Sunday, May 1, 2011

S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918)

S.L. MacGregor Mathers was a prominent occult scholar, author and a leader of the occult revival in the late 1880’s. He had a life long fascination with magic, mysticism and Celtic symbolism that led him to hold high office in the S.R.I.A. (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia). He, together with Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Dr. William Woodman was a co-founder of the influential secret occult Order known as the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”.

Little is documented about the early life of Mathers, though we do know he came from a humble background and spent most of his life on the borders of poverty surviving mainly on the charity of his friends and peers. He was born on the 8th of January 1854 at 11 De Beauvoir Place in Hackney in London. His father William M. Mathers was a commercial clerk and his mother is known only as “Miss Collins”. His father died during his early childhood after which his mother moved from London to Bournemouth where they lived until her death in 1885.

Early in his life Mathers developed an interest in boxing, fencing and military strategy. During his early twenties with aspirations of a military career, he joined the First Hampshire Infantry Volunteers. A self-portrait photograph he had taken depicts him wearing the uniform of a Lieutenant, though in fact he never rose above the rank of private. His first book was actually a military manual, Practical Instruction in Infantry Campaigning Exercise (1884), which was based on a French military manual and adapted for the needs of the British Army.

Masonic and Rosicrucian interests:

Shortly after, Mathers began to take an interest in Freemasonry and on the 4th October 1877 was initiated into the “Lodge of Hengest - No. 195” in Bournemouth. His sponsor was E.L.V. Rebbeck a well-known real estate agent in the area. Mathers quickly progressed through the grades of Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft, and was raised to Master Mason on January 30, 1878. A fellow member of the lodge was a student of Hebrew philosophy and Qabalah called Frederick Holland and it was he that introduced Mathers into occult studies. Holland was also a metallurgist, alchemist and avid crystal gazer, and without doubt they did some work together. Holland had a definite influence on Mathers particularly his teachings related to scrying and Spirit Vision.

In 1882 Mathers dropped out of Freemasonry and was admitted into the S.R.I.A. (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia). He took to Rosicrucianism with serious enthusiasm and used for his motto "S Rioghail Mo Dhream (SRMD)”, which is Gaelic for “Royal is my Race”. Mathers quickly showed his aptitude for ceremonial magic, occult philosophy and esoteric languages, and within four years had become a member of the societies High Council. There he made the acquaintance of Dr. William Woodman (Magus of the society), and Dr. William Wynn Westcott (the Secretary General), he also served as Celebrant of the London College.

After the death of his mother in 1885, Mathers was left in poor circumstances and moved back to London. He took modest lodgings in Great Percy Street, King’s Cross, from where he was able to take up an appointment as the assistant librarian to Frederick Horniman M.P, founder of the famous Horniman Museum and an affluent tea importer. Encouraged by Dr. Woodman and Westcott from the S.R.I.A, Mathers continued with his occult studies and as a consummate student made considerable progress. So much so that with the aid of Dr. Westcott he was able to publish his first translation of Knorr Von Rosenroth's - Kabalab Denudata, which ran through several editions and earned him high regard in occult circles.

Mathers by now was an accomplished ritualist and transcriber of old texts, and it was to him after obtaining some old the Cipher Manuscripts in 1887, that Dr. Westcott approached to flesh out the ritual outlines contained with in them, and to turn them into functional initiation ceremonies (the code of the Cipher is believed to have come from a 15th century code originated by the Abbott Trithemius). Westcott also invited him to join a triumvirate of Chiefs with himself and Dr. Woodman in a newly created order to be called the “Hermetic Order Golden Dawn”. Mathers agreed and started work on the rituals.

In the meantime Mathers had made the acquaintance of Dr. Anna Kingsford and her associate Edward Maitland. They were founders of their own Hermetic Society based on esoteric Christianity, and became very close friends with Mathers. Dr. Kingsford was very knowledgeable on theoretical occultism, and it was to her that he dedicated his later translation the Qabbalah Unveiled. She was also one of the early fighters for women's rights and her belief in equally for women was shared and adopted by Mathers, who would later demanded that women share in the new Order of the Golden Dawn. She was also an anti-vivisectionist and a vegetarian. Mathers was also a vegetarian, and at a time when almost every male in English society smoked a pipe or cigar, Mathers was also a non-smoker. Without doubt Dr. Kingsford as a friend and leader of her own Society, greatly influenced Mathers.

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