What is Thelema?
NOTE: You can find an updated and much more thorough version of this essay here, at “What is Thelema? (Redux)”.
Thelema is a philosophical-mystical system and —many would argue — religion developed by the British occultist, mystic, and writer Aleister Crowley (1875–1947). (Born Edward Alexander Crowley.)
Thelema, formally established by Crowley in 1904, claims to be many things: In one sense, it is a religion, complete with formal rituals, services, and liturgy; in another sense it is a syncretic, universalistic, and dynamic philosophy (or “way of life”) which can be followed by anyone at any time, and claims to represent a primordial and perennial current of spiritual wisdom.
A well-known quote by Thelemite (a follower of Thelema) 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 speaks volumes about Thelema as a system of thought, and the fact that it can (and continues to be) interpreted by different individuals in different ways.
The word thelema means “will” in Greek, and, coupled with the word agape — “love,” referring to divine or mystical love or rapture — it is from this meaning that Thelema derives its core axiom, the Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, love under will.”
The first part of this formula, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” can be found in one of the historical antecedents of Thelema: The satirical novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, by the French Christian humanist and Renaissance monk Francois Rabelais (ca. 1494–1553). In that novel, Rabelais writes 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: “Do What Thou Wilt.”
To be a Thelemite, at least on a philosophical level — overtly religious Thelemites tend to follow more of the specific doctrines and practices described below — one need only subscribe to the Law. Hence, Thelemites can be atheists, polytheists, Buddhists, and so forth. It is also fair to say that Thelema is very much a syncretic and “perennialist” (viewing itself as encapsulating a perennial or eternal spirituality) religion: An extensive Thelemic text known as The Book of Thoth describes parallels between the Kabbalah, Thelema, Taoism, Buddhism, alchemy, and other spiritual traditions and practices; Crowley’s Liber Porta Lucis notes “the religions of the world are but symbols and veils of the Absolute Truth. So also are the philosophies… seeing all these things from above, there seems nothing to choose between Buddha and Mohammed, between Atheism and Theism…”; and, in a 1909 editorial on “scientific illuminism,” Crowley notes that members of the initiatic Thelemic order, the A∴A∴, are to be “Syncretists, taking truth from all systems, ancient and modern; and Eclectics, ruthlessly discarding the inessential factors in any one system, however perfect.”
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” — and the phrase “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” appears in certain Thelemic texts, indicating the all-encompassing nature of the concept. 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.
Moreover, one’s True Will represents the essence and meaning of one’s life as an individual, whatever that may be. Thus, the True Will is a kind of enlightenment or gnosis (this illumination is called the “Great Work,” after the language of alchemy, and is pure, spiritual will as compared to mere whim), considered indistinguishable from aligning one’s life and actions with the course of the cosmos. (As Crowley, writing under a pseudonym, states in Liber II, the True Will is “Nirvana, only dynamic instead of static.”) Hence the individual will, so perfected, is identified, by Crowley, with “the Will of God.” Additionally, one’s will should be performed with the utmost agape: divine love, bliss, and joy.
Though Thelema is, compared to most religions, freeing (as Crowley states, “Bind nothing! Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing and any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt…”), and stresses that one should do what one likes, so long as one’s freedom does not conflict with that of another, discovering one’s True Will is still very much a personal commitment and, in many ways, a strict spiritual bond.
One common way in which Thelemic texts describe the attainment of the True Will is as the “knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.” According to said texts, the Holy Guardian Angel — a concept first described by the German mystic Abramelin of Worms, and related to the Neoplatonic concept of the augoeides (the “luminous body,” “body of light,” or one’s innermost, divine nature) — is one’s personal daemon or inner or true self. (Though some see the Angel as a discarnate entity.) Many Thelemites believe that coming into conscious contact with (i.e. attaining the “knowledge and conversation” of) the Angel will reveal their True Wills to them, and that by effectively following their Wills they will attain union with “God” (defined, in a Qabalistic sense, as Ein or Ein-Sof (the quality of God which exists eternally — as a force, entity, or principle beyond being and non-being, in a similar fashion to the Taoist Tao), also called the “All,” the “Absolute,” and the “Godhead.”
For Crowley — a Christian-turned-Theravada Buddhist and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (an esoteric society claiming to represent a prisca theologia, or “pristine theology,” a universal theology)—Thelema was born by revelation: A text that would come to be known as Liber AL vel Legis, the Book of the Law (Thelema’s foundational scripture — also known, simply, as Liber AL), was purportedly dictated to him by his own Holy Guardian Angel (some, such as the mystic Israel Regardie, say Crowley’s subconscious or unconscious mind), named Aiwass (also stylized as “Aiwaz”), during a stay in Cairo, Egypt with his then-wife Rose Edith Kelley. According to Crowley, the revelation of the Law of Thelema was the cornerstone of the establishment of a new current of self-sovereignty and personal spirituality, known as the Aeon of Horus — Crowley being its Prophet.
The Aeon of Horus is, according to Crowley, a third age in the history of religious practice, following the first aeon, known as the Aeon of Isis — in which humans revered nature and motherly deities — and the second aeon, the Aeon of Osiris, in which humans revered a single, masculine god. The Aeon of Horus represents, for humanity, a sort of transcendence or rebirth: A mystical “anarchism” by which each person defines his life for himself, in accordance with his individual potential, and relates to the divine and the world in his own manner, while respecting the unique paths of others, as per the charge “Do what thou wilt.”
In the Book of the Law, three speakers or personalities — re-configurations of ancient Egyptian deities which Crowley referred to as “literary conveniences” — symbolic of cosmic forces or metaphysical principles, each individually present a single chapter of the Book from a first-person perspective.
The first of these personalities, Nuit or Nuith (a Thelemic adaptation of the ancient Egyptian sky goddess Nut), symbolized by a nude woman arched over the world, represents the night sky and the circumference of a circle and, moreover, the “All,” everything, the cosmos, totality, infinity, and all possibilities in the universe. The second personality, Hadit or Hadith (sometimes Had), symbolized by the Egyptian winged sun or the Horus of Edfu (an ancient Egyptian city), is equated with the Greek mythological Chaos (or Khaos — the primordial source of the cosmos, viewed by Crowley as the universe’s masculine generative principle), and represents the point at the center of the circle (cf. the symbol for the Neoplatonic monad), the unique nature of experience, the “One,” singularity, the self, and unity. The third and final personality, Ra-Hoor-Khuit — a combination of the sun god Ra and the hawk-headed god Horus — is known as the “active aspect” of Heru or Heru-ra-ha (“Horus sun-flesh”), the solar-phallic form of the Greek Harpocrates (the child god of silence and secrets), and is considered to be the ethos of the Aeon of Horus: Will and Love.
Other deities and entities — literal beings or metaphors, depending on one’s view — figure in the Thelemic pantheon: Babalon (based on the biblical Whore of Babylon), representative of pleasure and nature in its most feminine, receptive aspect; Therion, the “Great Beast,” who represents the animalistic and carnal nature of man; and Choronzon, a demonic figure representative of the mundane ego, who must be overcome by the Thelemic adept in order that they may attain to their highest spiritual potential.
These deities, among other figures, are introduced in a number of Thelemic texts, known collectively as the libri (“books,” though many are actually short essays) of Aleister Crowley, categorized as documents in classes “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E.” The libri consist of the central text, Liber AL vel Legis, as well as a number of different documents on mysticism, ritual magick, metaphysics and cosmology, and ethics, many of which were initially published in a periodical Crowley founded to promulgate his works and other works of occultism, and as the official publication of the aforementioned Thelemic order, the A∴A∴, called The Equinox: The Review of Scientific Illuminism. These are all written by Crowley, who frequently wrote under, or credited himself with, the pseudonym To Mega Therion (Greek for “The Great Beast” — therion meaning “beast,” referring to the “Great Beast” of the biblical Book of Revelations).
Thelemic ethics are mostly founded upon one such document: the single-page Liber OZ, which details the “rights of man” under the Aeon of Horus. Preceded by the important adages, “the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world,” “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” “thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay,” and “Every man and every woman is a star,” these include, briefly, that, “Man has the right to live by his own law… Man has the right to eat what he will… Man has the right to think what he will… Man has the right to love as he will,” and, “Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.”
Another important guide to Thelemic ethics comes from Crowley’s essay “Duty,” in which he lays out, through several sections, one’s “duty to yourself,” “duty to other individual men and women,” “duty to mankind,” and “duty to all other beings and things.”
Many have debated the specific implications of the rights laid out in Liber OZ, “Duty,” and other texts on morality in Thelema, but the common consensus is that Thelemic ethics represent a type of mutualistic individualism, in that, while they promote an individual’s self-sovereignty, they also demand that one respects the individuality and inborn liberty — including “negative liberty” (freedom from the interference of others) — of everyone else. One might contend that the Wiccan Rede (a moral statement followed by those who practice Wicca, a religion influenced by Crowley through his revival of ceremonial magick in the Western world), a common form of which reads as, “An it harm none, do what ye will,” helps clarify the Thelemic view of duty.
“Traditional” Thelemic practices, to which Thelemites adhere differently — some strictly, on a daily basis; some occasionally; and others not at all — can also be found in Crowley’s libri, as well as his commentaries. (A number of Crowley’s libri, in fact, constitute the choreography of the rituals in their own right.) Perhaps the most common personal ritual practice among Thelemites is Liber Resh vel Helios, which consists of four daily adorations of the sun and the greeting of associated Egyptian deities. To perform Liber Resh, the practitioner faces the sun at morning, noon, evening, and midnight, making gestures specific to each station, and then announces a greeting to a deity particular to that station or time (Ra for morning, Ahathoor for noon, Tum for evening, and Kephra for midnight) before pronouncing an invocation common to all four adorations, taken from The Book of the Law.
Other individual practices include Thelemic yoga, divided into the domains of asana (posture), pranayama (breathwork), and dharana (control of thought) — possibly influenced by Crowley’s experience as a Buddhist, and definitely influenced by the tradition of rāja yoga— as well as other occult rituals (similar to Resh) involving incantations and the use of symbolic implements and gestures, such as Liber XXV (“The Star Ruby”), Liber V vel Reguli, and “The Mass of the Phoenix.” Many Thelemites have also been known to create their own rituals, these often based on correspondences between the Crowleyan view of Kabbalah, astrology, the tarot, and other systems, pursuing everything from divination to the summoning of spirits (cf. “theurgy” and demonology) to the consecration of talismans to “astral travel.” (Projecting one’s consciousness into, or “travelling” through, other dimensions or planes of existence.) Crowley was quick to caution, however, that magick (see below) done for selfish purposes may be considered “black magick.” To this effect he wrote, “To practice black magic you have to violate every principle of science, decency, and intelligence. You must be obsessed with an insane idea of the importance of the petty object of your wretched and selfish desires.”
The most well-known Thelemic group ritual is the Gnostic Mass, a symbolic service, similar to the Catholic Mass but with occult and Thelemic elements, carried out on a regular basis by temples of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.C.G., or “Gnostic Catholic Church”), an ecclesiastical arm of the Thelemic initiatic group, Ordo Templi Orientis. (O.T.O., or “Order of Oriental Templars.”)
Thelemic rituals, meditation, yoga, and other practices are categorized, broadly, as “magick” and “mysticism.” (It should be noted that Crowley added a “k” to the end of “magic” to distinguish ritual, ceremonial, or esoteric magick from stage magic, subsequently popularizing the phrase “magick” in many New Age and Neopagan circles.)
For Thelemites, magick is defined as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” This includes not only ritual magick, but mundane acts, unifying simple day-to-day affairs with the pursuit of the True Will, such that all of life becomes a sacrament, meditation, and magickal ritual of its own. As Crowley writes in Magick in Theory and Practice, a magickal operation may be defined as “any event in nature which is brought to pass by Will.” He also notes, “We must not exclude potato-growing or banking from our definition.”
Crowley 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 magickal experiments.
Thelemic holidays are based on a special Thelemic calendar, which itself includes “feast” days commemorating events relating to Crowley’s life and the founding of Thelema, such as the Feast for the Equinox of the Gods (remembering the founding of Thelema in 1904) and the Feast of the First Night of the Prophet and his Bride (referring to Crowley and his then-wife, Rose).
Thelema’s place in North America has been firmly established, with Thelemic study- and work-groups present in most states, as well as traditional Thelemic initiatic orders available to committed students. These include the aforementioned A∴A∴ (with independent groups established in California and elsewhere) and O.T.O. (with subsidiary groups established in California, Illinois, and elsewhere), as well as the Temple of Thelema. (With chapters under the leadership of the College of Thelema organization established in New York and California.) In Thelemic orders, women involved are usually given the title soror (“sister”) and men frater (“brother”). Additionally, members often take on a special, magickal name. (Crowley’s, in his work with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was, for instance, Perdurabo.) In the A∴A∴, one ascends through degrees or grades related to aspects of the Qabalah.
Thelema is one of the most peculiar and complex of the new religious movements of the 20th century, enriched by metaphysical and aesthetic aspects of many faith traditions the world over. It continues on as a little-known system founded on the principle of self-sovereignty, viewing the universe and one’s unique path in it as holy and good, and the manifestation of that path as representative of enlightenment itself. As Crowley writes in his “Message of the Master Therion” (Liber II), “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.”
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