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Oliver St. John is the author of fifteen books covering Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, the Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of the Thelemic Magical Collegium, Ordo Astri, and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Priest-Kings of Thelema

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
“Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief. The word does not occur in The Book of the Law.”
Aleister Crowley, “Religion: Is Thelema a New Religion?” Magick Without Tears

On the 27th November 2015 the Cairo Post published the following item: “The sarcophagus of the priest Ankh-f-n-khonsu has been unearthed in Cairo.” Within hours the story proliferated on the web. Not that many of us are experts on Egyptology or the factual background to Aleister and Rose Crowley’s mediumistic reception of Liber AL vel Legis in 1904 e.v. Thelemites will know, though, that the Graeco-Egyptian Book of the Law transmission was activated by the newly wedded couple’s discovery of a certain funeral stele numbered “666” in the Boulak museum in Cairo. When the news story was released, thousands leapt to the conclusion that the sarcophagus belonged to Ankh-af-na-khonsu of the Stele of Revealing that initiated the modern cult of Thelema. Not so, pointed out the experts, since the sarcophagus of the priest and scribe of the Stele is already known about and it is not this one. Photographs of the sarcophagus and Stele of Revealing, as kept at the Boulak, appear in the restored edition of Aleister Crowley’s Magick. Here is the photograph of the belongings of the 26th dynasty priest and scribe Ankh af-na-khonsu, to whom the Stele of Revealing belonged. The Stele of Revealing can be seen in the photograph, propped up and backward facing:

Ankh af-na-khonsu artifacts, Boulak Cairo

The rumour was thus quickly squashed and silly people were chastised for assuming that the newly unearthed sarcophagus, dating to a couple of centuries earlier than the Stele 666, was that of the priest and scribe Ankh-af-na-khonsu mentioned in The Book of the Law. In fact, it turns out that the newly unearthed sarcophagus was that of a member of the same Theban cult. Initiates of the cult all took the eponymous name or title, “Ankh-af-na-khonsu”.

Oddly enough, no one seems to have thought this one through any further. The implications for the (modern) cult of Thelema are profound. The prophet Ankh-af-na-khonsu mentioned in Liber AL vel Legis does not refer to any particular individual, it refers to all members of an Initiatic cult that existed in Egypt at least centuries before the 26th Dynasty. This ties in very neatly with our “unofficial comment” on the Book of the Law, The Law of Thelema—Quantum Yoga. In that book we draw a distinction between Aleister Crowley as the scribe of the Liber AL vel Legis revelation, and the Ankh-af-na-khonsu that is referred to as “prophet and scribe” in the book. Crowley believed in reincarnation, a common belief with occultists of the 20th century. He assumed that Ankh-af-na-khonsu was himself in a ‘past life’ in the 26th dynasty of ancient Egypt. In The Law of Thelema, we place more emphasis on Thelema as a timeless wisdom, embedded in the Hermetic-Gnostic tradition.

In a sense, the last piece of jigsaw puzzle has now completed the picture, and perhaps the “secret that has not yet been revealed” (Liber AL, II: 1) is finally out – at least for anyone that fervently desires to know it. Aleister and Rose Crowley succeeded in cracking open an inner plane time capsule, in a manner of speaking. The transmission from Thebes is to convey the direct knowledge revelation of a prophetic Theban cult, the cult of Ankh-af-na-khonsu, whose name literally means, “Life of the Sky-rider”. The Rider of the Sky was an Egyptian name for the Moon, in particular, the god Khonsu, the child of Mut and Amoun. To the Theban cult, Khonsu assumed all the attributes of other gods such as Atem Ra, Horus and Amoun, and carried the Left-eye of the Moon as his totem hieroglyph.

A prophetic revelation will always be open to interpretation, for prophecy is akin to divination and has nothing to do with prediction—though the two things are frequently confused. Aleister Crowley, in keeping with 20th century Utopianism allied to the cult of the individual ego—a cult that has now reached its apotheosis—saw himself as the prophet of a New Aeon. Crowley’s interpretation of Thelema was coloured by rational humanism, as one might expect for a man of his time. Kenneth Grant, Aleister Crowley’s nearest lineal successor, also sought to form his own cult, woven from the fabric of his imagination and helped along by the works of Gerard Massey, and diverse others such as The Sirius Mystery—New Scientific Evidence for Alien Contact 5000 Years Ago (Robert Temple, 1976), not to mention the fantastical tales of Howard P. Lovecraft. Kenneth Grant, whom Crowley chastised for going off on a “pipe-dream”, focussed his work entirely on the Qliphoth, an intensely dualistic aspect of the Qabalah that classifies a world of demons inhabiting an inverse Tree of Knowledge in the shadow of the Tree of Life. Both men were successful, in various ways, in forming cults of Thelema based on their own highly sexualised, modernist variations on the Hermetic Magnum Opus.

Both versions of Thelema bear little if any relation to the source work’s roots in an ancient Egyptian Initiatory cult. Liber AL vel Legis is in some ways an ‘anti-scripture’, in that the matter of the book insists that all religions are “crapulous creeds.” That is to say, religious belief based on scriptural law is a condition of being intoxicated, as is the human ego in love with itself. The cult of Ankh af-na-khonsu was about Initiation, not the dissemination of social or political propaganda. There was no word in the ancient Egyptian language for “religion”, “gods” or “God”. What we translate as “gods” or “God”, the Egyptians termed as Neteru or Neter. The Neteru are divine and universal principles that are observable in nature and that may be known through their symbol. The Great Neter was the nearest equivalent to “God”, a term that can be translated as the “principle of the principles”, or, “the principle that is itself beyond all”.

It seems ironic that a religion of Thelema was to have been founded, long after the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947 e.v., and somewhat against his wishes—he made his position clear in Magick Without Tears, “Religion: Is Thelema a New Religion?” After exploring what the term “religion” means, he concludes the letter as follows:

“Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief. The word does not occur in The Book of the Law.”

The Egyptian Book of the Law goes further than merely eschewing all religious beliefs. By denouncing human rationality as an instrument of the personal ego, the book declares war on all dogma, including that of material science. It would not have been necessary, in the 26th dynasty of Egypt, to include such repudiation in any knowledge transmission. Only a small portion of the book’s content, though, is uninterrupted by the intervention of thoughts and questions from Aleister Crowley. The spiritual and magical doctrine of the cult of Ankh af-na-khonsu is clearly expounded in the first thirteen verses of the first chapter. After that, Crowley wanted to assert himself—he had an agenda, based on his desire to assume control of the Rosicrucian stream within the Western Hermetic Tradition. Through the second and third chapters, the tone of the communicating intelligences therefore becomes increasingly hostile and fragmentary. In fact, the verdict seems to have been reached as early as I: 17, when it is flatly declared, “But ye are not so chosen.” In the context of the preceding verses, Crowley is warned not to make the error of personally identifying himself with the “prince-priest the Beast”, the “chosen apostle of infinite space” (I: 15). Crowley sought a way out of this by later suggesting that “ye” must refer to others, not him! It is best if we do not confuse the symbol with its concrete meaning, or the metaphor with that which it alludes to. For the benefit of the reader, who might find all this confusing, the true identity of the Beast and Scarlet Woman is revealed, at least metaphorically, in Liber AL vel Legis, I: 16:

For he is ever a sun, and she a moon. But to him is the winged secret flame, and to her the stooping starlight.

We are dealing with cosmic principles here. Even the soul that has attained supreme libration cannot be Ishvara, supreme Lord of the Universe, as was explained by Swami Vivekananda in “The Philosophy of Ishvara” in his treatise on Bhakti Yoga.

In those sections of Liber AL where the knowledge transmission is uninterrupted by Aleister Crowley’s thoughts and questions about his supposed role as prophet for a New Aeon—or at least as the chief of a restored Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—the Initiated doctrine is expounded. As I have written previously, in “Thelemic Doctrine of the Afterlife”, this concerns the vital question of the soul’s survival after physical death. This doctrine was examined in The Ending of the Words:
“The achievement of the soul outlined in Liber AL vel Legis depends on vital magical and spiritual factors. Far from being a type of spiritually sanctioned hedonism, as some would have it, Thelema requires the soul to apply ruthless discrimination on the path. This is made all the more difficult since only the knowledge of the True Will conveyed by the Holy Guardian Angel can provide the guiding truth for each soul – yet the spiritual work to be done has profound import to every man and every woman that is a star. The choice for the soul is still understood to be one of life on the one hand or annihilation on the other.”
I have added the emphasis on the last sentence, to make this clear. We are not offering classes in self-improvement, assertiveness training, or yoga for relaxation and health here. The problem with conveying such a message now, in this consumer and market-driven, global catastrophe-haunted technological age, is that:
“[The soul] will be led by Hadit through her own death and resurrection so as to open a portal or gateway through which others may pass to discover new worlds of beauty and truth. Such portals are, however, completely invisible to the world of ordinary senses.”
The immortal stone or star is not a saleable or marketable product. It is not a new religion, doomed to merely rearrange the symbolism of previous religions and then insist the new image of Ishvara, or his man-god-prophet, is “The Truth”. It should be clear from the generic cult name, Ankh af-na-khonsu, that to associate Thelema with any individual human personality is an error of a magnitude. Let us attempt here to define the Hermetic Magnum Opus, in the terms of our “unofficial comment” on Liber AL vel Legis:
“The Great Work of the Initiatic cult of Ankh-af-na-khonsu was the magical transmutation of the soul and the knowledge of the spiritual and natural law governing this operation. The formula of this opus was recorded on the funeral stone of one such Initiate, and is called the Stele of Revealing, of which Liber AL vel Legis is a theurgical activation.”

© Oliver St. John 2015