17 January 2011


Alison Butler. Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Many people today tend to view the Victorian period as one of dour Puritanism and dull conventionality, however the reality was often very different, and in many ways it was more tolerant than our own age is of various forms of dissidence and eccentricity. One manifestation of that eccentricity was the commitment of a number of solid members of society to forms of ritual magic.
One of the most prominent examples of this was the Society of the Golden Dawn.

In this book, Alison Butler, who teaches history and religious studies at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, presents a sympathetic study of the Order of the Golden Dawn and the various influences from which it synthesised its ritual She sees it as inheritor of traditions of ritual magic which went back to the Renaissance, and developed through the eighteenth and earlier parts of the nineteenth century, while its more immediate origins lay in the various "Rosicrucian" orders of the early to mid 1nineteenth century, themselves descended from various forms of Freemasonry. One must remember this was a century in which many forms of quasi-Masonic organisations flourished, such Foresters, Druids, Elks and the like, and formed a substantial part of civil society, performing many of the tasks now performed by the welfare state.

Alison Butler traces the long development of this occult tradition and the history of the Order, and of the various personalities involved, along with their numerous quarrels, though perhaps some of the eccentricities of the likes of Samuel Liddle 'McGregor' Mathers (for example the latter's Jacobitism) are not always highlighted.

One of the more interesting forerunners of the Golden Dawn was Anna Bonus Kingsford, medical doctor, occultist and animal rights advocate, who claimed to have killed two French vivisectionist's through occult means, though never getting her true archenemy Louis Pasteur. One suspects that if Ms Kingsford were alive today she would be a member of the Animal Liberation Front, putting bombs under peoples' cars.

For Magonia's readers one of the more amusing sections is the account of the tea heiress Annie Horniman's astral trips to the various planets in the solar system, including Saturn which she envisioned as a dying planet populated by largely sexless, psychic, winged individuals, who lived in a gloomy city, on a diet of yellow and blue fish and coarse grain. Jupiter, on the other hand, was inhabited by the sort of improved people that certain kinds of Victorians dreamed about who, like the aliens encountered by modern contactees, bemoaned the wickedness of Earth; while the Martians spent their spare time between wars quarrelling with one another. Venus on the other hand was a world of great natural beauty and peaceful anarchy.

One of the features that Butler sees as significant at the end of the nineteenth century is the move of magic from being a largely solitary activity, to a group activity, a tradition continued and enhanced by the modern pagan movement. Perhaps this was another example of Victorian clubabilty.

Butler is surely right in sensing that these occult groups developed as a simultaneous reaction against the often gloomy Evangelical Christianity of many of the participants' backgrounds, the industrial present and the new materialism of the post-Darwinian scientific world. The rise of magical movements like the Golden Dawn may therefor be not unrelated to the general cult of the medieval and Gothic which inspired much Victorian art and literature. -- Peter Rogerson.

No comments: