Strange magic: The story behind Auckland’s Temple of Higher Thought

Metro | 6 April 2016

Part one: Bewitched in the Bay

It’s been five years since Harry Potter last steered his broomstick across our screens.

J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular boy wizard was such a fixture of the past decade that it’s easy to forget the outcry when he first landed. Remember the warnings from the Bible Belt about a generation of children being trained in the occult? No one seems to bother these days – the protests smothered by the long years of books and movies – yet few people know New Zealand once had its very own, very real school of witches and wizards.

Occultism enjoyed a heyday around the beginning of the 20th century. Pentagrams, magic and mysticism were all the rage in the fashionable circles of Britain and the United States, yet it was in the tiny town of Havelock North that this movement had its strongest expression.

As unlikely as it seems, the sunny satellite of Hastings became the global headquarters for the most famous secret magical society outside of fiction: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. As Robert Ellwood puts it in his book Islands of the Dawn: The Story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand, the town was a kind of Vatican for the occult. A Kiwi Hogwarts, if you like.

This strange, secret history to Havelock North begins with a man called Reginald Gardiner.

Gardiner was born in New South Wales to an Anglican vicar and his wife, who both died young. After being raised by relatives in England (the resemblance to Harry Potter ends here), he moved to New Zealand and married a Canadian woman, Ruth. They travelled to her home country, only to return to New Zealand in 1907 and settle near Reginald’s brother, the Reverend Allen Gardiner, who was the vicar at Havelock, as the town was then known.

Reginald, Ruth and Allen, with a handful of others, began regular meetings to discuss their interests. They talked drama and fiction and arts and crafts, but also theosophy, spiritualism and liberal Christianity. By 1908, their little chats had turned into large meetings and the group organised village fairs, children’s Shakespeare performances and ye olde pageants with fancy-dress queens. In other words, it was thoroughly wholesome and the whole town got involved.

Beneath the arts and crafts, however, ran a solemn spiritual current. The core members of the group began meditating together and the movement became known as the Havelock Work. Reginald started publishing a newspaper called The Forerunner and this served as their mouthpiece. Along with articles on protecting native birds and gardening, the group used the paper to broadcast ideas on religion, symbols and the use of ritual.

The inner circle of the Havelock Work were interested in the ideas of the theosophists – people who had visited the East and brought back muddled versions of yoga and Buddhism for public consumption. Reginald Gardiner, though, was convinced there must be a Western equivalent, and the group began to seek out the mystical tradition: concepts about nature, Godhead and human spirituality that were passed down through the ancient Greek mystery schools, alchemy and Jewish Qabbala (or Kabbalah).

It’s a group of ideas that has at times been considered dangerous – certainly heretical; a tradition that has often been hidden or required initiation before being passed on. In short, they went looking for the occult.

The thread of occultism is woven tighter into the fabric of society than you might think. The group found a liberal Anglican order in the UK and began corresponding in the search for spiritual guidance, while continuing to broadcast their ideas to the Havelock community. Their mentor in the UK, a Father Fitzgerald, soon declared that in order to progress further they would need personal instruction.

In 1912, he made a recommendation and within a week Reginald had wired £300 to England to bring to New Zealand the real deal – Dr Robert Felkin, a 32nd-degree (highest) Freemason, ceremonial magician, head of the magical order Stella Matutina and one-time personal physician to a Ugandan king. They were now a long way from muggledom.

Dr Robert Felkin: Freemason, ceremonial magician, head of the magical order Stella Matutina – and one-time personal physician to a Ugandan king.

To get a clearer picture of exactly who Robert Felkin was, we need to look back in time – to London, in 1887.

It’s a period of Romanticism. The natural world is being celebrated. Art Nouveau is on the horizon. The Great War has yet to trample over the world’s dreams of what science can do for the future of man, while a generation of bold explorers is rediscovering the secrets of ancient Greece and Egypt, and bringing back intoxicating new ideas from India, Nepal and Ceylon.

It’s against this backdrop we find William Westcott eagerly examining an encrypted manuscript that has fallen into his hands. A medical doctor and Crown coroner, Westcott is also a Freemason and studious occultist able to decipher the strange code. In the papers, he finds an address for the mysterious (so mysterious some people believe he made her up) Anna Sprengel, who is supposedly a secret chief in an ultra-underground German sect. They begin to correspond and Sprengel instructs Westcott to form a ceremonial magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The English writer and occultist Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947.

For a few short years, the Golden Dawn flourishes. Nobel Prize-winning poet W.B. Yeats and novelist/occultist Aleister Crowley are among its members; temples are built; there are meetings, robes and incantations; there is ceremonial drug use and the summoning of angelic beings – enough carry-on to keep the scriptwriters and novelists of the next century in material for years. Then comes internal bickering, plus an embarrassing and very public court case (involving conmen, stolen papers and a charge of statutory rape), until in 1902 the Golden Dawn falls apart, splintering into different groups.

One of these, the Stella Matutina, is headed by rising occultist Dr Robert Felkin. He leads the order in its focus on serious ceremonial incantation, until, 10 years later, he departs for the colonies, at the invitation of the Havelock Work, to teach the Kiwis a thing or two about magic.

Whare Ra, Havelock North, during the era of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Designed by architect and occultist James Chapman-Taylor, it included a secret 1500sq ft temple in the basement. It is now in private ownership and protected as a Category 1 building by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Felkin’s three-month trip to New Zealand was a roaring success. Impressed by the zeal of the locals, he set about instructing them in the craft at cracking pace. A house, designed by well-known architect (and less well-known occultist) James Chapman-Taylor, was built and included a secret and ornate 1500sq ft temple in the basement. Named Whare Ra, it’s now in private ownership and protected as a Category 1 building by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Four years later, in 1916, Felkin and his family moved to this country permanently. Felkin practised medicine from the house – and magic from the basement. He made the New Zealand branch of Stella Matutina the order’s global headquarters, which eventually reclaimed the name of Golden Dawn, and membership grew steadily.

At its peak, according to Ellwood’s book, more than 300 townsfolk were initiated – something like a quarter of the town’s population – and the ranks of the occult came to embrace some of the most influential and wealthy members of the Havelock North community.

It should be noted that Felkin and Reginald Gardiner remained dedicated members of their Anglican faith. They were regular church-goers, but pursued the occult as an esoteric extension of their Christianity – though, perhaps understandably, they were careful to hide their activities from people outside the temple.

Felkin died in 1926, but it would be another 50 years before the Dawn faded from New Zealand. In 1978, a letter to remaining members informed them that, due to diminishing power and falling numbers, the order had closed.

It seems remarkable this country so recently had its own little Hogwarts – a place where initiates learned spells, wore robes and ascended the hierarchy of magical ability. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that offshoots of the Golden Dawn are still practising in temples here today.

 

Part two: Chamber of Secrets

Squatting on Union St, where the Northwestern and Southern motorways converge on the city, the Temple of Higher Thought has intrigued Auckland motorists for decades.

Waiting for the lights to change, you’d get a few moments to ponder what lay behind the strange façade before accelerating away – but now the temple has been laid bare. With the historic Heritage B-listed building offered for sale (just $955,000, if you’ve got some spare cash), the idly curious can take a virtual tour via the Barfoot & Thompson website of one of the most unusual places of worship in the country.

Until now, passing through the locked front doors took a little more effort. For me, it took five years of driving by before curiosity got the better of me. On a whim one afternoon, I pulled over and walked back to look at the funny blue and yellow sign on the door.

Reading that the temple belonged to the “Builders of the Adytum”, who offered “qabbalistic healing services”, left me none the wiser. It wasn’t until I was home in front of the internet that I learned BotA is a direct descendant of the original Golden Dawn, the same occult group that was busy drawing pentagrams in Havelock North (although BotA is a descendant, perhaps, in the same way a child who divorces their parents remains related to them). It warranted a phone call, at least.

To my surprise, my message was returned: they were happy to meet, and would I come to the temple? So, a week later, I walked past the mouth of the motorway and waited at the padlocked doors to meet my contact.

I’m snooping down the side of the building (sizing up the place for hidden rooms) when Michael Sutcliffe arrives. He seems an unlikely occultist. Instead, he looks every bit the taxi driver he tells me he was for 30 years. He’s wearing a brown leather jacket, has a tiny diamond stud in his left ear and says that before he drove taxis he trained as a dressmaker. His colleague, Brett, who’s also coming to meet us, has been delayed by traffic so Sutcliffe unlocks the front gates and ushers me into a space that seems part school hall, part church, part setting for a Dan Brown novel.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil, taken from Figure Segrete dei Rosacroce (Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians), 1785.

To the left and right, elegantly curved steps lead up to mezzanine seating. Ahead, stained-glass doors inlaid with a radiant sun and six-pointed star open into the main temple space. There are dark floorboards, more stained glass, painted tarot scenes around the wall and, to the front, a stage flanked by tall pillars – one black, one white – representations of the great pillars called Jachin and Boaz at Solomon’s temple.

Details like these make the temple a tough sell. Many of the features are protected – and a buyer will need to comply with tough new seismic strengthening rules. In fact, that’s what is forcing the Builders of the Adytum, who own the building through a charitable trust, to move on. (Prospective buyers include people looking to open a bar and ballet teachers short of a venue.)

For now, though, the blend of esoteric imagery and homely Kiwiana is intriguing and I walk slowly about, soaking up the details. There’s a stage where a cross – inlaid with a five-pointed star on the front and a Star of David on the back – sits atop an old Bible (there because it looks good, Brett says later). At the back of the stage is an organ, which is something of a rare antique, according to Michael, and in its original, working condition. Behind the stage there’s a work-a-day kitchen, a hook where coloured ceremonial robes hang, and a black and white photo of the order’s founder with a woman. Wearing a tuxedo, he’s like a vaguely vampiric society swell; she’s soft-faced and beautiful, with 1930s Hollywood looks.

The man is Paul Foster Case, who founded Builders of the Adytum in 1925. Case was a high-ranking member of one of the American Golden Dawn temples but left when a system called Enochian magic was brought into the order. Enochian magic involved serious spells and summoning angelic beings, which Case felt was downright dangerous – indeed, at least one member of the Golden Dawn would end their days in a mental institution.

Paul Foster Case founded Builders of the Adytum in 1925.

BotA, by contrast, is built on a complete rejection of such practices. It strives to turn its focus in on the human mind, helping to build people into better, happier versions of themselves. Key to this process is a study of the qabbala and tarot (open sessions are held at the temple to discuss the meaning of particular aspects of the tarot), and a personal ascension through their construct of the spiritual universe, called the tree of life.

A large representation of the tree is mounted at the focal part of the interior, a bright-painted diagram of lines and spheres hanging above the podium.
I’m admiring it when Brett arrives. He’s younger than Michael, late 30s or early 40s, with blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, and I’m immediately struck by a sense of self-control about him; of a measured intelligence held in reserve. We shake hands; he fetches us all cups of tea (made from a bag; no tea leaves).

Then he asks – wincing at the manufactured mystique – if I could leave his last name out of the article: he works in finance and has some conservative Christian clients who may not understand. Then he stretches out his long legs as if to say, okay – what’s the big deal? What would you like to know?

I ask if they believe they’re developing magical abilities. Typically, occult or hermetic traditions such as theirs teach that you can unlock within you the great forces that exist in nature, and in the past this knowledge would have been equated with supernatural powers.

Brett answers carefully. Things either exist or do not, he says – so there is no supernatural. Self-knowledge is their thing, he emphasises – it’s the key to developing the human mind’s abilities. “It comes down to the question of whether knowledge is power. And absolutely, ultimately, it is.”

Interestingly, in a similar fashion to the Golden Dawn practitioners at Havelock North, Builders of the Adytum sees itself as compatible with Christianity. Brett tells me “occult” simply means “that which is hidden” – which is part of a general view within such faiths of an esoteric and mystical thread hidden within Western religions, there for those who seek it.

Does conventional Christianity feel the same way? Or is this all, from a Christian perspective, really just witchcraft and black magic?

Professor Paul Morris of the Victoria University School of Religious Studies casts some light on the issue after my meeting at the temple. “The idea that runs in qabbala… is that good and evil are like left or right, or up and down – two sides of the same coin. The argument is that we mustn’t fear evil, because it’s part of us. So if you come from the mainstream church, this is a problematic view.”

Basically, he says, occultists believe both good and evil emanate through the world from Godhead and that humans are similarly – and permanently – mixed. These concepts clash with Christian ideas of personal redemption and of God as being purely good.

Six-pointed stars in stained glass decorate windows, walls and doors at the Temple of Higher Thought.

Also difficult is the structure of their symbol, the tree of life, which is common to almost all occult traditions – the original Golden Dawn used it, as did the Havelock North temple, and it’s central to Jewish Qabbala. The tree shows different paths to reach Godhead – the right-hand path is traditionally seen as good and the left-hand path as evil. Controversially, the left-hand path – “evil” – is seen as a legitimate way to achieve divinity or God.

To paraphrase Professor Morris’ explanation, think of nuclear weapons – a great evil – being used as a deterrent to achieve world peace. This is the kind of structure an occultist might try to internalise on their path to enlightenment. “These aren’t Sunday School ideas,” says Morris. And their study, “historically, is understood to be dangerous”.

Brett insists, however, that what they teach is risk-free. “It’s very slow and quite boring at times – but it’s very, very safe.” After all, Builders of the Adytum came out of a complete rejection of the dangerous Enochian system. “People looking for rapid experience, for fast fixes, for an exciting psychic-type experience – there are Enochian organisations that will give you that, but I would argue it doesn’t take you anywhere in the long run.”

And they know all about the long run at the temple. It takes 16 years to be initiated, by correspondence course, into the ancient mysteries of Qabbala and tarot through the Builders of the Adytum (www.bota.org.nz). Both Brett and Michael completed the full course years ago. “It generally takes longer than just 16 years,” Brett says, “if you’ve got a normal life, with a job and family.”

So why bother? The test, says Brett, who has a PhD in physics and chemistry, is practicality. “It’s got to make a difference in your life. It’s not about navel gazing. I want to live healthily to the end of my days. To live a comfortable life, materially; have good relationships with people. If tarot wasn’t positively contributing to that, then I’d do something else.”

We turn our attention to the various tarot keys mounted around the temple and talk about the symbolism of pomegranates, water, the Hebrew alphabet… and it does seems vaguely silly to sit here in the milky light, balancing teacups in our laps, while discussing these archaic notions of inner power. But we chat on, getting lost in the curlicues of their faith, until Brett’s Blackberry interrupts us. While he checks his messages, I look up at an inscription between the two pillars. It reads “Know Thyself” – and I know it’s probably time to go.

I stand and thank them, leave my teacup on the seat, and try a few final questions – feeling, perhaps, that their openness hasn’t done justice to the occult’s reputation for secrecy.

“Do you have a mass?” I ask Michael. “A service? Any rituals?”
“We do. But those are some of the things we don’t talk about,” he says firmly.
That seems more like it.
“And Brett…” I venture innocently. “Just out of curiosity. Not for the article, obviously… what is your last name?”
Which is me trying a clumsy charm of my own – the extraction of information that can then be transmuted, via the crucible of the internet, into other materials: more information, other connections and leads. Brett, however, reads my intentions as clearly as if he can see them written on my forehead. He gathers up the cups and turns away.

“All knowledge is power,” he deadpans. And just for that moment I see past the symbols and robes and strange diagrams that adorn their religion, and believe him.

Terminology of the Occult

Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar: Secretive hermetic orders within the Western mystical tradition.

Hermetic: Hermes was the messenger of the Greek gods, and thought to be the bearer of secret knowledge to human kind. Religions or philosophies within the hermetic tradition are therefore those dealing in secret or esoteric knowledge.

Occult: Literally meaning “that which is hidden”. May simply refer to esoteric or mystical philosophies, but is increasingly used as a catch-all term for witchcraft, etc.

Qabbala/Kabbalah: Jewish mystical tradition, recently popularised by celebrities including Madonna.

Smaragdum Thalasses: Name of the temple hidden beneath Whare Ra in Havelock North.

Tarot: Ancient deck of cards (known as “keys”) revived by occultists. Used as symbolic triggers for different meditative purposes.

Helena Blavatsky

Theosophy: Open society set up by the Russian mystic and traveller Helena Blavatsky, after visits to Sri Lanka, India and Tibet.

Whare Ra: Name of the house above the Havelock North temple – literally “house of the sun” in Maori. Ra is also the Egyptian god of the sun, which fits nicely with the occult tradition of naming temples after Egyptian or Greek gods. The rising sun motif was popular in occult and alternative spiritualities and turns up in some surprising places, such as the cover of the Edmonds Cookery Book.

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