The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: The Letters of the Revd W. A. Ayton to F. L. Gardner and Others 1886-1905 edited by Ellic Howe, part of the Roots of the Golden Dawn Series.

Ellic Howe The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn

This book edited by Ellic Howe is a sort of addendum to his Magicians of the Golden Dawn, and it publishes correspondence from the Yorke collection (and others) authored by the senior G.D. adept W.A. Ayton. The greatest body of letters are all addressed to F.L. Gardner, a younger magician for whom Ayton served as an alchemical mentor. Ayton and his wife were as active in the G.D. as they could be, considering their advanced years and residence in rural Chacombe, where Ayton served as vicar. Ayton had been a member of the H.B. of L., and (according to him) was instrumental in its discrediting. He appears to have accepted the mythopoeic “Rosicrucian” lineage of Westcott’s G.D. whole cloth, and to have contributed the authority of his years and researches to its inner order. Both Ayton and Gardner were active in connection with the Theosophical Society during Blavatsky’s London period in the late 1880s.

Ayton’s principal esoteric interest was alchemy, and much of the correspondence is concerned with the lending and copying of secret manuscripts on this topic. The interest was not confined to armchair study, however, and Howe reports that the Reverend Ayton maintained a laboratory in the basement of the vicarage (to avoid detection by the bishop!). There are secondary accounts provided from W.B. Yeats that Ayton had lost to inefficient storage a supply of the Elixir of Life (11), and later “made what he hopes is the Elixir of Life. If the rabbit on whom he is trying it survives, we are all to drink a noggin full — at least those of us whose longevity he feels he could encourage” (109).

Throughout Ayton’s letters to Gardner, there are anxious and adverse references to the B.B., which is evidently the “Black Brotherhood.” Howe is convinced, and repeatedly informs the reader, that “B.B.” refers to the Jesuits, and it may be that denotation that Ayton had in mind. However, I consider it something of an open question on the evidence supplied in the volume. Granted, Atyon is otherwise worried about “Papists,” and his 1904 and 1905 letters refer simply to the ill influence of “Jesuits,” without mentioning B.B. Still, the Jesuits could be subservient to a larger B.B., as they certainly are in some conceptions of esoteric politics. At the end of 1892, Ayton wrote to Gardner, “I congratulate you on obtaining the valuable work on B.B. Do not think I underestimate getting knowledge about their doings … They are plotting all the time” (73).

Howe is notable for a lack of sympathy to the objects of his study, frequently deriding their interests and engagements. The fact that he “cannot fathom” the reasons that Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni was attractive to 19th-century English occultists shows his singular lack of imagination. There also is a peculiar almost-apology in response to Gerald Suster, whose contribution to the Falcon Press What You Should Know about the Golden Dawn was a rebuke to Howe regarding the value of magical practice (80). He has done a fine job of collecting these primary materials, in any case, and anyone with an interest in Victorian occultism can profit by this quick and entertaining read. [via]