MacGregor Mathers – Some Personal Reminiscences
By: J.W. Brodie Innes
In November of last year, almost unnoticed by the general public, there passed away in Paris a very remarkable man. Who was Mathers - a great adept - a great scholar - a great impostor - a great rascal? I have heard all opinions, confidently, even dogmatically, asserted. As many and as contradictory opinions as were pronounced of Cagliostro. I knew him intimately; and, perhaps a close friendship of some thirty years may warrant my giving a few personal reminiscences that may help to a better understanding of a most interesting personality.
When I first met with him he was in charge of the Horniman Museum at Norwood, and even then the contradictory accounts I heard of him roused keen curiosity. Some eminent archaeologists told me that, from his wonderful learning in strange by-paths of knowledge, there was no man in Great Britain better fitted to arrange and catalog such a Museum as the Horniman. Others denounced him as a superficial charlatan, whose learning could only deceive the ignorant. His very name was in doubt - was he MacGregor - was he Mathers? Yet even the slightest knowledge of Highland history would solve this. The name Mcgregor was proscribed after the 'Forty-five. His ancestors took what was in effect a by-name - Mo-Athair's - "The Posthumous" - from the infant son of Alastair Macgregor of Glenstrae, who, born after the murder of his father in 1603, was installed as Chief of Glenstrae. This name was anglicized into Mathers, which was borne by his ancestors. But the true name was, of course, MacGregor. His grandfather had fought with great gallantry at the siege of Pondicherry, with Lally Tollendal, and received from Louis XIV the title of Count MacGregor de Glenstrae, afterward confirmed by James II, a French title which naturally was not used in England.
As soon as I came to know him well the mystery of the varying opinions with regard to him was apparent. MacGregor was a Celt of the Celts, a type which no Englishman of the Teutonic strain has ever yet been able to understand or to appreciate.
To very many indeed this type is as a red rag to a bull. There are those today who will outdo Dr. Johnson in abuse of everything Celtic or Highland. MacGregor had all the Celtic fiery temper and pride of race. He would pick a quarrel on a point of punctilio, a real, or even a fancied, slight to his clan or nation, and fight it out with the keen zest of a medieval knight, but always at a disadvantage, for he was above all a chivalrous Highland gentleman, and in all his nature was not one grain of malice, but among his opponents were some who disdained bot the use of very underhand weapons - any stick good enough to beat a dog. Such a nature, familiar to me as a Celt, was incomprehensible to the average Saxon. Vanity doubtless he had, but it was the harmless vanity of a child. Credulous too, and liable sometimes to be taken in by an impudent impostor, for he who hated deceit was slow to suspect it in another; but unsparing in his denunciation when he found it.
Of his scholarship it is not for me to speak, so far was it beyond my own, yet I know it was as frankly acknowledged by some competent authorities, as it was bitterly denied and depreciated by his opponents. I once showed some of his letters to me on the Kabalah to my own first teacher in Hebrew, a Rabbi and an advanced Kabalist, and he said "that man is a true Kabalist. Very few Gentiles know as much, you may follow him safely." When he arranged a Temple of Isis for the Paris Exhibition, an Egyptologist whose name is world-famous said "MacGregor is a Pharaoh come back. All my life I have studied the dry bones; he has made them live." These are but two examples out of many. Yet there have been those who have said that his Kabalah and Egyptology were shallow and superficial, a rehash of other men's work. Who shall decide? Yet I do know that many questions I asked him were answered at once, and satisfactorily, with abundant citation of authorities, showing intimate acquaintance with the subject, and never have I detected a mistake.
This is not the place to retell how he was taken in by the famous (or infamous) Horus pair. The story is well known, and the trial may be read by the curious; - that he should have been thus deceived is an instance of the faults of his qualities.
Of his occult knowledge and power, I can speak more confidently. He had the rare gift of making clear-cut and luminous those deep inner teachings, so often veiled in nebulous vapourings and prolix verbiage, wherein one plods through leagues of slush to pick out a few gems. His astrological knowledge was exceptional, as is abundantly proved by many horoscopes that have passed through my hands, in which the accuracy of his judgment as evidenced by events was convincing. He had also the second-sight of his race developed to a remarkable degree. Of this I have had many proofs. Ceremonial magic of many ages and countries was familiar to him, and I have been told by eminent scientists that his explanations of the power and effect of ceremonial were clear and logical.
That he was the head of a Hermetic Rosicrucian Order is well known. But of this nothing can be said. The pledge was given in full in the Horus trial. All members were bound by a solemn oath to divulge nothing concerning the Order, or its members, or what took place at its meetings. Anything therefore that has been published as to this Order can only have been obtained by the wilful perjury of some member, or evolved from the imagination of the narrator. I may, however, say of my own knowledge that, in spite of dissensions and secessions in the past, the Order has gone on and flourished. It has spread over many lands, and the loyalty and affection of its members for their chief was probably greater at the time of his death than ever before.
For many years he lived in Paris, and while in France he naturally and properly used his French title, which he had dropped while resident in this country.
Seldom, I suppose, has a man inspired such love and devotion, and such deadly animosity. For myself, I can but speak of him as I knew him, the true and loyal friend of well-nigh half a lifetime. Often I have written to him some question relating to my own literary work, and with unselfish readiness, he has laid aside other work to search the Paris libraries and museums and copy or translate page after page from MSS. Inaccessible to me, or frankly to place at my disposal the stores of his strange learning and his patient researchers. I was not blind to his faults, which lay on the surface, and were patent to all. Yet seldom, I think, has a man had a more faithful and cordial friend through many changes of sunshine and shadow than I had in MacGregor Mathers.
Dear, impulsive, hot-headed, warm-hearted Highlander, he had all the defects and the qualities of his race; misunderstood, reviled; and revered, brave and loyal to the last, bearing no malice to any, scarcely even resenting the many baseless falsehoods freely circulated about him, I am glad of this opportunity to add this one little leaf to the wreath laid on the tomb of my dead friend.