Schools of magic begin with the inspired leadership of one human being. That person is always guided by spirits, who are the true teachers of the school. We see this again and again throughout the history of Western occultism. A school rises under the leadership of an individual who psychically receives esoteric revelations. It prospers for a number of years, then usually dies when the individual who led it comes to the end of life. Sometimes, however, there is a transfer of authority to another person, or group of persons, who carry on the school in a slightly different direction, and who claim the mentorship of the same spiritual teachers.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888 by three Freemasons, but its magical teachings were received almost exclusively by one of the three, Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers, who sometimes relied on the mediumship of his wife for help in receiving this secret mystery tradition from a shadowy group of spirits known to Mathers as the Secret Chiefs.
The notorious magician Aleister Crowley, who studied magic in the Golden Dawn, attempted to wrest control of the Order away from Mathers, but he failed. We may assume that the Secret Chiefs denied his succession, although he always claimed in later years to be guided by them. Crowley founded his own occult lodge, which he called the Order of the Silver Star, using the teachings received from the Secret Chiefs by Mathers. Later, he was able to establish a psychic link with a spirit he called his Holy Guardian Angel, and from this angel received his Book of the Law, which carries forward Crowley’s own esoteric current of Thelema.
The legitimate succession of the Golden Dawn passed to Mathers’ wife, Moina, who was a woman of uncommon mediumistic abilities, as well as an artist. It is to her talents that we owe the Golden Dawn Tarot. When Moina Mathers died in 1928, there was no one to carry on the esoteric current of the Secret Chiefs, although several individuals made the attempt, and the Golden Dawn died, for a time at least. Schools using the same teachings have arisen in more recent decades. Whether they have the blessings and guidance of the Secret Chiefs is debatable.
Schools of occultism do not always expire with the death of their founders. Sometimes they become religions. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a medium of considerable ability. She received her teachings psychically from spiritual beings, just as Mathers had. She called them Mahatmas, or Great Souls. When she died in 1891, those who took up leadership of Theosophy could not sustain the psychic link with these spiritual teachers, and effectively Theosophy died as an occult current, even though it continues as a religious organization.
The most successful example of an esoteric lodge that expanded after the death of its founder into a religion is Mormonism. Joseph Smith was a medium who talked to spirits and received their teachings. He communicated with spirits through “magic rocks,” which he placed inside a top hat. After his death in 1844, the direct psychic connection with these spirits was broken, but Mormonism solidified into a religious cult. Attempts were made to suppress its origins as a school of magic, but the mediumship of Smith could never be completely hidden.
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