A New and Greater Pagan Cult:
Gerald Gardner & Ordo Templi Orientis
(An earlier draft of this article first appeared in Pentacle Magazine, Summer 2009)
Ordo Templi Orientis was first announced to the world by Theodor Reuss and Aleister Crowley in 1912. Both men had been heavily involved in spiritual pursuits for many years previously, Reuss within the Theosophical Society and various esoteric Freemasonic groups, and Crowley within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Yoga, and Buddhism. Their vision was to form a new magical Order that would synthesise the Eastern mystical current informing Theosophy with the Western mystical current derived from Rosicrucian and other European sources, and thus O.T.O., or Order of the Temple of the East, was born.
The original rituals of the Order were derived from Freemasonry, but under the guidance of Reuss Crowley expanded and rewrote much of O.T.O.’s teachings; in particular writing the Gnostic Mass, which became the main public ritual of the Order, and which is still practiced all over the world on a weekly basis today. After Reuss’ death Crowley became the international head of O.T.O., a position he held until his death in 1947.
Crowley had been quite the bon vivant during his lifetime. He travelled the world, dining with the cream (and sometimes the dregs) of literary society. He was frequently in demand as an after-dinner speaker, but by the mid-1940s he was becoming increasingly frail (he was in his seventies by then after all) and he wasn’t getting about much. However he still loved to entertain, and his diaries from this late period of his life are filled with notes on an almost daily basis about people who were coming to have tea with him. Notable figures who visited him included Captain Grady McMurtry, a young American O.T.O. member based in England during World War II, who would later become head of the Order in the 1960s; and Dion Fortune, already a well-known occult author, who was a great admirer of Crowley – she had given his Magick in Theory & Practice a glowing review, and acknowledged his influence in the introduction to her own work The Mystical Qabalah.
A third notable visitor was Gerald Gardner, later to be celebrated as the founder of the modern witchcraft movement. Gardner had made the acquaintance of a friend of Crowley’s, the well-known stage magician Arnold Crowther (later to be husband of leading witch Patricia Crowther), and Crowther brought him to visit Crowley on Mayday in 1947. Crowley’s diary records:
Extrapolating from Crowley’s shorthand:
The “Royal Arch” mentioned may have been a reference to Gardner introducing himself as a Royal Arch Freemason, or it may allude to Crowley having initiated Gardner on that day to the IV° (Fourth Degree) of Ordo Templi Orientis, which is also known as the Degree of the Holy Royal Arch of Enoch.
At that time it was possible for Freemasons and Co-Masons to affiliate directly to O.T.O. at the same Degree they held in Masonry. If the note means that Gardner had introduced himself to Crowley as a Royal Arch Mason during this first meeting, which was the equivalent to the IV° of O.T.O., then it would also have been easy for Gardner to affiliate directly to that Degree in O.T.O. Either way, it can be safely assumed that Gardner was elevated to the IV° of O.T.O. sometime during his contact with Crowley in May.
Apart from that we have no record of what they spoke about, but it appears that they certainly hit it off, since Gardner visited Crowley on several occasions over the next weeks:
Wel 6709 was the phone number of another of Crowley’s students, Order member and book collector Gerald Yorke. Crowley wrote to Yorke on 9th May:
The Equinox of the Gods was an expanded edition of Crowley’s Book of the Law which O.T.O. had recently published. At some point Gardner also purchased a copy of Crowley’s Blue Equinox which contained much O.T.O. material, as well as several other works of Crowley, and he may well have bought these from Yorke in the same batch.
Crowley knew that he didn’t have long to go in this world, and was desperate to ensure the survival of the O.T.O.’s teachings. It seems that he saw Gardner as a man who could keep the Order alive in Britain, which would explain why he so quickly arranged his initiation into O.T.O.
Crowley also issued Gardner a charter to allow him to initiate further new members to the introductory Minerval Degree of Ordo Templi Orientis:
Do what thou wilt shall be the law
We Baphomet X° Ordo Templi Orientis Sovereign Grand Master General of all English Speaking Countries of the Earth do hereby Authorise our beloved son Scire, (Dr. G.B. Gardner,) Prince of Jerusalem, to constitute a camp of the Ordo Templi Orientis in the degree of Minerval
Love is the law, Love under Will
Witness my hand and seal,
(Baphomet was Crowley’s magical name within O.T.O. The Tenth Degree or X° signifies his position as a Grand Master of the Order. Prince of Jerusalem, or Perfect Initiate, is a mystical title of members who have passed through the IV° initiations.)
Another British occultist interested in O.T.O. during this period was W.B. Crow. He seems to have been running a small magical group and wrote to Crowley asking how they could be initiated into the Order. Crowley replied on 30th May, 1947:
(The Minerval Degree is the introductory or 0° of the Order.)
A couple of weeks later, on the 14th June, it seems that Crowley raised Gardner directly to the VII° (Seventh Degree) of O.T.O., issuing him a receipt for 10 guineas, which was the fee for that initiation. This is significant in light of Crowley’s letter to W.B. Crow, since the O.T.O. system requires an initiator to be at least VII° in order to initiate new members to the Degree of Prince of Jerusalem. The implication is that Crowley and Gardner had discussed their plans further and had agreed that Gardner should be elevated in order to ensure his ability to initiate up to that Degree.
On 30th June, Crowley wrote to his second-in-command, the Order’s Treasurer General, Karl Germer:
So there appears to be no doubt that Gardner was actively involved in O.T.O. at this point in time, and that Crowley held high hopes for the outcome. In the past some have suggested that Crowley only initiated Gardner to get his money, but these letters to third parties show that Crowley was genuinely enthusiastic about having Gardner working within the Order.
Unfortunately both Crowley and Gardner were to suffer severe health problems shortly after this flurry of activity, and it appears that the planned Camp of Minerval never materialised. A few months later, on 1st December 1947, Crowley died. His papers were turned over to his literary executors in preparation for boxing up and shipping to O.T.O. Headquarters in New York. However Gardner wrote to Vernon Symonds on 24th December (note that I have preserved Gardner’s original spelling):
Assuming this to be true (and given the other evidence there’s no reason to doubt it) we thus know that Gardner possessed copies of at least some of the O.T.O initiation ritual texts in 1947. Gardner also contacted Lady Frieda Harris, the artist who had painted the Crowley Thoth Tarot pack, who was a IV° member of O.T.O. Lady Harris on 2nd January 1948 wrote to Karl Germer, who had become the overall head of the Order on Crowley’s death, to inform him about the situation in the U.K.:
From the date and tone of this letter it appears that she may have been quoting information given to her directly by Gerald Gardner the previous month – I am assuming that Gardner had told her that he was head of O.T.O. for Europe, and we know that Gardner had been in contact with W. B. Crow. The mention of Noel Fitzgerald, who was a high-ranking IX° member of the British O.T.O., as possibly being Gardner’s initiator is interesting. It was commonplace during this period for Crowley to initiate new members by putting them through all of the initiation rituals of the early Degrees of O.T.O. in one day, or over the space of a few weeks, and it is tempting to speculate that Noel Fitzgerald may have assisted Crowley in this. Internal evidence from Gardner’s witchcraft initiation rituals show similarities to particular points of O.T.O. initiation rites that would not be obvious through simply reading the text, but become quite obvious during performance of the rituals; so it is possible that Gardner was physically put through at least the Minerval initiation of O.T.O. and that these were not just “paper Degrees”.
Karl Germer appears to have accepted Gardner’s claim to be running the Order in England, and
the two men met in New York to discuss O.T.O. affairs on 19th March 1948.
In December 1950 Gardner wrote to John Symonds, Crowley’s literary executor:
(The K.T. ritual mentioned was the Knights Templar initiation, or VI° of O.T.O. It had been written, but Gardner had not been given a copy of it by Crowley, since Gardner did not hold the Degree necessary to perform it.)
So evidence shows that at least up until this date Gardner still considered himself an active member of O.T.O., that he was in possession of the texts of the preliminary initiation rituals of O.T.O. and had been planning on continuing to perform initiations. However we know from Gardner’s own “Book of Shadows” that he had already written the first drafts of his witchcraft initiations in 1949, a year earlier. Therefore it seems that he was either planning on running both witchcraft and O.T.O. initiations, or that he wanted to get hold of the other O.T.O. ritual texts to use as source material for the writing he was doing for the witch cult. Perhaps if he had received copies of the other O.T.O. initiation rituals witchcraft might have ended up with more than three Degrees!
What does seem clear from the despondent tone of the letter is that Gardner didn’t realistically see much hope of his O.T.O. Camp succeeding. We have no record of any other O.T.O. correspondence from him after this date, and in March of 1951 Karl Germer asked a German member, Frederic Mellinger, to take over the leadership of the Order in Europe, and issued a charter to a young British member, Kenneth Grant, to form a new Camp in England to replace Gerald Gardner’s. Unfortunately this new Camp was rather short-lived too, since it was closed and Grant expelled four years later; Noel Fitzgerald was put in charge of the British section of O.T.O. from 1955 onwards, a position he held until his death.
Gardner’s 1950 letter to Symonds also stated about Crowley that:
This is significant, in that Gardner himself states that Crowley was conscious of, and encouraged, him to use witchcraft ideas alongside O.T.O. teachings, and that he pushed Gardner to emphasise witchcraft in his work. This is unsurprising, since Crowley had for many years been advocating the use of lunar, solar, and seasonal nature-based rituals. As far back as 1914 he had written to Frater Achad of the North American O.T.O. about a ritual of Isis that his Lodge had performed:
In this way you can establish a regular cult; and if you do them in a truly magical manner, you create a vortex of force which will suck in all the people you want. The time is just ripe for a natural religion. People like rites and ceremonies, and they are tired of hypothetical gods. Insist on the real benefits of the Sun, the Mother-force, the Father-force, and so on, and show that by celebrating these benefits worthily the worshippers unite themselves more fully with the current of life. Let the religion be Joy, but with a worthy and dignified sorrow in death itself, and treat death as an ordeal, an initiation… In short, be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult.
Here Crowley explains how he envisaged an O.T.O body conducting its practical operations: pagan rituals built around the natural cycle of the year. It’s a position that is also made extremely clear within his text of the Gnostic Mass, written around the same period as the previous letter; for example within the section of the Mass known as The Collects, which call upon The Sun, The Moon, The Earth, The Lord, The Lady etc. So we can see that this vision of a natural religion had been part of Crowley’s approach to Ordo Templi Orientis for over thirty years before he met Gerald Gardner – no wonder the two men hit it off so well right from their first meeting!
In their study of the early witchcraft movement Wicca: Magickal Beginnings David Rankine & Sorita D’Este show conclusively that much of Gardner’s original Book of Shadows was derived from Crowleyan and O.T.O. sources, particularly the Gnostic Mass. For example, the ritual of Drawing Down the Moon, written in 1949, contains these lines spoken by the Magus:
Compare this to the speech of the Priest to the Goddess in the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass, written by Crowley for Ordo Templi Orientis over three decades earlier:
Or the Charge of the Goddess from Gardner in 1949:
This is taken largely from the speech of the Goddess in the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass:
Gardner’s February Eve Sabbat ritual from 1949 contains the section:
which is also obviously derived from a section of the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass:
Thou that art One, our Lord in the Universe the Sun, our Lord in ourselves whose name is Mystery of Mystery, uttermost being whose radiance enlightening the worlds is also the breath that maketh every God even and Death to tremble before Thee – By the Sign of Light appear Thou glorious upon the throne of the Sun.
Make open the path of creation and of intelligence between us and our minds. Enlighten our understanding.
Encourage our hearts. Let thy light crystallize itself in our blood, fulfilling us of Resurrection.
There are innumerable other excerpts from Crowley’s works included within Gerald Gardner’s other early rituals, particularly initiation rituals; so it appears clear that when Gardner was first formulating these rituals of his early witchcraft movement, the influence of Crowley and O.T.O. was a considerable one. O.T.O. scholar Bill Heidrick has alleged that as much as 80% of the text of Gardner’s early witchcraft rituals may have been derived from Crowley’s writings.
I think it is important that we do not see this use of Crowley material as simply plagiarism on the part of Gerald Gardner. He was clearly considered to be an active and important member of O.T.O. at one point (albeit relatively briefly), and both Aleister Crowley and his successor Karl Germer granted him full authority to initiate new people into the Order and involve them in its teachings. However after Crowley’s death Gardner seemingly felt that he was unable to fully utilise the O.T.O. structure, but did feel that the ritual teachings were important and could be inspirational to a whole new generation – hence his motivation to re-use them for his witch cult revival.
The growth of modern witchcraft has shown that Crowley’s vision of the revival of natural religion was a correct one, and that Gardner shared that vision and applied it successfully. As such, I think that it behooves us to re-examine the relationship between Ordo Templi Orientis and witchcraft and treat it as one that can be both complementary and fruitful, as it has been right from the beginning.
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