Anna Mary Bonus Kingsford
Esotericist, Visionary, Hermetic Mystic
by Paradoxos Alpha
Anna Kingsford (nee Bonus, 1846-1888 e.v.) was prominent among mystics and theosophists in the 1880’s. Politically active throughout her adult life, she was a feminist, vegetarian, and most especially an anti-vivisectionist. To bolster her authority in the cause of anti-vivisectionism, she pursued and achieved a medical degree through the university in Paris. She lectured on political, social, and religious topics, coming to style herself as an “esoteric Christian.” Although she was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism, taking the name “Mary” at confirmation, she was never a member of any parish, and was not active within the church. Her beliefs were rooted in visionary experience, and her principal collaborator in mysticism was Edward Maitland, a lapsed Anglican with Spiritualist leanings, who was many years her senior. Together, Kingsford and Maitland elaborated the teachings of what they called “the new Gospel of Interpretation” through a series of lectures and a resultant book: The Perfect Way: or, The Finding of Christ.
Kingsford served a term as President of the London body of the Theosophical Society. Subsequently, she was the founder and head of the Hermetic Society, which was an instrumental forerunner of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. S.L. Mathers dedicated The Kabbalah Unveiled to Kingsford and Maitland, and W.W. Westcott eulogized her as “indeed illuminated by the Sun of Light” in a Golden Dawn history lecture. Both Mathers and Westcott had been lecturers in Kingsford’s Hermetic Society. Kingsford’s doctrines regarding the role of active will in mysticism and the undesirability of “passive mediumship” may well have influenced the composition of the original Golden Dawn Neophyte obligation, in which the initiand swore, “I will not suffer myself to be hypnotized, or mesmerized, nor will I place myself in such a passive state that any uninitiated person, power, or being may cause me to lose control of my thoughts, words or actions.”
Aleister Crowley was very much aware of Kingsford’s influence and importance to the occultism of his period. In his introduction to the first volume of Book Four, he wrote that Kingsford had done
more in the religious world than any other person had done for generations. She, and she alone, made Theosophy possible, and without Theosophy the world-wide interest in similar matters would never have been aroused. This interest is to the Law of Thelema what the preaching of John the Baptist was to Christianity.
Similarly, in General Principles of Astrology, he observed that Kingsford was “disposed of an initiating force sufficient to transfigure the thought of half the world. […] She was doubtless the head of the battering-ram that broke in the gates of the materialist philosophy of the Victorian Age.”
Crowley particularly pointed to Kingsford’s writings as providing an example of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. The text in question was “The Vision of Adonai” included in her book Clothed with the Sun. That book was assembled by Maitland from Kingsford’s writings that were “recieved” through mystic inspiration and “not to be changed in so much as a single word.” It stands as an obvious predecessor to and influence upon the Holy Books of Thelema in both form and content. In “The Vision of Adonai,” she wrote:
In the midst stands Deity erect, His right hand raised aloft, and from Him pours the light of light. Forth from His right hand streams the universe, projected by the omnipotent repulsion of his will. Back to His left, which is depressed and set backwards, returns the universe, drawn by the attraction of His love. Repulsion and attraction, will and love, right and left, these are the forces, centrifugal and centripetal, male and female, whereby God creates and redeems.
Kingsford distinguished between the man Jesus and the historically repeatable phenomenon of “Christs” or fully-realized adepts. Her doctrines emphasized a set of archangels which were identical with deities of Hellenic paganism, and were set in presidency over the planets.
Along with her talk of attaining to the condition of “Christ,” it is clear from other indications that Kingsford nursed messianic aspirations. Kingsford and Maitland developed an idea of historical Apocalypse, which treated 1881 as the beginning of the “Age of Michael” and a new spiritual regime, according to the calculations of Trithemius. Despite the protestations of modesty by Maitland in his “Preface” to Clothed with the Sun, it seems that Kingsford did view herself in some sense as the “woman clothed with the sun” from the twelfth chapter of the final book of the Bible, just as Crowley would later identify himself with the Great Beast of the thirteenth. In the sixth appendix of The Perfect Way, Kingsford explained various points of apocalyptic symbolism, including “the Abomination of Desolation” and the precession of the equinoxes.
Kingsford’s other ideas about the “Aeon Jesus” and the feminine component of deity were transmitted through her friend Lady Caithness to influence Jules Doinel, founder and first patriarch of the Église Gnostique which was an antecedent rite of the Thelemic Gnostic Catholic Church in O.T.O.
Not the least of Kingsford’s accomplishments was her infusion of a self-conscious feminism into the occultist organizations of the late nineteenth century, with a pronounced influence on the founders of the Golden Dawn. She was an important player in setting the precedents that led modern occultism to encourage the equal participation of women with men in such organizations as the Golden Dawn and the O.T.O. Indeed, one might fairly say that Kingsford’s work led quite directly to the fact that the Order of the Eagle now exists to recognize women who have contributed to the principles and work of O.T.O.
A woman of high and intense energies, Kingsford’s health was never robust. While struggling with her final illness, she wrote in her diary,
I had hoped to have been one of the pioneers of the new awakening of the world. I had thought to have helped in the overthrow of the idolatrous altars and the purging of the temple; and now I must die just as the day of battle dawns and the sound of the chariot wheels is heard. Is it, perhaps, all premature? Have we thought the time nearer than it really is? Must I go, and sleep, and come again before the hour sounds?
Kingsford was a fervent advocate of the theory of reincarnation, but it is not necessary to suppose her return after death to appreciate her importance to the work of Thelema.
Principal published works of Anna Kingsford
Addresses and Essays on Vegetarianism
Astrology Theologized: The Spiritual Hermeneutic of Astrology and Holy Writ (editor)
The Credo of Christianity and other Addresses and Essays on Esoteric Christianity
Health, Beauty and the Toilet
The Perfect Way in Diet
The Virgin of the World of Hermes Trismegistus (editor)
Biographical sources (abridged list)
Butler, Alison. “Magical Beginnings: The Intellectual Origins of the Victorian Occult Revival.” Limina 9, 2003. pp. 78-95.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany: SUNY, 1994.
Greer, Mary K. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. Rochester: Park Street, 1995.
Maitland, Edward. Anna Kingsford: Her Life, Letters, Diary and Work. (3rd edition) London: Watkins, 1913.
Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. New York: Schocken, 1995.