Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918) was an English occultist, author, and founding chief of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Throughout his life, S. L. MacGregor Mathers was a compelling, charismatic, colorful, controversial, and headstrong figure in occultism. He is responsible for the creation of much of the Golden Dawn Ritual material which continues in use and is widely considered to be one of the finest and most powerful magical systems in the world. Some of his peers considered him to be the Reincarnation of King James VI, the “WIZARD king” of Scotland.
Mathers was born in London on January 8, 1854, to a family of modest means. His father, William M. Mathers, a commercial clerk, died when S. L. Mathers was a child, and his mother took the family to live in Bournemouth. They lived there until Mrs. Mathers died in 1885. Poor, Mathers returned to London. Mathers exhibited an early interest in warfare and the military. In his early twenties, he joined the First Hampshire Infantry Volunteers, intent on a military career.
He never rose above the rank of private. He once took a self-portrait photograph dressed in the uniform of lieutenant—an early indication of his sizeable ego. In 1884, Mathers published his first book, a military manual, Practical Instruction in Infantry Campaigning Exercise. Perhaps because his military aspirations never advanced, Mathers turned his attention to Freemasonry. He was initiated in Bournemouth in October 1877 and advanced to Master Mason on January 30, 1878.
A fellow Mason, Frederick Holland, introduced Mathers to the Kabbalah, Alchemy, Scrying, and other occult studies. Mathers left the Masons in 1882 for Rosicrucianism, joining the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. He took the Magical Motto S’Rioghail Mo Dhream, “Royal is my race,” a reflection of his interest in his Celtic heritage. Mathers quickly developed a love for ceremonial Magic, and he pursued occult philosophies and esoteric languages. Within four years, he was a members of the Society’s High Council.
He formed close relationships with Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Dr. William Robert Woodman, who later would become founders of the Golden Dawn with him. Westcott enabled Mathers to publish the first English translation of Knorr von Rosenroth’s esteemed work on the kabbalah, Kabalah Denudata (The Kabbalah Unveiled), written in Latin in the 17th century.
Published in 1887 the work quickly earned Mathers high regard in occult circles. The book remains in print today. Mathers was familiar the with Theosophical Society and met Madame Helena P. Blavatsky. He lectured to the society’s members, as did Westcott. By this time, Mathers had added MacGregor to his name, claiming it to be his real family name from Glenstrae in the Highlands of Scotland.
He also said his grandfather was a military man whose heroics at Pondicherry, India, had caused King Louis XIV of France to give him the title of Count MacGregor de Glenstrae. In 1888, Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman formed the Golden Dawn. At Mathers’s insistence, the order was open to women, who were on an equal footing with men—virtually unheard of in Victorian times.
Mathers had been influenced by Anna Kingsford, an occultist, champion of women’s rights, and cofounder with Edward Maitland of the Hermetic Society. Westcott initially resisted but gave in when Mathers refused to otherwise participate. The three men established themselves as the chiefs of the Outer Order of the new organization, receiving guidance from nonphysical, superhuman Adepts called the Secret Chiefs. Mathers used two magical mottos for the Golden Dawn.
For the Outer Order, he used the same motto as he had used in the Rosicrucians. His second motto comes from a Talisman for Mars: Deo Duce Comie Ferro, “God as my guide, my companion a sword.” Also in 1888, Mathers met artist Mina Bergson in the reading room of the British Museum where he spent much of his time. The two had an immediate rapport and were married on June 16, 1890, despite the opposition of Mina’s family.
Mina changed her name to Moina Mathers in honor of her husband’s Celtic orientation. She was initiated into the Golden Dawn shortly after marriage. Mathers tried to convert her famous philosopher brother, Henri Bergson, to occultism and magic but failed to interest him. Through Moina, Mathers met Annie Horniman, a wealthy tea heiress who helped him get a job at the Horniman Museum and who also joined the Golden Dawn.
Horniman became the Matherses’ benefactor for many years. Mathers set about the task of creating the rituals for the Golden Dawn. He reworked the ENOCHIAN Magic of JOHN DEE and Edward Kelly. Moina had psychic abilities, and the two worked together as a team, with Moina doing scrying and communication with spirits on the inner planes.
Initially, the Golden Dawn was a theoretical organization, but with the establishment of the Second Order, more emphasis was placed on ritual and practical magic. Mathers and Moina developed the order’s teachings on the TAROT and worked on the Z Documents concerning magical methods and techniques. Eventually, Mathers’s ego and imperious manner alienated members.
He engaged in internal politics and fights. His argumentativeness cost him his job at the museum. In 1892, out of money, he and Moina were forced to leave London for Paris, where they lived on Horniman’s charity. In 1894, they set up a Golden Dawn lodge there. Mathers was keen to revive Egyptian religion, and he and Moina performed rites of Isis and Egyptian masses.
They performed their Rites of Isis publicly in theaters. Mathers did not spend all of his time on the Golden Dawn, which irritated Horniman. In 1896, she cut off her financial support. Mathers declared himself initiated into the Third Order populated only by the invisible Secret Chiefs and demanded complete loyalty from all members. Horniman refused, and he retaliated by expelling her from the order.
Mathers and his wife were left to live on whatever they could earn from their public ritual performances, as well as the charity of other friends. Mathers was embarrassed by being taken in by two con artists, a husband-and-wife team who introduced themselves to him as Theodore and Laura Horos. Long working as occult scam artists doing fake mediumship, the two appeared in Paris in 1898 and established a relationship with Mathers.
They stole ritual material from him and went to London, where they set up their own occult school. In 1898, Aleister Crowley joined the Golden Dawn; he and Mathers had an uneasy alliance that disintegrated into Psychic Attack upon one another. Mathers sent him to storm the London temple in an attempted takeover. Crowley failed, and both he and Mathers were expelled.
Later, in 1910, Mathers lost a legal battle in London to prevent Crowley from publishing secret Golden Dawn material. The debacle with Crowley was the final blow to an already fractured organization, and the Golden Dawn splintered into groups that aligned themselves by loyalty. Followers of Mathers joined his new Order of the Alpha et Omega Temple.
The Mathereses remained in Paris. Mathers retired and sank into obscurity. Little is known about his final years. He died on November 20, 1918; no record of his death has ever been found, nor has a grave ever been known. DION FORTUNE asserted—without basis—that he died in the Spanish influenza epidemic. Moina maintained that his health had declined because of the strain of dealing with the Secret Chiefs for so many years. She also felt that Crowley’s psychic attack with an astral VAMPIRE had drained Mathers.
In later years, Crowley maligned Mathers in undeserving criticism. Besides his scholarship on the kabbalah, Mathers also is especially known for his translations of two important Grimoires, the Key of Solomon (from Hebrew, 1889) and The Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage (from French, 1889), as well as The Tarot: Its Occult Significance and Methods of Play (from French, 1888).
Further Reading :
- Brodie-Innes, J. W. “Some Personal Reminisces.” Available online. URL: https://www.controverscial.com/Samuel L iddell MacGregor Mathers.htm. Downloaded June 29, 2005.
- Cicero, Chic, and Sandra Tabatha Cicero. The Essential Golden Dawn. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2004.
- King, Francis. Megatherion: The Magickal World of Aleister Crowley. New York: Creation Books, 2004. “S. L. MacGregor Mathers.” Available online. URL: https:// www.golden-dawn.org/bioMathers.html. Downloaded June 29, 2005.