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Satariel’s Shroud: Sex, Power and Ethics in Contemporary Thelema

Satariel’s Shroud: Sex, Power and Ethics in Contemporary Thelema

By Shin Melitodes

Dion Fortune (1890-1946) is a rather out-of-fashion occultist; she is rarely considered transgressive or florid enough to merit research in today’s edge-obsessed occult milieu. At one of the first academic conferences I  ever attended I asked a fellow scholar what she thought of Fortune’s work. The scholar sneered, and said she had no interest in Fortune; “her books have no blood, no sex, no emotion, no depth; it’s all love and light. The woman didn’t know the meaning of initiation.” Later, at the same conference, I asked a magical practitioner what she thought of Fortune. Once again my question was met with a sneer. Fortune was old-fashioned and useless, the woman said, and no self-respecting magician had any business studying her work. As an impressionable young scholar, these encounters shocked me. Why was Fortune’s work considered so inferior as to be outright distasteful?

Last year I spoke out publicly about my personal experiences of sexual abuse within thelemic communities, and the larger trend of which I understood my experiences to be a part. Though many were kind and supportive, my words were met just as often with a sneering dismissal; why be involved in magic, and specifically sexual magic, the question was put to me, if I was a delicate snowflake that would play victim at the first sign of trauma?

Now these two occurrences may appear quite separate, but they are deeply linked. The contemporary magical milieu, particularly as it is manifested in various thelemic currents, is obsessed with edge-things. Aleister Crowley’s perennially popular work is full of “blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong.”[1] And indeed this seems an admirable enough aim in our current society, evolving as it is toward a whitewashed, nanny-state hyperreality – as it did in the repressive late-victorian era. Dion Fortune’s is quite the opposite, and can be characterised as a socially responsible and accessible (to the middle-classes) form of magic.[2] Those who follow the work of each tend to be divided quite neatly by taste and type. However, what has been almost entirely lost from our magical histories is the way that these two disparate authors wrote polemically, in reaction to one another and to the magical milieu of which they were both a part. And this is rather a dangerous thing to have forgotten.

On June 19th, 1928  Dion Fortune wrote to Gerald Yorke, offering her assistance with editing his Magick in Theory and Practice so that it would meet Rider & Co’s ethical standards; specifically, in erasing “A.C.’s ribaldries,” with Mr Strutton thought unacceptable to be seen by the company’s business manager . In a note written on the back of the letter, in Crowley’s characteristic scrawl, the Great Beast states “my ribaldries serve the excellent purpose of getting rid of prigs & prudes & people generally who want the Universe to conform with the standards of Bayswater.”[3] Yet one of the chief complaints levelled at Crowley during his life was his failure to meet a basic level of ethics in his magical practice and promulgation. Mary Butts was a modernist novelist and a co-author of Magick in Theory and Practice (under the pseudonym Soror Rhodon ). Butt entered the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu in 1921, but later in the same year broke with Crowley and condemned him in an interview for London’s Sunday Express. Although Butts was drawn to the thelemic mantra “Do What Thou Wilt”, she disagreed with Crowley deeply with regards to the ethical l obligations of magical practitioners. As Clukey notes in her article on Butt’s ethical occultism,

“From Butts’s perspective, Crowley revelled in the ethical transgressions of a form of magic and occultism that allowed for the attainment of heightened perception, regardless of what it might cost himself and others. What’s more, Butts observed that these costs were disproportionately shouldered by women […] after seeing the treatment of Crowley’s lovers Leah Hirsig, Ninette Shumway, and Jane Wolfe firsthand at the Abbey, Butts’s noted in her journal that his new religion relied on “his gulled, doped women” who seemed to remain in a constant state of pregnancy and invariably succumbed to alcoholism, prostitution, insanity, and suicide.”[4]

In line with Butts, Fortune both acknowledged the value of Crowley’s texts, and expressed much disdain for his approach to ethics. Creating an ethical magical system (or perhaps, a system of magical ethics) was at the very centre of Fortune’s esoteric work. In 1935 Fortune published the first of a series of occult, cabbalistic novels, The Winged Bull. The antagonist of the book is a caricature of Crowley, named Hugo Astley, whose wife is in an asylum, and who is waited on by a “sickly and unclean nymph who had had altogether too much attention from Pan.”[5]  With the pathetic figure of Astley Fortune was parodying Crowley’s self-presentation as “the wickedest man in the world;” but she was also attempting to show the very real consequences of black magic. Through the novel Fortune argues that it is not sin and damnation that one must fear, but the mental and physical illness that can be the result of an abusive relationship with a powerful, charismatic, and unethical man.

Fortune’s key aims, across all of her work, were accessibility and responsibility. She wanted to create a current of magic accessible even to those “who would not sit down to read a prose work on occultism.”[6] While the Theosophical Society was still eminently respectable, by the interwar period Ceremonial Magic had fallen into disrepute, almost single-handedly through the public notoriety Crowley courted for himself. Fortune believed that magic had an incredible amount of rejuvenating potential for the depressed interwar british society, and sought to redeem it for this use; thus she wrote novels without the blood and sex that had characterised  both Crowley’s fiction, and those of the occult-decadent literary milieu. Despite their PG content, Fortune’s novels have been perennially popular, and have remained in print since their initial publishing. Further, and in part through their influence on the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Fortune’s novels have had a huge impact on the development of the contemporary New Age milieu. Fortune was one of the first modern occultists to talk about ley lines, and was one of  the first to offer simple do-it-yourself instructions for magic and ceremonial. She was also a pioneer researcher in the nutritious possibilities of soya, and wrote on the importance of physical health and a vegetarian diet for proper spiritual functioning.[7]

Aleister Crowley’s approach to women is often hailed as revolutionary, a liberation narrative in the midst of later-victorian values. Crowley’s demand that women be shameless appears a war cry in a society that still imbues women’s bodies with a constant sense of shame. Yet, compared to many of the feminist texts written in the later-victorian and interwar periods, Crowley’s doctrine of womanhood is old-fashioned and misogynistic. His creation of the office of the Scarlet Woman is often hailed as a new stage in women’s sexual liberation; in fact, it is nothing more than a crystal cage. A perfect example of the way, as Shulamith Firestone argues,[8] goddess-religions do not give women a better social position, but merely trap them upon the altar.[9] Consider the fact that so many occult institutions contemporary with Crowley (such as the Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn, and the Society of the Inner Light) were run by women, and had women at their center. Crowley had an endless stream of female partners throughout his life (and indeed seemed helpless to create without them); yet none of these women achieved temporal power, the likes of which was held by Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Moina Mathers and Dion Fortune. Even today, there has never been a female King or O.H.O of the O.T.O. This is not a coincidence, nor is it an accident of history. The Scarlet Woman is not, and never was, a figure of liberation; she is Satariel’s Shroud. She is an insidious and incredibly effective mechanic of repression. Crowley’s approach to women was not feminist, but actively anti-feminist; a reaction to the growing empowerment of women. In fact, Crowley created a new mechanic for women’s repression from the very milieu which was proving one of feminism’s most powerful allies. Crowley’s glass-cage formula of feminine sexuality is insidious and clever and has been hugely influential, to the extent that ‘post-feminist’ notions of self-expression and sexual liberation often appear to be the only discourse that is deemed valid within contemporary thelema. I believe Crowley would have been very, very proud.

Crowley’s unethical treatment of his magical partners can be blamed on his innate misogyny, or his sadomasochistic predilections; but it is also something that is deeply interlinked with his understanding of sexual magic itself. It has been said to me more times than I can count that the role of women in Thelema is not incidental, but essential; that the active phallus and woman-as-vessel is the essential structure of the sexual magic secret. And indeed this is the case; but only in the specific construction of sexual magic which is the centre of the O.T.O. This formulation was influenced by Reuss, who in turn had been influenced by Clement de Saint-Marcq whose rediscovery of the ancient initiatory practice of spermatophagy ignored the equal use of foetal matter in his source material. The IX° working, which is the highest practical degree in the O.T.O. (the X° , it is claimed, being a purely administrative degree), has recently been published in Amor Divina.[10]  In this rite it is the combination of menstrual blood with semen, magically prepared, that is the elixir of life. However the ritual continues the assumption made by Saint-Marcq that the male partner is the phallus, the operator of the rite; the active agent, and the one who attains. As stated in ‘Emblems and Modes of Use,’ “it is possible, and unfortunately often necessary,  to employ an Eagle [female partner] altogether ignorant of the theory, or even what is being done. I have found this works perfectly; indeed, when the Eagle is aware, a thousand difficulties crop up. It is horrifyingly rare to find an Eagle genuinely capable of initiated cooperation.”[11]  There is no female agency within this construction of sexual magic; thus, there can be no female attainment within this formula.

This is the most famous of the sex magick formulas, and (along with the mutual-orgasmic formulation of Paschal Beverly Randolph) has hugely influenced how we – both practitioners, and the occult milieu on a larger scale – understand sexual magic to operate. Yet there was another approach to sexual magic operating within the milieu of the Occult Revival, one that has remained shrouded in secrecy  due to the group which propounded it, the Holy Order of the Sun, continuing to operate to this day. The Holy Order of the Sun, with its London headquarters at the Cromlech Temple, was one of the only magical orders of the day which Crowley seemed to have no interest in participating in, and from which he took no inspiration. What kept Crowley away is, I believe, the same thing that drew so many prominent members of the Anglo-Catholic clergy to become members, and even leaders, of the group. The Holy Order of the Sun taught an ethical, interpersonal approach to divine sexuality with a heavy focus on the doctrine of Shekinah. They worked toward the development of the divine duality circuit in one’s own magical relationships. Within the work Cromlech Temple the ethics of magical sexuality was not incidental to the operation, but was integral to the mechanic itself. Within the system of the Holy Order of the Sun, ethical development was the path to adepthood (this had been the understanding underpinning both the work of the spiritual alchemists, and that of the Rosicrucians). Comparing the sexual magic formulae of the O.T.O. and the Holy Order of the Sun, we find two disparate approaches to sexuality, ethics and ontology operating within one magical milieu.

Dion Fortune is the most famous occultist to have been a member of the Cromlech Temple, and her work offers us a glimpse into the form of sexual magic worked by the mysterious temple. After the publication of the Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage in 1924 Moina Mathers criticised Fortune for her open disclosure of secret Alpha and Omega (an offshoot of the Golden Dawn) teachings on sexual polarity, which were supposed to be restricted to the higher grades of the order. Fortune responded that she had not yet reached these higher grades, and therefore could not have known about these teachings. This exchange has always puzzled scholars and biographers of Fortune, for there is no evidence of secret teachings on sexual polarity within the higher grades of the Alpha and Omega. However, Mathers was also in a position of leadership within the Cromlech Temple, which certainly did have secret teachings on sexuality and polarity.

Like Crowley, Fortune believed that sexuality was at the centre of the great secrets of magical attainment. However, unlike Crowley, Fortune argued that “the actual physical reactions of sex form a very small proportion, and by no means the most vital portion of its functioning.”[12]  According to Fortune, sex as a physical act is merely one aspect of sexual force, and sexual force is merely one aspect of a much greater force, better understood as “the emanating influence of pure being rather than as a thing in itself.” Thus, for Fortune, “there is no such thing as sex per se, it is life force manifesting on a particular level.”[13]  Further, “although the life-force may undergo many transformations an even be put to uses far removed from its original impulse, it is nevertheless divine in origin and nature, to be revered as sacred.”[14]

Fortune understood magical power to be generated through a circuit of sexual tension which, when drawn up from the physical towards the mental and astral levels, would become available for magical work. In order for this to be successful, the couple must resist the desire to ground these forces is coitus; in her 1940 article “Sexual Ethics in Occultism,” Fortune argues that “there is no force available for magic immediately after orgasm, and in magic rightly worked there will be no force available for orgasm either.”[15] “Orgasm earths the force; so does a properly worked magical ceremony.”[16] Sexual force is “simply the life force on a particular level.”[17] This force may be used in coitus, or it may be used in magic, but it cannot be used in both. The key to Fortune’s approach to sexual magic was her understanding of polarity. Sexual magic could only be operated (except for the rare cases of extremely advanced adepts who are in circuit with the universe itself) within a circuit; and the most advantageous circuit was one with two poles. The active and passive elements in each individual play off across different levels, and neither personality is overwhelmed. In circuit, both partners are rejuvenated, able to draw energy from the earth through their partners to experience “an intensification of life on all its levels.”[18]  They are thus able to reach their full potential as individuals, yet the energy raised is more than the sum of its parts; if  they are adepts, the energy raised in the circuit can be used to make changes to the group soul of the race. This form of sexual magic is illustrated in each of Fortune’s novels; in the The Winged Bull and The Goat-Foot God in its development and impact within the couple only, to create an ideal magical marriage; in The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, in the way this process can be used by an adept to stimulate evolution in the world at large.

The comparison with Crowley’s approach is wonderfully summed up in a quote from The Winged Bull.

“I am trying to get in touch with the spiritual forces that built the universe so that I may be part of evolving life; [Astley] is trying to use them for his own ends. Working on his formula, Frank swells up like a bull-frog and Ursula is like a sucked orange. Working on my formula, they would have been the positive and negative poles of a battery, generating current.”

“What sort of current?”

“An intensification of life on all its levels.”[19]

Through the course of the novel, Fortune contrasts two different formulae of magic; the Black Magic of Astley, which would leave the protagonist Ursula utterly drained, and the White Magic of the adept Brangwyn, which would leave both Ursula and her partner Murchison with this “intensification of life.” The difference between these two forms of magic is the extent to which they utilise the concept of the circuit, which necessitates the ethical treatment of the magical partner. Though much of her characterisation of Astley is a parody, much is also not. In the novel Fortune attempts to show that, while Crowley believed that it was acceptable to suck a woman dry in order to gain power (indeed that this was the necessary inter-relational process of the Logos of the New Aeon) , Fortune believed that the power gained through circuit is infinitely greater than that of use and abuse; both in sustainability, and in evolution-sparking quality.

I was familiar with Fortune’s focus on ethics and social responsibility, and her reaction to and self-conscious contrast with Crowley, long before I had ever met a practicing magician. With a direction of travel that seems to be rather rare within our milieu, I began my path as an academic, and approached practice after I realised I would never, by definition, be able to fully understand initiation from an etic position. One of the very first things I noticed, as I began to attend practitioner-focused events within the UK, was that majority of the women were terribly glamorous and done-up, and that the majority of the men were rather unkempt. Becoming involved in the O.T.O., I discovered that glamour was absolutely the currency du jour; women could be priestess with no experience, if they were glamorous enough. When less glamorous women took the role, I saw them mocked and derided. What more should I have expected from an Order that placed a naked women on an altar in front of a room full of overweight and underachieving men?

The naked woman on the altar was a shocking and effective mechanic to excite emotion and reverse social convention – in the late victorian era. Today it is the most banal of things, to worship the perfected naked female form. Nakedness, like glamour, is a mechanic of power; in thelemic (and wiccan) initiation it is used to create a feeling of vulnerability, in order for this feeling to be overcome. The naked woman an the altar is supposedly empowering for the women. It is supposed to evoke a sense of the Divine Feminine, and of Her lodgings in the individual, in all who witness the rite. However the form of power that is gained through this nakedness, this so-called shamelessness, is the same form of power that is gained through aesthetic glamour. Magic is about power; and, as a microcosm of society, reflects the dual constructions of power we see across society; Men hold power in and of themselves. Women hold power over and through; it is this secondary form of power that is celebrated and cemented within the aesthetics of glamour. Control the man, and you control the world. This concept of secondary was an important lynchpin of second-wave feminist philosophy.  In our contemporary ‘post-feminist’ landscape this is a deeply unfashionable statement to make; yet, on a historical, social and economical level, and on a global scale, it remains true.

The unwillingness of contemporary thelemites to engage with first- and second-wave feminist philosophy, even on a purely historical level, is deeply frustrating, as the history of the Occult Revival and of early feminism are deeply interlinked. Through the Spiritualist movement, and through membership and work in the Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn, and both groups’ offshoots, women involved in the Occult Revival gained actual – that is, social, political  and economic – power. Thelema can be understood as a backlash to this.  In Thelema, women gained power over and through sexuality; both in coming to understand social and personal complexes, and often through their personal relationship with Crowley himself (which was the condition of the office of the Scarlet Woman). In some ways this sexuality-based power looks revolutionary and wonderful, for it does not rely on, nor work to effect, social status, class or money, but works on and with the innate qualities of the woman herself. The flip side of this is that, as the woman’s sexual power fades, through age or exhaustion, she is left without social or economic status. Sexual power is by definition temporary, for it relies at base on the characteristics of fertility.  Men remain fertile their whole life, while women have a specific window of fertility; and, while old men get to become kings, old women are left with little in the thelemic world – as indeed in the wider one. Consider how rare it is to see a thelemic priestess past middle-age and how much rarer it is for such a woman to go skyclad upon the altar. Thelema claims to worship the Divine Feminine through the individual; instead it worships the fertile, perfected female body; the body that ticks the right boxes; the body that does not overflow, nor threaten the status quo.

At first glance, the formula of the Scarlet Woman and Great Beast whereon she rideth is a direct reversal of and challenge to traditional gender roles. The Beast is the opposite to the rational, enlightened man who is a functioning cog within society; the Scarlet Woman refutes victorian concepts of quiet womanhood to be shameless, whoring, ultra-sexual, and ugly; a “painted ape.” But Crowley wasn’t doing anything shocking or new; he was catching the tail of the decadents, and doing so within a milieu that was pioneering women’s social power and physical flourishing. The occult world was a bastion of feminism as it first began to emerge; but Crowley began the third-wave backlash before the first wave had even come into effect. Understanding this early backlash is crucial if we are to understand the absolutism of third-wave and post-feminist approaches to selfhood and femininity within the occult milieu. The popular magical milieu claims that women are equal and liberated, when we are far from being so. There is no social contract; a demand for sexual liberation and availability, but no assistance for mothers, and little for victims sexual abuse. In this context post-feminist dialogues, rather than offer inspiration, serve to undercut and silence those who would speak out about abuse and structural inequality. Thus the milieu demands its women be strong and free even as it breaks and chains them. In fact, it is precisely this demand to be strong and free – but only in specific ways, on specific terms, inside specific categories – that breaks and chains our women. When we study the O.T.O. IX°, we see that the use of women as an object underpins the entirety of the O.T.O.’s magical system. Every action within the system feeds this egregore; there can be no grassroots intervention when at the very heart and centre, encoded in every ritual and rite, is a fundamentally abusive and sexist mechanic of the use of one half of the humankind for the advantage of the other half. Every oath sworn and every mass attended bolsters this egregore, which is an abortion of the New Aeon. It is no coincidence that there are no Queens.

With her careful construction of her PTSD-ridden protagonist Ursula Brangwyn, in The Winged Bull Fortune attempted to show her interwar audience not only that sexual abuse has an effect on much more than one’s so-called moral standing, but that abuse in a magical context has an extra dimension, a more powerful effect, than abuse found in other contexts. It is this extra dimension that has driven Astley’s wife to a mental asylum – as indeed it drove Crowley’s wife to alcoholism. As the thelemic world’s #metoo moment broke , I realised that this point was known with varying degrees of consciousness to both victims and perpetrators. Yet it is almost impossible to put words to this ‘extra dimension’, to explain it neatly or to categorise it. This is because this issue, this ‘extra dimension’, involves precisely all those factors that escape neat categorisation and explanation; it is all that lies in between. This extra dimension is made up of those subtle aspects of relationality that we variously call influence, charisma, rapport; glamour, hypnotism, mesmerism. This extra dimension flouts logic, nomenclature and categorisation by its very essence, for it is everything that can’t be given words; body language, hormones, smell, mirroring, imagination, emotion, memory; myth and symbol and archetype and impulse and conditioning and revelation. And because this great mass of unknown in-between is impossible to pin down and explain in a suitably scientific manner (because it is all that is left over when science categorises human experience) it is excluded from academic discourse on social issues; and thus this misuse of power is able to proliferate and grow.

The occult world is, of course, but a microcosm of society at large. These subtle aspects of relationality, and their misuse, are not limited to the realms of occultism; it is these subtle aspects that make domestic and intimate violence so insidious, and which make them so difficult to stop and to cure within our current socio-political and medico-therapeutic systems. However it is in occultism that these things achieve some of their most advanced and self-conscious  development. The heart of the problem is entwined with the question of what, exactly, magical power is.  It is self growth and understanding of the self. It is understanding the world around one, in order to better gain power over one’s places in it. One of the most effective ways this is achieved is through better understanding the nature of relationality and other people, in order to better exert your will over them, or to help them find their will. Yet it it is an infamous adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this insidious and effective form of power is sewn into the very fabric of what we, as magicians, do. The hidden centre of Fortune’s work is the same as our contemporary #metoo movement; not sex and virtue, but the long lasting and insidious trauma that comes from emotional and sexual abuse in an occult context. This needn’t be a death sentence; rather, it is a call for a new approach. For us, as a milieu, to be more honest with ourselves; for us to recognise that there is no such thing as pure freedom. All freedom is either freedom to, or freedom from; and if we do not enforce freedom from interference, we give those who have power the freedom to act however they want.

We need to better understand the centrality of emotion and imagination in all that we do. Magic is the Art of the Imagination; it is only the longevity of enlightenment anti-imagination polemics that prevent us from recognising this. Magic is the Art of Emotion. Until we recognise this, we are stuck trying to carve out a space for legitimacy inside a world that would see us disappear.  We need to understand the huge importance of emotion and imagination for magic; in their positive effects, in initiation and devotion and vision; but also in their negative effects, and the ways they can be abused. It is only thus that we may explain why magic can be so dangerous (even that undertaken alone), and why magical abuses may be very subtle, and yet incredibly destructive. Gaslighting, second-guessing, confusion, lost memories, lost narratives – these are not a side-effect, but the very centre of the problem, this misuse of the subtle knowledge of relationality and imagination.

We need to delve into this issue, to explore it; now is not the time to cower or ignore. We need to develop magical therapy; this is precisely what Fortune was advocating a century ago, and it is something that is beginning to grow with the recognition of of the therapeutic elements of ritual. We need magical therapy, but we also need magical interrelationality, magical ontology, and magical ethics. Yet these things will never happen until we, as a milieu and a social current,  begin to take responsibility for what our current as a whole supports and enacts. In our contemporary milieu ethics are widely seen as a personal issue, and incidental to magic as a whole. The fact that being an ‘adept’ is and always has been a question of ethical development has been entirely lost from the discourse. Neoliberalism abounds, overshadowing all other narratives. Combined with the insidious postfeminism of the occult milieu, we end up with the dark side of Do What Thou Wilt, one phrase with an many meanings as there are stars. Thelema has no common ethic, no common community. There is no safety net for those robbed of agency, only an imperative to discover one’s own failure. Thus when I criticised the culture of abuse within thelema, the conversation quickly became about individual perpetrators, their monstrousness and alienness, and how best to punish them. No one was willing to engage with the fact that it was not a problem of individuals, but of a culture which allowed and even encouraged such behaviour.

Obsessed with individualism, we magicians hate to see ourselves as part of a whole; but no man is an island, and magicians least of all, for we are practitioners of the connections between things; we tread the waters that surround the archipelago of selves. We shore up the individual self because it is a convenient fiction wherein our ego might rest; we fetishise the hermit to escape the ways in which we are infinitely responsible for our fellow human. But remember, if you will, that the concept of the contemplative hermit is a myth, a falsity, a contradiction in terms. There can be no hermit without a community to support him; to supply his basic needs. He may refuse to acknowledge his support system as a community, but it continues, a web of relations with his demands at its heart, nevertheless.  A true hermit is and can be nothing but a farmer.*

We tend not to be big fans of words like ‘sin’ in a magical context; but sometimes I wish magicians and witches knew their ecclesiastical history a little better. St Augustine first coined the phrase incurvatus in se, but it was Martin Luther who truly expounded it. Sin is a life turned inwards; a life lived for and of the self, with little care for god or fellow man – which are one and the same. We proclaim this, when we cry “every man and every woman is a star;” it is time we really learned to recognise the other’s starhood. We need a new approach to community, to ethic and interrelation. We need a new magical ontology; only then could we approach the magical therapy of which Fortune dreamed, and which she worked so hard to develop. Such work is a direct rejection of the individualism that so often defines the contemporary magical milieu. It takes the knowledge of the godhead and infinite potential inside each of us, and extends the logic to the other; to extend the infinite potential for godhead to the person sitting opposite you on the train.

We must stop touting this worn-out trope of individualism. We see now that this has brought us nothing but apocalyptic greed and an epidemic of depression. Society needs something new and we, the magical milieu, in our infinite potential, can be the ones to lead the way. But we need to find a new focus; an outward focus. What if, instead of looking for ways to gain power over, we find ways to give power? What if, instead of demanding freedom to, we search for ways to give others freedom from? What if we actually did the work of destroying the edifice of the ego? What if we gave priority to radical kindness? What if we remembered that the Fire Qadosh, the Holy Spirit, and gnosis itself are all ways of talking about Grace? What if we aim to be godlike in our benevolence, as well as our wrath?

We have kicked down our grandparents’ morals, cried Revolution and Freedom; and found ourselves where Baudrillard knew that we would, in the cold light of the after-the-orgy.  We have kicked down the Moloch-morality; now let us find a moral system that works. All pain and sin is relative, so let us make a sliding scale. A lack of morality gives no freedom; we simply become enchained by apes. We need to find a new focus; on the female body, and female subjectivity; female priesthood, female gnosis, female initiations; we need female subjects and female authors and magical research from a female perspective. We need writings about trauma and pain and the goddess; we need writings about assault and abuse. We need uncomfortable writings; painful writings; grotesque writings; monstrous writings; cathartic writings; writings that will make us grow. We need a new vision of the Goddess, and of those who serve Her.

[1] Aleister Crowley to Gerald Kelly, letter dated 31st October 1905, quoted in Richard Kaczynski, Perdurabo, 151.

[2] See Georgia van Raalte, “Tea Scones and Socially Responsible Sex Magic: the Egalitarian Occultism of Dion Fortune” MA thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2015.

[3] Letter send by Violet Evans (Dion Fortune) to Gerald Yorke 19th June 1928. Held in the Yorke Collection of the Warburg Institute, London.] Bayswater was the location of the headquarters of Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light

[4] Amy Clukey, “Enchanting Modernism: Mary Butts, Decadence, and the Ethics of Occultism.” Modern Fiction Studies. 60.1 (March 2014): 87-88.

[5] Dion Fortune, The Winged Bull, Williams & Norgate Ltd, London, 1935, 261.

[6] Dion Fortune, “The Novels of Dion Fortune,” The Inner Light Magazine 1936, reproduced in Knight, Rites of Isis and of Pan, 95

[7] Violet M Firth, The Soya Bean: an Appeal to Humanitarians (C. W. Daniel and Co, 1925).

[8] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970)

[9] Another example of this pertinent for the occult tradition is that of the Arthurian myth cycle and its Knights Errant. The cycle encodes the divine feminine, and individual (courtly) women are worshipped as manifestations of the divine; yet they are still stuck in a castle being quested towards, the object of desire. They have no more freedom or agency than a woman in any androcentric tradition.

[10] Amor Divina, Hellfire Books, 2018.

[11] Amor Divina, 131.

[12] The Mystical Qabalah

[13] Rites of Isis and of Pan, 128.

[14] The Mystical Qabalah

[15] Dion Fortune, “Sexual Ethics in Occultism,” The Inner Light Magazine, 1940, reproduced in Dion Fortune and Gareth Knight, The Circuit of Force (Loughborough: Thoth, 1998), 160.

[16] Ibid., 128.

[17] Ibid., 160.

[18] The Winged Bull, 105.

[19] Ibid., 105.

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11 thoughts on “Satariel’s Shroud: Sex, Power and Ethics in Contemporary Thelema

  1. Thanks so much for this very rich piece. I am excited to learn about the Holy Order of the Sun–one more thing to have to look into. While I’m in complete agreement with you about the current, pitiable state of Thelemic understanding of misogyny and sexism and how it is built into the OTO (and the OTO’s practices of sexual abuse of women), I must disagree about Crowley’s misogyny. I don’t think it’s so easy to take Mary Butts’ opinion on Crowley and his women as gospel, given her own queer sexuality and class bias, although I’m quite sure Cefalu was a physically disgusting (and very beautiful) place.

    I think “Crowley’s” women were a diverse and fascinating group of intelligent, charismatic, and active women, many of whom went on to full and successful lives after their time with Crowley. I would include Laylah Waddell, Leah Hirsig, Jeanne Foster Douglas, Roddie Minor, and Billie Busch (who was a prostitute when Crowley met her) in this group, among others. I would argue that what they have in common with Crowley was a heterosexual relationship with a man free of bourgeois, Christian marriage and heteronormativity. Not a Christian marriage perfected by sublimated sexual energy, which while no doubt magical, would not destroy Christianity and the social order resting on it (necessary for the Aeon of Horus). If the membership of the Holy Order of the Sun included members of the Anglo-Catholic clergy we can assume a good percentage of homosexual (or bisexual) men in heterosexual marriages. I can understand why Crowley would not be interested in such a group, as an openly queer, bisexual who, moreover, rejected bourgeois marriage.

    I also think that the women who chose to become close to Crowley all had strong sexual desire and agency and were not merely the objects of Crowley’s sexual desire. Many had had lovers or been married or both (Rose Kelly included here) and many rejected, or experimented with rejecting, bourgeois marriage and the limits of heteronormativity (like sexual exclusivity, pregnancy out of wedlock, conventional child-rearing, middle-class or upper-class manners). Even women like Jane Wolfe, who was not sexually involved with Crowley, never married and took lovers well past her middle age, as part of her magical work in Pasadena; her student, Phyllis Seckler married several times and took lovers into her age. They, incidentally, are responsible for the transmission of Thelema in California, a history which the current order works to erase, charting its development through the male figures.

    So I don’t think current Thelemic misogyny is Crowley’s misogyny. We can put the responsibility where it belongs: the current milieu. I agree we need an interpersonal Thelemic ethic that understands the phallus is not the penis, the woman is not an object, but the subject, as you say, a female subjectivity. The extreme individualism many think is Thelema is its antithesis, as the two that are one are none. There is no I in 0=2.

    I will add that the priestesses in our temple are all over the age of 40, two are over 60. We have had children and surgeries. We have glamour, though, as glamour is another of our magical arts. We have power that we know how to channel in will (thelema). We confront men who come in our door with ageist and sexist ideologies or who seek to use the temple as a brothel (where Crowley encouraged the use of a brothel as a temple) and we refuse to admit them. We adore younger and older men who adore us for the love, beauty, and energy we raise together and share in community (agape).

    I look forward to more discussion of all of this and a coming to be of Thelemic ethics. 93/93!

  2. Interesting article, which I hope will promote some corporate self-examination with the OTO. However, I take issue with the dichotomous presentation of women in magic and magical workings as if there were only two possibilities: debased, druggy sex object for use by unscrupulous thelemites, or, middle-class, drawing room, woke, “white magic” as exemplified by the fictional characters in Dion Fortune’s novels. I’m exaggerating a bit, but where is the acknowledgement of women’s agency? Why the assumption, for example, that Crowley’s wife was driven to alcoholism by him? Or, that the (seeming) passivity of the thelemite priestess is, in fact, debasing. If things turn out badly for women, either in life or in fiction, why deny them agency by attributing their woes to their treatment by men?

    “Creating an ethical magical system (or perhaps, a system of magical ethics) was at the very centre of Fortune’s esoteric work.” I would strongly suggest that the author revisit the novels (from where she, presumably, derives her opinion) and pay close attention to the relationship between the various iterations of Morgan le Fay and the male protagonists. Ethical? Hardly.

    The author’s confusions about agency, activity and passivity, both in life and magic are writ large throughout the article.

  3. interesting read, just one thing I would like to comment
    “His creation of the office of the Scarlet Woman is often hailed as a new stage in women’s sexual liberation; in fact, it is nothing more than a crystal cage. ”

    Scarlet woman is not Crowleys creation, its the office mentioned several times in Liber AL and real deal (speaking from experience).

    To live by the true will, absolutely and with no exceptions or compromises.. is a very specific mode of existence, and the only kind of person who can have deep and harmonious relationship with a King (or Queen) is another King (or Queen)… such a couple fullfils the office of Beast and Scarlet woman, and its in no way a cage, for man nor for woman.

    Crowley wasnt interested in romantic relationships, most likely thanks to his mother, and I cant agree with his stance of using partners as mere tools and instruments..

    But I know, that everyone who takes the effort to become a king, and then finds himself a scarlet woman, will never ever have any need to write articles such as this one, or even waste a thought on “gender war”. On the opposite, he will find a treasurehouse of knowledge in Crowleys writings.
    Its the most beautiful thing (and also most rare), to find such couples. And they indeed bring glory of stars in the hearts of men and their mere presence is like medicine.

    As I see it, the problem is, that people instead of doing the work, attaining, and learning from experience… waste their time making their opinions on someone elses morals and actions…. not “I will get my own experience and make your own mind based on what life thought me”, but instead “first I need to make sure there is nothing offensive and then perhaps I will take the work.”

    It seems, that there is more theoreticians in thelema these days, than practitioners..

  4. Nice article, well referenced and studied. A bit too activistic for my taste, especially the feminism that is exposed in the last paragraph, which gives away the motivation behind the article. But that aside, I enjoyed reading the text. One small remark though, on a vegetarian lifestyle. Although she might have recommended such a lifestyle (7.) in 1925, I’m sure she changed her opinion 30 years later. Copy-pasted from her later work:

    The Eastern Tradition, and those organisations that derive from it, inculcate a strict vegetarianism, both on psychic and humanitarian grounds. The Western Tradition does not. The effect of a vegetarian diet is greatly to increase the sensitiveness of the nervous system and thereby render easier the perception of subtle forces. The drawback to the use of this sensitising method in the West is that the resulting sensitiveness unfits for the rush and drive of urban life, and unless seclusion can be secured, the subject is very apt to become neurasthenic and to suffer from neuritis, neuralgia, sciatica, nervous dyspepsia, and similar complaints.

    The initiate of the Western Tradition overcomes his comparative lack of sensitiveness, and also the density of the atmosphere in which he has to work, by concentrating the forces by means of ceremonial. It is exceedingly difficult to obtain definite results in Europe without the use of ritual. One thing is quite certain, however, the person who means to employ the concentrating rituals of the Western Tradition must not at the same time follow the sensitising regime of the Eastern Discipline. Each is effective in its own way and sphere, but it is fatal to mix them. The sensitised person will be completely “bowled over” by the forces generated in a ceremonial working.

    The Training and Work of an Initiate
    Dion Fortune, 1955
    page 112

  5. Thank you, excellent article, fine writing. I would like to know what you find in the non-Crowlean Thelemic community outside of the OTO and AA. Our women rule.

  6. Why should any man ‘engage’ with first or second wave feminism. The notion of equality presented in these seems to me nothing more than a Trojan horse for the misandry of third wave feminism. Indeed casting my mind back decades to reading Ann Oakley she was clear in her view that men were quick to seize the advantage and attain dominance during the industrial revolution. Whether this is true or not the feminist position is clear and and the issue of ‘equality’ is merely a temporary strategy facilitating the subsequent overt misandry of third wave feminism. Any male Thelemite should readily understand the dissimilation adopted by early feminism and therefore look upon much of this article with deep suspicion.

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