Darwin, The Origin of Species, and the Gnostic Mass
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
This curious phrase, “Mystery of Mystery”, is repeated three times during the creed of the Gnostic Mass:
“I believe in one secret and ineffable LORD; and in one Star in the company of Stars of whose fire we are created, and to which we shall return; and in one Father of Life, Mystery of Mystery, in His name CHAOS, the sole viceregent of the Sun upon Earth; and in one Air the nourisher of all that breaths.
And I believe in one Earth, the Mother of us all, and in one Womb wherein all men are begotten, and wherein they shall rest, Mystery of Mystery, in Her name BABALON.
And I believe in the Serpent and the Lion, Mystery of Mystery, in His name BAPHOMET.”
Each use of the phrase precedes the name of a force that is- well- pretty damn mysterious. It is not the intention of this brief blog to dive into the lush symbolism of these terms, but I will turn to Tau Apiryon’s excellent examination of the Creed in his book Mystery of Mystery for some general context:
“Nevertheless, the Generative Power expressed by the names CHAOS and PHALLUS (or PHALLE) is distinct from that expressed by the name BABALON. Whereas CHAOS represents raw generative power or creative energy, BABALON represents the influence which captures, restricts, concentrates, directs and applies that raw Energy as a refined and focused Force for the Accomplishment of the Great Work.”
On the Mystery of Baphomet he continues: “Thus, the symbolism of the Serpent and the Lion can be taken as referring to the ‘Lust’ or desire which perpetually drives the wheel of birth, life and death.” If I were to disservice the doctrine by further simplifying it, it might go something like this: Chaos is the generative energy, Babalon is the medium by which it becomes manifest and Baphomet is the force that draws them together.
So, in this perspective of the Creed, the congregant is stating that they believe in these large, generalized, mysterious concepts. And furthermore, the lens through which the congregant understands these concepts is the specific formula (or application of the concept) that is designated by the specific names with which the ideas are presented in the Creed. To put it another way, the concepts behind CHAOS, BABALON, and BAPHOMET are big, universal ideas; some might say ineffable ideas. The specific names of CHAOS, BABALON, and BAPHOMET represent a particular application of that ineffable, universal force.
These Mysteries of Mystery are not mysterious because the Priest or Priestess has not yet chosen to reveal them to the congregants, or because a member needs to be a specific degree in order to fully understand them – there is not a highly guarded answer key hidden away by the Supreme Adepts. Nor do they announce the existence of a corporal God in the classic Roman or Christian sense. Nor do these mysteries demand any supernatural explanation. Nor do they demand faith or any sort of denial of our current understanding of nature. Quite the opposite, the congregant is acknowledging that, at this time, we have an imperfect understanding of the forces that have birthed the universe and created the profundity of life within the web of nature. And although they remain mysterious, these forces are very real and they remain ever constant and ever operative. I nicked my favorite description for this idea from Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers: It is the Ordinary Eternal Machinery.
In his Confessions Cap. 73, Crowley elaborates on his intention for the Gnostic Mass:
“Human nature demands (in the case of most people) the satisfaction of the religious instinct, and, to very many, this may best be done by ceremonial means. I wished therefore to construct a ritual through which people might enter into ecstasy as they have always done under the influence of appropriate ritual. In recent years, there has been an increasing failure to attain this object, because the established cults shock their intellectual convictions and outrage their common sense. Thus their minds criticize their enthusiasm; they are unable to consummate the union of their individual souls with the universal soul as a bridegroom would be to consummate his marriage if his love were constantly reminded that its assumptions were intellectually absurd.
I resolved that my Ritual should celebrate the sublimity of the operation of universal forces without introducing disputable metaphysical theories. I would neither make nor imply any statement about nature which would not be endorsed by the most materialistic man of science. On the surface this may sound difficult; but in practice I found it perfectly simple to combine the most rigidly rational conceptions of phenomena with the most exalted and enthusiastic celebration of their sublimity”
Crowley is very clear that the Gnostic Mass does not need the supernatural. After all, what more are Gods than attempts to explain the enigmatic and authoritative forces of Nature? I can’t help but marvel at the fact that Crowley achieved his intention: the Gnostic Mass does succeed in allowing the congregants and officers to enter into an enthusiastic and ecstatic celebration of the generative forces of nature without resorting to superstition. It is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Perhaps Crowley had a very particular “materialistic man of science” in mind to help him keep on task, someone whose passionate desire to engage with these forces not only reshaped mankind’s understanding of nature, but also demonstrated our intrinsic connection with all life. Of course, that man is none other than Charles Darwin.
In the very first paragraph of his introduction to The Origin of Species, Darwin writes:
“When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.” (emphasis added)
(The great philosopher that Darwin refers to is John Herschel, who had first used the phrase in a letter to Charles Lyell discussing “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by other”. An earlier use of the phrase appears in Sir Walter Scott’s Bible inscription poem followed by an admonishment to those who doubt that volume. It is amusing that Crowley’s and Scott’s use of the phrase have completely opposite intentions.) Both Crowley and Darwin are using this phrase to express those ineffable forces from which all life emerged and of which humanity is but one expression.
So, was Crowley’s use of the phrase “Mystery of Mystery” a nod to Darwin’s The Origin of Species?
I believe so. Crowley makes various references to Darwin in his major works, check the indexes of Liber ABA, Astrology, The Law is for All, and Confessions to name a few. He relies on his student’s understanding of the Theory of Evolution to explain various magical concepts within the pages of his magnum opus Liber ABA, as well as in his various commentaries to Liber AL and even within the initiatory system of O.T.O. In his notes to Liber Samekh, he uses the idea of the dramatic leap in understanding that embracing the doctrine of evolution required at the time of its emergence as a metaphor for the adept embracing the Angel:
“If the Adept is to be any wise conscious of his Angel it must be that some part of his mind is prepared to realise the rapture, and to express it to itself in one way or another. This involves the perfection of that part, its freedom from prejudice and the limitations of rationality so-called. For instance: one could not receive the illumination as to the nature of life which the doctrine of evolution should shed, if one is passionately persuaded that humanity is essentially not animal, or convinced that causality is repugnant to reason. The Adept must be ready for the utter destruction of his point of view on any subject, and even that of his innate conception of the forms and laws of thought.”
A tongue-in-cheek creed found in John St. John begins with:
“I believe in Charles Darwin Almighty, maker of Evolution; and in Ernst Haeckel, his only son our Lord Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Germany…”
Of course, these references are not unusual, Crowley was a voracious science reader and expected as much from his readers. He was also acutely aware of the seeming irony involved with using the method of science towards the aim of religion. The following lengthy passage from Chapter 83 of his Confessions provides some further context behind this synthesis and his above statements on the Gnostic Mass:
“It must be remembered that at the period when I studied science most exclusively, the reaction against mysticism was in full swing. The persecution of Darwin was like an unhealed scar; its contemplation bred resentment against the very root of any religious interpretation of the universe. I had been forced into the awkward position of having to be ready to go to the stake with Maudsley, Ray Lankester and Haeckel, as against superstitious religion, and yet to attack their conclusions with the utmost vehemence in the interests of the impregnable spiritual position which I had built on the rock of my own actual experience. At last it had become conceivable that this antinomy might be overcome, and that in the best way, in the way indicated by the symbolism of the Cabbalah itself; that is to say, the eyes of science were opening gradually to the perception that the results of observation and experiment demanded an interpretation as repugnant to common sense (as understood by the man in the street and the Rationalist Press Association) as the utmost conceptions of Pythagoras, Paracelsus and that Great Order itself of which I was an initiate. My subsequent researches have been almost exclusively determined by considerations of this kind. While I have done my utmost to advance directly towards truth by the regular traditional magical and mystical methods which The Book of the Law had perfected, I have constantly sought pari passu to correlate my results with those of modern intellectual progress; indeed, to demonstrate that the deepest thinkers are unwittingly approaching the apprehension of initiated ideas, and are in fact, despite themselves, being compelled to extend their definition of the Ruach to include conceptions proper to Neschamah, that they are, in other words, becoming initiates in our sense of the word without suspecting that they are committing high treason against the majesty of materialism.”
In his trademark blend of hubris and humanity, Crowley clearly identified with these leaders of thought, having faced his own persecution in the assembly of his doctrine of Thelema. He elaborates on this in his commentary to AL II 21, published in The Law is for All:
“When an Artist- whether in Astronomy, like Copernicus, Anthropology, like Ibsen, or Anatomy, like Darwin – selects a set of facts too large, too recondite, or too “regrettable” to receive instant assent from everybody; when he presents conclusions which conflict with popular credence or prejudice; when he employs a language which is not generally intelligible to all; in such cases he must be content to appeal to the few. He must wait for the world to awake to the value of his work.”
And even if the world does still need time to awake to the value of Crowley’s work, I think he would be aghast at the idea that an individual would not have read The Origin of Species as part of their education. (Admittedly, it was not until I was forced to read the book in college did I realize its importance to the Gnostic Mass. It was one of those “AHA!” moments for me.) I believe Crowley used the phrase “Mystery of Mystery” with the expectation that his audience would be familiar with Darwin’s iconic introduction. As such, the congregants would share in Darwin’s awe of those primal forces from which all life has emerged. By making this reference Crowley ensures that the congregant understands that this Mass does not celebrate some distant metaphysical concept or ill-defined supernatural deity, but rather the most immediate mysteries of existence: Where does life come from? What is the point of our existence? What is the energy we call life? Why are we born? Why do we die? The first and last questions that we all ask.
The Gnostic Mass presents these inscrutabilities in ritualistic form. It is a dramatization of the Mysteries of every individual life and of the nature of life itself- not the vicarious story of one individual or a pageant of ancient and mythic events.
The concepts of Evolutionary Biology bring some illuminating context to Crowley’s solar phallic symbolism. For instance, at a climactic moment upon the third step, the Priest again invokes the Mystery of Mystery:
“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.”
This could allude to how the open exchange of energy between the earth (the Mother of us all) and the Sun (Our Lord in the Universe) is the driving factor behind the movement of energy that we call life (Our Lord in Ourselves) – the energy traveling out from the Sun and putting on the form of biological life. This life-force has more fanciful names in occult literature: Chi, the generative power, Phalle, Kundalini and so on, but in Darwin’s terms it is simply the “origin of species”. The perpetuity and variety of life can definitely be described as a radiance which enlightens the world as well as a concept which can equalizes all gods and even challenge the idea of death.
These are just a few examples of the clarity that the doctrine of evolution brings to the symbolism of the mass. I heartily recommend those interested to familiarize themselves not only with modern thought on the topic, but also with the works of Herschel, Darwin, and Haeckel – those unknowing initiates that inspired Crowley. As Crowley states, the Gnostic Mass is an enthusiastic celebration of these sublime forces of nature. The Mysteries that it presents are the Mysteries of our very bodies, the force that beats our hearts and drives us to live and love. What is this energy which puts on the form of a body only to cast it off again so soon? Where does it originate? Where is it going? These are the Mysteries that all Gods have been invented to explain. These are the questions that lay at the very root of the “religious instinct”.
These are indeed the very Mystery of Mystery.
Love is the law, love under will.