Thelema, Magick, & Crowley
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Thelema is a philosophical, mystical, and cultural system that is based upon a seemingly simple premise: do what thou wilt. This phrase, called the Law of Thelema, is not to be interpreted as a license to indulge in whim, but rather as a mandate to discover and fulfill one's essential nature or path in life, which is called True Will (those who are dedicated to this path are called Thelemites). This Will is the expression of one's deepest, most genuine self which acts in perfect accord with the Universe.
Modern Thelema began in 1904 with the writing of a short text, titled The Book of the Law (which is often abbreviated as Liber Legis, Liber AL, or simply AL), by the British author, mystic, and poet, Aleister Crowley. This small book was to form the foundation of a complex system designed to promote True Will in both individuals and culture as a whole. The practical system of Thelema, which Crowley termed Magick, was eventually to draw from many existing religions, philosophies, and spiritual practices, most especially Western medieval occultism, Eastern Yoga, and the Hebrew Kabbalah (especially the Tree of Life).
Although much is written about it, Thelema has no precise definition, leaving it largely up to the individual to interpret. It is, however, possible to identify common principles that are generally accepted within the larger Thelemic community. These are by no means definitive nor exhaustive, but do provide a basic framework within which to develop a beginning understanding of Thelema.
Crowley, like most spiritual teachers, recognized that one's Will is generally buried beneath a thick layer of what can be called Individual Ego—the conscious sense of "I" that feels separate from the Universe and is a complex mix of beliefs, values, and norms derived from socialization and various life experiences. A Thelemite is therefore one who seeks to break through her "conscious programming" in order to reconnect with the secret self, thereby becoming aware of her true, unfiltered nature. This process is called the Great Work.
The techniques used to accomplish this difficult task fall under the general term Magick, and traditionally include practices such as yoga, invocational ritual, and astral body work. In more recent years, Thelemites have been starting to include other, non-"occult" methods to accomplish the Great Work, such as transpersonal psychotherapy, hypnosis, and isolation tanks. In the end, it is up to the individual to find the doorway to her own inner self.
Thelema utterly rejects the notion of original sin, and states, rather, that we are all divine creatures—“Every man and every woman is a star” (AL I:5). As such, Thelema rejects the idea that emotional states like guilt, shame, and pity are virtues, and instead recognizes positive virtues, such as honor, pride, and courage. Thelema also does not recognize any personified source of "evil", such as the Judeo-Christian Satan (although a personification named Choronzon is used to represent malicious confusion, egotism, and illusion). Rather, Thelemites are encouraged to discover their own divinity, as well as their personal sense of right and wrong, based on both rational thinking and through apprehension of their True Will.
Thelema—which is Greek for Will—is paired with Agape, the Greek word for Love. Love, from a mystical point of view, is the drive to achieve Union, thereby losing the sense of ego-individuality and isolation. This theme is repeated again and again within Thelema, and is considered to be the key to accomplishing the Great Work. This is reflected in the core expression of Thelema from The Book of the Law:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. (AL I:40)
This notion of divine Love is personified in the Thelemic deities Nuit and Hadit, who represent (respectively) the Union of the infinitely-expanded Goddess of the Night Sky and the infinitely-condensed masculine Point, the hidden Flame in the being of all that lives. Their Union results in the birth of Ra-Hoor-Khuit (or Horus), the Hawk-Headed sun god, called the Crowned and Conquering Child.
As such, Thelema recognizes that the fundamental nature of the Universe is creative, which is reflected and embodied in the act of sex. As such, consensual lovemaking is considered to be a sacrament, and can even be used for personal devotional or transformational rites. By extension, the absolute freedom for all consenting adults to engage in sex as they Will is an important cultural element within Thelema.
Thelema divides history into Aeons, which are large blocks of time (about 2000 years) that embody specific spiritual concepts. The first was the Aeon of Isis, with a focus on the Maternal Goddess and Mother Earth. After that was the Aeon of Osiris, representative of the paternal Dying God, which reflected the notions of self-sacrifice, original sin, and guilt. The current Aeon, which is marked as beginning in 1904, is that of Horus. The Aeon of Horus is that of the Child, the sovereign individual, who seeks his own unique identity and path of self-actualization, free from shame and fulfilled in Light and Joy.
Crowley is quoted as saying, "Equilibrium is the basis of the Work" (Liber Librae). As such, achieving balance is a key element within Thelema, in terms of both the worldly and the spiritual. This includes balancing pride with humility, light with dark, matter with spirit, knowledge with wisdom, logic with emotion, and even free will with destiny. It is through the reconciliation of apparent opposites that Attainment is possible. Perhaps the finest summary of Thelemic equilibrium is the phrase, "Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself."
Thelema inspires free thinking, skepticism, and the scientific-method over blind faith, which Crowley defined as "acceptance of any statement as true without criticism, examination, verification, or any other method of test." Thelemites very rarely believe something "just because."
This is why Thelema is often thought of as a Gnostic religion. Gnosis is Greek for "knowledge," and as as such, Thelemites are expected to accept beliefs only through the process of direct experience and substantiation. A Thelemite does not want to have faith in God...she wants to know God (and eventually come to realize that she IS God).
Although most Thelemites recognize that humans are intrinsically interdependent, Thelema requires that one aspire to self-reliance and a sense of personal responsibility for one's own actions and well-being. Also, Thelemites tend to be suspicious of authority, often choosing their own unique paths. As such, deeply embedded within Thelema is the value of Liberty—to make one's own choices about major life issues, such as career, sexual partners, and creative expression. Very importantly, Thelemites strive to avoid interfering in anyone else's process of discovering and expressing their own Will, recognizing that this only leads to confusion and disharmony.
Practices such as proselytizing and conversion are strongly discouraged within Thelema, since Thelemites hold that interpretation of The Book of the Law is a task strictly for the individual. At the same time, many undertake the duty of promulgating the general principles of Liber Legis (as outlined above), thereby spreading the Law of Liberty. The object is to inspire others to acknowledge their own unique Will and then to attempt to discover and express it.
This essay has been but the most basic introduction to Thelema, which is rich with history, ideas, and aims for humanity. For more on Thelema, there are many websites with more information. For useful links, please peruse the list on the right at the top of this page.
You are also welcome to email me, Ash, with questions and comments: email@example.com
Eidolons of Ash —my website, with many more essays
Hermetic.com —A huge repository of Thelemic texts, including essential writings of Crowley
About Thelema —A good intro from Ordo Templi Orientis
Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica —The Gnostic Catholic Church
A.'.A.'. —A magical order dedicated to helping students accomplish the Great Work
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was an infamous British author, mystic, poet, and sexual libertine, as well as being an accomplished mountain climber, amateur chess player, and painter. He is perhaps best known today for two things: as the scribe of The Book of the Law—which is the central sacred text of Thelema—and the developer of his system of spiritual attainment, which he termed Magick.
Crowley was no saint (well, actually he IS a saint...of the Gnostic Catholic Church!). At times, he could be terribly misogynistic, racist, and egomaniacal. He consistently alienated his friends and allies, was addicted to various drugs over the course of his lifetime, and died in poverty, having squandered his large inheritance. Despite his mastery of the English language, his prolific writings are plagued with inconsistencies, exaggerations, and even outright fabrications. There is ample excuse for his famous appellation, "The Wickedest Man in the World."
So why does he remain such an important figure? Because when one can look through his obvious shortcomings, Aleister Crowley was a genius. He himself invented almost nothing that was new—after all, the key elements of Thelema had been around for centuries, and the essential components of Magick around even longer. His genius lay in his ability to synthesize multiple systems of thought and belief—to extract the gold and remove the dross.
Crowley was able to create a coherent and reasonably accessible system of belief and attainment pulled together from ideas and practices from a huge range of sources, including Catholicism, Buddhism, Yoga and Tantra, the Kabbalah, divination techniques, astrology, Egyptian and Greek mythology, modern philosophy and psychology, Eastern mysticism, and medieval occultism and alchemy. Not only that, but he tied it all together with the scientific method, insisting that one's own spiritual knowledge and experiences should be tested and recorded. It is no accident that the subtitle of his famous journal, The Equinox, was "The Review of Scientific Illuminism"
In the late 19th century, Britain was experiencing an occult revival and a glut of secret societies were popping up. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which claimed such luminaries as actress Florence Farr, writer Arthur Machen, and poet William Butler Yeats. When Crowley was introduced to the occult world and initiated into the Golden Dawn, he had found his calling. He rapidly moved up in the hierarchy and quickly mastered their system. When the society fell apart, he went his own way, eventually forming his own order, the A.'.A.'..
Not long after, he was to experience what he considered to be his crowning achievement. In 1904, while on honeymoon with his wife, Rose, in Cairo, Crowley wrote The Book of the Law. He claimed that it was dictated to him in three one-hour sessions, on April 8-10, by an entity called Aiwass. For the next few years, Crowley ignored this writing, considering it to be absurd. However, in 1909, he had a spiritual awakening that caused him to realize the importance of this short text.
The rest of his life was dedicated to understanding the Book and to manifesting the principles contained therein. From it was born the modern religion of Thelema, and its core teaching—that everyone has a unique True Will that must be discovered and manifested. Most of Crowley's efforts were in service to this task, not only for himself, but for the whole world. To this end, he adapted much of modern occult practice into a single system, which he called Magick, to enable the adept to accomplish this Great Work. This system was to become the core program of A.'.A.'., his magical order. He also transformed another order he was deeply involved in, Ordo Templi Orientis, to help create a Thelemic society while promulgating the Law of Liberty into the world at large.
Both the A.'.A.'. and O.T.O. are still highly active today, and working hard to manifest Crowley's vision. While Crowley himself was far from perfect, his spiritual teachings remain powerful and relevant, and hold the promise to transform society by realizing the age-old dream of Universal Brotherhood.