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

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 meĀ  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

  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. []