First of all, let me clarify that I’m not exactly a “fan” of Aleister Crowley, so this isn’t going to be sycophantic post by any means. While I understand that Crowley’s racism and sexism were part and parcel of being an Englishman in Victorian England, I have some other major complaints against him. For one thing, it’s never made sense to me how Crowley could believe in Goddesses like Nut and Ishtar/Babalon and invoke Them into his “Scarlet Women” for sex magical purposes, but still treat these “Scarlet Women” like shit in his everyday life. For another, I have little respect for anyone who swindles people into giving him their money (especially when he was a privileged aristocrat and many of his followers actually had to work for a living). Also, Crowley seriously endangered his followers’ lives at several points, especially at the infamous “Abbey of Thelema” (e.g., by cutting them with razor blades whenever they said “I,” etc.). His recklessness even endangered the lives of several people during Oscar Eckenstein’s ill-fated 1902 expedition of K2. Finally, it’s very hard for me to accept someone as a great and powerful “Magus” or “Ipsissimus” when he spent the rest of his life struggling with a heroin addiction.
So if anyone is coming into this post thinking it might be some kind of love letter to the self-styled “Great Beast 666,” let me say this right now: I think Edward Alexander Crowley was a megalomaniac prick who was only a little less dangerous than Charles Manson, and if it were possible for me to meet him on the street, I’d probably punch his ugly lights out. (“This one’s for Rose Kelly! And this one? This one’s for Raoul Loveday, you slime!”)
However, even I have to give Crowley a certain amount of credit. He might have been batshit insane, but he was very sincere about his beliefs, and he really did believe the Egyptian God Horus revealed the Book of the Law to him in 1904. For what it’s worth, I honestly think this is true; I think Horus did speak to Crowley during that legendary April in Cairo. What’s more, I think the Law of Thelema – “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law; Love is the Law, Love under Will” – is an extremely important milestone not only in the history of religion and spirituality in general, but more specifically in the history of Egyptian polytheism as well.
One of the questions that keeps coming up among modern Egyptian polytheists (of both the Kemetic and non-Kemetic varieties) is how we are to conceive and measure Pharaonic authority today. I’ve already dealt with this subject extensively in my article, On Pharaohs and Priests, but there’s something else I’ve been meaning to discuss about it. To review, ancient Egypt was essentially an agricultural church-state that was ruled by messianic holy men (i.e., the Pharaohs). These men (and sometimes women) organized the various priesthoods, assigning them to worship different major Deities in different areas. One had to be a priest to interact with these particular Deities, and one could only be made a priest by the Pharaoh. But today, this system no longer applies. There are a few groups that try to reconstruct this model as faithfully as possible (e.g., the House of Netjer), but most of us are directly chosen to serve our Gods by the Gods Themselves. What’s more, if the ability to actually worship the Gods was limited to clergy, They would hardly be worshiped by anyone at all. For the most part, the line that once existed between clergy and laity in ancient Egypt has been completely eroded in modern Egyptian polytheism.
As shown in the mythological lineage of Egyptian rulers, divine authority contracts from the cosmic to the personal. It begins with Ra, who controls everything; then it shifts to His son Shu, who controls the air in our atmosphere; then it’s transferred to Geb, who is the Earth itself; then it’s inherited by Osiris, who rules the vegetation of the Earth. Finally it comes down to Horus, who’s incarnated in humans, and to promote social harmony among the ancients, it was necessary for Him to structure society around a single leader. This pyramidal power structure (no pun intended) allowed the Egyptian civilization to thrive for at least 3,000 years. In truth, this leadership model is the way it’s been in most societies throughout history. But I think that when Horus declared the beginning of His New Aeon in 1904, He was effectively saying that the time for everyone to follow a single Pharaoh was over. The old structure has been dissolved and will never be restored; now it’s time for those of us who follow the Gods to act as our own Pharaohs.
Many people assume that the Law of Thelema justifies doing whatever one likes (regardless of the consequences), but this isn’t true. “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law” is basically Crowley-speak for “Figure out what your higher purpose is and follow it.” “Love is the Law, Love under Will” means “If everybody followed their higher purpose, we’d all live in harmony.” There’s a difference between our egoistic desires and our higher purposes in life; the former is just what we think we want (including that which is really bad for us), but the latter is what we actually need. In Crowley’s belief, everyone has a higher purpose that’s been determined in such a way that following it will never interfere with anyone else’s higher purpose. So if you truly “do what thou Wilt,” you won’t do anything to hurt anyone or bring any more suffering into this world. On the other hand, if what you’re doing with your life is hurting others, then it’s a pretty safe bet that you aren’t really following your higher purpose at all. Distinguishing between one’s egoistic desires and one’s higher purpose can take years and years of psychodramatic self-analysis, and the ceremonial rituals Crowley developed for Thelema are meant to facilitate this process.
Great Horus, the Pharaoh of Pharaohs
There are many problems with this line of reasoning, the most relevant being that even Crowley himself couldn’t live up to this creed. But the basic idea of Thelema is very similar to the Egyptian principle of Ma’at. The job of any Pharaoh is to promote and defend the social, political, spiritual and environmental bond between all things. A Pharaoh doesn’t just get to sit on his ass and eat Turkish Delights all day; he has to make sure human beings are doing their part to keep the universe in order. 3,000 years ago, this required having a single person – a benevolent dictator, as it were – to enforce this vision upon an entire obedient populace. Egypt would never have survived for as long as it did were it not for this structure, but over the course of time, human beings have (very slowly) become more democratic and individualist. There are still areas in the world where dictators are calling all the shots, but generally speaking, this sort of authority just doesn’t work anymore. And I think that when Horus revealed Himself to Aleister Crowley in 1904, it was because He decided it was time for Pharaonic authority to be democratized.
From what I can tell, the Law of Thelema is really just a Westernized way of saying, “Uphold Ma’at” – though I would argue that the Egyptian way of saying it is really much better. Both terms are equally esoteric, but since Ma’at is a foreign word, people who don’t already know what it means will usually ask for clarification. (“Ma’at? What the hell is that?”) Since the Law of Thelema is written in English, however, people naturally assume that it means exactly what it seems to mean. (“‘Do what thou Wilt,’ huh? Okay then, I’m gonna go kill this person I hate.”) Which brings us to the $666 billion dollar question: Why in Duat would Horus choose a crazy megalomaniac to serve as the “prophet” for His New Aeon? Personally, I think it’s because Horus wanted us all to see just how bad things could get if we behave as piss-poor Pharaohs. Crowley was like Akhenaten, who made a very similar mistake of putting his obsession with one particular God (i.e., Aten) before everything else (including his duty to protect his country and care for his people). Crowley’s God was his very own ego, and his obsession with it led to his failure, notoriety and ruin (just as Akhenaten’s did). Perhaps Horus thought it would be better if we were given an example of what we shouldn’t do, rather than an example for us to emulate.
Virtually all Pagans, New Agers and occultists have been influenced by Aleister Crowley in one way or another. This even applies to polytheistic reconstructionists, who react against things in Paganism that Crowley started (e.g., the homogenization of Deities, the prevalence of Hermetic axioms and practices, etc.). At the same time, I think it’s pretty clear that Pharaonic authority really has been democratized. There is no “one true Pharaoh” on Earth today, and yet there are so many of us who are called by the Egyptian Gods and who continue to experience Them on a regular basis. The fact that Joe Kemetic down the street can have a personal relationship with Isis and Osiris without being ordained by a Pharaoh (or Nisut) is proof enough of this in my book. Naturally, I don’t expect very many people to agree with me when it comes to Crowley, but my point here is not that I think Egyptian polytheists need to celebrate him as some kind of “hero.” I think he was very important to the development of our various movements, but only in the same way that Darth Vader’s excessive selfishness eventually paved the way for the New Jedi Order.
However, I’d like to point out again (just in case it was missed the first time) that just because I’m critical of Crowley doesn’t mean I think he never had anything worthwhile to offer. For one thing, the man did quite a lot to bring Eastern religions like Buddhism into the West. Furthermore, I’ve met plenty of modern day Thelemites who are perfectly normal and down-to-Earth people; just because Crowley was a psychotic brute doesn’t mean all of his followers are. (The very same logic applies to other religions and their “prophets,” as well. Moses and Muhammad weren’t exactly paragons of moral virtue either – to say the least – and yet there are plenty of Jews and Muslims who can coexist peacefully with other people.) So when I voice criticisms against Crowley, these should not be taken as criticisms against all Thelemites in general.