Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (July 2004)
BEYOND THE LAW
A century after its first transmission to Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law continues to inspire several thousand of its followers. Mark Pilkington, a committed agnostic, stared deep into the eye of Horus, and this is what he found there.
Noon. April 10, 1904, an apartment on 26 July St in Cairo’s Boulaq district. The man known as Chioa Khan sat down at his writing table, fountain pen in hand. As it had at the same time on the previous two days, the voice—deep, musical and fierce—began to speak:
“Abrahadabra; the reward of Ra hoor Khut. There is a division hither homeward; there is a word not known. Spelling is defunct; all is not aught. Beware! Hold! Raise the spell of RaRa-Hoor-Khuit! …
Now let it be understood that I am a God of War and of Vengeance… I will give you a war-engine. With it ye shall smite the peoples; and none shall stand before you…
Worship me with fire and Blood; worship me with swrods and spears…let blood flow to my name. Trample down the Heathen; be upon them O warrior, I will give you of their flesh to eat!”
After exactly an hour, the transmission ended and Liber AL vel Legis, or the Book of the Law, the holy book of the religion of Thelema, was in the hands of Man. Only the scribe, one Edward Alexander Crowley, called Aleister, the Great Beast, had heard the voice, which came from an entity he knew as Aiwass, or Aiwaz. Aiwass, Crowley would later write, took on a “body of fine matter, or astral matter, transparent as a veil of gauze or a cloud of incense smoke”. It manifested as a tall dark man in his thirites, with the “face of a savage king… eyes veiled lest their gaze should destroy what they saw.” The New Aeon had begun.
The 29-year old Crowley—poet, mountain climber, chess champion, painter and occultist—and his new, and newly pregnant, wife Rose Kelly, renamed Ouarda (Arabic for Rose) for this, their honeymoon trip, had reached Cairo in early February after spending time in Paris and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with their friend, the Buddhist monk Alan Bennett. After ascending through the ranks of the legendary Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, and almost single-handedly destroying it following feuds with the poet WB Yeats and its leader Samuel MacGregor Mathers, Crowley was largely off magick at this time: he was more interested in swaggering about Cairo in a turban, honing his golfing skills and learning Arabic and a few Sufi fakir tricks. Rose certainly had little interest in conversing with her holy guardian angel; the spirits that chiefly interested her being those that came out of a bottle.
On March 17, perhaps to keep his hand in, Crowley decided to show Ouarda the sylphs, lesser air elementals from the astral realms. He recited a quickie invocation, the Rite of the Bornless One, and the couple waited. To both their chagrin, Ouarda saw nothing. Instead she slipped into a dreamy state and said, “They’re waiting for you”. The following day Crowley invoked Thoth, the Egyptian god of Magic, as Rose made further odd announcements. “It is all about the child,” she said, “all Osiris.”
Over the next few days, the messages were in full flow. Rose, who had next to no knowledge of Egyptian mythology, stated that the voice speaking through her was Horus, the sky god. She then recited instructions for a ritual, to be performed by Crowley, invoking the falcon-headed deity. Carried out on March 20, the Beast declared the invocation of Horus a great success.
Perplexed by his wife’s sudden working knowledge of Egyptian high magic, Crowley set her another challenge, to identify Horus amongst the artifacts on display in Cairo’s Boulak Museum. After missing a few images, Rose stopped before a glass cabinet and exclaimed: “There he is!” The cabinet she pointed to held a wooden stele (an inscribed marker) from the 26th dynasty (664-525 BC), called the Stele of Revealing. On it was a painting of Horus in the guise of Ra-Hoor-Khuit. The stele’s muesum ID number was 666, the number of the Beast of Revelation, the Sun, and Aleister Crowley himself.
Over the following two weeks, more information followed. Rose was being contacted by an emissary of Horus called Aiwass, who proceeded to give Crowley strict instructions in preparation for further transmissions. On April 8th , 9th and 10th, at noon precisely, Crowley was to sit in the drawing room of their rented apartment and write down everything that he heard.
The resulting transcript of 65 handwritten pages became the Book of the Law. Crowley, referred to in the text as “the prince-priest the Beast” was “the chosen priest and apostle of infinite space,” while Rose became the first in a succession of Scarlet Women, to whom “is all power given.”
Stripped to its bare essentials, one could say that the message of the book is as follows: a new Aeon of Horus is dawning, with Crowley as its prophet. The old gods were to be swept away and to be replaced with the new laws: “The Word of the law is Thelema… Love is the Law: Love under Will … Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law…Thou hast no right but to do thy will… The word of Sin is restriction… Every man and every woman is a star.”
The third part of the book seems vaguely prophetic, warning of terrible wars and bloodshed to come: “I am the warrior Lord of the Forties: the Eighties cower before me, and are abased. I will bring you to victory and joy: I will be at your arms in battle and ye shall delight to slay.”
Though at first he tried to ignore the book, it became clear to Crowley that its message was to be his life’s work: as he would later write: “I, Aleister Crowley, declare upon my honour as a gentleman that I hold this revelation a million times more important than the dicovery of the Wheel, or even the Laws of Physics or Mathematics. Fire and Tools made Man master of his planet; Writing developed his mind; but his Soul was a guess until the Book of the Law proved this.”
April 10, 2004: Crowley died 57 years ago, a bankrupt heroin addict, in a boarding house on England’s south coast, his role as magician occasionally reprised at parties given for his landlady’s children. Rose, the first Scarlet Woman, was committed to a mental asylum with alchoholic dementia in 1911. She left the hospital, and Crowley’s life, some time later. The gods don’t always look after their own, but their message lives on.
Today, as a small band of Thelemites—adherents of The Book of the Law—traipsed around Cairo in much the same way Crowley and Rose Kelly had done, chanting “om”s in pyramids and enjoying the city’s manifold delights, so another 300 or so sat patiently in the main hall of the Ethical Society building in London’s Red Lion Square, awaiting the day’s first reading from Liber AL vel Legis (LAVL).
Conway Hall, as it is better known, has hosted a multiplicity of strange events in its time, all staged under the admirably Thelemic motto “To Thine Own Self be True.” My own recent memory conjures up a trance channelling of the ascended master Maitreya by Benjamin Crème, one of Alan Moore’s more spectacular “beat sceances,” a particularly deranged performance by esoteric electronicists Coil and a heady dose of David Icke’s alien reptoid hysteria.
At 10am, a gong rings out across the room and a middle-aged woman, exuding no more menace than a librarian or teacher, walks over to the podium and begins to read part one of LAVL. Her sonorous, soporific delivery gives the impression that the transmission is being channelled all over again. When she has finished, the woman, called Jean, dabs her eyes with a handkerchief. It’s a low-key start to a day that, if lacking in magickal fire, will provide a good deal of insight into the state of Thelema today.
Next comes Michael Staley, co-organiser of the conference. A civil servant by day, alarmingly unassuming in appearance and manner, Staley is in fact a senior member of the Typhonian OTO, the magical order under whose aegis the day has been assembled [See sidebar for more information on the Typhonian OTO.] Furthering the sense that this was some kind of church hall meeting from a parallel dimension, he informed us that refreshments were available in the lobby, and that there would be a raffle at the end of the day, the price of entry to which included a glass of wine. “We don’t want to encourage rowdiness,” he cautioned. Crowley would have turned in his grave, if he hadn’t been cremated.
As TOTO-OHO [see sidebar], the master of the Mauve Zone, Kenneth Grant himself, had been invited to address the conference, but had declined the offer, being “increasingly reclusive of late”—in fact nobody but his close colleagues have seen him for at least a decade. But Kenny G, as he is affectionately known, did send a message of cheerful encouragement: “Time and the universe are coming to an end after 26,000 years…the Sata Yuga is dawning… on December 21, 2012 the Sun enters the womb of Isis and a new Isis will infuse the planet.” Those of us who are not initiated can only assume that this is a Good Thing.
Staley’s own presentation, “The Letter Killeth but the Spirit Giveth Life,” highlighted some of the key issues of the conference and the key problems of being a 21st-century Thelemite. Central to this, Staley felt, is the need to steer Thelema away from the cult of the Great Beast himself. “Thelema is more than Crowley,” he said, “he was, after all, only a medium for the message of Thelema…a human mind serving as an outcropping of a greater cosmic consciousness. We should only consider Crowley to have some deep insight into The Book of the Law if he himself had written it—which he claimed not to have done.”
This matter of authorship remains the great question within Thelema. However, few people would deny that LAVL bears Crowley’s imprint. Western magic expert and Crowley biographer Francis King notes in The Magical World of Aleister Crowley, that LAVL is “written in a heavily jewelled prose strongly reminiscent of some of the writers of the 1890s,” while biographer and Thelemite Israel Regardie, points out that it contains “inummerable subtle references to Qabalah and Tarot—all contents of Crowley’s own mind, materials derived from the Order [The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn] which shaped his life.”
Of course, even LAVL’s most famous proclamation “Do what thou wilt” is borrowed from Rabelais (via St Augustine who wrote, “love and do what thy wilt” in his fifth-century Homilies on the First Epistle of St John)—is the name Thelema itself. To hardcore Thelemites, however, this is further evidence of Thelema’s role in history, not unlike the way that Creationist Christians consider fossils to be further proof of God’s mighty imagination. Nietzsche’s “will to power” philosophy must also get a name check, though Crowley denies—perhaps unconvincingly—having read the moustachioed nihilist previous to LAVL’s transmission.
“I was bitterly opposed to the principles of the Book on almost every point of morality,”Crowley would later write in his autobigraphical Confessions. “The third chapter seemed to me to be gratuitously atrocious. My soul, infinitely sad at the universal sorrow, was passionately eager to raise humanity.” But if there’s one thing we can say about the man, it’s that he was inconsistent in his ideals: the sadistic sturm und drang of part three of LAVL—“mercy be let off: damn them who pity! Kill and torture; spare not…”—doesn’t sound out of character for a man who would later describe humanitarianism as “the syphilis of the mind.” Crowley also famously forbade anyone from studying LAVL too closely, then went on to write three commentaries on it. So should we really take him at his word when he denies any hand in authoring the text?
It seems unlikely that many people—if any—are to be drawn to Thelema except through the notoriety of Crowley as a character, and we should never underestimate his appeal. He is, after all, perhaps the most famous occultist in history and a true bad boy of rock and roll, long before rock and roll even existed—and it’s through the rock and roll of Led Zeppelin and others that most people today will encounter him. Needless to say, while many of his ideas and achievements are to be admired, his treatment of other people is not, and nor are his struggles with alcoholism, heroin addiction and bankruptcy.
Such moralising aside, we might ask whether taking Crowley out of Thelema is like taking Jesus out of Christianity or Mohammed out of Islam. Not so, says Martin Starr, author of the Thelemic history, The Unknown God, and a speaker at the conference: “Crowley’s name is nowhere mentioned in The Book of the Law, but you will find Jesus in the New Testament and Mohammed in the Koran. I don’t think you can remove Crowley from the discussion, but he need not be the center of it… The last thing the world needs is another cult of personality.”
In meeting the surviving members of the first OTO chapters in the United States, Starr found that, as with many spiritual sects, there was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance between the claims made for Thelema, peoples’ personal experiences and what actually happened to them. There was also a deep sense of millennarian angst within the group. LAVL is considered prophecy by true Thelemites, and warns that the planet must be bathed in bloodshed and war before humankind is ready to usher in third aeon. The two World Wars and incessant skirmishes of the 20th century would certainly constitute such a period—and, as has been suggested, the “war engine” described in chapter three could be equated with the atomic bomb—but human history is virtually defined by its battles and conquests, and this current century looks to be no exception.
Starr also highlighted the political intentions behind the early OTO. LAVL is not a humanitarian text, nor is it particularly tolerant of other cultures: ”Curse them! Curse them! Curse them! With my hawk’s head I peck at the eyes of Jesus as he hangs upon the cross. I flap my wings in the face of Mohammed and blind him. With my claws I tear out the flesh of the Indian and the Buddhist, Mongol and Din.” Order Head Theodore Reuss had intended for the OTO to be the seed for a new system of government, an elite court based on a strongly feudal system—suggested by LAVL lines like “the slaves shall serve”—while a later Brazilian Thelemite Marcelo Motta, also sought to transform society through rituals performed at an OTO compound.
Swedish Caliphate OTO member Carl Abrahamsson spoke to the conference about just such a speculative Thelemic state. Thelemic politics, he said should secure the rights of man like love, liberty and movement. Parts of LAVL do read like a liberal dream of the late ‘60s, all free love and sun worship, but dark shadows loom: not least with the right granted to Thelemites to slay those who oppose such freedoms. Thelemocracy, as we might call it, would practice “tolerant intolerance,” would promote a meritocratic, theocratic aristocracy and encourage individual endevour and self-improvement. Abrahamsson suggests an unpaid council of Thelemic elders to adjudicate over state matters, but as a panel of the speakers later in the day revealed, getting Thelemites to agree on anything at all, let alone matters of state importance, would make herding the 72 demons of the Goetia seem easy.
A look around the conference hall may also have raised qualms about the future state of Thelemia. The day’s audience was at least 80 percent male and, with a few notable exceptions, at least if shallow but oh-so-important outward appearances are anything to go by, not exactly representative of the cream of an elite society. It’s my guess that convincing the rest of society to bow down to the might of the Thelemites’ swords could be more difficult than anyone here has anticipated.
As you’d expect, there was also some good old fashioned gonzo magic(k) to contend with during the day. Furthest out there by a moon shot was American Margaret Ingalls, known as Nema, a wiccan high priestess and TOTO thelemite who works with what she calls Maat magic; Maat, the daughter of Ra, the Egyptian Sun God, representing truth, justice balance and honesty.
Struck by a vision of a golden-skinned humanoid named Natan, Nema learned the secrets of humankind’s future, in which we are to become Homo Veritas and develop a greater sense of a shared species consciousness. Working towards this, Nema conducts group time travel workings—in which Natan unveils the mulitverse to his audience—and also monthly astral meetings of the 100 or so members of her Horus-Maat lodge. Held on an astral moonbase at the time of each new moon, participants all around the world slip into a trance state and enter interstitial existence. Here they project magical sigils into the astral menstrum and communicate with beings from other dimensions, afterwards mailing accounts of their experiences to an email discussion group. While corroborative details are rare in participants’ astral journals, it does apparently happen often enough to keep them coming back for more.
Mogg Morgan of Mandrake Press discussed the central role of sex magick in Thelema, reminding us that “If you want to succeed, you have to suck seed!” Before receiving LAVL, Crowley and Kelly would have enacted the ritual of the Cakes of Light, in which male semen and female menstural blood are combined and ingested. Morgan demonstrated that the Cakes of Light rite was practiced in ancient Egypt and even appears in the Old Testament, which isn’t something they teach you in school. Now, about those cookies in the foyer…
Veteran psychic quester Andrew Collins recounted his encounters over three decades with a malevolent Crowleyesque spirit entity. In keeping with the ideas of Kenneth Grant and TOTO, the entity first manifested in the 1970s, during the hypnosis of a woman who felt that she had been abducted by extraterrestrials. The entity instructed Collins and the abductee to recreate a lost magical order with the “Inner Book of the Law” at its center. To instigate the new movement they were to perform a rite at the site of Crowley’s short-lived Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu, Sicily. Several mediums warned Collins away from the situation and the working never took place, but the entity returned sporadically via a number of different spirit channels. The Crowley-thing has returned to Collins in recent years however, steering him towards a buried relic that may or may not be a “grail cup”—an upcoming book promises to reveal more. In the days prior to the conference, Collins had been out in Cairo, paying tribute to the spirit of LAVL with open air magical workings and a visit to the Stele of Revealing in the Cairo Museum. Possibly a parting shot from the Crowley-thing, Collins was struck with a severe bout of Aiwass’ Revenge on the way home.
* * *
Thelema is very much alive in the 21st century, its endurance in part due to its flexibility as a perennial philosophy of individuality. In the words of Martin Starr, it is “capable of being applied to any number of pre-existing belief systems, but essentially bound to none of them.”
Despite the conference title of Thelema Beyond Crowley, it seems that planet Thelema is still having difficulties escaping the gravitational pull of the Great Beast’s great domed head. Many pagans steer clear of Thelema because of its associations with a man who is still considered bad news by a community that is itself demonized by the world’s dominant religions.
Of course, many new magicians and occultists are drawn to these areas precisely by the stories they hear about figures like Crowley. Without the fire brought to the dark arts by such charismatic personalities, Thelema and magick are in danger of fizzling away with the older generations of magi. As they mature as magicians, those who stick with the path will accept their youthful and enthusiastic naiveties for what they were, but something needs to excite and inspire them onto that path in the first place. For some it will be Buffy, for others Led Zeppelin and the Beast himself. As one speaker pointed out, Crowley actually makes for a very good guru, because as you become older and wiser it’s increasingly difficult to maintain any illusions about his personality, and the impulse to idealize the man—for that is what he was—swiftly dissolves.
As the conference ended, I supped my complimentary glass of red wine, munched my cheese sandwiches of light and chatted with other attendees about whether Atlantis is still off the coast of Cuba—the answer, apparently, is no—and who would make a good Crowley in a biopic. The day had been a success: the speakers had presented interesting material, and most importantly, the centenary had been commemorated in some fashion. But I also realised that it had lacked exactly what Crowley and others like him had, the thing that had drawn his followers, and the merely curious like myself, to him.
For me, and I suspect many others who are fascinated by it, magick needs fire, be it holy or unholy; it needs drama, energy and pazazz; it needs the whiff of risk and of the sulphurous stench of danger; and most of all it needs mystery. The Beast, whether or not he was a successful human, had all these things in abundance. Remove Crowley from Thelema and (at the risk of upsetting many Thelemites) I believe you remove much of its Magick. So much of the man is imbued in the philosophy that he brought into the world—albeit, perhaps, unconsciously—that to extract him from the equation is to extract its very lifeblood.
Magick, particularly Crowley’s magick, is complex, both intellectually and morally, reflecting the far-reaching minds in which it was forged. Magick is an art, and while art can always be appreciated when divorced from its origins, the more you know about the minds and forces that shaped it, the richer that appreciation becomes. And is this not ultimately what High Magick is about, “knowledge and conversation with the holy guardian angel”—with the creator—with your self?
Estimates for the number of current adherents worldwide range from 5-25,000, suggesting that, while theirs is not a small religon, the state of Thelemia is a long way from entry to the United Nations. But it is out there. As one speaker told the audience: “Thelema is happening whether or not people know where it’s coming from. The law of Thelema is a law of nature, like gravity.” The forces brought into play by Crowley, Kelly, Aiwass and subsequent generations of Thelemites are here to stay.
“The Book of the Law is Written and Concealed. Aum. Ha”
SIDEBAR: A Brief History of the OTO
by Mark Pilkington
The seeds of the OTO—Ordo Templi Orientis or Oriental Templar Order—were planted at the close of the 19th century by a wealthy Austrian chemist, Karl Kellner, who had traveled widely and steeped himself in Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and the mysteries of the East. The Order itself emerged in 1902 thanks to the input of another compulsive joiner of orders, Theodor Reuss. A journalist by trade, Reuss was also heading a revival of Adam Weishaupt’s 18th century Bavarian Illuminati. With only a handful of members, including, briefly, the celebrated mystic Rudolph Steiner, it’s thought that not a lot happened within the OTO until Reuss met Aleister Crowley in 1910, appointing him “National Grand Master General X° of O.T.O. for Great Britain and Ireland.” Crowley and Reuss proceeded to reorder the Order, with the Beast writing some new rituals, most notably the Gnostic Mass, the OTO’s key ceremony, which is still keenly performed to this day. As his health declined, Reuss made Crowley Frater Superior, or Outer Head of the Order (OHO) in 1922, and he proceeded to significantly re-align the Order towards his own Thelemic ideals, remaining its OHO until his death in 1947.
On the Beast’s demise, leadership of the OTO passed to a German living in California, Karl Germer, whose occult interests had seen him do time in a Nazi concentration camp. Physical lodge meetings came to an end under Germer, and his death in 1962 left the group struggling with a power vaccum. The vacancy was eventually filled by one Grady McMurty, an obedient, veteran member of the Californian lodge, who had enjoyed friendly correspondence with Crowley in the early 1940s.
Also vying for the position, however, was an Englishman, Kenneth Grant.
In 1945, Grant had spent several months living with Crowley in the Hastings boarding house where he ended his days, serving as his personal assistant in exchange for first-hand magical teaching. He would later co-edit Crowley’s Confessions, with John Symonds, and write several influential, though to most people—even those who have read them—impenetrable books. These “Typhonian Trilogies” merge Crowleyan ideas with supernatural fiction legend H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos, something one can only imagine would have displeased both authors immensely.
In 1955 Grant set up his own order, the New Isis Lodge, which sought to open up interdimensional channels of communication with whatever entities were out there and, following Karl Germer’s death, made a bid for global OTO leadership. When this failed, Grant transformed his New Isis Lodge into the Typhonian OTO (TOTO), referencing the fearsome—and appropriately Lovecraftian—many-headed Graeco-Egyptian dragon goddess, Typhon, mother of the murderous Set. Just in case this wasn’t complicated enough, the American OTO now calls itself the Caliphate OTO, and recently survived a very unmagical legal battle to retain ownership of the name OTO, all relevant assets and the official position of being the OTO recognized by Crowley, who, being long dead, presumably was not consulted on the matter.