by Rodney Orpheus
Author’s note: this essay assumes a rudimentary familiarity with Thelemic literature and terminology. As such it is not intended for a general audience but for those who have some small experience in Thelemic magick, or who have been initiated into a Thelemic magical Order, even at a basic level. I hope such readers will find it valuable.
– Rodney Orpheus, September 2013 e.v.
In recent years I have begun to notice a phenomenon arising which I have referred to as the “Serious Thelema” movement, due to its promulgators frequently describing themselves as “serious Thelemites”, as opposed to all the other Thelemites who presumably are not “serious”. This “othering” of Thelemites by using the “serious” mark has been going on since at least the 1980s when the then head of A.A., Marcelo Motta, frequently used the term “serious students of Thelema” in his works, in order to differentiate himself and his group from other, supposedly inferior, Thelemites, and much of its present-day usage can still be traced back to the false dichotomy set up then.
So what differentiates a Serious Thelemite from all us other non-serious Thelemites? I think most Serious Thelemites would say that it is that they take a very orthodox, fundamentalist position on Thelema, by appealing directly to the writings of Aleister Crowley; and the strong rejection of anything contradictory to that, especially viewpoints of other, earlier religions. I have even seen Serious Thelemites argue that other Thelemites can not be accepted as “proper” Thelemites within the community unless they make a specific public declaration of repudiating “slave religions”. Ironically of course, this mechanism of using social and community pressure to force people to either “convert” or be ostracized is precisely the same mechanism used by those fundamentalists of the slave religions themselves; and I think it no coincidence that these modern-day Thelemic fundamentalists appear to share the same pathology. And also appear possess a similar inability to sense irony.
Serious Thelemites thus attempt to set up an “In group” (those that agree with their supposedly “orthodox” interpretation and methodology), and an “Out group” of Others not like them (who are by implication inferior) – yes, just like High School.
I don’t think it takes Sigmund Freud to figure out that this kind of “Othering” basically springs from an attempt on the part of the perpetrator to claim they they are somehow “better” or “more dedicated” than those who do not hold the coveted Serious Thelemite title; and that thus the holder of such a title gains more prestige and social capital than those who are not Serious. It is notable that the majority of the promulgators of this Othering are themselves usually neither leading Thelemic writers nor of high rank in OTO, neither are they “newbies” possessing of no social capital; but instead are largely drawn from the the middle of the pack, or from small fringe organisations, and thus highly motivated to jostle for position within the subculture’s social hierarchy. It is also notable that they are almost all men – that’s a subject for an essay all in itself there, but suffice it to say for now that there is probably an “alpha male” thing going on in there somewhere.
Let’s turn our attention to the actual methods and arguments used in the Serious Thelemite movement, which at face value often seem to have good logical and theological basis, despite being motivated by the psychology noted above.
The first issue we come across is: how does one even be a non-serious Thelemite? To accept the Law of Thelema, even at its simplest, requires an almost total rejection of historic social, political, and religious norms, and the taking on of complete responsibility for one’s own actions – how can this be anything other than “serious”? The answer, to the Serious Thelemite, is that some Thelemites are “doing it wrong”, or at least, not doing it right enough.
To take an example of Serious Thelemite logic – recently that hoary old chestnut reared its head again on a couple of Internet forums: is Thelema a religion? Now a child of ten could answer this in a few seconds by simply looking up the word “religion” in a dictionary (the correct answer is “yes” by the way, and most of the readers of the thread quite sensibly wondered why anyone would think any differently), but nooooo…. says the Serious Thelemite:
“It is not a religion, because The Prophet says so.”
(I paraphrase from several variations of this answer.)
Now, none of these people seemed to see the inherent contradiction in the preceding statement. I am hoping most of my readers can, since it appears fairly obvious: once you have a Prophet you inherently have a religion, since a Prophet is a functionary within a religious system. Ironically of course, the fact that the Serious Thelemites could not accept Thelema as a religion was because of their own religious belief in The Word of The Prophet,
(As an aside, I should add that referring to Aleister Crowley as “The Prophet” appears to be another common identifying mark of the Serious Thelemite, I presume because it shows they understand the depth of His thought and His religious importance more than the rest of us poor uneducated non-serious Thelemites.)
But their argument, on the face of it, appears to have merit: it appeals to a commanding figure whose authority is absolute on these things. The problem is that it’s simply wrong, as our ten-year old is no doubt still trying to tell us. So there would appear to be an issue with the authority invoked. This leaves us in a dilemma. Does this mean we either have to reject Aleister Crowley completely, or that we have to follow the One True Serious Orthodox Way despite it being erroneous? Neither seems to make sense.
I believe it was my friend and respected colleague, Sabazius X° who stated “Our Thelema is the Thelema of Aleister Crowley”, a phrase which has been widely quoted by Serious Thelemites as a call to action for their movement. Leaving aside questions of the context of Sabazius’ speech, that seems fairly reasonable as a motto, and is often followed by the statement that “All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself” made by Aleister Crowley. Ok, now we have The New Thelemic Orthodoxy in place: if Crowley said it, it counts as real, so all I have to do is quote Crowley and that proves I am a Serious Thelemite and I am truly Orthodox. An unassailable theological position one would think.
There are four problems with this theory though:
- Crowley wrote a huge amount of things.
- Like any intelligent person, Crowley changed his mind about things over time, often several times.
- Crowley quotes are frequently taken out of context, or accidentally or deliberately misunderstood or obfuscated.
- Aleister Crowley never said it in the first place.
Ok, let’s take these in reverse order.
The Serious Thelemite yells “Aha! He did too say it – it’s in The Comment to the Book of the Law! Your argument is invalid!”
Except he didn’t. The Comment to the Book of the Law is not by Aleister Crowley. It’s by Ankh-f-n-khonsu.
Now this gets us into the murky theological waters of the Multiple Magical Personalities of Aleister Crowley Theorem. This theorem postulates that Crowley had several different magical identities, depending on which magical function he was performing at the time, and each emanating from different layers of magical consciousness. For example we have:
- Aleister Crowley: poet and fiction writer
- To Mega Therion: the Logos of the Aeon
- V.V.V.V.V.: a Secret Chief from Beyond the Veil
- Ankh-f-n-khonsu: the scribe of the Book of the Law
- …and many more…
This separation of Crowley personalities is referred to in many places in The Holy Books of Thelema, one example being in the Book of the Law itself, where the man Aleister Crowley is referred to in the second person (“O prophet! thou hast ill will to learn this writing. I see thee hate the hand & the pen”), whereas Ankh-f-n-khonsu is referred to in the third person (“This that thou writest is the threefold book of Law. My scribe Ankh-af-na-khonsu, the priest of the princes, shall not in one letter change this book; but lest there be folly, he shall comment thereupon by the wisdom of Ra-Hoor-Khuit.”). The Prophet is Aleister Crowley, but the Scribe is Ankh-f-n-khonsu. (You can read more about this in Crowley’s Commentaries to Liber LXV, but take it as established Thelemic dogma for now. I’ll write another essay going into detail on this some other time.)
The very fact that we have “Holy Books” in the first place is based on this theorem of Multiple Magical Personalities, since to be a Holy Book, or Class A document as they are also known, the book is described as being written beyond human consciousness and thus not subject to human fallibility. It is the very fundament of the notion of a “Holy” Book in the first place. And since The Comment to the Book of the Law is a Class A Holy Book, it can’t have been written by Aleister Crowley, the man and poet (since his works are fallible), but had to be written by Ankh-f-n-knhonsu (whose works are presumably superhuman). So when Ankh-f-n-Khonsu says “All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself” that narrows it down to just two things: the Book of the Law, and The Comment itself. None of the rest of Crowley’s fine works count, since none of them were written by Ankh-f-n-khonsu. Even the other Holy Books don’t count when it comes to questions of the Law, since they are mostly written by another magical persona, V.V.V.V.V.
Now this is all predicated on the assumption that one holds the preceding theological theorem to be true, and the Thelemic Holy Books were written and/or inspired and/or dictated by Gods and Angels and Ascended Adepts. But what if it’s not true? What if it really was Aleister Crowley the man who wrote that stuff, not some sort of trans-human consciousness? That’s a fair enough argument, but if you accept that argument then you demolish the entire edifice of “Class A Holy Books” – because if these are not written by some kind of superhuman entity, then they are all just stuff written by some upper-class English dude a hundred years ago, and we can take or leave them as we please. There is no middle ground here: it’s either one huge magical thing, or it’s no huge magical thing. Take your pick. If you pick door number 1, then the Holy Books are holy, and the rest is just some variable but interesting stuff you can accept or not; or you pick door number 2, where it’s all just variable but interesting stuff that you can accept or not. Either way, you don’t get to preach that some garbled note that Crowley wrote in his diary at 3am while up all night taking cocaine has the force of theological imperative that all Serious Thelemites must follow or face being shunned.
“Aha! But wait, there’s a middle way,” says our Serious Thelemite. “The Book of the Law was dictated by Aiwass, and Aleister Crowley was chosen to comment on it, so we should follow his interpretation of the text as given in his Commentaries, since the Book of the Law says he is chosen specially to do that.”
Again, this seems very logical and reasonable on the face of it. But let’s go back to the actual text of the Book of the Law…
“My scribe Ankh-af-na-khonsu, the priest of the princes, shall not in one letter change this book; but lest there be folly, he shall comment thereupon by the wisdom of Ra-Hoor-Khuit.” – Liber Legis I, 36
“But the work of the comment? That is easy; and Hadit burning in thy heart shall make swift and secure thy pen.” – Liber Legis III, 40:
So Crowley (or to be more exact Ankh-af-na-khonsu) was certainly instructed to comment. Crowley assumed that he was meant to write extensive commentary on the book, and tried several times, with each time being a long and difficult process. Which was not encouraging, because Chapter III of the Book of the Law said it should be easy and swift. To complicate things even further, Crowley said that it took him ten years to understand the first chapter of the Book of the Law, ten years to understand the second chapter, and he still didn’t understand the third chapter. And since he wrote his long commentaries within twenty years of the writing of the Book of the Law, then by his own admission he was commenting on at least one chapter that even he didn’t understand. Crowley later wrote in his Confessions:
“I had stupidly supposed this Comment to be a scholarly exposition of the Book, an elucidation of its obscurities and a demonstration of its praeterhuman origin. I understand at last that this idea is nonsense. The Comment must be an interpretation of the Book intelligible to the simplest minds, and as practical as the Ten Commandments.”
Also of note is that the Book of the Law commanded that the Comment be done “by the wisdom of Ra-Hoor-Khuit” i.e. to be divinely inspired, a Class A document. Crowley’s original commentaries were certainly not divinely inspired, they were “a scholarly exposition”, which was not what was asked for in the Book of the Law. So it is definitely erroneous to assume that Crowley’s long commentaries are some kind of divinely ordained specially correct interpretation of the Book of the Law. Only the Comment signed Anhk-f-n-khonsu can be considered as such. So in short, no, there is no third way. You can choose door #1 or choose door #2 as above, and that’s all the choice you get.
To go back to our original four problems, let’s examine number 3: pure misunderstanding. Not long ago there was a storm in a teacup about whether a certain word in the Book of the Law was “kill” or “fill”. Serious Thelemites were up in arms about it.
“Change not as much as the style of a letter in Liber AL vel Legis!” they thundered. “Liber AL must remain as it was in the original manuscript!”
Oh, how I laughed. The irony meter was in danger of overloading, as one by one Serious Thelemites took up the cry. Not one of them seemed to realise that in the original manuscript the Book of the Law was called “Liber L” not “Liber AL“. The extra “A” was added many years later at the suggestion of C. S. Jones.
“In the first edition this Book is called L. L is the sacred letter in the Holy Twelve-fold Table which forms the triangle that stabilizes the Universe. See “Liber 418”. L is the letter of Libra, Balance, and ‘Justice’ in the Taro. This title should probably be “AL”, “El”, as the ‘L’ was heard of the Voice of Aiwaz, not seen. “AL” is the true name of the Book, for these letters, and their number 31, form the Master Key to its Mysteries.” – Aleister Crowley, The New Comment, ca. 1921
The Serious Thelemites had accepted a change in the Book of the Law for years, and never even noticed. But there’s a deeper problem: one supposedly unassailable authority says “Don’t change anything” (the Book of the Law); and another supposedly unassailable authority (Aleister Crowley) goes ahead and changes it… who’s right? Well, the Serious Thelemite says, Aleister Crowley is The Prophet, so he (and only he) is allowed to change it. Fair enough. Except…
“Change not as much as the style of a letter; for behold! thou, o prophet, shalt not behold all these mysteries hidden therein.“ Liber Legis I, 54
Aleister Crowley, The Prophet is directly instructed not to change it. That instruction was specifically targeted at him, and he ignored it. Oops.
The lesson here: even the experts can get it wrong. And sometimes they are just fixing stuff as they go along, like the rest of us are.
On to point number 2 in my list: that Crowley changed his mind. There are umpteen instances of this in his writings: sometimes because his opinion changed as he grew older, sometimes because he simply forgot what he had said years before. However Serious Thelemites take every utterance that he made as The Word of The Prophet. And frequently they prefer to quote statements made by him in his earlier work over statements made by him in his later works. I think it very reasonable that the later statements be given precedence, since if he changed his mind on something it’s probably because he learned more about the subject or had experiences that showed him that his early thoughts on the subject were incorrect.
This is such an important facet of his writing that I am frankly astonished that I was, as far as I know, the first Crowley scholar to point it out, in my Grimoire of Aleister Crowley. Everyone else appears to have taken every statement by Crowley as “his opinion” on the subject, regardless of context or age. His writings on women are a perfect example of this. His viewpoints range from utter adoration to utter contempt, and everything in between – and are usually a reflection not of his religious convictions on the subject, but on whether he himself was in a happy relationship with a woman at the time. A perfect example of this can be found in Liber Aleph, written while Crowley was heartbroken over being jilted in a love affair, and unsurprisingly filled with statements that are flowery variations on “that soulless bitch”. Does this imply that we must then believe that all women have no souls? Serious Thelemites would probably argue yes.
And to our first problem: that Crowley wrote a lot of stuff. Yah, he really did. I have shelves and shelves of his books at home. Holy Books, books on Magick and yoga and Tarot, and commentaries, and diaries…
“Wait… What?” (says Aleister Crowley himself). “What the hell are you doing with my diaries? And where did you get those commentaries on the Book of the Law? You weren’t supposed to be reading those!”
And indeed it is so. Crowley never intended half this stuff to be read at all, never mind used as some kind of touchstone of Thelemic Orthodoxy. His diaries are just that: his private thoughts and experiments, useful as a scientific or academic record, but never, ever intended to be treated as “The Word of The Prophet”. Similarly with his long commentaries on the Book of the Law. He wrote a bunch of these, but never published even one of them. Why? Because he wasn’t happy with them being used as scripture. He did authorize his friend and fellow O.T.O. member Louis Wilkinson to edit them for popular reading in an edition called The Law is for All. As Wilkinson wrote in the introduction to his edition:
“The aim of the Commentary on the Book of the Law is to guide the reader along the path of the discovery of his own true will, in accordance with which, and only in accordance with which, he can rightly think and act. This is why “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Only by doing so will you be shown your own true thought and life.”
So basically “Cliff’s Notes”, not Holy Writ. That’s not to say that some of what he wrote in these long commentaries isn’t valuable – quite the opposite, there is much wisdom in them. But there’s also a ton of junk in there too, by Crowley’s own admission. Frequently I see people new to Thelema ask what is the best stuff to read for a newbie, and the Serious Thelemites always say something like: “Oh, you should reall all of Crowley Commentaries on the Book of the Law, and not just that edited version published as The Law is for All, because it’s important to see all of the words of The Prophet.” How ironic then, that “The Prophet” himself thought that that was a terrible idea.
Not only that, Crowley wrote so much other stuff at so many different times, and under so many influences from drugs, drink, and emotional distress, that if you spend enough time combing through it all you will find a Crowley quote that supports pretty much any point of view you want. Want to prove Crowley was anti-racist? Easy, “Every man and every woman is a star”. Want to prove that he was a racist? Equally easy, there are a ton of racist statements in various books and diaries. For example, seeing as my wife is Eurasian, neither of us would be particularly happy to hear someone quote Crowley’s view of Eurasians as half-breed mongrels lacking willpower and moral fibre, never mind be expected to take it as some kind of Orthodox Thelemic Gospel (see the short story Not Good Enough in The Scrutinies of Simon Iff for that particular gem of enlightenment). I don’t care how much of a Prophet he was, you will still get a punch in the face if you talk to my wife like that.
On an associated note, I have also noticed recently some Serious Thelemites insisting that since Aleister Crowley is The Prophet that then his ideas on politics must also be part of Orthodox Thelema. Now Crowley was born into a nouveau riche, upper middle-class, English family at the height of the British Empire under Queen Victoria, and was educated as such, with all the privilege, political mythology, and general ignorance of the rest of the world that goes with it; so not surprisingly his political ruminations tend to reflect that socio-political milieu. It’s unlikely that he was able to even comprehend the plight of the ordinary citizen of the British Isles at that time, much less those of other nations. Not only that, many of his views were developed before the Book of the Law was written and it sometimes took him many years, or even decades, to update his political views to match. He also freely pretended to adopt political viewpoints that he didn’t care for at all – for example, during World War I he wrote extensive political rhetoric supposedly in favour of German and Irish nationalism, even though he cared not a jot for either, simply to cover the fact that he was actually working as a spy for the British Intelligence Services. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped modern 21st century Thelemites adopting his somewhat backward ideas as “enlightened political wisdom”, frequently with Monty Pythonesque results…
“We must follow the political teachings of The Prophet!”
“But what about his racism? Surely you can’t suggest that we should be racist?”
“Well no, not the racism, but everything else must be followed!”
“But what about his sexism? Shouldn’t we be treating women equally now?”
“Well obviously not the racism and the sexism, but apart from those, everything he says about politics is correct!”
“But what about…”
You get the picture by now I’m sure.
So where does that leave us non-serious Thelemites? What then is Thelemic Orthodoxy”? Why, it leaves us right back in a very simple position, as Bro. Wilkinson has pointed out: that Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
“Aha once more!” says the Serious Thelemite, “you know that shouldn’t be interpreted as a license to do what you want! Serious Thelemites know that what that really means is that you are constrained to do your True Will as stated by your Holy Guardian Angel!” (or some other complex metaphysical interpretation).
Now leaving aside why any intelligent person would accept the concept of a “Holy Guardian Angel” as a real thing instead of an absurd metaphor, which bit of “…the whole of the Law” are you guys not understanding here? That “whole of the Law” thing means exactly what it says: that nobody else gets to add their own addenda or interpretation or demands to the Law. It is about your Will, and that’s all there is.
When I say to you: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” I am literally saying “You get to do your thing your way and I don’t get to tell you what that should be”. The Book of the Law even tells us that in two different ways just in case we didn’t get it the first time:
“There is no law beyond do what thou wilt”.
You do not get to add more stuff to this. All that stuff Serious Thelemites keep telling you about the right and wrong interpretation of it? All they are showing us is that they haven’t even understood those basic eleven words of one syllable each: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Thus the real “Orthodox Thelema” is both simple, and completely individual. The only way that you can truly follow “the Thelema of Aleister Crowley” is by each of you taking it and making it your own Thelema, and living your life in your way. That’s the only “orthodox” Thelema that there is, or can be. It’s all the rest of that stuff being preached at you that isn’t orthodox. All that stuff you got told about what your True Will is or should be, or how it’s not really your Will that counts but the Will of some higher power? That’s “heresy” right there. The term “True Will” isn’t even in the Book of the Law (or The Comment). The Book of the Law just talks about Pure Will – the way of your going in the world, the Dao-De as the Daoists call it, the natural flow between you and the universe.
That is what the true “Orthodox Thelema” is: it is in the actions you take, and the life you lead, not in the Crowley words that you regurgitate.
Author’s note: The weekend before I wrote this essay I performed as Priest in the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass, where I was told afterwards that our Mass performance was “very orthodox”. Does that mean that there can be unorthodox Gnostic Masses? Yes, clearly it does, because the Gnostic Mass is a ritual whose performance text is clearly written down and whose wider rules and mission are regulated by the Gnostic Catholic Church. So this essay is not to say that we cannot, or should not be “orthodox” in our praxis of magical technology – I firmly believe that there is a right way (and lots of wrong ways) of performing our rituals, but our individual lives and decisions are our own, and must always be so. Let’s not confuse our religious belief with our religious praxis. And yeah, there’s a whole other article about that paradox to be written too.
Crowley, A., 1996. Commentaries on the Holy Books and Other Papers: The Equinox v.4, No.1. Red Wheel/Weiser.
Crowley, A., 1991. Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly. S. Weiser, York Beach, Me.
Crowley, A., 1983. Thelema: Holy Books Of Thelema. Weiser.
Crowley, A., 1996. The Law Is for All: The Authorized Popular Commentary of Liber Al Vel Legis sub figura CCXX, the Book of the Law. Thelema Media.
Crowley, A., 2004. The Book of the Law, Centennial Ed. ed. Red Wheel/Weiser.
Crowley, A., Desti, M., Waddell, L., 2004. Magick : Liber ABA, Book Four, Parts I-IV. S. Weiser, York Beach, Me.
Crowley, A., 2012. The Simon Iff stories and other works. Wordsworth, Ware.
Orpheus, R., 2011. Grimoire of Aleister Crowley. Abrahadabra Press.
Spence, R.B., 2008. Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult. Feral House, Los Angeles, Calif.
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