It would be quicker to list the similarities! Both are initiatory societies, with degrees (or grades), secret modes of recognition, passwords, and based around a sort of lodge system. This was mainly due to the fact that at the time the Golden Dawn was founded, it was the fashion to model any secret society on a lodge-system, whether it had anything to do with Freemasonry or not. It also helped that the founders of the Golden Dawn were themselves Freemasons, so they would have gone with what they were familiar with.
That being said, the main differences between Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn can be stated thus:
Firstly, Freemasonry (obviously) deals with the established Degrees of Freemasonry, but the Golden Dawn does not. This is important to remember, because Masonic Grand Lodges are critical of bodies which purport to be imitative of Freemasonry, and penalise people who belong to such bodies. The Golden Dawn gets round this by not attempting to imitate Freemasonry at all. Hence a Freemason could join the Golden Dawn without breaking any obligations, because the latter has got nothing to do with the former.
Secondly, although both Masonry and the Golden Dawn have a theme about searching for Light, they go about it in a completely different manner: the underlying narrative of the Golden Dawn in no way coincides with the Masonic “story.”
Thirdly, the Golden Dawn claims its rituals are Magical, and are performed in a magical manner: no such claim is made by Freemasonry in general. There is such a thing as esoteric Freemasonry where its practitioners claim that the degrees of Freemasonry are or can be magical, although they appear to be in the minority in relation to mainstream Freemasonry.
Fourthly, the Golden Dawn has a curriculum it obliges its members to study: and requires a member to pass examinations (written and, in the higher grades, practical) before advancing to a new grade. The Golden Dawn specifically focusses on the Qabalah, Ceremonial Magick, clairvoyance, astrology, tarot, geomancy, alchemy and hermeticism.
In Freemasonry this is not the case: to progress through Craft Freemasonry requires only the memorisation of a short piece of ritual. In Continental Freemasonry it is different, as candidates are required to write papers for each degree, although this is still unlike the examination system of the Golden Dawn. Moreover, Freemasonry hardly mentions anything like the Qabalah, although, again, esoteric Freemasons claim that the symbolism is right there though not recognised by mainstream Masonry.
Fifthly, the Golden Dawn was founded as a society for both men and women right from the outset. Mainstream Masonry tends to be male-only, although there is nowadays such a thing as Co-Masonry, which is viewed as outside the pale by purportedly “regular” Masonry.
I have not even begun to talk about all the cosmetic differences, such as different regalia, different rituals, different grade system, different temple lay-out, different officers, etc etc etc. Suffice to say that if one were in a Golden Dawn temple, there is no chance that one would mistake it for just another masonic ritual.(4) Alex Sumner’s answer to What is the difference between Freemasonry and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Golden Dawn)? – Quora
What is the difference between Freemasonry and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? – Quora
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