A church of magic does not exist.
—Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 43
(emphasis in original)
ONE HESITATES TO REFUTE or contradict the father of modern sociology, but at the time the above classic was published—in 1912—there already was a church of magic. In fact, there were several. Durkheim’s statement reflects his understanding that magic is not amenable to rituals of group worship, since the approach to the sacred that is undertaken by the magician is a “delicate operation that requires precautions and a more or less complicated initiation …”43 This did not stop the French magicians Jules Doinel (1842-1903) from creating (in 1890) and Papus (Gerard Encausse, 1865-1916) from joining (in 1892) a “Gnostic Catholic Church”; nor did it stop Crowley from using a version of the Gnostic Catholic Church as his vehicle for Thelema, writing a Gnostic Mass in 1913 (a year after Durkheim’s work was published). Whether or not such a church is an effective tool for magic and the goals of magic remains to be seen, however. Anyone witnessing some of the celebrations of the Mass by members of the Gnostic Catholic Church at various times over the previous five decades or so would have recognized obvious differences in style from those of normative Christian denominations. It may be argued that magicians are not priests by nature—they are individual, solitary persons devoted more to their own spiritual development than to the spirituality of a group. Further, a magician’s approach to a public, communal ritual may leave something to be desired, particularly when the magician takes as his or her template an established ritual like the Catholic Mass with nearly two thousand years of history behind it and its celebration and then proceeds to alter it considerably to suit what can only be described as an opposing theological weltanschauung. At best, you have an imitation of the original, a kind of “cover” version that may leave
one yearning nostalgically for the original. At worst, the results can range from the scandalous to the hilarious … to the just plain sad. Given the options, one easily prefers the scandalous.
The scandalous might have been Crowley’s intent in the early days of the twentieth century but now, in the early days of the twenty-first century, what Crowley saw as challenging and provocative hardly constitutes cause for censorship or suppression (except perhaps by the religious Right, but they are easily inflamed). Crowley wanted to institutionalize (and make popularly accessible) the religious and philosophical precepts underpinning his new faith of Thelema. He saw the Mass—and the Gnostic Catholic Church—as the vehicle for doing this, much in the way the Catholic Mass can be seen as the vehicle for proclaiming and celebrating the doctrines and theology of Roman Catholicism. But Crowley was a magician, first and foremost. His teachings are couched in magical language and magical references. Virtually all of his writings were designed for those belonging to one or both of his most important magical societies, the A A , and the OTO, neither of which were designed with communities of worshippers in mind but which are predicated on the idea of individual (not group) attainment.
His theology is easily summed up in the familiar “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and “Love is the law, love under will.” It was antinomian, authoritarian, and transgressive. After one exhorts everyone to do their will, that every man and every woman is a star, there is not much else to the theology or the doctrine. The core of Thelema is in the work itself, the Great Work of uniting oneself with one’s Holy Guardian Angel (to use the Golden Dawn and A A terminology), and that is an individual and not a group endeavor.44
The famous Biblical Ten Commandments—handed down to Moses from God—consists of three commandments concerning sins against God and seven commandments prohibiting sin against the community. There is no identification of sins against one’s self. It is as if God and community were all that mattered spiritually; that if one abides by the rules of God and family then one has already avoided sin against one’s self. What Thelema does is question that assumption: in other words, is it possible to sin against one’s self? The Thelemic answer is a definite “yes.” If one obeys the commandments concerning God and community to the detriment of one’s self then one is sinning against one’s self. What Crowley does is turn
the assumptions implicit in the Abrahamic religions on their head by insisting that the individual matters more than the community or, to be more precise, that the salvation or preservation of the community is dependent upon the spiritual growth of its component individuals. This, of course, is the magical worldview and always has been, ever since the bifurcation between the needs of the individual and the state took place sometime in misty antiquity.45 What Crowley had attempted to do was to codify the magical worldview as a religious worldview, applicable to all.
Thus the tension between the magical worldview and the requirements of an organized church contributes to confusion concerning the liturgics. Crowley’s religion has sexual mysteries at its heart, and Crowley—as a magician—was devoted to its prosyletizing. He understood the sacrament of the Mass—and most especially the rite of transubstantiation—as a Gnostic rite of transformation, and it can be argued that this is so, or certainly can be interpreted that way. The problem remains, however, how to teach this concept to the general public if it has no background in religious studies, Gnosticism, or Tantrism, much less Kabbalah or ceremonial magic?
A further difficulty is raised by the unitary form of the Catholic Mass and its single priest-celebrant. This dynamic was transformed by the Crowley church into a dual priesthood of a man and a woman, a priest and a priestess. On a very basic liturgical level this presents problems in conceptualization, but most importantly, in the identification of two individuals with the appropriate transformative Power which must take place simultaneously and in harmony. There are other, more easily organized, rituals that involve male and female participants which could have been used instead (or simply invented), but it was Crowley’s intention to use the Catholic Mass as the basic structure, possibly with a view towards forcing the public to understand the sexual component of a rite with which they were already familiar—albeit in a different context—and thus providing a kind of legitimacy of lineage, much in the same way pagan shrines in Europe were converted into Catholic holy places by the building of churches on the same spots.
All of this, however, is predicated upon Crowley’s religion and its understanding of the nature of the Gods.
Central to most descriptions of religions is this concept of a God or Gods. While the word “religion” is relatively new, and is in fact
problematic in some cultures which do not recognize this artificial distinction between spirituality and other areas of culture, we can assume for the sake of this essay that religions (popularly understood) rely upon the existence of some kind of supernatural Power, Creator or Cosmic Judge we call a God.
One of the most bewildering aspects of Thelema to outsiders is the near- chaotic assembly of gods, goddesses and techniques from religious traditions spanning the globe and the centuries. We have seen some of this in the previous chapter. While the Book of the Law is focused on Egyptian gods, by the time one is finished with even a cursory look at Crowley’s writings, one realizes that Egypt is not the only cultural touchstone for the movement.46
Crowley’s own self-identification with the Beast of the Book of Revelation—and his soror mystica as the Scarlet Woman or Whore of Babylon (Babalon, to use his spelling)—seems at first glance to be out of synch with the rest of his philosophy. After all, the Beast 666 and the Whore of Babylon are characters specific to the Christian Bible. How does one rectify the Biblical personalities with ancient Egyptian or Sumerian archetypes?
Crowley’s early childhood was spent in the somewhat lethal embrace of a Christian sect called the Plymouth Brethren. In fact, he attended schools run by the Brethren for most of his childhood and adolescence, only escaping the denomination by the time he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1895. As a child, his mother would refer to him as “the Beast” with its obvious Biblical connotations and it seems Crowley took the appelation to heart, particularly as he got older and began to question Christianity. He never abandoned the Beast nomenclature, however, for he seemed to feel that this was an aspect of his identity—not only as a human being, as his mother’s son, but—as a magician and a prophet of the New Age. Thus, in order to overthrow the Old Age he came to identify himself with its anti-god, the Beast of Revelation. This would predate any exposure Crowley had to the rich fabric of Egyptian spirituality.
It was most likely his introduction to the Golden Dawn that gave Crowley his background in Egyptian religion and in the names of their gods. As we have seen in the previous chapter, he took those names to heart and they resurfaced in his Book of the Law and in the Holy Books: names such as Hoor-paar-kraat, Ra-hoor-khuit and Thma-est (which
spellings are not found in popular works on Egyptology) make their way into Crowley’s religion, as well as the concept of the Equinox of the Gods and the associated rotation of its divine officers throughout the year.
But he also added a liberal dose of Greek and Roman concepts as well as some Asian ideas. While the Golden Dawn had a few Asian-inspired documents—such as instructions concerning the tattwas (Indian elemental forms) and some basic yoga exercises—it was rather more focused on western esoterica than “Orientalia.” This may be due to the example of the Theosophical Society, which began as a repository ofwestern occult and hermetic ideas but which rapidly switched its focus to India and to Buddhism and indigenous Indian religions (normally grouped under the rubric “Hinduism”). Blavatsky’s growing obsession with India and Tibet changed the characteristics of the Theosophical Society to such an extent that there was really very little room for Hermetica or western esoterica in general. Kabbalah was ignored, as was ceremonial magic. These were areas that were picked up and developed to a greater degree by the Golden Dawn and its Masonic creators, thus filling a void that had been created by the Theosophical Society’s abandonment of its western esoteric roots.
Crowley, therefore, represented a bridge between both societies. While his initiations and instruction in spirituality began with the Golden Dawn, and he never really left the embrace of its initiatic structure,47 he did absorb some of the Asian techniques that were the focus of the Theosophical Society. He advocated practices such aspranayama (breath control), asana (yoga postures), and the attainment of samadhi (a higher state of consciousness reached through intensive meditation, analogous to a non-dualist state of awareness in which subject and object are one).48 He recognized samadhi as an essential element of his own personal development and encouraged the pursuit of this enlightened state of consciousness among his followers.49
But this did not mean that he was a Buddhist or a “Hindu” by any stretch of the imagination.50 In fact, he broke with his good friend Alan Bennett (the Bhikku Ananda Metteya) over this issue. He was more than willing to take what he could from the supermarket of religious ideas, but he was not loyal to any one brand. In this, perhaps, he was typical of the stereotypical New Ager, who is a spiritual dilettante and who picks over ancient religious traditions like a shopper in a fruit and vegetable stand …
but with one important and crucial difference: unlike many of today’s New Age spiritual seekers, Crowley did not skim the surfaces of the traditions he investigated but dived in completely. He had to know and to experience what these traditions offered, and he subjected himself to strenuous physical and intellectual pursuit of this knowledge. The fact that he was at leisure for much of his early life, due to an inheritance from his father’s estate, contributed to his ability to wander the world and devote himself to spiritual pursuits. He would incorporate significant amounts of these traditions into his own occult orders and into his religion of Thelema, and while we may argue about his selection process or question the assumptions upon which some of the intellectual material is based, there can be no doubt that there was a strong element of sincerity in Crowley’s approach.
Crowley believed in his own system, in his role as a prophet, and in the Book of the Law. There can be no other explanation for his life’s work than this. Thus, in order to comprehend the ramifications and implications of Thelema—particularly as represented in the Typhonian Tradition—we need to understand Crowley’s concept of the Gods.
As mentioned, Crowley’s first exposure to religion was in a Christian fundamentalist household, whose members belonged to the sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. Like many Protestant denominations with an extreme view of scripture, this one placed an emphasis on the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. This is a controversial text, dealing with the End of Days and the Final Judgement. It is couched in esoteric symbolism, more than any other Biblical text, and defies easy interpretation, but it is within its pages that we come across such famous concepts as the “number of the Beast” which is 666, as well as the Beast himself, and the Whore of Babylon. It is a book that foretells the fall of Rome and/or Jerusalem, and a final, cosmic battle between the forces of Light and Darkness. There are dragons, trumpets, and angels galore and it is beyond the scope of this (or most any) book to give a full and coherent description of its contents or to analyze its meaning.51 Rather, we shall focus on the handful of elements that meant most to Crowley and which surfaced so prominently in his cultus.
The Book of Revelation virtually overshadows the rest of the New Tesament due to its surreal, cinematic imagery and its prophecies of doom. Those who focus on this text tend to neglect the message of the Gospels in favor of the more drastic condemnations of the Church’s enemies.
One of these enemies is the Beast. According to many theologians, this particular Beast symbolizes Rome and the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor. The number of the Beast is 666, but no further clarification of this number is given in the text. Some believe it is a coded reference to the emperor Nero. In any event, that number has come to be synonymous with evil incarnate and is frequently cited as a reference to the Devil itself.