Peaches are not the Only Fruit
When Peaches Geldof, celebrity daughter of Sir Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, tweeted to her 148,000 followers in allusion to her alleged membership of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), she may have done so under the impression that she lives in a society which enshrines the right of the individual to seek their own path through life without fear of reprisal or condemnation. It appears she was much mistaken.
The recent and ongoing coverage of the story in the British tabloid media, which has now spread to other European countries, has served to highlight one thing above all others: that certain sections of the press, now as ever, wilfully engage in the worst forms of plagiarism, hearsay, misinformed research and downright untruth in order to shift more units of their ailing titles.
In March of 2011, Geldof tweeted and distributed photographs via instagram of her latest tattoo: a roughly inscribed heart containing the letters O.T.O. The tweet in question contained a short message, which many took as her admission of having been initiated into the organisation of the same name. While it took the press almost a year to pick up on the story, in the past few weeks Peaches Geldof’s alleged involvement with O.T.O. has been the subject of frenzied media speculation.
Like many young people searching for meaning in an increasingly secular world, Peaches, 24, is known to be something of a spiritual tourist and she is said to have dallied with Scientology and Judaism before allegedly moving on to O.T.O., an international co-fraternal Order with its roots in 19th century European Freemasonry that today boasts some 3,500 members worldwide. The story may well have been a non-starter, had the O.T.O. not at one time in its 100-year-plus history been headed up by the infamous occultist, poet, mountaineer, chess master and religious philosopher, Aleister Crowley.
Sex, Smoke and Mirrors
Crowley (1875-1947), an Englishman born into an ultra-religious family of Plymouth Brethren in the twilight years of the Victorian era, spent most of his adult life being villified by the press for his somewhat leftfield spiritual adventures. At a time when one had only to be a student of yoga to be considered dangerously involved with devilish practices, Crowley, the quintessential polymath, railed against the stifling social strictures of Edwardian society by experimenting with eastern religions, western hermeticism, psychotropic drugs and sex, as a means of coming to a greater understanding of the self. In comparison with the excesses of today’s western culture, awash as it is with casual sex, drug use, self-help fads and gap-year journeys to the east, Crowley’s exploits look relatively familiar, if not downright prescient. But back in the first half of the 20th century, his experiments in consciousness ignited scandal after scandal, causing him to be dubbed the ‘Wickedest Man in the World’, and famously ‘The Man We Want to Hang’. Undoubtedly, Aleister Crowley played up to his notorious image, seeing the type of journalism that attacked him as the perfect smokescreen through which only the dedicated seeker would dare to pass.
As the old saying goes, if you throw enough shit at a blanket, some of it will stick. Despite numerous scholarly biographies of this most intriguing of English iconoclasts having been released to some acclaim in recent years, it seems that in Crowley’s case enough dung was flung around last century to last well into the present day.
Seizing on Crowley’s appetite for drugs and sex, while totally ignoring the fact that Crowley saw these as legitimate routes to spiritual enlightenment, today’s press have spun a lazy and inaccurate picture of the O.T.O., pulling out all the hackneyed tropes about sleaze, drug-fuelled sex orgies, Satanism, sacrifice, and more worryingly, links to Nazism and anti-Semitism, in order to flesh out their weak and unsubstantiated claims of the Order’s activities.
Seemingly unable to locate the excellent and highly informative Wikipedia page on the O.T.O., or to read any of the numerous professional websites maintained by the Order itself, the press have instead chosen to put their lot in with the type of YouTube-addicted teenage conspiracy theorists who claim that anyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Barack Obama are members of the Order, that the O.T.O. is somehow responsible for the ‘occult symbolism’ found in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, and all the while being secretly involved in the highest levels of politics, entertainment and international business.
This reliance on paranoid teenage fantasy in order to sell newspapers is telling. What it exposes is that the press is not in the least bit interested in fact, and when it comes to the personal spiritual explorations of a young woman, who just happens to have famous parents, not one of the newspapers or magazines who have run stories on Geldof have been against stooping to the lowest journalistic standards to sell more units.
Eyes Wide Open
So is O.T.O. a ‘sex cult’? Well that very much depends on your terms of definition. If one would be equally happy to describe the Christian faith as primarily an ‘anti-sex cult’, then yes, it may well be. That O.T.O. celebrates the process of procreation and denies the sex-negative Christian concept of original sin is certainly no secret. The central ritual of the O.T.O., a eucharistic rite known as the Gnostic Mass, pays due reverence to both male and female aspects of the divine, and if you have ever been fortunate enough to attend one, you will know that the sexual symbolism contained in the ritual is thinly veiled at most.
But does it logically follow that a religiously inclined emphasis on nature’s miraculous power of bringing forth life, necessarily translate into the O.T.O. also being some kind of Eyes Wide Shut organisation set up for the purpose of holding Satanic orgies? It seems unlikely.
The O.T.O., or Ordo Templi Orientis (Latin for Order of the Eastern Temple), began life in the late 19th Century when a high-ranking Austrian Freemason called Karl Kellner returned from travels in the east where it is said that he studied certain techniques under several spiritual gurus. He felt that the teachings he had received needed to be spread to a western audience, and as would have been totally natural at the time, he decided to form a subset of Freemasonry in order to impart those secrets in a form that would be readily digestible to Europeans.
Aleister Crowley was made the Grand Master of O.T.O. in the English speaking world by an associate of Kellner, one Theodore Reuss, in 1912. Crowley later assumed the worldwide office of ‘Outer Head of the Order’, and under his leadership the O.T.O. underwent significant reformulation. Key to Crowley’s reformation of the Order, then as now, is a spiritual philosophy known as ‘Thelema’, which translates into English from the original Greek into ‘will’.
One Law to Rule them All
The central tenet of Thelema is ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’, which many uninformed commentators take as being no more than a licence to do exactly what one pleases without consideration of the consequences. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. The concept of Thelema posits that each individual has a discrete and definite purpose in life, and the exhortation to ‘Do what thou wilt’ is therefore a simple instruction to find out who and what one is, and once that thing is found, to do it with unswerving devotion, leaving others to do likewise as they see fit. Seen in this sense, ‘Do what thou wilt’ is nothing more than a challenge to become the best, most effective person one can possibly be and to mind one’s own business in all respects. The concept has much in common with older philosophical ideas such as Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’, Stoicism, and even the “love and do what you will” of Saint Augustine.
A Revelation in Cairo
Crowley’s religious convictions stemmed from a curious event that occurred in Cairo in 1904 while he was on honeymoon with his new wife, Rose. Crowley, who at the time considered himself to be a Buddhist, had bribed a guard at the Great Pyramid in order to take Rose into the King’s Chamber one night, so that he might perform a magical ritual for her amusement.
The ritual obviously worked, because several days later, after a series of bizarre and highly unlikely coincidences, Crowley claims to have been contacted by a ‘praeterhuman intelligence’ called Aiwass, who proceeded to dictate three chapters of a prose poem at exactly midday, for one hour, on the afternoons of the 8th, 9th and 10th of April. That dictated text became the central force in Crowley’s life from that point on, and it is known today as Liber Al vel Legis, or more commonly the Book of the Law. The book itself is short, and much of it steeped in Egyptian mythology, and it is intriguing in that each chapter seems to be speaking from a distinct spiritual viewpoint. The first chapter is acknowledged as being dedicated to the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, or Nuit, the second to a primal male godform known as Hadit, represented by the winged solar disc, and the third to the child of the union of the preceding two, Ra-Hoor-Khuit, a variant of the hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus. The book essentially announces the dawning of a new era of human consciousness, which it is claimed, has reached a point at which it no longer has need for the overbearing influence of a jealous patriarchal god. Looking at today’s western society, Crowley, or rather Aiwass, may have had a point.
While all this might sound like so much pseudo-religious quackery, it is worth noting that the hearing of discarnate voices is far from rare. As anyone who works in mental health will tell you, not everyone who hears voices is mad, and in actual fact, there are numerous cases in which leading scientists and mathematicians have had new, groundbreaking information delivered in dream or through non-human communication. Curiously, at around the time that Crowley was receiving his religious revelation, the noted psychologist and student of Freud, CG Jung was also in contact with a non-human entity whom he called Philemon, which resulted in his writing the manuscript of the book Liber Novus, or the Red Book, in which are laid out the mystical underpinnings of his theory of the psyche.
Whatever one may think of Crowley receiving communications from non-human intelligences, his own experience in a hotel room in Cairo in 1904 is certainly no stranger than those upon which entire world faiths have been based for millennia.
So what does all this mean for the modern day men and women who are drawn to O.T.O.? Looking at the main website for the United States Grand Lodge, the Order describes itself as, “dedicated to the high purpose of securing the Liberty of the Individual and his or her advancement in Light, Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, and Power through Beauty, Courage, and Wit, on the Foundation of Universal Brotherhood.”
Under the section titled ‘Initiation’ the site goes on to say, “The structure of O.T.O., like that of Freemasonry and the ancient mystery schools, is based on a staged series of initiations or degrees. In the rituals of these degrees, O.T.O. seeks to instruct the individual by allegory and symbol in the profound mysteries of nature, and thereby to assist each initiate in discovering his or her own true identity.”
So O.T.O. is a curious esoterically inclined organisation that long ago took its own route away from its Freemasonic parent, but still utilises degree-based initiation rituals as part of its teaching method. These initiation rituals, along with the identities of its members, are closely guarded secrets, but that does not necessarily mean that the rituals employed are in any way sinister, or psychologically damaging, nor that its members have anything to protect but their privacy. As has been seen with Peaches Geldof, it is left to the discretion of the individual as to their openness with regard to membership, but given the recent silliness in the press, is it any wonder that the majority of members decide to remain tight-lipped as to their own affiliations?
The most casual of online research will reveal that the Order itself is currently active in twenty-one countries, with the majority of its members in the US, where it is a legally incorporated religious organisation. Its local bodies (Camps, Oases and Lodges) host both members-only and open events, many of which give free instruction in numerous occult methods from yoga and meditation, up to high ritual magic. Membership is open to all, with the only caveat that the interested party must be of mature age (18 years or over), and can gain two sponsors, who must be initiated members.
The O.T.O.’s publishing wing has rescued Crowley’s huge corpus from relative, if not total, obscurity and produces editions of his books to the highest editorial standards. Other members publish new works related to the Thelemic philosophy, and numerous local bodies of the Order publish their own journals. The Order has a guild system, whereby members of specific professions may share knowledge and co-operate, and among them is even a Psychology Guild, comprising members who are at PhD level in their respective sciences.
While Crowley is long-dead, the current leadership has seen the Order grow to levels that Crowley would have only dreamed of, and the hierarchical nature of the O.T.O. means that it even has its own internal system of government.
I would ask the reader, does this really sound like the workings of a sleazy sex cult, hell-bent on drug-fuelled debauchery? I personally think not.
One may well question why, in a world in which the religious tend to fall into the two broad categories of ‘fanatic’, or ‘lapsed’, would men and women in the developed world find themselves drawn towards an organisation that believes in magic and practices strange rites of initiation? But the answer is really quite clear – in the modern world there is no real meaning. We are coerced by the markets to consume, we are told that our freedoms are great, yet in actual fact we are the slaves of technology, consumerism and debt. Our secular world, for all the shrill condemnations of religion by zealot Atheists like Richard Dawkins, gives us little or no opportunity to pause to ask ‘who am I?’, ‘where did I come from’ or ‘where am I going?’. Perhaps, the human condition requires an outlet for the religious, even if we have long stopped believing in big men in the sky who are watching what we do in bed.
As one member of O.T.O. commented on the recent puerile article on the Guardian’s website,
“A religious philosophy that requires no absolute belief, but instead encourages its adherents to rely on the self instead of some externalised father figure; claims no route to salvation and celebrates the biological facts of human existence, seems quite rational to me, which is why I remain a member.
Laugh all you like – we can laugh at ourselves too. There will be no Thelemic fatwa coming your way, because we don’t get touchy when people poke fun. We can accept that all religions are absurd, but then so is modern life.
Ask yourselves – why is it that when a new Pope is elected, newspapers like the Guardian devote miles of column inches, yet when a young woman decides to seek her own route to meaning in her life, she is derided?”
Quite. Peaches Geldof, Occulture salutes you.