THE SKEPTIC: There is a long history of respect for the individual in Western culture, starting with ancient Greek philosophy, waning under Christianity, and returning in the 17th century with the rise of social philosophers and democratic political institutions. Existentialist philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries developed a new set of ideas about the individual. Crowley’s work is part of this stream of thought, but his contributions are not major compared to those of thinkers such as Nietzsche on one hand and John Stuart Mill on the other.
THE MYSTIC: The True Will, the innermost spark of divine flame known in the Qabala as Yechidah, is unapproachable except by undertaking the work of the Path. By stilling the noise of the lower mind and focusing on the archetypal symbols hidden behind the veil of the universe, and persisting through the great spiritual ordeals that turn away the dilettante and the coward, one may ultimately arrive at that eternal Self and place it into its rightful relation with the rest of the personality, setting intellect and emotion in their proper places as Will’s servants rather than its oppressors.
Central to Crowley’s system is a curious and enigmatic book known as The Book of the Law, also called Liber AL, Liber Legis, Liber L, or CCXX (220). It is fairly short and has often been issued in pamphlet form. Crowley said it was revealed to him during his 1904 vacation with his wife Rose in Cairo by the dictation of Aiwass, who was both Crowley’s own Holy Guardian Angel and the messenger of the new deities set over this Æon (eon) or age of history. In a series of trance visions, Rose indicated a number of symbols related to the Egyptian god Horus, according to the correspondences Crowley had gotten from the Golden Dawn. She pointed out Stélé 666 in the Boulak Museum, an image of an ancient priest, with the title or name Ankh-f-n- Khonsu, before the god Horus. This stélé has become a Thelemic icon. Following Rose’s instructions, Crowley went to their rented rooms at an arranged time for three days and took dictation from an unseen voice.
The phrase “Book of the Law” comes from Freemasonry, as a synonym for “Volume of the Sacred Law” (VSL). In a Christian Freemasonic Lodge this VSL would be the Bible on the altar; in a Jewish Lodge it would be the Torah, which means the scroll of the Law; and in a religiously mixed Lodge there might be more than one sacred book on the altar. In Thelemic ritual, Crowley’s Book of the Law is used for swearing initiatory oaths, like the VSL in Freemasonry. The Book of the Law is the central scripture of Thelema, its Bible so to speak. Crowley’s work and his curriculum can only be understood with respect to his dynamic relationship with Liber AL.
The book has three chapters, one for each deity of its divine trinity. Its phrasing is often ambiguous and it employs an unearthly prose-poetic style that some find beautiful. Crowley wrote several commentaries during his life, some of them interpreting its verses in very different ways from his other commentaries or in ways at odds with the surface meaning of the verses.
The most curious page of all from The Book of the Law: “This book shall be translated into all tongues: but always with the original in the writing of the Beast; for in the chance shape of the letters and their position to one another: in these are mysteries that no Beast shall divine. Let him not seek to try: but one cometh after him, whence I say not, who shall discover the Key of it all. Then this line
drawn is a key: then this circle squared in its failure is a key also. And Abrahadabra. It shall be his child & that strangely. Let him not seek after this; for thereby alone can he fall from it.” (AL III:47)
The trinity of The Book of the Law or Liber AL is composed of three reinterpreted Egyptian deities. First is Nuit (Nut), the goddess of the night sky, closely linked in Egyptian religion with Hathor, also known as the Egyptian Venus. Her message is of freedom, love and the mystical bliss of union, as expressed in the curious equation 0=2. Nuit reveals the Law of Thelema and declares that the Æons have turned in the Equinox of the Gods. She is represented by space and the stars of space. Nuit indicates the spacetime continuum, or infinite potential.
Second is Hadit (Heru-Bedheti or Horus of Edfu), the winged solar globe, symbol of divine authority. This form of the Egyptian god Horus, originally local to Bedheti, had influence throughout ancient Egypt. Hadit symbolizes the secret individuality within each of us, the star that each person is, the invisible, ineffable and unmanifest divine spark which moves each of us on our self-appointed path of will. As such Hadit also represents the underworld, the infinitely small point, the capacity for knowledge, the complement of Nuit, and the fiery nature of underworld deities such as Blake’s Los and the Christian Lucifer. Themes of kingship are central to the message of Hadit.
Crowley said that the Apocalypse was an authentic prophecy but that it had been distorted by the point of view of the previous Æon, so that John had misrepresented the Great Beast and Scarlet Woman, who are avatars of solar power and sexual force.
Third in the trinity is the child produced by the union of Nuit and Hadit, the lord of the new Æon, alternately expressed by two different forms of Horus. One form is Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Re-Horakhty), a military aspect of Horus as conqueror and warrior. Ra-Hoor-Khuit extends the inwardly-turned energy of Hadit outwards into the world. Some Thelemites feel that the advocacy of war and violence in the second and third chapters of The Book of the Law is meant as a metaphorical magical formula, while others think of them as exhortations to conquer on the plane of political and temporal power.
The other form of Horus in the third chapter is Hoor-Paar-Kraat (Harpocrates), Horus the child, traditionally the child of Isis and Osiris. The
English magical group known as the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley belonged, attached to Harpocrates an attribute he probably did not possess in ancient Egyptian religion—his finger pressed to his lips seemed to be a hushing gesture, making him the god of silence. The finger at the lips is now thought by scholars to have been a thumb-sucking gesture of childishness rather than one of silence. When Crowley revised the Tarot Trump Judgment in the last few years of his life he reflected this change, giving Harpocrates a gesture of childlike wonder.
Throughout the book two other mythic figures stand out, the Great Beast and the Scarlet Woman named Babalon. These characters are familiar in Western culture from the Biblical Apocalypse of John, where they appear as evil spirits in animal and human form whose coming marks the end times. Crowley said that the Apocalypse was an authentic prophecy but that it had been distorted by the point of view of the previous Æon, so that John had misrepresented the Great Beast and Scarlet Woman, who are avatars of solar power and sexual force. Crowley held the Beast office and Rose was his original Scarlet Woman.
ALEISTER CROWLEY: “I am certain, I the Beast, whose number is Six Hundred and Sixty Six, that this Third Chapter of The Book of the Law is nothing less than the authentic Word, the Word of the Æon, the Truth about Nature at this time and on this planet. I wrote it, hating it and sneering at it, secretly glad that I could use it to revolt against this Task most terrible that the Gods have thrust remorselessly upon my shoulders, their Cross of burning steel that I must carry even to my Calvary, the place of a skull, there to be eased of its weight only that I be crucified thereon. But, being lifted up, I will draw the whole world unto me; and men shall worship me the Beast, Six Hundred and Three-score and Six, celebrating to Me their Midnight Mass every time soever when they do that they will, and on Mine altar slaying to Me that victim I most relish, their Selves; when Love designs and Will executes the Rite whereby (an they know it or not) their God in man is offered to me The Beast, their God, the Rite whose virtue, making their God of their throned Beast, leaves nothing, howso bestial, undivine…
“‘Who wrote these words?’ Of course I wrote them, ink on paper, in the material sense; but they are not My words, unless Aiwaz be taken to be no more than my subconscious self, or some part of it: in that case, my conscious self being ignorant of the Truth in the Book and hostile to most of
the ethics and philosophy of the Book, Aiwaz is a severely suppressed part of me. Such a theory would further imply that I am, unknown to myself, possessed of all sorts of praeternatural knowledge and power…. In any case, whatever ‘Aiwaz’ is, ‘Aiwaz’ is an Intelligence possessed of power and knowledge absolutely beyond human experience; and therefore Aiwaz is a Being worthy, as the current use of the word allows, of the title of a God, yea verily and amen, of a God.”—The Equinox of the Gods (1936), chapter VII.
THE TRUE BELIEVER. Liber AL vel Legis numbered CCXX is a transmission from the gods appointed over the current Æon. The Æon of Osiris was cursed by the failings and horrors of Christianity, a religion that perverted the formula of the Dying and Reborn God first prophesied by the ruling Egyptian God Osiris. In 1904 the two-thousand-year cycle ended with the new Prophecy. Now Christianity and other remnants of Osiris have only the existence of the undead, and like zombies they are crumbling away. Soon they will be gone and the true era of Freedom will reach fruition.
THE CHAOTIC: The Book of the Law is a powerful spellbook and meditation focus. It engages many deep parts of the unconscious mind. So do
A. 0. Spare’s works and other systems for other people—there is a lot more to occultism than Crowley. Alternative historical models may be better than Crowley’s Æons, like the Chaos Magic psychohistorical model, the Typhonian/Achadian Æon of Ma’at, or the personal Word of each Magus in the Temple of Set. Crowley’s Æons were valid for him and for his personal mythology but there are a lot of different stories you could tell about history. They are all myths. It would be a mistake to take any myth literally.
THE SKEPTIC: One can take an approach to Thelemic myth like that of liberal Christianity toward Genesis, using it as poetic or speculative material for ritual and worship. The Æonic model is a mistake if examined as history, but so are most cosmological myths. Cultural prejudices in the Christian West created a mistaken idea that the Christ myth had been prefigured in paganism as the Dying and Reborn God. Osiris and Christ are not similar, and they are not similar to other gods who were forced into the Christian mold, such as Dionysus, Orpheus, Attis and Tammuz.
THE MYSTIC: The Æons bring with them characteristic Formulae of Initiation. In the Æon of Osiris the Formula was Crucifixion and Self- Sacrifice. This had an esoteric meaning related to but different from mundane
Christianity. The meaning was preserved through the ancient Mysteries and the Secret Tradition of Occultism. In the Æon of Horus, Sacrifice is replaced by the natural and progressive Growth of the Child. The Attainment of mature powers and Solar glory assume the place previously held by a death- and-rebirth Ordeal.
Crowley frequently makes reference to a diagram which purports to represent the spiritual universe. The Tree of Life has many forms in Qabala. This tradition of Jewish mysticism was adopted centuries ago by Christian mystics and magicians. The Tree Crowley used was that of the Golden Dawn. It is composed of ten spheres (sephiroth) and of 22 paths connecting the spheres, as well as the three veils above Kether, the veil of Paroketh (the Portal, below the central sphere of Beauty), the veil of Da’ath (the Abyss of Knowledge, below the three supernal spheres), and the corrupt and twisted Shells or Qliphoth echoing the Tree in a perverted and demonic form below Malkuth. Kether is reflected into four worlds from the closest to God down to the physical.
The Tree of Life is reminiscent of Platonic idealism, in which the world of sensory phenomena is held to be a secondary or degenerate form of a spiritual reality made up of pure ideas existing behind the appearance of the material world. The ideals are like lights and the events perceptible to the senses are only the shadows they cast.
Emanationist cosmological models similar to the Tree of Life were central in an ancient form of magic known as Neo-Platonic theurgy, an ancestor of modern occultism, and a Græco-Roman cousin of Gnosticism. Centuries after the fall of Rome, first Jewish Qabala and then Christian Qabala and Renaissance magic revived the Neo-Platonic cosmological and magical tradition. It had survived for a millennium in classical works, and in the Islamic preservation of Hellenism. The magical revival developed many different symbolic representations of the idealistic universe, including the Tree of Life, the Tarot, other philosophical card decks, and alchemical and zodiacal diagrams.
Philosophy often deals with two opposing perspectives, the nominalist and the idealist. Loosely speaking, nominalists focus on the names of things and
their outward appearances as the currency of human knowledge, while idealism considers things in the world of senses to be only pale reflections of their ideal forms, or essences. For instance, there are plenty of physical chairs, but only one “chairness,” which exists on a plane separate from the physical world.
Aleister Crowley painting circa 1918. From the collection of Richard Metzger
This plane of ideal forms, derided by nominalists, was the basis of Renaissance philosophy and the Tree of Life. Nominalism has been crucial to existentialism, phenomenology, and 20th century philosophy in general. Idealism is no longer widely considered a viable philosophy.
Crowley insisted that he was not an idealist but a nominalist, while also insisting that the Tree of Life truly represented the esoteric structure of reality and that its correspondences could only be harmed by any change. Was this an inspired paradox or a careless contradiction?
Crowley also acknowledged the Enochian æthyrs, the Chinese Yi Jing, and Buddhist psychology as peers of the Tree of Life. He did not make as extensive use of these systems, feeling them to be inconvenient compared to the Tree, but they all played significant roles along his spiritual path.
In the Golden Dawn as well as Thelema, the Tree has two major roles. First, it is a map of spiritual progress. Starting at the lowest and most worldly sphere of the Tree of Life, known as Malkuth or Kingdom and representing the physical world, the spiritual adventurer ascends through the spheres by the paths, taking a new spiritual grade at each sphere, until finally a hardy few reach the ultimate sphere, Kether or Crown, the unseen unity of ultimate deity and the true Self, known in mysticism as Union with God.