The religion known as Thelema was founded in 1904 by the English poet and mystic Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947), who is regarded as its prophet. Those who follow the path of Thelema are called Thelemites.
Thelemic Religious Texts
The book The Holy Books of Thelema (reference 8, below), includes most of the books which Thelemites consider to be Crowley’s “inspired” texts, and which form the canon of Thelemic Holy Scripture. The chief of these is Liber AL vel Legis, sub figura CCXX, commonly called The Book of the Law. The contents of this book are rather cryptic, and Crowley has prepared a number of commentaries thereto for clarification (most of these are included in reference 3, below). Thelemites are expected to interpret the book for themselves, based on Crowley’s commentaries and other writings; but are enjoined from promoting their personal interpretations to others. Another book which forms an important part of the Thelemic canon, but which is not included in The Holy Books of Thelema for technical reasons, is Liber XXX Aerum vel Saeculi, sub figura CDXVIII, commonly called The Vision and the Voice (included in reference 11 below). The I Ching and the Tarot (considered as a book of mystic illustrations rather than as a fortune-telling device), though of Pre-Thelemic origin, are also considered to be part of the informal Thelemic canon.
Theology and Essential Tenets of Thelema
The following notes on Thelemic theology are based primarily on the writings of Aleister Crowley. These notes are not intended as interpretation or commentary on The Book of the Law outside the bounds of the Prophet’s writings, nor do they represent a definitive statement of Thelemic belief.
The theology of Thelema postulates all manifested existence arising from the interaction of two cosmic principles: the infinitely extended, all-pervading Space-Time Continuum; and the atomic, individually expressed Principle of Life and Wisdom. The interplay of these Principles gives rise to the Principle of Consciousness which governs existence. In the Book of the Law, the divine Principles are personified by a trinity of ancient Egyptian Divinities: Nuit, the Goddess of Infinite Space; Hadit, the Winged Serpent of Light; and Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Horus), the Solar, Hawk-Headed Lord of the Cosmos.
The Thelemic theological system utilizes the divinities of various cultures and religions as personifications of specific divine, archetypal and cosmic forces. Thelemic doctrine holds that all the diverse religions of Humanity are grounded in universal truths; and the study of comparative religion is an important discipline for many Thelemites.
With respect to concepts of the individual soul, Thelema follows traditional Hermeticism in the doctrine that each person possesses a soul or “Body of Light” which is arranged in “layers” or “sheaths” surrounding the physical body. Each individual is also considered to have his or her own personal “Augoeides” or “Holy Guardian Angel”; which can be considered both as the “higher self” and as a separate, sentient, divine being. With respect to concepts of the afterlife, life itself is considered as a continuum, with death an integral part of the whole. Mortal life dies in order that mortal life may continue. The Augoeides, however, is immortal and not subject to life or death.
Parallel to Buddhist doctrine, the Body of Light is considered to be subject to metempsychosis, or reincarnation, after the death of the body. The Body of Light is generally considered to evolve in wisdom, consciousness and spiritual power through cycles of metempsychosis for those individuals who dedicate their lives to spiritual advancement; to the point that its fate after death may ultimately be determined by the Will of the individual.
Thelema incorporates the idea of the cyclic evolution of Cultural Consciousness as well as of Personal Consciousness. History is considered to be divided into a series of “Aeons”, each with its own dominant concept of divinity and its own “formula” of redemption and advancement. The current Aeon is termed the Aeon of Horus. The previous Aeon was that of Osiris, and previous to that was the Aeon of Isis. The neolithic Aeon of Isis is considered to have been dominated by the Maternal idea of divinity, and its formula involved devotion to Mother Earth in return for the nourishment and shelter She provided. The Classical/Medieval Aeon of Osiris is considered to have been dominated by the Paternal Principle, and its formula was that of self-sacrifice and submission to the Father God. The modern Aeon of Horus is considered to be dominated by the Principle of the Child, the sovereign individual; and its formula is that of growth, in consciousness and love, toward self-realization.
According to Thelemic doctrine, the expression of Divine Law in the Aeon of Horus is “Do what thou wilt”. This “Law of Thelema”, as it is called, is not to be interpreted as a license to indulge every passing whim, but rather as the divine mandate to discover one’s True Will or true purpose in life, and to accomplish it; leaving others to do the same in their own unique ways. The “acceptance” of the Law of Thelema is what defines a Thelemite; and the discovery and accomplishment of the True Will is the fundamental concern of all Thelemites. Achieving the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” is considered an integral part of this process. The methods and practices to be employed in this process are numerous and varied; and are grouped together under the generalized term “Magick”.
Not every Thelemite utilizes all the practices available, there is considerable room for each individual practitioner to choose practices which are suitable to his or her individual needs. Some of these practices are the same as, or similar to, the practices advocated by many of the great religions of the past and present; such as prayer, meditation, study of religious texts (those of Thelema and of other religions as well), chanting, symbolic and initiatory ritual, devotional exercises, self-discipline, etc. However, some of our practices have been traditionally associated with what has generally been known as “occultism”; i.e., astrology, divination, numerology, yoga, tantric alchemy, and discourse with “angels” or “spirits” are all taken by Thelemites as potentially effective means for obtaining spiritual insights into the nature of one’s being and one’s place in the universe; and for the fulfillment of such insights through harmonious, evolutionary works.
Thelema considers any action which is not directed toward the discovery and accomplishment of the True Will to be “black magic”. This includes acts of interference with any other individual’s lawful exercise of their right to discover and accomplish their own True Will. Thelemic doctrine holds that the disharmony and imbalance created by such actions results in a compensatory, equilibrating response from the universe; a doctrine similar to that of the Eastern conception of “Karma”. Thelema has no direct parallel to the Judaeo-Christian concept of the devil or Satan; however, a pseudo-personification of confusion, distraction, illusion and egotistical ignorance is referred to by the name “Choronzon”.
The Thelemic Calendar
The Thelemic calendar counts years from 1904 EV (the year Liber AL was received). Each Thelemic year starts on March 20th of the civil calendar, at (approximately) the northern-hemisphere Vernal Equinox.
Rather than simply giving the year count from 1904, the Thelemic calendar uses a two-tiered system. The “upper” level gives a count of twenty-two year periods since 1904; the “lower” level gives the years since the start of the current twenty-two year period. Both are zero-based, with nonzero numbers being represented as upper and lower case Roman numerals, respectively. So, for example, the civil year 1996 is (after March 20) Thelemic year IViv, because 1904 + (4 * 22) + 4 equals 1996.
Some Thelemites assign the twenty-two years of each cycle to the twenty-two Trumps of the Tarot. The 22-year period numbers themselves are also assigned in this way. Hence, 1996 is doubly linked to Trump IV of the Tarot, the Emperor.
Within each year, dates and times are often expressed by the positions of the Sun and Moon in the Tropical zodiac. For example, May 12, 1996 EV at 6pm PST would be expressed as “IViv, Sol 22° Taurus, Luna 29° Pisces.” This specifies the precise date and time to within about two hours.
When giving dates in the civil calendar, Thelemites will often append “e.v.” This is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “era vulgaris,” or “common era.”
Thelemic Observed Holy Days
The official holy days of Thelema are set forth in The Book of the Law, Ch. II, v. 36-41. The specific dates attributed to them are given in Crowley’s commentaries, and are summarized below:
The Rituals of the Elements and Feasts of the Times are observed at the Equinoxes and Solstices.
The Feast for the First Night of the Prophet and His Bride is observed on August 12.
The Feast for the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law is observed on April 8, 9 and 10, beginning at noon on each day.
The Feast for the Supreme Ritual (the Invocation of Horus) is observed on March 20, and represents the opening of the Thelemic new year.
The Feast for the Equinox of the Gods is held on the Vernal Equinox of each year to commemorate the founding of Thelema in 1904.
Three points of passage in the life of each Thelemite are observed. Birth is celebrated in a Feast for Life; puberty is celebrated in a Feast for Fire (for a boy), or a Feast for Water (for a girl); and the death of the individual is commemorated in a Greater Feast for Death.
Various anniversaries commemorating major events and figures in the history of Thelema and O.T.O. are also celebrated informally by some Thelemic groups.
Nearly all Thelemites keep a record of their personal practices, and their progress therein, in a “Magical Diary”. Most Thelemites also practice a particular form of prayer four times per day, which is specified in a book called Liber Resh vel Helios (included in reference 11, below). Thelemites often take mystic names or “magical mottoes” for themselves as a sign of commitment; and customarily greet each other with the phrase, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”; to which the customary response is, “Love is the law, love under will”. Sometimes these phrases are abbreviated by the simple statement of the number “ninety-three”, which number signifies both “Will” and “Love” through a particular form of numerology of significance within Thelema.
Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) is incorporated in the State of California as a not-for-profit religious organization with tax exemption in California and the United States under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. O.T.O. currently operates in 17 countries around the world and has approximately 3000 active members. Within the broad context of Thelema, O.T.O. functions as a fraternal, initiatory, social, and educational organization of a religious nature.
O.T.O. includes a specifically liturgical arm which is called Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.G.C.), the Gnostic Catholic Church, which was originally brought into relations with O.T.O. by Dr. Gerard Encausse (Papus) in 1908. The principal ritual of E.G.C. is called the Gnostic Mass (included in references 6, 9 and 11 below). Membership in E.G.C. is available through baptism and confirmation. Members of O.T.O. in good standing are eligible for clerical ordination in E.G.C. Members of II° and higher (or even I°, in some situations) are eligible for ordination as Deacon, and those who have reached K.E.W. are eligible for ordination as Priest or Priestess. E.G.C. also celebrates seasonal festivals, commemorations of life passage events and other religious functions. Many O.T.O. local bodies celebrate the Gnostic Mass on a regular basis, and in most locations, no formal affiliation is required to attend the Mass.
O.T.O. has long worked in close alliance with the A:.A:., which first proclaimed the Law of Thelema to the world. The A:.A:. is a teaching and initiatory structure dedicated to the personal spiritual advancement of its individual members. Within A:.A:. all services are rendered free of charge, and no social activities are held. O.T.O. and A:.A:. have jointly issued the journal The Equinox since 1912 e.v., now entering its fourth volume. Although they are distinctly separate organizations, O.T.O. has historically assisted A:.A:. with practical matters that lie outside its primary mission, which is purely spiritual in nature. Aspirants to the A:.A:. may write to:
The Cancellarius of A:.A:.
c/o The Equinox
JAF Box 7666
New York, NY 10116
- 1. Crowley, Aleister; Eight Lectures on Yoga , New Falcon Publications, Scottsdale, Arizona 1991
- 2. Crowley, Aleister; The Heart of the Master , New Falcon Publications, Scottsdale, Arizona 1992
- 3. Crowley, Aleister, edited by Israel Regardie; The Law is for All, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota 1975
- 4. Crowley, Aleister; Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly , Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1991
- 5. Crowley, Aleister; Little Essays Toward Truth , New Falcon Publications, Scottsdale, Arizona 1991
- 6. Crowley, Aleister; Magick in Theory and Practice , in Magick: Book IV, Parts I-IV, edited, annotated and introduced by Hymenaeus Beta, Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine 1994
- 7. Crowley, Aleister; Magick Without Tears , Falcon Press, Phoenix, Arizona 1982
- 8. Hymenaeus Alpha (ed.); The Holy Books of Thelema, Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1983
- 9. Hymenaeus Beta (ed.); The Equinox, Vol. III, No. 10, Thelema Publications, NY 1986
- 10. Melton, J. Gordon; Encyclopedia of American Religions, 4th Edition, Gale Research Publishing, Detroit, Michigan 1993. O.T.O. is discussed specifically under entry no. 1310.
- 11. Regardie, Israel (ed.); Gems from the Equinox, Falcon Press, Phoenix, Arizona 1982