Samuel Liddell Mathers was born in Hackney, London. His father, William M. Mathers, died while Samuel was still young. He attended the Bedford Grammar School, subsequently working in Bournemouth as a clerk before moving to London following the death of his mother in 1885. Mathers was originally introduced to Freemasonry by a neighbour, an alchemist Frederick Holland, and was initiated into the ‘Hengist Lodge No 195’ on 4 October 1877. He became a Master Mason on 30 January 1878 and four years later was admitted to the Metropolitan College of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA). Working hard both for and within the SRIA he was awarded an honourary 8th Degree in 1886. He became Celebrant of Metropolitan College in 1891 and was appointed as Junior Substitute Magus of the SRIA in 1892, in which capacity he served until 1900. It was here where he made the acquaintance of Dr William Robert Woodman (Magus of the society), and Dr William Wynn Westcott (the Secretary General). He left the order in 1903, having failed to repay some money he had borrowed.
In 1887, Mathers was approached by Westcott and asked to enliven the ritual outlines of the Cipher Manuscripts into fully functional initiation ceremonies. The Cipher Manuscripts are a collection of 60 folios containing the structural outline of a series of magical initiation rituals corresponding with the spiritual elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The occult materials in the manuscripts are a compendium of the classical magical theory and symbolism known in the Western world up until the mid-19th century, which were combined to create an encompassing model of the Western Mystery Tradition, and then arranged into a syllabus of a graded course of instruction in magical symbolism. It was used as the structure for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
At the same time as Mathers was asked to work on the manuscripts, he was also asked by Westcott to join himself and Woodman in a triumvirate (the position of being one of three who exercise power or authority) of Chiefs for Westcott’s new Order, the ‘Esoteric Order Golden Dawn’, which was founded on 1 March 1888, and became the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’. Mathers signed the charter for Isis-Urania Temple 3 as Praemonstrator. From 1888 to 1891, the Golden Dawn was primarily a theoretical school which performed the initiation ceremonies of the Outer Order, and taught its members the basics of Hermeticism but no practical magick other than the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. This changed with Mathers’ creation of the Second Order, wherein the theoretical knowledge taught in the Outer Order was put into active magical practice by those initiates who achieved the grade of Adeptus Minor and above.
It would seem that he also met Madame Blavatsky (before helping to found the Golden Dawn) who asked him to join the Theosophical Society, but he declined because the aims of the society did not match his own. He was an eccentric whose chosen lifestyle was unusual in its time. He added the 'MacGregor' to his surname as a claim to Highland Scottish heritage, although there is little evidence of such in his family background. It is known that his main interests were magick and the theory of war, his first book, according to William Butler Yeats, being a translation of a French military manual.
Mathers could apparently read and translate a number of languages, including French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic and Coptic. His tanslations of such books as The Book of the Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage, The Kabbalah Unveiled, The Key of Solomon The King and The Lesser Key of Solomon, were criticised for their quality, but were responsible for making what had been obscure and inaccessible material widely available to the non-academic English speaking world. They have had considerable influence on the development of occult and esoteric thought since their publication.
In addition to many supporters, he had many enemies and critics. One of his most notable enemies was one time pupil and ally Aleister Crowley, who portrayed him as a villain named SRMD (Mathers' motto) in his 1929 novel Moonchild. It is even reported that they fought a magical battle, with Mathers sending an astral vampire to attack Crowley.
Mathers died in Paris on 5 or 20 November 1918. The manner of his death is unknown; his death certificate lists no cause of death, but Dion Fortune claimed it was the result of the Spanish influenza of 1918. As so few facts are known about Mathers' private life, verification of such a claim is difficult. He is primarily remembered as one of the founders of the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn', a famous magician and one of the most influential figures in modern Occultism.
In 1890 he married Moina Bergson, the sister of the philosopher Henri Bergson. In the Preface to her late husband's translation of Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled) - certainly worth reading but don't believe all you read - Moina Mathers revealed some of what little information was ever printed concerning his early life.