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, the Holy Guardian Angel, and The Book of the Law
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.
Deities and the Divine
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.
Defining the Thelemite
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.”
The Will and Rights of Man; Duty
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.”
To Be a Star
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, Agape, and History
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).)
Death and the Afterlife
“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.
Will and Hedonism in the Aeon of Horus
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.
Magick and Mysticism
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?