DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions related herein are strictly my own. They do not represent any kind of official stance of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, Ordo Templi Orientis, or anyone else.
The Gnostic Mass is an incredibly deep, complex, multi-layered ceremony. It seems to be an inexhaustible source of meaning and illumination. This is because the Mass itself represents the Mysteries. These are not the secrets that are known by some and guarded from others, but the “Mystery of Mystery” Itself. It represents in dramatic form that which is “secret and ineffable,” “beyond speech and beyond sight,” and “beyond all term.” It celebrates “that most holy mystery.”
As The Master Therion says, “Since truth is supra-rational, it is incommunicable in the language of reason” (Postcards to Probationers), and “all real secrets are incommunicable” (Magick in Theory & Practice). The Gnostic Mass therefore “refers to a knowledge incommunicable—save by experience” (Temple of Solomon the King). This knowledge attained through experience is what is meant by gnosis, the direct experiential “knowledge” that is not (and can’t be) communicated with words – it can only be hinted at through symbol and allegory, like fingers pointing to the moon. And this is one reason our Church is the Gnostic Catholic Church. As the Master Therion says, “ye shall comprehend, when, rising above Reason, which is but a manipulation of the Mind, ye come to pure Knowledge by direct perception of the Truth” (De Lege Libellum).
One issue I see in some individuals’ writings and understanding of the Gnostic Mass is that they often get quickly “locked in” to a certain symbolic interpretation being “right.” For example, the most common I see is the understanding that the Creed or the Officers represent the formula of Tetragrammaton (YHVH) and nothing else. Since the nature of the Mysteries is that they are, by definition, not exhaustible or completely explainable through language, there is therefore a theoretically infinite amount about them that one can say or write. Because of this, what is expressed below is most certainly not exhaustive in its explanation of anything in the Gnostic Mass. What follows is neither official nor “Absolutely True,” but it is intended to offer different perspectives in the hopes of widening and deepening one’s understanding and appreciation of the Gnostic Mass.
There are technically 4 “roles” filled by 5 individuals in the Gnostic Mass: (1) The PRIEST, (2) The PRIESTESS, (3) The DEACON, and (4) The two CHILDREN. I am going to go through each one and briefly discuss different ways of understanding the Officers symbolically. This will not be an incredibly in-depth analysis because the intent is to make these different perspectives known in order to broaden and deepen one’s understanding, not to make an academic-intellectual case for one or the other. It is also intended to leave room open for one’s own scholarship, fantasy, and experience.
Before beginning, it is important to remember what is said in the 5th Aethyr, “there could be nothing true except by virtue of the contradiction that is contained in itself.” That is to say: Each symbol is not “X to the exclusion of not-X.” Something may very well symbolize something and its exact opposite. One example is the symbolism of “darkness” and “night”: It can symbolize the darkness of the uninitiate’s ignorance or it can symbolize the highest attainment of NOX, the dissolution of All into None. Remembering this, no explanation of symbolism can ever be “logically consistent” because logic insists on something being either X or not-X; symbolism works with something beyond logic – something “supra-rational” – where meanings combine, oppose, intertwine, and interrelate in many different ways.
1) John Everyman: A Man Among Men
The Priest, in many senses, represents every individual. In particular, the Priest is a representation or archetypal expression of each of the Congregants. This is reflected in the Priest’s words when he exits the Tomb: “I am a man among men.” It even says in the rubric of the Gnostic Mass that “The PRIESTESS and other officers never partake of the Sacrament, they being as it were part of the PRIEST himself” (emphasis added). He is the natural protagonist of the Gnostic Mass, although I very much agree with several people who mention that the Priest, Priestess, and Deacon are each the protagonist from their own point-of-view. Nonetheless, the Priest is the one who undergoes “the Hero’s Journey” in the mythopoetic drama of the Gnostic Mass, and individuals often naturally will identify with him. This relates to the next symbol:
2) The Conscious Self: The Subject
The Priest is the natural “protagonist” and symbol with which people identify most readily because he symbolizes the conscious self. One could say the Priest represents the “ego,” but he is deeper than that: He is the Self that expresses itself through the ego on a “lower level”. The Priest is the individuality of each individual. For comparison, one could say the Priest is the Self and the Deacon represents the ego with all of its mental-rational capabilities (memory, volition, imagination, desire, reason) that assists the Self. Qabalistically, one can think of the Priest as Tiphareth, the Sun, and the Deacon as representing the Sephiroth surrounding and aiding it. Again, since the Priest represents the conscious self, he naturally represents the Subject of awareness and represents each individual’s Subject-hood. In relation to this, the Priestess represents the Object. In terms of the language of Yoga, the Subject of awareness unites with the Object of awareness in samadhi, or non-dual awareness.
3) The Yod of Tetragrammaton: The Father of Life
In the symbolism of Tetragrammaton, the Priest can represent the “Yod” (YHVH). This Yod relates to the Father, the King, the Element of Fire, and the magical weapon of the Wand. The Priest is called “Lord” and calls himself “Priest and King,” identifying himself with the “Kingly” element of Yod. The Priest bears the Sacred Lance, which is a form of the Wand, a phallic instrument of force and power (but it is not the exact same thing as the Wand, as will be mentioned later). The Lance (Yod) combines with the Chalice (Heh), further emphasizing this connection. Further, he is clothed in scarlet, a shade of red which is attributable to Fire and therefore to Yod. Further: On his second step toward the Veil, the Priest identifies with Hadit, the heart of every man and the core of every star, which is the ultimate Paternal idea beyond even notions of gender. In the Creed, the “Father of Life” is called CHAOS, who is identifiable with “Therion” (The Great Beast 666), which are all Father-Force symbols attributable in the Qabalah to the 2nd Sephirah, Chokmah. All these things go to reinforce the fact that the Priest can be identified as the Yod of Tetragrammaton, the Father-King of Life.
4) The Vav of Tetragrammaton: The Sun/Son
To further complicate things (as is natural with symbolism), the Priest can be identified with the Vav of Tetragrammaton (YHVH). On the Tree of Life, Yod can be attributed to Chokmah, Heh to Binah, Vav to Tiphareth (and the surrounding Sephiroth), and Final Heh to Malkuth. In this scheme, Vav is attributed to the Sun, and the Priest is called the “Priest of the Sun” by the Priestess. Further, in the incestuous Qabalistic drama of Tetragrammaton, the Son/Prince is said to marry the Daughter/Princess and set her upon the Throne of the Mother. This is explicitly seen when the Priest says, “I, PRIEST and KING, take thee, Virgin pure without spot; I upraise thee; I lead thee to the East; I set thee upon the summit of the Earth.” The Priest then literally sets the Priestess upon the Throne in the East. As it says in the 4th Aethyr, “And this is that which is written: Malkuth shall be uplifted and set upon the throne of Binah.” In this sense, the Priest begins as the Prince/Son and, by virtue of his interaction with the Princess/Daughter, uplifts her to become Queen/Mother and he assumes the place of King/Father.
Again: the symbolism intertwines and overlaps in many ways. At the end of the Gnostic Mass, the Priest consumes the two-fold Eucharist and, in the attitude of Resurrection, proclaims that “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.” This is the traditional symbol of Osiris who died and was reborn, and the attitude of Resurrection was called “the Sign of Osiris Risen” in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was attributed to the Sephirah of Tiphareth (that was, in turn, attributed to the grade of 5=6, that of the formula of LVX, IAO, and INRI, i.e. Life-Death-Rebirth). In a certain way, the Gnostic Mass represents the “perpetuation of the Tetragrammaton,” which is to say that it represents evolution (One becoming Many, Creation) and involution (Many becoming One, Attainment) and evolution again, et cetera ad infinitum. In this light, Crowley comments on the quotation from the 4th Aethyr mentioned above, “This mystery of the Daughter awakening the eld of the all-Father and thus perpetuating Tetragrammaton is of great importance.”
5) The Masculine Operator in Sexual Magick
As if it is not already obvious from the previously mentioned symbolism (and the Mass itself), the Priest represents the masculine operator in sexual magick. I say “masculine” because he represents one half of the equation, and each individual “soul” is androgynous, containing both male and female (and all other opposites) in itself. In this way, in Hindu symbolism, the Priest represents Shiva and the Priestess is Shakti. This is reflected in Atu XI: Lust where Babalon (Shakti) is astride the Beast (Shiva). From this symbolism, one comes to wonder why the Priest is constantly identified as the “active” element in this duo when the symbolism repeatedly points to Babalon-Shakti as the more “active” participant – the masculine seems to often be “along for the ride,” so to speak. She’s the one who came down and pulled the Priest out of the Tomb, after all. In fact, Babalon is literally on top of the Beast in Atu XI, and – during the Collects – the Priestess can be seen above the Priest as they exchange their loving glances and breath.
Alchemically, the Priest is the Red Lion who interacts with the White Eagle, combining their essences in the hermetic vessel (or Grail) in order to produce the Elixir of Life, the Stone of the Philosophers, the Arcane Substance, the Two-in-One (et cetera). This alchemical symbolism is shown most explicitly in Atu VI: The Lovers where the Chymical Marriage takes place, and the result of their Consummation is shown in Atu XIV: Art.
6) Parsival: The Fool’s Journey
The Priest represents Parsival, specifically the character from Wagner’s opera. The Master Therion was obviously most fond of this allegory and he references it in many different works. In fact, he notes that “The dramatic setting of Wagner’s Parsifal was arranged by the then head of the O.T.O.” (i.e. Theodor Reuss). He explains that “Parsifal in his first phase is Der reine Thor, the Pure Fool” (The Book of Thoth), so the Gnostic Mass can be seen as the archetypal narrative of “the Fool’s Journey.”
Consider this: The Priest issues from the Tomb in white, symbolizing purity and innocence, just like that of Parsifal in the first Act of Wagner’s opera. Next, “Parsifal seizes [the sacred lance]; in other words, attains to puberty.” This is shown by the 11 strokes of the Lance by which the Lord is made present among us; further, going back to the symbolism of Tetragrammaton, this shows the Priest attaining “spiritual puberty” represented by the Lance (Vav) by which he may unite with the Daughter (Final Heh) and set her upon the Throne of the Mother (Heh). As the Master Therion explains, “the Fool: the innocent and impotent Harpocrates Babe becomes the Horus Adult by obtaining the Wand. ‘Der reine Thor’ [the pure fool] seizes the Sacred Lance. Bacchus becomes Pan. The Holy Guardian Angel is the Unconscious Creature Self – the Spiritual Phallus. His knowledge and conversation contributes occult puberty” (Liber Samekh).
Next, Parsifal must seek Monsalvat, the Mountain of Salvation, that is the same as “Abiegnus” the sacred mountain of Rosicrucians (as well as Mount Sinai, Mount Meru, the world-ash wonder-tree, and all other symbols of the axis mundi) that is symbolically shown as the High Altar in the East. The Master Therion continues, “Where is Monsalvat, the mountain of salvation, which he has sought so long in vain? He worships the lance: immediately the way, so long closed to him, is open.” This is seen in the Priest’s three circumambulations of the Temple in darkness, led only by the Light of the Sacred Lance, which eventually brings him to the Veil of the Sanctuary. Then, “Accordingly, to redeem the whole situation, to destroy death, to reconsecrate the temple, he has only to plunge the lance into the Holy Grail; he redeems not only Kundry, but himself.” This is seen in the moment of the Lance plunging the particle into the Grail with the simultaneous orgasmic “HRILIU” from Priest and Priestess. It is from this “mixture,” the Eucharist infused with Godhead Itself, that the Priest (and the People) can partake and arise as that which may truthfully proclaim, “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.” This is one reason that the Sacred Lance is not just another name for the magical implement of the Wand. Without the Lance, the entire symbolism of Parsifal’s “Fool’s Journey” (the connections of which goes much deeper than the above) is almost completely lost.
Again: This list is not exhaustive, nor is the symbolism of any of those meanings listed above completely fleshed out. The idea is to show there are many interconnected, intertwining, overlapping sets of symbolism by which one can more fully appreciate the mysterious depths of the central ceremony of Ordo Templi Orientis.
[→ Part 2: The Priestess →]