When I first told friends I was going to a meeting of the New York Ordo Templi Orientis branch, called Tahuti Lodge, the general consensus was that I should try not to die, and I should avoid sexual contact.
They were a bit worried because O.T.O., supposedly founded in Germany in the late 19th century, has been described (by no less a source than the Daily Mail) as a "Satanic sex cult." The socialite Peaches Geldof had apparently joined sometime last year, when she was spotted with an O.T.O. tattoo; the Mail and other tabloids quickly followed up with screaming articles about the most famous leader of the "sinister 'religion,'" the sex-obsessed English occultist Aleister Crowley. When Geldof died earlier this year, a dozen or so highly trafficked conspiracy websites highlighted her connection to the group.
(O.T.O., its fascinating PDF FAQ makes clear, is "not a cult." It is, it clarifies, "a California tax-exempt, not-for-profit, religious corporation" that is "officially recognized by the United States government as a non-profit 501c(3) religious organization.")
As it turned out, neither of my friends' concerns proved necessary. The most trouble I had was figuring out which of the many groups clustered in Washington Square Park on a beautiful summer evening was the Tahuti Lodge. What is the protocol for this kind of thing? Should I ask strangers if they're magicians? Is there a password?
The meetup invitation said "We'll Be Meeting Up On The East Side Of The Fountain," so I was looking for a group of unhinged-looking people, possibly in the robes I had seen in their main ritual, the Gnostic Mass. There was a big stage set up on the east side of the square that seemed promising, but the security guy just stared at me blankly when I asked if he was from the OTO. A group of rail-thin women in their 40s looked like they might be into kabbalah and juicing, but probably not sitting naked on an altar.
As it turned out the meetup consisted of two people brown-bagging wine and eating pretzels on the edge of the fountain. I only managed to identify them because one—Frank, a middle-aged dude with a greying ponytail—was holding a pamphlet. He was all in black, with a couple of silver earrings and a red and black tribal-looking tattoo down his forearm, which he described using phrases like "the line of God, broken."
Frank's companion was a blonde woman in her thirties, wearing leather flip-flops and designer sunglasses. I failed to write her name down, because when I told her I was a journalist her face hardened and she jerked her hand from mine. "Those are not our favorite," she said, shortly. "There have been some incidents."
Incidents like the Mail's coverage of Geldof's tattoo, or a Guardian article in which the group is referred to as a "stupid cult" that believes in "sex magic."
Half of that is definitely true. O.T.O. follows the laws of Thelema, a mystical religion based on the teachings of Aleister Crowley. ("Our Order is composed of serious men and women dedicated to the Art and Science of Magick," according to the pamphlet Frank gave me.)
The serious men and women of O.T.O. are also dedicated to sex. Crowley called Thelema a "solar-phallic religion," which involves, I guess, worshiping the sun and penises. (They're also expressly Christian). As you rise up through the orders—there are nine, technically, with a bunch of confusing intermediates—you learn Tantric wisdom, and maybe eat what Crowley called the Elixir of Life, either semen or a mix of semen and vaginal secretions (the U.S. O.T.O. orders deny that they do this). The "final secret," when you reach the top, is a sex thing, but nobody could tell me what it is.
After a couple of awkward minutes around the fountain, a third member showed: George, an adjunct professor with a Ph.D. in esotericism and (like Frank) a greying ponytail. George had just come from a conference on the occult. This was his first time in New York, so he asked about good goth clubs.
George was extremely friendly and happy to share his extensive knowledge of O.T.O. with me. More than happy, really; there is a distinct possibility if I hadn't eventually put up one finger and turned to someone else, I would still be in Washington Square Park listening to him.
O.T.O. didn't technically start with Aleister Crowley—he dated it back to the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, but it seems to have been founded by a German Freemason named Carl Kellner around 1895—but he became its spiritual leader shortly after joining in 1910. By 1925, Crowley had pushed out all rivals to power, including the O.T.O. members who had introduced him to the society, and he was elected Outer Head of the Order, a position he held until his death in 1947. (O.T.O., which has suffered a decline in membership since WWII, is currently led by William Breeze, a member of the English industrial band Coil, using the name Hymenaeus Beta.)
An ambitious wizard, Crowley brought with him the complicated hierarchy and many of the occult trappings, composing the Gnostic Mass and integrating Thelema into the teachings of O.T.O. He also brought OTO a great deal of notoriety. The British tabloids called Crowley the "Wickedest Man in the World," (indeed, they still are!) but he actually liked that. What he didn't appreciate was being called a practitioner of black magic. In 1934 he sued a British paper for libel, and won, on the grounds that while he was a magician, he was definitely not a black one.
The magicians I met did not seem particularly wicked. Kyler, the tarot-card reader who always hangs out in Washington Square in a wizard hat, is apparently an OTO member, too, and he periodically swung by our group chat to drop important details, like that he's publishing the Secret of the Red Truck, a book about a love triangle that "takes on time, madness, religion, incest, art and Freud," according to one of the cover blurbs (out July 8!).
The woman told us the story of running into Kyler at a bar while on an OKCupid date with an investment banker. "[The banker] didn't know I was into the occult—I don't usually lead with that. So I was like, oh shit. But it turned out OK." Her sorority sisters are also not into the occult, she told us.
Later a bald guy with a giant beard stopped by to talk about his self-made mystic religion. After that we talked about our dogs for a while. No one produced Elixir of Life, and there didn't seem to be much else to do, so we made our excuses and drifted off into the evening.
Cult name: Ordo Templi Orientis
Year founded: 1904
Spiritual leader: Aleister Crowley
Most famous member: Peaches Geldof
Slogans: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law"; "Love is the law, love under will."
Sample Ranks: Minerval; Magician; Perfect Magician, and Companion of the Holy Royal Arch of Enoch; Prince of Jerusalem; Sovereign Prince Rose-Croix, and Knight of the Pelican & Eagle; Theoreticus, and Very Illustrious Sovereign Grand Inspector General; Perfect Pontiff of the Illuminati; Rex Summus Sanctissimus.
Should you join this cult? If magic, Tantric sex, and cheap wine do it for you, I can't think of a reason why not.
Cult Rush Week is an ongoing series in which Cat Ferguson attends introductory and informational sessions for cults and other esoteric organizations in the New York area. If you know of a cult, email her.