THELEMA – What is Thelema, History, Holy Books, Symbols, Tarot & More!
- THE HISTORY OF THELEMA RELIGION
- WHAT IS THELEMA?
- THELEMA SYMBOLS
- THELEMA MAGICKAL TRAINING
- GODS IN THE THELEMA RELIGION
- THELEMA’S MAGICKAL LINEAGES
- THELEMA TAROT
- CLOSING THOUGHTS ON THELEMA
The year is 1904. It’s a warm winter in Cairo, Egypt, where Prince Chioa Khan and his Princess, Ouarda, are registered at a hotel. They’re visiting this ancient land while waiting for the cold, damp Scottish winter to pass before returning home. Perhaps we fans and students of Western Esotericism would better recognize these vacationing figures better by their given names: Aleister Crowley and his wife, Rose.
Crowley was a pivotal figure in the development of Western Esotericism. And this desert vacation played a central role in that evolution. Magick was a big part of the trip’s entertainment. Aleister Crowley intended to show Rose the effect of invocations, specifically those meant to manifest sylphs, or Air elemental spirits. To achieve this, he began by performing a conjuration that induced a type of trance in Rose. Aleister’s wife did not see the sylphs as intended, but was instead consumed by an unexpected channeling. From this trance state, Rose muttered, “They are waiting for you.” Crowley didn’t think much of this at first. But, then it happened again, following an invocation of the god Thoth. Aleister asked his entranced wife who specifically was waiting. She replied, “He who waits is Horus.”
Aleister Crowley doubted Rose initially but was surprised she knew the name of the god of the sky. He decided to test his wife by asking in-depth questions about Horus, which she answered correctly. After more tests, which included finding Horus’ image in a museum, Crowley listened more intently. Rose detailed in-depth instructions to conduct a magickal invocation. For the following three days in April, Aleister entered his home temple precisely at noon and sat with a pen and paper, waiting for one of Horus’ divine messengers, who Rose called Aiwass (interestingly, this word resembles a form of “Yes” in Arabic, “Aiwa”) to appear.
Aleister entered this ritual with no small amount of hesitation. He performed it as instructed, which included a ritual working that was very much not his style of Magick. Then, he waited and listened. A voice sounded from behind his left shoulder. Then a presence appeared as a semi-translucid man in his thirties, dressed in eastern clothing. It stood in the furthest corner of the room, across from Aleister. The figure’s voice had a strange echo, as if it sounded from his heart.
Crowley says in Equinox of the Gods:
The voice was of deep timbre, musical and expressive, its tones solemn, voluptuous, tender, fierce or aught else as suited the moods of the message.
The figure now identified as Aiwass began to speak. Aleister Crowley listened and wrote.
The dictation that followed became The Book of the Law. It was divided into three parts, one dictated each day for three days. Each part also belonged to a different Egyptian god: the first for goddess Nuit, another for Hadit, and the last one for Ra Hoor Khuit. This communication became the basis of a supposed new magical current, esoteric philosophy and a purported modern connection to the Egyptians’ ancient faith.
All this history is fascinating, of course. But what did Crowley actually receive from Aiwass? And what do modern Thelemites believe? Let’s start that exploration by looking at the Holy Books of Thelema:
Without a doubt, the most central Thelema book is The Book of the Law. This work would go on to be the central Thelema book for all Thelematic work thereafter. We’ll have a look at what’s actually in this book in a moment, but first let’s explore a few other Thelema books that are central to the religion.
Besides The Book of the Law, other writings have particular importance in Thelema. Many of these holy books of Thelema share a specific quality with The Book of the Law: Divine inspiration. Aleister Crowley says about them in his Confessions:
They were not taken from dictation like The Book of the Law, nor were they my own composition…I cannot doubt that these books are the work of an intelligence independent of my own.
The Holy Books of Thelema, each written between 1907 and 1911 by “Crowley” himself were numerous. Below is a brief listing of these texts, each with links for you to go read them now for free:
- Liber I: Liber B Vel Magi Sub Figurâ 1
- Liber VII: Liber Liberi Vel Lapidis Lazuli, Adumbratio Kabbalæ Ægyptiorum Sub Figurâ VII
- Liber X: Liber Porta Lucis Sub Figureâ X
- Liber XXVII: Liber Trigrammaton Sub Figurâ XXVII
- Liber LXV: Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente Sub Figurâ LXV
- Liber LXVI: Liber Stellæ Rubeæ Sub Figurâ LXVI
- Liber XC: Liber Tzaddi Vel Hamus Hermeticus Sub Figurâ XC
- Liber CLVI: Liber Cheth Vel Vallum Abiegni Sub Figurâ CLVI
- Liber CCXX: Liber AL Vel Legis Sub Figurâ CCXX (The Book of the Law)
- Liber XXXI: Liber AL Vel Legis (manuscript of The Book of the Law)
- Liber CCXXXI: Liber Arcanorum ιων ATU ν TAHUTI Quas Vidit Asar in Amenti Sub Figurâ CCXXXI Liber Carcerorum ιων Qliphoth cum suis Geniis
- Liber CCCLXX: Liber A’ash Vel Capricoroni Pneumatici Sub Figuræ CCCLXX
- Liber CD: Liber Tau Vel Kabbalæ Trium Literarum Sub Figuræ CD
- Liber DCCCXIII: Vel Ararita Sub Figuræ DLXX
So, what’s actually in these Thelema books? Well, The Book of the Law has a maxim that defines Thelema (a word which translates from the Greek for Will). This single utterance has done more to cement Thelema in popular culture and esotericism than perhaps anything else. It’s become synonymous with both the religion and Aleister Crowley himself:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law…Love is the law, love under will.
Simple, right? Just do what you want and you’re good to go? But then there is that second part about Love. So what exactly is Aiwass/Crowley saying here?
The initial maxim, “Do What Thou Wilt” brings to mind the human aspects of lust, greed and selfishness. But it actually means something much more profound; it’s about living according to one’s true essence.
Acting in a way that seeks to satiate every superficial desire will inevitably lead to suffering. Among other reasons, this is logically understandable because desires are often momentary and go on to contradict each other. True Will (notice the capitalization) speaks not to desire, but to the manifestation of who we truly are into the material world. Revealing one’s Will in life brings a harmonious alignment to the individual because once disparate elements are now unified. It’s not about chaos. It’s about balance and personal evolution.
The second proposition here, “Love is the law, love under will” is worth having a look at as well. According to Crowley’s commentary, this means that “while Will is the Law, the nature of that Will is Love.” This again reminds Thelemites and magicians broadly that there are deeper currents than desire alone. Love unites one with their divine manifestation. It is second only to one’s Will and, therefor, acts as a guiding light toward discovering the aspects of oneself that need exploration and development. And this love is meant to be both personal and cosmic. This is important because, like the conflation of desire and Will, love only for oneself or without a proper reverence for divinity can become a source of slavery and destruction.
While this maxim espoused in The Book of the Law is considered central and the work itself viewed as the most important the holy books of Thelema, it’s important to know that most Thelemic beliefs are not dogmatic. The Thelemic worldview is about cultivating and harvesting the fruits in an individual’s life. This necessitates each practitioner considering their own path closely and altering what doesn’t work for them. Each Thelemite considers themselves an instrument in a cosmic arrangement and, therefor, harmony with their Will serves not only them, but the entirety of existence. After all, as Crowley himself put it:
Every man and every woman is a star.
Western Esoteric groups are, to varying degrees, nestled within traditions that extend for millennia. Part of this Esoteric tradition is the use of secret symbols, obscure words, shared handshakes and sets of enigmatic questions and answers. Such observance has become commonplace and expected within the popular discourse. Many people are at least vaguely aware that groups like the Freemasons or Illuminati employ such tactics (the legitimacy of both groups here is a subject for another day).
In Thelema, the same acts are on display. Practitioners utilize no small number of Thelema symbols, verses, texts, rituals and more. For Thelemites, the number 93 is crucial because it’s the numeric value of “Thelema,” and “Agape (Love),” using Greek Isopsephy. 93 is commonly used as a greeting. They also use other, now familiar Thelematic phrases in communication. A formal salutation to write a letter, for instance, is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,”. The closing would then be: “Love is the law, love under will.”
The chief among these Thelema symbols is a pictorial one, the unicursal hexagram (seen above). The unicursal is different from a regular hexagram (such as the Star of David) because it can be drawn using a continuous line. The hexagram represents opposites’ union (also in Eastern traditions), but the unicursal displays these opposing forces as part of the same substance. The allusion here is that the opposites are different in their qualities but not in their nature. Thelemites also emphasize the union of subject and object. Thelema is, according to Kenneth Grant, is a non-dualistic philosophy. Grant describes Thelema as a Western Tantra but says that:
Thelema is of “Cosmic scope and valid for all mankind, for it contains the universal keys to power.”
Ceremonial Magick, called liturgy in other religions, is about engaging, through symbols and other means, with divine energy. These symbols direct the attention of the practitioner. For instance, the Catholic Mass is in essence a ritual sacrifice. It symbolizes a lamb’s immolation, which is an allusion to the offering of Christ as the penultimate sacrifice of humankind to divinity. The supernatural dimension of the Mass is that the bread and wine transubstantiate, which means that they turn to Christ’s body and blood. After consecration, the wine and bread are no different, for a literalist Catholic, from Christ’s flesh and blood. And, as such they should be consumed by all. This type of ritual is also widespread in the East.
Thelema’s magickal training aims to help individuals attain their specific goals. To this effect, Crowley created Orders within Thelema for each Thelemite to navigate. Each of these Orders offers initiations, knowledge, rites and degrees that deepen the practitioner’s understanding and increasingly challenge their proficiency as they progress. While the initial Work might be approached by anyone, the later is meant for adepts who are already well along on their path to more profound desires and knowledge.
Some of the activities with which the typical Thelemite might engage as they progress through their training are: Cleansing, banishing, divination, astral projection and fostering a discourse or relationship with spirits of all kinds (though mostly Egyptian gods). All of this and more is fair game in the search for one’s True Will and ultimate enlightenment.
Below is a brief introduction to some of the more commonly engaged with gods in Thelema. The list is by no means exhaustive, but does serve as a nice introduction to the sort of deities Thelemites engage on a regular basis.
The Goddess of the Starry Sky is Nuit, the infinitely great, the absolute consciousness. While Hadit is the projection on a ray of light of Nuit, the infinitely small. Nuit represents the Macrocosm, while Hadit is the most recondite point, hidden inside each being, the Microcosm. Nuit is the pure awareness, while Hadit is Nuit manifesting in each being; it is all that is personal.
Nuit is the Unity to which every Thelema initiate aspires. Hadit is Kundalini, Nuit’s counterpart, the coiled serpentine power which fuels the spiritual awakening by ascending to mystically join Nuit, as reflected in this passage from The Book of the Law:
I am the secret Serpent coiled about to spring: in my coiling there is joy. If I lift up my head, I and my Nuit are one. If I droop down mine head, and shoot forth venom, then is rapture of the earth, and I and the earth are one.
Ra Hoor Khuit is the union of Nuit and Hadit. This manifestation proceeds from both energies and creates our reality. This created, objective universe is the “son” of Nuit and Hadit but simultaneously remains one with them.
Ra Hoor Khuit is the active side of all life and hides within himself a twin, Hoor paar kraat (God of Silence). We could think of his nature as passive, but “ever-present” might be more precise – Hoor paar kraat is an internal witness.
Therion (Beast) is a male power archetype, representing the universal creative force. The idea relates to the Book of Revelation. It also has a connection with a particularly infamous aspect of Crowley’s own personal history: His mother called him “The Beast.” This moniker would go on to inform nearly everything Crowley did thereafter.
Babalon represents pure female strength and sexual impulse. She is an archetype of power, comparable to the Hindu goddess Kali.
Unsurprisingly, Crowley’s religion spawned many offspring as well as splinter factions within Thelema itself. Below are a few of the more important of these.
Carl Kellner founded the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East) at the beginning of the 20th century. It began as a Masonic Order with esoteric interests, like many other bodies of that period. But all that changed with Crowley, which reorganized its structure and teachings around Thelema and mysticism.
Aleister Crowley founded the Argenteum Astrum in 1907. He intended to provide individual training through a strict learning system of mystical and magical methods. Like the O.T.O., he organized it under the Kabbalistic inspiration of the Tree of Life. The group’s practices were focused intently on the student. These students would receive materials and pass a series of demanding tests before being allowed to initiate. Each person in the Argenteum Astrum was meant to only know their immediate superior who acted as a sort of tutor during their development. Eventually, these students would advance to tutoring another initiate and the chain of adepts would continue forward.
Many other organizations sprang from these groups all across the globe. But, as one would expect, with such a surging interest in cultivating and spreading influence, several interpersonal issues arose in these magickal orders. At one point, there was even a legal dispute about Crowley’s genuine successor in the O.T.O. This led to the splintering of a so-called “Caliphate” O.T.O. Other adepts renamed their lineages and continued to work under Thelema.
This splintering led to the creation of the Typhonian Order of Kenneth Grant, now continued by Michael Staley; The Societas O.T.O. of the Brazilian Marcelo Ramos Motta; among others. Such fracturing and diversification also visited the A∴A∴, which lives on through these days through several groups with varying practices.
As for Thelema, several groups claim lineage to Crowley’s work. The British Order of Thelema; College of Thelema; The NOT (New Order of Thelema); The Order of Thelemic Knights; and OCMT (Orden de Caballeros Magos de Thelema) are but a few of the many organizations with such claims.
Many other Thelemites decide to work solo. They gather and study the freely available materials and commentaries left by Aleister Crowley in an effort to seek a kind of self-initiation.
While there is no Thelema tarot deck per se (meaning that there is no tarot deck created by Crowley specifically for Thelematic use), there are a few options on the market for any Thelemites or any other magickal practitioners who might want to work with the imagery employed by the religion.
The closest thing practitioners will find to a Thelema tarot deck is the Thoth tarot deck. This tarot deck was painted with Crowley’s instruction and guidance by Lady Frieda Harris. The Thoth tarot deck is also accompanied by an entire book written by Crowley in 1944. So, if you’re looking for something from the man himself, this is the deck to choose.
A more contemporary choice is The Thelema Tarot deck. This modern interpretation claims to be, “Rich in esoteric symbolism, magically inspired, and beautifully illustrated, the Thelema Tarot is woven like an enchanting spell.” While this author has not seen the entirety of the deck, a cursory glance at the artwork leads one to question what, if any, connection there is between the symbolic underpinnings of this deck and the ones we might expect to find in Thelema. Still, it is pretty and clean and would likely make a nice, albeit likely hollow, addition to the practitioner’s tarot shelf.
While it’s certainly true that Thelema has taken a back seat in contemporary Pantheism to the likes of Wicca and Witchcraft broadly, its influence on the molding of these and other manifestations of Neopaganism should not be ignored. It, like The Golden Dawn before it, laid much of the groundwork of what we in the west consider modern Esotericism. And Aleister Crowley, for all his problematic behavior, was instrumental in molding what Thelema became and the role it played in our modern magickal landscape.
While Crowley is a divisive figure, one can hardly argue that his life did push the culture of magick into the spotlight, as well as shifting the gaze of practitioners and aspirants toward exciting, new vistas. For these reasons alone, Thelema and Aleister Crowley himself are both worthy of our attention, understanding and, in the case of the latter, unflinching criticism. Crowley, this author believes, would have it no other way.
A few unlinked sources on Thelema:
Richard Kaczynski, “Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley“, 2002.
A. Crowley, Equinox of the Gods, p 117–8.
Colin D. Campbell, “Thelema“, 2018.
Lon Milo DuQuette, “Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot“, 2003.
Kenneth Grant, “Aleister Crowley & the Hidden God“, 1973.