The Utility of the Bible to the Student of Thelema
by T Polyphilus
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
“One would go mad if one took the Bible seriously; but to take it seriously one must be already mad.” –Aleister Crowley (self-cited quote in footnote to Magick p. 116)
With his Plymouth Brethren upbringing, Crowley was “deprived of all English literature but the Bible during the whole of his youth.” (Equinox of the Gods p. 48) He later bragged that he had developed in boyhood – and retained to adulthood – the ability to find nearly any verse in the Bible quickly, without the aid of a concordance. The Bible is the literary infrastructure of Crowley's thought. In Liber 888, Crowley claimed “an intimate knowledge of the Bible so deeply rooted that it seems hardly unfair to say that it formed the whole foundation of my mind,” and declared further, “I am the truest of all Christians.” (Crowley on Christ pp. 20, 196)
O.T.O. Frater Superior Hymenaeus Beta has done a tremendous favor to the biblically-unschooled by calling out Crowley's ubiquitous biblical quotes and paraphrases in the recent editions of Magick. A quick glance at the “Authors and Works Cited” index in Magick shows well over seventy biblical citations or references in the text of Book Four.
But it is not only through Crowley's personal intellect and experience that the Bible has had a critical influence on the character of Thelema. Consider that as a revealed scripture, Liber AL is written (principally) in English. Like the Arabic of the Koran, the English of The Book of the Law adheres very scrupulously to the oracular literary form, and thus the original language is of paramount concern. Consider Liber AL II:55 and III:47, where the “English alphabet” is remarked as an important feature, and there is a mandate always to include the original English manuscript in all editions of the book.
There are a very few literary works in any language that generate so much precedent for the language's literature that their phrasings serve as elements of a sort of ur-text. These ur-texts for English incontrovertibly include the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. If Thelemic scripture is a flower of English, then the Bible is a root. Crowley consciously agreed with this analysis, as he pointed out to his son, “The best models of English writing are Shakespeare and the Old Testament, especially the Book of Job, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.” (Letter quoted by Lawrence Sutin in Do What Thou Wilt, pp. 416-417.)
However, as it is noted in Liber Legis III:39, the Book's treasure is “not only in the English.” Crowley characterized his philosophy by “the word of the Law” from Liber Legis, which is Θελημα (Thelema), Greek for “will.” (CCXX I:39) This word is of a particular, Biblical provenance. The Greek New Testament has forty instances of the word Θελημα, of which 32 refer to divine will, and seven refer to human will–although three of these are the will of a figure representing Jesus' “Father” in a parable. One single instance in II Timothy 2:26 is noteworthy for describing the Θελημα of “the devil.”
In fact, the word Θελημα occurs in one of the best-known gospel passages, the only actual invocation prescribed by Jesus, the “Lord's Prayer,” as it appears in Matthew 6:10, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will (Θελημα) be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” Crowley wrote two updated versions of that prayer, in The Book of Lies chapters 2 and 44. In each case, “Thy will is done” is included to indicate transcendence of the earlier formula.
There are certainly other points of direct literary contact between The Book of the Law and the Bible. Liber AL I:57 includes the admonition, “Love is the law, love under will. Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well!” Those words certainly include an evocation of Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
An even more direct allusion can be found in Liber Legis II:57, where we find a partial quotation from Revelation 22:11. The Biblical text reads, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”
As regards the saints of the Gnostic Catholic Church in the canon of Liber XV, the Bible is the chief reference for the exploits of Mosheh (Moses) and Melchizedek. And it also serves as a text historicizing Simon Magus, after its fashion.
In medieval European magic, it was common to use a verse from the Bible to circumscribe and empower a talisman, since the Bible was the preeminent oracular text of that milieu. In Crowley's work, we can find him wrapping Biblical quotations about himself and his initiations, where they often serve as mantonyms and personal mottoes. Three of Crowley's principal magical names are drawn from the Bible. Most notoriously, his name as a Magus ΤῸ ΜΈΓΑ ΘΗΡΊΟΝ (“The Great Beast”) is an allusion in part to the Great Beast of the biblical Revelation, chapter 13. His motto as a Lesser Adept was Christeos Luciftias, Enochian for “Let there be light!” This quotation of Genesis 1:3 may also have been an homage to Allan Bennett, one of Crowley's teachers, who had used the same motto in Hebrew, Iehi Aour. Finally, Crowley's Outer Order name Perdurabo (“I shall endure”) was a reference to the gospel injunction, “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” (Matthew 24:13, also 10:22, and Mark 13:13) In Crowley's reprise in the seventh chapter of The Book of Lies, he observes, “But the Seventh men called PERDURABO; for enduring unto The End, at The End was Naught to endure.”
Crowley selected Grady McMurtry's magical name Hymenaeus Alpha. While the name doubtless includes an allusion to the Roman god of wedlock, so happily hymned by the Gnostic Catholic saint in Catullus LXI, a more crucial reference is I Timothy 1:19-20. The Bible passage upbraids “Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Besides the blasphemy (see Revelation 13:1) and Satanic instruction, this text pairs Hymenaeus with Alexander, i.e. Edward Alexander “Aleister” Crowley.
These various examples of biblical relevance to Thelemic magick are not intended to be exhaustive. Indeed, Crowley's background among the bibliolatrous Plymouth Brethren may have equipped him with a grasp of the Bible exceeding that of any “Christian” occultist to precede him. There is ample evidence that he employed that grasp throughout his systems of magick and philosophy. He was committing humorous understatement when he wrote the following, in his “Literature Recommended to Aspirants”:
The Bible, by various authors unknown. The Hebrew and Greek originals are of Qabalistic value. It contains also many magical apologues, and recounts many tales of folklore and magical rites. (Magick p. 455)
Love is the law, love under will