Here is the official story. Do what you will with it.
While on honeymoon in Cairo, the young bride of one Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) fell into a sort of trance, and started telling her husband that the god Horus was trying to get in touch with him. Crowley had been, prior to all of this, l'enfant terrible of a magical order known as the Golden Dawn, but he had retired from the magical arts and was at the time a practicing Buddhist. His wife, by contrast, had no esoteric background or knowledge, and he was understandably irritated by her ramblings. He took her to a museum and challenged her to point out who was trying to reach him, sneering to himself as she blindly walked right past all the well known images of Horus. But straight she went to a small, painted funeral stele, and pointed excitedly. Sure enough, it displayed Horus (Ra Hoor Khuit), as well as two other deities, the Egyptian star goddess Nut (Nuit) and Behdet (Hadit) the winged solar disc. She insisted this was the source of the voices calling to her, and Crowley, who had been raised in a strict Christian sect and had been called by his mother "the Beast" and "Antichrist" for his rebelliousness and rejection of her faith, couldn't help but notice that the museum exhibit number of this little wooden item was number 666. It was enough to convince him to listen to her.
Following her instructions, Crowley locked himself in his bedroom between the hours of noon and one o'clock on three successive afternoons, April 8th, 9th, and 10th. There he sat down at his desk, pen and paper ready. And there, the story goes, a voice dictated to him Liber AL vel Legis, also known as The Book of the Law. He always insisted it wasn't in his head. He heard it from over his left shoulder, from the corner of the room.
This book, and the message it contains, is absolutely central to my world view. Though I dislike the word "religion," and agree with Crowley that it has no place in discussions of Thelema (the philosophy arising from The Book of the Law), if I had a religion this would be it. But part of the reason I call myself a Thelemite is because it asks me to believe nothing, including the origin story I just shared with you. Did the gods reach out and dictate this book to Crowley? I don't know. I do know, however, that he himself was convinced of this. Crowley was a skeptical polymath, relentlessly self-critical, and kept meticulous diaries. It is clear from them that he rejected The Book of the Law, and was initially dismissive of its claims. He refused the role it assigned to him for years. But the more he studied the book, the harder he tried to reduce it, the more convinced of its authenticity he became. It became crystal clear in his mind that The Book of the Law had been dictated to him by an intelligence greater than himself, and it was his firm conviction that his life mission was to bring the new law to all. I for one and glad he did.
So what exactly is in this book? For starters it is divided into three short chapters, each dictated over the space of one hour as Crowley furiously scribbled them out. We know this because those pages are preserved, and photos of each one are included in every copy of The Book of the Law for all to examine. These are not the golden tablets of Joseph Smith, conveniently whisked away by angels after he translated The Book of Mormon from them. Each chapter was dictated, through a messenger named Aiwass, by a different deity. Like the Christian Trinity, however, these three gods are part of a whole. The first is Nuit, the goddess of infinite space. The second is her counterpart Hadit, the tiny spark of the infinite within each of us. The third is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, the Crowned and Conquering Child of theirs who governs the space between them. Think of Nuit as the circumference of a circle, Hadit as the center, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit as the radius and the area (everything in The Book of the Law is intensely mathematical, and it is riddled not only with mathematical conceptions but hidden codes and encryptions). Another way to regard them is with Nuit as the Universe, Hadit as our own individuality and consciousness, and Ra-Hoor as how we interact with the world around us.
Aside from this cosmology, which is in itself actually key to the rest of the message, The Book of the Law is declaring a New Aeon and a new Magickal Formula for humanity to live by. That takes some explaining. For starters a "Magickal Formula" is simply an observation of reality and a prescription of how to interact with it. "The early bird gets the worm," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "E=MC2," and "pi" are all examples. They reflect our understanding of how things work, or how they should work. Thelema postulates beyond this that there are bigger, all-encompassing Magickal Formulae that govern entire stages of human development, also known as "Aeons." Crowley discusses three of these, and given the Egyptian origins of Thelema, he uses Nile gods to label them.
The Aeon of Isis governed human prehistory. It was the time of our hunter-gathering ancestors, and its chief Magickal Formula was the Great Mother. Chiefly concerned with "where does life come from," the answer seemed to be from women, and the earth. Women appeared to spontaneously bring forth life, as did the land itself, and both produced food from their bodies. Archaeological evidence abounds demonstrating this ancient cult of the mother, from massive breasted fertility figurines to skeletons buried in the fetal position as if returning to the Great Mother's womb.
With agriculture came a new formula, and a new Aeon. Crops were produced by the seed, incubated in the soil. This led to the conclusion that the male seed, semen, was the source of human life as well, with women merely as the incubator. This was an idea that lasted well into Roman and medieval times. Further, the importance of the sun in the cycles of nature and the growing season moved the focus from Terra to Sol. The new formula was God the Father, Lord of Light and Life. Believing to have the mystery of where life came from solved, attention turned sharply to "what happens after death." The answer came from the Solar Father; the sun dies each night and rises reborn. This became the formula of the Father God cult. By obedience and worship to God the Father, like him we will rise from the dead. This was the central teaching of scores of antique mystery religions, from Osiris to Christ. Crowley chose to name this Aeon after the former. With this Aeon of Osiris authority moved from matriarchal families and tribes to patriarchal states. It lasted until the dawn of the 20th century.
The Book of the Law initiates the Aeon of Horus. For the egyptology-impaired, Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and just as the first Aeon was the Mother's, and the second the Father's, the New Aeon is that of the Child. Humanity is no longer ignorant of the facts of life; we understand conception requires both egg and sperm equally. The union of opposites becomes an essential Magickal Formula of the Age. We no longer believe the sun dies and is resurrected; we know it is always there, and that the rotation of the planet creates the illusion of solar death. Thus we can discard all this resurrection nonsense; even "death" can be dismissed. Nothing "dies," and the molecules of our bodies--forged in the hearts of stars countless millennia ago--are simply translated into something else. Death comes from the erroneous conclusion that we are separate from the Universe. The end of bodily life does not erase suddenly the role we played. The effect we had upon the world endures forever. We are part of the fabric of being and this never ends.
Dispensing with the question of birth and the fear of death, Thelema asks us to focus on the most important spiritual question; "how should we live?" It provides us with an answer, the new Magickal Formula of the Aeon of Horus. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."
Perhaps nothing else in Thelema is as poorly understood, or as central, as "do what thou wilt." Thelema is the Greek word for "will," and the very definition of a Thelemite is one who seeks to discover and do his or her will. By "will" we mean True Will, and it is nothing less than what you are meant to do with your existence. Will is not assigned to us by an external God; we are not to do God's will but our own. The time of the Father, like the Mother, has passed. We are to take responsibility for ourselves now and move out on our own.
For the Thelemite, "every man and every woman is a star." We are each the center of our own solar system, the source of our own light, the sole sovereign of our own existence. But at the same time we are clustered into galaxies, and each of us has a trajectory we are moving on through space. Your Will is that trajectory, determined by your position, composition, and disposition. It is always natural to you. You are drawn to it, you are good at it, it comes naturally and feels right. It is not a chore, though it may not be easy. The Thelemite works to find his or her Will and then do it as best as they can.
But there is a corollary to this Law of perfect freedom; "...thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay." The Law does not say "do whatever you please." You are required to do your Will; if you are gay it is wrong to try and force yourself to be straight. If you are a gifted painter it is wrong to force yourself into accounting or medicine to please your parents. Trying to make your life easier by not doing your Will violates the Law. Further, no other may say "nay." The only sin, The Book of the Law tells us, is restriction. Any action that restricts another person from doing his or her own Will is "evil." Rape, as a violation of another's sexual Will, is evil. Theft, as a violation of a person's livelihood and therefore ability to do their Will, is evil. Murder, the greatest violation of Will imaginable, is evil. It may be that on some occasions, stars collide when following the course of their Wills, but in general the evils of the world arise from people not doing their Will. It is no one's Will to walk into a classroom and murder innocent children. It is no one's Will to force themselves on someone. We must do our Wills and leave others to do theirs.
Connected to this concept of individual sovereignty and individual Will is that of individual deity. This brings up the debate whether or not Thelema can be called a "religion."
The three chief divinities of The Book of the Law are not properly objects of worship in the way that Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu are understood to be. Nor do they answer prayer. Indeed they are not even objective entities so much as personifications of concepts. Hadit is the spark of consciousness and individuality within us, and Nuit is the manifest universe around us. They are "divided for love's sake," for the joy of reunion. We are meant to intact with each other and the world as we might with a lover. The "worship" of Nuit then, is to live joyously, and Hadit is in reality the "worshiper." Ra-Hoor-Khuit, the product of the interaction between the self and the world, is the embodiment of Thelema. He embodies how we are to live, and is not to be worshipped, just followed.
But the notion of a personal god is not entirely absent from Thelema. In fact, Thelema takes the word "personal" quite literally. Rather than the individual forming a "personal relationship" with a single divine being, as worshipers do with Christ or Krishna, the Thelemite has his very own "personal god," a link between the self and the ultimate level of reality. This is not unique to Thelema; it is an extremely ancient and widespread concept. The Greeks believed everyone had their own god, or daemon. The Romans called it the genius. Thelema includes this type of being in its cosmology as well, calling it the "Holy Guardian Angel." There is no clear consensus on what exactly its nature is, however, and even Crowley went back and forth when trying to pin it down. He would at one time call it the "Higher Self," only later to insist that it was not that, but a being in its own right. For example, he came to think that Aiwass, the intelligence that dictated The Book of the Law to him, was his own Angel, and possessed intellect and awareness far beyond his own capacities. Fortunately, the Thelemite is not required to have any preconceptions concerning the nature of this being, he or she is only required to seek it out and form a union with it. This is perhaps the closest Thelema drifts towards religion in the conventional sense, but there are so many other facets of the system at odds with religious conventions it is hard to feel comfortable using that word.
Aside from the absence of communal prayer or a shared deity, it is forbidden for any Thelemite to attempt to interpret The Book of the Law for anyone else. One must read the book and interpret it for oneself, period. This makes any sort of church or congregation, wherein uniformity is encouraged, problematic. Further, nothing is to be taken on "faith;" Thelema insists on a policy of scientific illuminism wherein the "method of science" is put towards "the aim of religion." If there is any truth to mystical experience, it is argued, then it must respond to the application of the scientific method. Mystical states must be reproducible by anyone using the correct formulae, regardless of ideology or "belief." Crowley wrote in his kind to students, 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. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."
This system of scientific illuminism, which Crowley termed "Magick," is closely intertwined with the philosophy of Thelema in a way religion is not. The Book of the Law refers to magical rites, but refrains from using the word "religion" at all. So while Thelema does indeed occupy the psychology space in my being that religion might occupy for others, I am more comfortable referring to it as a "path" or "system" than a religion. "...our system is a religion," wrote Crowley;
"...just so far as religion means an enthusiastic putting together 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 I fail to see what you will have gained in 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 question, ultimately, resides with the story back in Cairo. If you think Aiwass was an objective being, if you think Ra Hoor Khuit really has taken his seat on the throne of the gods, if you think Crowley really was chosen to deliver a divine mandate to mankind, you are very likely to look at Thelema as a religion. Indeed, I have known many Thelemites who do. If you tend to think as I do, that the elementals, gods, demons, and angels conjured by Magick all dwell as disparate facets of our own psyches, one is less inclined to regard it as religion and more as a system for psychological development and a guide for living. In a way it all depends on the question of Aiwass. As psychologist, occultist, and former secretary to Crowley Israel Regardie wrote in The Eye in the Triangle;
“If Aiwass was his own Higher Self, then the inference is none other than that Aleister Crowley was the author of the Book, and that he was the external mask for a variety of different hierarchical personalities… The man Crowley was the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, the outer shell of a God, even as we all are, the persona of a Star… He is the author of The Book of the Law even as he is the author of The Book of the Heart Girt with a Serpent and Liber Lapidis Lazuli, and so forth. …these latter books reveal a dialogue between the component parts of Crowley. It seems to me that basically this Liber Legis is no different.”
I am inclined to side with Regardie for several reasons. The first and chiefest is my own thirty years of dealings with Magick and twenty with The Book of the Law. I know full well how real these entities all can be, and frequently they do demonstrate knowledge and power that I would consider beyond my own capacity. Indeed, the summer I retired from the world to perform the Abramelin Ritual (the operation to achieve the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel) very nearly tipped me the other way into believing full on that I was dealing with discarnate entities independent of my own mental processes. This experience was intimately connected with The Book of the Law, and like Crowley I teetered on that line between skepticism and belief. I have been struggling the subsequent eight years to put that summer into words, but suffice to say it was Crowley--and Liber AL vel Legis--that talked me off the ledge. The first was the quote from Liber O I mentioned above, the second was Crowley's commentary on one of The Book of the Law's most inspiring verses; "Every man and every woman is a star. Every number is infinite; there is no difference." Crowley wrote of this in The Law is for All;
"This is a great and holy mystery. Although each star has its own number, each number is equal and supreme. Every man and every woman is not only a part of God, but the Ultimate God. 'The Centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.' The old definition of God takes new meaning for us. Each one of us is the One God."
If we are stars, then, all the spirits would seem to be the planets and moons and comets that compose our systems. They are independent to a degree, but dependent on our gravitation and light. This is not to say that our common, daily consciousness is the "star" either. In fact I think it is probably our Higher Self that is the true center, and that the idea of ourself we have constructed from experience and cultural inheritance is just more debris in orbit around that center. Magick, and Thelema, is about shifting the seat of your consciousness from those moons to the actually sun.
For this reason, I hold the view that in that Cairo hotel suite Crowley did indeed experience a revelation from the deepest center of himself, not a religion, but a liberation from religion. "It is our Work to overthrow the slave-gods," as Crowley wrote.
But does this make Liber AL vel Legis more or less remarkable? Obviously I side with "more." If Crowley's New Aeon was not, in fact, yet another dictate from yet another god, it was something all the more amazing: the deepest parts of a young man in 1904 who somehow saw the entire 2oth century spread before him. For the Book accurately predicts wars on a scale never seen before as the old ways of kings and gods and faiths clash with the new way of freedom, personal responsibility, and independence. It predicts the rising equality of the sexes and the acceptance of personal sexual preferences. It sees a massive redefining of what religion means. And it calls for a spirituality that in no way clashes with reason or science. If Crowley was not the message bearer for yet another god, he was a visionary. And in that there is the promise that we can be too. So I close with a quote from his Confessions;
"I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle."
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