It is thus Horus—and especially the form of Ra-Hoor-Khuit—who will occupy most of the attention of Thelema, for he is the symbol of the New Aeon that replaces the earlier Aeon of Osiris. However, there is a darker— more mysterious and to some an extraterrestrial—aspect to the New Aeon, and it concerns the intermediary between Crowley and the gods of the Book of the Law: the entity known variously as Aiwaz or Aiwass.
Crowley himself referred to this being as Set-Aiwass or Shaitan-Aiwass in some of his writings,8 thus linking it with both the Egyptian god of “Evil”—Set or Seth—and with the Middle Eastern name for God’s (or humanity’s) “Adversary”: Shaitan, more popularly known as Satan (but “reclaimed” by the Mesopotamian sect of the Yezidis in a rehabilitated
form, about which more later). This refers to a very early, predynastic (i.e., 3500-3000 BCE), form of Egyptian religion that identified Set as a god of the desert, of storms, and of rage. Much later, the Greeks at the time of the historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) identified Set with their own sea monster, Typhon. (It was this Typhon that gave its name to Kenneth Grant’s new form of Thelema, the Typhonian Order, representing what he called the Typhonian/Stellar Current.) Set was also said to reside in the Great Bear constellation, and served to aid the souls of the dead to attain immortality by allowing them to climb Set’s “stairway to heaven.”9 Like most Egyptian deities, Set originally had both a positive and a negative nature but in the end the negative aspect of the god won out due to popular attribution. As the sworn enemy of Horus, Set was seen as the eternal Evil One and the murderer of Horus’s father, Osiris. He was also said to have been born unnaturally, ripping himself through the belly of his mother, the sky goddess Nut or Nuit who figures so prominently in the Crowley scriptures. Thus, he could be seen as an initiatory force.
Indeed, Set’s role in the New Aeon could be described as that of the Grand Initiator of humanity. However, this type of initiation will be violent and imposed from outside, rather than the relatively serene form experienced by Crowley himself during his sojourn with the considerably more sedate Golden Dawn. We can see this type of violent and involuntary initiation prefigured in the psychological experiments of the world’s intelligence agencies beginning in the 1950s with the phenomenon of the “Manchurian Candidate” of the Korean War era that contributed to the creation of mind control, behavior control, and psychological warfare programs that sought to unpack the secrets of the human mind by using unsuspecting innocent men, women and children as test subjects and guinea pigs.10
Thus we have a rather paradoxical relationship in which Set-Aiwass communicates the text of the Aeon of Horus (his sworn enemy) to Crowley in Cairo. Crowley elevated the status of Set far above that which obtained in dynastic Egypt, and saw in Set the type of force necessary to bring in the new Aeon. This may be considered an “initiated” view of traditional Egyptology which understands Set and Horus as implacable foes. If the myths concerning Set were little more than libels created by followers of the newer gods Osiris and Horus, what was the truth? What
did Set really represent, and what is Set’s relationship to the Aeon of Horus?
As Crowley’s understanding of the Book of the Law matured, so did his understanding of Aiwaz, whom he declared to be none other than his Holy Guardian Angel11: a concept developed by the Golden Dawn, the secret society that had initiated him into magic. The Holy Guardian Angel or HGA can be conceived of as one’s “Higher Self” or as the apotheosis of one’s own spiritual identity; conversely, one’s self is seen as a manifestation (one among many) of the Angel. In Crowley’s case, he viewed Aiwaz to be one of the gods of ancient Sumer, thus pre-existing the Egyptian civilization and their oldest known divinity, the desert god Set, who might then be considered an avatar or emanation of the original Sumerian archetype.
In addition, Crowley proposed a composite Set-Horus “current” that would represent the combined tension of the two antagonists as a single force emblematic of the New Aeon. This was typical of Crowley’s tinkering with the known Egyptology of the day. It did not reflect any new discoveries in the field, but was rather informed by his occult insight into the play of spiritual forces represented by “god forms” and ideas associated with the Egyptian gods in the consciousness of the Western mind of the early twentieth century. As we have seen, he also combined Set, Shaitan and Aiwaz into a single concept representing not only his own HGA but also a deity or devil from the little-known civilization of Sumer.12 Thus, we have the Egyptian Set, the Semitic Shaitan, and a Sumerian god identified only by the word Aiwaz or Aiwass—which has no meaning in the Sumerian language—all lumped together without regard for individual religious or social contexts. From the point of view of mainstream religious studies or anthropology—especially postmodern anthropology—this is a car wreck of a proportion equivalent to a major highway pile-up.
It is perhaps relevant to point out at this juncture that one cannot refer to any of Crowley’s writings as representative of formal Egyptological theory or research. Crowley is not an academic source for this type of material. Rather, he was an interpreter of the Egyptological discoveries of his day, such as those by Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) and most especially of the amateur Egyptologist Gerald Massey (1828-1907), whose fanciful—and esoterically-oriented—descriptions of the ancient world were never taken
seriously by mainstream archaeologists but which were embraced by occultists. The theories of Massey still exert an important influence over occult authors today, regardless of the fact that they are considered in error (at best) or wholly imaginary (at worst).
Crowley’s interpretations—like those of Massey—were freeform, conforming to his own experiences as an occultist and magician. The occultism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely was indebted to universalist ideas of “common origins,” a worldview which in its extreme form took as a given the existence of an Ur-cult or Ur-religion in the remote past that provided the inspiration and basis for all future cults. Thus, the religions of Sumer and Egypt had a source in common with those of India and China, and even the Aztec and Mayan religions of Latin America. Symbols that were discovered in several vastly different locales—such as the Dragon—were believed to represent a single, common idea regardless of whether the Dragon symbol was carved on a stone block in England or seen on a porcelain fragment in China. This idea
—that same or similar symbols were evidence of a single belief or cultural phenomenon—was taken to its logical conclusion by the Nazis who raced to find evidence of the swastika on ancient remains around the world, thus supporting their contention that a single, Aryan race was responsible for all of human civilization.13 We can see a similar trend in the present era with all the talk of ancient aliens having “given” the human race its science, its architecture, and its religions. In a sense, this is close to Lovecraft’s idea that an ancient race from the stars once inhabited the Earth.
In Crowley’s day, however, this approach was exciting and encouraged a great deal of amateur speculation on the history of the ancient world. While universalism has been discredited by the philosophers of the Frankfurt School and their associated postmodern approach to theories of knowledge and interpretation, with its fetishism of cultural differences and uniqueness, some elements of its worldview stubbornly remain. Rather than throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, it can be acknowledged that certain aspects of the human condition—birth, death, sexuality—are identical among all members of the human race, and that while different approaches may be taken to sacralize or otherwise interpret these aspects they are nonetheless “universals” and their comparison across ethnic, racial and environmental lines may contribute to a better understanding of the human condition.
So, when Crowley wrote—seemingly recklessly—about a “Set-Horus” current in occultism, or identified Set with Shaitan and with a Sumerian Aiwaz, he was not referring specifically to these ideas as they are understood by scholars or were understood by the indigenous peoples who contributed them to the world’s body of knowledge. Instead, he was emphasizing certain perceived qualities that he deemed cognate, without overmuch regard for their historical context. At the same time, one should not infer that Crowley’s “Egyptology” needs to remain at odds with normative Egyptology. On the contrary, by supplementing Crowley’s writings on the subject with recent scholarship in the field many advantages accrue and discoveries occur and, where necessary, corrections may be made.
A further defense of Crowley’s Egyptology may be made in light of the fact that the Egyptian religion itself went through many changes over the course of its roughly three thousand—four thousand years of history. Gods and goddesses changed attributes over time, changed rulerships and characteristics, and even parentage. Their sacred sites were moved, or renamed. Their effigies defaced as new cults emerged. Often gods were merged with other gods to form new, composite forms. Thus one could make the argument—perhaps only slightly frivolously—that the Book of the Law represents a new iteration of the Egyptian religion and continues the developmental process begun in the pre-Dynastic era.
Another factor to be taken into consideration is one that is frequently ignored, even by those who claim a certain degree of expertise in this area, and that is the fact that Crowley had been initiated into the Golden Dawn and framed much of his magical and esoteric worldview within the Golden Dawn structure of rituals and instructions. Thus, we first come across Hoor-par-kraat, Osiris, Isis, Nu, Maat and many of the other Crowleyan references in this context: in the Golden Dawn rituals themselves, the ones used to initiate Crowley, which had a profound affect on his consciousness and his intellectual and spiritual development. In fact, certain phrases in the Book of the Law make no sense whatsoever without reference to those very rituals.
As an example, we can refer to the very first chapter wherein it is written:
Abrogate are all rituals, all ordeals, all words and signs. Ra-Hoor- Khuit hath taken his seat in the East at the Equinox of the Gods; and let Asar be with Isa, who also are one. But they are not of me. Let Asar be the adorant, Isa the sufferer; Hoor in his secret name and splendour is the Lord initiating. (AL I:49)
In his “New Comment” to the Book of the Law, Crowley himself clearly states:
The general allusion is to the Equinox Ritual of the G D where the officer of the previous six months, representing Horus, took the place of the retiring Hierophant, who had represented Osiris.
Thus, the replacement of Osiris by Horus—i.e., the old Aeon by the New—was already prefigured in the rituals with which Crowley was completely familiar, but which would have been incomprehensible to an outsider. In that ritual Horus was represented by the officer known as the Hiereus (or “priest”). Osiris was the Hierophant (or “high priest”), and another of the important officers was the Hegemon (“leader” or “guide”), which was the Goddess Maat, and indeed the hall of initiations in the neophyte ceremony was called the Hall of Maat. (In the verse from the Book of the Law cited above, Asar is Osiris and Isa may be Isis or Jesus.14) Thus, the gods of the Book of the Law were speaking to Crowley in a Golden Dawn context (since the allusions make no sense outside of the very specific Golden Dawn rituals). They were using his initiation as a channel through which to communicate, to make their words known and understood.
What this means is that the cultus of Thelema and the organizations that grew out of it—the A A , Grant’s Typhonian Order, etc.—have the Golden Dawn system as their base. (The OTO does not have any connection to the Golden Dawn, either through its earliest founders or its ritual structure.) Intellectually—if not spiritually—Thelema can be truly understood only within that system and is thus (from a historical point of view) a development of what began as the Golden Dawn in nineteenth century England. Crowley’s own organization, the Argentum Astrum or A A , is a “perfection” of the original Golden Dawn system of grades, with the addition of the three degrees representing the three spheres at the top of the Tree of Life: the ones not assigned by the Golden Dawn itself since they were believed to be outside the understanding of normal human
beings. Crowley claimed to have attained each of those degrees, and then set about reforming the Golden Dawn system by making Thelemic adjustments to all of the degree rituals, and by adding Asian mystical practices to the curriculum: including Hatha Yoga and Buddhist meditation methods and terminology.
Even so, Thelema was designed to be a revolutionary spiritual movement, at once as grounded in science as in faith. It would overthrow Western ideas of spirituality, of morality and ethics, by replacing them with a worldview very similar in some respects to that of Buddhism. The death of the Ego is a familiar Buddhist concept; but at the same time Crowley calls for an end to the “limitation of the Mind by Reason.” In Crowley’s theology, as in some forms of Zen Buddhism, one must transcend both faith and reason in order to attain the highest illumination. Yet, paradoxically perhaps, both faith and reason are tools in the arsenal of the Thelemic magician.
How, then, is Crowley’s system different from Buddhism?
In terms of Aeons, there are similarities. In Buddhist cosmology, there is the great measurement of time, or mahakalpa, which is divided into four kalpas or aeons. Each kalpa is extraordinarily long in terms of the human measurement of time and can take hundreds of thousands, or even millions or billions, of years to pass. The four basic kalpas are Vivartakalpa (the Aeon of evolution in which creation occurs), Vivartasthayikalpa (the Aeon of duration of evolution), Samvartakalpa (the Aeon of dissolution), and finally Samvartast-hayikalpa (the Aeon of the duration of dissolution). These are similar in concept to the Hindu system of yugas, described below, and are based on an idea that creation begins in a perfect or pure state—“in illo tempore”—and then gradually disintegrates through the passage of time. But there is a judgemental aspect to both the Buddhist and Hindu concepts of the Aeons, and Crowley was not immune to this concept. He characterized the Aeon of Isis as considerably more pleasant than the Aeon of Osiris, and the Aeon of Horus as a kind of necessary corrective which would culminate in an Aeon of Maat that would wipe the slate clean and start all over again.