In the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the supremely most influential esoteric and magical orders in modern occultism, the question of origins has been a matter of much dispute. This is, of course, a common story for esoteric orders, or even for religious movements more broadly. If there is one thing you can count on, it’s that their founders and their followers will tend to invent mythologies, lineages, and exotic provenances to bolster their group’s sense of importance.
In the case of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1887 by a group of London based high degree Freemasons and occultists, the emic historiography has centred upon a claim to Rosicrucian lineage. The direct link was a mysterious Fräulein Sprengel of Stuttgart, also known under her magical motto Sapiens Dominabitur Astris (“the wise will rule the stars”). The evidence for this lineage was a letter communication between Sprengel and the G.D. co-founder, coroner William Wynn Westcott, which ostensibly ensued after Westcott found her address on a sheet of paper tucked together with the mysterious “cipher manuscript” on which the G.D. rituals would later be based (for the uninitiated: there’s a brief overview of the controversy around them on Wikipedia). The notorious “Sprengel letters” that ensued, and the possible background of the order have been discussed for decades by scholars such as Elic Howe and Robert A. Gilbert – the general consensus being that the letters were forged and Sprengel a fiction. In the latest issue of Aries, Christopher McIntosh publishes brand new evidence in this mystery, evidence which has been there all along but curiously overlooked by all previous investigators.
The discovery is surprising, and makes an already confusing story even more so.
Since Howe’s Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972) it has mostly been supposed that the letters were forged by Westcott, probably with the help of a translator. Westcott would have written up the correspondence in English, and the letters from Sprengel would have been translated into German. McIntosh – who might be the first scholar to go to the actual sources and read the original letters since Howe in the early 1970s – finds this particular hypothesis to be unlikely. While the German letters do include some striking grammatical errors – suggesting that the author may have been a non-native – they were written in Gothic handwriting which takes some familiarity and skill to produce; moreover, the English translations of the German letters include what seems to be intriguing and rather clumsy mistranslations.
This was, however, only the beginning. A far larger surprise lay in store in the very structure of the original German text of the letters:
“Now when I came to the second letter from S.D.A. [Sapiens Dominabitur Astris], I was astonished to see that the writer signed off as ‘Ihr ganz ergebener’ (your devoted), the point being that both the possessive pronoun ‘Ihr’ and the adjective ‘ergebener’ were masculine.”
Masculine? Was Fräulein Sprengel really (or fictionally) a man? Or could this just be another silly mistranslation?
“At first I thought this might, by a long stretch of the imagination, be a slip on the part of the amanuensis, but when I read on through the letters I found that whenever an adjective or possessive pronoun was used to refer to the writer the ending was always masculine. Then came the final letter, written in August by a different correspondent with the motto ‘Ex Uno Disce Omnes’ (From One Learn All), in which the death of S.D.A. was reported (again in incorrect German) as follows: ‘Es ist mir sehr leid, daß ich Euch anzeigen mus den Sterbefall unseres gelehrten Freundes S.D.A.’ (I am sorry to inform you of the death of our learned friend S.D.A). Here again the genitive ending of unseres (of our learned) is masculine, as is the noun Freundes. So now there was no shadow of doubt: S.D.A.—whether real or invented—was a man!” (p. 253)
Vale Soror! Ave Frater!
What are the implications of this discovery for the debate on the authenticity of the letters, and ultimately the origin of the Golden Dawn? McIntosh presents two competing hypotheses: one assuming, as before, that S.D.A. was an invention (hypothesis A), the other that s/he was a real person (hypothesis B).
The problem for hypothesis A is to explain why Westcott would consistently refer to S.D.A. as a woman, while the letters from S.D.A. all consistently use the masculine. This could be explained by hypothesising a second translator. Westcott would write up an English draft, and pass it on to translator 1. The English language lacking an indication of gender in adjectives, there would be no way for the translator to know that the initials “S.D.A.” were to conceal a woman. Westcott may have forgotten to give this detail (not considering the possibility for a grammatical mix-up), and translator 1 would then have assumed the correspondent to be male. By the time translator 2 got the letters, he would produce a (flawed) translation back to English which, again, would not reveal the error in the German middle stage to Westcott. On this hypothesis, then, the gender confusion is an artifact of the use of two translators, and a lack of care with German grammar on the behalf of Westcott.
On the hypothesis B, the big trouble is to explain the original note with Sprengel’s name and address, which indeed equated Fräulein Sprengel and S.D.A. (the note said: “Sapiens dom ast is a chief among the members of the goldene dammerung [i.e., Golden Dawn] she is a famous soror her name is fräulein sprengel …” ). The writer of this note must then be assumed to have conflated two different persons, a mistake Westcott would reproduce. With the first responses, he might not have noticed the error, again seeing that the English translations he procured would not directly reveal the gender of the author. McIntosh suggests that, on this scenario, Westcott could have been informed of the error by the translator a little into the correspondence; he would then, however, continue to use the Fräulein Sprengel name to members, in order not to make a fool out of himself. This would also explain his unwillingness to defend himself when MacGregor Mathers later accused Westcott of having forged the letters.
In conclusion, McIntosh considers that there are now four hypotheses on the provenance of these letters available:
“(a) S.D.A. was a fiction created byWestcott, and the gender discrepancy came
about in the manner I have outlined in the first scenario.
(b) He was a fiction created by someone other than Westcott.
(c) He was an impostor posing as a Rosicrucian adept.
(d) He was what he claimed to be: a member of a German esoteric lodge, willing to confer authority on Westcott, Mathers and Woodman to found
an English offshoot. “
The new and unexpected evidence put forward in McIntosh’s article seems in the end to strengthen the fraud thesis, albeit in a somewhat new variety as we have seen. It does look very much like the scheme was being prepared from the beginning, with the note making a connection between S.D.A. and a female adept, Sprengel. That a gender confusion arose in the translation process is not unlikely, and only fits with the many other peculiarities of the letters and translations. It also harmonises with the already existing evidence that the cipher manuscript itself was a relatively young invention (contrary to its claim) that was most likely created in England, and most likely by then recently deceased occultist Kenneth Mackenzie.
In any case, McIntosh’s discovery is sure to raise considerable attention among historians of occultism and occult historians alike.
Reference: Christopher McIntosh, “‘Fräulein Sprengel’ and the Origins of the Golden Dawn: A Surprising Discovery”. Aries 11.2 (2011): 249-257.
This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.