The short version:
Thelema is a Greek word meaning “Will.” It is spiritual philosophy where the only rule is: Do what thou wilt.
The long version:
In the 16th century, François Rabelais used Thélème, the French form of the word, as the name of a fictional Abbey in his books, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The only rule of this Abbey was “Fay çe que vouldras” or, “Do what thou wilt” This rule was revived and used in the real world in the mid 18th century by Sir Francis Dashwood, who inscribed it on a doorway of his abbey at Medmenham, where it served as the motto of The Hellfire Club.
The same rule was used in 1904 by Aleister Crowley in The Book of the Law, aka Liber AL vel Legis. This book contains both the phrase “Do what thou wilt” and the word Thelema in Greek, which Crowley took for the name of the philosophical, mystical and religious system which he subsequently developed. This system includes ideas from occultism, Yoga, and both Eastern and Western mysticism.
Liber AL contains 3 chapters, each devoted to Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit respectively. According to this book, every individual has a True Will or underlying purpose, a higher divine will or intent. It is also well-illustrated by a phrase from Liber Oz: “There is no god but man.” It recognizes the essential humanity of every man and the sovereignty of each, without imposing on others.
Thelema as a religion, and a mystical and magickal path, is generally not considered Neo-Pagan by default, but is associated with ceremonial magick. Neither is it inherently theistic. It is, however, syncretic, and derives much archetypal symbolism from Egyptian, Hindu and Greek mythology and Judaism. It encompasses various types of divination and other practices used to attain insight and Gnosis, including alchemy, astrology, tarot, and yoga. Crowley’s works also contain references to Sufism and Taoism. The study of comparative religions, existential philosophy, epistemology, psychology, art, and mythology is a good start to understanding the concepts contained therein, and to further self-knowledge and illumination. Accepting something at face value and having blind faith, as the followers of organized religion have shown, lead to ignorance and narcissism and is to be avoided.
“A question that periodically arises both within and without the Thelemic community is whether Thelema should be considered a Neo-pagan path or not. In his writings, Crowley refers to himself with all apparent sincerity as a Satanist, a Christian (the truest of all Christians, in fact) and a Pagan. Likewise modern Thelemites can be found who identify themselves as Satanist, Christian, Pagan and any combination of these categories. In fact, there are even Thelemites who consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics. With the typical paradoxical thinking of mystics from any of the world’s religions, some Thelemites see no inherent contradiction to being all of these categories simultaneously. It is also not uncommon, however, to meet Thelemites who are vehemently opposed to any of these labels, especially the title of Christian. ”
“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.”
Was it prophetic?
Different from mere fortune-telling, prophecy is a divine message containing new knowledge, and has a pattern of synchronicities with the past, current, and even future events. The Rabbinic scholar Maimonides said:
“Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty and then to his imaginative faculty.”
So, it is relevant on more than one level, not just the divine. It is towards this end that every Thelemite should interpret the Book of the Law as they see fit, using scientific inquiry and finding personal and universal meaning via Hermetic Qabala and gematria wherever applicable, before considering it prophetic or a truly inspired work. It would also behoove anyone exploring the text that certain phrases were meant for Crowley alone, and expressed in the language of his time.
Magick with a ‘k’
This spelling by Crowley came from Early Modern English and was not only used to distinguish from ritual and mundane acts of will from sleight-of-hand, but a modern illustration of a deeper meaning by way of gematria. Gematria, an esoteric qabalistic practice, holds that language contains words of power. Magick is a fourfold, unified expression, whereas magic is threefold.
Magick is defined as “The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”
Groups that adhere to the Thelemic path
The A.’.A.’., which stands for the Greek Astron Argon or the Latin Astrum Argentum (Silver Star), is an initiatory order which originated in the Golden Dawn. Crowley had been an initiate and the group was broken up by schism. Later on, Crowley created the A.’.A.’. as a modern reformulation of the Golden Dawn. To claim A.’.A.’. legitimacy, one must have contacted on the astral level the Secret Chiefs, those praeternatural entities (a.k.a. Watchers or Nephilim) that oversee the spiritual evolution of mankind.
The O.T.O. is a fraternal and religious organization modeled after the hierarchy and initiatory system of Freemasonry, with Thelema as its central principle. Lineage is based on leadership from Crowley’s successors and is considered a tax-exempt organized religion in the U.S. It includes the Gnostic Catholic Church which focuses on the performance of the Gnostic Mass (Liber XV). However, there are Thelemic churches made up of small communities without any O.T.O. affiliation whatsoever.
Crowley on the Devil
“The Devil does not exist. It is a false name invented by the Black Brothers to imply a Unity in their ignorant muddle of dispersions. A devil who had unity would be a God… ‘The Devil’ is, historically, the God of any people that one personally dislikes.” (Crowley, Liber ABA/Book 4, Magick in Theory and Practice)
It would also behoove many people to note that only a follower of the Abrahamic religions believes in Satan; the Jews consider him to be under the dominion of God and the Christians, his equal rival as the Devil (duality, anyone?)
Influences on other movements
Wicca has its origins in Thelema. Gerald Gardner, an O.T.O. initiate, had gotten a charter from Crowley to create his own camp. With this, he devised a ceremonial system based on his knowledge of ancient magick, and as a continuation of a so-called “Old Religion” coven of the 1920s called New Forest. The phrase,”An ye harm none, do what ye will” is a paraphrase of,”Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
Showman Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan, cited Crowley as one of his sources, and he plagiarized said sources – the difference being that LaVeyan Satanism places much more importance on the ego and instant gratification and less on esotericism. It’s safe to say he wasn’t a mystic or even a deep thinker but a businessman; in fact, I think the only good thing he did was bring more attention to Crowley and others’ work.
Liber AL, The Book of the Law – Old & New Commentary by A.C.
One Star in Sight
Calling the Children of the Sun by Marcelo Ramos Motta
An Account of A.’.A.’.
The Wake World
The Gnostic Mass
Gardnerian Book of Shadows – Initiation: Third Degree
Thunder, Perfect Mind