The Thelema Tradition
by Magdalene Meretrix
(composed with gracious assistance from the Reverend Rob and David R. Jones)
In April of 1904 an astonishing event changed the life of Aleister Crowley: poet, mystic and Golden Dawn occultist. While he and his wife, Rose, were vacationing in Egypt a mysterious entity initiated contact with the couple. First the voice moved Rose to lead Crowley to the funerary stele of an ancient Egyptian priest named Ankh-af-na-Khonsu. Later Crowley heard the voice over the course of three days. The voice, which belonged to a divine entity, commanded Crowley to transcribe his words, culminating in a piece of writing called Liber AL vel Legis, sub figura CCXX, or The Book of the Law.
Although Crowley resisted much of the teaching of The Book of the Law for many years, ultimately he accepted the role it assigned to him as Prophet of the New Aeon. The entire process is described in detail in Crowley's Equinox of the Gods and Book 4, Part 4. The Book of the Law is short - only 220 verses in length - but packed full of poetic, cryptic passages filled with Egyptian and apocalyptic Christian symbolism as well as strings of letters and numbers which appear to be an unsolved code.
Like many esoteric scriptures, there are several potential meanings to the verses in Liber AL, often apparently contradictory meanings. Crowley later wrote a short comment which included the line, "All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself." This line is generally interpreted to mean that each person must interpret Liber AL for themselves and none other.
In 1922, Crowley became the Outer Head of Order of the group known as Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Eastern Templars). Under Crowley's leadership, the O.T.O. adopted The Book of the Law as its holy book and Crowley revised the order's rituals to bring them in line with the teachings of the path of Thelema.
Core beliefsThe core beliefs of Thelema can be summed up in one phrase from The Book of the Law: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." (AL I:40). As one Thelemite I know put it, "That's the whole of the Law. All the rest is just commentary."
This phrase cannot be properly understood without knowing what Crowley meant by "will." Will is the English translation of the Greek word "Thelema" for which the path itself is named. It is the word one finds in the Greek version of the Christian Bible in the phrase "Thy will be done." Will is not wish or whim or want or karma or desire or predestination: it is a spiritual imperative that comes from the deepest, most true source of one's being.
The phrase from Chapter 1, verse 40 may be familiar to you. It is the phrase that was carved over the doorway to the Abbey of Thelema in Rabelais's Pantagruel. Pantagruel was a fictional story of a utopian society, written in 1532. Crowley borrowed some, but not all, of Rabelais's philosophy in constructing the path of Thelema. This phrase may also seem familiar because of the relationship between Crowley and Gerald Gardner. Crowley was inspirational to Gardner in the latter's revival of the Old Religion (Witchcraft) and Gardner used much of Crowley's poetry, both as written and re-done, in building the new traditions and rituals of Witchcraft.
Two other verses are particularly important to note when attempting to sum up the core beliefs of Thelema. The first is, "Love is the law, love under will." (AL I:57). Thelema has occasionally been accused of being a cold-hearted path because of this teaching. There are some who would consider putting love under will to be a perversion of love. Different Thelemites will, of course, interpret this phrase differently. Here is one possible interpretation: will is what makes us capable of love. Another possible interpretation: Love is the Law and doing one's Will is the Law. These two forces must be balanced with neither being allowed to run rampant. Love under will does not necessarily mean that love is beneath or lesser than will, but rather indicates a love aligned with spiritual imperative. Anyone who has roughly pulled their child out of a busy street, left an abusive lover despite still being deeply in love with her, or refused to lie to an alcoholic spouse's boss will recognize "love under will" though they may refer to it by another name such as "loving strictness, " "enlightened self-interest, " or "tough love."
Another important verse to consider, for those who wish to better understand Thelema, is: "Every man and every woman is a star." (AL I:3) As with all passages from The Book of the Law, this verse is open to a variety of interpretations. A common interpretation is the dual message that men and women are equally high in stature and that each of us is a powerful force. A common belief among Thelemites is that, were each of us to do our will, we would be like a universe of stars, majestically moving through time-space and rarely clashing with one another. While there is a strong imperative within the Thelemic culture to seek and pursue one's will, many Thelemites would agree that doing one's will would not involve forcing others to be or do that which they themselves do not will to be or do - simultaneously realizing that it is difficult enough to know one's own will and virtually impossible to discern the will of another.
A question that periodically arises both within and without the Thelemic community is whether Thelema should be considered a Neo-pagan path or not. In his writings, Crowley refers to himself with all apparent sincerity as a Satanist, a Christian (the truest of all Christians, in fact) and a Pagan. Likewise modern Thelemites can be found who identify themselves as Satanist, Christian, Pagan and any combination of these categories. In fact, there are even Thelemites who consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics. With the typical paradoxical thinking of mystics from any of the world's religions, some Thelemites see no inherent contradiction to being all of these categories simultaneously. It is also not uncommon, however, to meet Thelemites who are vehemently opposed to any of these labels, especially the title of Christian.
Thelema encompasses not only a diverse range of religious categories but also a range of expressions. While some Thelemites consider Thelema to be a religion, others would be more likely to call it an occult path and still others regard Thelema as a philosophy. The only single unifying factor one can apply to all Thelemites is the personal pursuit of Will.
Organization of groupsThe various groups today which follow the Thelemic path can be loosely classed in three groups: initiatory orders, teaching organizations and churches.
The largest Thelemic initiatory order today is the O.T.O. Several other groups have splintered off the original O.T.O. or formed independently. Some examples include S.O.T.O. (the Society of Ordo Templi Orientis), O.T.O.F. (Ordo Templi Orientis Foundation) and H.O.O.R. (Holy Order of Ra-Hoor-Khuit). Thelemic initiatory orders tend to function in groups, called bodies, and the initiatory structure tends to be divided into three grades known from lowest to highest as the Man of Earth, the Lover and the Hermit. This division is based on a verse from The Book of the Law, "Who calls us Thelemites will do no wrong, if he look but close into the word. For there are therein Three Grades, the Hermit, and the Lover, and the man of Earth. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." (AL I:40)
Each of these three grades are typically further subdivided into degrees. For example, the Man of Earth triad of O.T.O. contains degree 0 (Minerval) through the Fourth Degree (Perfect Initiate). After an intermediate degree, the Lovers triad takes up again with the Fifth Degree.
Among Thelemic teaching organizations, the largest is the A.'.A.'. It is difficult to ascertain how many people are in the A.'.A.'. because there is more than one branch of the A.'.A.'. and membership is intended to be secret—a member is only supposed to know the person immediately above them who is teaching them and the person or people immediately below them who they are teaching. In addition to the A.'.A.'. there are other Thelemic teaching organizations such as the College of Thelema.
The A.'.A.'. grades are structured similarly to the Golden Dawn grades (see John Michael Greer's Golden Dawn essay at this site for more details on the grade structure.)
Thelemic churches are those groups whose central function is to practice Liber XV, the Gnostic Mass. The Gnostic Mass is a publically performed mystical ritual written by Crowley. In many aspects it resembles the Mass of the Roman Catholic Church with some Greek Orthodox touches thrown in. Some Thelemites enjoy debating and discussing the meaning and purpose of the Gnostic Mass while others find other aspects of Thelema more essential to them personally. The largest Thelemic church is the E.G.C. (Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica - "Gnostic Catholic Church") which is closely affiliated with the O.T.O. The term "gnostic" is used primarily to indicate the concept of divine wisdom being directly available to an individual without need for an intercessor (though there are clergy in the E.G.C., they play a more pagan than Christian role in the religious society.) The term "catholic" is used in the sense of "universal" or "for all people" rather than to indicate a connection with the Roman Catholic Church.
It is important to note that membership in any organization or church is not an absolute requirement to be a Thelemite. Many Thelemites remain "solitary, " unaffiliated with any group. Many people may be Thelemites without even being aware of it.
Holidays"There are rituals of the elements and feasts of the times. A feast for the first night of the Prophet and his Bride! A feast for the three days of the writing of The Book of the Law. A feast for Tahuti and the child of the Prophet-secret, O Prophet! A feast for the Supreme Ritual, and a feast for the Equinox of the Gods. A feast for fire and a feast for water; a feast for life and a greater feast for death! A feast every day in your hearts in the joy of my rapture! A feast every night unto Nu, and the pleasure of uttermost delight! Aye! feast! rejoice! there is no dread hereafter. There is the dissolution, and eternal ecstasy in the kisses of Nu." (AL II:36-44)
The rituals of the elements and feasts of the times are celebrated at the equinoxes and solstices. Some Thelemites go one step farther and divide the year into cross-quarters as well, creating eight holidays not dissimilar to the "wheel of the year" often seen in other Neo-pagan traditions. While the equinoxes and solstices naturally fall on the same day as they do for other Neo-pagan traditions, the cross-quarter holidays are all shifted slightly, for example, Samhain (ritual of water) falls at 15 degrees Scorpio which is closer to November 7th than October 31st.
The Feast for the First Night of the Prophet and his Bride is celebrated on August 12th. There is no formal celebration that I am aware of. One O.T.O. body with which I am affiliated has an ice cream social on that date.
The Feast for the Three Days of the Writing of The Book of the Law is celebrated on April 8, 9 and 10, the three days that Crowley wrote Liber AL. Each day, beginning at noon, celebrants read aloud one of the three chapters of the Book of the Law.
The Feast for the Supreme Ritual is the Thelemic New Year. This holiday, falling on March 20th, commemorates an invocation of Horus.
The Feast for the Equinox of the Gods is celebrated at the Spring Equinox to honor the founding of Thelema in 1904.
The Feast for Life (also called the lesser feast) is a celebration of a new birth. A person's birthday is sometimes referred to as the "lesser feast" as well. The Feast for Fire is the celebration of a boy's reaching puberty and the Feast for Water is the celebration of a girl's reaching puberty. The Greater Feast for Death (often just called the greater feast) is the commemoration of an individual's death.
Some Thelemites also celebrate "Crowleymas" which is the anniversary of Crowley's birth (October 12th).
Standards of conductThe document which most clearly indicates the standards of conduct expected of a person following a Thelemic path would be Liber OZ. Because it is short, I include it here in its entirety. Because it is often misunderstood, I will briefly explain a few points afterwards.
"the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world." AL II: 2
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." --AL I:40
"thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay." --AL I:42-3
"Every man and every woman is a star." -AL I:3
There is no god but man.
1. Man has the right to live by his own law--
to live in the way that he wills to do:
to work as he will:
to play as he will:
to rest as he will:
to die when and how he will.
2. Man has the right to eat what he will:
to drink what he will:
to dwell where he will:
to move as he will on the face of the earth.
3. Man has the right to think what he will:
to speak what he will:
to write what he will:
to draw, paint, carve, etch, mould, build as he will:
to dress as he will.
4. Man has the right to love as he will:--
"take your fill and will of love as ye will,
when, where, and with whom ye will." -AL I: 51
5. Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.
"the slaves shall serve." --AL II:58
"Love is the law, love under will." --AL I:57
Most people go along with the document until they come to point five. "I have the right to kill someone who thwarts my right to dress as I will?" they cry. "That's ludicrous!" I agree, it is ludicrous—until you think more about the message of Liber OZ.
Because every man and every woman is a star, these could just as easily be labeled the responsibilities of man as the rights of man. If man (and here "man" is used to mean "people." Crowley chose the word "man" because he wanted to write Liber OZ entirely in words of one syllable.) has the right to dress as he will then who am I to try to thwart a cross dresser? If man has the right to drink what he will, then it is not my place to force him to stop drinking coffee. By saying that "man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights, " Crowley is both underlining the deadly seriousness of pursuing and following one's will and the deadly seriousness of respecting others' rights to do the same. Rather than advocating killing, Liber OZ is advocating respecting the rights of all mankind, even unto death.
Furthermore, nowhere in this document does it say that these rights come without consequences. I have the right to speak what I will but that right will not save me from a lawsuit should I indulge in slander. I have the right to eat what I will but that right will not save me from food poisoning. I have the right to kill someone who thwarts my rights but that right will not save me from the electric chair.
When humanity is viewed as an interconnected system, Liber OZ makes sense. These aren't just my rights or the rights of Thelemites but the rights of everyone. Therefore, the ultimate standard of conduct for a Thelemite is to continually pursue one's own will while respecting the will of others.
Ways of worshipThe ways of worship (or non-worship) are as varied among Thelemites as one would expect, given the diverse viewpoints found within the Thelemic community. Some Thelemites do not observe some of the practices listed here, some observe none of them and some observe other practices such as Hindu or Chaote practices instead of these. This is by its nature a general list. However one can find a significant number of Thelemites practicing or at least recognizing a significant number of these ways of worship.
- Attending or serving at Gnostic Mass.
- Performing some of the Thelemic rituals, many of which are loosely borrowed from the Golden Dawn tradition. Among these are Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or its more Thelemic form, the Star Ruby, The Rose Cross ritual, Liber Reguli.
- Performing a Sun adoration called Liber Resh vel Helios four times a day.
- Studying and memorizing The Book of the Law.
Reading and other referencesThese points have barely scratched the surface of Thelema. There is great depth to this path and much to study if one is so inclined. Here are a few starting points for those seeking further information.
The most important book to read is The Book of the Law. This can be found for free online. One source is here: http://www.otohq.org/oto/l220.html
Other books about Crowley and Thelema include:
- Magick in Theory and Practice by Aleister Crowley
- Book Four by Aleister Crowley
- The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography by Aleister Crowley
- Do What Thou Wilt : A Life of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin
Some web sites with further information:
The O.T.O. web site
The Hermetic Library
Ra Hoor Khuit Network
Notes on the author: Magdalene Meretrix grew up with Hindu teachings, added some Paganism and hermeticism and finally tied it all together under the label of Thelema. She has been interested in Thelema since 1986 and involved with a Thelemic order since 1996.
Reprinted from Witchvox