The Holy Books
"It is certain that every letter of this cipher hath some value, but who shall determine the value? For it varieth ever, according to the subtlety of Him that made it."
— Liber LXV I: 521
This chapter is an attempt at a discussion of the Holy Books of Thelema and various practices related to their understanding. There is one absolute rule with regard to the study of these texts within the Thelemic tradition, and that is that each individual possesses the right to interpret them for themselves. This right is total, and necessarily includes the right to not acknowledge the texts as relevant to one's self. No one can force another to accept a text as sacred. However, should one discover that a particular scripture, such as a Holy Book of Thelema, is relevant to them as possessing a sacred meaning, then there is a real issue in discovering and exploring that sacred meaning, for this meaning calls to us from beyond the restrictions of our preconceived, unenlightened world, from beyond the mundane ideas and profane expectations of the ego of everydayness, distraction and ignorance.
Within the Order A∴A∴, there is a system of classification of publications. The Holy Books of Thelema are identical to the various documents issued by that Order that are in 'Class A'. All of these texts Crowley considered divinely inspired. They are:
Liber 1: Liber B vel Magi (Book B, or The Book of the Magus)
Liber 7: Liber Liberi vel Lapidus Lazuli, Adumbratio Kabbalae Aegyptiorium (The Book of Wine, or The Book of Lapis Lazuli, Outline of Egyptian Kabbalah)
Liber 10: Liber Porta Lucis (The Book of the Gate of Light)
Liber 27: Liber Trigrammaton (The Book of Trigrams)
Liber 31: Liber AL vel Legis (Book AL, or The Book of the Law) This is the designation of the original hand written manuscript of The Book of the Law itself, generally included in photographic reproduction with editions of Liber 220.
Liber 65: Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente (The Book of the Heart Girt with a Serpent)
Liber 66: Liber Stellae Rubeae (The Book of the Ruby Star)
Liber 90: Liber Tzaddi vel Hamus Hermeticus (Book Tzaddi, or The Book of the Hermetic Fish-Hook)
Liber 156: Liber Cheth vel Vallum Abiegni (Book Cheth, or The Book of the Wall of Abiegnus)
Liber 220: Liber AL vel Legis (Book AL, or The Book of the Law) This is the text of The Book of the Law, as distinguished from Liber 31, which is the original manuscript of that text.
Liber 231: Liber Arcanorum ton Atu tou Tahuti Quas Vidit Asar in Amenti (The Book of the Mysteries of the Atus of Tahuti Whereby Asar Makes His Way Through Ammenti)
Liber 370: Liber A'ash vel Capricorni Pneumatici (The Book of Creation, or The Book of the Goat of the Spirit)
Liber 400: Liber Tav vel Kabbalae Trium Literarum (Book Tav, or The Book of the Kabbalah of Three Letters)
Liber 813: Liber Ararita sub figura 570 (The Book Ararita under the figure 570)
Additionally, both Liber 415: The Paris Working, and Liber 418: The Vision and the Voice were considered by Crowley to contain inspired reception, but intermixed with personal material in such a manner as to make it impossible for him to distinguish clearly between the two.
It is common within the Western Esoteric Tradition to describe the sacred meaning of a text or tradition transmitted through a text in terms of a divine 'Word'. The somewhat cognate Greek word 'logos' is also used. When the New Testament gospels, particularly John, speak of the 'Word', this is a translation of the Greek logos. Thelema takes up this tradition, and Crowley often speaks of the core message of Thelema, expressed in the Holy Books, as a Word. This is a loaded term that requires some exploration. What might it mean for Crowley, and more importantly for us, to speak of the meaning of Thelema in this way? This can be examined by looking at two different traditional aspects of the concept of a Word or logos which Crowley is drawing upon, though we should not feel necessarily bound to these ways of using the concept. They are 1) Protestant, and 2) Hermetic.
The Protestant component revolves around the idea of the 'Word of God', understood as being expressed in a scripture and in the form of a divine command which gives guidelines for normative behavior.
Crowley's Word fulfills these categories. However, insofar as the normative behavior is 'Do what thou wilt', the traditional Christian expectations as to the content of the Word are, in Thelema, subverted. There has been a Nietzschean transvaluation of values. The old Word has been rearticulated and stripped of its errors of limited perspective.
There is, furthermore, the absence of emphasis on faith in the Word of Thelema. There is a rejection of the fulcrum of Protestantism, as articulated by Luther's Theology of the Cross. The Cross symbolizes material suffering and material inadequacy extended in sacrifice upon and giving access to a dimension of vertical transcendence. In Thelema, this has been expanded by a theology of the Cross and Circle: of an infinite value within and without — of a universal goddess of sensuosity, manifestation and spirituality, forever embracing the individual perspective of experience of that body of being, bliss and consciousness.
The Hermetic aspect revolves around Crowley's religious and theurgic orientation towards the Greek metaphysical tradition of the philosophical use of the term 'logos'. This is usually translated as 'word', but in Greek it also means thought, reason, discourse and meaning. Logos means meaning itself, and the forms that Meaningfulness takes in various kinds of communication and understanding.
The Greeks, always in search of the underlying essence, or basis of reality, found that the multiplicity of the universe was not random, but was rather organized in a meaningful manner. They designated the principle of this ordering, this fundamental cosmic meaningfulness, by the term logos. Its exact understanding varied from thinker to thinker, but there are a few general parameters. In particular, logos is inclusive of what we think of today as physical laws, but logos is not merely this. It is a spiritual, divine, metaphysical principle.
Hermeticism, the esoteric tradition of the West, has traditionally moved within the Greek intellectual climate, appropriating and modifying various concepts in light of its own approach to mysticism. This approach is affected by the other major infuence on Hermeticism: magic. It is a traditional belief of magic that to know the name of a thing gives one access to its power. As the Gods have the greatest store of power, the magician therefore seeks through his knowledge of the names of Deity to attune himself to the hidden forces of reality. For Crowley, the task of the highest magician, or Magus, is to find a concise magical word or name which expresses the logos, or meaning of the universe. This Word then becomes the basis of a religion, through which it acts to guide others to an understanding of the cosmos, and their purpose within that cosmos. Crowley's Word as a Magus is 'Thelema', the Greek word for will. The Word of a Magus is both an expression of the logos of reality, as well as a magical act to regenerate the world, by making this understanding available to others.
Paradoxically, this uttering of a Word by a Magus must ultimately necessarily fail. It is not possible to express the Absolute fully through a linguistic formula, or teaching, or system, because Truth transcends all of these. Nevertheless, the Magus, in their identification with the divine impulse towards the enlightenment and spiritual evolution of all beings must attempt to do so. Crowley calls this paradox 'the curse of the Magus'.
Revelation is progressive. It evolves as humanity evolves. Thelema is therefore not the final religion. Nor is it necessarily even the currently best religion for most people. It is the attempt by one Magus among many to articulate the nature of enlightenment, and the means to achieve that enlightenment, as appropriate to the context of this age. This will be relevant to those who 'hear' his Word, and irrelevant to those who do not.
For the Prophet, the reception of the Word came first from outside himself, from over his left shoulder. (This is a sign of the secret source of The Book of the Law.) It was only later that he came to realize his identity with this Word, whose vehicle was his own Higher Self, through the Knowledge and Conversation of which he came to conquer the universe in his life time with its truth. This became his motto as Master of the Temple of the Universe: "In My Lifetime I Have Conquered the Universe with Truth", Vi Veri Vniversum Vivus Vici or V.V.V.V.V. It was as V.V.V.V.V. that the Prophet received the other Holy Books, with no more need of a projected exterior intermediary. Ultimately, he became completely identified with the Word, and with the passing of his physical body it is all that remains of him.
How are we then to take up this Word, if it be our will to do so?
In the case of the Holy Books, if we have discovered their expression Word to have importance to us, that is to say to be an in some aspect or another of our own Word, then we must study them constantly to accomplish this.
This approach is most akin to the theology of Karl Barth, who within the Christian theological sphere was faced with similar challenges as we are. When all rational analysis of a text is said and done, when all scholarship is established, and historical contexts explicated — is one still left with a sacred text with sacred meaning? This is ultimately a personal, spiritual matter. If the answer to this question is found to be yes, and if one wishes to address this, what then? Can this meaning be spoken of and engaged with? Barth's answer is a radical yes.
One may find that one's response to Thelema and its Holy Books is also a yes, and so one should respond to this by creating a relationship to the Holy Books. The idea of creating a relationship to a text is a very rich one, and we should try to bring out a little more of why it is appropriate to describe a religious engagement with the Holy Books as a relationship.
First, it indicates a process, rather than something that simply springs out fully formed and over and done with. It should not be expected that one will suddenly discover The meaning of some particular verse or portion of the Holy Books. One might discover A meaning, and its relevance will be based upon the relative, context dependent personal initiatory needs of the interpreter. Only the individual can evaluate these factors for themselves. These factors are not static, and neither should one's engagement with the Holy Books. One's understanding of the texts should evolve over time.
Secondly, a Relationship between two things in its most exemplary aspect is one based upon love. This emotion is most appropriate to addressing the Holy Books and their message, for these books are about passion. This is a passion towards God, towards creation, towards other human beings and towards our own works of creation. This passion is not one of sentimentality and irrationality. It is not a false love that justifies hate, like the fundamentalists of whatever faith who talk about love while nursing bigotry towards their neighbors. The love of the Holy Books is an integrative passion that engages all of the aspects of our being and directs them towards our True Will. It is love under will. Creating a relationship with the Holy Books can allow us access to this love under will, if we can find the discipline and strength to yield ourselves to it.
Finally, to speak of a relationship to the Holy Books is to a acknowledge that our own interaction with these texts involves dialectical interaction or relationship of three factors:
- The text itself
- The individual reader
- The interpretive community
None of these three does or can exist autonomously, but only relationally as part of a larger unity — and it is only within that larger unity that 'meanings' of the Holy Books can really be said to inhere, where the Word or logos of Thelema has its real manifestation.
Overbalance towards consideration of one of these three factors to the exclusion of the others leads to a misunderstanding of the real process involved in interpreting one of the Holy Books and finding meaning in it.
If the text itself is considered the 'infallible' source of meaning we are led into the error of all schools of literal interpretation. Likewise, if the individual alone is considered sovereign we are led inevitably to a problematic subjectivity. In this we increasingly cannot speak of a really existing text at all. Furthermore, interpretations become meaningless for any but the interpreting individual. This 'individual' is by no means really so individual, and always exists intersubjectively and in terms of their modifications upon an intersubjective background of understandings. Therefore the meanings will ultimately become meaningless for the individual, if they can be only theirs. Finally, if only the interpretive community is considered of exclusive value, then the unique perspective of the individual within that community will be obscured and trampled by homogeneity.
If these three factors are held in integral balance within our hermeneutics, however, then we are in a position to understand the individual perspective on really existing meaningful texts which occurs within a community of such interpretations. This is what is always occurring when a real interpretation of a text is made.
In trying to create a relationship to the Holy Books there are many methods, but I would like to discuss four that are of proven value. These are study, recitation, memorization and ritual.
The first of these methods is study. This means much more than simply actually bothering to read the sacred texts of one's tradition. To really study a Holy Book is to consider, ponder and evaluate it. It means to have a critical engagement with one's spiritual tradition. To attempt to live the message of The Book of the Law, or any text of quality, means that one must understand that message — and this is an evolving process. One must not assume that one can simply read The Book of the Law and 'get it' completely in the first or even many readings. One should not assume that any number of readings will completely exhaust a really good text. Scholars spend lifetimes engaging and struggling with Ulysses or Paradise Lost. A true Holy Book has similar depth.
Study of a Holy Book is not merely an intellectual exercise. A Holy Book has an ultimately spiritual meaning, which transcends our full rational understanding. These meanings are not easily confined to language without great skill. The reduction of the meaning of a Holy Book to a set of ordered propositions is also to suppress the manifold of possible interpretations. The idea of the 'literal interpretation' is really an illusion. The literal interpretation is only an interpretation endorsed by some outer authority — with all the limitations that implies. Real sacred texts explode with hidden meaning, and we should try to be open to that. That there are multiple interpretations does not mean that there are not good and bad interpretations. However, this can only be determined by an individual interpreter, as it relates to their own relative, context dependent, personal initiatory needs. One of the beautiful things about The Book of the Law itself is how it deepens in meaning the further one engages with it and its call to a new way of life. The Book of the Law itself can be understood as implying this when it says:
"The fool readeth this Book of the Law, and its comment; & he understandeth it not. Let him come through the first ordeal, & it will be to him as silver. Through the second, gold. Through the third, stones of precious water. Through the fourth, ultimate sparks of the intimate fire. Yet to all it shall seem beautiful. Its enemies who say not so, are mere liars. There is success." (AL III: 63-69)
In the Tunis Comment, written by Crowley as a commentary on The Book of the Law and believed by many to be itself a Class 'A' document, or Holy Book of Thelema, statements are made which seem to imply that study of The Book of the Law is prohibited. It is worthwhile to quote this deliberately paradoxical comment in full.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The study of this Book is forbidden. It is wise to destroy this copy after the first reading.
Whosoever disregards this does so at his own risk and peril. These are most dire.
Those who discuss the contents of this Book are to be shunned by all, as centers of pestilence.
All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself.
There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.
Love is the law, love under will.
The priest of the princes,
One approach to understanding these statements might be to see them as descriptive rather than prescriptive. They are warnings, therefore, or perhaps promises. Such is the power of the book that if you study it, rather than casting it aside and destroying it, it will transform your life, making you a center of pestilence to the eyes of the corrupt consensus reality about you. Certainly this was the effect it had on Crowley and the early Thelemites who followed him.
There are other possibilities, of course. One great thing about the Tunis Comment is that it directly challenges the new reader of Liber AL. Action is immediately required. Even casually setting aside the book has dire prophesized consequences. So, what's your response? And why?
"All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself." These words can be read as applying not only to interpretations of Liber AL, but to all of the teachings of the Thelemic tradition. Here is another challenge. If each individual is the final arbiter of the meaning of Thelema for themselves, then each individual is ultimately responsible for their own use or abuse of the Thelemic religion.
There exists a school of thought which challenges the idea of the Tunis Comment being in Class A at all, and rejects the need to engage with its pronouncements on this basis. This is one way to resolve its paradoxes. I don't necessarily subscribe to this school, as I find it undercuts the challenge of the comment, a challenge I personally prefer to leave intact. Also, I think Crowley pretty clearly saw the Tunis Comment as inspired, even if he didn't explicitly give it a number and classify as such. Perhaps this is wrong? Who can say? More basically though, making the comment null so that I can ignore it is too easy of a dodge for me. I have found the Comment and its paradoxes to be very central to my understanding of Thelema. Much of the approach of this chapter is inspired by it. Better, therefore, to leave it in place and ask the interesting questions: what does this mean to me? And why?
There is another school of thought which does see the Tunis Comment as a Holy Book, and on that basis seeks to prohibit or proscribe within all or some contexts any open discussion or interpretation of The Book of the Law. There are several problems with this position. First, it is self-contradictory, as its argument for blocking interpretation of The Book of the Law is itself based upon an interpretation of The Book of the Law, for this is exactly what the Tunis Comment is. This approach is fundamentally logically fawed. Secondly, there is a political danger that it can be used by some clique in positions of authority hypocritically to reserve to themselves the right to make interpretations of The Book of the Law by exempting themselves from their own rule. (It's been done.) Finally, it is simply deeply problematic to see oneself as protecting a right of free interpretation by stopping the expression of interpretation. It can be argued that a real purpose of the Tunis Comment is to protect and preserve free engagement with The Book of the Law. To attack the freedom granted by the Tunis Comment in the name of the Tunis Comment is to succumb to the very enforcement of dogmatism that it attempts to overcome.
There are a multitude of positions that fall between these two polar views. Indeed, it has been my experience that every Thelemite has a slightly different personal understanding of how the Tunis Comment interacts with their relationship to The Book of the Law.
The only resolution to these competing views, in my opinion, is not for some authority to determine which position is correct and enforce this, but rather to hold to the simple truth that the Tunis Comment was originally written to assert — that all interpretation and understanding of The Book of the Law, including the Tunis Comment itself, rests with each individual separately, and this should not be controlled by an outside agency in any way.
All of these rights of interpretation of The Book of the Law apply to the other Holy Books as well, without exception.
One of the best ways of studying The Book of the Law is to keep a journal and write down thoughts and reflections about the text. A good method is to get a loose-leaf binder and 220 sheets of binder paper. At the top of each sheet write a verse of the book, with space for one's meditations below. As ideas or understandings come, write them in the binder, adding new sheets as needed. Note the date by the entries, as this is both a good habit to develop, as well as providing information one may want to have later. The journal should be a long-term project, kept at hand and returned to again and again over the years as new insights occur. It is perhaps best seen as a perpetual work in progress, never to be entirely completed. It can also be engaged with casually or intensively as appropriate to the rhythm of one's long term practice. Also, it should probably not be written with an eye towards publication. Any commentary of this type will say as much about the commentator as the text. This journal is ultimately an exploration of oneself through the lens of the study of The Book of the Law. Aspects of this process may be relevant to others. These can and will arise naturally, but the focus of the journal should be upon one's own individual and personal relationship to The Book of the Law.
Meditation is a powerful method to develop this engagement. Select a particular verse or group of verses. Perform a banishing ritual, and sit in one's Asana. Get into a receptive state through a few minutes of rhythmic breathing, then contemplate the chosen passages, writing down one's reflections during or after the meditation. When done, add the notes to the journal's binder.
The other Holy Books of Thelema are susceptible to a similar process of meditation and journal writing. Liber 65 is especially recommended.
Many religions have sacred texts, either written or oral. The Bible and the Chinese classics are actually rather unusual in being concretized as written texts very early. Many religious traditions' sacred works were preserved for longer or shorter periods of time in an oral memorized form. The Homeric epics and the Quran are good examples of this. The Vedas and the Avesta were not committed to writing until the medieval period, even though writing had existed in the Indian and Persian cultures for upwards of a millennia prior.
The Quran is an interesting case that puts into relief certain issues. It conceives of itself as a written book, imaging itself as such within its own discourse. Simultaneously, the relationship the practicing Muslim is expected to make with this book is largely oral. Muhammad (peace be upon him) was himself illiterate and the Quran was delivered as a verbal recitation. The individual Muslim imitates the action of the Prophet by following the Quran's repeated injunction to "recite!" Canonical Quranic verses are recited with each of the five daily prayers. Every Muslim thereby incorporates the whole language of their revelation into their daily life. This language carries with it a whole manner of thinking about and conceptualizing the world. This background of practices and language carries with it the essence of Muhammad's (peace be upon him) message.
The Holy Books of Thelema likewise contain the essence of the Word of Aleister Crowley as Magus. The key text is The Book of the Law, about which the other books orbit, modulating the original light through various prisms of symbolism.
To access this logos is by no means automatic, however. As with the Quran, or any of the previously mentioned sacred texts, it is necessary to develop a relationship to the Holy Books, to their language, semantics, meaning and message. Verbal recitation is an effective means to engage with something like Liber AL or the other Holy Books.
One might take time, for example, in one's daily regimen of ritual work, to recite certain chapters of the Holy Books. One might also rotate through various of the books, gradually working one's way through all of them in a repeating pattern. This serves the function of continually reminding oneself of their content as well as keeping oneself in contact with the fountainhead of the Thelemic logos.
Group readings of the Holy Books can be especially effective. In many Thelemic communities it is the custom to gather together on the anniversary of the reception of The Book of the Law and recite its three chapters on successive days. In a ritual act inspired by the Tunis Comment, a bonfre is often lit on the third day, and copies of the book distributed to the audience, who throw them onto the flames. Liber 65, Liber 7, and The Vision and the Voice are also particularly appropriate for collective readings.
Recitation will be more effective if it leads to or is supported by memorization.
Memorization is a deeper and more internal method of creating a relationship to the Holy Books. There is a story here:
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War the Nazis banned all occult and Masonic secret societies in Germany to block their alleged subversive activity against the government. Various initiates of these societies were rounded up and arrested. One of these was Karl Germer, Crowley's eventual successor as head of OTO, though at that time he was Crowley's representative in Germany. Placed in solitary confinement, he was deprived of all outside contact, all hope of rescue, and all written materials. Nevertheless, Germer had a secret source of strength. As part of his A∴A∴ training he had memorized The Book of the Law and certain other of the Holy Books. Prisoner as he was of the eidolon of everything Thelema stood against, he could nevertheless not be deprived of The Book of the Law. Memorized as it was, it could never be taken away from him. As the weeks passed he constantly recited the memorized chapters forwards and backwards, and as he did so his Holy Guardian Angel appeared to him and he achieved its Knowledge and Conversation. Through the strength of his meditation upon his memorizations, Germer was therefore able to accomplish his True Will even while to mundane eyes he was deprived of all possibility of such achievement. Such is the power of Magick.
This is an extreme case, of course. Nevertheless it brings to our attention the level to which memorization is discredited in our culture. While nearly universal literacy is a reality, this has been at the cost of much of the oral tradition possessed by older societies. We no longer understand or appreciate the value of the memorization of texts. People occasionally argue that memorizing a text will ruin it by removing the quality of original engagement by deleting the freshness of one's engagement with it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Memorization is the method of making a text most one's own, of engraving its message "upon one's heart", as Muhammad (peace be upon him) so effectively phrases the matter.
In what order should one go about memorizing the Holy Books? The first chapter of The Book of the Law is probably best, if only because Liber AL is the most important of the class 'A' libri, and because chapter 1 comes first in that text. Liber 7 and Liber 65 are the next most important Holy Books, and the next best in terms of memorization.
In A∴A∴ memorization of certain of the Holy Books is mandatory as part of the assigned work of particular grades. The Probationer is required to learn one chapter of their choice of Liber 65 by heart. The Neophyte is assigned one section of Liber 7 and the Zelator has to memorize a chapter of The Book of the Law. The Practicus learns Liber Trigrammaton and the Philosophus part of Liber Ararita.
In certain modern Thelemic organizations it is also traditional to recommend or require the memorization of the first chapter of The Book of the Law as a foundational exercise.
Another effective means of engaging with the Holy Books of Thelema is to use them in a ritual context. There are any number of ways this might be done. For example, one might create rituals based on interpretations of their symbolism, and/or passages of the books could be interpolated into an invocation. Various of the Holy books are especially associated with particular divine forces. For example:
Liber 1 is closely related to the Magus card in Tarot, the planet Mercury and the Sephirah Chokmah.
Each chapter of Liber 7 is associated with one of the traditional planets. One highly recommended meditation is to invoke a particular planet through the methods described in chapter 12, then recite the corresponding chapter of Liber 7 while seated in one's Asana to assist in the contemplation of the planetary energies. Conclude by banishing the planet.
Each of the five chapters of Liber 65 corresponds to one of the four elements and Spirit. They can be used in meditation in the same manner as Liber 7. Also, this Holy Book is descriptive of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in a very special way, and can be used in Magick related to the Angel.
Liber 66 directly describes a specific ritual, provided the key to its understanding is discovered by the reader.
Liber 90, Liber 156, and Liber 370 are related to the Deities Horus, Babalon and Baphomet, respectively. Liber 156 has an especially devotional character. Liber 370 describes a specific type of ritual similar to that of Liber 66.
Liber 231 provides magical sigils for spirits associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and their corresponding Tarot trumps. These can be used in Evocation, as well as work with Talismans.
Finally, The Vision and the Voice contains a massive amount of material related to the Enochian system of Magick.
Crowley, Aleister, The Holy Books of Thelema, pg. 57.
With noted exceptions all are printed in Crowley, Aleister, The Holy Books of Thelema.
Crowley, Aleister, The Rites of Eleusis, pg. 201.
Both are reproduced in Crowley, Aleister, The Vision and the Voice: The Equinox Vol. IV #2, Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1998.
E.g. John 1: 1.
Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1968.
Crowley, Aleister, The Holy Books of Thelema, pg. 196.