Thelema (//) is a religion based on a philosophical law of the same name, adopted as a central tenet by some religious organizations. The law of Thelema is "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will." The law of Thelema was developed in the early 1900s by Aleister Crowley, an English writer and ceremonial magician. He believed himself to be the prophet of a new age, the Æon of Horus, based upon a spiritual experience that he and his wife, Rose Edith, had in Egypt in 1904. By his account, a possibly non-corporeal or "praeterhuman" 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. An adherent of Thelema is a Thelemite.
The Thelemic pantheon includes a number of deities, primarily a trio adapted from ancient Egyptian religion, who are the three speakers of The Book of the Law: Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Crowley described these deities as a "literary convenience". The religion is found 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 indicates that adherents, who are known as Thelemites, should seek out and follow their own true path in life, known as their True Will. The philosophy also emphasizes the ritual practice of Magick.
The word thelema is the English transliteration of the Koine Greek noun θέλημα (pronounced Greek: [θélima]) "will", from the verb θέλω "to will, wish, want or purpose." As Crowley developed the religion, he wrote widely on the topic, as well as producing more 'inspired' writing that he collectively termed The Holy Books of Thelema. He also included ideas from occultism, yoga and both Eastern and Western mysticism, especially the Qabalah.
The word θέλημα (thelema) is rare in classical Greek, where it "signifies the appetitive will: desire, sometimes even sexual", but it is frequent in the Septuagint. Early Christian writings occasionally use the word to refer to the human will, and even the will of God's opponent, the Devil, but it usually refers to the will of God. One well-known example is in the "Lord's Prayer" (Matthew 6:10), “Thy kingdom come. Thy will (Θελημα) be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” It is used later in the same gospel (26:42), "He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done." In his 5th-century Sermon on 1 John 4:4–12, Augustine of Hippo gave a similar instruction: "Love, and what thou wilt, do." (Dilige et quod vis fac).
In the Renaissance, a character named "Thelemia" represents will or desire in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna. The protagonist Poliphilo has two allegorical guides, Logistica (reason) and Thelemia (will or desire). When forced to choose, he chooses fulfillment of his sexual will over logic. Colonna's work was a great influence on the Franciscan monk François Rabelais, who in the 16th century, used Thélème, the French form of the word, as the name of a fictional abbey in his novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The only rule of this Abbey was "fay çe que vouldras" ("Fais ce que tu veux", or, "Do what thou wilt"). In the mid-18th century, Sir Francis Dashwood inscribed the adage on a doorway of his abbey at Medmenham, where it served as the motto of the Hellfire Club. Rabelais's Abbey of Thelema has been referred to by later writers Sir Walter Besant and James Rice, in their novel The Monks of Thelema (1878), and C. R. Ashbee in his utopian romance The Building of Thelema (1910).
François Rabelais was a Franciscan and later a Benedictine monk of the 16th century. Eventually he left the monastery to study medicine, and moved to the French city of Lyon in 1532. There he wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel, a connected series of books. They tell the story of two giants—a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures—written in an amusing, extravagant, and satirical vein.
Most critics today agree that Rabelais wrote from a Christian humanist perspective. The Crowley biographer Lawrence Sutin notes this when contrasting the French author's beliefs with the Thelema of Aleister Crowley. In the previously mentioned story of Thélème, which critics analyze as referring in part to the suffering of loyal Christian reformists or "evangelicals" within the French Church, the reference to the Greek word θέλημα "declares that the will of God rules in this abbey". Sutin writes that Rabelais was no precursor of Thelema, with his beliefs containing elements of Stoicism and Christian kindness.
In his first book (ch. 52–57), Rabelais writes of this Abbey of Thélème, built by the giant Gargantua. It is a classical utopia presented in order to critique and assess the state of the society of Rabelais's day, as opposed to a modern utopian text that seeks to create the scenario in practice. It is a utopia where people's desires are more fulfilled. Satirical, it also epitomises the ideals considered in Rabelais's fiction. The inhabitants of the abbey were governed only by their own free will and pleasure, the only rule being "Do What Thou Wilt". Rabelais believed that men who are free, well born and bred have honour, which intrinsically leads to virtuous actions. When constrained, their noble natures turn instead to remove their servitude, because men desire what they are denied.
Some modern Thelemites consider Crowley's work to build upon Rabelais's summary of the instinctively honourable nature of the Thelemite. Rabelais has been variously credited with the creation of the philosophy of Thelema, as one of the earliest people to refer to it, or with being "the first Thelemite". However, the current National Grand Master General of the U.S. Ordo Templi Orientis Grand Lodge has stated:
Saint Rabelais never intended his satirical, fictional device to serve as a practical blueprint for a real human society ... Our Thelema is that of The Book of the Law and the writings of Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley wrote in The Antecedents of Thelema, (1926), an incomplete work not published in his day, that Rabelais not only set forth the law of Thelema in a way similar to how Crowley understood it, but predicted and described in code Crowley's life and the holy text that he claimed to have received, The Book of the Law. Crowley said the work he had received was deeper, showing in more detail the technique people should practice, and revealing scientific mysteries. He said that Rabelais confines himself to portraying an ideal, rather than addressing questions of political economy and similar subjects, which must be solved in order to realize the Law.
Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club
Sir Francis Dashwood adopted some of the ideas of Rabelais and invoked the same rule in French, when he founded a group called the Monks of Medmenham (better known as the Hellfire Club). An abbey was established at Medmenham, in a property which incorporated the ruins of a Cistercian abbey founded in 1201. The group were known as the Franciscans, not after Saint Francis of Assisi, but after its founder, Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer. John Wilkes, George Dodington and other politicians were members. There is little direct evidence of what Dashwood's Hellfire Club practiced or believed. The one direct testimonial comes from John Wilkes, a member who never got into the chapter-room of the inner circle. He describes the group as hedonists who met to "celebrate woman in wine", and added ideas from the ancients just to make the experience more decadent.
In the opinion of Lt. Col. Towers, the group derived more from Rabelais than the inscription over the door. He believes that they used caves as a Dionysian oracular temple, based upon Dashwood’s reading of the relevant chapters of Rabelais. Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in his Historical Memoires (1815) accused the Monks of performing Satanic rituals, but these claims have been dismissed as hearsay. Gerald Gardner and others such as Mike Howard say the Monks worshipped "the Goddess". Daniel Willens argued that the group likely practiced Freemasonry, but also suggests Dashwood may have held secret Roman Catholic sacraments. He asks if Wilkes would have recognized a genuine Catholic Mass, even if he saw it himself and even if the underground version followed its public model precisely.
Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was an English occultist and writer. In 1904, Crowley claimed to have received The Book of the Law from an entity named Aiwass, which was to serve as the foundation of the religious and philosophical system he called Thelema.
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, Egypt during 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 Regardie prefers to attribute this voice to the subconscious, but opinions among Thelemites differ widely. Crowley claimed that "no forger could have prepared so complex a set of numerical and literal puzzles" and that study of the text would dispel all doubts about the method of how the book was obtained.
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 Dawn imagery 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 daimon unique 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 the 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 the Lesser 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 including masturbatory, 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. Thelemites, both independent ones and those affiliated with an order, can practice a form of performative prayer known as Liber Resh.
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 the Holy 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, while 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 magic 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".
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 beliefs regarding 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.
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 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 Hermetic Qabalah.
There are some Thelemites who do accept The Book of the Law in some way but not 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. And one category of Thelemites are non-religious, and simply adhere to the philosophical law of Thelema.
The Book of the Law gives several holy days to be observed by Thelemites. There are no established or dogmatic ways to celebrate these days, so as a result Thelemites will often take to their own devices or celebrate in groups, especially within Ordo Templi Orientis. These holy days are usually observed on the following dates:
- March 20. The Feast of the Supreme Ritual, which celebrates the Invocation of Horus, the ritual performed by Crowley on this date in 1904 that inaugurated the New Aeon.
- March 20/March 21. The Equinox of the Gods, which is commonly referred to as the Thelemic New Year (although some celebrate the New Year on April 8). Although the equinox and the Invocation of Horus often fall on the same day, they are often treated as two different events. This date is the Autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.
- April 8 through April 10. The Feast of the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law. These three days are commemorative of the three days in the year 1904 during which Aleister Crowley wrote the Book of the Law. One chapter was written each day, the first being written on April 8, the second on April 9, and the third on April 10. Although there is no official way of celebrating any Thelemic holiday, this particular feast day is usually celebrated by reading the corresponding chapter on each of the three days, usually at noon.
- June 20/June 21. The Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
- August 12. The Feast of the Prophet and His Bride. This holiday commemorates the marriage of Aleister Crowley and his first wife Rose Edith Crowley. Rose was a key figure in the writing of the Book of the Law.
- September 22/September 23. The Autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the Vernal Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.
- December 21/December 22. The Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
- The Feast for Life, celebrated at the birth of a Thelemite and on birthdays.
- The Feast for Fire/The Feast for Water. These feast days are usually taken as being when a child hits puberty and steps unto the path of adulthood. The Feast for Fire is celebrated for a male, and the Feast for Water for a female.
- The Feast for Death, celebrated on the death of a Thelemite and on the anniversary of their death.
Contemporary Thelemic literature
Aleister Crowley was highly prolific and wrote on the subject of Thelema for over 35 years, and many of his books remain in print. During his time, there were several who wrote on the subject, including U.S. O.T.O. Grand Master Charles Stansfeld Jones, whose works on Qabalah are still in print, and Major-General J. F. C. Fuller.
Jack Parsons was a scientist researching the use of various fuels for rockets at the California Institute of Technology, and one of Crowley's first American students, for a time leading the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis for Crowley in America. He wrote several short works during his lifetime, some later collected as Freedom is a Two-edged Sword. He died in 1952 as a result of an explosion, and while not a prolific writer himself, has been the subject of two biographies; Sex and Rockets by John Carter, and Strange Angel by George Pendle.
Since Crowley's death in 1947, there have been other Thelemic writers such as Israel Regardie, who edited many of Crowley's works and also wrote a biography of him, The Eye in the Triangle, as well as books on Qabalah. Kenneth Grant wrote numerous books on Thelema and the occult, such as The Typhonian Trilogy. Lon Milo DuQuette has written several books which analyze Crowley's system.
Other notable contemporary writers who address Thelema include Allen H. Greenfield, Christopher Hyatt, Richard Kaczynski, Marcelo Ramos Motta, Rodney Orpheus, IAO131, Phyllis Seckler, James Wasserman, Sam Webster, and Robert Anton Wilson. There are also journals which print original Thelemic writing.
Several modern organizations of various sizes claim to follow the tenets of Thelema. The two most prominent are both organizations that Crowley headed during his lifetime: the A∴A∴, an Order founded by Crowley, based on the grades of the Golden Dawn system; and Ordo Templi Orientis, an order which initially developed from the Rite of Memphis and Mizraim in the early part of the 20th century, and which includes Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica as its religious arm.
Since Crowley's death in 1947, other organizations have formed to carry on his initial work, for example, the College of Thelema, the Temple of Thelema, the College of Thelema of Northern California, the Holy Order Of RaHoorKhuit, the Temple of the Silver Star, the Typhonian Order of Kenneth Grant, the Order of Thelemic Knights, and The Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn. Other groups of widely varying character exist which have drawn inspiration or methods from Thelema, such as the Illuminates of Thanateros and the Temple of Set. Some groups accept the Law of Thelema, but omit certain aspects of Crowley's system while incorporating the works of other mystics, philosophers, and religious systems. The Fraternitas Saturni (Brotherhood of Saturn), founded in 1928 in Germany, accepts the Law of Thelema, but extends it with the phrase "Mitleidlose Liebe!" ("Compassionless love!"). The Thelema Society, also located in Germany, accepts Liber Legis and much of Crowley's work on magick, while incorporating the ideas of other thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Sanders Peirce, Martin Heidegger and Niklas Luhmann. Horus-Maat Lodge combines the ideas of the occultist Nema with those of Crowley.
Thelemites can also be found in other organizations. The president of the Church of All Worlds, LaSara FireFox, identifies as a Thelemite. A significant minority of other CAW members also identify as Thelemites.
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