In the 16th century, François Rabelais used Thélème, the French form of the word, as the name of a fictional Abbey in his famous books, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The only rule of this Abbey was "fay çe que vouldras" ("Fais ce que tu voudras," 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. 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 (especially the Qabalah).
Shri Gurudev Mahendranath, in speaking of svecchachara, the Sanskrit equivalent of the phrase "Do what thou wilt", wrote that "Rabelais, Dashwood, and Crowley must share the honor of perpetuating what has been such a high ideal in most of Asia."
He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done." —
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. —
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. —
…and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. —
Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created. —
In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo wrote "Love, and do what you will" (Dilige et quod vis fac) in his Sermon on , .
In the Renaissance, a character named "Thelemia" represents will or desire in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna. Colonna's work was, in turn, a great influence on the Franciscan monk Francois Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel includes an Abbey of Thélème.
François Rabelais was a Franciscan and later a Benedictine monk of the 16th century. Eventually he left the monastery to study medicine, and so moved to Lyon in 1532. It was there that he wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel, a connected series of books. They tell the story of two giants—a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures—written in an amusing, extravagant, and satirical vein.
It is in the first book (ch. 52-57) where Rabelais writes of the Abbey of Thélème, built by the giant Gargantua. It pokes fun at the monastic institutions, since his abbey has a swimming pool, maid service, and no clocks in sight.
One of the verses of the inscription on the gate to Thélème says:
Grace, honour, praise, delight, Here sojourn day and night.Sound bodies linedWith a good mind,Do here pursue with might Grace, honour, praise, delight.
But below the humour was a very real concept of utopia and the ideal society. Rabelais gives us a description of how the Thelemites of the Abbey lived and the rules they lived by:
All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
- Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.
Many scholars think the French author wrote from a specifically Christian perspective, while pointing to disagreements with the Church. Alexander Pocetto of the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales argues that Martin Luther influenced Rabelais. He draws many parallels between Rabelais and Francis de Sales. M. A. Screech emphasized the satirist's orthodox views. Another source has Rabelais mocking Luther and the Church from a reformist perspective:
The informality of Rabelais' "masses" shows his agreement with Erasmus, who denounced the formalized ritual of the Roman Church as "Judaic." Most Humanists and reformers decried the fixed and convention-bound celebration of the Last Supper, calling it idolatry. Rabelais' masses therefore show the Pantagrueline companions communing with each other, partaking of the "bread" and the "wine."...Between radical reformers and arch conservatives in the Church, moderation is in danger of being crushed, and yet Pantagruel will maintain his ideals regardless of risk.
Erich Auerbach in 1946 disagreed with all these, writing that the revolutionary thing about Rabelais' way of thinking
is not his opposition to Christianity, but the freedom of vision, feeling and thought which his perpetual playing with things produces, and which invites the reader to deal directly with the world and its wealth of phenomena. On one point, to be sure, Rabelais takes a stand, and it is a stand which is basically anti-Christian; for him, the man who follows his nature is good, and natural life, be it of men or things, is good...
At Medmenham, on the Thames above Marlow, there are fragments, incorporated into a residence, of a Cistercian abbey founded in 1201; which became notorious in the middle of the 18th century as the meeting-place of a convivial club called the Franciscans after its founder, Sir Francis Dashwood, afterwards Lord le Despencer (1708–1781), and also known as the Hell-Fire Club, of which John Wilkes, Bubb Dodington and other political notorieties were members. The motto of the club, fay Ce que voudras (do what you will), inscribed on a doorway at the abbey, was borrowed from Rabelais description of the abbey of Thelema in Gargantua.
We have little direct evidence of what Dashwood's Hellfire Club did or believed. The one direct testimonial comes from John Wilkes, a member who never got into the chapter-room of the inner circle. He describes their origin as follows:
A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.
The group derived more from Rabelais than the inscription over the door, in the opinion of Lt.-Col. Towers, who wrote "My interpretation of the caves remains as stated, that they were used as a Dionysian oracular temple, based upon Dashwood’s reading of the relevant chapters of Rabelais."
Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in his Historical Memoires (1815) accused the Monks of performing Satanic rituals, but these claims have been dismissed as hearsay. Gerald Gardner and others such as Mike Howard say the Monks worshipped "the Goddess." Daniel Willens argued that the group likely practiced Freemasonry, but also suggests Dashwood may have held secret Roman Catholic sacraments. He asks if Wilkes would have recognized a genuine Catholic Mass, even if he saw it himself and even if the underground version followed its public model precisely. The Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon minimizes the connection with Freemasonry.
People living between Rabelais and Crowley sometimes used the word "Thelemites" to mean people who do as they please. Sometimes they even used the term positively, but did so with some degree of secrecy and deniability.
Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was an English occultist, writer, and social provocateur. Rabelais was one of Crowley's heroes and his books Gargantua and Pantagruel may have provided Crowley with part of the philosophic basis for the Law of Thelema, namely the phrase "Do what thou wilt". In The Antecedents of Thelema, Crowley referred to Rabelais as "Our Master", and Rabelais was also included among the Saints of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica along with Virgil, Catullus and Swinburne.
In 1904, Crowley claimed to have received Liber AL vel Legis, the Book of the Law from an entity named Aiwass, which was to serve as the foundation of the religious and philosophical system he called Thelema. Crowley summed up his Law of Thelema in these phrases from the Book:
Shri Gurudev Mahendranath and others have written that Crowley revived the Thelemic Law from Rabelais. Aleister Crowley wrote in The Antecedents of Thelema (1926) that Rabelais "set forth in essence the Law of Thelema, very much as it is understood by the Master Therion himself," and further that "the masterpiece of Rabelais contains in singular perfection a clear forecast of the Book which was to be revealed by Aiwass to Ankh-f-n-khonsu 370 years later." But Crowley biographer Lawrence Sutin disagrees, writing that in his opinion,
Questions of prophecy aside, Rabelais was no precursor of Thelema. Joyous and unsystematic, Rabelais blended in his heterodox creed elements of Stoic self-mastery and spontaneous Christian faith and kindness.
Crowley wrote several commentaries on The Book of the Law, the last of which he wrote in 1925. This brief statement called simply "The Comment" warns against the study of the Book and discussing its contents, and states that all "questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings" and is signed Ankh-af-na-khonsu. The only known writings of Ankh-af-na-khonsu appear on the Stèle of Revealing.
Diverse as these statements are at first sight, all agree in announcing an experience of the class which fifty years ago would have been called supernatural, to-day may be called spiritual, and fifty years hence will have a proper name based on an understanding of the phenomenon which occurred.
Crowley's Thelema draws its principle gods and goddesses from Ancient Egyptian religion. The highest deity in the cosmology of Thelema is in fact a goddess, Nuit. She is the night sky arched over the Earth symbolized in the form of a naked woman. She is conceived as the Great Mother, the ultimate source of all things.
The second principle deity of Thelema is the god Hadit, conceived as the infinitely small complement and consort of Nuit. Hadit symbolizes manifestation, motion, and time. He is also described in Liber AL vel Legis as "the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star.
The third deity in the cosmology of Thelema is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, a manifestation of Horus. He is symbolized as a throned man with the head of a hawk who carries a wand. He is associated with the Sun and the active energies of Thelemic magick.
Other deities within the cosmology of Thelema are:
One must find out for oneself, and make sure beyond doubt, 'who' one is, 'what' one is, 'why' one is...Being thus conscious of the proper course to pursue, the next thing is to understand the conditions necessary to following it out. After that, one must eliminate from oneself every element alien or hostile to success, and develop those parts of oneself which are specially needed to control the aforesaid conditions.
Crowley integrated Eastern practices with Western magical practices from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He recommended a number of these practices to his followers, including:
There are no "standards of Right". Ethics is balderdash. Each Star must go on its own orbit. To hell with "moral principle"; there is no such thing.
Liber AL vel Legis does make clear some standards of individual conduct. The most primary of these is "Do what thou wilt" which is presented as the whole of the law, with no further law beyond it. It is also presented as a right—the only right—and an indefeasible one. Some interpreters of Thelema suppose that this right includes an obligation to allow others to do their own wills without interference, but such a concept is absent from Liber AL.
Crowley wrote several additional documents presenting his personal views on individual conduct in light of the Law of Thelema, some of which do address the topic interference with others: Liber Oz, Duty, and Liber II.
Liber Oz enumerates some of the rights of the individual implied by the one overarching right, "Do what thou wilt". For each person, these include the right to: live by one's own law; live in the way that one wills to do; work, play, and rest as one will; die when and how one will; eat and drink what one will; live where one will; move about the earth as one will; think, speak, write, draw, paint, carve, etch, mould, build, and dress as one will; love when, where and with whom one will; and kill those who would thwart these rights.
Duty is described as "A note on the chief rules of practical conduct to be observed by those who accept the Law of Thelema." It is not a numbered "Liber" as are all the documents which Crowley intended for A.'.A.'., but rather listed as a document intended specifically for Ordo Templi Orientis. There are four sections:
Many Thelemites avoid strongly dogmatic or fundamentalist thinking. Crowley himself put strong emphasis on the unique nature of Will inherent in each individual:
I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. 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.
Thus, contemporary Thelemites may practice more than one religion, including Discordianism, Wicca, Gnosticism, Satanism, Setianism, and Luciferianism. Many adherents of Thelema, none moreso than Crowley, recognize correlations between Thelemic and other systems of spiritual thought; most borrow freely from the methods and practices of other traditions, including alchemy, astrology, qabalah, tantra, tarot, and yoga. For example, Nu and Had are thought to correspond with the Tao and Teh of Taoism, Shakti and Shiva of the Hindu Tantras, Shunyata and Bodhicitta of Buddhism, Ain Soph and Kether in the Qabalah.
Some organizations purport to stay true to Crowley's system, such as the A∴A∴ and Ordo Templi Orientis, though the current National Grand Master General of the U.S. O.T.O. Grand Lodge dismisses Rabelais as "some meaningless diversion", an opinion which was quickly rebutted.
Other organizations and persons who consider themselves Thelemites regard Crowley's system to be only one possible manifestation of Thelema, creating original systems, such as those of Nema (see below), Kenneth Grant, and Amado Crowley. Some of these accept The Book of the Law in some way, but not the rest of Crowley's "inspired" writings or teachings. Others take only specific aspects of his overall system, such as his magical techniques, ethics, mysticism, or religious ideas, while ignoring the rest.
The Fraternitas Saturni (Brotherhood of Saturn), founded in 1928 in Germany, accepts the Law of Thelema, but extends it with the phrase "Mitleidlose Liebe!" ("Compassionless love!"). The Thelema Society, also located in Germany, accepts Liber Legis and much of Crowley's work on magick, while incorporating the ideas of other thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles S. Peirce, Martin Heidegger, and Niklas Luhmann.
In America, the writings of Maggie Ingalls (Nema) have inspired a movement called Maat Magick, along with an organization called the Horus-Maat Lodge, founded in 1979. This movement combines Crowley's essential elements of Thelema with Nema's system based on the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, as established in her received work, Liber Pennae Praenumbra. HML aims to combine the current Aeon of Horus with the future Aeon of Ma'at, where the combined mind of humanity will awaken and mankind will achieve balance.
One can also find Thelemites in other organizations. The president of the Church of All Worlds, LaSara Firefox, identifies as a Thelemite and sex magician. A significant minority of other CAW members also identify as Thelemites.
By far, the bulk of writing on the topic of Thelema remains that of Aleister Crowley. He was highly prolific and wrote on the subject of Thelema for over 35 years, and many of his books remain in print. During his time, there were a few who wrote on the subject, including Charles Stansfeld Jones and J.F.C. Fuller. Since his death in 1947 only a few writers' accounts of Thelema have appeared in published books. Perhaps the four most published writers have been:
Other notable contemporary writers who address Thelema include Jerry Edward Cornelius, Gerald del Campo, Allen H. Greenfield, Christopher Hyatt, Jason Augustus Newcomb, James Wasserman, and Sam Webster.
There are also numerous publications that print original Thelemic writing, such as the journals Cornelia, Journal of Thelemic Studies, Light In Extension, Lion & Serpent, The Scarlet Letter. (See External links).
Since Crowley's death in 1947, other organizations have formed to carry on his initial work — for example, Phyllis Seckler's College of Thelema, the Ordo Templi Orientis of Kenneth Grant, Society O.T.O. of Marcelo Ramos Motta, the Chthonic-Ouranian OTO, OTO Foundation, the Horus-Maat Lodge, the Thelemic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Holy Order Of Ra-Hoor-Khuit, The Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn, The Order of Thelemic Knights, and Ecclesia Gnostica Universalis.
Other groups of widely varying character exist which have drawn inspiration or methods from Thelema, such as the Illuminates of Thanateros and the Temple of Set. Groups such as Fraternitas Saturni, the Hawk and Jackal Covens, and the Thelema Society accept the Law of Thelema, but omit certain aspects of Crowley's system while incorporating the works of other mystics, philosophers, and religious systems.
Tolli discusses Crowleyan Thelema in the context of 'salvation history' (Heilsgeschichte). Tolli regards Crowley's Heilsgeschichte as one in which the whole Universe (therefore the Will of God) is to combine (analogous to the Alchemical formula 'coagula'). "Love", in the form of combinatory attraction ("Love is the law, love under will"), is a universal principle — therefore akin to the concept of natural religion. The main difference (for Tolli) is that in Christianity salvation of the entire Universe ("Ganzheit") cannot be made by 'solipsistic' man. Tolli sees Crowley as a failed — however talented — artist or "Mystagogie", but not as a "Satanist".