Thelema is a religious philosophy that was developed by the early 20th century British writer and ceremonial magician, Aleister Crowley. He believed himself to be the prophet of a new age, the Æon of Horus, based upon a religious experience that he had in Egypt in 1904. By his account, a possibly non-corporeal being that called itself Aiwass contacted him and dictated a text known as The Book of the Law or Liber AL vel Legis, which outlined the principles of Thelema.
The Thelemic pantheon includes a number of deities, focusing primarily on a trinity of deities adapted from ancient Egyptian religion, who are the three speakers of The Book of the Law: Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. The religion is founded upon the idea that the 20th century marked the beginning of the Aeon of Horus, in which a new ethical code would be followed; “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. This statement indicated that adherents, who are known as Thelemites, should seek out and follow their own True Will rather than their ego’s desires.The religion also emphasizes the ritual practice of Magick.
The word “Thelema” itself is the English transliteration of the Koine Greek noun θέλημα: “will”, from the verb θέλω: to will, wish, purpose. As Crowley developed the religion he wrote widely on the topic, producing what are collectively termed the Holy Books of Thelema. He also included into it ideas from occultism, Yoga and both Eastern and Western mysticism, especially the Qabalah
The Book of the Law
Crowley’s system of Thelema begins with The Book of the Law, which bears the official name Liber AL vel Legis. It was written in Cairo, Egyptduring his honeymoon with his new wife Rose Crowley (née Kelly). This small book contains three chapters, each of which he claimed to have written in exactly one hour, beginning at noon, on April 8, April 9, and April 10, 1904. Crowley claims that he took dictation from an entity named Aiwass, whom he later identified as his own Holy Guardian Angel. Disciple, author, and onetime Crowley secretary Israel Regardieprefers to attribute this voice to the subconscious, but opinions among Thelemites differ widely.
Besides the reference to Rabelais, an analysis by Dave Evans shows similarities to The Beloved of Hathor and Shrine of the Golden Hawk,a play by Florence Farr. Evans says this may result from the fact that “both Farr and Crowley were thoroughly steeped in Golden Dawnimagery and teachings,” and that Crowley probably knew the ancient materials that inspired some of Farr’s motifs.Sutin also finds similarities between Thelema and the work of W. B. Yeats, attributing this to “shared insight” and perhaps to the older man’s knowledge of Crowley.
Crowley wrote several commentaries on The Book of the Law, the last of which he wrote in 1925. This brief statement called simply “The Comment” warns against discussing the Book’s contents, and states that all “questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings” and is signed Ankh-af-na-khonsu.
According to Crowley, every individual has a True Will, to be distinguished from the ordinary wants and desires of the ego. The True Will is essentially one’s “calling” or “purpose” in life. Some later magicians have taken this to include the goal of attaining self-realization by one’s own efforts, without the aid of God or other divine authority. This brings them close to the position that Crowley held just prior to 1904. Others follow later works such as Liber II, saying that one’s own will in pure form is nothing other than the divine will. Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law for Crowley refers not to hedonism, fulfilling everyday desires, but to acting in response to that calling. The Thelemite is a mystic.According to Lon Milo Duquette, a Thelemite is anyone who bases their actions on striving to discover and accomplish their true will, when a person does their True Will, it is like an orbit, their niche in the universal order, and the universe assists them.In order for the individual to be able to follow their True Will, the everyday self’s socially-instilled inhibitions may have to be overcome via deconditioning. Crowley believed that in order to discover the True Will, one had to free the desires of the subconscious mind from the control of the conscious mind, especially the restrictions placed on sexual expression, which he associated with the power of divine creation. He identified the True Will of each individual with the Holy Guardian Angel, a daimonunique to each individual.The spiritual quest to find what you are meant to do and do it is also known in Thelema as the Great Work.
Thelema draws its principal gods and goddesses from Ancient Egyptian religion. The highest deity in the cosmology of Thelema is in fact a goddess, Nuit. She is the night sky arched over the Earth symbolized in the form of a naked woman. She is conceived as the Great Mother, the ultimate source of all things.The second principal deity of Thelema is the god Hadit, conceived as the infinitely small point, complement and consort of Nuit. Hadit symbolizes manifestation, motion, and time. He is also described in Liber AL vel Legis as “the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star.” The third deity in the cosmology of Thelema is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, a manifestation of Horus. He is symbolized as a throned man with the head of a hawk who carries a wand. He is associated with the Sun and the active energies of Thelemic magick. Other deities within the cosmology of Thelema are Hoor-paar-kraat (or Harpocrates), god of silence and inner strength, the brother of Ra-Hoor-Khuit, Babalon, the goddess of all pleasure, known as the Virgin Whore. and Therion, the beast that Babalon rides, who represents the wild animal within man, a force of nature.
Magick and ritual
Thelemic magick is a system of physical, mental, and spiritual exercises which practitioners believe are of benefit.Crowley defined magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will,” and spelled it with a ‘k’ to distinguish it from stage magic. He recommended magick as a means for discovering the True Will.Generally, magical practices in Thelema are designed to assist in finding and manifesting the True Will, although some include celebratory aspects as well. Crowley was a prolific writer, integrating Eastern practices with Western magical practices from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He recommended a number of these practices to his followers, including basic yoga; (asana and pranayama); rituals of his own devising or based on those of the Golden Dawn, such as theLesser ritual of the pentagram, for banishing and invocation; Liber Samekh, a ritual for the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel;eucharistic rituals such as The Gnostic Mass and The Mass of the Phoenix; and Liber Resh, consisting of four daily adorations to the sun. Much of his work is readily available in print and online. He also discussed sex magick and sexual gnosis in various forms includingmasturbatory, heterosexual, and homosexual practices, and these form part of his suggestions for the work of those in the higher degrees of the Ordo Templi Orientis.Crowley believed that after discovering the True Will, the magician must also remove any elements of himself that stand in the way of its success.
The emphasis of Thelemic magick is not directly on material results, and while many Thelemites do practice magick for goals such as wealth or love, it is not required. Those in a Thelemic magical Order, such as the A∴A∴, or Ordo Templi Orientis, work through a series of degrees or grades via a process of initiation. Thelemites who work on their own or in an independent group try to achieve this ascent or the purpose thereof using the Holy Books of Thelema and/or Crowley’s more secular works as a guide, along with their own intuition. Books and papers detailing the rituals of Ordo Templi Orientis of the past do appear or come up for sale second-hand, but the modern organisation seeks to prevent them being sold, using the successful legal argument that such works violate their copyright. The papers they seek to protect include those containing instructions detailing the sexual rituals of the later degrees.
One goal in the study of Thelema within the magical Order of the A∴A∴ is for the magician to obtain the knowledge and conversation of theHoly Guardian Angel: conscious communication with their own personal daimon, thus gaining knowledge of their True Will. The chief task for one who has achieved this goes by the name of “crossing the abyss“; completely relinquishing the ego. If the aspirant is unprepared, he will cling to the ego instead, becoming a Black Brother. Rather than becoming one with God, the Black Brother considers his ego to be god. According to Crowley, the Black Brother slowly disintegrates, whilst preying on others for his own self-aggrandisement.
Crowley taught skeptical examination of all results obtained through meditation or magick, at least for the student. He tied this to the necessity of keeping a magical record or diary, that attempts to list all conditions of the event. Remarking on the similarity of statements made by spiritually advanced people of their experiences, he said that fifty years from his time they would have a scientific name based on “an understanding of the phenomenon” to replace such terms as “spiritual” or “supernatural”. Crowley stated that his work and that of his followers used “the method of science; the aim of religion,” and that the genuine powers of the magician could in some way be objectively tested. This idea has been taken on by later practitioners of Thelema, Chaos magick and magick in general. They may consider that they are testing hypotheses with each magical experiment. The difficulty lies in the broadness of their definition of success, in which they may see as evidence of success things which a non-magician would not define as such, leading to confirmation bias. Crowley believed he could demonstrate, by his own example, the effectiveness of magick in producing certain subjective experiences that do not ordinarily result from taking hashish, enjoying oneself in Paris, or walking through the Sahara desert. It is not strictly necessary to practice ritual techniques to be a Thelemite, as due to the focus of Thelemic magick on the True Will, Crowley stated “every intentional act is a magickal act.”
There are no “standards of Right”. Ethics is balderdash. Each Star must go on its own orbit. To hell with “moral principle”; there is no such thing.—Aleister Crowley
Liber AL vel Legis does make clear some standards of individual conduct. The most primary of these is “Do what thou wilt” which is presented as the whole of the law, and also as a right. Some interpreters of Thelema believe that this right includes an obligation to allow others to do their own wills without interference, but Liber AL makes no clear statement on the matter. Crowley himself wrote that there was no need to detail the ethics of Thelema, for everything springs from “Do what thou Wilt.” Crowley wrote several additional documents presenting his personal views on individual conduct in light of the Law of Thelema, some of which do address the topic interference with others: Liber OZ, Duty, and Liber II.
Liber Oz enumerates some of the rights of the individual implied by the one overarching right, “Do what thou wilt.” For each person, these include the right to: live by one’s own law; live in the way that one wills to do; work, play, and rest as one will; die when and how one will; eat and drink what one will; live where one will; move about the earth as one will; think, speak, write, draw, paint, carve, etch, mould, build, and dress as one will; love when, where and with whom one will; and kill those who would thwart these rights.
Duty is described as “A note on the chief rules of practical conduct to be observed by those who accept the Law of Thelema.” It is not a numbered “Liber” as are all the documents which Crowley intended for A∴A∴, but rather listed as a document intended specifically for Ordo Templi Orientis. There are four sections:
- A. Your Duty to Self: describes the self as the center of the universe, with a call to learn about one’s inner nature. Admonishes the reader to develop every faculty in a balanced way, establish one’s autonomy, and to devote oneself to the service of one’s own True Will.
- B. Your Duty to Others: An admonishment to eliminate the illusion of separateness between oneself and all others, to fight when necessary, to avoid interfering with the Wills of others, to enlighten others when needed, and to worship the divine nature of all other beings.
- C. Your Duty to Mankind: States that the Law of Thelema should be the sole basis of conduct. That the laws of the land should have the aim of securing the greatest liberty for all individuals. Crime is described as being a violation of one’s True Will.
- D. Your Duty to All Other Beings and Things: States that the Law of Thelema should be applied to all problems and used to decide every ethical question. It is a violation of the Law of Thelema to use any animal or object for a purpose for which it is unfit, or to ruin things so that they are useless for their purpose. Natural resources can be used by man, but this should not be done wantonly, or the breach of the law will be avenged. For instance, deforestation can cause soil erosion.
In Liber II: The Message of the Master Therion, the Law of Thelema is summarized succinctly as “Do what thou wilt—then do nothing else.” Crowley describes the pursuit of Will as not only with detachment from possible results, but with tireless energy. It is Nirvana but in a dynamic rather than static form. The True Will is described as the individual’s orbit, and if they seek to do anything else, they will encounter obstacles, as doing anything other than the will is a hindrance to it.
Diversity of Thelemic thought
The core of Thelemic thought is “Do what thou wilt.” However, beyond this, there exists a very wide range of interpretation of Thelema. Modern Thelema is a syncretic philosophy and religion, and many Thelemites try to avoid strongly dogmatic or fundamentalist thinking. Crowley himself put strong emphasis on the unique nature of Will inherent in each individual, not following him, saying he did not wish to found a flock of sheep.Thus, contemporary Thelemites may practice more than one religion, including Discordianism, Wicca, Gnosticism,Satanism, Setianism and Luciferianism. Many adherents of Thelema, none more so than Crowley, recognize correlations between Thelemic and other systems of spiritual thought; most borrow freely from the methods and practices of other traditions, including alchemy, astrology, qabalah, tantra, tarot divination and yoga. For example, Nu and Had are thought to correspond with the Tao and Teh of Taoism, Shakti and Shiva of the Hindu Tantras, Shunyata and Bodhicitta of Buddhism, Ain Soph and Kether in the Qabalah.
There are some Thelemites who do accept The Book of the Law in some way but don’t accept the rest of Crowley’s “inspired” writings or teachings. Others take only specific aspects of his overall system, such as his magical techniques, ethics, mysticism, or religious ideas, while ignoring the rest. Other individuals who consider themselves Thelemites regard what is commonly presented as Crowley’s system to be only one possible manifestation of Thelema, creating original systems, such as those of Nema and Kenneth Grant.