Why I left the OTO

By Psyche | June 18, 2014

The golden spiral staircase at the AGO, photo by Ian MuttooBy 2010 I’d been a practicing magician for some 15 years. I’d explored Paganism, Satanism, chaos magick, ceremonial magick, various forms of divination, and so on. I underwent the Abramelin ritual and was underwhelmed by the results. I felt I’d gotten as far as I could on my own, and I wanted to meet with people who were dealing with the same challenges I was. People I could talk to face-to-face, and share coffee with. I wanted to really feel like part of a community — an offline community. Much as I loved the online communities I’d found (the zee-list, chaoskaos, alt.magick.*, Irreality, etc.), I need to find people I could see. People I could learn from.

Whatever else I think of Aleister Crowley, I believe he was an exceptional magician, and many of his books remain the best ever written on practical magick. The Ordo Templi Orientis, the order he entrusted his legacy to, seemed a likely choice. I got in contact with my local lodge, and, after some months, finally met with representatives from that lodge at a pub. They seemed like good folk, and, after a few more months, I was in.1

I attended lectures on tarot,2 kabbalah, the so-called Western Esoteric Tradition, and Thelemic theory. The instructors were knowledgeable, funny and kind. Great people, really. I was happy to pay dues, and glad to feel like I was joining a community of people with similar, if not perfectly aligned, interests.

Months later I underwent my Minerval initiation. I diligently avoided reading up on it prior to, and the experience was appropriately spooky. We had a feast, some wine, and a chat about the wonderful things in store for the new initiates.

Our classes became more focused on Thelemic magical theory as the OTO sees it. The Gnostic Mass was presented as the OTO’s central rite — understand its symbolism was key to unlocking the secrets of magick itself. And this is where I began to run into problems.

Ok, I know Crowley often went on misogynist rants, and was unapologetically sexist, but we’re in the 21st century now — long out of the backward Edwardian ideals that informed these perspectives, surely? Well, maybe not, it turns out. Ok, so the OTO hasn’t inducted a new female saint in a while. And sure, most of the literature remains written by men. But there’s been some progression. At least female initiates are no longer called “Man and Brother,” right?3

Between the Worlds Conference 2015

It’s no secret4 that in the Gnostic Mass, this central rite, involves a (fully dressed) priest, a (usually naked) woman on the altar, a simulation of hetero sex initiated by the priest, and a simulation of fellatio performed by the priestess. There’s a lot more involved — more people, more symbolism, magick words, all that great stuff — but these two roles are fixed. A woman may never serve as the priest, and a man may never lay upon the altar. When I asked about that, the instructor burst out laughing, “What, with some dude’s dong on the altar?” He was amused and horrified in equal parts.

I should stress that I don’t hold this lodge at fault, nor, necessarily, its members. They’re passing along the tradition as it’s given to them. Ok, they weren’t challenging it — true — but they didn’t invent it. They made it clear that any deviations in the performance of the Gnostic Mass meant it was no longer an OTO rite. This was it. I could learn to accept it, or leave.

Over the next few months, further explorations of these mysteries revealed equally rigid views on the (few) roles permitted to women, and they were almost always passive. If you didn’t identify as a Scarlet Woman, a Whore of Babalon, there wasn’t much room for you in the temple. I found this incredibly frustrating. It made no sense biologically, and even less sense magically. Questions about gender fluidity, intersex, trans* and other non-cis-, non-binary, non-hetero identified people were met with incomprehension. Try as I might, I couldn’t reconcile the official OTO stance on gender essentialism and the restrictive boundaries it policed with reality. So, I left.

I sent a formal email outlining why I felt the OTO wasn’t the right place for me, which wasn’t met with a response. About a year later I received a letter from HQ welcoming me  as a Minerval, which I disregarded.

I guess I shouldn’t haven been surprised. Crowley repeatedly describes Thelema as a solar-phallic cult, and The Book of the Law doesn’t have much going on for its goddess — the primary figures are all designated as male, but, still, I expected more. I had hoped with the progress that’s been made over the past 40 years with LGBTQ* rights that there’d be some reflection of that in the order. With the progress feminism has made, and still struggles with, I though there’d be more consideration for diversity. I expected the religion (or philosophy or whatever you want to call it) would have evolved over the past hundred years. But it hasn’t. Magick might be about change, but Thelema’s imagery and understanding of its central mysteries remain in stasis.

That was four years ago. From what I can see, nothing has changed. The OTO remains uncompromising on the roles permitted to women, and all but silent on other (non-dude) designations.

Meanwhile, I’m still looking for community.

Image credit: Ian Muttoo


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...Footnotes:
  1. Or, you know, kind of in. On the way to being in. []
  2. By this point I’d actually taught classes on tarot myself, but it was interesting to hear from an “official” OTO perspective. []
  3. Though there are those in the order who begrudge even this small concession. Google it. []
  4. The Gnostic Mass has its own entry on Wikipedia. []

31 thoughts on “Why I left the OTO

  1. Gordon says:

    Fantastic insight. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m sending this post to my OTO hold-out friends. :)

    1. happydog1960 says:

      Why, so you can get them to leave something that works for them? Nice of you to care.

  2. Psyche says:

    Thanks! I hope they benefit from my experience.

  3. Doug says:

    Heya,

    I’m not overly sure why a lot of what you said seems like a bad thing. The whole groups polarity thing (positive/negative, light/dark, giving/receiving) is spelled out in the Gnostic Mass. A man would not sit on the altar because the Priestess becomes Nuit and is thus the ultimate receptive force in the universe. The priest becomes Hadit and thus the ultimate spark/giver whatever. Together they become the universe in miniature. This is symbolized by a penis/vagina, yoni/lingam, spear/chalice etc etc.

    It simply does not make sense in the course of the ritual to change them.

    Besides that, “The Book of the Law doesn’t have much going on for its goddess — the primary figures are all designated as male, but, still, I expected more.” I can’t say you’re more wrong. The first person to speak is Nuit. All rituals and love are done unto her. The priestess becomes her. Babylon, the other goddess, is seen as the pathway back to re-union with the whole. Both Goddesses are absolutely and utterly essential, beloved and powerful.

    Besides that you have the male dieties Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit/Harpocrates. It’s really rather balanced.

    Anyway, your choice is your own but seeing that you did not even make it to the rank of Minerval (the very first rank) prior to leaving shows, to me at least, that you did not really do any research and that’s a shame. Just please don’t misrepresent.

    1. Psyche says:

      You don’t seem to have read this very closely, or understood the reason I wrote it, and perhaps that’s a failing of mine. That said, I’ve explained my position, and you haven’t offered anything to counter it, except that you feel it suits your limitations. But biology isn’t that cut and dry, and in my experience, neither is magick.

      What is it you feel I’m misrepresenting?

  4. This is a great essay and one of my criticisms of it as well. There are some people who have compared the Caliphate practice to Shaivite Tantra and the Typhonian to Shakti in that it is much more female centric and based on Females being the active principal.

    Haviung just completed a book on Sex Sorcery, this is all very fresh in my head.

    1. Psyche says:

      Thanks! I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out.

  5. Hi all,

    I think it’s very sad you had such a poor experience with the OTO. As a female member, and Secretary to a local Body, I can say for definite this would not have been the case on my watch.
    Crowley’s writing was a product of its time – he had inherited wealth and didn’t need to work, for the larger part of his life women didn’t even have the vote. In that respect, his inclusion of women in any way is commendable, and would at the time have been a departure indeed from the status quo, and thereby challenging social norms.
    As far as 21st century OTO goes – and I can only speak for my own experience and not the Order’s official stance – as members we have discussed at length the issues faced by LGBT members with regard to the Gnostic Mass, and quite simply are agreed that any such member should be allowed to perform a role in Mass which best befits the gender with which they identify primarily. This is about energy, polarity, receptivity, drive towards that goal. So a gay guy who identifies with female qualities more than male in his psyche would be welcome to priestess at Gnostic Mass with us. And so on.
    When people get so fixated on the sex business, they forget utterly that energy and magick transcend gender, and in actual fact it’s the flow of energy from Hadit to be at one with Nuit that we illustrate in Mass. In this case it’s represented by masculine and feminine, because it was written at a time when that was how it would be seen symbolically. It’s symbolic, that’s the point – but any group of people is allowed to choose its boundaries and definitions, so I think it’s OK for the OTO to choose to retain masculine and feminine, to keep Crowley’s work intact.
    It’s a matter for the individual if they wish to approach an organisation, knowing that’s the choice that has been made, and that’s how the rituals are run. Rituals that make many happy are not likely to be changed to please one or two. But it’s sad that the people involved did not enter into fair dialogue and at least try to be more welcoming and inclusive towards you. That is the main 21st century issue, and in my view, that behaviour was not acceptable. I hope you have better success with other groups you try to join, good luck!

    1. Psyche says:

      Thanks for your response, Krissy. It’s great to see someone actually engaging with the issues, and it’s wonderful that you’re able to do so as a representative of the order.

      I should be clear, I didn’t have a bad experience — the people at my local lodge were wonderful — my difficulty was with the system itself, and the way it’s been coded. Frankly, the gender essentialism doesn’t make any sense.

      I feel I should also mention that women magicians weren’t exactly new in Crowley’s time. There were numerous prominent women on the scene, such as Maud Gonne, Moina Bergson Mathers, Annie Horniman, Florence Farr, Helena Blavatsky, Pamela Colman Smith, Ida Craddock, Maria de Naglowska, and so on. I don’t see much of a departure in his inclusion of women in the OTO. It’s certainly not progressive, at least, not any more so than what was already going on in the Golden Dawn and co-masonry. The defined gender roles are a step back, if anything.

      Again, thanks for your comments, but I still see a problem with the gender essentialism you’re describing here. What if a member is intersex? Genderqueer? Agender? What if they don’t fit this rigid party line, as so many don’t? This polarity doesn’t make sense on a biological level, never mind a magical one and I don’t understand the reason it’s clung to so desperately. It’s beyond outdated — you’ve already described several ill-fitting scenarios where the OTO is forcing the issue.

      People become fixated on “the sex business” because it’s fundamental to the order and its understanding of magick and the way it’s taught. I don’t see how one can escape that within the confines of the system? If the symbols are no longer deemed effective — culturally, biologically, psychically — why continue with them?

      1. I guess… because we choose to.

        And everyone has the right to choose.

        I choose this because it suits me. Others who don’t find it suits, don’t join. But actually that’s OK.

        If it’s more deep than that, I’m afraid you’ll have to consult the Electoral College as I’m only a second degree, and my debate tactics are sadly lacking. I must reiterate, I cannot speak for the official stance of the order on this.

        It’s a fact that no-one can please all the people all the time, I’m sure any organisation faces issues of one sort or another, and ultimately they just have to say “sorry but no”. It sounds like that’s how it panned out in this case.

        Maybe it’s time to start a group yourself?

        xx

        1. Psyche says:

          I guess I just don’t find that a very satisfying answer. I wonder how long that will suffice for those already in the order, and those considering joining.

          Thanks, but I don’t have the temperament to start a group myself, and I think there are quite enough out there already. Spiral Nature has been a place for dialogue for nearly 14 years, and being the editor of this site is about the extent of my organizational ambitions.

    2. Ms. Pris says:

      But what about those of us who do not “identify primarily” as either male or female? all your discussions leave us out.

      The fact that you think it would take “a gay guy” to identify with the role of priestess indicates that you have very outdated and inaccurate ideas about gender and sexual orientation.

      If the OTO’s goal was “to keep Crowley’s work intact”, the gender policy would not exist, as in his own magical work Crowley considered gender roles to be very fluid and mere costume.

  6. 23 says:

    Great text. I really hope you find your community.

    1. Psyche says:

      Thanks for your kind words!

  7. Alexandra says:

    Hi Krissy and “Psyche”,

    I greet you with 94 and not 93 because, for me, it’s the one step further that needs to be taken regarding precisely this issue.
    It is not a common behavior for an O.T.O. body to discuss gender issues and to accept the gender variations during an official representation of the Mass, but I am SUPER glad that at least one place grabs it by the balls to do it like this.
    I feel the same way about the Order, though I joined back in 1998 and have gone a longer way than you. It is said that the ways are open to the women in the same way they are to men, but I haven’t seen a proposition for a OHO as a woman, for example, and I feel not only that the central ritual doesn’t represent the gender variations (understanding that you don’t need gender essentialism to make an astral/magickal baby) as it denies it. What I find is more of the same, people refusing the new aeon ideas strongly, a boys club and either you accept this as a woman or you don’t. I found limitation also. I haven’t found much space for discussing important stuff like: rape culture, gender essentialism, new aeon structures, sexual harassment. And the structure is extremely patriarchal. It feels like people are blind to it. I don’t think the O.T.O. is attractive to gender queers… Now Crowley… I guess he could have been a feminist in the way that he believed women should have the same rights. But in his personal relationships he practiced the opposite of what he preached, which is a model followed to this day and other guys find it very amusing, apparently (during the stories of how he treated his women I always heard guys laughs). “Just a cup” is not something I want to be. As a child of the new Aeon, I want to be WHOLE, both. It’s the mixture of the two and, therefor, everything — or nothing. This is where I think the O.T.O. fails Thelema and Thelema fails the 2014 world. I am writing an essay in Portuguese about this, but I need more sources. I would be glad if any of you would keep private contact with me.

    Kisses Kisses,

    Alex.

    1. Psyche says:

      Thanks, Alex! 94, cute, I like it!

      A number of people have contacted me off-site about this, and from what I’ve been hearing, what you’re saying is pretty common, and has lead quite a few women (and men — and others) away from the order. It’s unfortunate.

      Before I left, a friend suggested staying and seeing what could be done from within, but it felt fundamentally flawed, and that didn’t sit right with me. I’m curious what enticed you to stay? Or maybe that’s better said elsewhere? I’ll drop you a line.

  8. IAO131 says:

    93 – The roles are fixed for public celebrations of the Mass. In private masses, can and have switched. I’ve seen it a few times. We have quite a few LGBTQI members (and allies thereof), yet we still strictly adhere, for public masses, to the roles as designated as that is our Tradition, for various reasons. Its unfortunate you had a bad experience but one camp/oasis/lodge does not the OTO make.

  9. bob schellhardt says:

    I completely understand why you left OTO. I am a 1st degree member at the lodge in Philadelphia and I have reservations about OTO also. The problem with the OTO is that they have gotten away from Crowley’s original vision of the OTO being a meeting place for magicians. The current leaders of the OTO have tied themselves to the EGC and tried to make a new Gnostic religion or OTO church. I told a bishop from Baltimore if he wanted to be a bishop why didn’t he stay in the christian church. We have a new lodge master in Philly and we are trying to get back to the original vision of a meeting place and trying to cut down on the Mass rituals. Crowley only wrote the Mass ritual for german OTO lodges, he did not intend to make it the centerpiece of the OTO. As far as I know, I heard from another member who researched the origins of the Mass that Crowley never even did a Mass Ritual himself. At the Philly lodge we are now doing teaching Magick and ritual work for newcomers and anyone else who wants to learn.
    93
    Bob

    1. IAO131 says:

      93 – Your post is riddled with inaccuracies which I will put down to incomplete scholarship rather than malice.

      “The problem with the OTO is that they have gotten away from Crowley’s original vision of the OTO being a meeting place for magicians.”

      This was never Crowley’s vision for the OTO. There are plentiful quotations from him about it, let alone the founding documents in the Blue Equinox, and it is clear that (a) he wanted the Gnostic Mass to be the rite of a new religion as part of the new church EGC and (b) he wanted OTO to be a fraternal organization to spread Thelema in the world.

      “The current leaders of the OTO have tied themselves to the EGC and tried to make a new Gnostic religion or OTO church.”

      No, that was Crowley. There are plentiful quotations where he essentially says the Mass is intended for this purpose, and the EGC is simply the ecclesiastical arm of OTO which administers this rite.

      “I told a bishop from Baltimore if he wanted to be a bishop why didn’t he stay in the christian church.”

      That shows you have a really poor understanding of what being a Bishop means and that you are hung up on words rather than what they mean.

      “Crowley only wrote the Mass ritual for german OTO lodges, he did not intend to make it the centerpiece of the OTO.”

      That is entirely false. He said very clearly it was the central rite of OTO of its public and private celebration. He is unequivocal about it and I dare say you havent bothered to even do your own research if you believe what you are saying.

      “As far as I know, I heard from another member who researched the origins of the Mass that Crowley never even did a Mass Ritual himself.”

      That is correct, although he did portions of it at the Abbey of Cefalu and encouraged Agape Lodge in America very strongly to perform the Mass regularly. You should stop listening to what you hear from others and simply look these things up – you can start with OTO’s website which documents this history very clearly, let alone things like ‘The Unknown God’ which details Crowley’s involvement with trying to get the Mass regular at Agape Lodge.

      “At the Philly lodge we are now doing teaching Magick and ritual work for newcomers and anyone else who wants to learn.”

      That’s nice, but it is not the OTO’s main function according to its mission statement now nor its founding documents such as Liber LII, Liber CI, Liber 194, etc. It is the promulgation of the Law. Do yourself a favor and do your own research.

      1. Psyche says:

        If read enough Crowley, you can find quotes to argue and support pretty much any position. He wrote a lot, and he wasn’t always consistent, but thanks for clarifying these points.

        That said, I don’t know that getting caught up in trivia is necessarily helpful, and it rather gets away from the central arguments of the essay.

        What are your thoughts on the gender binary and the polarities as described by the OTO? In your experience, do you find this is an accurate representation of human sexuality in magical practice? Do you think it makes sense that it remain the same, given our evolving understanding of gender identity and sexuality?

        1. IAO131 says:

          93 – I only wanted to correct the many errors in his posting – apologies if it is too far off topic.

          Gender binaries/polarities are basically a magical thing that represents the polarities within oneself. Magically, this is portrayed by male and female – at least in the Gnostic Mass. It is equivalent to looking at an alchemical diagram of male/king and female/queen – the symbolism of that would be lost or different if otherwise depicted. The Mass is not a statement on how one should approach or understand gender or sexuality. Further, as you probably know, the Mass can be celebrated privately (still officially) with the gender roles switched, or whatever else.

          There are plenty of non-cis-gendered males in OTO, I know a quite a few of them, and it is accepting of them. Its doctrine is Do what thou wilt which means people should find and express who they really are. That’s really what it comes down to.

    2. Psyche says:

      Thanks for your response, Bob!

      The OTO can be a great teaching vehicle, but it seems to best serve cis-gendered men. Which is fine, I suppose, but it’s going to continue to alienate those who fall outside those parameters.

  10. Surgo says:

    In all earnesty, why do you expect someone else to adjust their group to your twisted expectations? If you want an order/ fraternity to be more accepting of a certain group, regardless of what it is, you should be rallying that group (in this case non-normatively-gender-identifying individuals), instead of hissing about how oppressive the order is.

    The point being, you seem to expect women to be handed higher degree/ influential spots just because they’re women. And that doesn’t work. Everything has to be earned, and that is the reality we live in. If you don’t like this, too bad, deal with it; there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

    1. Psyche says:

      From what you’ve written, I’m going to assume that you’ve skimmed the essay rather than read it with attention.

      The order does accept women and non-binary identified people as members, but it doesn’t permit them equal representation or status, as you can see from the comments of other order members above. Every man and woman may be a star, but not in the Gnostic Mass, and not as taught by the OTO in magical theory and practice. That’s just the way it is, and they’re not interested in changing that. Ok then. I’m pointing to it as the specific reason I left the OTO. There are other reasons people leave — that was mine.

      I don’t expect women or other gender categories to be awarded higher degrees or influential spots based on gender (where’d you get that??), but I do expect them to be treated as equals with cis-gendered straight men within the order. That doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, does it?

  11. mranon says:

    I really haven’t seen many people challenging the gender-roles question you’ve asked them in regards to your original post or replies… Which is kinda worrying me because I am transgender F-T-M and I am very interested in becoming a member of the OTO but I am pre-transitioned, and am worried about how I’ll be treated — if I even get accepted at all. It makes me really sad, because I too would love a community to join, especially one centered around Crowley’s teachings, and yet… Much is left to be desired, it seems.

    I’m not trashing any OTO groups or anything like that, I’m just very concerned. I’m not an object of sexual pleasure or deviant fantasies, I’m just me and I love magick. It’s a tough call for me right now.

    1. Psyche says:

      Unfortunately I don’t have any answers on that, and it seems I’ve scared off anyone else who might comment further. Best of luck to you though!

  12. Bill says:

    Is not ‘Nuit’ a female goddess, and the the central one in Thelema, at that? Hardly fair to criticize Thelema for “not having much going on for its goddess”…

    1. Psyche says:

      I think we’re talking about two different things here: Thelema and the OTO, one can be a practicing Thelemite without belonging to the OTO.

      That said, Nuit has a pretty specific role, whereas the numerous male gods named inevitably have more expanded and individualistic roles.

      Nuit is an abstraction, an erotic figure, a mother and a provider. Her entire being is reflected in how she serves or reflects others. Hardly subversive stuff. Very old aeon, really.

  13. Apocryphon says:

    While Thelema is pretty much accepts any sexual practice including bestiality “The Pennsylvanian and his Pig”, even rape is excused in some cases “Rome was founded there upon” and murder of unfaithful partners in the potential case of “particularly violent Wills”. The only stimulation being that the sexual act be “Unto Nuit”. (Which basically seems to mean that the act is so overwhelming that self is dissolved to a high degree and unity with the transcendent is achieved.

    However, at this does not mean that Thelema should actively support bestiality, rape, or murder through it’s institutions. The same is true of what you call “Non-cis gender”. The order may accept that these things happen as part of the cosmos, but OTO was not organized to be some sort of “Progressive” platform to normalize and promote these sorts of deviations from the norm.

    In fact OTO was organized according to blue equinox around very conservative principles and Feudalism. With initiated Priest-kings, Warrior knights and private communities, men of Earth similar to serfs. Promoting the high class, not the “progressive values” that support degenerate, drug addiction, and radical equality of the common low class mob.

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