They are a collection of 60 folios that contain the structural outline of a series of rituals of magical initiation corresponding to the spiritual elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The “hidden” materials in the Manuscripts are a compendium of classical magical theory and symbolism known in the Western world until the mid-nineteenth century, combined to create a comprehensive model of the tradition of Western mysteries, and organized into a program of studies. A graduate course of instruction in magical symbolism.
The fundamental documents of the original Order of the Golden Dawn, known as the Cipher Manuscripts, are written in English using the Trithemius Cipher. The manuscripts present the specific schemes of the Grades of the Order’s prescribe a curriculum of graduate teachings that encompass the Hermetic Qabalah, Astrology, the Hidden Tarot, Geomancy and Alchemy.
According to the records of the Order, the manuscripts passed from Kenneth RH Mackenzie, a Masonic scholar, to Reverend AFA Woodford, whom British occult writer Francis King describes as the fourth founder (although Woodford died shortly after the founding order ). The documents did not excite Woodford, and in February 1886 he passed them on to the Freemason William Wynn Westcott who managed to decipher them in 1887. Westcott, pleased with his discovery, called the other Freemason Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers. For a second opinion. Westcott requested the help of Mathers to convert the manuscripts into a coherent system for housing work. Mathers, in turn, asked fellow Freemason William Robert Woodman to help them, and he accepted. Mathers and Westcott have been credited with the development of ritual schemata in encrypted manuscripts in a workable format. However, Mathers is generally credited with designing the curriculum and rituals of the Second Order, which he named Rosae Rubae et Aureae Crucis (“Ruby Rose and Golden Cross” or RR et AC)
William Wynn Westcott a London Deputy Coroner, member of the S.R.I.A. and one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, claimed to have received the manuscripts through Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, who was a colleague of noted Masonic scholar Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie. The papers were to have been secured by Westcott after Mackenzie’s death in 1886, among the belongings of Mackenzie’s mentor, the late Frederick Hockley, and by September 1887, they were decoded by Westcott.
The Manuscripts also contained an address of an aged adept named Fräulein (Miss) Anna Sprengel in Germany, to whom Westcott wrote inquiring about the contents of the papers. Miss Sprengel responded, and after accepting the requests of Westcott and fellow Mason Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, who had helped translate the texts, issued them a Charter to operate a Lodge of the Order in England.Westcott’s first Golden Dawn temple was the Isis-Urania Temple , styled “No. 3.”Temple No. 1 would have been Fräulein Sprengel’s lodge, and No. 2 was supposedly an abortive attempt at a lodge by some unnamed persons in London (possibly a reference to Mackenzie and other S.R.I.A. members some years earlier).
The folios are drawn in black ink on cotton paper watermarked 1809. The text is plain English written from right to left in a simple substitution cryptogram. Numerals are substituted by Hebrew letters – Alef=1, Bet=2, etc. Crude drawings of diagrams, magical implements and tarot cards are interspersed in the text. One final page transcribes into French and Latin.
The Ciphers contain the outlines of a series of graded rituals and the syllabus for a course of instruction in Qabalah and Hermetic magic, including Astrology, Occult Tarot, Geomancy and Alchemy. It also contains several diagrams and crude drawings of various ritual implements. The Cipher Manuscripts are the original source upon which the rituals and the knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were based.
The actual material itself described in the Manuscript is of known origins. Hermeticism, Alchemy, Qabalah, Astrology and Tarot were certainly not unknown to 19th century scholars of the Magical arts; the Cipher is a compendium of previously known Magical traditions. The basic structure of the rituals and the names of the Grades are similar to those of the Rosicrucian orders Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and the German ‘Orden der Gold- und Rosenkreuzer’.