Thelema is a school of Western occult philosophy created by Aleister Crowley. Both Thelema and its creator are often misunderstood — at its heart, Thelema is a synthesis of Crowley’s personal gnosis, Hermetic Qabalah, and a variety of both Eastern and Western mystical traditions. This concept had a powerful influence on the growth and development of modern Paganism.
It’s hard to describe Thelema without tying it to its creator. While many modern Thelemites have successfully grown beyond Crowley’s original vision, the creation of this path was necessarily informed by its creator’s spiritual development and learning.
The word “Thelema” comes from an anglicization of the Greek word “θέλημα.” This translates to “will,” from a verb meaning “to will, want, or wish.” It’s a very succinct title and explanation for what Thelema stands for: the discovery and deployment of one’s “True Will.”
Origins & History
Thelema came to be when the Book of the Law was reportedly dictated to Aleister Crowley by a being named Aiwass. While this codified Thelema, its actual origins aren’t quite as tidy.
One of the philosophy’s foundational ideas, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” didn’t originate with Crowley or Aiwass. François Rabelais, who wrote The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, contained a fictitious abbey called the Abbey of Thélème.
In this abbey, there was only one rule: “Do what thou wilt.” Interestingly, Rabelais and Crowley differed in one key respect. Where Rabelais used “will” to refer to the “Will of God,” Crowley’s “will” referred to the “True Will” of the individual in accordance with the divine and natural order.
With The Book of the Law, Crowley declared that mankind was entering a new age, the Age of Horus. This revelation took place as part of a ritual that Crowley and his then-wife, Rose Edith, had in Egypt. Rose inadvertently channeled Aiwass, who then told Crowley what he was to write.
Crowley and Thelema attracted many adherents, and even more detractors. At one point, Crowley sought to establish a commune in Cefalù, Italy, which he named the Abbey of Thelema. While there, residents were to engage in regular yoga practice, training, domestic labor, and the observance of rituals. Ideally, students would devote themselves to discovering and enacting their True Will.
Unfortunately, the Abbey eventually suffered from drug abuse, child neglect, and a series of poor decisions on Crowley’s part. This ultimately forced the Thelemites from their sanctuary. While modern groups and followers of Thelema are still going strong, the Abbey itself is in ruins.
After Crowley, Thelema was influenced by several other individuals. Jack Parsons, James Lees, Kenneth Grant, and Margret E. Ingalls, among others, contributed to Thelema through writings, interpretations, and new branches of occult philosophy based on its teachings.
The core concepts of Thelema can be found in The Book of the Law, but may be simplified into three ideas:
- “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This essentially states that adherents are required only to discover and manifest their True Will. As long as they do this, they are on a correct path.
- “Love is the Law, love under will.” The core of Thelemic Law is love, but this is secondary to discovering one’s True Will.
- “Every man and every woman is a star.” This refers to the astral body, and metaphorically connects human beings to the stars in the universe. People who follow their True Will exist and thrive in their spheres without creating conflict with others, like discrete solar systems.
In addition to these ideas, modern Thelemic groups sometimes have codified sets of ethics for their members. One example is a document called Duty, which illustrated these ethics for members of the Ordo Templi Orientis.
While the OTO isn’t an expressly Thelemic group, they were nonetheless significantly influenced by Crowleyan ideas. Their ethics are:
- The Duty to Self. This instructs the reader to develop their senses and skills in a balanced fashion, be independent, and devote themselves to the discovery of their True Will.
- The Duty to Others. This urges the reader to recognize the innate divinity of other beings, view separateness as an illusion, and help others in achieving their True Wills.
- The Duty to Mankind. This highlights the Law of Thelema as the only basis of behavior. Crimes are violations of the True Will, and laws should preserve the liberty of all people.
- The Duty to All Other Beings and Things. This indicates that the Law of Thelema should be used to resolve all ethical disputes. It also explains that using any object or animal for something it’s unfit to do, as well as ruining things to the point of uselessness, are violations.
Aleister Crowley was a complex figure with a long and fascinating biography. He began life as the son of Edward Crowley and Emily Bertha Bishop, two members of the fundamentalist Christian Plymouth Brethren faith.
Crowley had no interest in this, nor did he want to pursue the career his parents hoped he might. His only interests lay in occultism, poetry, and mountaineering, which he pursued with passion while enrolled at the University of Cambridge. He inherited a large sum of money upon the death of his father, which allowed him to travel and live as he pleased.
In 1898, he furthered his occult studies by joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There, he was educated in ritual magic by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and Allan Bennett. He remained there until 1899, but his open bisexuality and lack of restraint left him unpopular with other members.
When a schism formed between Mathers and several other members in London, Crowley sided with him and attempted to lay siege to an Order property. (The case went to court, where a judge ruled in favor of the London group since they were on the property’s lease.) Afterward, Crowley was effectively ostracized from the Golden Dawn.
In 1900, Crowley traveled to Mexico. He also studied Hinduism and Buddhism in India, moved to a house on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland, and became a part of Paris’ turn-of-the-century art scene.
In 1903, Crowley married Rose Edith Kelly, the sister of a friend of his. This was ostensibly to protect her from an arranged marriage, but the two eventually came to care for each other. It was during a trip to Egypt in 1904 that Rose Edith experienced frequent trances, during which she’d tell Crowley that “they” were “waiting for” him.
When the couple went to a nearby museum, Rose Edith ran through the building until she came to stop by display 666 — the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu, a wooden offering stele depicting Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu as a priest of Montu presenting offerings to a syncretic form of Ra and Horus known as Re-Harakhty. It was after this that Crowley claimed to come in contact with Aiwass, who dictated The Book of the Law.
Unfortunately, Rose Edith suffered from severe alcoholism, even while pregnant with the couple’s first child. She gave birth to Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley, called Lilith, and she and the young girl returned to Europe while Crowley continued to travel. Unfortunately, the child passed away at the age of two due to typhoid. Crowley’s mental health suffered, and he entered into a series of affairs. Not long after, Rose Edith gave birth to their second daughter, Lola Zaza.
Crowley also attempted to perform rituals from The Book of Abramelin, a grimoire which describes the sacred magic of an Egyptian mage named Abra-Melin. Part of this magic purported to place the magus in contact with their guardian angel, or an approximation thereof. During this time, his began running out of money, heavily abusing cannabis, and channeled two more documents from Aiwass: Liber VII and Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente.
In 1907, Crowley decided to create a kind of “successor” to the Golden Dawn. Called the A∴A∴, this group was headquartered in London and practiced a kind of ritual magic syncretized from Golden Dawn practices and Thelemic beliefs. It was around this time that he and Rose Edith divorced, and Crowley also developed a relationship with a poet named Victor Neuburg, who was to become one of his sexual partners and most ardent student of magic.
Around 1912, Crowley published a work called the Book of Lies. He was then accused of plagiarizing material from the Ordo Templi Orientis. Interestingly, Crowley had no exposure to the OTO — all of the secrets that he published were ones he had arrived at on his own. Theodor Reuss, a German occultist and OTO leader, was so impressed that he appointed Crowley as head of the organization’s British branch.
In 1914, with his inheritance mostly spent on his libertine lifestyle, Crowley lived in the United States off of a few book sales, donations from members of the A∴A∴, freelance astrology work, and writing for Vanity Fair.
By 1920, he was in poverty and living in London again. At this point, he chose to create the Abbey of Thelema, and absconded to Italy with a group of friends and followers — including his lovers Leah Hirsig and Ninette Shumway. Unfortunately, this was a less than ideal time. Crowley’s own substance abuse issues, the neglect of the commune’s handful of children, and the death of a young follower named Raoul Loveday eventually led to Crowley’s deportation from Italy.
Crowley’s later life was haunted by poverty, repeated attempts to give up heroin, and legal trouble. In 1947, he passed away of chronic bronchitis aggravated by chronic cardiac insufficiency and pleurisy. He was 72 years old.
The Great Work
The Great Work is the core of Thelema. This is described as the set of spiritual practices that lead an individual to discover and implement their True Will, in accordance with the Divine.
The True Will is synonymous with a person’s destiny or life’s purpose. This should operate smoothly in harmony with nature, without conflicting with the True Will of anyone else.
People who have performed the Great Work and achieved their True Will are purported to have freed themselves of all false desires, habits, and conflicts within themselves and with others.
The Book of the Law
The Book of the Law, also titled Liber AL vel Legis, is the official book of Thelemic belief. It’s a fairly short book at only three chapters long, was allegedly dictated to Crowley by a being named Aiwass. This explains the Laws of Thelema, outlined above.
This book is written allegorically — interpretation is part of a student’s course of study. It contains a variety of literary and numerological puzzles, and purportedly contained a number of prophecies that Crowley didn’t originally realize predicted future events.
There are multiple lenses through which a student can view this manuscript, and it must be read more than once in order to understand it.
The Holy Books of Thelema
While The Book of the Law is considered foundational, Thelema has multiple holy books. These include:
- ΘΕΛΗΜΑ, published in 1909. This consists of three volumes, in which are described the history and origin of the movement, the relationship of an Aspirant to their Guardian Angel, a description of the cosmic process, and an interpretation of the Hexagram.
- Liber I: Liber B vel Magi. An account of the highest grade a human can aspire to, the grade of Magus.
- Liber X: Liber Porta Lucis. This describes the sending forth of the Master by the A∴A∴, as well as the Master’s mission.
- Liber LXVI: Liber Stellae Rubeae. The “Book of the Ruby Star.”
- Liber XC: Liber Tzaddi vel Hamus Hermeticus. A description of the initiatory process, as well as criteria to determine who is eligible.
- Liber CLVI: Liber Cheth vel Vallum Abiegni. This provides a description of the task of the Exempt Adept.
- Liber CCXXXI: Liber Arcanorum. This contains description of the cosmic process using the Major Arcana of the tarot.
- Liber CCCLXX: Liber A’ash vel Capricorni Pneumatici. This holds the secret to practical magic.
- Liber CD: Liber Tau vel Kabbalae Trium Literarum. This is an interpretation of the tarot through the lens of initiation.
Ritual magic, or magick, is a key concept in Thelema. It comprises physical, mental, and spiritual practices that are touted as a method for uncovering one’s True Will. Crowley defined the practice as a method for causing change to occur according to the will of the practitioner.
In Thelema, magick is a syncretic practice. It combines Western ideas from the Order of the Golden Dawn, yoga, sex magick, salutations to the sun, and specific rites for invocation, banishing, and celebration. The ultimate aim of much of this was to help the practitioner learn of and converse with their Guardian Angel. With this divine help, they could learn their True Will.
The Thelemic magician is also instructed to view the results of their practices with skepticism. They’re to keep a journal of all of the magick they perform, keep track of all of the external factors that potentially influence the outcome (like weather, location, and astrological timing), and record the results. This allows the magician a way of viewing their magick with objectivity and provides a basis for comparison between one ritual and the next.
Thelema’s cosmology is complex. On one hand, its deities are often treated as if they are extant, imminent, and capable of influencing reality. On the other, Crowley himself described them as a kind of “literary convenience,” suggesting that they’re more accurately viewed as metaphors and allegories.
Crowley’s initial ideas were heavily inspired by the Egyptian pantheon, and this is reflected in Thelema’s cosmology. There are three principal figures:
- Nuith or Nuit. This is a kind of deific Mother Goddess, depicted as the night sky stretched over the Earth. She is also a personification of the concept of infinity.
- Hadit. This is Nuit’s consort and counterpart. Where Nuit is the infinite night sky, Hadit is an infinitely condensed point. He is a personification of manifestation, movement, and time.
- Ra-Hoor-Khuit. This is a manifestation of Horus, with a name that indicates that he is intended to represent both Ra and Horus as elements of a unified solar deity. He is the twin brother of Hoor-paar-kraat, the God of Silence.
Other key figures in Thelema include Babalon (also known as the Virgin Whore or the Scarlet Woman) a Goddess of Pleasure, and Therion, her bestial mount.
Holidays & Celebrations
The Book of the Law lists several holidays that Thelemites should observe:
- The Feat of the Supreme Ritual, on March 20th. This celebrates the Invocation of Horus, which Crowley performed in 1904.
- The Equinox of the Gods, on March 20th-21st. This is often treated as a form of New Year celebration.
- The Feast of the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law, on April 8th-10th. This celebrates the three days in 1904 during which Crowley wrote The Book of the Law.
- The Summer or Winter Solstice, on June 20th or 21st. This holiday varies by hemisphere — while it’s the summer solstice in the north, it’s winter in the south.
- The Feast of the Prophet and His Bride, on August 12th. This commemorates the wedding of Aleister Crowley and Rose Edith Kelly.
- The Autumnal or Vernal equinox, on September 22nd or 23rd. This varies by hemisphere. The autumnal equinox in the north is the vernal equinox in the south.
- The Winter or Summer Solstice, on December 21st or 22nd. This is the counterpart to the solstice in June.
There are three other observances which aren’t tied to a specific date. The Feast for Life is celebrated on birthdays (including at the birth of a Thelemite child), The Feast for Fire is celebrated at the puberty of a male child, The Feast for Water is for a female child, and The Feast for Death is celebrated at a death and on each anniversary thereafter.
While Crowley died in 1947, Thelema certainly didn’t die with him. Several influential writers and thinkers have continued the tradition, and there are multiple modern Thelemic groups in existence today. These include:
The Order of Thelemic Knights
This group was established in 1999, and has a curriculum that includes Hermeticism, Qabalah, astrology, and critical reasoning. They have an ethical system that’s described through eleven virtues, and are very involved in community organizing, charity work, and disaster relief. For more information, visit their website.
This is an organization that’s dedicated to spreading the philosophy of Thelema. They provide group- and self-study materials, courses in magick, and articles and videos designed to inform people unfamiliar with Thelema. To learn more about who they are and what they do, or join them, visit the Union’s website.
The Thelemic Order
The Thelemic Order is a church incorporated in the United States. They are expressly a progressive and heterodox organization, which provides instructional classes, ritual scripts and examples, discussion, initiations, and information about Thelema. To learn more or join The Telemic Order, visit their website.
The Temple of Thelema and College of Thelema
The Temple of Thelema and College of Thelema are a non-profit religious organization located in the United States. The College provides in-person instruction, with a requirement of a minimum of 60 class hours for each course.
The Temple, meanwhile, is an initiatory Order that focuses on group ritual and training in ritual magick and Thelemic spiritual disciplines. For more information, visit this organization’s website.
These aren’t the only Thelemic groups in existence. Even if you aren’t ready — or simply don’t desire to — joint an initiatory order, there are numerous online groups dedicated to the discussion of Thelemic ideas. Sites like Meetup have multiple Thelemic and Thelema-adjacent groups in the United States and Europe.
Thelema is often regarded as virtually synonymous with the pursuits of Aleister Crowley, but this isn’t the truth. While much of the philosophy evolved alongside Crowley’s own spiritual growth, writers and visionaries have done much to expand on it.
Now, Thelema is a modern magickal and philosophical discipline that can help initiates discover the path to their true life’s purpose and ability to live in harmony with all things.