Terrible Iconclast - Sepharial
friend Sepharial is, I am afraid, a terrible iconoclast … I plainly
foresee that we shall have the whole astrological edifice about
our ears directly. Nothing is sacred" - Ralph Shirley
March 20th, 1864, Walter Richard Old was born to Amelia Old and
her husband George, a haberdasher in Handsworth. At this time
Handsworth was an area of West Bromwich. Few houses existed here
although in the next twenty years he would be able to watch a
whole community grow around him. It would be a long time before
Handsworth became a suburb of Birmingham and even longer before
it gained the reputation it has today. The family did not originate
from this area and in later years Walter delighted in establishing
his pedigree as having been descended from the Danish conqueror
Gorm Eld in the 10th century. When Walter was aged four his father
died and the household comprised Walter, his mother, his four
brothers, his sister, his grandmother and what appears to be a
severely overworked servant. Though the family was not by any
stretch of the imagination rich, they were wealthy enough to send
him away to school where he received a classical education.
leaving school, Walter was briefly apprenticed to a chemist in
Birmingham and spent his leisure time attending medical lectures.
Due to this tentative connection with medicine he was able to
dispense drugs. It was during this period that he began to study
mystical and astrological texts. Shortly before the age of sixteen
he began a serious study of the Scriptures, and works of authors
such as Swedenborg. He may well have continued this life as an
academic intellectual working in his leisure time if it weren't
for the events of 1886 which were to totally change his life.
in 1886 Walter was engaged to be married to a girl in Birmingham.
He could have been expected to marry, produce a few children,
keep his family and have a few intellectual interests on the side.
His life was set out before him. Then his fiancée broke off the
engagement. He threw himself into his intellectual work and in
his own words, "I had little taste for anything but the mystical.
I haunted the second hand bookshops during the day in search of
curious literature... I burned the candle pretty evenly at both
evening he was sitting puzzling over a problem, talking to himself
and becoming more and more feverish and restless. Looking at his
ephemeris did not help him out of his predicament so he decided
to use the crystal which had been gathering dust on his desk.
It was late at night and after gazing into his crystal, he said
"suddenly a peculiar sickly sensation came over me; my brain grew
hot and throbbed . . . a cold shiver ran down my spine; my heart
jumped, faltered and stopped; my sight failed and nothing but
silence and darkness seemed to be and I was somehow absorbed in
felt himself fall into the crystal and pulled towards a figure
ahead of him who turned and revealed that he was looking at himself.
Coming back to reality, Walter noticed the door of his room opening
although no-one entered. He had to get out of the house and went
to sit by a nearby river until he had calmed his nerves. Walking
alongside the river a little later he met a youth and after exchanging
a few words heard him say "I am yourself, your unremembered self.
I was in sleep when you called me, but I heard you, and have come
a very long way to find you; and now I have found you I am happy,
inexpressibly happy; oh let me stay with you for ever!" Walter
hours later he came to in his room and after going downstairs
convinced himself that he had never left the house. Though he
did not discuss his experience with anyone he was ill enough for
a doctor to be called who prescribed complete bed rest. For two
weeks he wept, slept, could only see clearly in the dark and then
suddenly recovered. "I had discovered the secret which I was in
search of, myself, my misremembered self. I have found that happiness
does not lie in the memory of the past, but in the life which
now is, with all its golden possibilities in our very hands."
He was to spend the rest of his life seeking his true self and
trying to unravel the possibilities of the future. Astrology was
one method he used.
after this experience, Walter set to and began the writing which
was to dominate the rest of his life. The first book I have found
reference to, Astrological Judgement Upon the Great Solar Eclipse
of 1887, was published that year. Whilst Walter was isolated in
a provincial town, great things were happening on the occult scene.
Spiritualism, including all the attendant frills and fancies of
table tapping, etc., was all the rage, and the world was buzzing
about Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Walter began
corresponding with Blavatsky in 1887. After a long correspondence
he managed to meet her at her home in Notting Hill. She rolled
him a cigarette, settled down for a chat and began the relationship
which was later to see him a member of her household. "I would
have gone anywhere to have come more directly under the pure strong
influence of HPB's example and teaching".
the next years Walter was a rising star in the TS. He was to become
Vice President of the Blavatsky Lodge, General Secretary of the
British Section, and librarian, undertaking innumerable roles. He
threw himself into this work with boundless enthusiasm.
January 1891 Blavatsky asked Walter about the chances of her living
out that year. He said she might pull through. Then she said "You
are not being frank with me. You are hiding the truth". After
a short argument he said "Well, HPB, if you live through this
spring it will be a miracle". On May 8th when she died Walter
was present. Holding her hand and kneeling at her bedside, he
sat with her until she drew her last breath. Shortly afterwards
he was to hear of his mother's death which took place on the same
day. What Walter would remember, however, was the forget-me-not
which HPB pressed into his hand as she died.
did not allow Blavatsky's death to lessen his involvement with
theosophy. He lectured frequently at the Blavatsky Lodge, amongst
others, and was always on hand to help a new Lodge set up. In
1892 he travelled to India and joined Colonel Olcott, a co-founder
of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, the Society's headquarters.
He took with him documents relating to the recent activities of
W.Q. Judge, another co-founder of the Theosophical Society and
then Vice President, resident in the US. He claimed to have received
precipitated letters from the Mahatmas confirming his claim to
the presidency. Throughout Blavatsky's life she had relied heavily
on precipitated letters from the Mahatmas (or Masters) in Tibet
to help her decisions in taking the TS forward. These letters
manifested in a variety of ways: they appeared from thin air to
drop into her hand, they were found hidden in a pile of papers
or up a tree, etc. Now Judge was claiming to receive messages
in the same way and Walter was highly suspicious of his motives.
took the precaution of making copies of all the documents in his
possession before handing them over. A long and complicated series
of events led to the holding of a judicial inquiry into Judge's
conduct and to Walter's suspension from the Esoteric Section of
the Theosophical Society. To Walter's horror the finding of the
inquiry was that, as belief in the Mahatmas was not a Theosophical
tenet, the inquiry had no power to determine the veracity or otherwise
of the letters. As the charges made by Annie Besant of 'misuse
of the Masters handwriting' did not relate to Judge's conduct
as Vice President, the matter was not subject to the Committee's
jurisdiction. It immediately dissolved itself and it was expected
that the matter would rest there.
1894 Walter returned to England and contacted an old friend of
his, Edmund Garrett, who was a journalist on the Westminster Gazette.
He told him that he had resigned from the TS and explained what
had happened. In October of that year a number of eminent theosophists
choked on their tea when the Westminster Gazette began publishing
a series of articles entitled 'Isis Very Much Unveiled - The Great
Mahatma Hoax'. It was clear where the information must have come
from. Walter never denied having supplied the papers to the Gazette
but claimed he did so in the interests of truth. The net effect
was to break his connection with the TS and force the secession
of the American Branches. Lodges all over the world joined in
the argument. The Theosophical Society was torn into fragments
and it would be years before it could regain the power it had
held in the Blavatsky days.
the truth did not make Walter popular. He was obliged to move
out of London and decided that a new identity needed to be born.
In April 1895 he changed his name to Walter Gornold. The Judge
affair kept Theosophists busy for months yet and was only really
over in March 1896 when Judge, then President of the Theosophical
Society in America, died. By June, Walter had eloped with, and
married, Marie Moore and begun a life as astrologer and family
with friends and colleagues in the interests of truth were by
no means a theosophical failing. Long, drawn-out fights with Raphael
and George Wilde were played out in the astrological press. In
1888 Frederick Lacey, the astrologer 'Aphorel', had written to
'Sepharial' requesting help with his astrological studies. He
mentioned meetings he was having with Alan Leo and others, and
suggested that Sepharial might want to join them. Never one to
miss an opportunity, he called around and met Leo and Lacey. At
this time the only astrological publication in existence was the
magazine Astrology, which was failing miserably. Leo and Lacey
decided to bring out their own publication and mentioned this
month before the Astrologer's Magazine appeared Sepharial published
the first issue of his own Fate and Fortune. It was to be short
lived - "if left to myself I could wreck the best business that
was ever founded inside of twelve months". However, Leo and Lacey
had no idea of Sepharial's track record with failed publications
and, in a panic, decided to offer free horoscopes to subscribers.
During the first year 1500 horoscopes were sent out and the success
of the magazine was ensured. Leo announced in the Astrologer's
Magazine: "It having been found that two periodicals on astrology
must be somewhat antagonistic, upon a meeting being held between
the proprietors it was decided.... that the interests of the scene
would be best served by only one periodical... Sepharial has agreed
to transfer his services to our work. "
a staunch theosophist during this period, Sepharial took Lacey
and Leo to meet Helena Blavatsky and also introduced them to Colonel
Olcott and WQ Judge. This led to the two founding the Philalethian
Lodge in Brixton. The Judge affair was finally to break the relationship
between Sepharial and Leo. By October 1896 Leo stated in AM "Owing
to the fact that letters addressed to Sepharial continue to come
into this office, it becomes necessary for me to announce that
he is no longer connected with this magazine.., in future letters
addressed to this office will therefore be returned." The weak
friendship was never to be re-established.
- as he was known from this time - was mainly focused on astrological
work. He maintained his occult connections, but his relationship
with the Theosophical Society meant he was excluded from many
organisations. He had always been a staunch supporter of the idea
of an astrological society. A meeting in 1896 led to the Astrological
Society being formed with Alan Leo as President and Sepharial
as Secretary. It would not be until 1921 that the British Astrological
Society came into being with Sepharial as President. By 1922 it
was resolved that the Presidency would be offered to Ralph Shirley
with Sepharial second choice should Shirley refuse. He didn't.
1905 Sepharial was firmly established in the astrological world.
After meeting E.H. Bailey in 1902 he became a contributor to the
British Journal of Astrology and continued to write for it until
his death. He became the editor of Old Moore's Almanac and was
producing books and articles at the rate of knots. Clearly he
retained his interests in the occult world, for in 1913 he was
a founder member, along with A.E. Waite, of the short-lived Alchemy
Society. The first world war in no way held Walter back. Although
a member of the Home Guard he found time to travel and lecture
in Skegness as the guest of Isabel Pagan, a rising star in northern
well as producing six children, some of whom were to gain fame
in their own right, he spent most of this time as a working astrologer.
During his life he produced at least 58 books, edited a number
of magazines and wrote for innumerable publications, including
the local and national press. Unfortunately, most of this work
did not make much money. At times he was obliged to take on jobs
to make ends meet. A great deal of his income derived from private
work, in particular the sale by private subscription of his Arcana
or Keys. These were analyses of commodities markets and various
systems sold on an annual basis. The infamous Golden Key was one
of these publications. They were sold on a non-publication basis
through an agent and were highly expensive, costing in 1917 between
£5 and £10 per report. He also produced private astrological reports
for clients through which he gained a reputation for being highly
his life Sepharial had his finger in a whole variety of astrological
pies. He produced work on analysis of Neptune in the natal chart,
named and analysed the use of Lilith, and produced numerous articles
on the pre-natal epoch. This was eventually to lead to E.H. Bailey's
book which was a standard text for many years. He also wrote extensively
on the Kabbala and its connection with astrology, as well as producing
translations of oriental works. He is most remembered for his
speculation theories, especially in connection with horse racing.
He was convinced that astrology could be used to find winners.
He also attempted to apply his theories to lotteries and roulette
and it is rumoured that his methods are still used in the US for
lottery speculation. He also sold magic mirrors, calculating machines,
astronomical tables and a number of other gadgets to make money.
1927 the Elim pastor, George Jeffreys, made his first visit to
Hove. This was the start of a series of crusades on the south
coast. The Elim Pentacostal church had been started by George
Jeffreys in 1915. The Gornold family were, at this time, living
in Brighton. In the summer of 1929 Walter and family attended
a tent campaign in Worthing. They were to leave that meeting a
member of the Elim church after being baptised by immersion along
with four of his children. The scripture read at this service
was Isiah 33 v 17 "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty;
they shall behold the land that is very far off." This was to
be the end of Walter's search.
23rd December 1929, in Brighton, Walter Gornold died of a cerebral
haemorrhage brought on by undulant fever. He reminded his daughter,
Cynthia, in July of that year, that he had told her that his work
would end in 1929. Obituaries were published in the national press
as well as in the astrological and occult press. Tributes poured
in from all over the world.
in Eterna: To 'Sepharial'
crescent moon, clipped from the fuller brim,
slip of silver on the foil of night,
languorous back to catch the eternal hymn
planets shining bright,
was his art to draw within the sense
music of the spheres, the symphony
orbs angelic, rolling songs intense
loved one whom we did not wish to die;
stellar anthems charmed his ears one night;
took the pathway through the Galaxy
passed along its light.
MacHuisdean: British Journal of Astrology
there is no dispute as to the date of Sepharial's birth, the time
is in debate. Originally the time given was 1.30 pm. This was
later amended to 1.30 am, with the claim that he had been muddled
up with a younger brother. Later the time was rectified by him
by use of the pre-natal epoch and his own theory of directions
which gave a time of 2.03am. According to contemporary magazines
the chart he used gave an ascendant of 24.32 Sagittarius (2:08
am.) It is unclear what co-ordinates were used but it is worth
remembering that the area of Handsworth was not regarded as part
of Birmingham for most of his life and he would most likely have
used data for West Bromwich. Work continues to verify his chart
at the time of writing.