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Neo-paganism: Late Victorian Pagan revivals

Performing the Spirit: Theatre, the Occult, and the Ceremony of Isis

La performance de l’esprit : théâtralité, occultisme et la cérémonie d’Isis
Dennis Denisoff


Cet article, qui s’appuie sur deux approches radicalement différentes de l’occulte et de la performance, analyse comment de nombreux Victoriens de la fin du siècle se sont tournés vers le théâtre pour faire l’expérience d’une communication mystique. Les éditeurs de la revue Borderland: A Psychical Quarterly, W. T. Stead et Ada Goodrich Freer, s’intéressèrent à l’idée de performance en grande partie à des fins stratégiques avec pour objectif de promouvoir le spiritisme ainsi que d’autres phénomènes psychiques. Dans le même temps, Moina et Samuel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers, piliers de l’Ordre Hermétique de l’Aube Dorée conçurent la Cérémonie d’Isis non pas dans un but lucratif, mais pour ériger la performance à la fois en mode de transmigration et en puissant symbole des valeurs clé de l’occultisme païen.

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  • 1 Janet Oppenheim offers a succinct discussion of Stead’s engagement with spiritualism in The Other W (...)

1In July 1893, editor W. T. Stead launched the periodical Borderland: A Psychical Quarterly (1893–1897) with the vision of bringing the study of immaterial phenomena to ‘the great mass of ordinary people’ (1893, 5). Practised in telepathy and automatic writing and an acquaintance of Theosophical leader Madame Blavatsky, Stead hoped his new journal would foster attention to and respect for spiritualism and related subjects, such as paganism and the occult. At this time, paganism—whether as an ancient or contemporary earth-based spirituality—was usually envisioned as having occult interests in secret knowledge and practices. Spiritualism, however, which arose in the United States in the 1840s, offered public rather than private displays of supernatural events, with a keen investment in establishing scientific confirmation of the ability to communicate with the dead. With roots primarily in Protestantism, spiritualism (unlike the occult) was not interested in magic and (unlike paganism) did not incorporate earth-based deities into its beliefs or practices. Despite such differences, the dynamic engagements that Victorians had with paganism, the occult, and spiritualism meant that they were not mutually exclusive. Borderland frequently conflates the concepts, for example, while the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1888–1901), the most influential occult order of the period, was invested in forms of magic far more than earth-based religion but nevertheless relied extensively on ancient Egyptian and Classical paganism for its symbolism and rituals.1

2Stead’s reputation as a journalist was well established and so his voice was a powerful contribution to the mix of hybrid discourses that characterized the culture of paganism, the occult, and spiritualism during this period. That he was aware of his influence is apparent in his introduction to volume 4.1 of Borderland, where he has the boldness to berate his readers for not focussing their attention on convincing the scientific community that a person can communicate with otherworldly forces. He criticizes equally the ‘provoking materialists . . . who close their eyes to the plainest facts’ and the ‘not less provoking spiritualists . . . who are so sure of their conclusions as to be sublimely indifferent to the duty of supplying evidence or convincing other people’ (1897, 3). But then, rather surprisingly, instead of himself bringing forward experts in the scientific community in support of his beliefs, Stead turns to the popular French dramatist Victorien Sardou, now best known for his play La Tosca, which opened in 1887 with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, and on which Puccini’s opera of the same name (1900) is based. Stead quotes Sardou’s declaration of his own commitment to spiritisme, the form of spiritualism that developed in France:

‘You have before you a man who has seen everything in these matters. I have seen flowers fall from my ceiling. I have even been a surprisingly good medium, and have done a good deal of slate-writing. To-day the greatest savants in the world—geologists, chemists, and most renowned physicists in England—are beginning to believe in these inexplicable phenomena’. (1897, 3)

3As Stead would have wished, Sardou bases the validity of his claims on scientists, ‘geologists, chemists, and most renowned physicists in England’, but the experts he references all remain unidentified in the article, ultimately reaffirming the editor’s concern that adequate scientific support for his beliefs was, in fact, lacking.

4So why did Stead choose a popular playwright to support his rallying cry at all? It may be that, despite his many connections, he did not know any scientists willing to offer an endorsement of his position. It is equally likely that the savvy editor hoped to leverage the playwright’s fame to inspire the general populace he defined in Borderland’s inaugural issue as the periodical’s target readership. In this article, I wish to explore a third reason why Stead and many of his contemporaries were drawn to theatrical performance as an avenue to mystical communication. Borderland’s references to theatre suggest that the occult of his time was recognized as participating in a broader cultural and artistic development. But it also turned to performance as a particularly effective means of intimately engaging with the mystical, as revealed by the complex initiation processes and rituals executed by Golden Dawn members. First demonstrating the strategic use of the theatre in Borderland, I then turn to a dramatic ritual practised by Golden Dawn members Moina and Samuel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers to address performance as also a mode of human transmigration and a powerfully allusive embodiment of key values of pagan occultism.

Popularizing Spiritualities: Stead, Sardou, and Bernhardt

5Theatricality played a major role in the vibrant Victorian spiritual scene. Popularizing such practices as automatic writing, séances, and table rapping, spiritualists such as Stead were particularly invested in public performance as a means of gaining recognition and affirmation. As Mark Morrison notes, spiritualism’s presence in late-Victorian print culture and periodicals existed at the intersection between the ‘private and personal’, on one hand, and the ‘flamboyantly public’, on the other (3). Mackenzie Bartlett similarly declares that, ‘with its emphasis on staging, spectacle and audience, spiritualism can be read as one of the most overtly theatrical cultural trends of the period’ (273). Stead was well aware of the valuable contribution theatrical performance could make to his cause. In the same issue of Borderland in which he turned to Sardou to convince his readers to engage the scientific community, an article entitled ‘M. Sardou and Sarah Bernhardt’ ruminates on the place of the occult in theatre culture. The piece is by Ada Goodrich Freer, an assistant editor who made many other contributions to Borderland under the pseudonym ‘Miss X’ (Campbell). Freer begins by lamenting the delayed Paris opening of Sardou’s latest work, which she expects ‘to deal with spiritualism from a serious point of view’ (12). It is not simply an admiration for the popular playwright that has Freer vexed by the delay. Nor is it her keen interest in works addressing aspects of the new spiritualist movements. Rather, it is the urgent need, in her view, for newer spiritual inquiries to take a larger dramatic role. As the author argues, ‘if the stage is really to return to the position it held both in classical and mediæval times, and to be a source of education and instruction, then surely occultism, psychical research, as one of the most pressing questions of the day, ought to be fairly presented’ (12). Freer here suggests a primary investment in the future of theatre as a didactic medium, but it quickly becomes apparent that her main concern is that the popular entertainment of her time was not giving the occult its due respect.

6In light of the fantastical, often comic approaches that she notes plays such as Trilby (1895) and His Little Dodge (1896) have taken to the subject (12), it is clear why Freer was anxious to see a serious occult drama by Sardou on the stage. After all, the playwright was not only well known, but also an acknowledged spiritualist, making him a strong spokesperson for her interests. Complementing his assistant’s efforts, Stead chose a photographic portrait of Sardou as the frontispiece of the issue of Borderland in which Freer’s argument appears, with the caption describing him as ‘Medium’ first and ‘Dramatist’ second. Meanwhile, the image of the even more recognizable star Sarah Bernhardt graces Freer’s article itself. The half-figure photographic portrait depicts the renowned actress reclining, her arm propping up her head while she, mouth slightly open, gazes mystically into the distance beyond the photographer’s left shoulder. Freer declares confidence that Bernhardt would ‘play the part of Seer, under whatever conditions, . . . worthily’ (13). The actress is not known to have been a spiritualist or occultist, but Freer’s words—combined with Bernhardt’s pose in the portrait and the placement of the image in the article—encourage Borderland’s readers to assume as much.

7Stead and Freer demonstrate a keen awareness of mainstream theatre culture as a means of making the broader public comfortable adopting this newer spirituality. As Lynn Voskuil has argued, in the nineteenth century, ‘theatricality and authenticity often functioned dynamically together to construct the symbolic typologies by which the English knew themselves as individuals, as a public, and as a nation’ (2). The popularity of Sardou and Bernhardt would, Borderland’s editors hoped, move a serious discussion of the modern occult into the spotlight, replacing the farcical depictions. The timing seemed excellent; the same year that Stead published this issue of Borderland, 1897, with its strategic emphasis on Sardou, the dramatist’s new play Spiritisme hit the stage in France, England, and the United States. Unfortunately, opening to ‘rather dubious reception’ (‘Spooks’), the work did little to alleviate the popular conception of occultism as light entertainment. Spiritisme turned out to be a romance in which the hero uses his talents as a medium to address accusations of infidelity. At the New York performance, some of the humour was caused by weak acting, although, the reviewer tells us, ‘Bernhardt, doubtless, would be thrilling even in the “materialization” scene’ (‘Spooks’). Ultimately, however, rather than making a confident declaration of serious support for marginal spiritualities, Sardou’s work offers no discussion of the dynamic new beliefs arising in Europe and North America. Instead, the reviewer concludes, Spiritisme captured little more than the dramatist’s ‘obvious insincerity’ around the movement. Echoing both Trilby and His Little Dodge in portraying a character using hypnotism for personal interests, Sardou’s play only helped to warn audiences of the potential dangers of occultists of all stripes.

8Like Borderland’s editors, members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn took the otherworldly seriously and recognized a positive correlation between it and the theatre. The Order, however, demonstrated a greater respect, indeed veneration, not only for the power of performance, but also for the role of theatre in helping one enter into a higher level of spirituality. Like Stead and Freer, Moina and Samuel Mathers recognized that theatre could help propagate occult interests, but their engagement with performance emphasizes instead recognition that drama could embody a depth of significance rooted in a solemn engagement with the pagan past.

The Golden Dawn’s Engagement with Performance

9In retrospect, Freer’s hopes for the positive influence of Sardou’s play were perhaps a touch naïve. Victorians predominantly recognized the theatre as an entertaining medium for the creation of temporary allusions or, more threateningly, as ‘the ultimate, deceitful mobility . . . that decomposes the uniform integrity of the self’ (Auerbach 4). Most late-Victorian readers would not have seen theatre as a particularly strong foundation on which to argue for material proof of communication with the dead. Unlike spiritualists, however, Golden Dawn members turned to performance as a means of cleansing themselves of what they envisioned as the illusion of materiality. Defining ritual as ‘consecrated[,] . . . formal, dramatic, and unusually stylized action’, Ronald Hutton notes the actual continuity between persons’ private and public performances when he observes that ‘in many ways the essence of all modern paganism is consecration; the attempt to make persons, places, and objects feel more sacred, more invested with inner power and meaning which connects the apparent to a non-apparent world’ (x). The transience of performance—its amorphous function across the private and the public—was recognized as a source of power, and is what drew Golden Dawn initiates to it. Performance theorist Peggy Phelan has observed that ‘the question of belief always enters critical writing and perhaps never more urgently than when one’s subject resists vision and may not be “really there” at all’ (10). As with critical writing, so with the equally earnest rituals created and performed by the Order. ‘There is real power’, Phelan contends, ‘in remaining unmarked; and there are serious limitations to visual representation as a political goal’ (6). The evanescence of the supernatural is one with that of performance; while the latter can be recorded, it is nevertheless itself impermanent. This agency of the unaccountable, I argue, occult practitioners recognized as a magical power.

  • 2 Mary K. Greer’s Women of the Golden Dawn offers an extensive biography of Moina Mathers, Annie Horn (...)

10The Golden Dawn’s combination of occult exclusivity with a form of self-enhancement appealed to a broad swathe of the bourgeoisie. Physicians, clergy, and political activists were all members of the Order. Due in part to its emphasis on the role of the imagination in spiritual development, artists and authors had a particular affinity with the Golden Dawn. Members were involved in all aspects of the theatre scene, from writing and acting to producing and financing. Moina, for example, would turn her artistic talents to designing and making costumes and sets for ritual performances. While a student at the Slade School of Art in the 1880s, she befriended future Order member Annie Horniman, an independent spirit who helped financially in establishing the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, the latter being the first regional repertory theatre in Britain. Horniman was involved in the production of plays by W. B. Yeats (another member), as well as the 1894 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Shaw wrote the play with the actress and Golden Dawn member Florence Farr in mind. Countering the scholarly tendency to analyze Farr primarily as an inspiration or stimulus for works by male contemporaries such as Shaw, Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière, in her article included in this issue, foregrounds the important work Farr herself did as an artist making major contributions to both the occult and the theatre. Farr contributed to the production of a play by Yeats, while both she and Yeats were involved in the production of plays by John Todhunter, another member. Toward the end of Farr’s involvement in the Order, she and Olivia Shakespear co-authored and produced two dramas rooted in ancient Egyptian ritual, including one at least influenced by the Rites of Isis developed by the Matherses. Notably, the first English production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome was directed by Farr.2 Although Wilde never became a member of the Golden Dawn, his wife Constance had (Owen 62–63) and he had met Samuel. One can sense the influence of the occult in Wilde’s play Salome (1891). In the style of its language and performance instructions, and in its suggestion of a nature-based symbolism rooted in mythic belief, the play feels distinctly ritualistic. The eponymous heroine herself is akin to a spiritual force, like ‘a woman who is dead’ (552), as one of Wilde’s characters puts it, but she is also one defined by myth. Salome’s ritualistic style is echoed in Golden Dawn member William Sharp’s own dramas, such as The House of Usna (1903). In short, the Golden Dawn was a cultural and spiritual hub that produced a collection of related dramatic works, some of which were occult rituals themselves.

11Despite its clear appeal to members of the theatre community, as a secret society, the Golden Dawn’s primary investment in performance was not as a form of entertainment or public outreach but as ritual engagement with mystical phenomena. The personae, costumes, and props were likewise intended to enhance the efficacy of the occult practises. That said, since the Golden Dawn’s inception, the society also recognized a blur between occult ritual and public theatre. Many of the society’s early members explored the potency of the dynamic relation, but it was Moina and Samuel Mathers’s public performance of the Ceremony of Isis that most explicitly addressed the positive resonance between the evanescent and exhibitionist qualities of dramatic ritual. One of the best-known performances by Golden Dawn members, the ceremony effectively demonstrates the interconnections across pagan belief, magic, and theatre that characterize the Order.

Moina and Samuel Mathers and the Ceremony of Isis

12From a spiritual perspective, Samuel and Moina’s Ceremony of Isis was in accord with other Golden Dawn rituals in its aim of absorbing the individual will into that of the universal. Their move to public performance was driven in part by material necessity. By the mid-1890s, Samuel was the only remaining founding member of the Order and had risen to become the Chief of the Second Order of the society. Living with Moina in Paris, however, he was increasingly in conflict with members of the main Temple back in England. The couple had been subsisting primarily on donations, including £420 per year from Annie Horniman from 1892 to 1896 (Frazier 47). At about the same time that Horniman stopped her donations, Samuel suspended her from the Order. Then, when in 1900 he tried to give Aleister Crowley a promotion in rank against the wishes of the main Temple back in England, a major schism developed leading Farr and others ultimately expelling him from the order. During this upheaval, Samuel and Moina’s interests were becoming increasingly focussed on ancient Egyptian spirituality, and it was to this pagan tradition that they now turned in an effort to distinguish and strengthen their new occult community.

13Ancient Egypt had always contributed to the Golden Dawn’s mythology, not surprisingly because, as Hutton notes, ‘ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, the civilization of Pharaonic Egypt had been regarded as the premier repository of magical lore, being the most stable and enduring of all those that first emerged in Europe and the Near East’ (77). Nineteenth-century Egyptian archaeology and Greco-Egyptian papyri had influenced the structure of the initiation grades in the Order, and its main deity was a horned figure that fused an Egyptian god-form with Pan and an idol of the Knights Templar (Hutton 75, 80). The first Temple of the Golden Dawn, consecrated in London in 1888, was called Isis-Urania. Moina had first met Samuel in 1887 in the British Museum’s Reading Room, where she was making sketches of Egyptian antiquities (Greer 45), and the two would later visit the Egyptian collection at the Louvre (208) and decorate their Parisian flat with ancient Egyptian statuary (Gaucher 448).

  • 3 The Golden Dawn’s views of ritual accorded in some ways with those of the Cambridge Ritualists such (...)

14Now distanced from the British temples, the couple was keen to develop a community in Paris around what they called the Isis Movement, and one of their strategies for fulfilling this aim became performing their elaborate Ceremony of Isis for attentive audiences. When the couple had initiated the movement, its ritual dramas, known as the Rite of Isis, were practiced secretly in a chapel in the basement of their Parisian residence or elsewhere.3 In a December 1900 article entitled ‘Isis à Montmartre’, journalist André Gaucher, observing that ‘il paraît que les adorateurs d’Isis deviennent de jour en jour plus nombreux et plus fervents’ (446–447), describes what appears to have been a private performance of the ceremony. According to Gaucher, Samuel arranged for him to be blindfolded and driven out of Paris to the countryside where he was taken into a large, white room decorated with burning torches and floral garlands, and allowed to view an Isis ritual enacted. The vibrancy of Gaucher’s language and style makes it difficult to parse historical record from exaggeration; nevertheless, it speaks to the magic of occult theatre that, just as his rendering absorbed and reproduced the drama of the event, the rest of the attendees are clearly marked, in Gaucher’s article, not as distanced viewers but as active participants. The women and men, dressed in multi-coloured, neo-Greek robes, performed simple ceremonial rites involving lighting a cauldron of perfume and either burning flowers and sheaves of wheat in a cauldron or simply tossing them. A statue seemed to smile as the worshippers prostrated themselves and shouted ‘Isis! Isis! Isis!’ Then, as Gaucher puts it, obviously captivated by the spirit of the occasion, ‘lentement, comme si le sol se dérobait sous son socle, la statue descend peu à peu’ (471). This was followed by a similarly orchestrated ritual involving Osiris.

15Questioning whether the event was in part trickery or hallucination, the journalist declares ‘Tout est possible. Mais alors l’habileté des metteurs en scène de ce décor fantastique touche elle-même à l’irréel’ (471). By speculating on whether his experience was the result of allusion or hallucination, Gaucher not only acknowledges that the event he describes had happened but that he is uncertain whether his encounter was in fact different than that of the other attendees. Eventually, he notes, ‘les adorateurs tombent en extase ou en catalepsie’ (472). And, as the event became increasingly horrific as other ancient Egyptian ‘monstres’ appeared from the shadows, Gaucher joined his fellow attendees in falling into semi-consciousness. The article ends with the journalist being returned in silence and darkness to the Paris location where he had initially been retrieved. Untraceable and unmarked, the performance nevertheless proved powerful for the journalist. There is a strong sensationalist quality to the author’s report, but it does appear in a journal aimed at readers serious about the occult and spiritualism. Moreover, Gaucher’s use of theatrical terminology to describe the private ritual demonstrates the way in which Golden Dawn members used performance to immerse themselves within their spirituality. Not only the substance but the spirit of the ceremony are captured in the journalist’s recollection.

16The theatrical discourse of the rituals is further enhanced by the posed studio portraits Gaucher contains in his article of Samuel and Moina in their ceremonial garb and each holding what appears to be the same, probably artificial, branch of lotus flowers (Figs. 1 and 2). The identical portraits also appear in a separate article by Frederic Lees entitled ‘Isis Worship in Paris,’ and published in the American periodical The Humanitarian. That the same studio portraits appear in two separate articles implies the Matherses were the suppliers of the images, and the fact that two journalists reported on the ceremony in the same year suggests something of a public campaign on Samuel and Moina’s part to gain public attention. In his article, Lees describes a public performance of what appears to be a variant on the same ritual described by Gaucher. Samuel’s friend the writer and occultist Jules Bois asked the couple to perform the Rites of Isis at the Bodinière Theatre. In accord with the Order’s hermeticism, they initially turned Bois down. But then, as Moina explains in Lees’s article, the ‘goddess Isis herself’ intervened, appearing to Moina in a dream and giving them permission to go ahead (83). It was only after this traceless affirmation that the couple agreed to offer public performances, beginning in March 1899 (Huckvale 104). The Bodinière was used for a range of entertainments, including fortune telling and lectures by playwrights and others. Audiences were generally made up of intellectuals, the upper-middle class, and members of literary and artistic circles (Waeber 271). The audience for these events was usually there as much for entertainment as edification, and Lees’s description of one of the Isis performances captures the same theatrical quality of the event that Gaucher emphasized. Lees’s piece, however, also incorporates an interview with Samuel and Moina in their identities as the Hierophant Rameses and the High Priestess Anari.

17For Lees, ‘the dress of the High Priestess Anari is [especially well] adapted for giving a good idea of the symbolism of the Isis worshipper’ (84). ‘Her long, flowing hair expresses the idea of rays of light radiating through the universe’, he writes, adding:

Upon her head is a little cone symbolical of the Divine Spirit, and a lotus flower symbolic of purity and wisdom. ‘The lotus springs up,’ said the Hierophant Rameses, ‘from the muddy waters of the Nile. The cone is the flame of life. The whole idea of the dress of the priestess is that the life of matter is purified and ruled by the divine spirit’. (84)

18For the ritual, staging and props proved as crucial as the gestures of the performers. The figure of Isis stood centre-stage, with figures of gods and goddesses on each side and a small altar in front. On the altar was an ‘ever-burning green stone lamp’ (84). Lees writes,

The Hierophant Rameses, holding in one hand the sistrum, which every now and then he shook, and in the other a spray of lotus, said the prayers before this altar, after which the High Priestess Anari invoked the goddess in penetrating and passionate tones. Then followed the ‘dance of the four elements’ by a young Parisian lady, who, dressed in long white robes, had previously recited some verses in French in honour of Isis. (84)

19In a discussion of Dion Fortune’s performances of a Rite of Isis in the 1930s, Gareth Knight notes the events at the Bodinière as direct precursors. Describing the Rite of Isis as a form of theatre, he proposes that public ritual performance may not be ‘the most effective mode of ceremonial magic, for like grand opera and other specialist art forms, it needs a sympathetic and informed audience’ (8). The audience Gaucher witnessed was clearly informed and highly committed, where the privacy appears to have reinforced the established nineteenth-century theatrical notion of natural acting, where ‘the authentic expression could not be disengaged from its theatricalized embodiment’ (Voskuil 12–13). In the event that Lees describes, however, there is a crucial oscillation between seeing the performers as going public and seeing the audience as part of a private community. The majority of Samuel and Moina’s audience was, as Knight suggests in his description of specialist art, already interested in the occult. According to Lees, at the performance he witnessed, most of the women who made up ‘the fashionable Parisian audience’ presented offerings of flowers, while the men ‘threw wheat on to the altar’ (84), echoing the practice described by Gaucher. For Lees, ‘the ceremony was artistic in the extreme’ (84). With the audience not only taking part, but seemingly preparing props in advance, it would be inaccurate to describe the communal performance as open to the public, and yet it maintained a greater reserve than the more secretive event in the Parisian countryside.

20There is much of interest in Lees’s article and interview, not least being the positioning of the occult ceremony in an actual theatre for a fashionable audience. Lees himself appears particularly taken by the artistic quality of the ritual. But he notes Samuel and Moina’s desire not simply to describe the event, but to explain its symbolism, Samuel speaking with ‘the enthusiasm of a true archæologist’ (82), suggesting an interest on their part in educating the general public. Meanwhile, in Samuel’s self-description as the Hierophant Rameses, he positions himself not just as an appreciator of or expert in Egyptian mythology, but as a transhistorical embodiment of it. Within the context of his excommunication from the main Temple of the Golden Dawn, Mather’s casting of himself in the role of a chief priest suggests an individual who is invested not only in his relationship to the universal will, but also in his position in material society. Similarly, in Lees’s published account of their conversation, Samuel comes across as somewhat defensive. He explains at one point:

Many have looked upon our propaganda with suspicion, under the impression that we are endeavouring to revive the worship of Isis as practised in its decadence. Now, this is far from our object. We have gone much further back than that; we have gone back to a time when Isis worship was in its primitive form, when it was not overlaid with growths as at later periods in the history of the world. Our Isis worship is Isis worship in its purest form. (83)

21His choice of the term ‘propaganda’ to describe his and Moina’s occult practices suggests his awareness of them as able to draw in new initiates. He explains, however, that the props, costumes, and performances were not aimed at convincing a public audience of the importance of their spiritual beliefs; such a direction of attention would have constituted an investment in surface and artifice limited to the material realm of perception and not a theatricality of the spirit. Rather, these practitioners have, as he suggestively puts it, ‘gone much further back’ in time to ‘purest form’. The components of the performances allow their transmigration to a pre-historical paganism purified by its very intangibility. This evanescence, however, was a strength not because this made it difficult to challenge but because the power of invisibility, of remaining unmarked, was the same force that characterized the universal will.

22There were various forces that led to the formation of the Ceremony of Isis. Late-Victorian occultists, Theosophists, and others commonly encouraged recognition of their historical lineage to ancient religious practices, and the goddess had gained popularity during the wave of Egyptomania initiated by Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798–1801) and the archeological efforts that followed. Various members of the Golden Dawn, such as Elaine Simpson, Florence Farr, and the Matherses, reported having visions of Isis (Greer 118; 208). Samuel had also studied ancient Egyptian culture and was well aware of its currency. His adoption of the persona of the Hierophant Rameses accords with his proud vision of himself as leader of the Golden Dawn, suggesting a highly strategic positioning of himself within the popular zeitgeist. In his interview with Frederic Lees, however, he actually foregrounds his and Moina’s use of ritual to subsume themselves in a pure form of Isis worship. With the assistance over the years from various members involved in the theatre, the Order’s pagan practices had become strongly invested in the power of performance. Thus Samuel’s language emphasizes the ahistorical connotation that marks the importance of drama to the occult. As the Ceremony of Isis and its investment in the theatre makes apparent, the Golden Dawn recognized performance as a magic means of enlivening the mythos of the modern pagan occult. Not something one engages in through mimicry, their Ceremony of Isis was intended to foster no less than a trans-historical dissolution of selfhood into the universal will.

Figure 1: Moina Mathers as the High Priestess Anari from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 471)

Figure 1: Moina Mathers as the High Priestess Anari from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 471)

Figure 2: Samuel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers as the Hierophant Rameses from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 470)

Figure 2: Samuel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers as the Hierophant Rameses from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 470)
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1 Janet Oppenheim offers a succinct discussion of Stead’s engagement with spiritualism in The Other World. Detailed articulations of the distinguishing characteristics of paganism, the occult, and spiritualism can be found in, among many works, Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment, and Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn’s Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult.

2 Mary K. Greer’s Women of the Golden Dawn offers an extensive biography of Moina Mathers, Annie Horniman, and Florence Farr that is sensitive to the place of women within the occult pagan tradition.

3 The Golden Dawn’s views of ritual accorded in some ways with those of the Cambridge Ritualists such as James Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison, who argued that myths themselves arise from magic and ritual. Florence Farr knew Harrison and Aleister Crowley’s work references and works by Frazer such as The Golden Bough (1890).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Moina Mathers as the High Priestess Anari from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 471)
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Titre Figure 2: Samuel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers as the Hierophant Rameses from the Ritual of Isis (Gaucher 470)
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Dennis Denisoff, « Performing the Spirit: Theatre, the Occult, and the Ceremony of Isis », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2015, consulté le 11 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1552

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Dennis Denisoff

Dennis Denisoff is the author of Aestheticism and Sexual Parody and Sexual Visuality from Literature to Film. He has edited The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture and a special issue of Victorian Review on ‘Natural Environments,’ and co-edited Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. He is currently completing a book on paganism and ecology in Victorian and Edwardian literature and culture.

Dennis Denisoff est l’auteur de Aestheticism and Sexual Parody et de Sexual Visuality from Literature to Film. Il a édité The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture ainsi qu’un numéro spécial de la Victorian Review sur les ‘Environnements naturels’ et co-édité Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. Il termine actuellement un livre sur le paganisme et l’écologie dans la littérature et la culture victorienne et édouardienne.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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