Or Why OTO is Getting into Bed with Gerald Gardner
For decades, the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO has been making a tidy sum by publishing the works of Aleister Crowley. They have done an excellent job of preserving these obscure texts and making them available to new generations of students of the occult arts. The internet has changed their relevance in the preservation of these once virtually unobtainable texts as they are now available virtually.
At the same time, the free dissemination of the books of instruction in Crowley’s personal brand of magick has marginalized OTO as the practice of Thelema has been taken up by unconnected individuals around the world, usually working with the material in isolation, and possessing no affiliation with OTO, nor do they particularly desire one. OTO have also seen the boom in interest in modern witchcraft as a growth opportunity, and some factions have made much ado about the meetings between Gerald Gardner and the Beast, towards the end of his life at Netherwoods, as a vehicle for connecting OTO and Wicca.
This drive to rewrite their history to be more palatable to a contemporary environment has made OTO much less relevant to the bulk of Thelemites, especially among those who are practicing the A.’.A.’. curriculum of study and practice. The divide between the practitioners and the clerical adherents of Thelema has been characterized by a pointless argument over the change of one word in the text of the premier Thelemite Holy Book that has done nothing to repair the image of OTO in the eyes of the average Thelemite.
Publishing the Writings of the Beast
While keeping the Beast’s writings in print was originally a labor of love for the people that worked to preserve the legacy of the Great Beast, as time passed, the attitude became more mercenary. The question of who had the right to profit from the publication of Crowley’s books became the basis of an enduring schism in OTO that ended up dragging the Order through the courts.
In the long run, these arguments were rather pointless as the copyrights to Crowley’s works are in the public domain. As he was an undischarged bankrupt when he died in 1947, his assets became the property of Her Majesty and so they are in the public domain. This fact was confirmed to me by Judi O’Donnell of the copyright department at Samuel Weiser, who in reply to my enquiry, wrote; “Aleister Crowley’s books I believe are public domain”.
Regardless of who owns the rights to the published works, in 2017 the whole thing becomes a moot point as his entire catalogue goes out of copyright simply because 70 years will have elapsed since his death. Any perceived rights, regardless of how ill conceived, will be valueless and anyone will be able to publish their own editions of his books. Indications are that everyone who wants to will do so as well. Decades after his death, Crowley is selling more books than he did while he was alive.
Ownership of the Aeon of Horus
The schisms between Thelemite factions has been driven by the recent revivification of the old “Kill/Fill Debate” that has generated some spirited conversation about the change of one letter, of one word, in the “official” typescript of the Book of the Law. It is the determination of “official” that has really been the issue.
It has been seen by many as a blatant grab for “official ownership of Thelema by OTO, something that seems pretty far fetched considering that the nature of its discipline is so ‘Self’ oriented, and individual interpretation of the Book of the Law is central to its creed. One of the leading luminaries in the occult world of Thelema, Rodney Orpheus recently blogged about “serious Thelemites” and clumsily dismissed those who didn’t consider it to be a religion by insisting that because it has a prophet that his message must be religious in nature. In reality, the word prophet comes from the Greek word, προφητης prophetes, meaning, pro ’before’ & phētēs ‘speaker’, and indicates a spokesman. This may imply a god, but this isn’t implicit in the meaning and restricting it in that way runs counter to the spirit of the interpretation of the Book of the Law that it itself espouses.
I put the question to Professor Ronald Hutton, author of Triumph of the Moon, who classed Wicca as the “first religion that Britain has given to the world”. His reply was elucidating; “Thelema certainly could be considered a religion. I did not put it into the frame when I wrote “Triumph” because it hardly existed in Britain, and certainly did not as a coherent tradition. Subsequently I learned more about it, and put the question to adherents of it whether it was a religious system, and got a sharp division of opinion leading to a total absence of conclusion. This being so, I have still not included it firmly among religions“. The main arguments against it being a religion are the lack of a central praxis, in fact adherents are directed to discover their own individual spiritual practice, their True Will and to “do that, and do nothing else”. There is also a complete lack of a central “authority” to represent “official” Thelema.
Conterminous with this has been a reworking of the history of OTO and A.’.A.’. in an attempt to conflate the two and bring Crowley’s magickal order under the “official’ umbrella of OTO. This effort has been scuttled due in a large part to the availablity of the A.’.A.’.'s instructional texts on the internet, and the virtual insistence for practitioners to work in isolation from one another. As the online mantra of A.’.A.’. seems to be; “Do the Work and the Genuine A.’.A.’. Will Find You“, it seems unlikely that there will be any “official” line of Thelemite magick any time soon.
Gerald the Pretender
Most surprising is the effort to conflate Thelema and Wicca via the long dead debate over how much influence Crowley had over Gerald Gardner when he invented his modern witchcraft cult. In his controversial book, A True History of Witchcraft, Allen T. Greenfield asserts that Crowley and Gardner actively cooked up Wicca as a popular form of Thelemite worship for the masses. The evidence just doesn’t support this version of events as Crowley’s diary for the day of their first meeting merely notes that he had met with Gardner who had introduced himself as a Freemason. There is no evidence of him having been admitted to OTO, nor of him having been chartered to establish any line of OTO in Britain.
The newly “official” version of events is that Gardner “may” have been admitted to OTO and that his famous charter “may” have been signed by Crowley. This is quite a turnaround from their stance in the past and isn’t supported by the events that followed the Beast’s death in 1947. Gardner presented his much vaunted charter to Crowley’s immediate successor, Karl Germer, who promptly made Kenneth Grant the Outer Head of the Order of OTO for Britain. If the charter had been genuine then Grant, who ultimately turned out to be a poor choice, at least for OTO, would have been unnecessary. An A.’.A.’. adept that I am acquainted with has told me that after he inspected the charter that he became convinced that it is a forgery. As Gardner used it as one of the draw cards to his Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, he had a vested interest in promoting its validity regardless of how he had come by it.
The other claims about Gardner paying the Beast to write rituals for his new religion fall flat simply because the rituals don’t seem to exist anywhere. The claims of Gardner’s high rank in OTO also run aground with his errant use of a cut down version of the Gnostic Mass as the original 3rd Degree initiation ceremony in his new cult. Surely a highly initiated magician would have understood the basic difference between a ceremony of initiation and a mass.
Gardner’s limited understanding of Crowley’s work is further highlighted by the poor scholarship employed in his Ye Bok Ye Art Magical, in which he quotes Crowley extensively and with limited relevence.In addition, many of the Hebrew letters in the names have been miscopied, rendering them illegible. Hardly the hallmark of a master qaballist who Crowley would choose to partner in starting a new folk religion. In fact, there is no evidence to show that Crowley was interested in Gardner and his ideas for a new religion at all.
Thelema for Eclectic Tastes
The anecdotal evidence, and my own experience, indicates that a large percentage of the people that are becoming interested in Thelema now are finding it through their interest in witchcraft. In sharp contrast to the first Wiccans, who went to great pains to expunge every trace of the Great Wild Beast from their praxis (however unsuccessfully), modern witches have evolved into solitary, eclectic practitioners who have no specific traditional affiliations. Some academics estimate that they make up over 60% of everyone that refers to themselves as a ‘witch’.
This new wave of modern witches are far more open to the once disparaged practices of Crowley and his magickal orders. Many of these eclectic mysticks will get a great deal from joining OTO, and they often find the structure and discipline in A.’.A.’. that they have been looking for. On that basis, making OTO more witch friendly is a clever marketing strategy, but it doesn’t do a lot for their credibility as a repository of the Law of the Aeon of Horus. I don’t imagine that it makes them any more acceptable to traditional Wiccans either as they seem to be stuck in denial about the huge debt that Wicca owes to Crowley, even if he didn’t take any direct interest.
In its most direct form, Thelema is simply following the credo, Do What Thou Wilt and so it fails to perform any of the basic functions of a religion. There is no orthodox praxis that is universally recognized, no central authority that oversees the interpretation of the Law of Thelema and, most notably, no god. It would seem that this would be a central perquisite of any new religion. Thelemite practices are theurgic, not religious. There is no god but man.
In this light, it is hard to see any way that Thelema can be conflated with modern witchcraft. On the surface, Thelema does seem to have a gender polarity to the pantheon that it describes but, on closer inspection these personas all reveal themselves to be different forms of Horus, who is himself only a personification of the totality of existence and non-existence. The Thelemite sees the god and himself as inseparable entities, thus there is no need to rejoin (religion, from Latin, religare, to rejoin) with it, but rather to become aware of it. In contrast, most witches believe in both a goddess and a god, often whole pantheons of gods, all of whom are denied by the Book of the Law. Horus is a blasphemy against all the gods of men because he has announced that they don’t exist.
Another glaring incompatibility is the differing perspectives of Thelemites and witches. Modern witchcraft celebrates the wheel of the year, the Elemental passage of the seasons and focuses on ‘grounding’ and connecting to Mother Earth. Thelema is focused on transcending that same Earthly apprehension to assume the Solar perspective of a ‘star’.
The apprehension of Thelema as anathema to the Christian era is also skewed as the Book of the Law affirms the validity of the Christian era by assigning it to its proper place in the procession of the aeons. The title of the prophet and his wife come from the Book of Revelation and the text quotes St. John the Divine directly. Thelema is the affirmation of what came before it, not the denial, and is a continuation of its essential current.
It is also an entirely modern construction and the names of the ‘gods’ that are used are only remotely connected to any genuinely ancient Egyptian deities. The only ancient part of Thelema is the Stele of Ankh-af-na-Khonsu that Crowley described as the talisman of the Aeon of Horus. Its concepts about the supremacy of Will are essentailly contemporary. Considering most witches’ desire to return to an ‘old religion’, this makes Thelema and witchcraft very odd bedfellows.
Bill Breeze can’t rewrite history no matter how many web pages he edits and whatever becomes the officially sanctioned typescript version of the Book of the Law still won’t alter the handwritten version one bit. On that level it seems like a rather futile and pointless effort to make, and one that will just be corrected at some time in the future. Breeze may find that his footnote in the history books is for introducing a typo to the Book of the Law.
I don’t see that Thelema, especially A.’.A.’. with its strict adherence to a difficult discipline, can ever have a very wide appeal. I suppose that must be a part of the drive to become the ‘official’ arbiters of the Law of Horus; it provides the chance to become the elite of some sort of elite. In the end, it seems to me that trying to organize Thelemites into some sort of central religion is a lot like trying to herd cats.