The Cairo Working: "They're waiting for you."
At the turning of the twentieth century, Charles Taze Russell was only one of many would-be seers who were attempting to trace the contours of the future amid the ruins of ancient Egypt. The majority of these, however, were of a far more esoteric persuasion. One such occultist, destined for considerable future notoriety, was Aleister Crowley. On March 16, 1904, Crowley was holidaying in an apartment in Cairo with his new wife Rose Edith Kelly. In an "avowedly frivolous attempt to impress his wife", Crowley sought to conjure up elemental Sylphs by preforming an incantation called the Bornless Ritual. Rose Kelly didn't see anything; instead, she went into a light trance, and continually repeated "They're waiting for you."
Crowley was at first very reluctant to place any significance in the messenger his wife appeared to be be channelling. He asked a series of questions, however, which satisfied him that the speaker possessed knowledge which Rose did not, and was no doubt intrigued a few days later when she informed him that the messages emanated primarily from the Egyptian deity Horus. Crowley then took Rose to the Bulaq Museum, and - in an event immortalised in the history of modern western occultism - she lead him directly to an obscure wooden funerary stele, from the Twenty-Sixth dynasty of Egypt, which depicted the priest Ankh-af-na-khonsu offering a sacrifice to Horus. The museum had designated the exhibit number 666, a number with a somewhat explicit personal relevance to Crowley. One can hardly blame him for suspecting that something magickal was afoot. Indeed, however you regard the true nature of these events, a very strange personal destiny was taking shape around Crowley in the summer of '04.
On April 7, Rose gave Crowley specific instructions - for three days he was to place himself in an attitude of complete concentration and receptivity, and write down everything he heard between noon and 1:00 p.m. Thus, between the afternoons of the 8, 9, and 10th, Crowley wrote the Liber Al vel Legis, or the Book of the Law. According to his own testimony, every word was dictated to him by a discarnate intelligent being whom he called Aiwass. Writing in the Equinox of the Gods, Crowley claimed that Aiwass appeared at his left shoulder in the farthest corner of the room, and spoke in a voice "of deep timbre, musical and expressive, its tones solemn, voluptuous, tender, fierce or aught else as suited the moods of the message. Not bass - perhaps a rich tenor or baritone". (I can see Orson Welles preforming the role of Aiwass to perfection.) In appearance, the speaker "seemed to be a tall, dark man in his thirties, well-knit, active and strong, with the face of a savage king, and eyes veiled lest their gaze should destroy what they saw."
All the available evidence, in terms of contemporary diary entries and so on, suggests that this, at least so far as Crowley himself was concerned, was how the Liber was actually written. But if the text was a product of automatic writing, was Aiwass really an independent, discarnate entity, or merely the pompous bombast of his own subconscious? Crowley himself seems to have entertained both hypotheses. Sometimes he argued zealously for the former possibility: "The immense superiority of this particular intelligence, AIWASS, to any other which mankind has yet been in conscious communication is shown not merely by the character of the book itself, but by the fact of his comprehending perfectly the nature of proof necessary to to demonstrate the fact of his own existence and the conditions of that existence." Yet, on other occasions, Crowley discussed Aiwass symbolically in relation to the archetype of the Fool, allowing for an interpretation not entirely dissimilar to the hallucinatory right-brain voice postulated in Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: "In his absolute innocence and ignorance, he is the Fool; he is the Saviour, being the Son who shall trample on the crocodiles and tigers, and avenge his father Osiris. Thus we see him as the Great Foul of Celtic legend, the Pure Fool of Act 1 of Parsifal, and, generally speaking, the insane person whose words have always been taken for oracles."
Whatever its ultimate origins, the Book of the Law profoundly altered Crowley's fortunes in the occult underground, and became the foundational text of his mythical system Thelema. As a literary artefact, the Book reflects the currents of Romanticism through and through. It announces the dawning of a new aeon, called the Aeon of Horus. Thelema envisions the existence of two prior aeons: the Aeon of Isis, characterised by matriarchy and nature worship, and the pagan/classical Aeon of Osiris, characterised by patriarchy, restriction, rationalism, and the worship of death and resurrection solar male deities. Crowley saw the new Aeon of Horus, also symbolically associated with the Child, as a potential era of unfettered self-expression, a mass release of vital life-force energies long repressed by the solar religions, and by patriarchal subjugation of intuition to a narrowed rationalism:
"Tear down that lying spectre of the centuries: veil not your vices in virtuous words: these vices are my service; ye do well, and I will reward you here and here after."
"Be strong, o man! lust, enjoy all things of sense and rapture: fear not that any God shall deny thee for this."
(The new Aeon is also characterised by quite a lot of violence and confusion, and the Crowley/Aiwass text is infused with industrial doses of Nietzsche's bombastic proto-fascism.) In this sense, Crowley's Aeon of Horus has much in common with William Blake's gnostic inversion of conventional Christianity:
"Good is the passive which obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)
The cosmology of Thelema is primarily a marriage of Egyptian mythology and Qabalistic mysticism. Alongside its prominent Egyptian deities, however, the text makes frequent allusions to the Beast and the Whore of Babylon, albeit in a somewhat altered form to their familiar incarnation in Revelation:
"Ye shall see that hour, o blessed Beast, and thou the Scarlet Concubine of his desire."
"But let her raise herself in pride! Let her follow me in my way! Let her work the work of wickedness! Let her kill her heart! Let her be loud and adulterous! Let her be covered with jewels, and rich garments, and let her be shameless before all men!"
Babalon is one of the most fascinating creations of Thelema. The depised figure of the Scarlet Woman in Revelation had its origins in Ishtar, the Assyro-Babylonian goddess of sex, fertility, and war. She was associated with a cult of sacred prostitution, and her holy city of Uruk called "the town of the sacred courtesans." For Crowley, the transformation, or rehabilitation, of the Great Whore was a subversive manoeuvre that reflected the overarching purpose of his Dionysian assault on the values of Christianity. The role of Babalon in Thelemic thought is complex, representing at its most basic level a re-instigation of the Assyro-Babylonian deification of fertility and unfettered sexual energy.
Babalon is also evoked as crucial figure in a fanciful, but very poetic Crowleyian narrative of personal initiation. Within the system of A.A., in order to transcend the limitations of individual ego, the initiate must cross the Abyss, a vast desert or spiritual wilderness which is the final barrier to full illumination. The Abyss is the domain of the demon Choronzon, whose purpose is to attempt to capture the initiate in a false, illusionary reality: "The name of the Dweller in the Abyss is Choronzon, but he is not really an individual. The Abyss is empty of being; it is filled with all possible forms, each equally insane, each therefore evil in the only true sense of the word - that is meaningless but malignant, in so far as it craves to become real. These forms swirl senselessly into haphazard heaps like dust devils, and each such chance aggregation asserts itself to be an individual and shrieks "I am I."
Waiting at the other side of the Abyss, however, is Babalon. The initiate who has acknowledged his own identity as little more than a swirling, transitory aggregation of dust then sacrifices his blood to Babalon, and is thus ushered into the final level of knowledge and awareness. In the poetic topography of A.A., this final level is envisioned as the City of the Pyramids, the home of the Enlightened Masters who dwell beneath the Sky of Pan, clad in robes and pyramidal hoods: "These adepts seem like pyramids - their hoods and robes are like pyramids....And the beatific vision is no more, and the glory of the Most High is no more. There is no more knowledge. There is no more bliss. For this is the Palace of Understanding: for thou art one with the Primeval Things." The imaginative topography of the Abyss and the City embody very familiar concepts of Maya and ego-dissolution from the mystic traditions, albeit recast in a narrative form which suggests the decadent weird fictions of Clarke Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. (There are also echoes of the great Borges short fiction "The City of the Immortals", a mordantly comic treatment of the theme of ego-dissolution in which the Enlightened Masters turn out to be an inglorious species of troglodyte.)
A final possibility with regard to the Book of the Law must be considered: that Crowley composed it in an entirely conscious manner, and merely fabricated the notion of automatic transmission in order to lend the text an oracular gravitas. He was undoubtedly a keen self-mythologist, frequently saying "Always tell the truth, but lead a life so implausible that nobody will ever believe you." Its seems far more likely, however, that Crowley genuinely believed himself a conduit of destiny, and a mouthpiece of the wider cosmos speaking itself into history. But he himself must have doubted the provenance of Aiwass from time to time. Yet, in a peculiar sense, if the voice of Aiwass wasn't a discarnate intelligence, or the voice of a self-aggrandising hedonist's unconscious, it still spoke with the imprimatur of history. Much of the exotic ideology underpinning the Aeon of Horus would come, by virtue of a process of rebellion and assimilation, to be the commonplaces of western culture in later half of the twentieth century. And the story of Jack Parsons and the Babalon Working would perfectly embody the perilous double-edged sword of Crowley's ultimate message to the world: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."