The so-called “Cypher Manuscripts” that formed the foundation of the graduated curriculum of esoteric studies established by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn have a fascinating history (or pseudo-history, depending on whom you believe) in their own right, They consist of 60 folios hand-written in English (and in the case of the diagrams, crudely hand-drawn) in a simple 16th-century substitution code known as “trithemius” cypher. This code consisted of shifting all of the letters of the alphabet the same amount in the same direction, so that if you want to write an “A,” you put down a “B” instead, and so forth; in this case the word “tarot” could be spelled “ubspu.” One of the best examples I can think of occurred in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer on-board the spacecraft was designated an “Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic” computer (HAL), and the crew spoke to it as “Hal.” But if you shift the letters one position to the right, you wind up with “IBM.” I can only assume that International Business Machines didn’t want their brand associated with a murderous rogue computer, so Kubrick improvised.
There are several main theories associated with the origin of these manuscripts, all of which Ellic Howe went to great lengths to try to debunk in his hostile analysis of the history of the Golden Dawn, The Magicians of the Golden Dawn. None of them have ever been proven either way.
The least likely one seems to be that Golden Dawn founders Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell “Macgregor” Mathers forged everything themselves. They were certainly accomplished enough esoteric scholars to take what was basically a mash-up of traditional occult knowledge existing in historical literature at the middle of the 19th Century and turn it into a detailed set of ritual instructions. But those who knew Westcott well didn’t think him capable of such deception.
The arguably more believable assumptions all involve the Rosicrucian historian and Freemason Kenneth Mackenzie, who may have received them from his mentor, British mystic Frederick Hockley, or from European sources through which they were handed down from Francis Barrett and Eliphas Levi. They may also have come to Mackenzie from a German Rosicrucian society into which he had been initiated by Count Apponyi of Hungary. Alternately, they could have been written by Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton sometime after 1822 and given to Mackenzie. Dr. A.F.A. Woodford, who had connections to Mackenzie through the Rosicrucian Society in England, is said have handed over the manuscripts to Wynn Westcott, who quickly deciphered the basic code. Westcott and Mathers then went to work fleshing out the material into a comprehensive course of initiatory studies in Qabalah, esoteric tarot, astrology and geomancy, which became the backbone of Outer Order advancement in the Golden Dawn.
Perhaps the most interesting conjecture is that the documents were originated by a Bavarian Jewish Order called Loge zur aufgehenden Morgenrothe, meaning “Lodge of the Approaching Morning,” or “Lodge of the Rising Dawn,” to get around the ban against Jews participating in Freemasonry. This would certainly help to explain the name chosen by the Golden Dawn’s founders.
One of the more suspect origin stories comes from the Order’s own official history lecture: that the manuscripts came from a German Rosicrucian order headed by one Fraulein Anna Sprengel, to whom Westcott wrote at the address provided in the documents and subsequently received permission to use the material to set up a lodge in London. When the original Order eventually went into decline, Mathers claimed that Westcott forged all of the letters purporting to be from Anna Sprengel, but he never asserted that the manuscripts themselves were forged. However, there is no historical record of either the German Rosicrucian order or Fraulein Sprengel at the avowed location.
Gerald Suster was of the belief that the folios themselves were create between 1860 and 1880, but that the source material is perfectly legitimate and much older in origin. At least there seems to be no doubt that the manuscripts provided the inspiration for Westcott and Mathers to move forward with their ambitious plans.