Originally it was intended to be modelled after and associated with European Freemasonry, such as Masonic Templar organizations, but under the leadership of Aleister Crowley, O.T.O. was reorganized around the Law of Thelema as its central religious principle….
Similar to many secret societies, O.T.O. membership is based on an initiatory system with a series of degree ceremonies that use ritual drama to establish fraternal bonds and impart spiritual and philosophical teachings.
O.T.O. also includes the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC) or Gnostic Catholic Church, which is the ecclesiastical arm of the Order. Its central rite, which is public, is called Liber XV, or the Gnostic Mass.
The early history of O.T.O. is difficult to trace reliably. It originated in Germany or Austria between 1895 and 1906. Its apparent founder was Carl Kellner (probably with the German spelling Karl), a wealthy Austrian industrialist, in 1895 (although nothing verifiable is known of the Order until 1904).
Theodor Reuss (1855–1923) collaborated with Kellner in creating O.T.O., and succeeded him as head of O.T.O. after Kellner’s death. Under Reuss, charters were given to occult brotherhoods in France, Denmark, Switzerland, the U.S.A. and Austria. There were nine degrees, of which the first six were Masonic.
In 1902, Reuss, along with Franz Hartmann and Henry Klein, purchased the right to perform the Rite of Memphis and Mizraim of Freemasonry, the authority of which was confirmed in 1904 and again in 1905. Although these rites are considered to be irregular, they, along with the Swedenborg Rite formed the core of the newly established Order.
Reuss met Aleister Crowley and in 1910 admitted him to the first three degrees of O.T.O. Only two years later, Crowley was placed in charge of Great Britain and Ireland, and was advanced to the X° (tenth degree). The appointment included the opening of the British section of O.T.O., which was called the Mysteria Mystica Maxima or the M∴M∴M∴. Crowley then went to Berlin to obtain instructional manuscripts and the title of Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all the Britains within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis. Within the year Crowley had written the Manifesto of the M∴M∴M∴ which described its basic ten-degree system with Kellner’s three degree Academia Masonica forming the seventh, eighth and ninth degrees.
In 1913, Crowley composed the Gnostic Mass while in Moscow, which he described as being the Order’s “central ceremony of its public and private celebration”. In 1914, soon after World War I broke out, he moved to the United States of America. It was around this time that Crowley decided to integrate Thelema into the O.T.O. system, and in 1915 prepared revised rituals for use in the M∴M∴M∴.
In 1917, Reuss wrote a Synopsis of Degrees of O.T.O. in which the third degree was listed as “Craft of Masonry” and listed the initiations involved as “Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, Master Mason” and elaborated on this with “Full instruction in Craft Masonry, including the Catechism of the first three degrees, and an explanation of all the various Masonic systems”. The same document shows that the fourth degree of O.T.O. is also known as the Holy Royal Arch of Enoch. It was summarized by Reuss as the Degree of “Scotch Masonry,” equivalent to “Scotch Mason, Knight of St. Andrew, Royal Arch”, and he described it as “Full instruction in the Scottish degrees of Ancient and Accepted Masonry”.
In 1919, Crowley attempted to work this Masonic-based O.T.O. in Detroit, Michigan. The result was that he was rebuffed by the Council of the Scottish rite on the basis that O.T.O. rituals were too similar to orthodox Masonry. He described this in a 1930 letter to Arnold Krumm-Heller:
However, when it came to the considerations of the practical details of the rituals to be worked, the general Council of the Scottish Rite could not see its way to tolerate them, on the ground that the symbolism in some places touched too nearly that of the orthodox Masonry of the Lodges.
Crowley subsequently rewrote the initiation rituals of the first three degrees, and in doing so removed most of those rituals’ ties to Masonry. He did not, however, rewrite the fourth degree ritual, which remains in its form and structure related to the various Royal Arch rituals of Masonry.
Crowley wrote that Theodore Reuss suffered a stroke in the spring of 1920. In correspondence with one of Reuss’s officers, Crowley expressed doubts about Reuss’s competence to remain in office. Relations between Reuss and Crowley began to deteriorate, and the two exchanged angry letters in November 1921. Crowley informed Reuss that he was availing himself of Reuss’s abdication from office and proclaiming himself Outer Head of the Order. Reuss died on October 28, 1923 without designating a successor, though Crowley claimed in later correspondence that Reuss had designated him. Crowley biographer Lawrence Sutin, among others, casts doubt on this claim, although there is no evidence for or against it, and no other candidate stepped forward to refute Crowley by offering proof of succession. In 1925, during a tumultuous Conference of Grand Masters, Crowley was officially elected as Outer Head of the Order (or O.H.O.) by the remaining administrative heads of O.T.O.
During WWII, the European branches of O.T.O. were either destroyed or driven underground. By the end of the war, the only surviving O.T.O. body was Agapé Lodge in California, although there were various initiates in different countries. Very few initiations were being performed. At this time, Karl Germer, who had been Crowley’s representative in Germany, migrated to the USA after being released from Nazi confinement. On March 14, 1942, Crowley appointed him as his successor as Outer Head of the Order, and Germer filled the office after the death of Crowley in 1947.
After Crowley’s death Germer attempted to keep O.T.O. running, with questionable success. Crowley had granted a charter to run an O.T.O. Camp in England to Gerald Gardner, and Germer acknowledged Gardner as the O.T.O.’s main representative in Europe. The two men met in 1948 in New York to discuss plans, but Gardner’s continuing ill health led to Germer replacing him with Frederic Mellinger in 1951. Also in 1951 Germer granted a charter to run an O.T.O. Camp in England to Kenneth Grant, who had briefly served as Crowley’s secretary during the 1940s. Grant was to be expelled and his charter revoked in 1955 however, and from that time onwards the O.T.O.’s representative in the U.K. was a IX° member, Noel Fitzgerald.
Germer died in 1962 without naming a successor. It was not until 1969 that Grady McMurtry invoked emergency authorization from Crowley and became the Frater Superior of O.T.O. McMurtry did not claim the title of Outer Head of the Order, stating in 1974 that “There is at present no Outer Head of the Order for Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis. The Outer Head of the Order is an international office (see p. 201, The Blue Equinox) and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis is not at this time established organizationally to fulfill the requirements of its Constitution in this respect.” He began performing initiations in 1970. O.T.O. was incorporated under the laws of the State of California on March 26, 1979. The corporation attained federal tax exemption as a religious entity under IRS Code 501(c)3 in 1982. Grady McMurtry died in 1985, having successfully saved O.T.O. from possible extinction.
McMurtry requested that members of the Sovereign Sanctuary of the Gnosis (i.e. the members of the Ninth Degree) elect the next Caliph, which they did in 1985. William Breeze was elected, taking the name Hymenaeus Beta. In the Fall 1995 issue of The Magical Link, he is designated “Hymenaeus Beta X°”; in the Fall 1997 issue of The Magical Link, he is designated “Hymenaeus Beta XI°”; by May 2005, he is designated “O.H.O. Hymenaeus Beta XII°” on the O.T.O. website.
In 1996, Sabazius X° was appointed as National Grand Master General (G.M.G.) for the U.S. Grand Lodge. In 2005, Frater Hyperion X° was appointed the National G.M.G. of the newly formed UK Grand Lodge. Frater Shiva X° was appointed the G.M.G. of Australia Grand Lodge in 2006.
Membership in O.T.O. is based upon a system of initiation ceremonies (or degrees) which use ritual drama to establish fraternal bonds between members as well as impart spiritual and philosophical teachings.
The degrees also serve an organizational function, in that certain degrees must be attained before taking on various forms of service in the Order (e.g. taking the degree of K.E.W. is a requirement for ordination as a priest or priestess in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica).
There are thirteen numbered degrees and twelve un-numbered degrees which are divided into three grades or “triads”—the Hermit, the Lover, and the Man of Earth.
Admittance to each degree of O.T.O. involves an initiation and the swearing of an oath which O.T.O claims is similar to those used in Freemasonry.
Advancement through the Man of Earth triad requires sponsorship from ranking members. Advancement into the degree of the Knight of the East and West and beyond requires one to be invited by ranking members.
The ultimate goal of initiation in O.T.O. is “to instruct the individual by allegory and symbol in the profound mysteries of Nature, and thereby to assist each to discover his or her own true Identity”.
The entire system is as follows:
The Man of Earth Triad
- I°—Man & Brother
- III°—Master Magician
- IV°—Perfect Magician & Companion of the Holy Royal Arch of Enoch
- P.I.—Perfect Initiate, or Prince of Jerusalem
Outside all Triads
- Knight of the East & West
The Lover Triad
- Sovereign Prince Rose-Croix, and Knight of the Pelican & Eagle
- Knight of the Red Eagle, and Member of the Senate of Knight Hermetic Philosophers
- Illustrious Knight (Templar) of the Order of Kadosch, and Companion of the Holy Graal
- Grand Inquisitor Commander, and Member of the Grand Tribunal
- Prince of the Royal Secret
- Theoreticus, and Very Illustrious Sovereign Grand Inspector General
- Magus of Light, and Bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica
- Grandmaster of Light, and Inspector of Rites & Degrees
The Hermit Triad
- Perfect Pontiff of the Illuminati
- Epopt of the Illuminati
- IX°—Initiate of the Sanctuary of the Gnosis
- X°—Rex Summus Sanctissimus
- XI°—Initiate of the Eleventh Degree (This degree is technical, and has no relation to the general plan of the Order)
- XII°—Frater Superior, and Outer Head of the Order
- The Man of Earth Triad
The governing bodies of O.T.O. include:
- Presided over by the Outer Head of the Order XII° (O.H.O.—also known as Frater Superior)
- Supreme Council
- The Sovereign Sanctuary of the Gnosis of the IX°
- The Secret Areopagus of the Illuminati of the VIII°
- The Grand Tribunal of the VI°
- The National Grand Lodge
- Presided over by the National Grand Master X°
- Executive Council
- The Supreme Grand Council
- The Electoral College
- International Headquarters
- The International Headquarters is the body that governs O.T.O. worldwide. As a ruling body, it is known as the International Supreme Council, which consists of theOuter Head of the Order (O.H.O.—also known as Frater Superior), the Secretary General, and the Treasurer General.
- The Sovereign Sanctuary of the Gnosis consists of members who have reached the IX°. Their prime duty is to study and to practice the theurgy and thaumaturgy of the degree, consisting of the Supreme Secret of the Order. However, as a ruling body, they have the authority to
- ratify and overturn the rulings of the Areopagus
- act as representatives of the O.H.O. and National Grand Masters when need arises
- fill the office of Revolutionary
- vote within the Secret Areopagus
- have some powers over the installation and removal of the O.H.O. and National Grand Masters
- The Secret Areopagus of the Illuminati is a philosophical Governing Body composed of those who have reached the VIII°. It has the authority to reverse the decisions of the Grand Tribunal.
- The Grand Tribunal is composed of members of the degree of Grand Inquisitor Commander (a sub-degree of the VI°). Their primary duty is to hear and arbitrate disputes and complaints not resolved at the level of Chapters and Lodges.