Thelema is the name of a philosophical system founded by Aleister Crowley in 1904. The central doctrine of this system is that knowing and doing one's True Will is the ultimate purpose and duty of every being. Crowley's received text Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law is the central document which provides the basis for Thelema. This book declares:
- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
- Love is the law, love under will, and
- The word of the Law is Thelema
The Greek Thelema is the basis of the word Thelemite, first used in the Holy Bible, and then by Francois Rabelais, the 16th century French humorist-philosopher in his classic work Gargantua, where it is used to describe the dwellers in a sort of anti-monastery, the Abbey of Thélème. The word Thelemite appears in The Book of the Law, and is used self-referentially by the adherents of Thelema.
There are also strong political, ethical, aesthetic, and cultural aspects to Thelema. Although there is no strict literal doctrine concerning these matters, Aleister Crowley wrote many articles and essays regarding his ideas about the proper behavior of individual Thelemites and for an ideal Thelemic society. These ideas have continued to develop into modern times. However, the primary themes involve personal freedom, a recognition that men and women have an inherent divine nature, and that Love is the basis of the Great Work.
A summary of Thelema
Thelema is unique but also syncretic. Nu and Had correspond with the Tao and Teh of Taoism, Shakti and Shiva of the Hindu Tantras, Shunyata and Bodhicitta of Buddhism, Ain Soph and Kether in the Kabbalah. Followers of the philosophy of Thelema may make use of the methods and practices derived from these and other traditions, including Alchemy, Astrology, Kabbalah, Tantra, Tarot, and Yoga.
and is taken by the modern Thelemite as a basis for understanding and manifesting the Will.
Not all adherents of Thelema consider it a religion or subscribe to the philosophy of True Will as outlined in Aleister Crowley's writings. Thelemites may or may not believe in the necessity of Canon or the Gnostic Mass. Many require nothing more than an acceptance of the message of The Book of the Law as interpreted by the individual, each for him or herself.
Antecedents of Thelema
Although the modern Thelemic movement traces its origins to the work of Aleister Crowley, he pointed to important antecedents to his use of the term, and other instances are apparent from research. The word is of some consequence in the original Greek Christian scriptures. Crowley also acknowledged Saint Augustine's "Love, and do what thou wilt" as a premonition of the Law of Thelema. In the Renaissance, a character named "Thelemia" represents will or desire in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna. Colonna's work was, in turn, a great influence on the Franciscan monk Francois Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel includes an "Abbey of Theleme" which Crowley embraced as a direct precursor to modern Thelema.
Thelema in the Bible
Thelema appears in the Holy Bible referring to divine will, human will, and even the will of the Devil. One well-known example is from "The Lord's Prayer" in Matthew 6:10, "Your kingdom come. Your will (Θελημα) be done, On earth as it is in heaven." Some other quotes from the Bible are:
- "He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.", Matthew 26:42
- "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."‚ John 1:12-13
- "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.", Romans 12:2
- "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.", Revelation 4:11
- "and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.", 2 Timothy 2:26
The next well-known usage of the word was by François Rabelais, a Franciscan and later a Benedictine monk of the 16th century. Eventually he left the monastery to study medicine, and so moved to Lyons in 1532. It was there that he wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel, a connected series of books. They tell the story of two giants; a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, and satirical vein.
It is in the second book where Rabelais writes of the Abbey of Theleme, built by the giant Gargantua. It pokes fun at the monastic institutions, since his abbey has a swimming pool, maid service, and no clocks in sight.
One of the verses of the inscription on the gate to the Abbey of Theleme says:
Grace, honour, praise, delight,
Here sojourn day and night.
Sound bodies lined
With a good mind,
Do here pursue with might
Grace, honour, praise, delight.
But below the humor was a very real concept of utopia and the ideal society. Rabelais gives us a description of how the Thelemites of the Abbey lived and the rules they lived by:
All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to
their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labor, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honor. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is
The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion
Many Thelemites base their views simply on their own personal intuition or feelings about the message of The Book of the Law, rather than on reason, logic, popular definitions of 'religion', or the writings of Aleister Crowley. In Jungian terms, they tend to have either Intuition or Feeling as their primary psychological type, rather than Thinking or Sensation.
- "True, it's a slogan of A.'. A.'. 'The method of science, the aim of religion.' & Here the word 'aim' and the context help the definition; it must mean the attainment of Knowledge and Power in spiritual matters..."
While religious Thelemites emphasize the "aim of religion," non-religious Thelemites tend to emphasize the "method of science." Furthermore, the "aim of religion" may be interpreted differently by different schools of thought; for example in Hinduism it would be called Samadhi or "Union with God," while in Buddhism, the term used is Enlightenment, which is simply a state of consciousness with no deistic implications.
The non-religious Thelemite tends to be one for whom the Buddhist view makes more intuitive sense than the Hindu or any other deistic view. The practice of Thelema then becomes the use of the "method of science" to achieve the goal of Enlightenment.
- "To sum up, our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick.
- "Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.
- "The word [religion] does not occur in The Book of the Law."
Non-religious Thelemites tend to interpret this passage as stating that Thelema need not be called a religion. From the non-religious point of view, it would indeed be a great misunderstanding to insist that the practice of Thelema requires the "method of religion" rather than the "method of science."
Crowley warned against attributing objective reality to the seemingly religious terms used in The Book of the Law. He wrote in Liber O:
- "In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist... students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."
To many Thelemites, the word 'Thelema' is interpreted simply as 'Will'. Magick is the Science with which Will is explored, mapped and documented. The terms used in Magick are not taken literally, a "God" is not a superior being, but simply a form which can be assumed in order to explore a particular dimension of consciousness or an area of the astral plane.
In Magick without Tears, Chapter VI, Crowley wrote:
- "It is particularly to be noted that Magick, so often mixed up in the popular idea of a religion, has nothing to do with it. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of religion; it is, even more than Physical Science, its irreconcilable enemy.
- "Let us define this difference clearly.
- "Magick investigates the laws of Nature with the idea of making use of them. It only differs from 'profane' science by always keeping ahead of it. As Fraser has shown, Magick is science in the tentative stage; but it may be, and often is, more than this. It is science which, for one reason or another, cannot be declared to the profane.
- "Religion, on the contrary, seeks to ignore the laws of Nature, or to escape them by appeal to a postulated power which is assumed to have laid them down. The religious man is, as such, incapable of understanding what the laws of Nature really are. (They are generalizations from the order of observed fact.)"
Thelema as Revealed Tantra
- "The methods of this direction are contained in The Book of the Law, a grimoire of magical instruction the secrets of which are automatically preserved from profanation, because only those able to use the powers to which it is the key can understand the qabalistic and literary cyphers which it contains. We shall fathom a few of them here.
- "The key symbols of that Book are Nuit (Consciousness absolute), Hadit (the manifestation of Consciousness) and Ra-Hoor-khuit, the reflection or projection of Hadit in the form of the objective universe.
- "The manifesting power of Consciousness, which is Hadit, is typified by the Phallus, or the Beast, which is the link between the ideal world of Absolute Subjectivity and the actual world of Concrete Objectivity, their union being symbolied by Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Ra-Hoor-Khuit is therefore the "son", or result, of the union of Nuit and Hadit, as well as being mystically identical with both."
- "In tantric terms, the Scarlet Woman is suvasini; literally, 'the sweet smelling lady" of the Mystic Circle (chakra) which is formed for the purpose of obtaining oracles and tantras. Tantras are collections of instruction in magic, communicated by para terrestrial intelligences in much the same way as The Book of the Law was communicated to Crowley."
This view is elaborated by Sam Webster in Analyzing Liber AL vel Legis:
- "My further researches has indicated that yet another strand needs to be woven into this exploration to interpret Liber AL: Tibetan Buddhism. As Liber AL comes out of a magickal tradition, so does the Tibetan Buddhist and some of its values and choices of symbols are dictated by the empirical ways of magick. My studies of Tibetan Buddhism seem to indicate to me that Liber AL may be best interpreted as being of the genre called tantra. Due to the circumstances surrounding its generation Liber AL exhibits certain similarities to the Tibetan phenomenon called a terma or treasure. These are usually texts or sometimes objects that preserve and transmit practices and insights that are hidden until the time in which they are needed and when they are discovered. Sometimes these texts are discovered when a discarnate entity, such as a Buddha or Dakini, dictates them to some human who then shares the text with others. This may be what we are seeing in Liber AL. To treat our text in this manner may present a normative context within which it may be interpreted along side similar texts, complete with appropriate cautions and safe-guards absent in the western tradition where this kind of text is a novelty."
Thelema as a new scientific religion
Thelema can be considered a new type of religion that operates in harmony with science, and no longer requires blind faith. From Confessions (ch.49):
- Thelema implies not merely a new religion, but a new cosmology, a new philosophy, a new ethics. It co-ordinates the disconnected discoveries of science, from physics to psychology, into a coherent and consistent system. Its scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application.
In this new type of religion, Thelema is no longer subject to the ideas of faith, but embraces the concepts of modern science, and combines with it to become a kind of "scientific religion." This is embodied in the motto he adopted for his mystical order, the A.'.A.'., which is "The method of science, the aim of religion." He references this motto in Magick without Tears, (Ch.XXXI):
- True, [religion is] a slogan of A.'.A.'.: "The method of science, the aim of religion." Here the word 'aim' and the context help the definition; it must mean the attainment of Knowledge and Power in spiritual matters [...] But then there is the sense in which Frazer (and I) often use the word: as in opposition to "Science" or "Magic." Here the point is that religious people attribute phenomena to the will of some postulated Being or Beings, placable and moveable by virtue of sacrifice, devotion, or appeal.
Crowley is arguing that Thelema redefines religion as a system that must work with science, not oppose it. He makes this position clear in the same chapter; "our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick." He believed that The Book of the Law was a perfect combination of the religious and the scientific. From Confessions (ch.49):
- The existence of true religion presupposes that of some discarnate intelligence, whether we call him God or anything else. And this is exactly what no religion had ever proved scientifically. And this is what The Book of the Law does prove by internal evidence, altogether independent of any statement of mine. This proof is evidently the most important step in science that could possibly be made: for it opens up an entirely new avenue to knowledge.
And more succinctly in "Notes for an Astral Atlas" in Magick, Book 4, "In a word, the Book of the Law proves the prime postulate of Religion. The Magician may therefore be confident that Spiritual Beings exist, and seek the Knowledge and conversation of His own Holy Guardian Angel with the same ardour as that of Frater Perdurabo [Crowley]..."
From a larger point of view, Crowley labored to create (or announce) Thelema as a religion based not on pure faith but on spiritual attainment through the mystical science of magick and yoga. He writes in 'Confessions (ch.36):
- It is possible to base a religion, not on theory and results, but on practice and methods. It is honest and hopeful to progress on admitted principles towards the development of each individual mind, and thus to advance towards the absolute by means of the consciously willed evolution of the faculty of apprehension. Such is in fact the idea underlying initiation. It constitutes the absolute justification of the Path of the Wise as indicated by the adepts, whether of the magical or mystical schools. For Yoga offers humanity an organ of intelligence superior to intellect, yet co-ordinate with it, and Magick serves to arise spiritual energies which while confirming those of the mind, bring them to their culmination.
The following is a list of various non-obligatory doctrines that are found in the Thelemic literature. First among these is the doctrine which describes the "Holy Books" of Thelema, where many of the other doctrines can be found.
The Book of the Law establishes a model of reality that combines two elementary forces: the infinite extention of space, which is personified by the Egyptian sky-goddess Nuit, and the infinitely contracted point, personified by the Egyptian god Hadit. It is the interaction of these two forces that results in manifested reality. Crowley often described this interaction in sexual terms: "Nuit is the centripetal energy, infinitely elastic because it must fit over the hard thrust directed against it; Hadit, the centrifugal, ever seeking to penetrate the unknown" (Magick Without Tears, Ch.38). The union of these two opposites results in the new current of the present Aeon, represented by Ra-Hoor-Khuit (lit. Horus of Two Horizons), also called the Crowned and Conquering Child.
This cosmology is interpreted literally by some Thelemites, and by others it is seen as metaphor. For others, it is a key or set of obscure instructions for practices leading to personal attainment or other change of state. Crowley himself admitted that The Book of the Law had many elements that were beyond his own comprehension.
Personalities found within Thelema
The following list represents godforms or other significant personalities that have prominent roles within the structure of Thelema (most are found in Liber AL), and especially the writings of Aleister Crowley. How one interprets and interacts with these beings, if at all, is up to the individual.
The three primary speakers from Liber AL
- Nuit (Nu) is the speaker in Chapter I. She is the eternally-extended Egyptian goddess of the night sky and the Queen of Space. Nuit is the complement of Hadit.
- Hadit (Had) is presented in Chapter II. He is the winged disk, the infinitely contracted point, and the source of Life. Hadit is the complement of Nuit.
- Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Horus) speaks in Chapter III. He is the Hawk-Headed Lord of the current Aeon, also called the Crowned and Conquering Child. (Ra is the Egyptian sun god).
- Aiwass: This is the being that dictated Liber Legis according to Aleister Crowley‚ who considered Aiwass to be his personal Guardian angel.
- Heru-ra-ha: (Heru is another name for Horus), a composite deity composed of Ra-Hoor-Khuit and Hoor-par-kraat.
- Hoor-par-kraat: (Also Heru-pa-kraath, and the Greek god Harpocrates)‚ identified as Horus in his form as a young child. Egyptian statues represent him as a naked boy with his finger on his mouth, a hieroglyph for "child" and the later notion of "silence". He is also known as the Babe in the Egg. He is representative of the "silent self" and an individual's Guardian angel.
- Babalon: The Scarlet Woman, the Great Whore, and the Mother of Abominations. She is the Yoni, the archetypical Womb of all Life, the provider of material flesh to clothe our manifested Spirit, Mother Earth, and the Great Sea. Her consort is:
- Chaos: The universal generative drive, unrestrained creative power, the primal unformulated substance from which all manifested matter is made, the Fire of the Life Force found in each of us.
- The Beast: upon whom the Scarlet Woman rideth, alternatively identified as Aleister Crowley, the whole of Mankind, the Phallus (both masculine and feminine), and the Vehicle of Life.
- Ankh-af-na-khonsu: Actual priest who lived in Thebes during the late XXVth dynasty of ancient Egypt, around 725 b.c.e. Aleister Crowley assumed the magical identity of this Priest as the living Prophet of the Aeon of Horus, the deliverer of The Book of the Law (Sabazius, 1998).
- The Prince-Priest / The Prophet: Aleister Crowley
- The Prophet and his Bride: Aleister and Rose Crowley.
- Asar and Isa: Asar is Osiris, the "adorant" and Isa is the Muslim form of Jesus, the "sufferer" and a prophet (though not a messiah).
- Tahuti: (the Greek Thoth), the god of knowledge, writing, language, music, the Moon, magick, and occult wisdom.
- Because: "Now a curse upon Because and his kin!...Enough of Because! Be he damned for a dog!" (AL II, 28-33).
- Hrumachis: the Dawning Sun, another name of Horus.
Just as interpretation of Liber AL is a task left to the individual, so is the ethical system of Thelema a matter of personal choice. That being said, there are some common themes within the writings of Crowley and other Thelemic philosophers. Arguably the central Thelemic ethic is one of individual liberty and the personal freedom to fulfill one's Will. Social restrictions, such as laws that make illegal certain sex acts between consenting adults is generally seen in a negative light by most Thelemites.
Two documents in particular help to define Thelemic ethics for most adherents: Oz and Duty.
Liber Oz establishes the rights of the individual. For each person, these include the right to: live by one's own law; live in the way that one wills to do; work, play, and rest as one will; die when and how one will; eat and drink what one will; live where one will; move about as one will; think, speak, write, dress, love, paint, carve (etc.) as one will; and kill those who would thwart these rights. The rights established in Oz are often considered to be complimented by the obligations given in Duty.
Duty is described as "A note on the chief rules of practical conduct to be observed by those who accept the Law of Thelema." There are four sections:
- Duty to Self: essentially describes the self as the center of the universe, with a call to learn about one's inner nature. Futher, every Thelemite is to develop every faculty in a balanced way, establish one's autonomy, and to learn and do one's True Will.
- Duty to Others: A Thelemite is called to eliminate the illusion of separateness between onesself and all others, to fight when necessary, to avoid interfering with the Wills of others, to enlighten others when needed, and to recognize the divine nature of all other beings. Further, it is noble to relieve the suffering of others, but pity (seen as condescending) should be avoided.
- Duty to Mankind: Thelemites should try to establish the Law of Thelema as the sole basis of conduct. Further, the laws of the land should have the aim of securing the greatest liberty for all individuals. Crime is viewed from the point of view of violating one's True Will ("Thus, murder restricts his right to live; robbery, his right to enjoy the fruits of his labour; coining, his right to the guarantee of the state that he shall barter in security; etc.").
- Duty to All Other Beings and Things: Quite simply: "It is a violation of the Law of Thelema to abuse the natural qualities of any animal or object by diverting it from its proper function" and "The Law of Thelema is to be applied unflinchingly to decide every question of conduct."
Although there are communal ceremonies informed by Thelema, and organizations to support them (of which Ordo Templi Orientis is the most visible and extensive), Thelemic "religious" practice is a mainly individual affair. Crowley composed a few guidelines to the cardinal observances and programs. In Liber Aleph he lists the following "Means prescribed in our Holy Books" for constant observance:
- Neglect never the fourfold Adoration of the Sun in his four Stations, for thereby thou dost affirm thy Place in Nature and her Harmonies. (Liber Resh)
- Neglect not the Performance of the Ritual of the Pentagram, and of the Assumption of the Form of Hoor-pa-Kraat. (Liber O)
- Neglect not the daily Miracle of the Mass, either by the Rite of the Gnostic Catholic Church (Liber XV), or that of the Phoenix (Mass of the Phoenix).
- Neglect not the Performance of the Mass of the Holy Ghost, as Nature Herself prompteth thee.
- Travel much also in the Empyrean in thy Body of Light, seeking ever Abodes more fiery and lucid.
- Finally, exercise the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
In Magick in Theory and Practice, there is a similar regimen with slightly different emphasis. First he recommends yoga, with the method explained in "Part I" of Book Four. Then he lists "the most important drill practices" of magick, as follows:
- The fortification of the Body of Light by the constant use of rituals, or by the assumption of God-forms, and by the right use of the Eucharist.
- The purification and consecration and exaltation of that Body by the use of rituals of invocation.
- The education of that Body by experience. It must learn to travel on every plane; to break down every obstacle which may confront it. This experience must be as systematic and regular as possible; for it is of no use merely to travel to the spheres of Jupiter and Venus, or even to explore the 30 Aethyrs, neglecting unattractive meridians.
In addition to these programs, there are some other basic practices usually involved in Thelema. The first of these is the magical record or diary. "Verily, it is better to fail in the magical ceremony than to fail in writing down an accurate record of it." (Book Four) The second is the recital of the formula of "Will" prior to the main meal of the day. This practice consists of a simple set of statements (sometimes presented as a dialog with others) declaring that it is the individual's will to eat and drink, in order to fortify his body, in order to accomplish the Great Work. Variants on this recital exist for initiates in different circumstances (see Liber 185).
- Crowley, Aleister. (1974). Magick. Samuel Weiser. York Beach, Maine, 1974.
- Crowley, Aleister. (1982). Magick Without Tears. Phoenix, AZ : Falcon Press.
- Free Encyclopedia of Thelema (2005). Thelema. Retrieved March 8, 2005.
- Grant, Kenneth (1972). The Magical Revival. Frederick Muller, 1972.
- Thelemapedia (2005). Arguments for why Thelema is a religion. Retrieved June 13, 2005.
- Thelemapedia (2005). Non-religious Views of Thelema. Retrieved April 26, 2005.
- Thelemapedia. (2005). Thelema. Retrieved June 13, 2005.
- Webster, Sam (1993). Analyzing Liber AL vel Legis. Retrieved March 9, 2005.