(Originally published in The Scarlet Letter, Volume V, Number 2.)
It is generally agreed that Aleister Crowleys approach to sex magick, and in fact to his religious tradition as a whole, was phallic. He described it in this way repeatedly and enthusiastically. This might lead us to wonder whether Crowley was sexist, and whether he considered the male sex organs superior to the female, and by extension, the male superior to the female in general.
There has been surprisingly little discussion of this important issue in O.T.O. publications. Recently the Outer Head of the Order, Hymenæus Beta, printed his Address to the Womens Conference1 in the international newsletter. This Address touched on a broad range of issues related to Crowleys gender attitudes, but it raised more questions than it settled.
According to the Address, Crowleys phallicism does not exclude women, because phallus is a gender-neutral term. We are told that Crowley was using a woman-inclusive meaning of phallus derived from psychology. Crowley read his Freud and Jung very thoroughly. He didnt use capital P Phallus without assuming that his readers knew what was meant. Unfortunately few today do. He was referring to the psychoanalytic stage of full genital organization, which is the third of a series. The first state is infantile, undifferentiated, and of course generally chaste. The second stage is narcissistic, usually corresponding to adolescence, and masturbatory. In the third, the phallic as they chose to call it, the individual psychology is so organized as to integrate the psyche with the genital consciousness and its associated instincts, and is then prepared to enter the world, to have intercourse.
Freuds psychosexual theory of development differs. The phallic stage in the Freudian model actually is one of the infantile stages, occurs before the age of five (rather than after adolescence), is specifically phallic in the sense of the male generative organ (rather than gender-neutral), and occurs years before the final stage of development, which is called genital (a gender-neutral term). In Freuds model, first comes the oral stage, characterized by sucking, biting and swallowing. Second is the anal stage, characterized by toilet training. Third is the phallic stage, about the end of the third or fourth year, characterized by playful self-stimulation, and the formation of the Oedipal complex. During the phallic stage of development comes penis envy. In this infamous theory, Freud claimed that the natural course of development is stymied during the phallic stage in girls, and that they blame their mothers for their lack of a phallus. Then the fourth stage, from about five until adolescence, is called the latency period, and finally during adolescence the fifth, genital stage sets in, characterized by preparation for marriage.2
It is questionable that Crowley read Freud in depth. His scattered references to Freud touch repeatedly on a few broad themes in no great detail. Crowley refers to the primacy of the sex instinct, to the Oedipus complex, and to the unconscious as a source of dreams and phantasms, and little else.
As for Jung, most of his work was unavailable in English until late in Crowleys life or after his death. Crowley did read the first English translation of Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido3. This book deals extensively with phallic symbolism and the libido, and Crowley refers to it in his commentaries to The Book of the Law4. Judging by its solar-phallic content, this book may have been a significant influence on Crowleys thought and his reformation of the O.T.O. However, the book condemns Freuds theory, and refers to the phallus in its traditional male sense. Jung uses the gender-neutral term libido to indicate psychic energy5 in both men and women, but phallus to refer to the male organ and its symbols. A number of symbols of female genitalia are discussed, but none are called phallic.
If Crowley had a gender-neutral interpretation of phallus, he did not get it from Freud, whose use of the word was gender-specific. Nor could this usage derive from Jung, who was no adherent of Freuds psychosexual theory, and who also used phallus in a gender-specific sense. Scholarly English6 and Greek7 dictionaries contain no gender-neutral usage of phallus from ancient times to the present. It would be anomalous to ascribe this unique usage to Crowley, who from all indications used the word in its traditional sense. If there is any evidence to establish this peculiar reading, it was not presented in the Address.
An interesting view appears in a book found in the curriculum of Crowleys occult order A.·.A.·.8, Richard Payne Knights A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus 9. Knight applies the now obsolete method of syncretistic comparativism to a variety of phallic and vulvar deities in an attempt to demonstrate that they all express the Neo-Platonic legend of an original hermaphroditic creator God who split into two halves, one male and one female. He alternates in apparent confusion between asserting that the genders of deities are interchangeable since they all symbolize the original creator, and that male deities represent the active generative power of God while female deities represent the passive generative power of earth. He is more consistent in holding that the differentiated organs of generation represent the gender-specific powers. Since he does not use the word phallus, Knight could not have been the source of the purported usage in Crowley.
There are, however, elements of Knights original hermaphroditism in Crowley, as in Chapter 35 of The Book of Lies, Venus of Milo, which after condemning the female body as ugly states, the Lingam and the Yoni are but diverse developments of One Organ. In the comment to the chapter, though, Crowley is careful to refute any appearance of egalitarianism. Placing the female in a distinctly inferior position, he writes, the female body becomes beautiful in so far as it approximates to the male. The female is to be regarded as having been separated from the male, in order to reproduce the male in a superior form. His lukewarm, androcentric redaction of Knights original hermaphroditism does not suggest that the word phallus had a gender-neutral meaning to Crowley, or that either Crowley or Knight regarded the two sets of genitals as interchangeable or equivalent.
A gender-neutral phallicism is hard to see in Crowleys work. There is no reference to any woman as in natural possession of a phallus, and he did not believe that women were equal partners with men in sex. In outer writings his explanation of sex magick revolves around the relationship between father and son, and in the human quintessence within the semen.10 Sometimes a mother and daughter are paired with the father and son; often the father and son stand alone; never are the mother and daughter discussed independently. In The Star Sapphire sex magick ritual11, the woman appears only in a bracketed note, and is treated as a tool of the magician, not his partner. The same formula is discernible in the Gnostic Mass, on which more below. In Liber Aleph Crowley writes that pre-eminent in all sex magick is the Formula of the Serpent with the Head of the Lion, the semen, and all this Magick is wrought by the Radiance and Creative Force thereof.12 To Crowley the magick is in the man. The woman is a necessary, respected and even consecrated tool of this formula but she is not the source of magick. She is only a magick mirror for the manifestation of the God.
The Address tells us that a matriarchal theory of history expressed by Marija Gimbutas has caught on in academic circles. In fact, though, the consensus view of Gimbutas in her academic field, archæology, rejects her conclusions about a peaceful prepatriarchal society in prehistory. Where the theory has caught on is in the popular mind, because of her popular books on the subject (and those of Riane Eisler13), but not in archæology, where it is controversial at best, and more often simply ignored. The model boasts a few scattered advocates in disciplines such as classics and gender studies, but it enjoys only tepid support in any academic field.
Gimbutas does not describe her theory as matriarchal. On the contrary, she posits an egalitarian matrilineal society, not a matriarchy. The world of myth was not polarized into male and female... Both principles were manifest side by side. The male divinity in the shape of a young man or male animal appears to affirm and strengthen the forces of the creative and active female. Neither is subordinate to the other; by complementing one another, their power is doubled.14 She refers to the culture of the period as a balanced, nonpatriarchal and nonmatriarchal social system.15 Matriarchy is a feature of Crowleys Æon of Isis16 but not of Gimbutas gylanic prehistory.
The Addresss account of Gimbutas says that about 1000 to 500 BCE, 2,500 to 3,000 years ago different from Crowleys 2,000 to 2,500 years [i.e., 500 to 1 BCE], but close enough she found that an influx of warlike and nomadic Indoeuropean tribes who characteristically worshipped a sky-god moved in and took over. Actually, though, Gimbutass theory of Kurganization concerns events of 5,500 to 6,000 years ago, in the vicinity of 4000 to 3500 BCE, a difference of three millennia from Crowleys dates.
Crowleys idea of the Æon of Isis was untenable even in the light of the ancient history available in his time. An Æon is supposed to last around two millennia, with flexibility in the start date of roughly 500 years. This puts Crowleys Æon of Isis around 3000 to 2000 BCE for its start, and around 500 to 1 BCE for its end. In Across the Gulf17 he placed its end during the life of his previous prophetic incarnation, Ankh-f-n-Khonsu, in the 26th dynasty of Egypt. This period extends well into written history, and the records and remains of Middle Eastern and European cultures at the time indicate patriarchal political systems. It is hard to see how anyone could think the first 25 Egyptian dynasties were matriarchal. The latest possible date for the end of the hypothetical prepatriarchal period is around 3000 BCE, an Æon before Crowleys date for the end of the Æon of Isis. In proposing that this period was a matriarchal age, Crowley demonstrated that, as he admitted elsewhere, history was never his subject: he showed intense repugnance to history.18 He knew the classical authors and myths, but not the history of the ancient world.
The Address is an example of normal occult history, true to the tradition of Levi, Blavatsky, Crowley, and generations of Templar Freemasons. Rather than examining speculative models of history skeptically, it uses mistaken accounts of mainstream sources to bolster those speculations.
One of the most contentious issues in current Thelemic discussion is the subject of gender roles in the Gnostic Mass, the central ritual of the O.T.O. Among the questions that are often asked are these. Why do most of the lines, and most of the action, fall to the Priest, with the Priestess relegated to a role that seems secondary? Why is the Lance so much more prominent than the Cup? Why can official O.T.O. Masses feature only men as Priests and only women as Priestesses? Why are all the saints men?
The Address was insulting toward those who believe that Crowley wrote his sexism into the Mass. Ive heard the Mass criticized as sexist, and frankly think that stupid. Who, when the Mass was first introduced into North America during World War I, was worshipping the goddess? Especially in the context of religious ceremony of Western origin? Who understood the divinity of the feminine at all?
The alternative spirituality movement out of which Thelema arose was replete with female deities, and with female leaders acting as mediators to the divine. The Golden Dawn often named its temples after goddesses, and had so many female members that A. E. Waite and other conservative men felt threatened and tried to limit the leadership to Masons. Spiritualism and Theosophy were led by women. P. B. Randolph and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor treated women as equal partners with men in sex and sex magic, unlike the male-centered O.T.O. Thomas Lake Harris sexual mysticism had a great deal to do with his contact with enlightened female spirits. More than a century earlier, Richard Payne Knight had dealt enthusiastically with the erotic rites of various goddesses in his influential book. Crowley himself said that there existed at the time female-led communities of witches (although he criticized them for refusing to have sex with men, or as he preferred to say, denying to the Holy Spirit the right to indwell His Temple).19 Even in the mainstream, Catholicisms cult of Mary was in full force. The answer to the question is: Within occultism, nearly everyone was working with the divinity of the feminine in Western ceremonies, except Masons and even there, at the progressive edge of esoteric Masonry and Co-Masonry. To represent the Gnostic Mass as an advance in gender relations, merely for presenting a sacred female, would be unhistorical.
The presence of a female figure who is treated with deference does not mean that a religious tradition is not sexist. The example of Mary demonstrates this; her prominence hardly makes Catholicism a haven for womens rights. If a ritual indicates that a female character should naturally be subjugated to a man or reduced to stereotypical feminine attributes, then her treatment is sexist no matter how high she is placed atop the pedestal (or sat upon the altar).
The practice of staving off an accusation of sexism or racism by pointing to the presence of a member of the oppressed group is known as tokenism. Is the Priestess being tokenized? We will need to look at her role. Is she presented as naturally subjugated to the Priest? Is she viewed through a veil of stereotype? In the opening the two partners seem roughly equivalent. The Priestess dedicates more time and effort to raising the Priest to his role than he does to raise her to hers, but she really opens the ritual. The ceremony of the Introit belongs to the Priestess, even though it mostly goes to her raising of the Priest. In the central formula, though, the Priest is paramount, performing the critical points VI through VIII nearly solo while the silent, naked Priestess acts only to present this or that tool for his favor, authorize him to reveal her nakedness, and utter with him the word of orgasm once he is ready to shed his sacred blood. As written this seems to be a formula of phallocentricity. The male is the center of the sexual act and woman his functionary, as in other Crowley writings on sex magick.
The Address acknowledges that in the Mass the male has the largely active role and the female is passive. In the future there will be an alternative ritual in which the female takes the more active role and the male the more passive. This seems to be a curious approach to sex. Ordinarily one partner is not active and the other passive.20 Both are active; an unresponsive partner is disliked by all genders and persuasions. It is hard to understand why the O.T.O. would seek to enshrine this odd formula of activity and passivity in its rituals, except in the context of Crowleys Victorian-era view of sex as a male activity done to women.
If the ritual requires one active officer and one passive officer, rather than an active male and a passive female officer, what need is there for a new ritual? Why not just perform a Mass by the script, with women free to assume the role of the active partner and men free to assume the passive? It is current O.T.O. policy that the Priest must be played by a man and the Priestess by a woman. Does the leadership of the Order assert as policy that there are natural and proper roles for men and women?
Holding out hope of a future, perhaps not soon, in which these questionable roles are reversed in a new ritual produced by a woman where there is still a particular part for the woman and a particular part for the man, does not address concerns about the status of Thelemic women here and now, or about gender stereotyping, or about heterocentrism.
The Gnostic Mass raises another issue, which is the list of saints, all of whom are men. The Address explains that the Saints are paternal, but this is intentional. It is a list of the small handful of men and man-gods who, in the opinion of the author of the Mass, understood the divinity of woman. No citation of the author, Crowley, to this effect was provided. The short biographies of the saints presented by the O.T.O.21 rarely even touch on this theme, and its hard to see how they could, short of contrivance. What do Hermes, Moses, Priapus, Merlin, François Rabelais, Elias Ashmole, Friedrich Nietzsche, or most of the other Gnostic saints have to do with understanding the divinity of woman?
The script of the Mass introduces the saints in a way that makes the intent of the author clear. They were not chosen for their respect for female divinity they were chosen as the champions of the phallus. Addressing the Lord of Life and Joy, that art the might of man that is, the phallus Crowley describes the saints as the servants of this Lord, those that did of old adore thee and manifest thy glory unto men. Women and goddesses are not mentioned, and need not apply. From his description, we could reasonably infer that Crowley wrote an all-male saints list because he believed that the guardians of phallic magick through history had been men.
We are told that the Order is actively researching female saints; they do not however belong in Liber XV, that is, the Gnostic Mass, the central ritual of the O.T.O. No reason is given, and it does not seem that this addition would deface the Mass. Without disrupting the ritual structure, the Saints passage of the Collects could be directed to both Lord and Lady, and male and female saints listed together.
One of the best-known issues in feminism concerns gender role stereotypes. The traditional social gender ideal holds that there are natural roles for men and women to play in society; and specifically, that men are suited to political, economic, intellectual, and labor roles, while women are relegated to roles such as mother, sex object, domestic, and vessel of a kind of instinctive natural goodness, as opposed to masculine virtue. Much of feminism has revolved around freeing women, and more recently men, from the artificial restrictions on their wills imposed by these roles, and informed people today are suspicious of casual assertions about the natural role of either gender. There may in fact be inherent psychological differences but the subject requires caution.
The Address repeatedly postulates gender roles harmonious with traditional stereotypes. For example, it refers to women and the particular powers and aptitudes that you possess. It implies that men cannot understand women, saying of these female powers and aptitudes that these were questions that Crowley, as a man, could not introspect.22 With respect to the whore-goddess Babalon, women have a particular, natural and intuitive understanding of her nature, and women have always had a more direct and immediate understanding of sexual mysteries than men. The Address postulates separate male and female domains of understanding, and the female domain is intuitive and sexual. If some women are unhappy being limited to a feminine mode of knowing, their concerns are not addressed.
The Address says that male and female sexual response are radically different.... We [men] usually think of sex as something we do out there in the macrocosm, whereas for women it is something that literally occurs inside of you, inside your ego-boundaries, within your microcosm, coming in from without. This statement ascribes feelings to men in general, but as a man, I do not find this to be an accurate description of my perspective. I think of sex as something I do with someone, in which we are both equally immersed, and which is just as much a challenge to my ego-boundaries as my partners. I do not think of it as something I do out there, as if I were acting on a passive, receiving object.
What is it for a woman that is coming in from without? There seems to be a familiar confusion between sex and a phallus here. A penis may enter a vagina, but sex does not enter a woman from a man. Sex is already in both partners equally, and each brings what they have to the other.
It is curious that the Address presents heterosexual roles and phallic-vaginal sex as psychologically paradigmatic. How does this analysis apply to men, gay or straight, who are accustomed to sex that literally occurs inside their bodies? How does it apply to women who make love in ways that do not involve penetration (or envelopment)? Even if we were to accept the idea that sex involving a penis and a vagina makes one partner passive and the other active, what makes this particular form of sex a prototype for the perspectives of all members of each gender and persuasion?
Concerning the roles proper to the different genders, we are told that the women of Thelema have much to transmit themselves concerning the two traditionally passive weapons [cup and disk], that they are connected to a source. I dont think that this will come through the media appropriate to the other weapons, such as writing and talking. I think it will come through inculcating a culture of love and understanding and responsible action.... An example explains how women will make this contribution: I have learned most of what I know of magick... from women I have loved. My first great initiatrix did not consciously try to teach anything, and was in fact entirely unconscious of what she had to transmit. She just knew what to do I say knew in that special feminine sense of that attribute of Binah called Intelligence not the mimicry and language of the Ruach.
(The Address uses technical language drawn from the Qabalah. Binah is the third sphere of the Tree of Life, symbolized by the Great Mother or Primordial Sea, which is represented in the human psyche by intuition. Its Intelligence is not what we normally think of as intelligent; that is, it is neither rational nor verbal. Normal intelligence resides in the Ruach, a lower part of the psyche. Above the feminine intuition of Binah is the masculine will of Chokmah.)
This statement reflects a traditional stereotype of women: they have little to contribute with their writing and talking, but much to give of their intuition and their wombs. It is difficult to estimate the chilling effect this statement might have on female members who wish to participate with their intellects rather than their genitalia.
The emergence of gender issues into public discourse within the O.T.O. is a sign of progress. While much discussion has gone on behind closed doors or in the spoken word, until the Address was published there was no serious discussion of these issues in the public record. Gender issues are community issues and it is only in public deliberation that change occurs in the community.
Gender studies are intellectually challenging. In any society, gender roles are pillars of the underlying and largely unconscious matrix of assumptions about social righteousness, which the ancient Egyptians called Maat. These roles are so deeply ingrained from infancy on that they are often difficult or impossible to understand from within. For this reason, the field demands careful and critical attention. Researchers in the field need to be familiar with established methodologies and paradigms, whether they accept them or not, and they need to pay careful attention to the methodological and historical errors of the past. With proper caution, the field can be very rewarding.
In the popular imagination, the sexist (like the racist) is a mythical beast, easily recognized but now rarely seen. Leaving the popular mind and taking a few steps down the feminist path, the beast appears everywhere, and self-righteousness becomes ones bosom companion. The budding feminist is secure in the knowledge of personal superiority to the sexist rabble. Just a few steps farther, though, the student comes across a mirror set in the path. The cherished critique wraps around, and we realize that the beast is just as much a part of ourselves as it is part of any other. We are all raised sexist and we all bear assumptions that we may never be able to fully transcend. The path is longer than any of our lives.
Because of this I feel no hesitation in saying that Aleister Crowley was a sexist, any more than I would hesitate to say that I am a sexist, or any other person. The questions in each case revolve around how sexism manifests in the particular case and what can be done to improve the situation. For me, I do less than I could but more than I might. Crowley is dead and I will leave it to spiritualists to help him. I am more concerned with the here and now. Crowley has left us with a legacy colored by his sexism. We can only improve the situation by facing up to these problems and trying to solve them, not by waving them aside.
Thanks to reviewers Renée Rosen, Donald H. Frew, and others. All errors are the responsibility of the author.
1. The Magical Link, Fall 1997 e.v., pp. 8-10.
2. Sigmund Freud, Infantile Sexuality, Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (Modern Library).
3. Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, later shortened to Symbols of Transformation. An English translation was published in 1916 under the title Psychology of the Unconscious.
4. The Law is for All (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon, 1996), p. 147.
5. Symbols of Transformation (Princeton: Bollingen, 1967), p. 135. Jung differs with Freud on the interpretation of libido, extending it to psychic energy which is not necessarily sexual, although it may be.
6. Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, entries phallic and phallus.
7. Liddell-Scott Greek Lexicon, entry phallos.
8. Magick (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc, 1994), p. 453.
9. Published in 1786. (It is rumored that the publishers were the Friars of Medmenham.)
10. The Book of Lies (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1978), p. 46, Dewdrops.
11. Ibid., pp. 82-3.
12. Liber Aleph: The Book of Wisdom or Folly (Level Press, 1972?), p. 91, De Formula Lunæ.
13. The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), and others.
14. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 7000-3500 B.C. (University of California Press, 1982), p. 237.
15. The Language of the Goddess (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) p. xx. Emphasis added.
16. Magick (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1994), p. 164.
17. The Equinox, vol. I, no. VII (March 1912), pp. 293-354.
18. The Equinox of the Gods (O.T.O., 1936), p. 44. Crowley is writing of himself in the third person, or J. F. C. Fuller is writing authorized biography.
19. Magick , op. cit., pp. 158-9.
20. The complex issue of willed power exchange is beside the point, as it would be difficult to interpret the Mass as an SM ritual.
21. Tau Apiryon (Sabazius X°) and Soror Helena, Red Flame #2: Mystery of Mystery (Berkeley: O.T.O., 1995), pp. 119ff.
22. Crowley would have differed on this point, asserting that his natural hermaphroditism empowered him to understand women from within, as in his Confessions (London: Arkana Books, 1979, p. 45): The principal effect [of hermaphroditism] has been to enable him to understand the psychology of women, to look at any theory with comprehensive and impartial eyes, and to endow him with maternal instincts on spiritual planes. He has thus been able to beat the women he has met at their own game and emerge from the battle of sex triumphant and scatheless.