The Devil’s Roots: Thelema in Metal

If a poster was created of famous devil-worshippers then Aleister Crowley’s face would no doubt be near the front and center.  Despite not actually being a Satanist, Crowley’s “wicked’’ deeds placed him in league with the Dark Lord in the eye’s of the public back in his heyday.  However, he was a practitioner of Thelema, a spiritual philosophy of self-empowerment that’s often lumped in with the glorification of evil much like Satanism has been throughout the years.  And like old Beelzebub, Crowley and heavy metal fit together like a hand in glove, and his influence in heavy music can be traced all the way back to the genre’s earliest years.

Crowley was the ultimate rock star. A drug-addled poetic philosopher with anti-establishment values and a penchant for engaging in sexual acts deemed debaucherous, not to mention occult rituals and other nefarious activities.  He was born in the town of Leamington Spa, England to a preacher father and religious mother.  He grew up to rebell against his religious upbringing, travel the world, climb mountains, experiment with substances and have lots of sex.  He believed himself to be the prophet of a New Aeon who would usher in a new spiritual age for humanity, empowered by selfishness and free of the shackles of organized religion. In order to attain fulfillment, Crowley practiced and promoted the magick (the additional ‘k’ was to differentiate his ‘real’ magic from stage forms). These practices also explored ‘sex magick’ rituals, which encouraged everything from some good old fashioned alone time to bisexual orgies.  Now let’s bear in mind that this was during a period where anything other than the missionary position between man and woman after taking the marriage vow was deemed perverse; it is no wonder that he was depicted as “the wickedest man in the world’’ by the press back then.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’’ You might have come across this phrase in your travels before, whether in books, poems, or even the lyrics to some head banging anthems.  Dez Farfara screamed these very words from the top of his lungs, with the fury of a man possessed by a thousand demons, on the track, “Nothing’s Wrong.’’ which opens proceedings on Devildriver’s self-titled debut album with a statement. Last year, British extreme metal titans Anaal Nathrakh released an album titled The Whole of the Law, an obvious reference to the phrase. Rewind back to 1997, and Bruce Dickinson sings it in “Man of Sorrows’’ from his 1997 album Accident of Birth, which is a song originally written for the 1967 horror film Chemical Wedding which Dickinson wrote the screenplay for. The film is also about a scholar who becomes possessed with the spirit of Mr. Crowley. As a phrase it might sound cryptic and cool, but the term is the core philosophy of Thelema.

Most Thelemites follow the belief that every person possesses a True Will, a single motivation which guides and determines their existence. Each person’s True Will is unique to them and one should only focus on their own, and interfering with someone else’s is prohibited. The Law of Thelema mandates that each person follow their True Will to attain personal fulfillment in life and freedom from restriction of their nature. In Thelma, every man and woman is a star, with their own path in a universe that’s big enough for everyone. Although Thelemites don’t associate their beliefs with a physical, spiritual or metaphorical Satan, their beliefs do support the same autonomous principles of self-empowerment that most branches of Satanism adhere to, as well as the rejection of institutional religions like Judaism and Christianity.

The Law of Thelema became mainstream in the early 1900s when developed by Crowley, but its seeds can be traced back to the Renaissance to the story Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream by Dominican monk Francesco Colonna. In the story, the titular character is led by two allegorical guides: Logistica (reason) and Thelemia (will or desire). In the end, he ends up following the latter because he just wanted some sex. This philosophy was featured Francois Rabelais’ pentalogy of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, which features an “Abbey of Thelema” – an institution which promotes the development of human virtues, which Rabelais identified as being opposed to the Christian establishments of the period. The sole rule of the Abbey was: “Do What Thou Wilt.’’ Since then, the philosophy has been featured in a myriad of art forms throughout the centuries, but it wasn’t until Mr. Crowley adopted it that it would become a universal practice.

It’s plain to see why Crowley has been featured in metal so often.  He represented the anti-authoritarian values the genre was built on after all, and his lifestyle parallels that of some of rock and metal’s most celebrated icons.  His reputation as somewhat of a cult hero was propelled through rock n’ roll as he was admired in songs by the likes of Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Ozzy.  His image was featured on the cover art for for The Beatles’ seminal Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band, in turn immortalizing in the fabric of pop culture for the rest of time.  However, while the aforementioned artists were intrigued by his legacy, very few adopted his practices.

Jimmy Page has always been open about his occult fascination and never denied experimenting with magick.  For awhile he owned Crowley’s Boleskine House in Loch Ness (which was supposedly haunted by a rolling decapitated head of a 19th century war colonel before it burned down in December of 2015.  He also owned an occult bookstore which sold a number of Crowley’s works.  Page was also a friend of avant-garde filmmaker, artist and occultist Kenneth Anger and produced the score for and briefly appeared in his 1972 film, Lucifer Rising, which which has been analyzed by film scholars as an ode to Thelema and its occult associations.  Anger was a friend of Crowley’s, and his films are well worth seeking out if you’d like a glimpse into occult practices.

For many of us, our introduction to Thelema came through Ozzy’s “Mr. Crowley’’ because it’s perhaps the most well-known and obvious ode to the old rascal out there.  In Marilyn Manson’s “Misery Machine’’ he makes reference to the “Abbey of Thelema.’’  Iron Maiden have made reference to Crowley in their music on countless occasions, and their hit “Number of the Beast’’ can be interpreted as either a reference to Satan or Crowley’s moniker of the “Great Beast 666.’’  It seems more likely the latter…

That said, despite the tabloid image of Thelema as a result of Crowley’s celebrity status informing much of what people believe it actually is, its core fundamental philosophy of following your own path is a principle that’s imbued in the ethos of metal – and Crowley is a symbol of that.  Like the Romantic Satan, Crowley is a metaphor for anti-establishment principles and personal liberation. While Thelema is a fringe philosophy commonly associated with evil deeds by those who don’t understand it, at the end of the day, it promotes a similar message which has drawn regular people to metal’s most respected and beloved advocates of self-empowerment.  That’s the real influence Crowley has had on this music we all love, and that’s why Crowley is the ultimate rock star.

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