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Ordo Templi Orientis

This article was written by John Michael Greer on April 01, 2005
posted under Ordo Templi Orientis

(Latin, "Order of Oriental Templars") One of the largest magical orders in the world today, the Ordo Templi Orientis emerges from the complicated world of central European fringe Masonry in the early twentieth century. Its beginning dates back to 1895 when Freemasons Carl Kellner (1851-1905), a wealthy Austrian industrialist, and Theodor Reuss (1855-1923), a journalist and former opera singer, began discussing the possibility of forming a "Masonic Academy" of esoteric studies.

Kellner was a serious student of yoga and Tantrism, and claimed to have studied sexual esotericism in the 1880s from three teachers—the Sufi Soliman ben Aifa and the Hindu tantrikas Bhima Sena Pratapa and Mahatma Agamya Paramahamsa. On the other hand, both men were involved in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an English magical order of the time which taught a system of sex magic based on the work of American occultist P.B. Randolph. The methods of sex magic later taught by the OTO bear a close enough relationship to Randolph’s methods that the existence of Kellner’s Asian teachers has been called into doubt on more than one occasion…

The year 1912 saw another major event in OTO history, for it was in this year that Reuss encountered Aleister Crowley and elevated him to the positions of Rex Supremus for Britain and Ireland. Crowley immediately went to work building up a British branch of the order under the name Mysteria Mystica Maxima (MMM). His reputation was already bad enough in the British occult community that he found only a limited number of takers for the new order—a detail that did not prevent him from making sweeping claims about its size and influence…

Within a few years of his advancement to X°, Crowley began revising Reuss’ rituals to make them conform more closely to his philosophy of Thelema. He also renamed most of the degrees and added several intermediate steps, using titles imported from or modeled on various Scottish Rite degrees…

Reuss’ death in 1921 left no clear successor, and few of the order’s branches managed to survive for long. (Crowley’s English branch certainly did not; it had gone out of existence after a police raid in 1917, although Crowley initiated a handful of new members before his death in 1947.) The events of the next several decades are a thicket of claims, counterclaims, and accusations involving a dozen different claimants to OTO headship, which there is neither room nor need to summarize here. In the English-speaking world, Crowley’s standing as OTO head was widely accepted, although by his death in 1947 the OTO under his jurisdiction consisted of one small lodge in Pasadena, California, which dissolved a few years later. The fight over Crowley’s legacy was just as contentious as Reuss’ had been, and for some twenty years thereafter the OTO consisted of a handful of people scattered over two continents, few of whom were on speaking terms with any of the others, and even fewer of whom were apparently working the OTO rituals at all.

This state of affairs began to change in 1969, when an American, Grady McMurtry (1918-1985), under the title Hymenaeus Alpha, announced that he had been given charters by Crowley to act as Caliph or deputy while visiting the Beast in England in 1943. The existence and validity of these charters is a topic of endless and bitter dispute throughout the current OTO scene, though it is clear that McMurtry was in contact with Crowley during the Beast’s last years, and had some form of authority over the one American OTO lodge.

Notwithstanding these disputes, McMurtry proceeded to resurrect the OTO and turn it into one of the larger magical lodge organizations of the twentieth century. In the process, he managed to provide Crowley’s ideas with a far larger audience than the Beast himself had ever been able to find. The great majority of the revival of Thelema in North America and Europe in the last quarter of the twentieth century can be credited to the revived OTO.

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