Aleister Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis: An introduction

“We are the Poets! We are the children of the wood and stream, of mist and mountain, of sun and wind! We are the Greeks! and to us the rites of Eleusis should open the doors of heaven, and we shall enter in and see God face to face. Under the stars will I go forth, my brothers, and drink of that lustral dew: I will return, my brothers, when I have seen God face to face and read within those eternal eyes the secret that shall make you free. Then will I choose you and test you and instruct you in the Mysteries of Eleusis, oh ye brave hearts, and cool eyes, and trembling lips! I will put a live coal upon your lips, and flowers upon your eyes, and a sword in your hearts, and ye also shall see God face to face. Thus shall we give back its youth to the world, for like tongues of triple flame we shall look upon the Great Deep – Hail unto the Lords of the groves of Eleusis!”

Aleister Crowley in “Eleusis”

In order to induce this religious ecstasy in its highest form Crowley proposes to hold a series of religious services; seven in number. These services are to be held at Caxon Hall, Westminster, and will be conducted by Aleister Crowley himself, assisted by other Neophytes of the A.A., the mystical society ( not the common group now using these same letters)

The seven services will be typical of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, and each one will be dedicated to the Planet that rules its particular age. For example, Saturn “the lean and slippered pantaloon,” or sad old age. Jupiter the solemn and portentous justice, the serious and serene man who has arrived and controls. Mars the soldier, full of energy and life, vigorous and formidable. Sol the man who has still something of his youth left, and is gay betimes and serious betimes, the man who loves and the man who works. Venus explains itself in Shakespeare’s words “the lover with a woeful ballad.” Mercury the schoolboy, happy, careless and gay, mischievous and full of animal life. Luna the age of childhood and innocence, unsmirched and white as the planet herself.

Each will have its own ritual, arranged for the purpose of illustrating the particular deity to which it is devoted; each ritual will be both poetic and musical. Verses of the great poets appropriate to the planet and all that the planet represents will be recited, and the ideas suggested to the spectators will be translated into inspired music by a accomplished violin player. There will further be mystical dances by a brilliant young poet who thus draws down the holy influence.

We put the mind of the spectator in tune with the pure idea of austerity and melancholy which we call Saturn, or the idea of force and fire which we call Mars, or with the idea of nature and love which we call Venus, and so for the others. If he becomes identified with this one idea the union is one of ecstatic bliss, and its only imperfection is due to the fact that the idea in question, whatever it may be, is only partial. Ecstasy is therefore progressive. Gradually the adept unites himself with holier and higher ideas until he becomes one with the Universe. To him there is no more Death; time and space are annihilated; nothing is, save the intense rapture that knows no change for ever.

Let us add a short analysis of the present series of rites; they may be taken as illustrating Humanity, its fate both good and evil. Man, unable to solve the riddle of existence, takes council of Saturn, extreme old age. Such answer as he can get is the one word despair.

Is there more hope in the dignity and wisdom of Jupiter? No; for the noble senior lacks the vigour of Mars the warrior. Counsel is in vain without the determination to carry it out. Mars, invoked, is indeed capable of victory: but he has already lost the controlled wisdom of age; in the moment of conquest he wastes the fruits of it, in the arms of luxury.

It is through this weakness that the perfected man, the sun is of dual nature, and his evil twin slays him in his glory. So the triumphant Lord of Heaven, the beloved of Apollo and the Muses is brought down into the dust, and who shall mourn him but his Mother Nature, Venus, the lady of love and sorrow? Well is it if she bears within her the secret of resurrection!

But even Venus owes all her charm to the swift messenger of the Gods, Mercury, the joyous and ambiguous boy whose tricks first scandalize and then delight Olympus. But Mercury, too, is found wanting. Not in him alone is the secret cure for all the woe of the human race. Swift as ever, he passes, and gives place to the youngest of the Gods, to the virginal Moon.

Behold her, Madonna-like, throned and crowned, veiled, silent, awaiting the promise of the future. She is Isis and Mary, Istar and Bhavani, Artemis and Diana. But Artemis is still barren of hope until the spirit of the Infinite All, Great Pan, tears asunder the veil and displays the hope of humanity, the Crowned Child of the Future. All this is symbolized in the holy rites which we have recovered from the darkness of history, and now in the fullness of time disclose that the world may be redeemed.

For the corruptible shall put on incorruptibility, the mortal shall put on immortality; my adepts shall walk crowned in the Gardens of the World, enjoying the breeze and the sunlight, plucking the roses and filling their mouths with ripe grapes. They shall dance in the moonlight before Dionysus, and delight under the stars with Aphrodite; yet they shall also dwell beyond all these things in the unchanged Heaven- Here and Now

Reprinted from “The Sketch” of 24th August 1910

“Working on tradition, just as Wagner did when he took the old Norse Saga for his world drama, we find Saturn as a Black, Melancholy God, the devourer of his children. Ideas of Night, Death, Black Hellebore, Lead, Cypress, Tombs, Deadly Night-shade. All these things have a necessary connection with Saturn in the mind of anyone who has read the classics. The first condition of this rite is, then, to make the temple a kind of symbolic representation of the sphere of Saturn. So the representative of Saturn wears the Black Robe. The time is declared to be midnight (though, as a matter of fact, it is only twenty minutes past eight – this is an ordinary theatrical convention, and the masons will think of certain analogies in their own “Orgies”). If the Brethren are fed, it is “on the corpses of their children” as Saturn fed on his. If they drink, it is “Poppy-heads infused in blood” – symbols of sleep and death. Saturn further represents the earth, the plane of matter, humanity bounded by old age and death, humanity blindly groping after illumination and failing to get it.”

Aleister Crowley in “The Rites of Eleusis. Their Origin and Meaning”

This attention to occult and traditional symbolism was carried through by Crowley into the design and setting of the stage itself. Even the position of the characters at the opening of each Rite was, in conjunction with the props, representative of some piece of occult symbolism which Crowley felt to be appropriate. Thus the opening scene in The Rite of Saturn presented a cabbalistic diagram, that of Jupiter the “Wheel of Fortune of the Tarot”, Mars an astrological plan, and so on.

It was the competence of the soloists that really carried the Rites, and accounted largely for whatever modest success they enjoyed. Leila Waddell with her violin, Crowley with his recitations, and (Victor) Neuburg with his dance, each seemed to capture some of that ecstasy of which Crowley spoke, and if any of it was transmitted to the audience it was through their enthusiasm. Victor Neuburg with his wild dance was, by popular consent, the most impressive of the performers. Untrained in any form of dance as such, Neuburg had either developed the performance spontaneously, or more likely evolved it from his observations of tribal “trance dances”.

The competence of its soloists was not, however, enough to make a success of the Rites. Already weakened by inadequate financial backing and haste of preparation, they were crushed altogether under the weight of hostile criticism. Rather then making a profit for the A.A., as Crowley had intended, the performances probably scarcely covered costs.

What is certain is that the Rites of Eleusis Stand as a (largely forgotten) landmark in the histories of both the occult and the theatre. Half a century before the “experimental theatre” of the sixties and the seventies, Crowley and his small band were pioneering a form of theatre with transcendental manipulations and a level of audience involvement until then undreamed of. “Ahead of its time” The Rites of Eleusis accordingly suffered the usual fate of the boldly experimental.

Quotes from Keith Richmond in “The Rites of Eleusis”

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