Aleister Crowley

Introduction to Crowley

"Do What Thou Wilt"

The Book of the Law

The Tree of Life

Spiritual Practice

Truth and Falsehood

Sex and Gender


His Personality

His Writing

Essays on Crowley

Facts and Phallacies

The Freedom of Doubt

The Included Middle

A Letter to Close

Pentagram Ritual

Tetragrammaton Mass

Why Crowley Doesn't Suck

The Book of Dzyan

The Golden Dawn Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

Crowley frequently makes reference to a diagram which purports to represent the spiritual universe. The Tree of Life has many forms in Qabala. This tradition of Jewish mysticism was adopted centuries ago by Christian mystics and magicians. The Tree Crowley used came to him from the English Qabalistic society known as the Golden Dawn. It is composed of ten spheres (sephiroth) and of twenty-two paths connecting the spheres, as well as the three veils above Kether, the veil of Paroketh (the Portal, below the central sphere of Beauty), the veil of Da'ath (the Abyss of Knowledge, below the three supernal spheres), and the corrupt and twisted Shells or Qliphoth echoing the Tree in a perverted and demonic form below Malkuth. The Tree is reflected into four worlds from the closest to God to the most physical, and there are a variety of other sub-symbolisms such the pillars of Mercy and Severity and the planar divisions.

The subject is too complex to be explained here, or even in a medium-sized book, and unfortunately, Crowley never gave much of an introduction. Dion Fortune ("The Mystical Qabalah") and Israel Regardie ("A Garden of Pomegranates") wrote well-regarded introductory books that are still easy to find. Kenneth Grant is the author of several idiosyncratic books building on Crowley's Qabala as well as Ophitic Gnosticism, Qliphothic descents, Lovecraftian cosmic abysses, Tantric sexual fluids, and a strange blend of other dark-side materials; his works serve as examples of what individuals can do with Qabala when they are not bound by logic or rationality. There is also a broad spectrum of Qabalistic writing outside and different from the Golden Dawn and Thelemic systems.

In the Golden Dawn as well as Crowley's system, the Tree has two major roles. First, it is a map of spiritual progress. Starting at the lowest and most worldly sphere of the Tree of Life, known as Malkuth or Kingdom and representing the physical world, the spiritual adventurer ascends through the spheres by the paths, taking a new spiritual grade at each sphere, until finally a hardy few reach the ultimate sphere, Kether or Crown, representing the invisible unity of ultimate deity and the unseen true self. This is the accomplishment known in Christian mysticism as Union with God.

Second, the Tree of Life is used as a classification system. It is held that all the symbols of world religion and occultism find a proper place somewhere on this Tree, and perhaps all symbols and ideas whatsoever. Standard tables set out many of these correspondences from world religion and traditional magical teaching. Tables of this kind have been common in Western magic since the Renaissance.

A rich set of symbols is associated with the Tree of Life and familiarity with this symbolic tapestry is a prerequisite to spiritual practices in Crowley's system as well as the Golden Dawn. Much of the system is to be committed to memory so that it is readily available in one's ritual and meditative work.

The Tree of Life is an arrangement of symbols reminiscent of Platonic idealism, in which the world of sensory phenomena is held to be a secondary or degenerate form of a spiritual reality made up of pure ideas existing behind the appearance of the material world. The ideals are like lights and the events perceptible to the senses are only the shadows they cast.

Emanationist cosmological models similar to the Tree of Life were central in an ancient form of magic known as Neo-Platonism, which is arguably the oldest direct ancestor of modern occultism, and a Greco-Roman cousin of Gnosticism. Centuries after the fall of Rome, first Jewish Qabala and then Christian Qabala and Renaissance magic revived the Neo-Platonic cosmological and magical tradition. It had survived for a millenium in classical works, and in the Islamic preservation of Hellenistic knowledge in Spain and Southern France. The magical revivalists developed many different symbolic representations of the idealistic universe, including the Tree of Life, the Tarot, other philosophical card decks, and alchemical and zodiacal diagrams.

Philosophy often deals with two opposing perspectives, the nominalist and the idealist. Loosely speaking, nominalists focus on the names of things and their outward appearances as the currency of human knowledge, while idealism considers things in the world of senses to be only pale reflections of their ideal forms, or essences, or pure ideas. For instance, there are plenty of windows, but only one "windowness", which exists on a plane separate from the physical world. This plane of ideal forms is derided by nominalists but it was the basis of Renaissance philosophy and the Tree of Life. Nominalism has been crucial to existentialism and phenomenology, important parts of 20th century philosophy, while mystical idealism is not widely considered a viable philosophy today.

Crowley insisted that he was not an idealist but a nominalist, while also insisting that the Tree of Life in the form known to him from the Golden Dawn truly represented the esoteric structure of reality and could only be harmed by changing its arrangement. This is one of many contradictory statements in Crowley's approach to philosophy and whether it is an inspired paradox or a careless contradiction is a subject of controversy.

Crowley also acknowledged the system of Enochian æthyrs, the Chinese Yi Jing, and the Buddhist system of psychology as peers of the Golden Dawn Tree of Life. He did not make as extensive use of these systems, feeling them to be either too large or otherwise inconvenient compared to the Tree, but they all play significant roles along Crowley's spiritual path.

Concerning Judaism, Crowley was anti-Semitic, like many in the Christian West in his day. Specifically, he committed the offense known as blood libel, a defamatory accusation that Jewish rites are celebrated using sacrificed Christian children. His anti-Semitism was a subject of conflict for him, given the centrality of the Jewish system of Qabala in the A.·. A.·. His works up until his death continue to wrestle with the difficulty that the Qabala is Jewish. One persistent rationalization is that the Jews stole Qabala from the Egyptians, an assertion that even the scholarship of his day didn't do much to support, and that seems clearly mistaken in the light of current knowledge. At times he would imply that the blood libel myth had a redeeming esoteric meaning, but usually he presented the accusation as a plain assault on the moral character of Jews. Crowley's anti-Semitism would be hard to defend and no doubt serves as an obstacle for many readers.

From the observations of the Unreliable Narrator: I would not say that there is much anti-Semitism visible in Thelemites today, no more than in society at large -- which is to say, it is a problem, but it doesn't appear to be a specifically Thelemic problem. Respect for Qabala as a Jewish tradition may have turned the tide. For this reason I have not put any anti-Semitism into the voices.

The Literalist might say this: All the religions of the world are but Veils for the One Secret Tradition known to Initiates throughout the ages. The Prophet of the Silver Star has left us with the Key to the Secret Doctrine in the form of Liber 777, the great Table of Correspondences. By meditating on and invoking the energies of the Paths and Spheres all magical power and mystical insight may be attained. Unto those who have scaled the heights of the Tree and become Adepts (or even higher Initiates) is reserved True Understanding; from these lofty heights are made possible Perspectives that utterly transcend and negate the views of persons ensnared in the illusions of the lower Spheres.

The Chaotic might say this: Symbols are the keys to magic, but models are only models and many different valid models are possible. The Tree of Life is one excellent model but to get locked into believing that it is The One True Way would be to impose harmful limitations on your own mind. The power that comes from these systems comes from the charge the symbols acquire in your unconscious mind and not from their "truth." There are other useful models like Peter Carroll's eight colors of magic, the Enochian æthyrs, the Leary eight-brain model, and so on. Magicians should come up with their own system and transcend everyone else's.

The Skeptic might say this: There are shared themes and formulae in world religion but we now understand that there is much more authentic diversity than was admitted by older scholarship. In the 19th century it was common to think that all religions are only reflections of one underlying tradition. Scholars of the time tried to unify disparate traditions and myths but in the process they imposed preconceptions and waved away real differences. This unifying trend from scholarship was combined with the old method of tables used by occultism. Tables of correspondence are flawed because they strip down complex and diverse symbols to single points of debatable contact, and so they conflate dissimilar symbols. This is considered offensive by the cultures whose complex traditions are reduced to ciphers in this way. Tables of this kind may be useful as generators for ritual and meditation practices but as part of an apparatus of interpretation in comparative religion they are worse than useless today.

The Mystic might say this: There is only one Path, the Path to Oneself. Along the way one encounters the same Truths clothed in a variety of forms and symbols. To synthesize and reduce this appearance of Many to the One is the Great Work of Alchemy. It is the attainment of perfect Harmony and Equilibrium within oneself and with the world. Mystics of the ages have always recognized this Unity in each other; religious differences have been caused by unhealthy political usurpers of mystical tradition; they perverted the pure Teachings for power over the people. Once integrated the symbols become tools, repositories for the Energies one has visited and invoked. At the end of the Path the Great Diagram will become One with the Self and the World in a Mystic Marriage, and reveal concealed Glories undreamed of by the profane.

Next: Spiritual Practice

Previous: The Book of the Law