couple of points need to be made. Firstly, the motivations behind the creation of the Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) and Fortune and Loveday’s Guild of the Master Jesus seem quite different. In a nutshell, the LCC was created to allow Theosophists to continue to practice their childhood and historical religion without comprising their Theosophical beliefs. Basically, it was a case of having their cake and eating it too. The impetus and support for the Guild of the Master Jesus however, like all things Dion did, stemmed from her allegiance to her inner plane contacts. Further, the work of the Guild (later the Church) was but one part of the integrated threefold way, advocated and practiced by Dion throughout her Occult career. It was not an add-on to bring in a more religious approach and satisfy the emotional need of members for traditions remembered from childhood. (See this post for more on the threefold way).
Even though Dion first came to the mysteries via a Theosophical cafeteria, experienced her initial contacts with Theosophical imagery and obviously was imbued with the ideas of Leadbeater, her actual magic and that of the Inner Light show little influence. As an initiate of the Golden Dawn tradition and a member of two Orders, Dion would presumably have been exposed to the ‘something extra’ that provided the magic. From her own account though, this something extra would have been confined to the documents not the magicians, for she felt the spark had gone out of the GD branch she was initiated into. Her account matches up nicely with the research done by Nick Farrell and presented in his King Over the Water, showing indeed that for a decade or more prior to Dion’s membership, the Mathers were watering down the rituals and selling high degrees for higher fees. Dion was certainly not given oral instructions on practical magic to any depth, leading to her famous criticism of the consecration method for the Lotus Wand, as I recount and explore in this post.
Instead Dion developed her own methods of magic, being instructed and trained by her Masters year after year. While many of these drew on and belonged to the lodge and ritual magic traditions of the past, many were also innovations. She tended to present these innovations through her fiction. Her novels the Winged Bull, Sea Priestess and Moon Magic contain a number of these potent magical formulae and methods that owe little to the Golden Dawn and less to Theosophy. Her later projects, such as ‘the Arthurian Formula’, shows she continued this innovative approach until her premature death in 1946.
So the Leadbeater-Theosophical influence on two major streams of modern magical practice seem very little. What about the source of most of modern magic, Neo-Pagan Witchcraft or Wicca? Here the influence is clear, though I would argue only partial. Though most Wiccans and pagans reproduce and accept much ingrained Theosophical concepts, their magic I feel is quite different. Aside from the practical magic techniques, originally encapsulated by Gerald Gardner in his Eight Ways of Making Magic, Wiccan transformative magic centres on the initiations, the religious-spiritual transformation brought about via Drawing Down the Moon and psychic linking to the inherent transformation of the Eight Sabbats.
Regarding the ceremonial initiations, Tillett correctly points out that the Gardernian rites were influenced by his exposure to Theosophical Co-Masonry and Rosicrucianism:
The Wiccan rituals contain elements that seem to be influenced by traditional craft Freema- sonry, but also elements that are not found in that form but are unique to the rituals of Co- Masonry as revised by Leadbeater. (36)
Gardner’s use of sex and sexuality within these initiations however is quite different to the approach of Leadbeater, being one of sacramental worship not the generation of power to accomplish spiritual aims and development. Moreover, the initiations are only one aspect of the transformative path in Wicca; the Drawing Down of the Moon and the Eight Sabbat system show little or no sign of Leadbeater’s influence. Thus we have a definite, though by no means major influence.
Sources of Magic
We can see then that Golden Dawn, Inner Light and Wiccan magical practices have little influence from Theosophy and Leadbeater. They contain crucial elements which are not readily found in the historical forms of ritual and lodge magic Leadbeater had access to and which he developed according to his own peculiar wishes. This is why they stand out from Leadbeater and other forms of magic. Where then do they arise, what is their source?
Some of these are clear. There is no doubt that the majority of the Inner Light tradition stems from Dion Fortune’s relationship with her interior Masters. Much of Wiccan magic can be traced, but some aspects simply cannot. While there is little indication that Gerald Gardner was in touch with inner plane contacts, the other creator of Wicca, Doreen Valiente certainly was for a time, as she recounts in The Rebirth of Witchcraft.
As for the Golden Dawn, the need to create a charter based legitimacy back to a prior physical Rosicrucian Order seems to have muddied the waters a bit. Mathers and Westcott’s descriptions of the sources of the GD are ambiguous enough for modern folk to believe whatever they want to foist onto them, from physical Secret Chiefs to schizophrenic delusion. Sources of the tradition aside however, it is clear where the all important Z Documents came from – the inner realms. As Nick Farrell puts it, “Mathers got the Z Documents from [the Angel] Raphael”.
So we are left with the realisation that in some ways, the main progenitors of modern magic and the Theosophical patriarch C.W. Leadbeater have something in common: all relied upon and gained much from discourse with invisible forces and beings. A major difference though, I feel can be found in their approach. Leadbeater’s vision and interaction with the inner world was obviously corrupted by his own unconscious. This was examined by another Theosophist, E.L. Gardner and summarised in Tillett’s thesis:
Gardner’s basic thesis is this: Leadbeater unconsciously created an entire, artificial system, based upon his own strongly held views, and, again unconsciously, used his occult power to visualize this system into a state where it had the appearance of reality, and appeared as an objective reality to him when he viewed it clairvoyantly. (p.890)
I would argue Dion’s interaction, though far from perfect, was not so corrupted, for the simple reason that even after 20 or more years of interaction with the inner planes she was known to at least once consult an outside medium to ensure she was not deluding herself. She questioned her material constantly, whereas Leadbeater was 100 per cent sure of himself and his visions. He even cheerfully declared he had got Christ’s own personal imprimatur for the liturgy of the Liberal Catholic Church without so much as batting an Episcopal eye-lid. From such surety delusion ensues.
So when it comes right down to it, Theosophy, particularly C.W. Leadbeater’s version of Theosophy, still has a major influence over the general tenor and worldview of modern magic, but much less so on its practical methods. This may be seen as exposing a discrepancy and mismatch between the theory and praxis of magic, a criticism often directed at modern magical groups, one which I must say most magicians happily ignore. It is after all an orthopraxy based tradition, which emphasis goes some way to explain the continued and hidden Theosophical influence.
Leadbeater himself continues to be treated by some as a saint and others as a pederastic child abuser full of self delusion. Either way, his memory continues on. I live in Perth, Western Australia, where he died in 1934 and where a portion of his ashes remain, behind a wall plaque in the Liberal Catholic Church of St John the Divine. Many in the local Theosophical community continue to revere him. At my first Co-Masonic meeting I was ushered in to meet a charming elderly woman based on the sole qualification that she remembered Leadbeater from her childhood.
Many Theosophical folk in Perth simply refuse to accept the evidence presented by Tillett and others of Leadbeater’s sexual activities with young boys at all. Years back when required to complete an assignment for library school I choose the Perth Theosophical Library. Nearing completion of my interview with the Lodge President she seemed to insist I switch topics from the Dewey Decimal Classification to something more esoteric. So I mentioned I had just finished Tillett’s biography, whereupon I was subjected to a tirade of venom and abuse about Dr Tillett, most of which was certainly un-Theosophical and definitely unladylike. So ol’ Bishop Leadbeater still arouses strong feelings and his presence remains very real for some. However, despite worshipping many times seated next to his ashes, I cannot say I have personally felt it.