Thelemic Origins of Wicca
Perhaps the youngest and seemingly most controversial branch of modern Qabalistic study is known as the "Wiccan Qabalah". It was extremely unpopular at first and aroused even so much as hatred back when I first had the nerve to call myself a "qabalistic witch" in a public BBS forum. Ellen Cannon Reed’s books—such as "The Witches’ Qabalah"—were not so old at the time (they were still published by Llewellyn), and Stuart Myers was still sitting on the manuscript for "Between the Worlds", hoping to interest the same publisher in his work. However, in time we all learned that we were onto something a lot more specific than we had first suspected. The concepts which began as an attempt to link two different systems have become—in some cases—an extremely revealing window into the past. Especially for those of us in the Wiccan communities.
A new branch of study has arisen that mixes not only the Wiccan and Qabalistic philosophies, but also the practices of Wiccan ritual and what is currently referred to as "ceremonial magick". The Golden Dawn qabalistic system seems to have been the largest focus in this area so far. However, as I have delved deeper into the historical origins and development of Wicca , I have come to find that the ceremonial influence has long been apparent in Traditional Wicca. The Golden Dawn has certainly had its say from the beginning, but then so has the Thelemic system of Aleister Crowley. I’ve come to understand that Gerald Gardner intended from the very beginning for Wicca to be a largely Thelemic system.
This has been a concept mainly ignored, or fought against, by the majority of Wiccans, even from the very beginning. One of the most influential figures in the development of Wicca was a woman named Doreen Valiente, who entered the history of Wicca while Gardner was still perfecting his system. Sadly, she had a bias against Crowley, and proceeded to convince Gardner into removing as much Thelemic material as she could find from the Book of Shadows. She is on record as having stated ".this [Thelemic material] was not really suitable for the Old Craft of the Wise, however beautiful the words might be, or how much one might agree with what they said." ("The Witches Bible", by Janet and Stewart Farrar, p.42, footnote 8). So arose "Text C" of the Book of Shadows (1), which serves as the primary basis of modern Wicca. However, it does appear that Gardner put his foot down at some point, as this essay will show.
The Thelemic Origins of Wicca
Perhaps the best method of attack on this subject would be to simply relate the origins and history of Wicca, and to highlight the most obvious Thelemic links to this young Faith. The story (such as we understand it at this time) begins in the 1920s with a woman named Margaret Murray. A well-known anthropologist, she constructed a theory about the Inquisition reports of the Church. She felt that there must be some truth buried within the lies, given the rather consistent nature of most of the confessions obtained from the accused. The idea of making pacts with spiritual entities, invocations of a Horned God, wild Sabbats held around bonfires on the equinoxes and solstices, and more; these are not only all pervading in the confessions of the accused "witches", but are similar to many practices of the ancient pagans themselves. Murray’s conclusion was that the church was indeed finding practitioners of an organized religion that spread all throughout Europe, and extended into history beyond the founding of the Christian Church. This she called the "Old Religion", and published her ideas in "The Witch Cult in Western Europe" as well as "The God of the Witches".
Today we know that Murray was wrong. It is true that the descriptions in the church records are drawn from older pagan sources, but this was done quite deliberately by the church itself in order to demonize its "heathen" neighbors. The real pagans who did exist at this time were many, but were not organized in relation with each other. There was no "Old Religion" in the middle ages.
On the other hand, there was suddenly an "Old Religion" in the late 1920s. Many groups—called "covens"—of witches began to arise, and were based quite liberally on Murray’s concepts. They claimed to be the very groups she was describing in her work—having survived from ancient to modern times underground. Of course, most of what they practiced was new, and no small amount of their system was drawn from other movements of the day; such as the magickal tradition of the Golden Dawn, and the philosophy of Thelema. Perhaps today it is common to see much ignorant contention between ceremonial Mages and Wiccans, but in the early days of Neo-Paganism such boundaries did not exist.
It was in the middle of this modern occult revival that we first meet Gerald Gardner. Gerald was quite a well-rounded individual when it came to magick and mysticism. It would appear that he denied no source of possible illumination in his path toward the Divine—the mark of a true wizard. He was a mason, hung around with Rosecrucians and Golden Dawn-types, and even joined one of the "Old Religion" Covens who called themselves New Forest (who also focused somewhat on Golden Dawn ceremonial magick).
An even less well-known fact among modern Wiccans (especially those of the later sects based largely on the mass publications of semi-Wiccan material) is the fact that Gardner was conferred an OTO charter. According to Paul Hume, Gardner was given the charter to act as Master of a "camp of minervals", and the document itself is now hanging on the wall of a senior member of the OTO.
There is also some confusion on what grade Gardner held, and in which Thelemic Order it was held within. Also according to Mr. Hume:
Actually, Gardner gave his motto and grade as "Scire, 4=7" in High Magick’s Aid (2), but whether he claimed the degree elsewhere I don’t know. I know he was a IVo, but don’t know if he was bumped to VIIo. [.] I think it was the IV and 4 that he got confused on, not the VII and 7.
It may be that he was actually granted a VIIth degree in the OTO by Crowley in recognition of his actual Masonic degree. Another well-known OTO member, Bill Heidrick, has the following to say on the issue:
Gardner had full rights and possession of not only IVth but VIIth Degree OTO membership. Crowley also chartered him with initiation powers and the right to form a local OTO group. In 1948 e.v., after Crowley’s death, Gardner wrote to Frieda Harris, claiming that he was the named Grand Master for OTO in Europe—that’s not supported by any documents I’ve seen, but his charter and degree membership is a matter of record. Karl Germer had the latest European OTO officer chartering Crowley, as far as I am aware. Gardner corresponded with Germer for some years, sending Germer an inscribed copy of one of his books on Wicca. At the time of Crowley’s death, Gardner was in Tennessee, in the USA, recovering from an illness with his relatives. (information on that latter part comes from Gardner’s letters).
Gardner was brought into the IVth degree OTO by Crowley in May of 1947, about 7 months before Crowley died (ref. Crowley’s diary of that year). Gardner quickly progressed to the VIIth degree and received charter to initiate and operate an OTO Camp in the first few degrees. At the time of Crowley’s Greater Feast, Gardner believed erroneously that his charter gave him paramount authority of OTO in Europe (ref. a letter from Gardner to Frieda Harris in the Humanities Research Center collection, University of Austin, TX)
Based on my knowledge of Traditional Wicca (especially pre-Valiante Wicca; or texts A or B of the Book of Shadows), I have come to formulate my own theories as to the purpose of Wicca in Gardner’s mind. Being an amateur anthropologist himself, Gardner was familiar with the ancient systems of magick practiced by people such as (for example) the Egyptians, Greeks, Celts, and many other pagan cultures both ancient and modern. At least, he understood those systems as well as most occultists of his day. When we compare those systems with Golden Dawn and Thelemic practices, there is only one major notable difference: the older systems were based upon the tides of nature (mainly related to the cycles of the crops or live-stock). The seasons, the motions of the sun and moon, the harvest, the hunt, fertility, all of this was not only the main focus of the older systems, but the very origins of the symbolism used by the modern systems.
However, the modern practices themselves had become removed from those natural concerns, and in many cases their earthy origins had been forgotten. It would seem that Gardner’s intention—actually a continuation of the work of the New Forest coven—was to reform ceremonial magick. Wicca was, and continues to be, a ceremonial system at its very heart. Like the ancient temple faiths of the agricultural societies, Wicca simply reaches downward into nature to find the Divine, rather than reaching upward to an unknown Deity. This, of course, is hardly a philosophy removed from Thelema itself; which largely stresses the recognition of the true nature of the human animal, and celebration of the Divine through acts of pleasure and joy.
A full analysis of the Thelemic aspects of Wicca would go far beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will here cover some of the more obvious examples, and the reader is invited to look deeper into these clues. I would suggest "The Witches Bible" by Janet and Stewart Farrar, as that is nearly the only decent source on Traditional Wicca readily available today. It does not discuss the Thelemic connection in any depth, but it does highlight much of the Crowley material to be found in the Book of Shadows.
The Great Rite and the Third Degree Initiation
Our third degree initiation ceremony in Gardnerian Wicca (which features the Great Rite) is derived almost completely from the Gnostic Mass. They share many specific points in common; such as the enthronement of the priestess upon the altar, and the Consecration of Cakes and Wine. They even share one invocation word for word (as pointed out on page 52, footnote 1, of "The Witches’ Bible"). This invocation can be found in Crowley’s "Magick in Theory and Practice", Liber VX, section III: "The Ceremony of the Opening of the Veil". Interestingly, this invocation in the Wiccan Great Rite involves the removal of a white veil from the body of the priestess, who lays in the center of the circle. The invocation (in both Gnostic Mass and Great Rite) is spoken by the priest:
O Circle of Stars,
Whereof our father is by the younger brother,
Marvel beyond imagination , soul of infinite space,
Before whom time is ashamed, the mind bewildered, and the understanding dark,
Not unto Thee may we attain unless Thine Image be Love.
Therefore by seed and root, and stem and bud,
And leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke thee,
O Queen of Space, O Jewel of Light,
Continuous one of the heavens;
Let it be ever thus
That men speak not of Thee as One, but as None;
And let them not speak of Thee at all, since Thou art continuous.
Further, the recitation ".by seed and root, and stem and bud, and leaf and flower and fruit." is a very well known Wiccan invocation (used in the Opening Ceremony); although to my knowledge its origin from Crowley’s writings has always been unknown or ignored.
Other Thelemic material pops up within the Rite in various places. The use of the scourge (which actually appears in many places in Wicca) has been discussed at length by Crowley. It is used in the third degree initiation as a method of purification. Another point of interest in the Rite is the appearance of this invocation to bless the cakes before consumption, which includes a hint of the Thelemic Law:
O Queen most secret, bless this food unto our bodies, bestowing health, wealth, strength, joy, and peace, and that fulfillment of Will, and Love under Will, which is perpetual happiness.
The Consecration of Wine and Cakes
The principals behind our Consecration of Wine and Cakes can be found in chapter 20 of "Magick in Theory and Practice" which deals with the Eucharist:
The Eucharist of "two" elements has its matter of the passives. The wafer (pantacle) is of corn, typical of earth; the wine (cup) represents water. (There are certain other attributions. The Wafer is the Sun, for instance: and the wine is appropriate to Bacchus). The wafer may, however, be more complex, the "Cake of Light" described in Liber Legis. This is used in the exoteric Mass of the Phoenix (Liber 333, Cap: 44) mixed with the blood of the Magus. This mass should be performed daily at sunset by every magician. Corn and wine are equivalent to flesh and blood; but it is easier to convert live substances into the body and blood of God, than to perform this miracle upon dead matter. [.]
A Eucharist of some sort should most assuredly be consummated daily by every magician, and he should regard it as the main sustenance of his magical life. It is of more importance than any other magical ceremony, because it is a complete circle. The whole of the force expended is completely re-absorbed; yet the virtue is that vast gain represented by the abyss between Man and God.
The magician becomes filled with God, fed upon God, intoxicated with God. Little by little his body will become purified by the internal lustration of God; day by day his mortal frame, shedding its earthly elements, will become in very truth the Temple of the Holy Ghost. Day by day matter is replaced by Spirit, the human by the divine; ultimately the change will be complete; God manifest in flesh will be his name.
This is the most important of all magical secrets that ever were or are or can be. To a Magician thus renewed the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel becomes an inevitable task; every force of his nature, unhindered, tends to that aim and goal of whose nature neither man nor god may speak, for that it is infinitely beyond speech or thought or ecstasy or silence. Samadhi and Nibbana are but its shadows cast upon the universe.
Every word of Crowley’s here was certainly taken deeply to heart by Gardner. As a directly obvious example, note especially the above phrase: "...it is easier to convert live substances into the body and blood of God, than to perform this miracle upon dead matter." Compare this to the phrase taken from the Book of Shadows, concerning what we should fill the chalice with: "It is said that spirits or anything can be used, "so long as it has life...".
The Consecration of Wine and Cakes is ever-present in the Book of Shadows; being performed either before or after every single Rite of worship or magick. It represents the body and blood of the Lord, being blessed by the power of the Lady from whence He springs, and consumed by the participants of the Rite. Its purpose is to realize the single highest Mystery of the Wiccan Faith—as Crowley wrote above—"God [and Goddess] manifest in flesh".
I would have to personally admit that the Great Rite and the third degree initiation are the most blatantly Thelemic rites to be found in Wicca. After all, the Gnostic Mass itself was the embodiment of the whole of the Thelemic philosophy of "Love under Will"; it holds all of the keys of Gnosis within its structure. No less can be said of the Wiccan "version" of this same formula.
The Charge of the Goddess
However, even with this being the case, the Thelemic Current within Wiccan material extends somewhat further. Various phrases in the Charge of the Goddess are quoted almost word-for-word from the Book of the Law. These examples are indicated below by italics, and comparable lines in the Book of the Law are referred to in footnotes:
Now listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athene, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Dana, Arianrhod, Isis, Bride, and by many other names.
“Whenever ye have need of any thing, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall ye assemble in some secret place, and adore the spirit of me, who am Queen of all witches. There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets; to these will I teach things that are as yet unknown. And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise. For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and mine also is joy on earth (3); for my law is love unto all beings. Keep pure your highest ideal; strive ever towards it, let naught stop you or turn you aside; for mine is the secret door which opens upon the land of youth, and mine is the cup of wine of life, and the cauldron of Cerridwen, which is the Holy Grail of immortality. I am the gracious Goddess, who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man. Upon earth, I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal; and beyond death, I give peace, and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand sacrifice (4); for behold, I am the Mother of all living, and my love is poured out upon the earth.”
Hear ye the words of the Star Goddess; she in the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe.
“I am the beauty of the green earth, and the white moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the desire of the heart of man. Call unto thy soul; arise and come unto me; for I am the soul of nature, who gives life to the universe. From me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and of men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite. Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you (5). And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the mystery: that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee. For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”
There is also another Charge—the Charge of the Horned God—which has been written by Stuart Myers, and published in his "Between the Worlds" (Llewellyn Publications). There are, in fact, various available God Charges—each one with a differing focus. Mr. Myers’ effort is the best that I have personally seen, being structured specifically to match the Goddess Charge point for point. It, too, contains quite a few lines taken directly from the Book of the Law. This is the Charge of the Horned God which I personally use whenever my Rites of worship call for such.
The Wiccan Rede
I do feel it is important to bring up the controversial subject of the Wiccan Rede. This is a long poem which ends with the phrase: "Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, An it harm none, do what thou Wilt". It is very often considered a theft by Gardner of the Thelemic Law "Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law". However, I don’t feel that Gardner "stole" this concept anymore than he "stole" the other numerous aspects of Thelema that appear in Wicca. (Some Wiccans have claimed that Crowley actually stole his material from our—supposedly ancient—Faith before Gardner came onto the scene. However, this idea can be discarded as pure double-speak with absolutely no facts to support it what-so-ever. Already I’ve made it clear that there was no "Wicca", as we know it, before Gerald Gardner).
It is surely granted that he modified its wording to make it more readily available to a "general public". It’s a basic moral guide (not a religious law, for which many mistake it) that helps guide one through daily mundane situations; even for those who have no grasp of the concept of what the word "Wilt" really means. On the other hand, for those who do know, it retains the same concepts as Crowley originally intended.
Very often the Rede is mis-quoted: "As long as you don’t hurt anyone, you can do whatever you want". And this is what it means to the greater majority of neo-pagans today. However, Thelemic philosophy does not seem to agree. The Book of the Law, and all of Crowley’s writings, speak very explicitly against ordering and restricting your life upon fear of offending others. Where this kind of miscommunication and misinterpretation of the Rede is concerned, the Thelemic philosophy is correct. And the true (properly quoted) Rede is actually on the side of the Thelemite.
The most obvious problem here is the word "harm". Note that the Rede does not actually state "And it hurt none..." Taken into proper consideration, the definition of hurt is to cause pain. "Harm", on the other hand, means to cause damage. There is a difference between hurt and harm; it is sometimes necessary to cause pain, even to avoid more severe damage. This is confirmed by "Webster’s New World Dictionary":
Hurt: v.t 1. To cause pain or injury to; wound. 2. To harm or damage in some way. 3. To offend. v.i. 1. To cause injury, damage, or pain. 2. To give or have the sensation of pain; be sore: as, my leg hurts. n. 1. A pain or injury. 2. Harm, damage. 3. Something that wounds the feelings.
Harm: n. 1. Hurt; injury; damage. 2. Moral wrong; evil. v.t. To do harm to; hurt; injure; damage.
While both hurt and harm appear in the possible definitions of both words, it is a fact that the definitions of "hurt" are focused much more on physical injury. An injury is something that can be healed; as well as being something which makes us stronger in the long run. Note also that it lists the "wounding of feelings" as a possible definition of "hurt". This is perhaps the one thing which most mainstream Neopagans most wish was included in the Rede. However, take notice that "to wound the feelings" is not included in the definition of "harm" at all. The Rede does not prohibit hurting another’s feelings, nor offending their sensibilities. Sometimes these things simply can not be avoided.
On the other hand, the word "harm" lists as its second definition: "a moral wrong; evil". While there are many cases in life where we might be forced to cause pain in another human being, if we are saving them from greater pain or even death, that does not mean we are harming them on the whole. It does not mean that we are doing something that we would personally label as "evil" or wrong in some way.
In short, the word "harm" in the Rede is quite specifically related to the concept of "sin" in Thelema. Sin is nothing less than the intrusion of one person into the True Will of another. Sin is Restriction, and "thou hast no right but to do thy Will". To restrict another, then, is to harm them. The Wiccan Rede is saying nothing less.
Wiccan Philosophy and Theology
All of the above points are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Thelemic influence upon Wicca. They surely do not exhaust our stores of examples; Thelemic philosophy pops up in many places within Wicca, even outside of the written material.
For example, it is possible to draw many correlations between the Wiccan theology of the Lord and Lady, and the entire first and second chapters of the Book of the Law concerning Nuit and Hadit. For example, verse 1:21 speaks on the concept of dual-theism between the Lady and Her Lord. Also, verse 1:62 speaks on the role of the high priestess in our rites of worship. It is apparent that the entirety of the Book of the Law had a large influence on Gardner’s conceptions of the universe and the Divine.
Another example may be found in the Wiccan concept of cyclic nature. Like Crowley, Gardner believed in the power of the passage of the year—most especially the equinoxes and solstices. As the Lord dies each year (when the sun begins to wane), He re-enters the womb of the Goddess to be reborn in His time. Having been reborn, He matures and mates with the Lady once more, to re-enter Her womb and start the cycle again. This process is almost identical to Crowley’s own description of the New Aeon—where the old "Osirian Death" concept is replaced with the concept of simply "growing up" (as did Horus in the wilderness). The mysteries of death and rebirth still exist, but they have become cyclic rather than the linear concepts of the church and related world-views.
There are also many probable relations between the Wiccan concept of "Perfect Love and Perfect Trust" and the Thelemic concept of "Love is the Law, Love under Will". Perfect Love and Perfect Trust are not simply Wiccan philosophies, but are actually used as passwords which the aspirant must give in order to be admitted to the circle for his or her first degree initiation. By the time of Text B of the Book of Shadows, this had been altered to "Perfect love for the Goddess, perfect trust in the Goddess." However, this would have been an alteration by Valiente; which I personally see as indicative that Gardner had meant the original phrase to indicate a Thelemic concept. The Farrars have opted to keep the original (which appears in "High Magick’s Aid"), because they have better understood the far reaching implications of that phrase. Reference "The Witches’ Bible", book two (The Witches’ Way), page 17.
Also worthy of mention are the numerous aspects of ceremonial magickal techniques that were adopted directly from Golden Dawn and Thelemic sources. The association of Elements to the four quarters is identical, as are the methods of inscribing the Pentagrams. We invoke the "Guardians of the Watchtowers" (ref. Enochian Magick) in each quarter during the Opening Ceremony. Also, the Gardnerian Pentacle is not the six-inch disk which rests in the north of the altar of the Golden Dawn, but is instead a wider disk which rests in the center of the altar; reminding one of the Enochian "Seal of Truth". The Qabalistic Cross itself is even used in the 1st Degree Initiation Ceremony, and we also make use of the "Sign of Osiris"—which is simply a version of the Sign of Osiris Slain. This list could go on at some length, but I will resign myself to end here for the time being.
And with that I bring this essay to a close. With the current rise in popularity of the Wiccan Qabalah, as well as an interest in the true history of Wicca itself, I hope this essay helps bridge one more of the needless gaps in the mystical communities. Blessed Be.
- There are three versions of the Wiccan Book of Shadows. "Text A" is said to be based on, and expanded from, the Book in use by the New Forest Coven which Gardner first joined in the early 1900s. "Text B", then, was the first version of Gardner’s own system, which he personally coined as "Wicca". To my knowledge, the work entitled "High Magick’s Aid", by Gardner, shows forth the "Text B" material. Finally came "Text C", the combined efforts of Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Valiente believed strongly in the "antiquity" of Wicca, and thus wished to "instruct" Gardner on what a system based on the "Old Craft of the Wise" should be like.
- This is the book written by Gardner before the witchcraft laws were repealed in Europe. It was a work of fiction, but contained much hidden material of the Wiccan Faith and practices.
- Compare to Book of the Law 1:13, 1:53, and 1:58
- Compare to Book of the Law 1:58.
- Compare to Book of the Law 2:20.
Copyright © 1998 C. "Aaron Jason" Leitch