This essay or article, published September 1, 2021 in and by Thelemic Union, is one I penned exploring the problem of dogmatism and codification in Thelema and for Thelemites generally. Below I’ve reposted it, so read on and enjoy.
I’ve been accused a few times of trying to turn Thelema into something it’s not, of attempting to somehow create for myself a type of Thelema that fits my own version of how this philosophy and spiritual path should operate. While I’ll concede that I’ve come to terms with The Book of the Law and many of Crowley’s writings in my own way, I don’t deny other Thelemites their own personal understandings of Thelema, so I ask: why should you deny me mine?
In fact, why shouldn’t there be as many versions of Thelema out there as there are Thelemites? “Every man and every woman is a star,” after all, and if this is the case, and we are, after all, in our own particular orbits, going forth and shining brilliantly (like such stars, as Crowley analogized) as individuals as we do so, why shouldn’t we each get to determine for ourselves what this path means for us?
“Every man and woman is not only a part of God, but the Ultimate God,” Crowley once wrote. Indeed, he stated that “the Individual is the Autarch” in Magick Without Tears, and noting that, wouldn’t this autarch, let alone Ultimate God, have some say in what they can reasonably decide to think?!
In fact, Liber OZ states unequivocally that “man has the right to think what he will” Notice, if you read OZ, that there is no addendum to the “think” clause. (Or any of the others, for that matter.)
A lot of this probably seems redundant, but I bring it up to make a certain point: there seems to be this trend in Thelema that there are increasing numbers of Thelemites present in our community who assume there is an orthodox and orthopraxic take on the path that needs to be believed and practiced in a certain way by other Thelemites, respectively, in order to even make them Thelemites. However, we shouldn’t need to codify the path for others, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, let’s begin at the beginning, so to speak (emphasis mine). “Do what thou wilt shall be the WHOLE of the law,” we read in the various Thelemic texts, most notably Liber AL. It is, as we see the whole of the Law, the whole law, and, furthermore (emphasis mine), “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” These phrases, taken primarily from The Book of the Law, seem to be insisting that there’s really no dogma in Thelema beyond the Law of Thelema itself. What, then, do we make of the rest: the issues of deities, magick, mysticism, planes, Qabalah, tarot, and all the other cognate topics Crowley wrote on?
I would say that beyond the Law itself, the rest of the Thelemic system, inasmuch as it is a system, is made up of strong suggestions at best, and minor suggestions at the periphery.
For many Thelemites, this rank of importance may look like something akin to taking TheHoly Books of Thelema, or the Class A texts—and namely Liber AL—most importantly, and placing the rest of Crowley’s writings on a secondary rung. But of course, we can’t be certain of the beliefs or practices of all or even most Thelemites: I’m only speculating here.
Regardless, a common theme is that there’s a thing for hanging onto every word Crowley wrote, even if it was a footnote in a diary, as if it’s infallible dogma, at the very least among some Thelemites. Now I’ll admit that Crowley was naturally and most likely a good judge of his own experience, especially when it came to things like, say, the practice of ritual magick, or the reception or writing of Liber AL; additionally, as the founder and chief source of primary material on Thelema, it makes sense that one would look to his work for information on the topic. And so no one can blame you for lending him an ear on the various subjects making up the Thelema-sphere, but ultimately there’s no topic which Crowley wrote on for which he is the infallible guide. Crowley is not some kind of pope, and his word is not to be believed without questioning.
As he himself wrote (emphasis mine): “I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.”
He also actively praised doubt, as, for instance, in The Book of Lies: “I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”
The dogmatism that, whether actual or simply a misrepresentation, appears to be an aspect of Thelema, drives some people away from the path. It has certainly driven some to chaos magic, which often appears (and perhaps rightly so) to onlookers to be a less precept-leaden alternative.
Part of rejecting blind dogmatism when it comes to Thelema is learning to appreciate the context in which Liber AL, TheHoly Books, Crowley’s works generally, and works on the topic of Thelema more broadly, were written, as well as learning to appreciate Crowley’s biases and potential errors and the biases and errors of various Thelemic authors. No-one is incapable of committing a logical fallacy, or committing one to writing. Additionally, knowing when it’s best to utilize reason over faith is extremely helpful. (This isn’t to say faith is never warranted.)
It’s also a fact that Crowley published a number of contradictions in his writings—that, or his opinions on things changed over time—and so, if one is to believe him on the reality or falsity of certain topics, one may actively have to choose which “Crowley” to believe.
This then brings us to the question: what exactly do we believe Crowley on at all? And why? Again we are met with the fact that the whole of the Law is laid out for us very simply, in one phrase (and its follow-up: “Love is the law…”), and the rest of the system of Thelema, inasmuch as it is a system, is at best a series of exhortations to believe or practice in a particular way or from among a certain spectrum of ways. Yet an exhortation is not an absolute demand, and we are led back to the fact that we are only ever to do something if it is our true will.
This is why I actively cherry-pick Crowley, and why I make no fuss about other Thelemites doing the same. Crowley wrote so much material, some of it in which he changes his mind over time, some of it in which his views have become dated, some of it in which his views appear simply to clash with what we know about the universe, and some of which, most importantly, one simply may not agree. And, given that “man has the right to think what he will,” should one not only admit into one’s belief system those things which one finds meaningful and reasonable?
“Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself,” we read in Liber Librae. How can one act passionately if one has no individuality from which to act, if all one’s actions (or more specifically spiritual practices) are informed by the opinion of one man, as opposed to differing sources or one’s own ingenium? And how can one think rationally if, instead of placing critical thinking at the helm of one’s operation in the world, one places blind faith in stultifying and uncompromising dogma, for which one would refuse to see any alternative? And how can one be oneself if, instead of being defined by going along their own particular path through the universe, they simply tread Crowley’s (or someone else’s, for that matter), instead?
I recently published this essay as an article in Heart in Hand, an Odd Fellows blog by the wonderful Ainslie Heilich. Please enjoy.
WHAT IS ODD FELLOWSHIP? WHAT IS THE I.O.OF.?
In 2018 I was initiated into the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) at an Odd Fellows lodge in my town, under the 0°, White, or Initiatory degree. It was me and two other candidates being initiated that night in the lodge room, if I remember correctly.
The month leading up to my initiation I had been scoping out the Order, getting a feel for its history and customs, its tenets and traditions, the members of this particular lodge, and what participation in the organization actually meant.
The I.O.O.F. has a long history, and is one of America’s oldest fraternities. In fact, its history stretches back even further than the founding of America itself. One of the oldest secret societies in the world, the early history of the organization is bathed in obscurity, with some even claiming that there were Odd Fellows as far back as the time of Roman emperors’ reigns. (This claim is quite dubious, however.)
Others say that Odd Fellowship evolved out of the European medieval guild system, and that during the 12th through 14th centuries guilds for those who practiced “odd” or irregular trades began popping up, thus leading to the existence of Odd Fellowship, albeit informally. (Freemasonry is similarly tied to the medieval guild system, which supported stone masons during the Middle Ages.) Various lodges and halls for Odd Fellows are documented as having existed from 1650 onward, a number with their own charters and oaths and some with particular rituals and traditions.
Regardless of when, exactly, Odd Fellowship was established, there were numerous Odd Fellow societies in England by the 1700s. These eventually made their way to the United States, where in 1819 Thomas Wildey founded the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) in Baltimore, Maryland. The I.O.O.F. was an American breakaway from the British Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, founded in the Manchester, England area in 1810.
Several different Odd Fellows lodges existed in New York City around the time of the founding of the American I.O.O.F., but the I.O.O.F. has since become the largest organization of Odd Fellowship in the world, with two other major branches today existing alongside it: the aforementioned Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, and the largely African-American Grand United Order of Oddfellows Friendly Society (G.U.O.O.F.S.).
The oath of the Odd Fellow has long been one of aid to society: its historic command is, “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” It should be known that Odd Fellows societies essentially functioned as life insurance agencies before such a service came to exist in society. However, this is not to diminish the fact that Odd Fellowship teaches aid and relief of the distressed as virtuous traits, that by loving kindness and compassion the world is made better.
In 1851 a degree system for women, known as a the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies (or simply the Rebekahs) was instated within the I.O.O.F., and while many women joined, the regular lodge system of the Odd Fellows, once reserved only for men, and the Rebekahs, once reserved only for women, have since become co-ed.
It is quite true that the I.O.O.F. acts as a consistent form of aid or insurance for its members, and so the perks of joining are valuable, however, it offers subtler, deeper benefits as well, in the form of moral growth. (Which, to me, means psycho-spiritual growth.) Ritual drama in the form of initiation raises members to better versions of themselves, ingraining in themselves moral and philosophical tenets that can be brought to aid society at large.
The I.O.O.F. and, indeed, all Odd Fellow organizations are by and large service organizations and to a substantial extent charities: some of their primary objectives are to help others, alleviate suffering, and otherwise benefit the downtrodden. Typically, efforts are made to improve the local community wherever an Odd Fellows lodge is located.
From an outside perspective, those with an eye for fraternalism might see the I.O.O.F. as standing somewhere between a benefit society and a spiritual or ethical empowerment organization. In recent years certain sects of the Odd Fellows have morphed into organizations that look more or less like Rotary Clubs rather than guardians of any sort of arcane wisdom. However, I don’t believe that can be said of all of Odd Fellowship, and in my experience certain aspects of Odd Fellowship are spiritually, socially, and psychologically beneficial.
It was with a spiritual undertaking and a curiosity in whatever wisdom the Odd Fellows were preserving that I decided to join them.
Initiation and initiatory ritual is important in nearly every secret society and Western esoteric or fraternal order, and is a process whereby one is bestowed a kind of status not had before the rite. From a Thelemic perspective it is “the journey inward” (as per Crowley), and ideally affects a change in consciousness, a raising of the perspective to a new height by the revelation of some discreet truth or wisdom by means of the language of symbol and ritual drama.
I can certainly say that there was some element of all of this present in taking my White degree. And, while I am bound by oath and secrecy not to divulge a number of the particularities of my initiation, I can give a general idea of some of the symbols employed and lessons imparted, at least insofar as what they meant to me.
This initiation also had a certain character to it given that I am a confirmed Minerval (0°) in Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), another secret society and fraternal order, and a baptized Thelemite and member of its eclessiastical arm Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, the Gnostic Catholic Church. The fact that I assent to many of the ideas put forth by the receiver or writer of The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley, and the novel ideas inherent to Thelema and the New Aeon, both meshed and clashed in interesting ways with what I discovered about Odd Fellowship.
As an aside: for those Odd Fellows and others reading who are unfamiliar with Thelema, Thelema is a system of spiritual progress, philosophy, or mystical new religious movement initiated by the writer Aleister Crowley in 1904 which declares that every human being has an inherent nature, will, purpose, and plan in life known as the true will, and that by methods of spiritual development known as magick and mysticism, one can bring this true will to light from the depths of the unconscious. Thelema also holds that each person is intimately connected with a personal higher self or “genius” known as the Holy Guardian Angel, a guide to the true will, and that union with, knowledge of, and communication with this entity or nature may be necessary for discovering the true will. Ordo Templi Orentis and its ecclesiastical arm, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, base their conduct around the foundational text of Thelema, Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law.
In the I.O.O.F. system, there are four basic degrees, several higher degrees, and various side or “fun” degrees. There are also auxiliary degrees traditionally meant for women, as well as the aforementioned organization traditionally meant for women (known by one name as the Daughters of Rebekah, or simply the Rebekahs), as well as youth lodges, organizations, and the degrees that come with them. The four standard or lodge degrees are the Initiatory or White degree (0°), the Friendship or Pink degree (1°), the [Brotherly] Love or Blue degree (2°), and the Truth or Scarlet degree (3°).
Anyway, leading up to my initiation I was taught first, if I remember correctly, about the three links, or the three-linked chain, the primary symbol of Odd Fellowship or the I.O.OF.. This image includes three chain links, often each of a different color, each signifying one of the primary principles of Odd Fellowship: friendship, [brotherly] love, and truth. (Amicitia Amor et Veritas.) These links are joined together, essentially to show their inseparability. This is as if to ask: how can they exist apart?
These ideas being established as the basis of the Order, I was told that the only requirement to join was belief in a supreme being.
Now my view of deity has always been complicated, and I sometimes find myself coming around to the agnostic view, but a lot of the time I’d say I hold something like Spinoza’s view of God, or of panendeism, of a transcendent yet interpenetrative force that gave rise to and is yet one with the established cosmos.
Would you call a force, such as that which may have produced the Big Bang, the same as a being? What separates the two? Consciousness? Well, I have no way of knowing whether the thing that is the basis of our reality is conscious or not, so I choose to be silent about it. That explanation seemed good enough for the Odd Fellows at my local lodge, and soon they allowed me to initiate.
So, not to go too much into detail of the initiatory ritual itself, but the White degree seemed relatively brief, included some rhyme schemes, and much of it I spent hoodwinked—that is, blinded by a spectacles-like device known as a hoodwink—as well as bound to some degree, if I remember correctly. (It was several years ago, and I may be confusing this bondage with that of another rite I underwent. Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting anything here.)
I recall several symbols which, now that I know, are particularly important within the context of the White degree: these include the eye of God, the scythe, the skull and cross-bones, and the triple-chain, mentioned above.
The chain we’ve briefly covered, and I’ll do so in more depth below as I discuss the issues of being at once an anarchist, Odd Fellow, and Thelemite; so next let’s look at the scythe:
A great blog on the topic of Odd Fellowship known as Heart in Hand makes some interesting remarks about the symbol of the scythe to the initiate Odd Fellow. In an article on the symbol, author theconductor1819 writes, “One of Odd Fellowship’s most recognizable symbols is the scythe. As you saw above [the article includes a video of a man utilizing a scythe in a video above this text], it can cut grass, but its most important job is to harvest tall crops like wheat. To understand the rural imagery of the scythe it is important to understand its job in field work as well as the notions of sowing, growth, and reaping.”
The author explains that the scythe is associated with the Roman deity Saturn, who himself is associated with time and its passage, and therefore the insubstantiality of events. Note that the hourglass, as a symbol for impermanence and the passage of time and fleeting nature of things, is also an important symbol to Odd Fellows.
The author also notes the most important aspect and use of the scythe, for harvesting or reaping, and it is in this sense that the implement is associated with the grim reaper, the personification of death who comes to reap the living. Yet the scythe not only reaps life. In a sense, it is the reaper of thought, action, and everything else that comes to fruition as a result of causation.
As the author writes:
“The scythe with its rustic simplicity is bound to the statement “As you sow, so shall you reap,” a notion found throughout world civilizations. For humans to live, we must produce. We must produce food so we may eat. We must produce thought so we may evaluate and bring ideas to fruition and then begin again. Universal law is very specific: if you plant wheat you will harvest wheat—not beans. Our whole life is a farm with sowing, growth, and reaping.
“It is important to see the scythe as more than an implement. Its shape and the job it performs in the context of farming has lessons for all Odd Fellows. It is used not merely to reap golden grain for the sheaf, but, in the field of mind, heart, and soul, to gather every precious stalk, every opening flower, every desirable fruit. We must encourage an affluent and exuberant harvest for body, mind, and the communities we serve.
According to the Davis Odd Fellows Handbook (or Pledge Book) of Davis Lodge #169 (updated June 2010), “The Scythe reminds us that as the grass falls before the mower’s scythe, so we all fall before the touch of time.”
What of the skull and cross-bones? This symbol seems fairly straight-forward enough, in that it symbolizes death, but let’s look at what the American Folk Art Museum has to say about it.
“The skull and crossed femurs, or thighbones, is an image that dates to antiquity and functioned as a memento mori, a reminder that everything that lives must die. The symbol was used by several fraternal groups as a sober reminder of the importance of leading a moral life. It was also part of the Odd Fellows ritual of rebirth. As one Odd Fellows monitor noted, it was the symbol “perhaps…used most frequently, in both sacred and profane mysteries, as a means of impressing the mind with a realizing sense of the seriousness of the end of life.” One regalia catalog listed plaques similar to this one as “emblems to hang in lodge room” that were sold as one piece in a set of sixteen or eighteen emblems.
“The skull and crossbones appears frequently in Masonic contexts as well. It serves as a focal point in a “chamber of reflection,” an anteroom outfitted with arcane symbols intended to encourage deep self-contemplation before a candidate begins his degree.”
The Davis Handbook has this to say of the skull and cross-bones: “The Skull and Crossbones remind us of mortality and warn us to so conduct ourselves on earth that Heaven may be our reward hereafter.” (I personally wasn’t happy with the necessary inclusion of an Abrahamic afterlife, being a Thelemite, but I chalked this up to a particularity of this lodge and its specific handbook, not necessarily the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship as a whole.)
Lastly we have the open and watchful eye of God. Now, as I said before, it was only stated to me that to be an Odd Fellow one needed to be a supreme being. One did not need to assent to the idea that that being was necessarily conscious: however, the eye being open may suggest a kind of consciousness, albeit not necessarily.
The Davis Handbook puts it this way:
“The All-Seeing Eye represents the eternal presence of the eye of God upon all of us, night and day.”
This sounds quite a bit like the Abrahamic God, the deity of Yahweh/Jehovah who judges sin. (And, of course, sin simply does not exist in the Thelemic view, nor is there a being who judges it.)
Writing in Heart in Hand, Odd Fellow Scott Moye goes into the particulars behind the symbolism of the open eye of God in Odd Fellowship:
“In older various forms of ancient symbolism, we often see a symbol showing one eye open and one eye closed. The closed eye of course refers to the subjective internal world of our mind. The open eye refers to the objective external world our mind is engaging. Odd Fellows uses (sic) only the open eye, which in ancient symbolism refers to the objective world.
“So, the open eye does not only represent the All Seeing Eye of the Great Architect. It also shows us that our work–the work of “being Odd” is in the objective world. The world where, with open eyes, we see the impoverished, the helpless, the distressed. The open eye encourages us to look out upon the objective world and provide the help that we can provide.”
Anyway, these were the mainstay symbols that I noticed and recall from my initiation, my taking of the White degree. What this imparted to me was this: God watches us all; all actions, thoughts, feelings, and phenomena have consequences; all life ends and all things are impermanent (very similar to the Buddhist mark of anicca); and in the midst of all this we ought to embrace a life of friendship, love, and truth, bound as one.
“The initiatory degree is required in order to attend an Odd Fellows meeting. With the initiatory degree you are a full fledged voting member of the lodge and able to participate in business meetings. In the initiatory degree you will witness a representation of our mortal existence, which begs the question; “How will I spend my life?” In our modern fast paced society there are many things that compete for our attention. As Odd Fellows we are bound by sacred obligations to extend the hand of fellowship as we are commanded to: visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan. In short you will commit, as an enlightened member of our order, to do your part to build a better world.”
How will I spend my life? I ask myself this, or something akin to it all the time, as a Thelemite. “What is my true will?” is similar enough, and that is the imperative question for every Thelemite. Either way, one is asking, essentially, what one is really to do, now that one is here, alive, on this planet.
And surely death, those skull and cross-bones, make the greatest impression when addressing this question during the initiatory degree ritual. Because not only do you encounter the symbol on a banner, you encounter that “symbol,” after another manner, in much more visceral and real way, right in front of your face.
I won’t go into further details. (For the sake of secrecy, of course.)
Taking my White degree did make an impression on me. It didn’t exactly reveal anything to me I had never considered before, but it reminded me of things I felt were important, though a few (such as the consciousness and watchfulness of God) I either disagree with or at times question.
I was happy with my decision for a few weeks. However, I soon became a bit conflicted.
I quickly began considering my inclusion in the Odd Fellows from the standpoint of both my Thelema and my anarchism (if you’d like to know, I happen to not have a lot of love for the state or capitalism), and I generally found that, for myself—that is, from the point of view of my personal interpretation of Thelema and anarchism—both made me question Odd Fellowship, at least as presented to me on the various Odd Fellows websites and from other sources on the topic.
The way Odd Fellowship had been presented to me at my local lodge, as simply a society centered around friendship, love, and truth, whose members professed the existence of a supreme being (though without qualification) and nothing beyond that simply didn’t hold up to the research I was doing into Odd Fellowship elsewhere. It was becoming more and more nuanced as I was reading more and more about it, and particularly more dogmatic and Christian in its views, to my understanding.
So, I respectfully left my lodge in search of other things.
Below I’ll explain why I feel like Thelema (and to another extent anarchism) may clash with Odd Fellowship in certain ways:
First of all, let’s look at where the very basics of Odd Fellowship—friendship, love, and truth—come in the way of Thelema as I interpret it. In principle they don’t, but by elaboration from various sources they certainly may.
Now the principle of friendship is one that is natural to me. I won’t appeal to any doctrine of spiritual principle for why it is important. It just is. I’ve always tried to be a friendly person, as much of a hermit as I may be these days. As the courts in this country (I’m American) are ideally supposed to treat people as innocent until proven guilty, I try, on days I’m feeling less cynical at the very least, to treat people as friends until proven otherwise. Wouldn’t the world generally be better if we all approached one another in such a manner?
“An Odd Fellow is an advocate of FRIENDSHIP and never looks at people with prejudiced eyes or bases his judgment on outward appearances. He supports the idea that all people irrespective of creed, race, color, nationality, social status, sex, rank and station are brothers and sisters. He does not take an undue advantage of his power or the weaknesses of those around him. He is gentle in behavior and never inflicts pain. He avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct. He also knows that he should respect himself by following temperance in his desires and fighting against vice of every form, chastity of person, and purity in heart and mind.”
Some comments on this paragraph:
A Thelemite generally regards all human beings as co-supreme Gods like he is, or perceives himself to be, and so brothers and sisters upon earth partaking in the same divinity which is manifestly one with nature. However, to assume that it is never necessary to inflict pain or come into conflict with someone else ignores the plain fact that the Thelemite is also called to defy (or in extreme cases even destroy) those who would thwart his liberty and the liberties of others, as per Liber OZ. (Or Liber LXXVII.) In my view, the confident Thelemite believes firmly sic semper tyrannis. He is not a pacifist, as Ra-Hoor-Khuit, to whom he pledges his allegiance, is a force of war and vengeance against all that which thwarts the (true) will. That is not to say, however, that violence is the immediate answer to a given conflict, but that it may sometimes certainly be so.
So, the Odd Fellow avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct? (According to their official website it would appear to be so.) This is plainly incompatible with the fact that, as per Liber OZ, which is basically the foundation of Thelemic ethics, “man has the right to think what he will,” and to “love as he will,” so that one may “take your fill of love as ye will, when, where, and with whom ye will.”
The Thelemite also does not follow temperance unless it is his will to do so, though the cleverness and intelligence of a Thelemite may indicate to him when and how he is being ruled by his passions, rather than the other way around. If it is the case that his passions are ruling him rather than him ruling them, then it is natural that he is actively thwarting his own will, and thus necessarily must exercise temperance if the true will is to shine through. This, of course is an if, however, not a must, and the language exercised on the official I.O.O.F. page seemed to imply a certain degree of “thou shalt.” (The sole dogma of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)
Thelemites do not fight against vice, unless by vice we mean that which thwarts true will. Note what it states plainly in Liber AL (II:52):
“There is a veil: that veil is black. It is the veil of the modest woman; it is the veil of sorrow, & the pall of death: this is none of me. Tear down that lying spectre of the centuries: veil not your vices in virtuous words: these vices are my service; ye do well, & I will reward you here and hereafter.”
Vice, lust, carnal pleasure and joy are likewise the pleasures of Godhead in Thelema. It is God’s, or the universe’s, joy to see our joy and rapture upon the earth. As we are microcosms of the universe, which is the macrocosm, when we experience joy, so does the universe, and therefore God.
Let me be clear: I hadn’t read this extract from the I.O.O.F. website before taking my initiatory degree. If I had, I may have had second thoughts about joining the Odd Fellows. That being said, friendship as a quality is not in opposition to Thelema, and Thelema may even encourage it, so long as that friendship aligns with will.
Consider the second link the chain of the Odd Fellows. Love, like friendship, is important. Very important. Loves of all kind swells in my heart: and I’ve known romantic love, the love of friends, of parents, of acquaintances—even spiritual love.
O.T.O. is very much based upon love. In fact the order operates in the love of the spirit of universal brotherhood, but moreover “love under will,” which is part of the Law of Thelema. (Its paramount doctrine.) Will is essential in and to Thelema, of course, but so is love, particularly divine love (agape), which, it should be mentioned, is not mere sentimentality, but rather union, as implied by the term yoga. (According to Crowley.) This love is understood to be directed by the divine will, yet at the same time synonymous with will.
The I.O.O.F. website has this to say about the love of an Odd Fellow:
“An Odd Fellow is an enactor of LOVE in a way that he feels jointly responsible for his fellowmen and prepared to give attention and help wherever and whenever help is needed. He is a person who treats others, especially women and children, with dignity and respect. He knows the application of sympathy, sincerity, unselfishness, and generosity. He accepts the fact that nothing is perfect but believes that he has an obligation to contribute in making the world a better place to live.”
This is all well and good. There is nothing in Thelema that turns aside our compassion, but rather it is noted by Liber AL that “compassion is the vice of kings.” This can be interpreted in different ways—one way it is interpreted is that, vices being the “service” of Godhead, and “kings” being the enlightened of society, compassion is good and naturally flows from one who is pursuing or has accomplished their true will. Another, more cynical interpretation is that compassion is the last of the ugly virtues—the “good” of the good we are to be saved from, as per the Mass of the Phoenix—if we are to be delivered into true liberty. I chose to believe that compassion is a good thing.
I do not believe that women deserve more attention or help than men by dint of their sex. Woman is God just as man is, and to pity her is to look down upon her as lowlier than the God she is.
As Crowley wrote in his essay “Duty”: “Pity, sympathy and like emotions are fundamentally insults to the Godhead of the person exciting them, and therefore also to your own. The distress of another may be relieved; but always with the positive and noble idea of making manifest the perfection of the Universe. Pity is the source of every mean, ignoble, cowardly vice; and the essential blasphemy against Truth.”
There is nothing written in any Thelemic text which condemns dignity or respect, and, as far as I know, there is nothing in particular written about how one ought to treat children aside from Crowley’s recommendations to the O.T.O. as to how to care for families and kids, wherein it is stated that children should be fostered by the order to grow in freedom to explore their own natures and capacities.
Sympathy, like pity, is not actually empathy, which is the kind of feeling with which a supreme being regards another supremacy.
Sincerity can be addressed alongside truth, below.
Unselfishness is not inherently harmful, but one should never be unselfish at the expense of one’s true will. Of course, it may be one’s true will to be unselfish and helpful, as if, for instance, it is one’s true will (or part of it) to be an EMT or to feed the homeless.
Generosity is not required of the Thelemite, but it is certainly a boon to one who participates in O.T.O. A brother or sister of the order may show their love for their brethren through generosity, of course.
It may be wise to remember what we read in Crowley’s Liber Librae:
“Do good unto others for its own sake, not for reward, not for gratitude from them, not for sympathy. If thou art generous, thou wilt not long for thine ears to be tickled by expressions of gratitude.”
Truth is trickier. It is clear that Odd Fellowship values truth and honesty above most things, but for the Thelemite, while truth and integrity is generally valuable, it is not always necessary, at least I would say. (Granted, there are about a thousand interpretations of Thelema for every hundred Thelemites, so don’t let me opinion on this matter (or really any matter) be the final word.)
The only sin is restriction, according to Liber AL, and beyond this Crowley once stated (In his Book 4) that, “The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and willfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices.”
Yet it is also the case that certain high adepts have the ability, and perhaps sometimes even the responsibility, to utilize falsehood to their advantage or for the “greater good”.
Crowley wrote in The Book of Lies: “The Master (in technical language, the Magus) does not concern himself with facts; he does not care whether a thing is true or not: he uses truth and falsehood indiscriminately, to serve his ends.”
The official I.O.O.F. website has this to state of the Odd Fellow and truth:
“An Odd Fellow is a pursuer of TRUTH and adheres to equality, justice and righteousness. He sees searching for truth as searching for clarity in the sense of his life. Every time a small piece of truth is found, he will try to use it only in ways where he will be able to be true to himself and his fellowmen. Oftentimes, he thinks before he acts and speaks. He knows that, as a human being, it is a fact that he can think. He gives account to himself and knows that before he starts doing something, he can make the choice what to do and can think it over and consider whether the choice was the right one. He believes that making good and well-considered choices is called “behaving in a responsible way”.”
This account seems to fit best with the Thelemic view, albeit for the fact that as Thelemites we do not necessarily discount lying as a necessity at times and a simple indulgence (remember that we do not believe in sin) at others. This is also not to discount the fact that exaggeration can be beneficial in a number of instances.
MY THELEMA AND OTHER I.O.O.F. TENETSAND PRACTICES
The Official I.O.O.F. page states that the following are additional teachings Odd Fellowship provides its members:
Wise and serious truths and opens up before its members opportunities for useful service.
Belief in a Supreme Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe.
The lesson of fraternity, that all are of one family and therefore brethren.
The importance of the principle of Friendship, Love and Truth.
The privilege and duty of individual sympathy, mutual assistance and every-day service to ones (sic) fellows.
That humanity was intended to be one harmonious structure.
That each individual is a unit in that God-made temple.
Its members how to stand on their own feet, yet walk in step with their neighbors.
The difference between right and wrong.
That it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Personally, not all of this agrees with my interpretation of Thelema. I do not believe that right and wrong can be delineated aside from the notion of true will—whether one is to pursue one’s own or allow others to pursue theirs’, one the one hand, or restrict that freedom, on the other. I do not believe that it is always more blessed to give than to receive, at there are certainly those who don’t deserve a dime (or anything else) from me. The other tenets I either agree, disagree, or half-agree with.
In my few times in the lodge room of my local lodge, we recited the Lord’s Prayer, which I found curious given that I.O.O.F. states that it is “non-political and non-sectarian” and that people regardless of race, religion, creed, etc. can join. The Bible was also present and used during our lodge meeting, and I discovered these were regular practices throughout I.O.O.F. lodges.
Nevertheless, it is often well-understood that 10 Thelemites can give you 100 different interpretations of Thelema, as I essentially stated before, and so it would be presumptuous to say that a Thelemite could never be an Odd Fellow, or at least a member of the I.O.O.F. as it exists today.
ODD FELLOWSHIP AND MY ANARCHISM
I consider myself an anarchist. I feel the state, and therefore the government and the structures it begets, are illegitimate; that hierarchies are largely unjustified; and that capitalism is an unjustified hierarchy. My anarchism is also bolstered by my Thelema: capitalism and the state come in the way of my expression of my true will.
On the official I.O.O.F. website’s How to Join page, it states that “Any person of good character, of any race, gender, nationality and social status, who is loyal to their country and believes in a Supreme Being, is eligible for membership.”
First of all, the notion of what constitutes “good character” is fairly subjective, and secondly (and most importantly here), being loyal to one’s country is not something anarchists are exactly known for.
Now, I am loyal to the people who live in my country. In that sense I am loyal to my country: I am loyal, or rather give the benefit of the doubt, i.e. loyalty until I’m eventually stabbed in the back (if that so happens), to the people who live in my country, albeit also worldwide.
I am not loyal to the state, or the government, and I do not agree with its laws, which I find arbitrary and imposed against the liberty of free people everywhere.
Surprisingly, the issue of loyalty to my country did not come up when I joined Good Shepherd Lodge. I feel they may have missed a few questions here or there.
Additionally, an image macro on the aforementioned website states that the Odd Fellow is “faithful” to his country. This signals nothing little more than to me, as nations themselves are arbitrarily carved up geopolitical power-grabs by people far richer and more powerful than you or I will ever be. (Certainly the issue of culture comes up when considering borders, but why must the fact that one culture is endemic to one place mean that it can never exist in another?)
I discovered recently that Odd Fellows conduct an annual “pilgrimage” to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., presumably to pay their respects to a military which has largely fought to further the interests of bourgeois institutions and killed countless people in the process.
Lastly, during lodge meetings American I.O.O.F. members (myself included during the brief time I was involved) recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag, which is wholly anathema to the fact that that flag is, to me, a symbol of authoritarianism.
Despite all this, I will give I.O.O.F. a bit of a pass in that there must be some understanding of the context in which its patriotism operates: the need for declared allegiance to one’s country is essentially a safeguard that was put in place to ensure that members of the order would not use their power, prestige, or status within the I.O.O.F. to break laws or harm the government, which of course would have landed the order in serious trouble.
“It’s great that you’re thinking about this. It means you take your obligations as an Odd Fellow seriously and that the Order is meaningful to you. I think having some context for what we do in our ritual will help you to understand your relationship to Odd Fellowship better.
“The reason for requiring members to be loyal to their country comes from the 1950s. There was a lot of fear around Communism and specifically around using the secrecy of lodge meetings and activities for seditious activities. To counter that, the organization changed the “Secret Work” to the “Unwritten Work.” We also adopted the requirement that members be loyal to their country. What that means is that no member would ever use the secrecy of Odd Fellowship to do anything against the government. One of the reasons the Odd Fellows still exist in Cuba is because our lodges were apolitical and didn’t threaten the progress of the revolution.
“In the context of Odd Fellowship, being “loyal to one’s country” doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily support this government. It just means you’re not going to do anything under cover of lodge secrecy to attack or destabilize the government. In fact, I think that Odd Fellowship fits well with a libertarian philosophy because the idea of Odd Fellowship is that members take care of each other and the wider community at large without need for government. Odd Fellowship grew from the tradition of workers providing mutual aid during the time when governments did not provide any services to citizens.
“Ultimately you’ll have to decide what’s going to be best for you. Based on the fact that you’ve thought very hard about the meaning of what you’re doing in Odd Fellowship, I think you will be a great member. I encourage you to continue your membership and learn more and more about Odd Fellowship. Take the Three Degrees; join an Encampment and take the Encampment Degrees. Continue your journey in Odd Fellowship and work hard in your lodge.”
To clarify, in the I.O.O.F. an Encampment is a higher organization than a base lodge (but not with the greater privileges, jurisdiction, and responsibilities that a grand lodge holds) in that it confers several higher degrees than a regular lodge, which can only confer the four primary degrees.
I have no problems with the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship in and of themselves. In fact, today I find much of their work admirable. On the whole, if people find Odd Fellowship and the I.O.O.F. paths to bettering themselves and the lives of those around them, that’s great. However, for a certain amount of time, maybe some several years, I found the doctrines of Odd Fellowship—namely the nationalism, moralism, and Abrahamism—kept it from working for me as an anarchist and a Thelemite.
Yet, somehow, as much cognitive dissonance as I suffered, and to some degree continue to suffer from, I came back to my local lodge recently and began working with them again. I re-joined, and actually received my official I.O.O.F. membership card. In fact, I’m looking to take the other three lodge degrees.
How do I justify this, after everything I explained about myself, above?
Well, for one, despite what I believe, I really do want to just sweep the extraneous ideals peddled by the I.O.O.F. aside and get to work helping people: I want to have an outlet to do good for others, and the I.O.O.F. seems like the perfect place for that kind of work.
Secondly, I admittedly, and unashamedly, cherry-pick: just as I do not assent to every single “doctrine” of Thelema—not everything Crowley said or wrote is written in stone, and much of what he said I simply disagree with or find unbelievable—I also understand that surely I do not need to assent to every single doctrine promulgated by the I.O.O.F. in its published material or on its websites in order to do good work for others and express the ideals of friendship, love, and truth. I do not need to believe that God is actually watching me in order to be loving, and I do not need to be loyal to the state to be a friend to others.
Perhaps this makes me a renegade Odd Fellow. Yes, I go through the motions in the lodge: I say the pledge, I declare my beliefs, but in my heart I know what it is I assent to and I know that the real prize of Odd Fellowship has, so far, been the work of making the world a better place despite the tid bit doctrines of the order which I do not wholeheartedly agree with.
And as for the ritual: all in all, I found my initiatory experience meaningful and beautiful in its own way, and a great reminder of the ever salient facts of death, impermanence, and focusing on what is valuable in our fleeting lives. Those reminders impressed upon my mind greater facts than the need to prop up the state, or convince myself that somehow God has an Abrahamic flavor. Those reminders convince me to do good for others simply because it pleases me to do so, to embody friendship, truth, and love while not being a pedant on what I feel to be the divisive and sectarian topics of God and country.
A little while ago I wrote and published a followup (or, rather, a re-do) article to my Medium article “What is Thelema?“, “What is Thelema? (Redux).” I’m featuring a link to it here, as well as the text of the article below, for your consumption.
This re-do, or redux, article attempts to define and explore Thelema without presenting the issues that I feel exist in the older article.
I wrote an article a while back exploring the nature of Thelema, the spiritual and philosophical system founded or received by Aleister Crowley in 1904. I realize now, looking back on my work, that it wasn’t written to my satisfaction, and here I’d like to present a new essay attempting to articulate the system without quite so many tangents and parentheses, and with certain corrections made.
. . .
Thelema (in Koine Greek θέλημα (thelema): “will [of God]”; pronounced “thuh-LEE-muh” or “thuh-LAY-muh”; derived from the Greek verb θέλω (thélō): “to will, wish, want, or purpose”) is a system of spiritual development founded or received by British writer and occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) in 1904. It is most often practiced as a kind of religion or mystical-spiritual complex— complete with (largely according to the inclination of the practitioner) rituals, deities, scriptures, attendant organizations that provide services and liturgy, and communities of like-minded adherents — although it is doctrinally-flexible enough that it can also be lived or practiced as a (ostensibly secular) philosophy or “way of life.”
A well-known quote by Thelemite and occultist Jake-Stratton Kent goes, “There is religion in Thelema for those that require it. There is also freedom from religion in Thelema, for those that require it.” This statement affirms that Thelema can be interpreted by different individuals in different ways.
The term “thelema” comes from the Greek thélō, θέλω, a lesser-used term for “will” alongside the more common phrase boule (βουλή); thélō was used by Homer to mean both general will and sexual desire; and the earliest use of the word “thelema” occurs in the 5th century B.C.E., the term meaning either general will, divine will, or the will to sex. In both the Old and the New Testament “thelema” is generally used to indicate the will of God, albeit in somewhat different senses between the two collections of scripture.
Followers of Thelema are termed Thelemites (singular: Thelemite), and phenomena associated with or within the scope of Thelema are termed Thelemic. Though there are both formal group, and solo or private, rituals of initiation into the “current” of Thelema, it can be adopted and practiced by anyone at any time, and being arguably syncretic in its own way, one may be a Thelemite and at once — at least to some degree — a Buddhist, Gnostic, traditional Hermeticist, Hindu, Neoplatonist, Neopythagorean, pagan (including Wiccan), Rosicrucian, Satanist, Setian, spiritual but not religious, Taoist, or irreligious, or some combination thereof, among other possible spiritual, ideological, or religious expressions.
But where did such a system begin?
Aleister Crowley (born Edward Alexander Crowley; 1875–1947), an English ceremonial magician and mystic, stated that he received a text by way of dictation known as Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, over the course of three days, from April 8 to 10 in 1904 during a honeymoon stay with his wife, Rose Edith Kelly, in Cairo, Egypt. Crowley alleged this book was dictated to him by an entity named Aiwass (also stylized Aiwaz), “the minister of Hoor-pa-kraat,” whom he designated his Holy Guardian Angel. (HGA.)
To digress, “Holy Guardian Angel” is an esoteric term—one that did not originate with Crowley, and may actually come from the Zoroastrian tradition — that Crowley used for either a discreet aspect of the personality, a kind of personal god or “inner” or “truer” self which one’s natural ego is deeply connected with yet normally unaware of, or some analogous concept, on one hand; or a discarnate and separate entity, or separate yet intimate aspect of the personality or one’s fullness of being, on the other. Crowley described the Angel as being analogous to the Tao and Hua of Taoism; the Silent Watcher, Great Master, or Higher Self of Theosophy; Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita; the neshamah of the Qabalah; the Great Person of the I Ching; the Higher Genius of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HoGD); the augeoides (divine nature or “body of light”) of Iamblichus; the Atman of Hinduism; the daemon of the ancient Greeks; and other such concepts. The specific phrase “Holy Guardian Angel” was used by Abraham of Worms, a character either real or fictional mentioned in the grimoire (book of magick) The Book of Abramelin, who used the term to indicate an entity which is intimately connected to one’s spiritual makeup or psyche, or the spiritual nature of the one who invokes the being. It was from this source that Crowley borrowed the term.
The concept of the Holy Guardian Angel will remain important for the purposes of this essay, and I will return to it later on.
To return to Liber AL:
On March 16, 1904 Crowley performed a ceremony known as the Bornless Ritual in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza, in order to impress his new wife during their overnight stay there in Cairo. Despite the fact that his attempt at evoking spirits to visible manifestation apparently didn’t work — Rose was unable to see anything — she entered a trance and repeated the phrase, “They’re waiting for you!” to Crowley.
Crowley initially disregarded this event, but went on, on the 18th, to invoke the Egyptian deity Thoth (also known as Tahuti) — invocation is a magical practice whereby the magician calls upon a being or force to enter them, or attempts to identify with that being or force — and afterwards Rose told him that Horus was the god waiting for him.
Crowley tested whether Rose was being genuine or was simply hysterical or mad by asking her questions about Horus, knowing she knew nothing about the deity prior. She supposedly answered all of his questions correctly.
The couple then went to the Bulaq Museum near downtown Cairo, where Rose pointed out a funerary stele to Crowley. It depicted a priest of the war god Montu, a winged solar disk representing Horus of Behdet, Ra-Horakhty, and the goddess Nut bent over these. The priest, to whom the stele was dedicated, was known as Ankh-af-na-khonsu (transliterated more properly as Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu i, and sometimes written as Ankh-f-n-khonsu), and it was the persona of this priest whom Crowley would take on as the writer of The Book of the Law when later, in April, he would pen it. (Crowley also would later claim that he was the reincarnation of Ankh-af-na-khonsu.)
On March 20 Crowley invoked Horus “with great success.” Rose then told him that the individual who gave her the information she had about Horus was not Horus himself, but a being named Aiwass.
On April 7 Rose gave Crowley instructions to enter “the temple” (presumably some part of the apartment they were staying in in Cairo) and write down what he heard from noon to 1:00 p.m.
Aiwass dictated three chapters of Liber AL to Crowley, one for each day he was writing, each chapter a message from one of three deities, beings whom Crowley would later describe as a “literary convenience.” (There are certainly atheist Thelemites, and far be it from me to decide what the nature of these deities, if any deities, really is. Suffice it to say a Thelemite may view these deities, and deities in general, as literal beings, archetypes or symbols of cosmic forces or psychological or spiritual processes, or really any other thing, or some combination thereof. It’s not up to me what others believe.) These beings are Nuit (also Nuith or Nu, based upon the sky goddess Nut), the “Queen of Infinite Space,” Hadit (also Had, based upon the solar manifestation of the god Horus of Behdet (Edfu), also translated Hor-Bhdt and Heru-Behdeti, known as Haidith to the Greeks), “the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star,” and Ra-Hoor-Khuit (also Ra-Hoor, based upon the composite deity Ra-Horakhty), the “child” of Nuit and Hadit who represents the active and energetic aspect of Horus, “the Crowned and Conquering Child.”
The central tenet of these deities’ teachings is what can be described as the sole dogma, though not necessarily the only doctrine, of Thelema — the Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” a phrase which is followed up by the additional tenet, “Love is the law, love under will.”
As explained in Crowley’s epistle “The Message of the Master Therion” (one of Crowley’s magical or spiritual names was the Master Therion, after the fuller name TO MEGA THERION  (in Greek Τὸ Μέγα Θηρίον) or The Beast  or simply 666), will (“Thelema”), which is central to the Law, is not mere whim. It is not simply one’s base desires, or the inclinations of the ego, but rather the will of individual as it aligns with the motion and inertia, or “will,” of the cosmos. The theory generally goes that after one has made oneself a perfect vessel for the indwelling of the light of the HGA and allowed it to commune with one’s mind — a process known as Knowledge and Conversation (K&C) — the Angel will then lead one to the knowledge of one’s true, or pure, will, one’s will as it exists in harmony with all things.
In his essay Crowley goes on to identify this will with the state of the Buddhist “Nirvana, only dynamic instead of static,” a kind of inner self, but in motion.
Crowley states, “Thou must (1) Find out what is thy Will. (2) Do that Will with (a) one-pointedness, (b) detachment, (c) peace.
“Then, and then only, art thou in harmony with the Movement of Things, thy will part of, and therefore equal to, the Will of God. And since the will is but the dynamic aspect of the self, and since two different selves could not possess identical wills; then, if thy will be God’s will, Thou art That.”
“There is no Law beyond Do what thou wilt,” states Liber AL. Additionally, we read in the book, “Thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that and no other shall say nay. For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.”
What makes this “pure will” perfect?
If we look back at “The Message of the Master Therion,” we see that Crowley’s theory is one of mutual harmony: if everyone did their unique and individual will, and respected the wills of others — a necessity of “love under will” — there would be no, or at least rare, clashing.
Crowley wrote that one may be ignorant of one’s true will, and that in such a case the universe itself, or the circumstances surrounding the individual, would naturally respond by causing disruption.
“Every man and every woman has a course, depending partly on the self, and partly on the environment which is natural and necessary for each,” he wrote in his posthumous publication Magick Without Tears. “Anyone who is forced from his own course, either through not understanding himself, or through external opposition, comes into conflict with the order of the Universe, and suffers accordingly.” In the same book he noted, “A man whose conscious will is at odds with his True Will is wasting his strength. He cannot hope to influence his environment efficiently.”
He also claimed that the true will so precisely reflects what one should be doing in one’s life, in that one acts in accordance with the nature of the cosmos, that if one is following it, one cannot do anything wrong, or cause an error: “Every man has a right to fulfill his own will without being afraid that it may interfere with that of others; for if he is in his proper path, it is the fault of others if they interfere with him.”
Discovering and fulfilling one’s true, or pure, will, is known to Thelemites as the Great Work, after the great work or magnum opus of alchemy, and represents enlightenment, illumination, or gnosis in Thelema.
For Thelemites, the Law of Thelema is universal in its application: Crowley wrote that its “scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application”. Indeed, Thelema is so broad it may be applied to all forms of philosophy, including ethics, metaphysics, politics, and even aesthetics. On a individual basis, which is personal and spiritual, however, the Law calls on a person to — as Crowley was quick to clarify — perform their true will, which is essentially that course of life best aligned with one’s greatest potential and the conditions of one’s existence, and this is the microcosmic or human-centered aspect of will. Yet will in some sense, according to Thelema, suffuses the cosmos, and in its own way directs the course of all things: “‘Do what thou wilt’ is to bid Stars to shine, Vines to bear grapes, Water to seek its level,’ Crowley wrote in his Magick, Liber ABA, Book 4; “man is the only being in Nature that has striven to set himself at odds with himself…”
Coming to know, and gathering the strength to dare, to perform one’s true will, to fulfill the Law of Thelema, is invariably difficult. And this may be why we need to delve deeply into ourselves, the deeply hidden psychological and spiritual aspects of ourselves, in order to unearth it. This process is that of K&C of the HGA.
The HGA is said to descend from the same supernal state of being or mind that was begotten by, and/or is inhabited by, the presence of the force or forces represented by the three divinities of The Book of the Law.
The deities of Liber AL are, at least in one sense (if not wholly), archetypes and symbols of metaphysical, natural, mystical, spiritual, and/or psychological principles or processes, as I indicated before:
Nuit, sometimes known as “Our Lady of the Stars” or the “Lady of the Starry Heaven,” represents infinite space, “and the infinite stars thereof,” matter, the Hermetic All (everything), infinity generally, being and to-be, and the Absolute (or absolute or fundamental reality) in a philosophical sense, generally. She is all potential—all potential for both being and experience. She is all that is, was, will be, can be, will not be, and cannot be, together as a totality. Her circumference is everywhere and center (Hadit) is nowhere.
Hadit is called “the Great God, the lord of the sky,” and represents the infinitesimal point-event at any particular point within the “body of Nuit” (the universe, multiverse, or totality of existence), motion, energy, going and to-go, the ultimate and infinitesimal and core self, and the individual and the individual’s uniqueness and essence. He can be viewed as symbolic of or the same as the spermatozoon or ovum, kundalini, and the Holy Spirit. He has been called “the Fire of Desire at the Heart of Matter (Nuit).” He is the truest self that, by spiritual aspiration, dissolves in divine union with Nuit. The union of the infinitesimally small Hadit and infinitely great Nuit results in samadhi, or the union of subject and object in spiritual consciousness.
In his commentaries on Liber AL, Crowley wrote, “Nuit is All that which exists, and the condition of that existence. Hadit is the Principle which causes modifications in this Being. This explains how one may call Nuit Matter, and Hadit Motion.” He also noted, “It should be evident that Nuit obtains the satisfaction of Her Nature when the parts of Her Body fulfill their own Nature. The sacrament of life is not only so from the point of view of the celebrants, but from that of the divinity invoked.”
Ra-Hoor-Khuit (meaning “Ra [who is] Horus on the horizon”) is a conflation of Ra and Horus, and the principle and force of the Aeon of Horus. He may also be representative of the HGA, the khabs — according to Thelemic doctrine the “star” of an individual that encircles Hadit and a deep, yet not the deepest, aspect of self (this point is admittedly debatable, as the “star” of Thelemic parlance is often viewed as the inherent or “true self,” making it the actual essence from a certain point of view) — solar force or a solar archetype, and assertive action in attempting to discover and enact one’s true will. Ra-Hoor-Khuit represents Horus as a conquering solar force. Being the child of Nuit and Hadit, he is representative of their union, and so samadhi and enlightenment. He may also be symbolic of the manifestation of substance or being generally, as Crowley wrote that it is the interaction of the dual principles of the infinite circumference of Nuit and the infinitesimal centrality of Hadit that gives rise to the manifest universe.
Outside Liber AL (namely in spiritual works of various classes Crowley termed libri, or [spiritual] books) Crowley described other deities endemic to the Thelemic pantheon:
Ra-Hoor-Khuit is the active aspect of the composite deity Heru-ra-ha (“Horus-Sun-flesh”), or that which brings together opposites and in doing so represents non-duality.
The passive aspect of Heru-ra-ha is Hoor-pa-Kraat (also Hoor-paar-kraat or Hoor-paar-Kraat), or Harpocrates, a Greek child deity originally representing silence, and in Thelema also a symbol of stillness and initiation. As Ra-Hoor is solar and phallic, Hoor-pa-Kraat is arguably lunar and yonic.
Babalon, whose name comes from the biblical Whore of Babylon, is mother-like deity known as the “Scarlet Woman,” “Mother of Abominations,” and “Great Mother.” She is considered a “sacred whore,” and she represents liberated and free sexuality, fertility, the Earth or even universe as a mother-like figure, and, perhaps most metaphysically, the “female” aspect of the creative principle which gives rise to consciousness and/or the cosmos according to the Qabalah. (Many Thelemites rely on the Hermetic Qabalah, an esoteric interpretation of the Jewish mystical system of Kabbalah, in order to gain insight or advance themselves spiritually.) She is identified with the sephira (sphere or circle on the Qabalistic diagram known as the Tree of Life — a pictorial representation of the process of creation and one’s ability to return to the divine) of Binah on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, the sphere which receives and thereby molds the creative energy expressed by its counterpart — Babalon’s consort — Chaos.
Chaos is the “Father of Life,” identified with the sephira of Chokmah on the Tree of Life, and he represents the pure creative energy, force, or impulse of nature or the divine in its production of the cosmos and/or consciousness. As Babalon is the receptive mother of all things, Chaos, her consort, is the expressive father of all things.
Babalon is depicted riding a wild beast known as Therion. This deity is the “Great Beast” referenced in the biblical Book of Revelations, and represents the carnal and wild nature of human beings, their impulse to revel in life with lust and pleasure.
Baphomet is referenced and praised in the Gnostic Mass. (A ceremony conducted by the Thelemic organization Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. (EGC.)) He is, according to Crowley, “the hieroglyph of arcane perfection,” and may represent the union of opposites as the result of the combination of opposing forces, as well as the perfect balancing and harmonization of forces in the microcosm that is one’s individual being. He is sometimes thought of as the arcane child of Chaos and Babalon, and has in certain instances been attributed to the path of Teth (paths exist between the sephiroth on the Tree of Life) on the Tree of Life.
Aiwass may not be a deity, per se, but he is identified as the “minister of Hoor-pa-kraat” who delivered The Book of the Law to Crowley. Crowley identified him as his own HGA, and at other times spoke of him more as a distinct, autonomous, and separate entity. (Whether one’s HGA is an aspect of oneself, a separate being, or somehow both is up for debate.)
Choronzon is considered a deity by some, a spirit by some, a psycho-spiritual dilemma by others, and still the mundane ego in a state of violent reaction by others. Choronzon serves to lead one away from the path of attaining spiritual awareness, and is a particularly formidable and dangerous obstacle when an aspirant attempts to cross the Abyss, a psycho-spiritual gulf between the worlds of phenomena and noumena, between self and non-self. (In crossing the Abyss the aspirant is expected to shed their ego, but Choronzon may lead one into madness or mystical egomania instead.)
Belief in these entities or forces, whether as literal beings or things or as symbols or representations of things more subtle, psychological, or abstract, has never been posed as necessary for the would-be Thelemite. However, it’s probably safe to say that most Thelemites at very least have some conception of the three speakers of the Book of the Law, whether as forces, entities, or principles.
This brings us to an interesting question: what, in fact, defines or makes a Thelemite? What must one necessarily believe in order to be a Thelemite? What must one do?
The fact is there is no established Thelemic orthodoxy (standard belief or set of beliefs) or orthopraxy (standard practice or set of practices). In fact, if we go by the account of Crowley that past “masters” of the esoteric order A∴A∴—a magical and mystical organization Crowley co-founded sometime in the early 20th century but claimed existed in various forms since the beginning of history — attained their true wills, then by that criterion those individuals, including (according to the tradition) Buddha, Lao-tzu, and Muhammad, were just as much or even better “Thelemites” than those who today claim to adhere to Crowley’s system. (And yet these people predate Crowley by centuries or millenia!)
There is also the fact that, as Liber AL states, “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” And if this is in fact the sole dogma or “law” of Thelema, then what else must a Thelemite believe or do in order to be a bonafide Thelemite?
Granted, there is that additional portion of the Law, “Love is the law, love under will,” equating will with love. Perhaps the would-be Thelemite must adhere to this idea as well. Perhaps he must be a lover as much as he is a doer. (Although many Thelemites would say that will is necessarily one with love.)
There are those who claim that Thelemites must necessarily accept the Book of the Law as a whole, however interpreted. There are those who claim that the whole of Crowley’s class A, or most important, libri (collectively termed the Holy Books), must be embraced by prospective Thelemites, and then there are those who don’t see one as a Thelemite unless one actively practices what Crowley described as magick.
Still, there are those who see Crowley’s instructions from his Liber Aleph as necessary to be carried out by every Thelemite, as Crowley described them as the “means prescribed in our Holy Books,” although it should be clarified that these instructions were specifically written for Crowley’s “magical son” Charles Stansfeld Jones (Frater Achad).
These instructions, though they seem meant for Jones in particular, are often followed by a number of Thelemites as a daily magical and mystical regimen, and include some of the most popular Thelemic practices:
1. “Neglect never the fourfold Adoration of the Sun in his four Stations, for thereby thou dost affirm thy Place in Nature and her Harmonies.” (Liber Resh, a ritual which, though often appearing to be a mere adoration of the Sun, has a much deeper spiritual significance.)
2. “Neglect not the Performance of the Ritual of the Pentagram, and of the Assumption of the Form of Hoor-pa-Kraat.” (The Lesser Banishing (or Invoking) Ritual of the Pentagram (usually banishing), a ritual used to clear the magician and her space of detrimental force or forces. This is paired with the assumption of the god-form (standing in imitation of the deity) or Harpocrates, as if, or in order to, identify oneself with the deity.)
3. “Neglect not the daily Miracle of the Mass, either by the Rite of the Gnostic Catholic Church, or that of the Phoenix.” (Liber XV, or the Gnostic Mass, a group ritual performed by the EGC; alternatively the Mass of the Phoenix, a solo ritual. Both rituals Crowley wrote and both are eucharistic in nature. Both have the aim of providing spiritual transformation.)
4. “Neglect not the Performance of the Mass of the Holy Ghost, as Nature Herself prompteth thee.” (A secret ritual, probably involved in a particular degree of the Thelemic fraternal order Ordo Templi Orientis. Presumably involves orgasm, whether by masturbation or other sexual activity, both as a celebration of the sacrament of existence and an offering to divinity and the universe itself (not that a distinction should necessarily be made) in worship and love of Nuit. A taking of pleasure as a form of equating spiritual activity and advancement with uninhibited joy.)
5. “Travel much also in the Empyrean in thy Body of Light, seeking ever Abodes more fiery and lucid.” (Astrally projecting, or intentionally inducing an out-of-body experience, as an occult technique, in order to divine more about oneself, the world, and how to come closer to one’s will and purpose in it.)
6. “Finally, exercise the Eight Limbs of Yoga.” (These so-called Eight Limbs long precede Thelema, but yoga was important to Crowley and is important to many Thelemites. The eight limbs include yama (abstaining from what one should abstain from — in the Thelemic context this includes abstaining from interfering with the wills of others, and from diverting from one’s own true will), niyama (committing to do what is appropriate or right — in the Thelemic context, discovering and following one’s own will), asana (practicing maintaining postures), pranayama (breathwork), pratyahara (the withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditative absorption), and samadhi (the union of subject and object in perception).
As we can see from reading this small section of Liber Aleph, Crowley seems to have intended Thelema to largely be a mishmash of Western and Eastern esoteric and mystical practices and ideas, at least insofar as adherents take up his ideas. And, indeed, one can confidently say that Thelema, at least in the fullness of it as proposed by the menagerie of Crowley’s libri, draws from philosophical, mystical, and religious sources as diverse as alchemy, Buddhism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Hinduism, Islam, mystery religions and cults, Neoplatonism, Neopythagoreanism, paganism, pragmatism, Qabalah, Rosicrucianism, skepticism, tantra, and Taoism, among other traditions, systems, and philosophies.
However, there is a continual debate among Thelemites as to what extent one should follow Crowley’s teachings or practices or adhere to preferred ideas based on one’s own inclinations, in line with the self-determination fostered by the Law of Thelema. Some Thelemites see those who practice a kind of Thelema too closely aligned with Crowley’s personal opinions and ideas as a sort of “Crowleyanity,” and believe Thelema is more often than not about figuring things out for oneself. That being said, Crowley is often looked to as, at best, the authoritative prophet — whatever the term “prophet” does or does not mean to you — of the Aeon of Horus, and at the very least a good source of information whose suggestions are often worth taking a look at.
Nevertheless, Crowley having drawn from numerous sources in his development of the system, Thelema is most certainly eclectic and syncretic, and, according to at least one of its Holy Books, universalist (all-embracing or all-embraceable). As we read in the Class A document Liber Porta Lucis (The Book of the Gate of Light):
“19. To you who yet wander in the Court of the Profane we cannot yet reveal all; but you will easily understand that the religions of the world are but symbols and veils of the Absolute Truth. So also are the philosophies. To the adept, seeing all these things from above, there seems nothing to choose between Buddha and Mohammed, between Atheism and Theism.
“20. The many change and pass; the one remains. Even as wood and coal and iron burn up together in one great flame, if only that furnace be of transcendent heat; so in the alembic of this spiritual alchemy, if only the zelator blow sufficiently upon his furnace all the systems of earth are consumed in the One Knowledge.”
However, the book notes that though, at the outset, one seeker may be suited to one particular spiritual path, their journey may become broader as they go on:
“21. Nevertheless, as a fire cannot be started with iron alone, in the beginning one system may be suited for one seeker, another for another.
“22. We therefore who are without the chains of ignorance, look closely into the heart of the seeker and lead him by the path which is best suited to his nature unto the ultimate end of all things, the supreme realization, the Life which abideth in Light, yea, the Life which abideth in Light.”
In another Holy Book, Liber Cordis Sincte Serpente (The Book of the Heart Girt with a Serepent) we read that, similarly, the One Truth is concealed in a variety of forms and words:
“2. Adonai spake unto V.V.V.V.V., saying: There must ever be division in the word.
“3. For the colours are many, but the light is one.
“4. Therefore thou writest that which is of mother of emerald, and of lapis-lazuli, and of turquoise, and of alexandrite.
“5. Another writeth the words of topaz, and of deep amethyst, and of gray sapphire, and of deep sapphire with a tinge as of blood.
“6. Therefore do ye fret yourselves because of this.
“7. Be not contented with the image.
“8. I who am the Image of an Image say this.
“9. Debate not of the image, saying Beyond! Beyond!”
We also read that there are different methods of spiritual attainment for different individuals, and that different individuals reach enlightenment based on their particular aptitudes:
“One mounteth unto the Crown by the moon and by the Sun, and by the arrow, and by the Foundation, and by the dark home of the stars from the black earth.
“10. Not otherwise may ye reach unto the Smooth Point.
“11. Nor is it fitting for the cobbler to prate of the Royal matter. O cobbler! mend me this shoe, that I may walk. O king! if I be thy son, let us speak of the Embassy to the King thy Brother.”
In a 1909 editorial on his system of Scientific Illuminism, a form of skeptical spirituality and scientific rigor with which Crowley had hoped his students would approach the mysteries of magick and mysticism, Crowley noted that aspirants to A∴A∴ and would-be Scientific Illuminists are “Mystics, ever eagerly seeking a solution to unpleasant facts,” “Men of Science, ever eagerly acquiring pertinent facts,” “Skeptics, ever eagerly examining those facts,” “Philosophers, ever eagerly classifying and co-ordinating those well-criticised facts,” “Epicureans, ever eagerly enjoying the unification of those facts,” “Philanthropists, ever eagerly transmitting our knowledge of those facts to others,” “Syncretists, taking truth from all systems, ancient and modern;” and “Eclectics, ruthlessly discarding the inessential factors in any one system, however perfect.”
One of Crowley’s more popular works among Thelemites is his Liber OZ, a single-page document on “the rights of man.” OZ determines that “man,” meaning every human being, has the right to dress how they want, travel and dwell where they want, eat what they want, love whom and how they want, speak and express what they want, craft what they want, and, perhaps most importantly, think what and how they want, among other things. It also states that one has the right to “kill those who would thwart these rights.”
OZ largely shows Thelema to be libertarian or anarchistic in regards to social philosophy, making the individual their own supreme God and the center of their own universe. (Hadit is everywhere the center of Nuit, and within all human beings Hadit, who is with Nuit equally supreme, dwells.)
Indeed, Crowley once wrote, “The family, the clan, the state count for nothing; the Individual is the Autarch,” and in Liber OZ he states, “There is no god but Man.”
An essay Crowley wrote, “Duty,” also elaborates on Thelemic ethics: it states that everyone who accepts the Law of Thelema has a duty to themselves, a duty to other individuals, a duty to humankind as a whole, and a duty to all other beings and things.
One’s duty to oneself is to be true to oneself, to explore the nature of one’s being with sincerity, to develop as much as one can towards truth and the grandness of experience and purpose, to prevent others from interfering with this process, and to allow others to aid one in growing in this manner. One’s duty to other individuals is to “unite passionately” with them as other forms of consciousness, and to bring out the differences between oneself and others and allow for those differences to be complementary and their mutual intermingling result in joy and beauty, rather than strife. (Unless that strife itself result in joy, beauty, or the furtherance of one or another’s true wills.) One’s duty to humankind is to ensure humanity’s welfare, to establish the Law of Thelema, and moreover freedom in general, as the basis of conduct, and to prevent harm and the interference with the wills of others by others. One’s duty to all other beings and things is not to abuse the natural qualities of those beings or things, and not to fit them for a purpose which is outside of their nature.
Liber AL’s most basic injunction, alongside the Law of Thelema — “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and “Love is the law, love under will,” — “There is no Law beyond Do what thou wilt,” and “Thou hast no right but to do thy will…” is probably, “Every man and every woman is a star.” This statement makes clear that, while all individuals are ultimately connected, they are yet individual and unique, separate and self-contained forces of distinctive essence.
Crowley explained this verse in greater depth in the “New Comment” on Liber AL: “Its main statement is that each human being is an Element of the Cosmos, self-determined and supreme, co-equal with all other Gods.”
It also references the “star” I referred to earlier, the star that is symbolized by Ra-Hoor-Khuit, and is known in the Thelemic schema of the individual’s psycho-spiritual makeup as the khabs.
“The Khabs is in the Khu, not the Khu in the Khabs,” we read in Liber AL. What does this mean?
In the ancient Egyptian worldview, the khabs, which literally means “star,” was seen as an aspect of the individual’s spiritual self, and in the view put forth by Liber AL, the khabs or star may be the individual, eternal essence of the individual. It might be seen as an aspect of reality, or that part of the individual which is connected with an aspect of reality, that is unchanging and persistent, yet may be somehow ultimately penultimate to the deepest aspect of reality and self represented by Hadit. (Again, whether the “star” is ultimate and identical, or penultimate, to the deepest aspect of self is debatable.) Qabalistically, this may be regarded as the neshamah or chiah, some aspect of self that is either (in the case of neshamah) aware of the Absolute or (in the case of chiah) connected with the Absolute. The very deepest aspect of self, and therefore that which we could equate with Hadit, may be yechidah, that part of self which is indistinguishable from the Absolute.
Of course, this schema is just my personal take, based on the reading that I personally have done. Others interpret Crowley, Liber AL, and the notion of the self, soul, essence, or individual’s connection with ultimate reality differently.
Regardless, Liber AL does give us this somewhat puzzling statement, that “the Khabs is in the Khu, not the Khu in the Khabs.” Interpret how you will. (Crowley left the interpretation of The Book of the Law up to the individual, namely based on reference to his writings.)
Thelema as a phrase is mystically equivalent to agape, or “[divine] love” in Koine Greek, via the technique of isopsephy, or the attribution of particular numbers to letters, a technique used for Greek which is similar to gematria, a very similar process used for Hebrew. (Both are favored by occultists in the development of various workings, rituals, and other magical phenomena.) It turns out that, with both, we end up with the number 93. Because the Law of Thelema hinges on the terms “will” and “love,” 93 is an important number for many Thelemites, and the number is often used as a greeting in person or for written correspondence among Thelemites. Farewells are often written or stated as, “93s,” or written as, “93 93/93,” signifying “Love is the law, love under will.”
Agape means a particular type of love, namely divine or mystical love, a kind of love exalted to a godly state, as well as the rapture induced by such love.
“Do what thou wilt” as a term seems to have originated from the French Catholic humorist, writer, and humanist Franciscan monk Francois Rabelais (ca. 1494–1553), whom Crowley designated a saint of the E.G.C. and considered to be one of his previous incarnations. In his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais wrote of a giant named Gargantua, who builds an “Abbey of Thélème,” a monastery wherein the monastics enjoy a swimming pool, a maid service, and other luxuries not found in most ascetic circles. In the Abbey, only one rule is to be observed by the monks: “Fay çe que vouldras” or “Do What Thou Wilt.”
“Thelema” is used in the Septuagint, the earliest Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, to mean the will of God, the will of a pious individual, and the royal will of of a monarch or ruler. In the New Testament is is used exclusively to refer to God’s will. It is most applicable to the system of Crowleyan, esoteric, or modern Thelema when conceived as the will of God or a supreme being, that being understood to be at once oneself and all other human beings, individually as co-supremacies.
Besides Rabelais and the Bible, there are other historical antecedents to the modern development of Thelema. One is the Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708–1781), an English rake and politician of the 18th century. Though not the founder of what were several high-society organizations for libertines of the time in Britain and Ireland, collectively named “the Hellfire Club,” Dashwood was and remains the most popular member, and founded the best-known incarnation of the Club, known as The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe (among a few other names). The motto of his version of the Club was nearly identical to that of Rabelais’s abbey: “Fais ce que tu voudras,” in a different version of French also meaning “Do what thou wilt.”
Horace Walpole, a contemporary of Dashwood, stated that the members’ “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighborhood of the complexion of those hermits.” Additionally, statues in the Order’s garden were of various pagan deities, and shrines to them were located there.
The view of deity that Crowley himself espoused is difficult to express in simple terms or comprehend in a straightforward way, but while he was, in one sense, an atheist, and in another a pantheist (one who views the universe and God as the same) or panentheist (one who views God as one with and at the same time transcending the universe), he also in practice made use of or adhered to an at least provisional or limited sort of polytheism, one that allowed for him to call upon the force or forces represented by any number deities without necessarily having to admit to their objective existence, or their existence apart from that of the individual (or microcosm). This brings up the issue of whether, for Crowley, the microcosm (the individual) and the macrocosm (the universe) can be separated at all; or to what extent, or if, the imagination (say, a deity that one imagines to exist) can be completely separated from reality. (That the deity actually exists.)
Given this kind of polytheism was convenient for Crowley and Dashwood had evidently admired pre-Christian European paganism, Crowley’s epicurean lifestyle lined up squarely with that of Dashwood and the Hellfire Club, and Crowley greatly admired the motto of “Do what thou wilt,” it’s no surprise that Dashwood and his Order are considered antecedents to Thelema.
Another historical antecedent to Thelema may be a famous phrase (emphasis mine) written by Saint Augustine of Hippo, a Doctor of the Church in Catholicism and Church Father of Latin Christendom: “Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”
I wrote briefly just before about Crowley’s view of God, and how it was nuanced, complex, and not easily put into words — that he can at once be considered an atheist, polytheist, pantheist, and panentheist. But what of Thelemites and their view of God? What do they think?
As is turns out, for many Thelemites it’s much of the same: not easily expressed, or if expressed, manifold, and if not one thing, then a dynamic view, one that may easily change over time, or a versatile multiplicity of views rather than a single viewpoint.
As the Law of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” there is naturally no other law than “Do what thou wilt.” Full stop. But if one is to accept The Book of the Law fully then wouldn’t one at least have some conception of deity, given that it speaks of Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit?
Yes, but those deities can, as I mentioned earlier, be viewed as real or imaginary, actual beings or convenient metaphors. Beyond that a Thelemite may have a specific point of view: she may be an atheist, agnostic, apatheist, ignostic, deist, monotheist (for example, viewing the three speakers of Liber AL as three tones of one voice), polytheist, pantheist, panentheist, pandeist, panendeist, some combination of these or other type of “-ist”, or none of these to begin with. Additionally, if one were to regard Thelema as beyond or outside the scope of religion altogether — a philosophy or socio-political ideology, say — then one could call oneself both irreligious and a Thelemite.
Thelema often seems to be a relatively anarchistic or libertarian form of magick and spirituality, freeing to the practitioner, liberating to those who would take part in it. However, as Crowley notes in “The Message of the Master Therion, “it should be clear that “Do what thou wilt” does not mean “Do what you like.” It is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond.” It is just as much a personal commitment to pursue and accomplish the Great Work, which itself is the work of a lifetime, than to be idle and free to do what one enjoys all the time.
The Great Work, however, is not bound by the so-called aeons, that of Horus being our current, should one follow Crowley’s cosmology. Previous aeons, or zeitgeists, eras typified by a kind of mass-human consciousness, were, according to Crowley’s theory, determined by how humanity related to the divine on various levels.
The oldest known aeon was that of Isis, and stretched back into prehistory: this aeon was typified by the sense of an overarching power given to a “Great Mother”-type figure, a divine feminine from whom humanity drew its strength and to whom it returned in death. Hence prehistoric societies were dominated by clans that lived off of the fruits nature, undisturbed, through hunting and gathering. Think of the ancient fertility cults surrounding mother deities discovered at archaeological sites in the Near East.
In his Equinox of the Gods Crowley described this period as “simple, quiet, easy, and pleasant; the material ignores the spiritual.”
Second came the usurpation of the Aeon of Isis the Mother by the Aeon of the Father, Osiris, when humanity began to engage in agriculture and city-building, appealing to father-like and patriarchal gods, and numerous cultures practiced rites or honored myths surrounding the ideas of death and resurrection of their (namely male) deities, who through being reborn conquered death and in doing so often offered the opportunity for eternal life to human beings themselves, should human beings petition the gods or God for their favor by giving their life’s work, toil, or death to the deity or deities. Many religions that we know of and still practice today take part in this formula, and Christianity, with its narrative of a god who dies and is reborn in order to open the gate to eternal life, should of course those who wish for it live freely of the curse of sin, is perhaps the best known example.
In the Aeon of Osiris man’s success was largely seen as dependent upon resurrection, and resurrection was often afforded through some kind of virtue. Even in Buddhism, a religion which professes no supreme being, the fruit of nirvana is only afforded to those who, whether through the gargantuan work of one lifetime or over the course of many rebirths, manage to rightly follow the Noble Eightfold Path. And even in death, Buddha was assumed by his followers to have entered parinirvana, final relinquishment from rebirth, leaving behind a path which others could follow to liberation.
Crowley wrote of the Aeon of Osiris in The Equinox of the Gods, “The second [Aeon] is of suffering and death: the spiritual strives to ignore the material. Christianity and all cognate religions worship death, glorify suffering, deify corpses.”
With the reception of Liber AL vel Legis Crowley inaugurated the third aeon, or the aeon of the Child, Horus, who, instead of either demanding death or requiring propitiation or virtue as the price for rebirth into a lofty afterlife or to extirpation of rebirth, does away with birth and death and, if one is to believe in it, resurrection, altogether. And this has all to do with how the Thelemite views themselves’ in relation to the universe of which they a part. (Remember that in magick, the microcosm (individual) is ultimately one with the macrocosm (universe).)
“The Thelemite does not “suffer death,”” wrote Crowley. “He is eternal and perceives Himself the Universe, by virtue of the categories of Life and Death, which are not real, but subjective conditions of his perception, like Time and Space. They are forms of his artistic presentation.”
Man in the aeon of Horus no longer needs to appeal to any deity for the sake of eternal life, as in truth the child Horus, who is Man himself — and, as Liber OZ states, “There is no God but man.” —was never born, and cannot die, as he merely perceives birth and death as conditions of a singular, unified existence. The child, humanity, the individual, Horus, sets out in the universe, treating it as his playpen, the galaxies his very toys.
In his The Heart of the Master, Crowley wrote that the aeon of Horus is that of “… the crowned and conquering child, who dieth not, nor is reborn, but goeth radiant ever upon His Way. Even so goeth the Sun: for as it is now known that night is but the shadow of the Earth, so Death is but the shadow of the Body, that veileth his Light from its bearer.”
That being said, rebirth is yet still emphasized, at least symbolically, in at least one of the initiatory rites of A∴A∴, and many Thelemites in fact believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul. Crowley himself believed in reincarnation, and wrote on it in a number texts, and while he admitted openly that we don’t absolutely know what happens after death, he suggested there is some kind of rebirth. Things do become confusing when one reads Liber AL, which at least appears to suggest that, at least for some, death results in absorption into the Absolute, or Nuit, which would suggest that reincarnation does not occur. (The King being absorbed into Nuit bears striking similarities to the attainment of Nirvana, or total cessation of rebirth, by Buddhist aspirants.) In Liber Aleph Crowley suggests that the spirit of a person can haunt the Earth after death, but he notes at the outset, “Thou hast made Question of me concerning Death, and this is my Opinion, of which I say not: this is the Truth.”
All in all, the question of doctrine regarding an afterlife comes down, like many things in Thelema, to “Do what thou wilt,” or in other words, “determine the belief for yourself,” although Liber AL would likely best inform one’s ideas.
It has been suggested that the aeon of Horus has resulted in other outcomes: it is in this aeon of Horus that the material is in fact presumably one with the spiritual, not divided, and so pleasure and lust and enjoyment are not anathema to spirituality, but that all pleasures may be enjoyed as “acts of worship” unto the universe itself, Nuit.
And why shouldn’t it be so? Why should the bawdy joy of wild sex or a night of drunkenness be somehow “worse” than ten minutes of meditation?
As we read in Liber AL, “Bind nothing! Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing and any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt…” Indeed, unless all things are one, unless lust and spiritual labor even are one, there comes a hurt of creating division where none needs to exist.
Yet that is not to say that the Thelemite is necessarily a hedonist. The Great Work, after all, demands great discipline, psychologically and spiritually and, especially in the case of yoga, even physically. Yet there is no claim among Crowley’s works that those who do not obtain and perform their true wills are somehow outside the fold of the joy that the world offers to the Thelemite. The lazy Thelemite can continue to see the world in a positive, lustrous light, one which revivifies him each day to enjoy life as the God of his own universe, as the very master of his world, whether he performs Liber Resh four times a day or sits in yogic asana an hour each morning. It is only to grow more emotionally, mentally, and spiritually fulfilled that one pursues one’s true will. There has never been a claim that one cannot live a generally happy life without mysticism or magick, only that there is a higher joy, and an elevated rapture, in seeing the true will come to fruition. It may very well be that one’s true will, and the true self, is only really revealed when one has committed to spiritual practice, although no one can ultimately say for sure that there is a universal condition under which enlightenment comes about. It just must be understood that despite the fact that in Thelema there is an emphasis on spiritual discipline, it does not necessarily preclude living a life of sensual enjoyment, and in fact there are times that sensual enjoyment is encouraged and even equated with spirituality in Thelemic texts.
Thelemites are, while often welcomed to promulgate their Law, encouraged not to convert:
“Success is thy proof,” reads Liber AL, “argue not; convert not; talk not over much!” Additionally it reads, “Then they shall chance to abide in this bliss or no; it is no odds.”
Crowley himself used to greet those he met with, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and there are those who have written content to promulgate Thelema, but Thelemites essentially understand that to force Thelema on anyone would be patently absurd, paradoxical, and anathema to the Law itself.
The spiritual practices typically taken up by Thelemites, namely those written or recommended by Crowley, are usually divided into two broad categories: magick and mysticism.
Magick, according to Crowley, is “To train the mind to move with the maximum speed and energy, with the utmost possible accuracy in the chosen direction, and with the minimum of disturbance or friction,” and “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” This includes everything from mundane acts, such as gardening, to acts of ritual magick, such as the evocation or invocation of extramundane entities. Ultimately magick involves, according to Crowley, “A widening of the horizon of the mind,” and “An improvement of the control of the mind,” as is stated in his Liber O. Magick in Thelema is represented by the formula 0 = 2, a way of suggesting that out of nothing comes manifestation. By proper use of magick one may move toward and eventually invoke and come to the K&C of the HGA, and Crowley suggested that magick used for any other purpose was in effect an error — black magick.
Mysticism in Thelema is represented by the formula 2 = 0, a way of suggesting that out of manifestation comes dissolution. It mainly consists of yoga, which Crowley said is “To stop the mind altogether.” Yoga consists of the Eight Limbs previously mentioned, which are typically enacted in succession until samadhi is achieved: by meditation and the resulting mental absorption the mystic eventually comes to the union of subject and object. Great trances, such as atmadarshana and even the ineffable trance of shivadarshana can be achieved by the practice of yoga, resulting in mystical mastery and spiritual enlightenment.
Worked together, magick and mysticism, especially when bolstered by study of the [Hermetic] Qabalah, are potent means of achieving the realization of the true will.
Crowley highly encouraged practitioners of magick, as a matter of testing the effectiveness of their operations, to keep a magical diary, scrupulously recording the details of any magical experiments.
Thelemic holidays are based on a special Thelemic calendar, which itself includes “feast” days commemorating events relating to to the founding of Thelema and Crowley’s life. These include the Feast for the Equinox of the Gods, or Thelemic New Year (March 20/21: remembering the founding of Thelema and the invocation of Horus in 1904); the Feast of the First Night of the Prophet and his Bride, referring to the marriage of Crowley and his then-wife, Rose (August 12: on a mundane level this celebrates the fact that Crowley and Rose’s marriage made the reception of the Law possible, while in another way it celebrates the E.G.C.’s Collect of Marriage and union in general); and the solstices and equinoxes in general; among a few other holidays.
There are no rules on whether how one should observe these holidays, or even if one should. It’s simply up to the discretion of the Thelemite.
A number of Thelemic organizations exist, mainly as fraternal magical orders. By far the largest and most influential of these is the “Caliphate” or traditional O.T.O., which maintains lodges and chapters, as well as temple spaces for its E.G.C. arm, internationally. The best-recognized Thelemic organization alongside the O.T.O. is probably the A∴A∴, which today actually exists as several different groups in different lineages derived from Crowley. Other groups include O.T.O. variants the Typhonian Order and Society Ordo Templi Orientis (S.O.T.O.), as well as the German Fraternitas Saturni, the Temple of the Silver Star, the Order of Thelemic Knights, the Temple of Our Lady of the Abyss, Ordo Astri, and a number of others. Typically men in these orders are referred to by the term frater (“brother;” plural fraters) and women by the term soror (“sister;” plural sorores).
Thelema is, or can be, many things, much depending on how the individual interprets it, and much with reference to Crowley’s writings and one’s own ingenium and devising. There being “no law beyond Do what thou wilt,” doctrine in Thelema is arguably not so much a matter of faith — one could find any number of Thelemites who would say Thelema is a “faith” beyond need for faith — as it is an issue of personal development, understanding, self-knowledge, and coming to comprehend certain ideas in light of one’s own erudition, skill, and ability. The path of magick and mysticism requires self-discipline, yet that path is never demanded of anyone, and in truth nothing is demanded of anyone in Thelema other than that they discover for themselves who they are, what they are, and what they are meant to do, to the best of their ability. (And that they allow for others to do the same.) Why is this so?
In Thelema is finally recognized a form and system of spirituality which promotes happiness for its own sake — and not merely a happiness of simple whim, but the lasting joy that comes from finding one’s place and purpose in this vast and chaotic universe. The “God” of Thelema tells us in the Holy Book Liber Tzaddi that he is “not come to rebuke you, or to enslave you,” but rather that he will, “bring you joy to your pleasure, peace to your languor, wisdom to your folly.”
“All that ye do is right, if so be that ye enjoy it,” he states in that text. “… Come with me, and I will give you all that is desirable upon the earth… I ask you to sacrifice nothing at mine altar; I am the God who giveth all.”
“I offer you the certain consciousness of bliss,” states Horus.
Hadit himself in Liber AL says, “Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.”
These words compel us to consider that in Thelema happiness, being equivalent with reality, or existence, itself, is the very purpose of being. What else is or can be the function of the true will, other than to fulfill the one who carries it out? And, as we know, all have the right to fulfill this will, to live by this Law, to discover and live out this “consciousness of bliss.” This is the very birthright of humanity: happiness, fulfillment, the summum bonum.
For the Thelemite, recognizing, as the words of Liber AL state, that existence is itself joy, joy is to be had everywhere, even in sorrow. Existence is therefore a sacrament: birth a chance for division from the universe into individuated consciousness so that our return to unity might itself be a miracle of unimaginable ecstasy; life a journey through triumph over adversity, so that in our growth we know the delight of overcoming weakness; death the crown of our adventure into the wild revel of the universe, and our release into blissful unity with that Absolute condition which gave rise to us and all things.
As Liber Tzaddi states, “There is joy in the setting-out; there is joy in the journey; there is joy in the goal.”
What more can be asked of in this life, or in any life? And what more could any religion, philosophy, or spiritual system address?
The following is a re-publishing of my article published in Thelemic Union, “There’s Nothing Special About Meditation,” (2020) comparing the wisdom of Eihei Dogen and Aleister Crowley on the discipline of meditation:
Eihei Dōgen (also known as Dōgen Kigen, 1200 – 1253), the founder of the Buddhist school of Sōtō Zen in Japan, and one of the most important and influential Zen masters, preached the omnipresence of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha)—that Buddha-nature, one’s true and enlightened nature, is present and available to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. To Dōgen, zazen, meditation, is not an attempt at enlightenment so much as enlightenment in and of itself. For him, the simplicity of just sitting, maintaining mere presence, is enough to tap into one’s innermost perfection.
As Dōgen said, “To model yourself after the way of the Buddhas is to model yourself after yourself.” This is a stance of radical self-authentication, a view of enlightenment which, though quintessentially natural and undeniably simplistic, is ultimately beyond description, being rooted in the purity of practice, and not in conjecture or philosophical rhetoric. Hence the Buddha’s noble silence, Bodhidharma’s insistence that the true and profound dharma is “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters,” and—as we read in so many koans—the wordless responses Zen masters to inquiring pupils.
One Zen parable that illustrates the omnipresence and immediacy of Buddha-nature is a mondō, or dialogue between a disciple and teacher, involving the Zen master Hotetsu.
In this dialogue, a monk approaches Hotetsu, who is fanning himself, and asks the following:
“The wind-nature is constant. There is no place it does not circulate. Why do you still use a fan?”
“You only know that the wind-nature is constant. You do not know yet the meaning of it circulating everywhere.”
In his commentary on the parable of Hotetsu, Dōgen states, “To say that since (the nature of wind) is permanent one should not use a fan, and that one should feel the breeze even when not using a fan, is not knowing permanence and not knowing the nature of the wind either.”
This is itself a somewhat cryptic response to an already cryptic parable, but it remains telling: I think that what Dōgen wants us to understand, essentially, is that Buddha-nature is inherently available all the time, but that just because it is “there” and that we “have” it, doesn’t mean that we comprehend, fully appreciate, and integrate it into our lives.
Zazen is thus like the fan, a utilization of latent potential. By simply sitting in meditation, we better comprehend and, indeed, integrate Buddha-nature. Through practice we move from philosophical speculation to spiritual affirmation. In a single moment of sitting Buddha-hood is actualized.
Meditation for Spiritual Perfection
Teachers from other traditions have in, in so many other terms, echoed similar notions, with the primary idea more or less being that one is already spiritually “perfect,” but has yet to really “remember” or “actualize” that perfection.
Hints of this concept can potentially be inferred from the writings of esotericist Aleister Crowley: Crowley railed against the idea of restorative reincarnation in his commentary on Liber AL vel Legis, saying:
“The idea of incarnations ‘perfecting’ a thing originally perfect by definition is imbecile.”
This conception of existence, Nietzschean as it seems, assumes that each individual human life, in its own uniqueness, is already “perfect” and in need (though not necessarily want or will) of nothing beyond itself.
Crowley developed Thelema, a spiritual and philosophical system which, like Buddhism, often sees its practitioners engage in meditation. And like the pupil of Dōgen, the pupil of Crowley may, if one should in this regard follow his philosophy to the tee, see meditation, and spiritual practice in general, not as a reshaping of something presently unsuitable for a certain purpose (in this case enlightenment), but as a reminder to wake up—a cue to approach life with excellence and live out the perfection already and always resident within all human beings.