What Is Thelema?

What Is ThelemaWhat is Thelema? Let’s get this first bit out of the way immediately. The word is not Thelma, it is ThelEma; it is Greek. Thelma, on the other hand is a name. But what of Louise? Presumably, Thelma and Louise are dead. That is most often the end result of driving off the edge of a cliff in an automobile. I’m sure some of you are already asking. “Thelma? Louise? What the hell is he on about?”  A reference to something not related to the topic of Thelema. Or is it?

Right, I hear you saying; so what of this Thelema? Is it some kind of religion? Is it a philosophy? Maybe a spiritual path? “Oooga Booga” magick?

Well… yes… then again… no? Ceaseless debate continues among those who follow Thelema in regard to it being called a religion. Sociologists, and other -ists would say it is definitely a religion because, as we shall see, Thelema has a Bible of sorts, a prophet, a set of practices, a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, an established “moral code,” and even holy days.

However, before we get too far into this, you should know that trying to define Thelema is like trying to smell the number nine. I can do little more than offer some few core facts and a few of my own personal ideas and views. Keep in mind that while other folks may agree with some or even most of what I say here, this is my own personal interpretation.

When you consider that the Law of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt…” it should be somewhat obvious that it is all but impossible to say that Thelema is this or Thelema is that. Should you decide to pursue a study of Thelema beyond this short treatise, you will discover that it has a dizzyingly huge spectrum of thought and belief, though “belief” may not even enter into it at all!

From Confessions, Aleister Crowley had this to say:

“Aiwass, uttering the word Thelema (with all its implications), destroys completely the formula of the Dying God. Thelema implies not merely a new religion, but a new cosmology, a new philosophy, a new ethics. It co-ordinates the disconnected discoveries of science, from physics to psychology, into a coherent and consistent system. Its scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application.”[1]

Many would say Thelema is, more than anything else, a way of life. Sitting in a chair reading about it and displaying knowledge of it via a computer keyboard does not make one a Thelemite, which, by the way, is what one who follows Thelema is called… but then again, if it be your True Will to be an armchair magician, so be it.

Oh, and the “Oooga Booga” stuff? Purely a matter of perspective…

Thelema - Scary

… mostly.

In the end, call Thelema a religion if you so choose. Whether anyone else agrees is simply none of your concern.

Let us begin with just a little bit of etymology, that’s basically the study of the history of words, not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects.

Thelema, as stated above, is a Greek word. It looks like this – θέλημα. Pronounced several different ways, most commonly Theh-LEE-mah or Theh-LAY-mah. As usual there are several definitions of the word. For our purposes we are going to use the word “Will” as the definition, but I would encourage you to take a look at some of its other meanings as well.

Interestingly, the word Thelema is rarely used in classical Greek where it refers more to desire, even sexual desire, than to a “higher” will. It is frequently used in the Koine Greek Thelema What is ittranslation of ancient Hebrew scriptures called the Septuagint. According to Thayer and Smith’s Greek Lexicon, the King James version of the New Testament has translated the word no less than 64 times. As “will” 62 times, once as “desire” and once as “pleasure.” In a 5th century sermon, St. Augustine gave the injunction “Love, and what thou wilt, do.”[2] Early Christian writings sometimes use the word to refer to the human will (John 1:12-13), and even the will of God’s adversary, the Devil (2 Timothy 2:26), but most often use it in reference to God’s will. One example being in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10).

Next up in this brief analysis of Thelema is the Renaissance era Dominican monk, Francesco Colonna who created a character named “Thelemia,” who represents will or desire, in his work Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The main character, Poliphili, had two metaphorical companions or guides. Logistica (reason) and Thelemia (will or desire). When it came to the point that Poliphili was forced to choose between the two, he chose Thelemia in order to fulfill his sexual will[3]. Colonna’s work was very influential on a Franciscan, later Benedictine, monk named François Rabelais who used Thélème, the French form of the word, as the name of a fictional abbey.

Rabelais was a 16th century monk who eventually left the monastery to study medicine in 1532. It was in the French city of Lyon that he wrote his satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of books that tell of the adventures of a Giant (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel).

RabelaisMost critics and even Aleister Crowley biographer Lawrence Sutin[4] say that Rabelais’ reference to the word Thelema “declares that the will of God rules in this abbey” in a Humanitarian Christian sense. Sutin goes on to say that Rabelais was not in any sense a predecessor of Thelema due to the fact that his beliefs contained elements of stoicism and Christian kindness.

What’s more is National Grand Master General of the U.S. Ordo Templi Orientis Grand Lodge has stated:

“Saint Rabelais never intended his satirical, fictional device to serve as a practical blueprint for a real human society … Our Thelema is that of The Book of the Law and the writings of Aleister Crowley.”[5]

I do not necessarily agree with the critics, Mr. Sutin or the illustrious Grand Master of O.T.O himself. Rabelais gives us a fairly complete description of how people lived in the Abbey of Thelema as established by Gargantua.

All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,

Do What Thou Wilt;

because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.[6]

Sounds pretty “Thelema” to me, but let’s move along…

In the incomplete work, The Antecedents of Thelema, Aleister Crowley quite plainly states that not only did Rabelais set forth the law of Thelema in a way similar to how Crowley understood it, but predicted and described in code Crowley’s life and the holy text that he claimed to have received, The Book of the Law. Crowley went on to say that the work he had received was deeper, showing in more detail the technique people should practice, and revealing scientific mysteries. He said that Rabelais confines himself to portraying an ideal, rather than addressing questions of political economy and similar subjects, which must be solved in order to realize the Law.[7]

Thelema - What is itBefore discussing the most fascinating personality associated with Thelema, Aleister Crowley, we must first make a brief stop at the infamous Hellfire Club.

Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, adopted some of Rabelais’ ideas and founded a group called the Monks of Medmenham. They were also called Franciscans, not after St Francis of Assisi, but after their founder Francis Dashwood. They are best known as The Hellfire Club. Having been accused of being everything from Hedonists to Satanists, little is actually known about what their beliefs and practices were. So impressed was Sir Francis with the idea of “Do what thou wilt,” that he had it inscribed in the doorway of his abbey at Medmenham, where it served as the motto of The Hellfire Club.

Aleister CrowleyAleister Crowley. Where to begin with a man who has been called everything from “Savior” to “Wickedest Man in The World”? I’m going to keep it short as there are several fine biographies of Crowley’s life available. I would highly recommend Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski and another by Israel Regardie, who served as Crowley’s personal secretary for a time, named The Eye in The Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley. Of course, we cannot forget to mention his autobiography The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography by none other than The Beast himself. There are others available, but I have not read them, so I cannot speak in regard to their content.

Born Edward Alexander Crowley 12 October 1875, his mother nick named him “Alick.” In his Confessions Crowley explains why and how he came to be known as Aleister.

“For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. I had read in some book or other that the most favorable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like “Jeremy Taylor”. Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals. The atrocious spelling A-L-E-I-S-T-E-R was suggested as the correct form by Cousin Gregor, who ought to have known better. In any case, A-L-A-I-S-D-A-I-R makes a very bad dactyl. For these reasons I saddled myself with my present nom-de-guerre—I can’t say that I feel sure that I facilitated the process of becoming famous. I should doubtless have done so, whatever name I had chosen.”[8]

Crowley was a world traveler, mountain climber, poet, prophet, artist, womanizer, drug user, occultist… let’s just say he appears to have lived his life rather fully. Now, before you jump on the judgment train and say to yourself “What? A womanizer? A Drug user? Who would listen to such a man, let alone call him a prophet?” Let’s take a quick look at some other prophets, shall we? Moses, killer of women and male children (Numbers 31:15-17), not to mention an Egyptian or two (Exodus 2:11-12). David, the “apple of God’s eye,” adulterer and murderer (2 Samuel 11); Solomon, adulterer, polygamist and idolater (1 Kings 11:1-6) are just a few examples. Apparently a prophet is anything but perfect.

While traveling in Egypt with his wife Rose, a series of events took place which he claims established a new aeon of human evolution. All of this culminated on April 8th, 9th and 10th, 1904 when Crowley entered a state of trance and wrote down the three chapters of The Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis often shortened to Liber AL or Liber Legis ).

Liber AL vel LegisAccording to Crowley, each of the three chapters of the small book were dictated to him during a one-hour time period on each of three days at noon by a being named Aiwass. Later, he would say that Aiwass was his Holy Guardian Angel[9].  Israel Regardie hints at the idea that Aiwass was Crowley’s subconscious, Crowley admitted the possibility and later rejected it, but opinions among Thelemites differ widely. Crowley claimed that “no forger could have prepared so complex a set of numerical and literal puzzles” and that studying the text would remove any doubts about how the book came to be.[10]

It wasn’t until 1925 that Crowley wrote the last of several commentaries on The Book of the Law. This comment appears immediately following chapter three and is called “The Short Comment” or “The Tunis Comment,” probably because it is short and was written in Tunis, Tunisia, but that’s just a guess. He signed this comment, Ankh-f-n-khonsu also known as Ankh-af-na-khonsu, who was a priest of the Egyptian god Mentu who lived in Thebes during the 25th and 26th dynasty (c. 725 BCE).

“The Comment

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

The study of this Book is forbidden. It is wise to destroy this copy after the first reading.

Whosoever disregards this does so at his own risk and peril. These are most dire.

Those who discuss the contents of this Book are to be shunned by all, as centres of pestilence.

All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself.

There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.

Love is the law, love under will.

As with a great many things Crowley, there is much debate as to what this comment means. That, dear reader, I leave up to you and your studies should you choose to pursue them.

Thelema - What is itOne portion of this comment is, in my opinion, what makes the Book of the Law so very special. Notice where it says “All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself.” No one can interpret the Book of the Law for anyone but themselves! No priest, no linguist, no professor, just you, decide what it means for you; based on your own research and practice. This helps protect Thelema from dogma, but of course there are those who still attempt to make rules and regulations. These folks are committing a grievous error.

There are three fundamental (Oh no! Did he say fundamental? He did… hate that guy) ideas at the forefront of the Book of the Law. “Every man and every woman is a star,” “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and “Love is the law, love under will.” These three ideas form the core of what the system of Thelema “believes”, for lack of a better word.

“Every man and every woman is a star.”

Most people, in one way or another agree when science tells us we are physically made up of “star stuff”. Debate over the origins of that star stuff continue. In Thelema, not only are we made up of star stuff, but each and every one us has our own path or orbit just as a star does, in an amazingly huge universe with plenty of room to go about its business without colliding with another star, unless doing so be its True Will.

I know, I can hear you, “True Will? That’s just great. You’ve said that several times, but what the hell is ‘True Will?’”

I’ll do my best at keeping it brief. According to Crowley, every individual has a True Will. This is not the same as the ordinary wants and wishes of the ego looking to fulfill everyday desires. The True Will is essentially one’s “calling” or “purpose” in life. Some include the goal of attaining self-realization by one’s own efforts, without the aid of God or other divine authority in the idea of True Will. Still others agree with Liber II, saying that one’s own will in pure form is nothing other than the divine will.[11]

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” and “thou hast no right but to do thy will.”

Do what thou wilt is not license to go around doing any fool thing you want to. Rather it is an injunction that every person follows their True Will to attain realization of life and rid themselves of restrictions that exist due to their nature.

Thelema - True Will

Image Courtesy of ThelemaQuotes.com

How do you follow your True Will? First, you have to discover it. There is a virtually infinite sea of ideas and practices including magick and yoga designed to assist in the discovery of the True Will. Self-exploration is key! Unlike other paths, there are no rules that say you must do thus and so, rather you decide what you will use and what works for you. We encourage you to try everything. Many guidelines exist that can help along the way.

Each individual’s True Will is different, a unique point-of-view of the universe. Because of this, no one can determine the True Will for someone else. We must each make this discovery for ourselves.

Additionally, you may recall from above “Every man and every woman is a star,” intimates that no two wills can come in conflict. The Law also precludes interfering with the Will of another. One of Crowley’s writings titled Liber Oz is a statement of rights in regard to doing your Will and always sparks lively debate.

Crowley identifies the True Will with the Holy Guardian Angel (HGA). Some consider the HGA a personal daimon. Unique to each individual, do not confuse this Daimon with the scary body possessing demons of Hollywood fame.[12] Discovering and doing your True Will is also called The Great Work.[13]

There is no doubt that I have left many questions about True Will unanswered. Fortunately for me, this is to serve only as a brief introduction and I must move on to other topics. Obviously, that leaves finding out more, up to you. That is as it should be. Onward!

Thelema Stele of RevealingThe Gods and Goddesses of Thelema come from the religion(s) of Ancient Egypt. In the cosmology of Thelema, the highest of these is the goddess Nuit. She is the night sky arched over the Earth symbolized in the form of a naked woman. She is conceived as the Great Mother, the ultimate source of all things. The second principal deity of Thelema is the god Hadit, conceived as the infinitely small point, complement and consort of Nuit. Hadit symbolizes manifestation, motion, and time. He is also described in Liber AL vel Legis as “the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star”. Third is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, a manifestation of Horus. He is symbolized as a man seated on a throne with the head of a hawk who carries a wand. He is associated with the Sun and the active energies of Thelemic magick.

Other deities include Hoor-paar-kraat (or Harpocrates), god of silence and inner strength, the brother of Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Babalon, the goddess of all pleasure, known as the Virgin Whore. Finally, Therion, the beast that Babalon rides, who represents the wild animal within man, a force of nature. Many Thelemites do not believe the Gods and Goddesses to be actual beings, but rather personifications of natural forces. Again, I do not speak for all Thelemites with these statements.

Thelema has a moral code. So what is it? The Book of the Law does indeed make clear some standards of individual conduct. First and foremost is the injunction to Do what thou wilt. There are several other documents that speak about the behavior of the individual in the light of the Law of Thelema. Liber OZ and Liber II have been mentioned above, but another one Crowley wrote named Duty has much more to say.

Duty is described as “A note on the chief rules of practical conduct to be observed by those who accept the Law of Thelema” and contains four distinct sections:

  1. Your duty to yourself
  2. Duty to other individual men and women
  3. Your duty to mankind
  4. Duty to all other beings and things.[14]

I would strongly encourage everyone to read and study these particular works that Crowley left for us Liber AL vel Legis, Liber Oz, Liber II and Duty. I believe people from all walks of life would benefit greatly.

The Book of the Law also announces several holy days to be celebrated. There are no established rules or dogmatic regulations describing how these days should be celebrated. The holy days are usually celebrated on the following dates:

  • March 20. The Feast of the Supreme Ritual.
  • March 20/March 21. Thelemic New Year, The Equinox of the Gods.
  • April 8 through April 10. The Feast of the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law.
  • June 20/June 21. The Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • August 12. The Feast of the Prophet and His Bride.
  • September 22/September 23. The Autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the Vernal Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • December 21/December 22. The Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • The Feast for Life, celebrated at the birth of a Thelemite and on birthdays.
  • Feast for Fire/The Feast for Water.
  • The Feast for Death.

Many Thelemites also participate in or attend a Gnostic Mass on a regular basis. This can be a very moving ceremony and I highly recommend attending one at least once. Look online for the nearest Thelemic group that regularly performs the Gnostic Mass.

Speaking of groups, there are many. There is the A.’.A.’., The Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), Holy Order of RaHoorKhuit (H.O.O.R.), The Order of Thelemic Knights, just to name a few. You will find that some of them go to great lengths in making claims to lineage. I’m not going to explain it here as you will, no doubt, come across it. Don’t let yourself get all wrapped up in the “we are better than they because of xxx lineage” wars. When you get right down to it, it’s ridiculous and matters little, if at all.

One thing to be wary of is placing our Mr. Crowley on too high a pedestal. Never forget that in the end, he was just a man.

Crowley himself said: “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.” [15]

So, here we are. I have briefly covered a lot of ground. I could go on and on as there is much more to Thelema to discover and learn. This is only to serve as a brief and simple introduction to Thelema and its concepts. It is my hope that you will continue in this extraordinary path of self-discovery. Seeking self-awareness and reaching the goal of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.

In Conclusion…

Finally, let me say that in attempting to even begin to define Thelema, I feel like a single blade of grass trying to define an entire forest…

If this small work has been helpful to you, then I have accomplished what I set out to do.

May the Sun shine upon you.

Love is the law, love under will.

-Michael Walden (Sapere Aude)

An V ii Sol 28° Cancer Luna 15° Aquarius Dies Mercurii
07/20/16 e.v.


The Interwebz


Personal experience… And…

a whole lotta books that I didn’t list in the end notes!

[1] Crowley, Aleister. Symonds, John. Grant, Kenneth. The confessions of Aleister Crowley, Chapter 49

[2] The Works of Saint Augustine: A New Translation for the 21st Century, (Sermons 148-153), 1992, part 3, vol. 5, p. 182.

[3] Salloway, David. Random Walks, p. 203. McGill-Queen’s Press, 1997

[4] Sutin, Lawrence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, p. 126. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.

[5] National Grand Master General Sabazius X°. Address delivered by National Grand Master General Sabazius X° to the Sixth National Conference of the U.S. O.T.O. Grand Lodge

[6] Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Everyman’s Library.

[7] Aleister Crowley, 1926, “The Antecedents of Thelema,” in The Revival of Magick, edited by Hymenaeus Beta & R. Kaczynski.

[8] Crowley, Aleister. Symonds, John. Grant, Kenneth. The confessions of Aleister Crowley Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979

[9]  Crowley, Aleister. The Equinox of the Gods. New Falcon Publications, 1991.This is also Part IV of Liber ABA, Magick.

[10] Crowley, Aleister. “The Equinox of the Gods – Chapter 7”

[11] “But the Magician knows that the pure Will of every man and every woman is already in perfect harmony with the divine Will; in fact they are one and the same” -DuQuette, Lon Milo. The Magick of Aleister Crowley: A Handbook of the Rituals of Thelema, p. 12. Weiser, 2003.

[12] Hymenaeus Beta (ed.) in Crowley, Aleister. The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, p. xxi. Red Wheel, 1995.

[13] Kraig, Donald Michael. Falorio, Linda. Nema. Tara. Modern Sex Magick, 1998, Llewellyn, p. 44

[14] Crowley, Aleister. Duty, easily found online, in other works and here on our site!

[15] Crowley, Aleister. Symonds, John. Grant, Kenneth. The confessions of Aleister Crowley, Chapter 56

Sapere Aude

About Sapere Aude

Just some guy. Somewhere. Doing some things.
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