Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
Recently Courtney and I were discussing moments of “found symbolism” in the Gnostic Mass. Those little “Aha” moments that seem to have a striking symbolic density, but were probably not intentional. There is a really neat one where the priestess holds The Book of the Law to her chest, forming a triangle with her hands. If the priestess holds the book with the red cover facing out, the effect is that the congregations sees a red downward pointing triangle upon the breast of the priestess. If she holds the book with the cover facing in, against her breast, then she is sealing the red triangle up in her heart, perhaps imbuing herself with its power. (I am aware that most Bishops direct the Priestess to hold the book with the contents, not the cover, facing out. This position is also indicated in “Mystery of Mystery”. So this isn’t performance notes, just a few thoughts. Just go with it.) It is an awesome moment and it holds some symbolic heft, as the red downward pointing triangle is a pretty significant Thelemic symbol.
The chapter alludes to Levi’s drawing of the Hexagram, and is a criticism of, or improvement upon, it. In the ordinary Hexagram, the Hexagram of nature, the red triangle is upwards, like fire, and the blue triangle downwards, like water. In the magical hexagram this is reversed; the descending red triangle is that of Horus, a sign specially revealed by him personally, at the Equinox of the Gods. (It is the flame descending upon the altar, and licking up the burnt offering.) The blue triangle represents the aspiration, since blue is the colour of devotion, and the triangle, kinetically considered, is the symbol of directed force.
- Liber 333, Chp. 69
So, we have two hexagrams in our magical toolkit: the Hexagram of Nature with the red triangle upwards and the blue downwards and the Hexagram of Magic, with the blue triangle upwards and the red downwards. In just a few words, Crowley packs a lot of meaning into these symbols. That is how he rolls.
Note that in the Hexagram of Magic, the elemental attributions are retained. The Red Triangle still represents fire and the blue water, it is just their positions that are reversed. A simple explanation for this is that perspective from which this symbol is perceived has been flipped.
Then there is this from Liber 7, Chapter 5:
- We to silence and bliss, and the face is the laughing face of Eros.
- Smiling we greet him with the secret signs.
- He leads us into the Inverted Palace.
- There is the Heart of Blood, a pyramid reaching its apex down beyond the Wrong of the Beginning.
- Bury me unto Thy Glory, O beloved, O princely lover of this harlot maiden, within the Secretest Chamber of the Palace!
- It is done quickly; yea, the seal is set upon the vault.
- There is one that shall avail to open it.
- Nor by memory, nor by imagination, nor by prayer, nor by fasting, nor by scourging, nor by drugs, nor by ritual, nor by meditation; only by passive love shall he avail.
- He shall await the sword of the Beloved and bare his throat for the stroke.
- Then shall his blood leap out and write me runes in the sky; yea, write me runes in the sky.
In Crowley’s sparse notes on this Class A text, he writes of verse 42 “The [triangle] revealed by Aiwass.” This is important- Crowley directly attributes the red downward pointed triangle as a revelation from Aiwass as opposed to being the result of ordinary symbolic tinkering with the Levi’s hexagram.
Building from the “Heart of Blood” symbolism above, in Liber 777 column CXVIII the Anahata, the heart chakra, is attributed to three spheres on the Tree of Life: Chesed, Geburah, and Tipherath – forming a downwards pointing triangle over the heart. Furthermore the connecting paths between these spheres – Teth (9), Lamed (30), and Yod (10) – enumerate to 49. Which brings to mind the 49 petals of the Rose Cross, another symbol worn over the heart, with its myriad of meanings.
So, was the bright red cover of Liber AL designed for this nifty bit of symbolism? Or was the Priestess’s gesture designed because of the bright red cover of AL?
The answer to both is….probably not.
The red cover of Liber AL is relatively modern. Liber AL was included as a part of larger publications about a half dozen times between 1909 and 1937 (Appearing in The Equinox, TEoTG, Thelema -The Holy Books, etc.) But, it did not receive its own publication until 1938, when it debuted in both a hardback and paperback edition. The paperback featured white wrappers (an edition of this popped up for sale from Weiser Antiquarian in early 2017). The hardcover edition was limited, it seems likely that less than 100 were produced. The book was bound in orange-red buckram boards with gold lettering and sigil; this was all enclosed in a white dust-wrapper. I have not yet seen this edition personally, but its cover has been described as orange-red or, more commonly: pinkish. I am not aware of any notes on Crowley’s plans for the cover, perhaps somewhere out there has seen his design notes? Whatever his intentions, the cover of this first publication is a far cry from the vibrate red of most current editions. The American edition was published by Agape Lodge sometime around 1942 (although internally dated as 1938). The cover was blue.
And Agape Lodge was the only place that we know for sure that the Gnostic Mass was practiced during this time period. So if you happened to catch a Mass before the 1970s, the emergent symbol that would appear when the Priestess forms a triangle with Liber AL would be the blue downward pointing triangle, as found in the Hexagram of Nature.
It seems the first bright red covered edition of Liber AL appears in the early 1970s from Thelema Publications. (I have seen mention of an earlier Solar Lodge edition with a red velour cover, but I tend to be a bit skeptical of publications attributed to Solar Lodge. I’ve been burnt before on that account). In addition to the red cover there was a great variety of covers in the 70s and 80s. I am partial to Xeno Press’ super groovy editions. Sam Weiser publications seemed to cement red as the color for AL with their popular publication in 1976 which, although modeled after the 1938 pb edition, followed the earlier Thelema publications cover design. (This edition was the first to include the MSS.) That is probably the edition that most modern Thelemites first encountered. Today it is difficult to image Liber AL in book form without the red cover. It just seems to fit.
Symbols evolve. Initiates evolve. Sometimes the symbol changes in front of us. Sometimes our perspective of the symbol gets flipped. As soon as the Gnostic Mass started being performed at emerging O.T.O. bodies all across the country, the triangle turned from blue to red. It is all part of the trip. It is important to not get overly attached to any one single interpretation of a symbol. Like us, they need room to grow to, to adapt, and to transform. One important truth that I have learned on my path is that when you study a symbol, when you truly engage with it, you become that symbol. Your spirit (or psyche or consciousness) takes on that shape. And that is the beginning of transformation. To stop there and stagnant, to try to maintain the one shape, the one interpretation of that symbol is a sure path to failure.
The New Aeon has re-contextualized many established symbols in such a way that a new application emerges, but also the original context is deepened. Thelema does not exist in a vacuum. It is the current symbolic context of the one true religion that has gone by many names throughout history: Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam, etc., etc. The religious and esoteric trappings need freshened up occasionally to allow a deeper and personal identification with these symbols and the mysteries they represent. That’s why we need the Equinox of the Gods every few millennia. But, the old context still can be very informative, particularly when trying to plumb the depths of the new.
Does it really matter that Liber AL is red? Probably not, as long as it is read – and allowed to constantly develop, to grow, to die and to be born again within the heart of the initiate.
Love is the law, love under will.