Reading lists for the religious

The student syllabus for Jim Eshelman’s A∴A∴ branch contains the following books:

  • The Equinox (Crowley, 1909–1913)
  • Raja Yoga (Vivekananda, 1896)
  • The Shiva Samhita (trad., English translation Shri Chandra Vasu, 1884), or The Hathayoga Pradipika (Svatmarama)
  • Konx Om Pax (Crowley, 1907)
  • The Spiritual Guide (Molinos, first English edition 1688)
  • 777 (Crowley, 1909)
  • Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Levi, 1861) or Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual (Levi, trans. Waite, 1910)
  • The Goetia (Crowley & Mathers, 1904)
  • Tannhauser (in the Collected Works, Crowley, 1905–1907)
  • The Sword of Song (in the Collected Works, Crowley, 1905–1907)
  • Time (in the Collected Works, Crowley, 1905–1907)
  • Eleusis (in the Collected Works, Crowley, 1905–1907)
  • The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage (von Worms, trans. Mathers, 1897)
  • The Tao Teh Ching (Sacred Books of the East edition, 1892)
  • The Writings of Kwang Tze (Sacred Books of the East edition, 1892)

For readers lacking excessive familiarity with Crowley’s works, this reading list is lifted verbatim from 1912’s The Equinox Volume I Number VIII, having appeared earlier that year in The Equinox Volume I Number VII minus the last two items. It’s aim was to avoid “the unnecessary strain thrown upon Neophytes by unprepared persons taking the Oath of a Probationer” by creating a three month “student” grade. The student had to pass an examination in these books prior to being admitted to the grade of Probationer, where he was “expected to show a thorough acquaintance with them, but not necessarily to understand them in any deeper sense.”

There are several things to note about this list:

  • Given that some of the items effectively require the student to acquire the Collected Works, it contains substantially all of Crowley’s works up to that point in time, minus a few items including some of the “Holy Books”, White Stains, etc.
  • It contains some other modern works include Raja Yoga, Levi’s Transcendental Magic, and some modern translations from Mathers, including the Book of Abramelin and the Goetia.
  • It contains a small number of traditional Taoist and Hindu texts, as well as some exercises by the founder of the Quietists.
  • It is not clear which versions of the Spiritual Guide or the Hathayoga Pradipika Crowley had access to, but it is reasonable to assume that he was using relatively modern translations. With the possible exception of these two, the earliest works on this list date to 1884, a mere twenty-eight years before the list was compiled.

The point of examining this list in depth becomes clear when we note that the A∴A∴ branch previously referred to requires its students to possess printed copies of these works (apparently Regardie’s Gems from the Equinox can be substituted for the Equinox set) and requires an examination in them to be passed.

It is worth noting that Præmonstrance of A∴A∴ in The Equinox Volume III Number I in 1919 said that “the instruction of the A∴A∴ is therefore as precise and definite as a University course.” This brings us to the first peculiarity with this list. As noted, when Crowley issued this list in 1912, he included substantially all of his own works, and – with the possible exception of the two works noted previously – only included items published within the preceding 28 years. Yet, Eshelman’s order continues to prescribe this exact same list for its student grade 98 years later, with no changes. Now, if you were considering enrolling in a “University course”, and discovered that its reading list contained practically no works less than 100 years old, would you think it likely that you were going to obtain some quality instruction? Almost certainly not.

Not even any of Crowley’s later works make it onto Eshelman’s student curriculum, including the commentaries to The Book of the Law, Magick, Liber Aleph, Little Essays Toward Truth, Magick Without Tears, Eight Lectures on Yoga, and the like. It also fails to include later works which Crowley continually made reference to – and which appeared on later curricula that he issued, most notably in Magick in Theory and Practice – including Frazer’s The Golden Bough, James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, various philosophical, Hermetic, Rosicrucian and gnostic works, various scientific treatises, further Buddhist, Hindu and Vedantic texts, and others.

This reading list was prepared relatively close to the beginning of Crowley’s “magical” career, which started in 1898, fourteen years previously, but which continued for a further 35 years until his death in 1947. If Crowley were to have reissued this student list in 1947, it is inconceivable that he would not have modified it substantially.

Furthermore, more than 62 years have passed since Crowley died, and Crowley’s entire magical career lasted just 49 years from 1898 through 1947. Better and more scholarly versions even of Crowley’s own works have appeared since then, not to mention more scholarly versions of some of the other works listed, most notably of some of the hermetic and gnostic works. Philosophy and physical science have advanced immeasurably since 1912, and many accessible and practical introductions to such subjects are available which simply weren’t available at the beginning of the last century.

It should be clear that this “curriculum” is indicative of a purely religious attempt to revive a fossilized version of an order which existed during the golden Equinox age of Crowley’s career. These works are not selected because they are the best works for a student to study, but purely because Crowley listed them in one of his early works. The curricula Eshelman presents for the other grades of his “outer order” also consist of nothing but Crowley’s own early works, again lifted almost verbatim from the curricula in The Equinox Volume III Number I in 1919.

This is clearly an organisation which is not even remotely serious about its stated aims. Remember that when Crowley started the A∴A∴, he was almost doing so from scratch. Although he was drawing from older sources – most notably the Golden Dawn and his own version of yogic practices – the actual system he was creating was new in that form, and largely untested. Any organisation serious about its aims, and any organisation whose leaders had even the slightest aptitude in their subject, would be developing and improving this system continually, incorporating the results and experiences of themselves as well as their own members, just as any other “University course” would continually develop as a result of new research. Yet this organisation does not do so, and prefers instead of advocate nothing but a slavish and dutifully religious reperformance of a largely theoretical system Crowley wrote down in the early twentieth century (there are no records of anyone actually making it step-by-step through all of the grades of even the outer order of Crowley’s A∴A∴, in the same form that he prescribed it.)

Crowley’s A∴A∴ was little more than a tentative experiment, an attempt to create a universal system of attainment. It was also an experiment which largely failed. Even if the underlying idea were sound, to slavishly replicate a failed attempt at it is foolish. Many of the specific instructions (the attempt to “think backwards” in Liber Thisharb, the instruction to “test your endurance with…club-swinging” in Liber E, the admonition to “…wear a rich head-dress. A crown of gold adorned with sapphires and diamonds with a royal blue cap of maintenance” from Liber NV being obvious examples) are just plain ridiculous, and others (including the practice of cutting the arms with razor blades in Liber Jugorum and his advocation of “oaths of obedience”) are mere codifications of Crowley’s own predilections and psychological blocks. Many of the instructions of the A∴A∴ (including memorising chapters of The Book of the Law, and sitting in an asana with a saucer of water on one’s head) were nothing but artificial obstacles serving little other purpose than to demonstrate allegiance to Crowley and his system, and have no connection whatsoever to development or attainment.

Worshipping the system that Crowley created – which is what Eshelman’s order is doing – shows a lack of imagination, a lack of commitment, and a simple lack of seriousness. There is clearly no interest in actual self-development, here, but merely in going through the motions, engaging in a role-playing game of sorts. His own website states:

In this matter we give but one sage piece of advice: “By their fruits shall ye know them!” The Works of the Adept, the fruits of his or her garden, are the signs of his or her attainment.

or, in this case, a lack of such fruits.

This phenomenon is, of course, not limited to Eshelman’s order. We have written in other places, most notably in What’s so great about the Great Work?, about the tendency of many occultists to view the “Great Work” as a religious, rather than an actual, endeavour. But Eshelman’s fossilised and empty approach to running an entire order provides a prime example of what happens when one worships Crowley, “lineages”, and systems, instead of actually focusing on the task at hand in a meaningful and practical way.

Some folks are often criticised for attempting to move “beyond Crowley”, but we’re faced with some simple facts. Firstly, Crowley’s been dead for over 60 years – we’re already “beyond” him, whether we like it or not. Secondly, many of his ideas and his instructions were varying mixtures of “crazy” and “wrong” even at the time he wrote them, and a lot has happened since then; although some elements would apparently like us to believe that knowledge hasn’t advanced since 1912, we fortunately don’t have to listen to them. Thirdly, Crowley did have some good ideas, but he was having a good day if he was able to organise the archetypal piss-up in a brewery, so attempting to replicate his attempts in that arena is a bad idea from the outset.

The moral of the story is that anyone interested in their own self-development should be focused on – surprise, surprise – their own self-development, and not on replicating someone else’s failed system. Anyone who instead attempts to dutifully and religiously engage in a stage performance of a century-old system which never worked in the first place has only got themselves to blame if it doesn’t work out for them.

18 Comments on “Reading lists for the religious”

By Transversegirl. May 13th, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for writing this post. This is exactly the argument I have been making for several years now. Excellent!

By VRST. May 17th, 2010 at 3:08 am

“Jim Eshelman Lost His Marbles” – it says so on his own website.

By CR. May 18th, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I agree, good post.

By Tukan. September 2nd, 2011 at 7:29 am

Do you think, that there are any modern enough “lineages” to be useful tool of thelemic development for its users?

By Erwin. September 2nd, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Frankly, I don’t think the A∴A∴ is a “useful tool” at all, even if it were updated. Anyone looking for “Thelemic development” needs to work along the general lines suggested in Fundamentals of Thelemic Practice. There’s nothing that joining an order like the A∴A∴ can add to that, and a lot that it can take away.

Certainly, as groups like the A∴A∴ currently stand, all the pieces relating to magick, spurious philosophy, claims of mystical supernatural powers, and the like, can and should be safely thrown out of the window. This is 2011 – nobody should be taking any of that stuff seriously anymore. There’s no amount of “modernizing” that can make that kind of thing any less foolish and risible.

By Tukan. September 3rd, 2011 at 9:42 am

Thanks for the answer.

I think that your suggestions from Fundamentals of Thelemic Practice are very essential and complete like Dzogczen in Tibetan Buddhism.

For me A∴A∴ system in it’s core is not that bad. I mean working with someone who is “higher” than you and helping someone who is “lower”. That kind of relations could be very beneficial and supporting for all its users. Chosen practices and beliefs are only addons.

By Tukan. September 3rd, 2011 at 9:52 am

I mean that tripod is most stable figure and we need that stability when we are trying to find our will. It could help us from being deceived by ourself (conscious mind).

By Weronica. September 6th, 2011 at 2:39 am

Practices of awareness from Fundamentals of Thelemic Practice are very good but do you know ANYONE who achieved his Will through them?

By Weronica. September 6th, 2011 at 2:43 am

Excluding you. :)

By Erwin. September 7th, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Tukan – the practical problem will become apparent if you join one of these organizations. What you’ll find is that they’re filled with the kind of people you see on internet forums, comic book conventions, UFOlogy lectures, and drum circles. They may be “higher” than you in the organization, but you’ll be disappointed if you think they’re going to be able to provide much meaningful guidance in the way of finding your will.

On a more fundamental level, the raw material you’re dealing with is your own self, as you correctly point out. Neither this nor your interactions with it are things that anyone else can observe or assess. Once you strip the “chosen practices and beliefs” away, you’re really not left with anything that anyone can be sensibly guide you on, even in principle, which is why the model fails when you do that.

By Erwin. September 7th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Weronica – anyone who has “achieved their will” has done it through a process similar to the one described in that essay. Even if someone manages to find success through “occult” practices – and, for the sake of argument, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they really have found success, and aren’t just imagining it – then all that will have happened is that those practices will have, almost in spite of themselves, achieved the same ends as the ones set out in that essay. Whether they set out to deliberately perform specific exercises closely resembling the ones described in the essay is beside the point – if they achieved their will, then they did it through that kind of process, in one way or another.

“Achieving the will” is, to simplify it enormously, a question of observation. It is accomplished by: (a) getting better at observing; and (b) actually doing it, and these are the steps outlined in that essay. There is no other way.

By Tukan. September 11th, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for answer. I’ve contacted with Ray Eales “lineage” to check your words by myself. There is nothing like an experience. ;)

By Weronica. September 23rd, 2011 at 3:34 am

There is one unclear thing for mi in your practises of awareness and I think that this comes from mixing practises from two unfitting traditions (Buddhism and Thelema).

“All the aspirant can do is to develop his ability to perceive clearly, and then to wait patiently for those patterns to make themselves clear to him(…)”

And that is clear but next step is ALWAYS an intellectual analysis: when you perceive a pattern you have to say that is/isn’t a pattern that comes from your will. In your practises the final step is analysis. In Buddhist meditation you only stay with your experience so you cannot deceive yourself. In your version you may deceive yourself with agreeing/not agreeing with what you have observed thus we are back to the beginning.

By Erwin. September 24th, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Well, the solution to mixing practises from two unfitting traditions is….don’t mix them, or at least don’t confuse them. They’re not the same. This is Thelema, here – we’re not trying to accomplish the same goals as Buddhism, so it’s not surprising if you see differences between the two.

But to infer that under my method the “next step is ALWAYS an intellectual analysis” is not only missing the point, but completely misreading the essay. The extract immediately before the one you quoted is:

It is completely fatal to success to go looking for these patterns, to search them out and to actively infer the will. The reason should be obvious; to do this is to seek to create a conscious formulation of the will, and we have already stated the dangers of attending to this formulation instead of to the actual will.

Observing the patterns is something more akin to learning to drive, or learning to play a musical instrument, than it is to intellectual analysis. At first, when you do some of these things, you’re in total confusion; there’s a lot going on, and you don’t really know what to do with any of it. But, with application, ability starts to grow in spots, and as ability grows bigger, those spots start to join together and you suddenly find competence appearing to spring out of nowhere. The “patterns…make themselves clear”, and you don’t “go looking for” them.

Immediately after, in the same essay, it says:

The purpose of consciously formulating the will is, as we have said, categorically not to guide his action, but merely to inform his conscious mind of what it needs to be doing to help the will achieve fulfilment.

“Consciously formulating the will” is not in the least bit problematic if you don’t make the mistake of confusing that formulation for your actual will, and avoiding this is trivially simple once it twigs what the will actually is, and the way your conscious mind relates to it. If you “deceive yourself with agreeing/not agreeing with what you have observed” then you are making precisely the mistake that the same paragraph of the essay you quoted is warning you not to make. It’s an equivalent mistake to printing off a set of travel directions from mapquest, and then thinking those directions remove the need for you to actually look out the window at where you’re going while you’re driving. If your directions are wrong, then if you’re paying attention you discover this fact pretty quickly, because you end up not going where you want to be going. If you think the directions are what counts, and that’s the only thing you need to look at, then you’re going to be lost for the rest of time (presuming you don’t crash and die within a few minutes, which in this case, you probably will).

In short, you have yet to fully grasp what that essay is talking about. This stuff can take some time before it starts making sense. Easy for me to say, admittedly, but the best remedy is to just follow the instructions in that essay for a while without arguing or intellectualising about them, because this will give you experience of the raw material which is being discussed.

By will. November 12th, 2011 at 8:26 pm

I presume you didn’t read all the books then!
reading all those books gives you a very good grounding in the spiritual path and in occult matters. Why not reas that list? It’s a great list. You could pick another list, but that would just be another list. The point is to dedicate yourself to a task and to finish it. Fussing over the Student Curriculum simply shows that you are missing the point.

By Erwin. November 13th, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Why not reas that list? It’s a great list.

I already explained in the entry what’s wrong with it. You can’t begin your comment with “I presume you didn’t read all the books then”, and then come out with something like this. At least not if you want to be taken seriously.

You could pick another list, but that would just be another list.

That’s your response? It’s a “great list” because any old list will do? Did you spend even five seconds thinking about the comment you just wrote?

The point is to dedicate yourself to a task and to finish it. Fussing over the Student Curriculum simply shows that you are missing the point.

And here we go again with the cognitive dissonance. If “the point is to dedicate yourself to a task and to finish it”, then any old task will do, and you’ve just demonstrated my point about how astonishingly inane and pointless this entire farce is.

If you just want “to dedicate yourself to a task and to finish it”, then for heaven’s sake, pick something better than reading a bunch of crappy occult books. No wonder you people are so inept at dealing with the world if this is the best you can come up with.

And that’s before we even get to the fact that the “point” is “to avoid ‘the unnecessary strain thrown upon Neophytes by unprepared persons taking the Oath of a Probationer'”, as was clearly stated, and not “to dedicate yourself to a task and to finish it” at all.

By Al. March 4th, 2012 at 12:27 pm


If we were to revise this reading list what would it be? Assuming we think there is some merit to the spiritual traditions the student curriculum emphasizes, what would be a improved and up-to-date version of the curriculum?

Are there any magickal orders that are for real? That aren’t simply fossilized, role-playing, failed experiments etc? Or is it better for one to figure it out on their own? I guess one would have to do that in the end anyway regardless of what order they joined right?

is it true that Crowley made it through all the grades of the order he created? Or is that just his ego?

Thanks for this site. Very thought provoking stuff!

By Erwin. March 5th, 2012 at 10:18 am

If we were to revise this reading list what would it be?

It would depend on the goals of the organisation, I suppose. But, the fundamental problem with the “as precise and definite as a University course” claim is that this subject just isn’t. There’s a good case to be made that it’s not a real subject at all. For an AA variant, you’d expect some more up-to-date works on there certainly, most prominently post-1912 writings, but even then this isn’t a real academic subject where real research is conducted about real things – it’s largely fantasy.

Are there any magickal orders that are for real? That aren’t simply fossilized, role-playing, failed experiments etc?

No. Practically by definition. There aren’t any “for real” leprechaun hunting squads either, for instance.

Or is it better for one to figure it out on their own? I guess one would have to do that in the end anyway regardless of what order they joined right?

Yes, one would. Even if you accept the idea that being in a “magical order” has the benefit of having “superiors” around who can provide guidance and feedback, you still have the practical problem of the quality of the people in it. Just take a glance through many of the “occult” forums on the interweb, and you’ll get a pretty good indication of the quality of goon you’re going to find in these “orders”. Do you really want to trust that kind of whacked-out social reject to “guide” your “spiritual quest”? I wouldn’t.

is it true that Crowley made it through all the grades of the order he created?

It’s true that he said he made it to the top grade. Obviously he never took the grades up to Adeptus Minor in his order, because he took those in the Golden Dawn before the AA existed.

It’s fairly safe to assume that he didn’t perform many of the instructions that he set for the lower grades. He wasn’t even remotely consistent about promoting people based on the “strict” criteria he set out. Stansfeld Jones, for instance, was promoted directly from Neophyte to Magister Templi without passing through the intermediate grades, and he’d quite regularly admit people directly into the IX degree of the OTO. On top of that, he never really had more than a handful of followers; the entire structure of the AA in particular was a bit of a sham, certainly in the way he presented it.

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