Randolph and Thelema
Since at least the 1980s it has been in vogue in some Thelemic circles to focus on Reuss and Crowley’s IX° mystery as the end all and be all of Thelemic Magic; the core Thelemic Secret. This requires understanding the IX° as something novel to Crowley, rather than understanding that it was something well known in esoteric circles as early as his first pre-O.T.O. contact with Reuss, who by Crowley’s account collared him for having published it in Book of Lies.(Deveney, 1997; Kaczynski, 2010, p. 251) As we discussed in regards to Victor Neuburg, Crowley’s importance is his evolution of the IX° Mystery to the XI° Mystery; a truly pansexual and pangender sex mystery for the modern era.
This understanding, which some prominent Thelemites have gone to pains to conceal by redirection, begs the question: If Crowley’s magical life and work was the development of the XI°, and his practice of the IX° was merely refinement, who did “invent” the IX°? Of course there is no one secret. Crowley notes the occurrence of similar mysteries in many cultures. In terms of who refined that secret into a magical mystery in the Western Tradition, and passed it to Reuss and Crowley there is, to a considerable extent, an answer:
No one in the esoteric world truly “invents” anything; like authors, esotericists are ultimately the sum of their influences. The core currents of sexual magic had begun to coalesce in the late 18th century, and antecedents to his work can be seen in the work of one of his major influences, John Murray Spear, whose engenderment with Sarah Newton of the “New Motor” certainly presaged his theories.
But Spear left few detailed records and most of the other authors of the early and mid 19th century were understandably timorous in their treatment of sex mysteries. Randolph, like Crowley, was a prolific author leaving a vast record of his work and realizations in language as open as was possible when writing about sexual mysteries in the mid 19th century. Unlike Crowley, the majority of his work went through multiple editions and reprints and was translated within his lifetime. Randolph had a first rate mind and the ability at synthesis that would characterize the work of the Theosophical Society Esoteric Section, the Golden Dawn and, later, Reuss and Crowley.
Randolph’s ideas were dramatically more modern than those of roughly contemporary sexual mystics, such as John Humphrey Noyes or John Murray Spear, and more purely esoteric than those of mystics like Alice Bunker Stockholm. Randolph’s ideas were not merely an influence, but the literal core of the system brought forward by Reuss and Crowley.
Randolph’s Life and Influence
Any short writing on Randolph must be heavily indebted to John Patrick Deveney’s excellent 1996 biography Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician (SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions).
In his excellent introduction to Deveney’s work, Surrealist historian activist and poet Franklin Rosemont frames Randolph’s significance. “More than any American of his time, he drew the lessons of “pure psychic automatism” and exemplified the quest to determine that “point in the mind” signaled by Andre Breton in his Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929), “where life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.”(Deveney, 1997, p. xviii)
Randolph’s importance to us is, to some extent, because his life highlights the degree to which the esoteric has always been very much connected with non-traditional mores and sexuality, “Deveny” Rosemont continues, “devotes much attention to Randolph’s multifarious activities in the international subterranean community of scholars, poet, madmen and charlatans known as ‘the occult,’ which – and this too is significant – was one of the few milieux in which serious discussion of love was possible at the time,” a view which contributes to our understanding of Thelema not just as a practice but as a major sexual and intellectual counterculture.(Deveney, 1997, p. xix)
In his introduction, Deveney says, “From the early 1860’s he was “The Rosicrucian,” associated in the popular mind with crystal gazing, drugs (especially hashish), secret Oriental brotherhoods, and sex. He was infatuated with women from his earliest years and also spent most of his mature life trying to improve the lot of women trapped in Victorian marriages by teaching his notions of true sexuality. Beyond this, however, and fundamentally he was a practical occultist and a sexual magician, with a coherent and imaginative view of the universal role of sexuality….He was the forerunner of modern occultism and it was to him more than anyone else that the transformation of the occult world from the 1870s through the 1890s is due.”(Deveney, 1997, p. xxi)
Though Randolph himself claimed the inevitable chain of ancient authorities from Melchizidek and so on down, Deveney discusses the way in which Randolph’s contributions came to be trivialized. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, Theosophists and others found a fine selling point in presenting the concept of a great cultural war on 19th century materialism and the mundanity of contemporary parlour trick spiritualism. In their conception hidden adepts, the “Secret Chiefs” of Golden Dawn lore sent forth adepts to begin the battle. The problem Deveney suggests, is that rather than being seen as building an altogether new thing, these adepts must be viewed as only partially successful or failed, since they had not, after all, brought about a New Aeon.
Randolph’s own message focused, not on some battle against the prevailing currents of the world but, rather, on personal experience and transformation, and he consolidated the trinity of experimentation through psychotropics, sexuality, and skrying.
Birth and Early Life
Growing up in the notorious Five Points district of New York City where “nearly every house and cellar is a groggery below and a brothel above,”(Deveney, 1997, p. 2) Randolph’s family was deserted by his father, and after his sister contracted smallpox he lived in the almshouse of Bellevue Hospital, then after his mother’s death with a sister, and after with an English actress at Simpson’s Park Theater, Harriet Jennings Whitehead. His adoptive father George Jennings was a gambler, and Randolph went door to door begging for food in a basket. “Thus at less than ten years old I had become proficient in knowledge of the shady side of human nature, which had better have been postponed to a riper and steadier period of my life.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 3)
Randolph lived as a bootblack, then as cabin boy aboard the brig Phoebe on the Cuba run, where he was bullied by the sailors and contemplated suicide. His self-description is familiar to many intellectuals who have been bullied “a lonely man – one with a massive and active brain, but thin, weak and puny body – therefore an unbalanced character.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 2)
After an accident, he was able to leave the sea and settled in Maine where he picked up the dyer’s trade and barbering, and also some school. He taught himself to read from posters, writing with chalk on fences. Despite this beginning or, perhaps, because of it, he became a formidable writer with a wide acquaintance with literature.
The Influence of Race
New York had been a slave state, with a gradual abolition from 1799 to 1827. Despite being legally free, laws prevented most African-Americans from voting and restricted what professions they could enter. Race riots in 1834 had virtually eradicated the already thin system of education provided by the Quakers. Randolph would struggle for most of his life with profound discrimination which forced him at various times to claim a variety of ethnic ancestry.
“’You will, no doubt, long since have observed that my cuticular hue is not, in purity and clearness, quite up to the popular standar, and I know Public Opinion has a thousand times tried me for that crime, found me guilty, and sentenced me to living death time and again.’”(Deveney, 1997)
The adversity faced by Randolph cannot be understated. If he was defensive, it was with good reason. Even when a black person found a foothold in society, they were in constant danger of reversal, faced with endless hassles and aggressions. Deveney comments that Randolph travelled extensively, crossing the Atlantic three times and traveling through the Near East, as well as across America. “The list of his travels is impressive for the time, but behind the mere recitation must lie an endless series of rebuffs and insults and a constant background tension as he braced himself against the inevitable challenge and insult. The diaries of Randolph’s contemporary, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, are filled with references to the constant battles he engaged in whenever he stepped onto a train or boat and faced the demand that he remove himself to the baggage car, and Randolph’s travels must have been filled with similar abuse.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 7)
The importance and impact of this cannot be underestimated. In a time when most of us dread petty hassles, and avoid phone calls, Randolph’s life was one long string of tiring confrontations. Despite this he accomplished a phenomenal amount and left a profound legacy.
Randolph the Spiritualist
The spiritualist movement was, from the outset, progressive. Despite throwbacks, it is important to understand that the mainstream of the esoteric movement has generally been socially progressive. Says Deveney “on a more mundane, political level, it is fair to say that there was not a single early spiritualist who was not also a reformer and abolitionist and whose views on the spirit world were not intermingled with often radical theories on the abolition of slavery, marriage reform, fringe medicine, feminism, socialism, natural foods, dress reform…phrenology, prohibition, the abolition of taxes, universal insurance schemes, the water cure and the like.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 10)
The relationship of spiritualism to Free Love, the earliest manifestation of stable social polyamory, is not too far off from today. “While not all spiritualists were free lovers, it is probably fair to say that most free lovers were spiritualists.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 6)
Randolph’s attitudes on sexuality and free love were complex, but spiritualist and social reformer John Murray Spear seems to have left a permanent impact on him. Spear’s notion of universal sexual polarities would form a core which, passed along through Randolph, can be seen in Thelema and Liber XV. Spear’s idea of bringing the New Motor to life can be seen in final forms in Crowley’s “IX° Emblems and Modes of Use”(Crowley, orig. date unk, c. 1930) paper, while his doctrine that “human sexuality and the sexual union were but limited particularlizations (Deveney, 1997, p. 17) of this universal sexuality,” presaged both IX° and XI° mysteries. He bitterly condemned certain branches of the “Free love” movement, and broke with spiritualism around 1858 along lines similar to Thomas Lake Harris, whose name appears repeatedly in Randolph’s writings.
Randolph would spend the end of the fifties as a disciple or, at least, inspired by Spear. He would later write of his time under Spear’s influence as a radicalization and insanity, but in his firm break with spiritualism there was much to be said for making a public renunciation and clean slate. It is clear that he maintained the core of Spear’s teaching and energy, and if one credits the teachings of spirits, his teachings emanate from the spirits that informed Spear.
During this period, Randolph travelled widely and was received in spiritualist and Mesmerist circles in England and France. Deveney believes he likely performed before Emperor Napoleon III. It was on these trips that he acquired a working knowledge of magic mirrors and the use of psychotropic substances to facilitate esoteric exploration.
Rejection of Spiritualism
Randolph rejected Spiritualism between 1858 and 1860, writing a series of denunciations. His motives seem to have been sincere, and also motivated by abuses. In his condemnation of the “Modern Times” movement on Long Island, he speaks of Stephen Pearl Andrews who “had brains enough to gather not a few cracked-head, passion-driven fools about him, all of whom considered rape and seduction a fine art and justifiable and hailed concubinage as lofty gospel.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 12)
Here, Randolph deals with the great dichotomy of the movement towards sexual freedom. The laws of society may completely repress sexuality but they also somewhat limit sexual exploitation and rape, though in many cases they do little more than turn rape into a monopoly enjoyed by the “legal husband” in a sanctioned and close ended sexual servitude, but the relaxation of those laws allows for exploitation and harm. Three decades in the spiritualist community had led to what would, today, be considered high profile consent violations. Randolph’s rejection then takes the form, not as a wholesale rejection of sexuality or free association, but rather a sort of contemporary #metoo, a rejection in particular of male dominated groups which tolerated or furthered sexual abuses.
Understanding that sexual freedom must be based on consent and individual will was an advanced concept in the 19th century. Randolph and Crowley both made stabs at it, though both were hampered by the lack of adequate language and the freedom to publish what they thought. Even in the present day, it remains a struggle. This is supported by the experiences of Randolph’s colleague Spiritualist and Theosophical Society founding member Emma Hardinge Britten. In the 1850s, she experienced encounters we would today consider coercive if not outright non-consensual, and was made into an opponent of “free love.” Ironically, Britten did perhaps even more than Blavatsky to forward the doctrine of the “invisible hand of Secret Chiefs,” a device which, as it has become embedded in Western Esoteric thinking, has as often as not been used to justify abuse, both sexual and otherwise.
Randolph’s rejection of spiritualism involved an embrace of Christianity, but it did not play out along the lines of other “reformed” non-Christians. He turned, not to puritanism, but to the mirror and occultism, practices which gave control over the spirits rather than rendering one their mouthpiece and impotent tool. Nevertheless he was forced to leave his property and, cheated out of the revenue of its sale, he found himself struggling to survive by 1860. He shifted his prodigious talent at speaking to paper and began to produce the first of a long string of important works. In doing so, by 1862, he produced “Dealings with the Dead; The Human Soul, Its Migrations and Its Transmigrations,” (1862) which Deveney calls “The first major shot in the battle that was to transform naive American spiritualism into “occultism.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 103) He adds that the work is heavily reflected in Blavatsky’s “Isis Unveiled” (1877). In this work can be seen the genesis of the doctrine that would become Thelema’s concept of the Holy Guardian Angel.
Post War Career – Activist and Politician
Randolph enjoyed a short career as a political activist and educational advocate after the Civil War. Devensey suggests that he had a certain self-destructive streak “Randolph proceeded to act as a firebrand, alienating his sponsors, an action that was absolutely characteristic of him. Driven by some feeling of punctilio of honor or of exaggerated honesty, or impelled simply by the urge to destroy what he achieved, Randolph sooner or later always bit the hand that was feeding him.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 164)
While Devensey speaks here of his criticism of elitist Creole blacks, he reserved his strongest attacks for Northern Abolitionists.
The ultimate picture which Devensey presents is of someone conflicted about his Black heritage and understandingly frustrated and probably provoked to seething rage by the condescending forces, mostly white, who wished to create the post-war world, teaching Freed Blacks, rather than listening to them. At a Post-War Unionist Convention in New Orleans, for example, Randolph had credentials as a Delegate, however Black attendees were not allowed to be official Delegates and his credentials were refused. Randolph was able to speak, but was forced to appear as the “ward” of a white editor.(Deveney, 1997, p. 169)
Understood in a modern context, particularly in light of writing emanating from the BLM movement, his resentment and fierce rejection of “well meaning” white activists who sought to speak for Black people while denying their voice may appear as a reasonable limit on being patronized by supposed “betters.” If his bitterness was not always directed in the most constructive direction it was, by any measure, not unwarranted.
The Rosicrucian Period
Randolph made a trip to the Near East from 1861-1862 where he may have encountered the culture of the Ansaireh or Nusa’iri, generally known today as the ‘Alawis or Alawites, a religious minority which, through the vagaries of Middle Eastern politics, today includes the ruling party of Syria. This presumed contact would form the basis for his most important teachings in sex magic, though by his own admission, his teachings were largely his own.
While he had been active as a Rosicrucian for some years, and had founded a Rosicrucian Lodge in San Francisco on his own authority in 1861 and the War period and afterward saw renewed interest and focus on Rosicrucianism, including a series of Rosicrucian novels, notably Ravalette (1863).
One of Deveney’s great services is disentangling Randolph’s past from a mythology largely constructed from his writing by Reuben Swinbure Clymer, whom he describes as “The great myth maker about Randolph and the source of most of the pseudo-history of Randolph that has circulated in occult circles in this century.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 140) Randolph’s San Francisco Order seems to have survived and supplied the pedigree of Clymer’s Rosicrucian FRC, still headquartered in Pennsylvania. The organization over years would have numerous conflicts with Spencer Lewis’ AMORC. His name still appears on the FRC web page as the organization’s founder.
Publisher and Occultist
Randolph formed a publishing company by 1870 in Boston. However, in 1872, he became enmeshed with several ne’er do well backers who he later considered to be frauds. By the end of their fallings-out, he was arrested for obscenity. One of the backers may have been trying to get his copyrights. He denounced his former partners, but Deveney suggested that he did not come out poorly for the experience, though he emerged “book rich and money poor.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 200)
Randolph was freed after a judge determined that the work was not “obscene” under the meaning of the statute, serving only a couple of days in jail. He capitalized on this by quickly printing “The Great Free Love Trial,” an almost entirely fictional work which has been taken as historical by several biographers. He was never tried for obscenity, but lost everything in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, escaping with “only his copyrights and some of the plates for his books, and with what was left of his reputation.”(Deveney, 1997, p. 204)
Randolph moved to Toledo, then a center for radical thought, as a spiritualist and doctor. He suffered a fall while walking on a railway trestle, possibly intoxicated, which left his arm and side paralyzed. He visited Europe around 1873 or 1874 and plausibly provided the root for the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, which may or may not have been the root of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. The question of the relationship between Randolph, the “Hermetic Brotherhood of Light,” the “Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor,” and the “hidden hand” doctrine has been extensively discussed by Jocelyn Godwin.(Godwin, 1991a, 1991b)
Ultimately whether or not Randolph physically passed along initiation is unimportant. The mid 1880s Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor publicized his ideas through a mail-order course in practical esotericism.
The Ansairetic Mystery
1873 saw Randolph concerned about death and determining to pass along his legacy. Toward this end, he began to advertise and publish some of the sexual doctrines he had previously passed along only in private letters. While he called this the secret of the Ansaireh Priesthood of Syria, he had written similar material since the 1850s under the term “The Golden Secret”, “The Golden Letter”, “True Oriental Secret”, “Asgill’s Rules,” and “The Grand Secret.” Now as “The Ansaireh Secret,” or as printed the “Ansairetic Mystery,” he would publish a core system of sex magic.(Deveney, 1997, p. 209)
The idea for the Ansairetic secret comes from the French anthropologist C.F. Volney, who traveled through Syria from 1783-1785. He saw prostitution, almost certainly driven by marginalization and poverty, and was willing to credit stories of bizarre sexual cults among the Nusa’iri, though he also qualified that he hadn’t seen these rites himself. This was amplified in 1838 by de Sacy whose writing on the Nusa’iri was based on a diatribe against them by Hamza, a Druse critic who also happened to have been writing eight hundred years earlier. Hamza seemed to feel that he needed some logical tie for the standard xenophobic accusations and concluded that the Nusa’iri believed spiritual union could only be achieved through carnal union. In this, he was likely distilling an existing thread from several historical Gnostic groups. He is also responsible for the incorrect belief that the Assassins derived their name from hashish, so his scholarship on this matter is quite dubious.
According to Deveney, in the 1840s the French occultist Gerard de Nerval travelled to the Levant already convinced that the Druse and Nusa’iri had been responsible for the occult revival and the birth of Freemasonry through their influence on the Knights Templar, and that their secret provided the root of the power of later mages such as Cagliostro. De Nerval met the son of the English Consul in Tripoli who had married a Nusa’iri woman and described a ceremony “’like a mass’”(Deveney, 1997, p. 213) in which the priest worshipped a naked woman on a table. Given the lineage this is undoubtedly the principal reference behind the staging of Liber XV. There was, as well confusion between Alawaite, Druse and Yazidi beliefs, and a number of conflicting and ultimately mythical origins for the Nusa’iri. Modern scholarship does acknowledge a Valentinian and Bardesanian influence on the groups, and their beliefs as understood in the modern period do show some kinship with what we know of Cathar Gnosticism, which may have shared some similar source material.
Randolph’s Sex Magic
More than most other Occult writers, Randolph openly admits that his “ancient secrets” are his own doctrines. He minimized the Levantine origins for his system and, considering the unlikelihood that he encountered anyone willing to divulge Nusa’iri secrets in the Levant, he is that far correct. Certainly, he owes de Sacy for the seed of the idea, and his views were manifestly shaped as much by Spear and Harris and other spiritualists. Randolph is a syncretist who perfected a set of doctrines more than a sole source. His “ultimate and finest exposition of the sexual mysteries of the universe” would come in his private manuscript “The Mysteries of Eulis” in 1874. His principle of “Volantia” “The quiet, steady, calm, non-turbulent, non-muscular, exertion of the human Will,”(Deveney, 1997, p. 328) when taken in combination with the following principle of “Decretism” the ability to order that will, form a root that is seen in the Thelemic concept of Will.
Combined with his views on Magic-inspired erotism “People may be proud of their property, but the human can have no true, deep joys, save such as spring from Love – pure, strong, earnest, spontaneous, and reciprocal,”(Deveney, 1997, p. xv) a vein is discernible that leads directly to Thelema as a doctrine.
Randolph had founded a Roscrucian group in San Francisco in 1861. Now, he formed the Brotherhood of Eulis in Nashville in 1874, and returned to San Francisco to re-found his Rosicrucian Order the same year. Unlike Westcott, who would forge a charter for the Golden Dawn, and despite a long recitation of origins going back to Atlantis, Randolph claimed the Rosicrucian idea as his own work.
The End of Randolph’s Life
Even where he was welcomed, there were shadows. He stayed with Jesse Hutchinson, a former associate of Spear in Owens Valley California, where he was faced with the “prejudice and bigotry of the orthodox believers” who threatened to kill him. It is unclear if they most reviled his doctrine or his race, but the combination seems to have been enough to incite violence.
He returned to Toledo and appears to have been reasonably happy, proud of his new son and writing affably to others. He proposed new plans and seemed cheery. Jealousy over his much younger wife, abuse of alcohol, his chronic health issues, and years of abuse and poverty had taken their toll. He became violent when his wife was absent, suspecting her of unfaithfulness. Always mercurial, he fell into a deep depression and a cycle of drinking. In July 1875, rising and finding his wife away he went to the house of a neighbor where she was supposed to be. Finding her absent, he told the neighbor that he would be dead within two hours and shot himself after she began walking away in fear.
Dead, Randolph was possibly more popular than alive. The spiritualists had no trouble talking with him, and many disclosed his postmortem revelations, though they might be considered with some considerable skepticism. Regardless, to invoke Randolph’s name was to invoke an almost immediately legendary authority.
Despite some suggestions, the “Brotherhood of Light” cited in Reuss O.T.O. Charter is not the same as the one that Randolph may or may not have founded around 1870. That organization was founded by Reuss in 1914. The direct thread can be said to have passed through the Golden Dawn. Ayton’s participation in the founding of the Golden Dawn was directly based on his disillusionment with the Brotherhood of Luxor, and Godwin gives reason to believe it was at least descended from an organization founded by Randolph. Such direct contact is relatively trivial. Randolph’s teachings certainly found their way into the G.D. through Ayton and others who had seen first or second hand the Brotherhood of Luxor materials.
Reuss and Crowley were both heavily influenced by Randolph, though Crowley, more than Reuss, may have “gotten” Randolph’s core concept. While Crowley bears Reuss’ influence, his ultimate doctrines correspond more closely to Randolph’s focus on a moment of co-mingling, a mutual orgasm, or “nuptive moment,”(Deveney, 1997, p. 220) than Reuss phallocentric practice. Through the Theosophists, and references in Isis Unveiled, through the correspondence course of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor of the mid 1880s, and through his published writing, Randolph framed the concept of sex magic in Western Tradition for the next five decades.
Crowley, A. a. B. X. (orig. date unk, c. 1930). IX° Emblems and Modes of Use. In e. F. Nonesuch (Ed.): Yunpu.
Deveney, J. P. (1997). Paschal Beverly Randolph : a nineteenth-century Black American spiritualist, rosicrucian, and sex magician. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Godwin, J. (1991a). The Hidden Hand, Part II: The Brotherhood of Light. Theosophical History, III(3), 75-84.
Godwin, J. (1991b). The Hidden Hand, Part IV: The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Theosophical History, 3(5), 137-148.
Kaczynski, R. (2010). Perdurabo : the life of Aleister Crowley. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.