When one decides to study Aleisterian Thelema, an immediate glance at all the materials quickly shows how daunting this task can be. The central figure in Thelema at this time, Aleister Crowley, was very prolific, and left behind several books, dozens of tracts and epistles, and literally hundreds of essays, letters, and journal entries. Plus, he often used unfamiliar language and made oblique references to obscure texts and people. Add to that Crowley’s penchant for self-contradiction, personal aggrandizement, intentional obfuscation, and tongue-in-cheek wit, and it’s no wonder so many people throw up their hands in frustration.
Unfortunately, there really isn't any other way than to plow your way through it, and nothing can prevent it from being a time consuming (and potentially life-long) task. However, it is possible to structure the effort so that the material makes more sense and can be integrated in a more efficient way. This Guide is an attempt to do exactly that.
Please understand that this Guide is my own, and as such is biased by my own point of view and level of understanding. However, almost all of the selected readings will offer positions different from mine, so you will hopefully get a full range of ideas. My only hope is that you will, throughout your initial studies and beyond, maintain your curiosity, skepticism, and confidence in your own ability to make sound judgments and achieve profound insight. I end this introduction with the words of Aleister Crowley—
"We insist from the beginning on the individual character of the work, and upon the necessity of maintaining the objective and sceptical standpoint. You are explicitly warned against reliance upon "authority," even that of the Order itself." (Magick Without Tears)
"I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning." (The Book of Lies)
"The central principle of my teaching is to compel the pupil to rely on his own resources, and having thus acquired good judgment and confidence, to develop intelligent initiative." (Confessions)
"I certainly have no intention of "holding you down" to "a narrow path of work" or any path. All I can do is to help you to understand clearly the laws of your own nature, so that you may go ahead without extraneous influence. It does not follow that a plan that I have found successful in my own case will be any use to you. [...] Most teachers, consciously or unconsciously, try to get others to follow in their steps. I might as well dress you up in my castoff clothing!" (Magick Without Tears)
There are many synopses of Aleisterian Thelema out there, and most of them do a good job of covering the basics. If you are completely unfamiliar with Thelema, then a brief survey of these usually short essays will give the student a good head start.
Selected writings providing an overview of Thelema:
If you meet Aleister Crowley on the road, kill him
At this point in time, to study Thelema is to study Aleister Crowley. From a certain point of view, Thelema was invented by him, in that he is the scribe of a Thelemic sacred text The Book of the Law (Liber AL), as well as being the author of a core set of holy books, spiritual epistles, a large set of interpretations of said materials, and a corpus of general beliefs and practices. Even when modern Thelemites offer their unique takes on Thelema, they are generally compared (either positively or negatively) to Crowley and his core conceptions.
To get a full understanding of Aleisterian Thelema, however, it is necessary to understand Crowley so that his personal influence can be recognized apart from its core principles. In this way, it will be possible for the student to translate his works into something that is valuable and relevant for herself. In the end, Thelema is not about Aleister Crowley; it is about you.
It is useful to always remember who Crowley was: he was a White, wealthy, Victorian-era British male. His parents were radically fundamental Christians (his only text for many years was the Bible), and it seems likely that both of them were emotionally and physically distant from him; plus he was an only child. He grew up with servants, nannies, tutors, private schools, and the means to afford almost any pursuit. Clearly he was wicked smart, naturally audacious and athletic, and reasonably attractive.
A defining aspect of Crowley, which comes across over the entire span of his literary work, is his deep need to be special and the resulting internal conflict between orthodoxy and rebellion. This desperate need for validation and specialness was possibly due to growing up with cold and stern parents, and resulted not only in his conflict but also a common coping mechanism: grandiose narcissism. In terms of his conflict, on the one hand, he very much identified with being a British gentleman of means, and wanted the respect and acceptance of many upper crust institutions (or at least to present the image that he had it). Not only did this help assuage his sense of inadequacy, but certainly held the attraction to the privilege that wealth and class affords. On the other hand, he very much enjoyed rebelling against the status quo, again as a way of feeling special. One very real part of this was certainly inspired by his bisexuality, which at the time was a crime and had far less acceptance than even the little it has today. To his credit, he became quite vocal about his sexual attraction to men and was an ardent warrior in the battle for sexual liberation in a time when it was severely curtailed. However, he also tried to become a part of anti-establishment European bohemianism, which celebrated free love, drug use, and creative expression. Unfortunately, because he always had one foot in each world (and also his grandiose behavior), he was ultimately dismissed by both.
As Crowley grew into adulthood, several themes emerged. First and foremost was a drive to achieve fame (or at least notoriety) and success, and only on his own terms. His utter contempt for the Protestant brand of puritanical Christianity would also drive him, most especially in his rebellion against sexual restriction of any (adult) kind. Science and logic held a strong appeal for him, although he never really pursued formal training in the physical sciences. Politically, Crowley could perhaps be best described as a Social Darwinist, which generally said that those who were poor or ill were so by design (either their own or nature’s), and should be ignored at best and at worst directly killed off, supposedly all for the long-term benefit of the Human/White race (this kind of language is suffused throughout his writing). His narcissism also made it very difficult for him to form healthy, intimate relationships with people, so although he always surrounded himself by people, he always managed eventually to drive them away.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that Crowley was very much a gentleman of his times, even when he went out of his way to go against the social grain. For example, although Crowley was in some ways unusually pro-woman—mostly in terms of her right to express herself sexually—he did have distinctly misogynistic attitudes and beliefs, which mirrored the general opinion of women at the time. Likewise, he could be terribly racist, much like most White men of his social rank and upbringing. Also, unusual mystical and occult interests were a popular pastime in his day, including a proliferation of "secret societies," the new study of Egyptology, and a resurgence of ancient gnostic and occult knowledge. Crowley was powerfully drawn to this occult world, and was driven not only to reach his own spiritual heights, but to climb (ruthlessly at times) to the top of that particular social pyramid.
None of this is to say that Crowley wasn't brilliant and at times truly inspired. Clearly he was, and this is why he is worth studying. But never forget that he was a human being with his own unique talents, drives, education, flaws, culture, attitudes, prejudices, and set of life experiences—all of which influenced his development of Thelema. Moreover, Crowley was a powerful writer, but he did not always write in good faith—especially when he was writing to vilify or manipulate another (such as Liber Apotheosis). Likewise, Crowley was highly motivated to secure his own mythology, which often resulted in painting rosy pictures, playing fast and loose with factual events, and denying responsibility for his own mistakes and misjudgments. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that when it came to Thelema itself—its practices, spiritual provenance, philosophical implications, and general aims—Crowley was utterly sincere. It is reasonable to assume that, in the end, Crowley genuinely did have a grand vision for society, and although his personal foibles sabotaged most of his efforts to accomplish the changes he sought in his lifetime, he left behind a rich legacy that we are invited to explore and advance in our own unique ways.
Despite his mountain of written work, the fact is Crowley presented virtually nothing that was original. The philosophy of Thelema was a combination of ideas taken from writers like François Rabelais and Friedrich Nietzsche; the cosmology was inspired by the then-popular Egypto-Hermetic system; the mystical aspects were almost verbatim reflections of systems like Buddhism and Kaballah; the political ideas were an awkward combination of rightist Social Darwinism and leftist Bohemianism; the magical elements were either taken from or founded in ritual technology Crowley learned in the Golden Dawn; and ecclesiastical structures were variations on the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Moreover, he was profoundly influenced by the Bible, Freemasonry, the utopian and bohemian movements in Europe, and the psychology of Sigmund Freud.
What Crowley did was to synthesize all these elements into a somewhat coherent whole. Moreover, he had an amazing capability for changing his literary voice, moving from prophet to teacher to essayist to storyteller to buffoon. His ability to speak with so many voices enabled him to flesh out an entire system of thought, belief, and practice that integrated turn of the century philosophies and movements with ancient spiritual practices.
Crowley was certainly not the first to utter the phrase “Do what thou wilt” or to use the word Θελημα. Thelema is a modern manifestation and expansion of the ancient notion of Will. The word first appears in the Bible in several places exemplifying divine will, such as in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will (Θελημα) be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10). Crowley was heavily inspired from many sources (many of which he never openly acknowledged), including books, philosophers, political movements, scientific theories, social fads, and more. The list below is but the tip of the iceberg.
Selected readings regarding antecedents of Thelema:
François Rabelais (1493-1553), the "First Thelemite"
During the Renaissance, in 1499, a famous and unusual book called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (“Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream”) was published. The author is unknown, although several names are guessed at, including Brother Francesco Colonna (the favored theory), Leon Battista Alberti, Lorenzo de Medici, and Aldus Manutius (the publisher). In this book, there is a character, Thelemia, who is representitive of the Will of Poliphilo. A small quote: “Thelemia, who with a flattering and smiling grace said unto me, ‘Poliphilus, this is the place where thou shalt not continue long, but thou shalt find the dearest thing which thou lovest in the world, & which thou hast in thy heart, without intermission determined to seek and desire.’”
A major influence on Crowley’s conception of Thelema came from François Rabelais, a 16th century monk of both the Franciscan and Benedictine orders. His famous series of books, Gargantua and Pantagruel, told the satirical story of two giants (father and son) and their various adventures. In several chapters, Rabelais tells of how Gargantua built a monastery called the Abbaye de Thélème. Written to make fun of monastic institutions, it has many humorous aspects, including a swimming pool. For our purposes, it also describes their monastic life as being one guided by free will and pleasure, with only one stated rule: Fais ce que veulx [“Do What Thou Wilt”]. These chapters had a profound influence on Crowley.
Selected readings regarding Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Rabelais:
Eliphas Lévi was born Alphonse Louis Constant in 1810, and was a very influential writer on the topics of magic and Hebrew mysticism. He is considered by many to be the prime mover in the revival of magic in the West during the 19th century, and his ideas became a cornerstone of numerous occult movements and organizations. Crowley actually claimed to be a reincarnation of Lévi. He is perhaps best known now for his (in)famous drawing of Baphomet.
There are many other antecedents of Thelema that are more indirect. Perhaps the most influential was the 19th century philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his notions of master/slave morality, the dissolution of traditional Christian principles and institutions, and the coming of the Overman, who abandons all social mores and creates his own ideas of right and wrong (it is possible to interpret much of Crowley’s notions of the Thelemic New Aeon as being a time for the rise of the “Overman”). Nietzsche’s impact on Crowley cannot be overstated.
Another major influence was the loose set of political ideologies now referred to as Social Darwinism, which was very popular in Crowley’s day. In essence, it had two arguments.
Francis Galton (1822-1911), a respected social scientist who originated eugenics, a philosophy that aims to use selective breeding to "advance the race."
One is that society evolves more or less as biological species do, and as such, human individuals or groups either pull the race forward or hold it back. The other is that the worth of a person or group is based on his or her “fitness” to succeed within the social environment (regardless of context, upbringing, and available resources and social support). In both cases, things like exploitation, abuse, racial or gender discrimination, poverty, and even genocide can be justified on the grounds that Nature allows or even demands them. One popular idea that came out of this movement was eugenics, which essentially advocated human breeding programs.
Although Crowley did not go so far as to suggest that active genocide was a good thing (he even offered lukewarm criticism of Hitler), he was taken in by the general concepts, including dog-eat-dogism (which he referred to as “manliness”) and arguing that efforts to help those who were poor, handicapped, or otherwise disadvantaged was antithetical to the “advancement of the race.” Unfortunately, Social Darwwinism infests many of his writings, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. When encountered by the student, these notions should be recognized for what they are—a discredited philosophy based on sloppy and disproved interpretations of the scientific theory of evolution used to justify some of the least noble of human traits.
The Bohemians were a European subculture of artists, writers, actors, and musicians, named as such because they started to live in the poorer gypsy neighborhoods in France (at a time when Gypsies were believed to have originated in Bohemia).
Poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) epitomized both the Bohemian and Dandy movements which cried épater le bourgeois ("shock the middle-class"). Crowley enthusiastically took up that cry.
Their countercultural system rejected bourgeois values, strict Victorian morals, and the selfish pursuit of wealth. As such, they celebrated creative expression, promiscuous sex, excessive alcohol and drug use (especially opium), a more equal role for women, and a carefree lifestyle.
Crowley identified strongly with this group—although he didn't always hold to their values, such as their disdain for property—and he tried very hard to integrate himself into their number (with limited success). He certainly fit to a certain extent because of his bisexuality, decadent poetry, and rejection of Protestant-inspired values, especially as they related to sexual expression. However, because Crowley came from money and never fully rejected that world, he could perhaps be better thought of as a Dandy, which were akin to the Bohemians but did not live in abject poverty, chose to bathe regularly, and often had an appetite for celebrity. Just as Bohemians and Dandies often intermingled, so too did Crowley walk in both worlds (similar to Baudelaire, the French poet), integrating many of their philosophies into his Thelemic writings.
The following quote from Baudelaire sums up both movements well: “Alas, the vices of man, as horrifying as they are presumed to be, contain proof (if only in their infinite expansiveness!) of his bent for the infinite.”
When Jean-François Champollion announced in 1822 that he had cracked the system of Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone, he opened a floodgate of interest about ancient Egypt. Sometimes referred to as Egyptomania, 19th century Europe had a strong fascination with Egyptian culture and history, which manifested in many areas, including architecture, furniture, literature, art, and, of course, spiritual beliefs and occult practices. It is no coincidence that Crowley and his new wife Rose included Egypt on their honeymoon tour or that Liber Legis is populated by variations on Egyptian deities.
The Qabalah is an ancient received tradition of Jewish mysticism that attempts to provide insight into the spiritual nature of God, Mankind, and the universe. The student of Thelema will be seriously handicapped without at least a basic understanding of the system and its core vocabulary. This is because the Qabalah plays a central role in how the spiritual/magical concepts of Thelema are organized and discussed. Even if one places no value whatsoever on the nature of the Qabalah itself, the technical jargon and general theory are required to understand a large majority of Thelemic writings.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is essentially a model depicting the spiritual universe, and is often explained as being a conceptual filing cabinet. It is amazingly complex, and can be itself a subject for life-long study. A major function of the Tree is the use of correspondences. Each component represents various mystical and occult concepts, including astrological structures, deities from various pantheons, magical concepts, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. In this way, various concepts can be grouped together in meaningful ways, which can be very useful for spiritual practices such as meditation and magick ritual. Crowley kindly published many of these correspondences in his book, 777, a vital resource for the Thelemic student.
For the beginning student, a good place to start is to become familiar with the following core elements of the Tree:
The ten sephiroth (sing. sephira), which are the spheres or emanations of God—they can be examined individually or in various patterns, such as in triads (e.g. the top three are called The Supernals) or in columns (the three Pillars—Severity, Balance or Middle, and Mercy).
Kether, “Crown”—Pluto (dimensionless point, indivisible, ultimate potential, root of all things, Essence of Being)
Yesod, “The Foundation”—Luna (astral plane, illusion, reflectivity, stable change)
Malkuth, “The Kingdom”—Earth (physical manifestation, completion, matter, crystallization of forces)
The 22 Paths, which connect each of the sephiroth. These are generally represented by the 22 Hebrew letters, the Trump cards of the Tarot, and the classical elements (air, earth, fire, water, spirit), planets, and signs of the Zodiac. The student is strongly encouraged to memorize all five of these categories.
Veils of Negative Existence, which together formulate the hidden essence of existence not yet called into being.
Ain Soph (“Without Limit”)
Ain Soph Aur (“Limitless Light”)
The Veil of the Abyss, a central concept within Thelema, representing the transition from the “actual” to the “ideal”, requiring the destruction of the individual ego.
The Veil of Paroketh, a Veil that is actually discussed very little within Thelema.
The Four Worlds
Atziluth (The Archetypal World)—the preliminary phase of Divine Creation
Briah (The Creative World)—defining initial forms to the primordial energy of Atziluth
Yetzirah (The Formative World)—divine energy is divided and separated into actual qualities
Assiah (The Material World)—the physical universe where things function in time and space
The Parts of the Soul
Yechidah (The Self)
Chiah (The Life Force)
Neshama (The Intuition)
Ruach (The Intellect)
Nephesh (The Animal Soul)
Stated simply, gematria is the art of numerology using the Hebrew letters. Numbers are assigned to the alphabet and is used to create values for words and concepts. By this method, various terms can be connected in a meaningful way, sometimes providing insight into otherwise obscure language. This general method can also be applied to other alphabets, especially Greek and Arabic.
An example: “Will” in Greek (Thelema : Θελημα) adds up to 93, as does the Greek word for “Love” (Agape : Αγαπη). In this way, Will and Love are closely associated. Other important Thelemic values you will run across include:
11: Magick, Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit
31: AL, Key to Liber Legis (1/3 of 93)
93: Thelema, Agape, Aiwaz (dictated Liber Legis)
418: Abrahadabra (Word of the Aeon), Boleskine (House of Crowley), the Great Work
666: To Mega Therion (The Great Beast)
This technique is used extensively in Crowley’s writings, and the general concept needs to be grasped to understand why he thought it was so important. Something to keep in mind is that Crowley often played very loose with the rules when he wanted a word or name to add up to something meaningful to him. Like the Qabalah in general, even if the student places no inherent value in gematria (which can seem terribly arbitrary), it needs to be understood to grasp much of Crowley’s writings.
Although Crowley was a member of several orders (or “secret societies”), there are three that are most relevant to the beginning student: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the A∴A∴, and Ordo Templi Orientis. It is important to get at least a basic understanding of these organizations, because they each, in their own way, had a significant influence on the development of Thelema. Also, much of what Crowley wrote was in direct reference to one or more of these orders—especially the A∴A∴, his own organization. Of the three, only the Golden Dawn is no longer in existence (although several small groups currently use the name and remain dedicated to carrying on their tradition in various manifestations).
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
The Rosy Cross of the Golden Dawn
In the mid- to late-19th century, secret societies and mystical orders were everywhere. The Freemasons remained at the top of the pile, but there were literally dozens of offshoots and original groups. Of these, the Golden Dawn was arguably the preeminent order when it came to the combination of spiritual development and occult practice. At one point it bragged of members such as actress Florence Farr and poet William Butler Yeats. Beyond a doubt, the HGD had a huge impact on 20th century western occultism.
In a way, the Golden Dawn is what kicked off Crowley’s occult career. He was initiated into the order in 1898, and quickly climbed the ranks. It was here that he first began to learn of Qabalah, magick ritual, and other occult practices, such as astrology and the Tarot. Many of the core magical technologies that he eventually used were either based on or directly taken from Golden Dawn rituals and teachings. The Golden Dawn was also where he met several important people in his life, including Allan Bennett (who introduced him to Buddhism), Arthur Edward Waite (well known for his tarot deck), and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the leader of the Golden Dawn. Crowley would always remain grateful to Bennett, but he despised Waite, and eventually became bitter enemies with Mathers (who he had looked to originally as a mentor).
Also, keep an eye on the topic of the “Secret Chiefs”, the alleged transcendental managers of the cosmos and mankind. Several orders based their legitimacy from contact with the Secret Chiefs, the Golden Dawn included. Mathers himself claimed to have made contact with these supernatural beings, and used it to maintain his mastery of the order, as well as introduce a new set of Inner Order initiations (called the A∴A∴). This is all relevant, because Crowley was quite invested in the whole Secret Chiefs idea, using it to justify his own eventual claims to spiritual authority. Again, you will have to draw your own conclusions about the veracity and necessity of the Secret Chiefs.
Finally, it is important to note that Crowley borrowed from the Golden Dawn’s initiatory structure almost verbatim when he set up his own organization, the A∴A∴ (although the HGD probably got the initiatory titles from another organization, Masonic Societas Rosicruciana, and they likely got it from somewhere else...there is a lot of inbreeding and plagiarism in occult circles, and Crowley was no exception).
In 1907 Aleister Crowley, along with George Cecil Jones, founded the A∴A∴ as a separate and complete system after the collapse of The Golden Dawn. It was designed to be a teaching order where members have no knowledge or contact with each other with the sole exception of one’s immediate teacher or student. As such, it is highly focused on the spiritual advancement of the individual, the model of which is the Tree of Life (borrowed from the HGD), with the adept "traveling" from Malkuth to Kether (now you see why it is useful to read up on Qabalah first).
Seal of the A∴A∴
Also called the Great White Brotherhood, the order consists of eleven "grades", each of which represent a specific spiritual/mystical state of being, and where important magical oaths are taken. Although each grade requires certain tasks to be accomplished and ritual/yogic skills to be mastered, there are really only two goals in mind: attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel (in the 5=6 grade, Adeptus Minor), and the Crossing of the Abyss (in the 8=3 grade, Magister Templi or Master of the Temple). These two critical events were (and largely still are) considered necessary to know and accomplish one’s True Will, and were to become the core goals of all Thelemic spiritual practices.
Crowley worked very hard to tie Thelema—e.g. The Book of the Law and all the Holy Books (see below)—directly to the A∴A∴. He also labored to establish the mythology of the order as being an ancient organization, even granting retroactive membership to many spiritual leaders from the past. It is arguable that Crowley’s writings and mythology-making about the A∴A∴ are a main cause of confusion about Thelema and it’s core tenets. Instead of Thelema simply being a thing unto itself, sustained only by its own principles, Crowley tied it to a small and now-fractured organization characterized by internal conflict and haunted by less-than-sane authority figures (e.g. C.S. Jones and M.R. Motta).
The student of Thelema will be well-served by remembering that the A∴A∴ is an invention of Crowley, created out of the ashes of the Golden Dawn (which he, in no small part, helped to burn down). Moreover, The Book of the Law was written about two years before the A∴A∴ was even an idea in Crowley’s and Jones' head. This is not to say that working the A∴A∴ system couldn't be a rewarding experience: there is no doubt that it has been for many adepts, and this introduction is not intended to dissuade people from joining. In general, though, always be willing to question the veracity and motives behind Crowley’s insistence on making Thelema a product of the A∴A∴ rather than the other way around.
The third important organization is O.T.O.—Ordo Templi Orientis or Order of the Temple of the East. It was founded at the turn of the 20th century by Carl Kellner, a wealthy German Freemason and paper chemist. Kellner reportedly had discovered what he thought was a key to all the secrets of Freemasonry (the mothership of fraternal orders), and wanted to create an Academia Masonica to teach it. This general idea was to eventually lead, with the help of Theodor Reuss, to the founding of Ordo Templi Orientis.
Carl Kellner (1851-1905), the founder of OTO
Reuss, who became the first Outer Head of the Order, initiated Crowley into O.T.O. in 1910 and two years later made him head of the Order in Great Britain and Ireland. He was also given authority over the Mysteria Mystica Maxima series of lower, masonic initiations. Crowley’s Manifesto of the M∴M∴M∴ helped establish the basic ten-degree system of O.T.O., with Kellner’s Academia Masonica degrees comprising the top three (VII○, VIII○, and IX○). In 1915, Crowley then rewrote the M∴M∴M∴ initiation ceremonies, not only for clarity and ritual efficacy, but to remove the masonic elements and to instead reflect the principles of Thelema. Crowley was eventually to serve as the Outer Head of the Order, which he did from 1922 until his death in 1947.
The student will be well-served by understanding O.T.O. (especially from an initiated perspective!), because the Order represents Crowley’s attempt to manifest Thelema in the social arena. It is, in many ways, intended to be a vehicle for the Law of Thelema into the world at large, while also being a sanctuary for members, enabling them to seek out and express their True Will in the light of companionship and mutual assistance.
Gerard Encausse (1865-1916) and Jean Bricaud founded the Gnostic Catholic Church
O.T.O. also includes the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, or Gnostic Catholic Church. It came out of a line of French Gnostic revival churches that developed in the 19th century. In 1908, founders Gerard Encausse and Jean Bricaud gave episcopal consecration and primatial authority to Theodor Reuss, then head of the OTO, who soon after incorporated it into the Order. It is concerned with the ecclesiastical aspects of Thelema, and is organizationally modeled roughly on the Roman Catholic Church. Although its central function is the celebration of the Gnostic Mass, written by Crowley in 1913, it also offers other traditional rites, such as baptism, confirmation, marriage, and last rites.
Membership includes the laity (through baptism and confirmation) and the clergy (through ordination), which consists of deacons, priests/priestesses, bishops, the Primate (chief bishop of a country), and the Patriarch/Matriarch. Although there have been times when the EGC and OTO were related but separate organizations, they are now intimately tied together. This is reflected in the degree requirements necessary for certain levels of participation, most notably ordination.
Although the above three organizations are important in the sense that they played the most direct role in Thelema’s development, there were certainly other organizations that had an important influence on Crowley and the 19th century occult movement in general, including:
What do Thelemites believe? Good question! Ask a thousand of them and you’ll get a thousand answers. The world of Thelema is contentious, largely due to the combination of a vaguely-defined system and lots of headstrong, intelligent people. Most humans are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and many try to impose rigid definitions and dogmas to a religion that intrinsically shuns such things. It doesn’t help that Crowley himself vacillated between being doctrinaire and heterodoxal about his own system (although it’s hard to know if this was intentional or if he just couldn’t make up his mind—probably both).
To a large degree, the sub-sections below are quite arbitrary, in that several of the recommended readings could fit in several or even all of them. There are certainly other, perhaps more logical ways to organize the material. However, this system should give the student a decent and understandable method to study the fundamental beliefs and ideas of Thelema.
Rose pointed to the Stele of Revealing in the Bulaq Museum in Cairo, convincing Crowley that her message (“They’re waiting for you!”) was legitimate. This led to the writing of AL.
The core of Thelemic metaphysics is founded upon a small book written in Cairo, Egypt in 1904 by Aleister Crowley while on honeymoon with his wife, Rose. Called Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law, it was eventually to take center stage in Crowley’s development of his entire spiritual system. He crafted its legend carefully after he decided to make AL the cornerstone of A∴A∴, and wrote many treatises on it, including how the book was received, what many of its passages mean, and his own nature as the prophet of the New Aeon, which the book is said to herald.
It is impossible to give any definitive answer as to the veracity of Crowley’s claims or the spiritual legitimacy of Liber Legis (although you will find many who will try). That is, in a way, its nature—it is an enigmatic book by design, and its import is a matter for the individual to divine. What can be said is that the modern system of Thelema is certainly founded upon it, and it remains the metaphysical pillar upon which the Temple is constructed.
The following writings are considered to be part of the canon of sacred texts generally referred to as The Holy Books of Thelema. The central-most text is The Book of the Law. The other texts were penned between the years 1907 and 1911. Crowley considered them to be “inspired” works, in that they were, he claimed, written not by him but through him. He writes of them in his autobiography, Confessions (ch. 62):
...the spirit came upon me and I wrote a number of books in a way which I hardly know how to describe. They were not taken from dictation like The Book of the Law nor were they my own composition. I cannot even call them automatic writing. I can only say that I was not wholly conscious at the time of what I was writing, and I felt that I had no right to “change” so much as the style of a letter. They were written with the utmost rapidity without pausing for thought for a single moment, and I have not presumed to revise them. ... I cannot doubt that these books are the work of an intelligence independent of my own.
Despite their title, there is little consensus as to their nature or import. The “orthodox” position generally states that they alone define the metaphysical nature of Thelema, which cannot be adequately grasped (or its goals achieved) without a profound understanding of them. A more "liberal" position might say that they are important in and of themselves, and certainly worthy of contemplation, but are not strictly necessary or even adequate for a full metaphysical comprehension of Thelema. A “radical” position might state that they were of serious import only to Crowley himself, being products of his own personal spiritual advancement, and therefore are of little use to any given Thelemite today (except perhaps as examples of what A∴A∴-based advancement can achieve). Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself.
Crowley himself said that The Vision and the Voice was second in importance only to The Book of the Law. It is the chronicle of a series of visions Crowley experienced in 1900 and 1909 while magically "exploring" what is known as the Enochian system of 30 Aethyrs, established by the Elizabethan magicians John Dee and Edward Kelly. It is especially important in its elucidation of the process of spiritual enlightenment from within the Thelemic framework.
The Paris Working came from a series of sex-rituals that Crowley worked with his student and lover, Victor Neuburg, an accomplished British poet. Involving the invocation of Jupiter and Mercury, it is considered important not only for the fascinating results of their workings, but also because it foretold the advancement of Crowley to the Grade of Magus.
The topic of True Will lies at the very heart of Thelema. There is no clear definition of it—sometimes it is described as one’s grand destiny in the sense that a person’s life is lived in service to a single accomplishment, and at other times it is more of a formula of action, a continuous way of being that is most in alignment with nature. Sometimes True Will is thought of as a discrete articulated datum that can be held in consciousness, and sometimes it is conceived as a mode of being that can only occur outside of reasoned, logical thought.
What is the truth? As is common in many Eastern mystical traditions, the answer tends to be "all of the above", depending on how one is looking at the issue. The following readings provide more detail on the issue of True Will, as well as several contexts for framing questions about it, such as Qabalah, yoga, and magick (which we get to below).
Selected readings on True Will and other doctrines:
We have explored what Thelemites believe; now we look into what Thelemites do.
The essential task of the Thelemite is to discover and express her True Will—a process known as the Great Work, which is accomplished through the mystical Union of the microcosmic Self with the macrocosmic All (God, the Universe, Infinity, Nuit, etc.). As we have seen, Crowley believed that this happens in discrete, initiatory stages, which he attempted to map onto his order, the A∴A∴. The two “critical events” in the Great Work are the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel—which allows the adept to consciously know her True Will—and the Crossing of the Abyss—where the adept’s ego or I-ness is annihilated, which is a necessary experience to be able to manifest fully and freely one’s Willed Destiny. Crowley adopted the term Magick to describe the techniques used to accomplish these goals.
Quite often, people misunderstand or misuse the word Magick, which is not surprising since Crowley offers so many varied definitions of it. In the broadest sense, Magick is any act designed to cause intentional change, so that even relatively “mundane” actions could be considered to be Magick. It can also mean the science of, in any given situation, knowing the right force necessary for willed change and then applying it in the right place and at the right time (which is not unlike the Taoist notion of Wu Wei). Crowley also discusses three “schools” of Magick: Yellow (which uses contemplation to minimize the disorder of the world), Black (which views the universe as inherently evil, sorrowful, or corrupt), and the White (which sees existence, including sorrow and pain, as joyful and a sacrament—most closely represented, naturally, by Thelema). However, most of Crowley’s writings on Magick are in reference to occult or mystical practices intended to unite the Self with the All, which he described as the elimination of all limitations.
When most people today say “Magick” very often what they really mean is “ritual” or “paranormal event”. One may be an amazing “ritualist”—in that he knows the rituals by heart, has intense or profound experiences during them, and has a deep understanding of their underlying theories—but also be a terrible “magician”— in that he doesn’t know how to bring the essential principle of “right force, right place, right time” into his daily life. (In the literature, this is called spiritual bypassing, which refers to indulging in spiritual practices in order to avoid every-day problems and challenges).
I mention this because I believe the student will be well-served by knowing the difference between Magick as a concept and ritual as a practice. Magick is not always ritual, and ritual is not always Magick. To confuse the two is to invite mischief into one’s life.
Selected readings introducing the concept of Magick:
Within Crowley’s system, there are several core areas of practice. One has already been addressed, which is obtaining a thorough understanding of the Tree of Life. The other essential practices include:
In terms of goals, the categorical aims are
the disciplining of the mind
acquisition of various types of knowledge
development of the Body of Light (i.e. the astral body)
causing intentional change in one’s environment or life situation
the experiencing of various altered states of being
Crowley’s mysticism was perhaps most inspired by Buddhist Allan Bennett (1872-1923) and mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein
In Crowley’s system, Yoga is all about the training of the mind to be both silent and focused, which can allow for various important mental states to occur. He based his yogic techniques on the teachings of other well-known yogis, such as Patanjali and Yajnavalkya. There are several discrete stages of yogic accomplishment, which include:
Asana—the assumption of any easy, steady, and comfortable posture
Pranayama—the control of breath
Mantrayoga—the use of mantras
Yama and Niyama—adopted moral or behavioral codes chosen to decrease the excitation of the mind
Pratyahara—the stilling of the thoughts
Dharana—focused concentration, such as on a single shape
Dhyana—annihilation of the ego or sense of an isolated self
Samadhi—Union with the All
In conjunction with yogic training are various mystical states the adept is expected to attain. Although some of these verge on being outright rituals, they are unique in that their intention is not so much change (although change certainly occurs) but the achievement of an altered state of consciousness.
When most people think of Magick, they are usually thinking of ceremonial ritual. Historically, this practice has been a cornerstone of Thelemic praxis, and is perhaps the one thing that is most closely associated with Thelema in people’s minds. As many rituals as exist out there, there are really only a few key categories:
banishing—eliminating forces or elements, usually before a magical working
purification/consecration—preparation and dedication of self or objects
evocation—bringing forth an entity, usually for information or service
eucharist—the transformation and consumption of matter made divine
invocation—bringing a force into the adept, or in some way identifying with it
initiation—entering into or celebration of a new state of being or awareness
Banishing rituals are most often used to eliminate unwanted “forces” (usually those associated with the planets, the Zodiac, the five elements, and adjacent spaces in the astral world) or “entities” so to provide a clean working space, within both the environment and the ritualist herself. It seems to make little difference whether or not it is believed that these forces and entities are “real” or “psychological”—the results will be more or less the same: a feeling of cleanliness and balance.
These terms are somewhat self-explanatory...they prepare and dedicate for ritual or spiritual practices. Such rituals can be applied to ritual weapons, furniture, ritual space, and the magician herself, although there really is no limit to this list.
Selected readings on purification and consecration rituals:
Invocation is the ritual practice of bringing in or identifying with a deity or other higher spiritual being. Crowley identifies several methods for accomplishing this, including Devotion (surrendering oneself to the god), Exaltation (using repeated prayers or conjurations until the god floods the consciousness), and Drama (identification with the deity by roleplay). The Assumption of Godforms is another method Crowley often discussed. It is possible to say that invocational magick is perhaps the most vital, since it is the primary means by which the aspirant may attain the first “critical event”, the Knowledge and Conversation of her Holy Guardian Angel.
Where invocation is the calling in of a deity, evocation is the calling forth of an entity, usually into a containment structure, such as a magick triangle. The two primary schools of evocational magick are Enochian (a complex angelic system originating with the Elizabethan magicians John Dee and Edward Kelly) and Goetia (a medieval system for calling up demons, usually for information or service).
Initiation is the process of promoting a meaningful spiritual transition, which often serves to provide a profound shift in how one understands the self and the universe. Quite often, initiation takes the form of a ceremony, usually introducing someone into or further along in an organization or spiritual path. Because formal initiations are often secret, there are few public treatises on the topic. Rather, they tend to be something to experience rather than read about.
The Body of Light is the subtle part of the self that can theoretically carry the magician’s consciousness away from the physical body during astral travel. Crowley considered its development a vital requirement for successful spiritual attainment.
It is important to understand the nature of divination within a magical framework. It is not the same thing as fortune telling at all. Rather, it is the subtle art of information gathering, most often used to gain personal spiritual insight. There are many ways to do so, including the use of evocation rituals described above. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of divination techniques in the world. However, Crowley was a regular fan of only a few: astrology, tarot, geomancy, and bibliomancy (mostly with the I Ching).
As was mentioned at the beginning, this Guide is nowhere near complete or definitive. There are many areas of further exploration beyond what is offered here. However, the materials offered in this guide are worth several years of study (at least), and should provide you more than enough information to determine your specific areas of interest and to devise your own specific program of detailed examination.
As a final word, I want to challenge the student to question many of Crowley’s constructs, including issues such as the Secret Chiefs, the usefulness of a model of distinct and delineated stages of spiritual advancement, the relevance of the Holy Books, and the necessity of the two critical events (HGA and the Abyss) in the Great Work of discovering and expressing Will. On a larger level, I encourage every student to be willing to draw differences between beliefs, goals, principles, and methods in all these readings (with a special care to note unspoken assumptions) with the purpose of creating a theoretical substrate upon which you may develop your own sense of what is essential for your unique path. With these fundamental questions in mind, I leave you with the words of the Prophet:
I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.—The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Ch. 66