The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites
By Martin P. Starr (2003, Tietan Press)
Aleister Crowley is known for many things, but tact was not one of them. The man who called himself “The Master Therion” spent much of his life alienating his followers when he wasn’t living off them. He passed away at a boarding house in England, where he lived in poverty. In his final years, Crowley grumbled about the problems his flock had with each other. Most books, which study Crowelanity and his philosophy known as Thelema (Greek for “will”), do not delve into the lives of his followers since Crowley himself was such a colorful character. Plus, Crowley wrote and documented so much that there is plenty to discover. Every year brings another one of his writings back into print. Uncle Al was a great man for creating organizations and one of them was the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Eastern Temple) which he repurposed for his own use after receiving the charter from German Freemason Theodore Reuss. Reuss gave Crowley the patent to set up an English branch of his quasi-masonic organization, which was to be called the Mysteria Mystica Maxima (MMM). Crowley ended up taking over the whole outfit so that by the time Reuss passed on to the great ashlar in the sky, only Crowley’s branches were in full operation.
The first and almost final branch of his OTO was in Vancouver, of all places. A group of working class occult students happened on Crowley’s writings and was able to get their own lodge off the ground. The Unknown God concerns their efforts to make a functional mystical order while trying to hold down day jobs and raise families. Author Martin Starr has unprecedented access to the papers of many of these people and produced one of the best historical books about mysticism in North America as it existed in the first half of the twentieth century. Someday there will be a follow-up to this book, but it will be a long time before anyone can do the kind of research Starr has accomplished. Moreover, many of the people he interviewed for this book have passed on and are no longer with us.
The Unknown God focuses on Wilfred T. Smith, an Englishman who immigrated to Canada in search of work and ended up on the west coast of Canada. There he became friends with another one of Crowley’s followers, Charles Stansfield Jones. Both joined Crowley’s mail order Argentum Astrum, a Golden Dawn type organization. Later they would recruit friends and family to start the Agape Lodge, the first OTO lodge in North America.
Starr focuses on the day-to-day life of these people through their letters, publications and occasional interviews. As you read Smith and other’s own words, it’s possible to immerse yourself in a world where the only way you could communicate was through the mail or maybe a telegram. It is to their credit they accomplished so much with such obstacles in their way. Eventually, most of them would end up in sunny California where the Great Work would continue in Pasadena. The book also shows the sad end of their efforts as the last Outer Head of the Order, Karl Germer, passes on in 1962. He never initiated anyone and assumed the OTO would not survive his death.
Where this book shines is in the petty squabbles shown between different members of the lodge. For instance, Smith has a common law wife whose young daughter from a previous relationship comes to live with them. Charles Stansfield Jones, already married, becomes infatuated with the new girl. Not to be outdone, so does Smith. Smith eventually wins out and has a child with her, much to the consternation of his previous partner. It all comes to head in a letter where the different members of the lodge write a letter to Master Therion and describe their miniature Peyton Place. Crowley’s solution: go have group sex and quit bothering me with your petty issues!
There are plenty of photographs of the people mentioned in the book. There is even one of Smith in Middle Eastern robes, which was taken by a professional photographer. Most of the photographs are casual, and show the less-than-fabulous existence most of these people lived. You look at a picture of balding, frail Winifred Smith and wonder how this man was able to be such a Don Juan with the women of the OTO. Guess it must have been the accent.
The back of the book is loaded with appendices from Crowley, Smith’s journals and various letters. It all helps to put the events described in the book into perspective. The one thing I would like to find is the acetate recordings made of Smith and the California lodge performed in the 1930’s for the gnostic mass Crowley wrote. There are photographs reproduced of Smith and his current lady in the roles of priest and priestess.
There are some loose ends I would like to have seen resolved. For instance, when Smith decides to move to California in the 1930’s and seek work as an accountant, he leaves behind his wife and child. They disappear from the narrative soon after and I would’ve liked to have known what became of them. Likewise, Smith has another child in the 1950’s, but we never find out what happened to him. Perhaps it’s beyond the scope of the book, but it does make me wonder.
For a close view of the functioning, or disfunctioning, of a secret lodge prior to the Age of Aquarius, you can find few books as informative as The Unknown God. I highly recommend this work, although it does fetch a high price on Amazon. However, you can easily get it through interlibrary loan in the United States, which is what I did.
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