I’ve been madly researching magical secret societies of the Victorian era in preparation for my workshop at Clockwork Alchemy. I’m speaking at Clockwork Alchemy!!!
It should be good fun – we’ll be doing a traditional banishing ritual, picking out secret names, and doing a bit of Tarot. I’m all about action, though there will be some lecture too, and here’s where I’m running into problems organizing my thoughts.
Victorian magical societies are a tangled story. I want to focus on the grand-daddy of them all, The Golden Dawn. But where to start?
- With the historical context, which roots mysticism in traditional religions and attempt to “get back to” the heart of religion? E.g. the Kabbalah and Christian mysticism? Rosicrucianism, for example, is believed to have been started by some Lutherans, who were either hoaxing medieval Europe or trying to get across some truths about the human spirit. When the Rosicrucian fever got out of control and authorities started looking at cracking down on it, the creators claimed it was a joke. But their writing had a lot to do with alchemy – something Martin Luther is quoted as approving of – and the five-petal Rose Cross looks a lot like Martin Luther’s symbol, the five-petal rose.
Should I talk about Madame Blavatsky? To me, her spiritual school, Theosophy, represents the globalization of mysticism, bringing in Egyptian and Buddhist thought. During the Victorian era, more westerners became exposed to Eastern thought, and these global influences certainly influenced the philosophy of these Victorian societies, like The Golden Dawn.
- Victorians are known for being straight-laced, but the Victorian period represented a decline in traditional religious authority. Blame Darwinism, or the inroads of science, or maybe even more exposure to global religion and mysticism. But people began to question traditional teachings. The result was fringe religious movements, cults, and more people turning toward mysticism and mediums and magic.
- And how did the Victorian obsession with death boost the spiritualist movement? Queen Victoria might have had some responsibility for it. After her husband’s death, she wore black for forty years. Victorian mourning etiquette was complex – ranging from covered mirrors to black crepe – funerals were extravagant, and mementos of the deceased were cherished. The Victorians brought us mourning rings and jewelry fashioned from hair of the deceased. Life expectancies were short, and with the rise of science, the Victorians asked: can we scientifically prove the existence of the soul, or life after death? And they tried.
- What about the rise of psychology? The first department of psychology was founded in the Victorian era, and people began looking at psychology as a scientific study. But before modern psychology, we had mysticism. The mystical experience represented moving from the outward, everyday life inward, going deep into the layers of one’s soul to find one’s true self and discover God in the inner realms. Examples include quietism, Hasidism, and hesychasm. Whether one describes this in terms of alchemy or kaballah, the concepts are similar, though the methods vary. And if these layers sound reminiscent of the ego, the id, etc., they are. During the Victorian era, magical societies more overtly entwined the new science of psychology with the mystical, using ritual and meditation to transform themselves.
They just don’t make secret magical societies like they used to…