Hilma af Klint, Svanen (1915)

I thought it might be interesting to some occult history nerds – of which I am certainly one – to transcribe the below article, which marks the earliest substantial appearance of the ‘Hermetic Order of the Sacred Word’ in print. (I say ‘substantial’ because I believe there may be an offhand reference in an early edition of Francis King’s history of ritual magic in England, but I only have a later revised edition to hand.) The short article is somewhat strange, and sections of it were later adapted as a manifesto of sorts by the Aurum Solis as it came in to public view; it is a brief summary of why one might be interested in ‘Qabalistic’ magic, and shows some of the hallmarks of Denning & Phillips’ later books, namely an insistence on the creative rather than restrictive and dogmatic aspects of Qabalah, an appreciation of the overlap between magic and religion, and a strong interest in Jungian analysis and related psychological or analytic literature.

The article was published on pp.139-145 of a handy pre-internet gazette glorying in the title The Aquarian Guide to Occult, Mystical, Religious, Magical London & Around (ed. Françoise Strachan, The Aquarian Press: London, 1970). The Guide is a colourful cheap paperback snapshot of occult London in 1970, and it is well worth glancing through just to get a sense of the riotous array of creeds, techniques and credulity-stretching backstories on offer. Its editor’s preface gives a very brief sense of how enduring and exasperating internecine squabbling and mutual enmity is on the occult scene: it’s hard not to think of the inclusion of an entry for Neurotics Anonymous as an unsubtle hint. But the Guide doubtless gave any number of curious seekers an entry-point to an otherwise sealed-off world: an address to post a nervous letter to, or, for the especially bold, a phone-number to ring.

And what if your appetite had been whetted by the mix of modern spiritual transformation and ancient Kabbalistic know-how alluded to in the article? You would search the pages of the Guide in vain for the details of the ‘Hermetic Order of the Sacred Word’, and end up frustrated. Perhaps you would write directly to the publishers, or ask around at the Atlantis bookshop. Perhaps you’d end up doing something else, following off one of the many other leads between the Guide’s psychedelic covers.

But if you paid attention to the occult press, you might notice the first editions of Denning and Phillips’ The Magical Philosophy rolling out from Llewellyn Press a few years later in 1974. The first volume contains a purported history of the Aurum Solis, and the Order of the Sacred Word, which is said to have split from the AS in 1957 and returned in 1971, after a difference of opinion or taste over the use of Masonic structure and method in esoteric work – with the Sacred Word favouring the somewhat cumbersome Masonic style rejected by the AS. The traces of O∴S∴V∴ (the abbreviation is of ‘Ordo Sacri Verbi’, the group’s Latin name) ritual and instruction which remains in the published work is interesting, and I’ll refer to it in a later post about some of the AS’s magical techniques.

Yet if you were still curious about this group and had picked up, a year later in 1975, Ithell Colquhoun’s book Sword of Wisdom, you might find something intriguing. Ostensibly a biography of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Golden Dawn, most of the book actually traces the fortunes of some of its successor groups and personalities. Colquhoun is not averse to recording gossip and passing judgement (both qualities I rather like) and a somewhat vague section on the Sacred Word occasioned a reply in high dudgeon from Denning and Phillips, at pains to deny any Golden Dawn or Stella Matutina descent, or any substantial links with Druidry – both claims levelled in Colquhoun’s book. That reply, which has its own sleights-of-hand about the identity of some people referenced in it, can be read here.

Were they protesting too much? It doubtless made sense to stake out clearly how different the system of the AS was to the Golden Dawn, and they do happily admit the presence of GD influence in the Sacred Word. As for the claimed links with Druidry, well – no-one could mistake the system presented in The Magical Philosophy as Druidic, but Melita Denning had great sympathy and periodic involvement in Druidic organisations. Indeed, the former Chief Druid of the A.D.U.B., Thomas Maughan, was claimed as a former Grand Master of the AS and was the dedicatee of Book III of The Magical Philosophy. What to make of this? Not much, of course, other than that Denning, certainly, had a great love for the Druids and the Celtic gods (as much can be guessed from her poems for the Celtic gods’ quarter days, and the extended discussion they receive in the books), and that the history of magical groups, especially in England, is rarely as pure and simple as it’s presented. Groups share members, influence each other, ‘borrow’ and appropriate from each other – and the bits that do make it to print can make tenuous connections seem too solid, and temporary experiments much vaster than they really were.

Nonetheless, the article below is a nice piece of AS ephemera, so – enjoy!



Magic is a phenomenon co-extensive with the human race. Qabalistic magic is magic ordered logically and philosophically to the doctrine of the Qabalah. To speak of Qabalistic doctrine is a necessary statement of fact: to speak of Qabalistic dogma would be to misinterpret the whole nature and spirit of the system.

Magic may be most simply defined, in its essential nature, as the applied science of causality. It is therefore in its essential nature one with religion, since the primal concern of all religion, whether monotheistic or otherwise in its outward forms, is with the First Cause, that living infinity of spiritual being, which underlies all separate manifestations in an indivisible unity: and which can be named at once as God.

Perhaps the philosophic term, First Cause, needs a little explanation. You see a train coming along the line, with nothing pulling it. If you imagine a steam-engine coming up behind it and giving it a push from somewhere in the beginning of time, your ideas are badly out of date; the impetus of this train’s movement comes from the electric current which runs through the central rail, everywhere in its entire length the same, and energizing continually the movement of the vehicle. The image is still a somewhat clumsy one, as all material images must be: but at least it conveys something of that omnipresent Causality, and something too of the timelessness of religious or magical experience.

Here let us leave our metaphorical railway, with the observation, that while the devotee and the mystic concern themselves mainly with the power, the magician concerns himself mainly with that which is best suited to his hand, namely, the control of the mechanism and its right ordering. To come to plain speaking, what we have called the ‘train’ is man himself.

The work of magic, then, is the work of Man. The famous Schema of the Qabalah, the ‘Tree of Life’, which indicates an entire philosophy by means of ten circles and twenty-two connecting lines, is sometimes taken to be an objective plan of the universe. It is not: it is altogether subjective: that is to say, it is the plan of the universe interpreted through the focusing-lens of human nature. That is both the limit of what we can know and the limit of what concerns us. The perfection to which we aspire must be perfection of the human kind.

This aspiration towards perfection is essential to all who follow the path of magic. Here is no place for scruples about spiritual narcissism, or pride, or anything of that sort. To reject this aspiration would be to will disharmony in the universal fabric, and would be at least as great a catastrophe as the defects which it might seem to avoid. It is this aspiration, and this reverent sense of purpose which are the most sure marks of the true student of the Qabalah.

The techniques by which the magic of the Qabalah are carried out, are, then, technique for realizing and affirming one’s identity with the universal harmony. Once this is achieved, modifications can be brought in, ritually or otherwise, much as an athlete may know that by a particular movement he can bring about a specific result, though his actual strength remains unchanged. This, in magical working, requires an exact understanding of the forces concerned, as well as a thorough and profound self-knowledge; both of which are developed in the course of one’s training and initiations.

An interesting parallel to this occurs in the history of the mediaeval alchemists, whose work in the material world built up such exact images of the stages of attainment on psychic and spiritual levels, as to attract the detailed attention of Carl Jung and other experts in modern times. One of the contributions of the alchemists to the material techniques of fire-management, was the discovery of the use of dampers. One stove or furnace can be used without change of fuel, to produce many different temperatures: but one needs to know the principles, and one needs to know one’s stove. So it is with that controlled direction of the available power, which we call magical working.

To come back to the modern scene, and the Qabalah: there, then, is Man, the Microcosm, containing within himself all those forces which he perceives in the external universe, and, step by step, in his training, becoming aware of those forces and learning at the same time to evoke and control them. Inevitably, meanwhile, his sense of such qualities as beauty and drama will be heightened. What else he gains depends upon his needs. Severe persons will discover their own hidden sources of compassion and generosity of spirit, lax or slothful ones will discover that the great energies of the universe are worthy of a reverence not lightly to be infringed. Those who cannot learn, or will not, will find their further path barred until they have evolved further: not usually by any external ban, but by their own inner recognition of the situation, which acts more surely, and usually gives its verdict far more rapidly. Those who are willing, and truly desire to attain, however, shall pass through door after door.

For this is the truth, which the guardians of the Qabalah have known through the ages, and which the most advanced psychologists are beginning to perceive: the inner world and the outer are more closely related than is ever dreamt of by the average man, who thinks of himself as the victim of external circumstances; and the inner world is the more potent. One may read such books as ‘L’analyse Du Destin: Le Moi Pontifex’ by Henri Niel; books which are not the work of occultists striving to prove their point, nor of popular psychologists of the pep-talk school, but of objective scientifically-trained investigators into the workings of the human mind as a key to the nature of our life. Man makes his world, or is crushed by the worlds made by others. The greater his understanding and the more enlightened his spirit, the better he will carry out this essential task. That, then, is the purpose of the Qabalah.

Let us take a final look at our railway train. Perhaps that electrified rail is itself a little antiquated. We must envisage the vehicle of the future, the impetus of its movement coming from its own little internal cell of atomic energy. That, surely, is the only adequate comparison for the perfected follower of the Qabalah. For he seems completely independent; he is free, in truth, of all things, but these things were merely his own inward fetters or else their outward reflection and manifestation. He has his own inward power-source, the completely realized Divine Spark within. Yet he is not by any means isolated: for what, after all, is this Divine Spark, but a part of the universal power and life, the life which informs all things, ‘the Love which moves the Sun and all the Stars!’