Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thelema, Magic, Witchcraft and Crowley

I decided to write this article up while I am recovering from contracting Lyme’s disease. Last month my lady got it, and late this month I have been the recipient. It’s been a summer of sickness interfering with nearly everything we wanted to do, but at least there are medical solutions and little possibility of permanent damage. Even so, exerting myself only marginally is quickly tiring, but I just wanted to post my opinions about the topics of Thelema, Magic, Witchcraft and Aleister Crowley. All of these topics fit together, particularly since they have been discussed on Face Book by various pundits and opinionators. Some of these opinions are quite off-base, so I felt I should publish some of my own perspectives responding to what I think are erroneous beliefs.

One of the first discussions that I wanted to tackle, and that has been promoted by various individuals, is that Aleister Crowley, far from being the be-all and end-all of the 20th century WMT (Wester Magical Tradition) was really a hack and not much of magician at all. It seems that it is now quite popular and fashionable to trash the founders of the various occult and magical traditions and thereby diminish their contributions to our present magical knowledge. If you want to get some attention from other internet occultists, just trash-talk one of their founders. It will get you lots of attention, oddly both supportive and also quite hostile. It also stirs up people’s emotions and sets up yet another controversy that is discussed endlessly to death - sometimes for months on end. When I see these kinds of inflammatory pronouncements, it leaves little doubt in my mind that some people have far too much time on their hands.

Dismissing occult and magical founders is a popular pastime, but it’s also where some folks get to rewrite history and enter into a world divorced from reality. Trash-talking founders is the equivalent of spreading misinformation about them, and for the authors of such obnoxious opinions a not-so obvious personal edification. The fact is that Crowley wrote quite a number of books in the first half of the twentieth century that are still being read, studied and used today. Many of these books are considered classics, even though they were written nearly 100 years ago.

Aleister Crowley was a controversial individual when he was alive, but to this day I feel that few biographers have ever really captured what the man was really like. Everyone who had known him (and either loved or hated him) “painted” a different picture of this man, and some of these descriptions were completely different or contradictory. He was a complex man who had many virtues and also many failings. Some have condemned him for his immorality, others have pointed to the fact that he died a drug addict. His followers have praised him as the prophet of the New Aeon and the greatest magician of all time. I am less sanguine about Crowley, but I do believe that he deserves a lot of credit for the current and on-going occult and magical revival.

It is my belief and opinion that Crowley is solely responsible for bringing the practice and study of magic from the 19th century into the 20th, which was no small feat. He also started a trend that led to the creation of the modern pagan religious revival. Those who would denounce his accomplishments should look to their own meager legacy and potential impotence. If I were able to at least produce a quarter of his literary output and have some impact on magicians in the next 100 years I think that I would consider myself quite accomplished. I will likely leave this world without achieving even that modest level of accomplishment.

Even though Crowley left behind a large and deep legacy of his occult and magical writings, his work stands as incomplete and lacking in certain areas. Of course, this is true of all founders, and it is up to those who follow afterwards to pick up this lore and expand it so that it becomes comprehensive and complete. The fact that this has not happened yet is only because it has taken many individuals decades to fully understand and master the legacy that he left behind. I suspect in time that many individuals will begin to write up the fruits of their years of study (if they haven’t already) and incrementally expand the knowledge and practice of Thelemic magic until it is a more thorough and complete system.

However, many of the Thelemites that I have personally met seem to have a grasp and practical knowledge of the entire spectrum of both thaumaturgy (low magic) and theurgy (high magic). Compared to many individuals that I have met or read about working other traditions, it would seem that Thelemites are more knowledgeable and capable regarding the arts of magic and the occult than anyone else. This is, of course, my opinion, but I think that Thelema and the OTO/AA have a better record of teaching individuals how to be real and functioning magicians than any other organization. Keep in mind that the teaching part is what naturally happens in an OTO lodge and is not a part of any official regimen. The AA, however, is a tradition that specifically trains individuals to be magicians. I have compared it to getting a PhD in practical and theoretic magic.

This brings me to the next controversy, and that is the criticism that Thelemites in general have to branch out and acquire other magical techniques from other sources (such as Hoodoo, the old grimoires and the PGM) in order to perform thaumaturgy or low magic. I think that I have touched on this topic in the previous paragraphs, but it still seems like an innocent observation that has some pretty damning ramifications. I guess the complaint is that Thelemic magic is somehow hollow, incomplete and missing the whole standard mechanisms for making magical changes in the material world and thus changing the outcome of one’s fortunes. I don’t know where this argument started, but it is specious and completely wrong.

I happen to know plenty of Thelemic magicians who can work magic on all levels, both thaumaturgy and theurgy without having to pillage from other sources. Crowley’s descriptions of Golden Dawn magic are probably the most cogent and practical explanations available, even in the present times. His writings on Enochian magic were less thorough, but in combination with them and the actual Dee diaries, a number of Thelemites have produced a comprehensive system of Enochian magic that is completely usable. Essentially, any magical system that has the mechanisms for Elemental, Planetary and Zodiacal magic should be able to perform operations that can impact the material plane.

If Thelemites have also been culling other forms of magic, such as the PGM, the old grimoires and other ethnic or cultural sources (Hoodoo, Voudoun, Palo, Tibetan, Hindu, Chinese-Taoist, etc.) it is because they are fascinated and engaged with all things magical. A truly gifted magician will leave no stones unturned in order to fully master the Art of Magic, and that is my interpretation of what they are doing. To promote an interpretation that discredits Thelemic magic because its members don’t remain within their own supposed traditional boundaries is patently ridiculous. All of the various systems of magic in use today have been borrowed, appropriated and modified from other systems of magic at some point in time. Some have kept the traditional exponents pure (as far as they know), some have invented wholly new ways and techniques, while others have pulled various rites and workings from various traditions together to build hybrid systems relevant to the individual, locale and the times. All of the these approaches are legitimate because they all work and achieve the desired results. So, I think that I have pretty much debunked that spurious opinion and showed that it is misinformed at best, and even malicious at its worst.

Now we come to the final point of this article and that is the relationship between Thelema and British Traditional Witchcraft. Some have persisted in declaring the urban myth that somehow Crowley wrote the Book of Shadows and was therefore, the author and godfather of Modern Witchcraft. This has been shown time and again to be completely false. While it is true that Gerald B. Gardner visited Crowley twice some months before his death, and he might have been given the rites and the permission to start up an OTO lodge, there wasn’t any further collaboration between them.

I also doubt that Crowley gave Gardner any rituals or an OTO charter, particularly since a few members of the OTO have shown that the charter owned and displayed by Gardner was likely a fake. Considering the terrible spelling and grammar errors in Gardner’s original work and those amplified in the Book of Shadows, I greatly doubt that Crowley had any hand in writing the rituals used by Gardnerian Witches. The two initiatory ordeals were obviously based loosely on the Masonic Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft initiations. I know this to be true because I did an in-depth analysis comparing these initiatory rites. Gardner needed prototypes upon which to develop his own Witchcraft initiations, and these two rites were perfect. If Gardner would have had copies of the OTO initiations in his possession he would have likely used them as templates instead.

The Great Rite, however, was based on the Thelemic Gnostic Mass, and in fact, Gardner rather shamelessly plagiarized the section where the priest adores and kisses the priestess residing on the altar. Later renditions of Gardnerian rites in the Book of Shadows tended to remove the obvious references to Crowley’s lore, but some of the original lore was still kept around for the sake of posterity. We can look at this lore today and see where it originally came from.Gardner had access to some of Crowley's writings, and he likely had a copy of the Gnostic Mass in his collection of papers at some time.

So, while the writings and lore published by Aleister Crowley had a powerful impact on Gardner, and that he sought to appropriate some of it for his own rituals, doesn’t mean that he either had in his possession the initiatory lore of the OTO or that somehow Crowley wrote up the rituals used in the Book of Shadows. I believe that had Crowley wrote up the lore for Gardnerian Witchcraft it would have been far more elegant and lyrical than it is today. (Certainly the spelling, vocabulary and grammar would have been impeccable.) What lyricism can be found in some of the lore of Modern Witchcraft was added a bit later by Doreen Valiente. This is just another case of someone being strongly influenced by Crowley’s published writings and seeking to use them in emulating their own magical and pagan perspectives. I think that many of us have done this at some point in our magical and occult careers.

One other point to consider is that Witchcraft magic is incompatible with Thelemic or Golden Dawn magic, even though Gardner appropriated the GD Opening by Watchtower rite to fashion his own circle consecration rite. Because he mixed antique pagan ideas about sacred space with the concise mechanism for opening a GD temple for magic, he produced a hybrid system that has a completely different perspective. Some GD magicians have complained that the invoking pentagrams in the circle consecration rite are performed incorrectly at the watchtowers and that the whole thing should collapse and be rendered useless because of the flaws in its construction. Of course, as in many cases the intent of the magician can trump a poor design, so even the Wiccan circle consecration rite works quite well although it is not as elegantly constructed or written as the GD version.

The purpose and function of these two rites are different enough that the rules of one doesn’t apply to the other, which is something that confounds a lot of the dialog between magicians and witches about magic today. Needless to say, if Crowley had written this ritual it would have been a lot more like the GD version, and the purposes for its use would have been analogous to the rite practiced by them. They are quite different, and that makes Witchcraft ritual magic and GD/Thelemic ceremonial magic quite distinct, at least in my opinion.

Frater Barrabbas 

New Rules #1: If you are going to advertise that you can teach and initiate magicians so that they may be elevated to an Ipsissimus (the highest degree possible: 10 = 1) then learn how to spell that word before you post the advertisement. Not being able to spell this word certainly doesn’t give your potential students (or anyone else) the confidence that you know what you are talking about.