The word “thelema” originates from the Greek language (in Modern Greek “thelima”) and means “will” and “intention”. Thelema as a religious-philosophic term is first mentioned in Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua & Pantagruel (1532), an adventure story where the main characters of the book visit “Abbey of Thélème”. This abbey concentrated on refining human virtues on the principal of “do what you will”, which Rabelais described as being the opposite of the Christian decency of his time. In Rabelais’ Thélème the basis of philosophy is laughter, which makes life both enjoyable and mock-able at the same time, resulting in “otherness” without asceticism. Even though some of the ideas presented in Rabelais’ book were approached every now and then during the centuries after the book’s publication, it wasn’t until the 20th century before a religious-philosophic path called Thelema was born.
Thelema was founded in 1904 by Aleister Crowley, who is considered the prophet of the religion. Even before this, Crowley was known for his skills as a mage and he was initiated to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In addition to Western magico-mystical and ceremonial magick, Crowley familiarised himself with many Eastern esoteric systems during his many journeys. The magickal systems he studied, influenced his world view and through him, Thelema.
A turning point in the birth of Thelema is Crowley’s and his wife Rose’s trip to Egypt in 1904. According to accounts, Rose - who had been taught the basics of magick and astral by Crowley - demanded Aleister to perform a magick ritual in Cairo at the time of the Spring Equinox. Rose went into a spontaneous trance and told Aleister: "They're waiting for you. About the Child". Later on, Crowley found out that he had been in contact with the “secret masters” of the Golden Dawn, the same masters Mathers had been talking about. He was supposed to open the new era of the mankind, which was supposed to last for the next two thousand years. Shortly after this, Aleister and Rose visited the Boulak-museum of Cairo, where they saw a stele (“Stéle of Revealing”) numbered 666 in the catalogue, with Crowley recognising Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Horus) in it. This occurrence had a strong effect on Crowley, so he obeyed his wife and sat down in their “temple” for three consecutive days at 12 o’clock sharp, April 8-10, 1904, to write down what he heard… This dictation became The Book of the Law.
One can consider the historical basis of Thelema being not only the above-mentioned book by Rabelais, but also Edward Kelly’s and John Dee’s “Enochian Magic” –system from the 17th century; the Qabalah interpretations of the Middle Ages and the renaissance; different ideas of Magick including Witchcraft and Alchemy; and getting nearer to the present day, the resurrection of Magick in Rosicrucian and Freemasonic brotherhoods; spiced with the revival of Paganism and the 19th century and early 20th century books that influenced the revival.
Those who follow Thelema as a religious path are called Thelemites. The teachings of Thelema are based on “the holy books of Thelema”, the most important of which is Liber AL vel Legis, sub figure CCXX, which is most commonly known as The Book of the Law. The holy books of Thelema include thirteen “inspired” texts by Aleister Crowley. Other important but not holy books include Liber XXX Aerum vel Saeculi, sub figura CDXVIII or The Vision and the Voice and The Paris Working. The unofficial canon includes Crowley’s pre-Thelema books on I-Ching and Tarot.
The books in the Thelemic canon are divided into four different classes. “Holy books” belong to class “A” and they have been defined as being unchangeable books, where even the style of letter shouldn’t be touched. Holy books shouldn’t even be criticised, only commented. Class “B” consists of enlightened books and writings resulting in earnest scholarship. Class “C” books are more suggestive material and class “D” consists of official instructions and rituals. Some books belong partly or wholly in more than one class.
The basics of Thelema are usually put forward “in a nutshell” in the following sentences:
- “Every man and every woman is a star”
This refers to that every human being is an individual and that each individual has their own path to follow in the universe. Each individual follows his/her own path freely without colliding with other human being’s paths.
- ”Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and “thou hast no right but to do thy will.”
According to most Thelemites, every human being has his/her own True Will, which is the purpose of their being. The Law of Thelema defines that everybody should first find and then follow their own True Will in order to find the fulfilment of their own life without restrictions. Because two different True Wills can’t be contrary to each others (“Every man and every woman is a star”), the law forbids individuals to meddle in the True Will of any other individual.
- ”Love is the law, love under will.“
This is closely connected to the previous sentence, pointing out that the innermost basis of the Law of Thelema is love. Every individual unites with his/her True Self in Love and growing stronger from this union, all the aware individuals of the world will unite in Love with all the other beings.
The Thelemic word view is mystical and metaphysical and it combines pluralistic, dualistic, monist, mystical and nihilistic views of the world within an over-all cosmic principle. This view is described using rather detailed symbolism. The basic premise is the existence of two cosmic principles. All of the visible existence arises from the interaction of these two. One of these principles is the all-pervading Space-Time Continuum, which is personified by the Goddess of Infinite Space Nuit, who represents continuality and the primal source of everything. The other principle is the individually expressed principle of life and wisdom, the winged serpent Hadit, who is the spouse of Nuit and represents the continuing forces of creation. However, Thelema is only seemingly dualist. Dualism isn’t actually a feature of Thelema, as everything, in the end, originates from Nuit – including Hadit. These two form a one in Nuit, so that even Hadit originates from Nuit and is a part of Her. Nuit is “the perfect emptiness of nothing”, but She isn’t static, unchanging nothingness. Instead, She is the dynamic foundation of all existing – observable – universe, who strives to form diversity as an integral part of Her own being. The interaction of these two principles, Nuit and Hadit, gives birth to the Principle of Consciousness, who governs life and existence. This is personified by the hawk-headed sun god Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Horus).
Thelema’s idea of soul follows the traditional Hermetic model, where each individual has a soul or “body of light”, which surrounds the physical body in layers of sheaths. Every individual is also considered to possess a “Holy Guardian Angel” (Augoeides, HGA), which can be considered both as the “higher self” and as a separate sentient divine being.
Life and death are seen as a continuum in Thelema, with death being an integral part of the whole. In order for the mortal life to continue, the mortal life has to end. However, HGAs are considered to be immortal, independent on both life and death. Bodies of light are considered to be “reincarnating” (metempsychosis – the transmigration of a soul from one body to another after death) after the death of the body so that it will develop in wisdom, awareness and psychic powers to the point that its fate after death may ultimately be determined by the Will of the individual.
The ideas of cultural and personal consciousness are combines in Thelema. History is divided in cycles of Aeons. Each aeon has their dominant concept of divinity and their own models of redemption and advancement. The present aeon is considered to be the aeon of Horus. The previous aeon was that of Osiris, and the previous to that was the aeon of Isis. According to the Thelemic understanding, the Neolithic aeon of Isis was dominated by the Maternal idea of divinity and its model centred on honouring Mother Earth in return of the nourishment and shelter She provided. The Classical/Medieval aeon of Osiris was dominated by the Paternal idea of divinity, the model being self-sacrifice and submission to the Father God. The current aeon of Horus is considered to be dominated by the principle of the Child – the sovereign individual – and its model is that of growth leading to better self-understanding in both consciousness and love.
According to the teachings of Thelema, the expression of the Divine Law during the aeon of Horus is “Do what thou Wilt”. This Law of Thelema should not be interpreted as being a permission of fulfilling any and all whim you might come up with, but as a divine mandate to find your True Will and your real meaning of life. The “acceptance” of the Law of Thelema is what defines who is a Thelemite and who isn’t. The goal of a Thelemite is to find his/her True Will and to fulfil it. An integral part of this process is to achieve “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel”. The methods of gaining this goal vary and they are usually grouped under the general term “Magick”.
The Thelemic system utilises the gods of many different cultures and religions as the manifestations of certain divine, archetypal and cosmic forces. You are most likely to meet Ancient Egyptian deities within the Thelemic system, as per the interpretations of Crowley’s time and the birth of Thelema, the early 20th century. Egyptology has taken vast steps forward during the one hundred years of Thelema’s existence, so loads of Crowley’s interpretations are obsolete today, causing Kemetic Pagans to grow grey hairs… However, researching other religions is important to many Thelemites, as according to the Thelemite teachings, all religions are based on universal truths.
The type of Magick practiced by each individual Thelemite depends on the individual in question and his/her needs. Some practices resemble those used by many practitioners of current and past religions, like prayer, meditation, researching religious texts, chanting, rituals, self-discipline etc. Many practices in turn are what some might call occult, say astrology, divination, numerology and communication with “angels” or “entities”. All these methods are used as a means of getting insights on one’s own being and one’s place in the universe.
According to Thelemites, “black magic” is any act of magick that isn’t about finding and fulfilling your own True Will. This includes acts that interfere in other individuals’ lawful finding and fulfilment of their own True Will. There is a concept reminiscent of the eastern concept of Karma in Thelema. This concept says that the disharmony and imbalance caused by actions against one’s own True Will creates a compensatory, equilibrant response from the universe. There is no Judaeo-Christian concept of Devil/Satan in Thelema. “Choronzon” is not “a deity of evil”, but a pseudo-personification of confusion, distraction, illusion and egotistical ignorance.
Crowley mentions invocations, self-control, regular rituals, sexual magic, devoting to a certain deity by the means of worship, breathing exercises, guided visualisations, using personal symbolism, centring etc as a means of self-advancement. The means to attain the goal are vast. One might say that whatever means will develop you True Will and distance yourself from the self-sufficiency from the world-view surrounding yourself – the mean is what you can use. Every single Thelemite is not only entitled, but also obligated to find THE way to find and fulfil his/her True Will, writing down each step along the way. When it comes to “organised Thelemites”, they should report to their tutors, who should then be able to guide the seeker along. All in all, the needs of each individual are far more important than following a certain formula or pattern of practice.
Practically every Thelemite keeps a “magickal journal”, writing down his/her practice of magick and development. Many include in their daily practice a model of prayer, found in Liber Resh vel Helios, which is repeated four times a day. A usual form of daily practice include a banishing ritual (Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram or Star Ruby) repeated twice a day.
Many a Thelemite will take a mystical name or “magical motto” as a sign of devotion to the path. They will often greet each others (and others) by saying: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law", which is then replied with “Love is the law, love under will.” In written media, this is usually transformed to where you will begin a message with “Do what thou…” and end it with “Love is the law…”. These sayings get usually shortened to their numerology, so that you’ll greet with “93” and end with “93/93”. For Thelemites, 93 denotes both “Will” and “Love”.
Other recommended regular habits include sanctifying the food with a certain formula: “Knock 3-5-3: say, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." The person at the other end of the table replies: "What is thy Will?" You: "It is my Will to eat and drink." He: "To what end?" You: "That my body may be fortified thereby." He: "To what end?" You: "That I may accomplish the Great Work." He: "Love is the law, love under will." You, with a single knock: "Fall to." When alone make a monologue of it: thus, Knock 3-5-3. Do what, etc. It is my Will to, etc., that my body, etc., that I may, etc., Love is, etc. Knock: and begin to eat.” (Aleister Crowley: Magick Without Tears)
The Thelemic chronology starts from the year 1904 e.v. (Era Vulgaris ~ “common era”), that is – the year Liber AL was written. The turn of the year is at approximately 20th of March, on the Spring Equinox of the northern hemisphere. The method of counting years is two-fold. On the “upper” lever one counts periods of 22 years since 1904, the “lower” counts the year of the current 22-year period. This makes the year 2001 the year IVIX in the Thelemic system, as 1904 + (4 x 22) + 9 = 2001. More specific times are often expressed by the positions of the Sun and the Moon on the Zodiac, which would make 6 PM December 6th, 2001 to be given as: "IVIX , Sol 14o Sagittarius, Luna 29o Leo." Using this system, the precise time and location can be calculated within approximately two hours.
The official holy days follow the instructions given in Liber AL (ch. II, v. 36-41) and Crowley’s commentary on the dates.
Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) is considered the largest Thelemic organisation, even though it is originally German and founded before the birth of Thelema. O.T.O. operates in 58 different countries (figure from 2001). Within Thelema, O.T.O. serves as a fraternal, initiatory brotherhood, which also trains towards initiations. O.T.O. includes a special liturgical branch, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.G.C, Gnostic Catholic Church), which Dr Gerard Encausse (Papus) conjoined with the O.T.O. in 1908. E.G.C. did continue its independent existence even after this event. The major ritual of both E.G.C. and O.T.O. is the Gnostic Mass and one can join the organisation through baptism and confirmation. The baptism is open for all who have reached puberty, confirmation to adults. The baptism alone doesn’t make one a member. O.T.O.’s members of good reputation are eligible for serving as priests of E.G.C, if they have reached at least the K.E.W.-grade (above the first triad). Unofficial deacony is open to II*-members, bishophood – the only sovereign priestly position within the E.G.C. – isn’t open to members lower than VII*-grade (third triad).
In addition to the Gnostic Mass, the E.G.C. celebrates seasonal feasts, passages of life and other religious milestones. A number of local O.T.O. branches celebrate the Gnostic Mass and official membership isn’t required for participation. However, the celebrations are usually closed events, not something one could go and take a look at as a “tourist”.
A.’.A.’. is an initiatory educational body, which was one of the first organisations teaching Thelema. It mainly focuses on the spiritual advancement of its individual members. A.’.A.’. is closely connected with O.T.O. The organisations are separate, but the O.T.O. assists A.’.A.’. on a regular basis.
Furthermore, there are Thelemic Golden Dawn brotherhoods, devoting themselves to studying the teachings of Thelema, Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn, even though one of G.D.:s founders, Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers and Aleister Crowley didn’t (to put it simply) quite get along at the latter times of knowing each others…
Liber AL vel Legis, sub figure CCXX (The Book of the Law)
Eight Lectures on Yoga
Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom and Folly
Magick in Theory and Practice
Magick Without Tears
The Book of Lies
Hymenaeus Alpha (ed.): The Holy Books of Thelema, Samuel Weiser,
York Beach, Maine, 1983
Regardie, Israel (ed.): Gems from the Equinox, Falcon Press, Phoenix, Arizona 1982
The text relies heavily on the information given by Thelemic organisations and individual Thelemites. Other sources include books by Aleister Crowley. The author isn’t herself a Thelemite, but the text has been corrected for accuracy by Fr. HRN III* (O.T.O.).