A K E P H A L O S :
On the Rite of the Headless One
Whether it is known as The Bornless One, Liber Samekh, The Preliminary Invocation of The Goetia, or, more accurately, The Rite of the Headless One from the Stele of Jeu the Hieroglyphist in the Greek Magical Papyri, the subject of my Talk this evening is a missing link, standing at the crossroads: a product of Antiquity, all-but-forgotten until it was rediscovered at the Dawn of Modern Magic. A personal favourite of Aleister Crowley, who described it as “the most potent [ritual] extant”, its use in the King’s Chamber of The Great Pyramid very probably triggered the reception of The Book of the Law, and he would later recommend it as the ritual par excellence for attaining to the Knowledge & Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel; his follower, one-time “magickal son” and possible successor, Jack Parsons, performed it repeatedly in the build-up to The Babalon Working; and contemporary Goetic magician Jake Stratton-Kent has described it as “the single most important ritual in modern magic.”
This strange and potent Rite, with its heady mix of Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and even Samaritan ideas of God, “barbarous names of invocation” and Words of Power, is quite possibly the entry point of a key concept into the Western Magical Tradition, and perhaps constitutes the basis of a whole Occult Tradition all of its own. At first considered a mere curio, it would be taken up and revised, becoming in the process nothing less than an essential foundation stone of Magick in Theory & Practice for the New Aeon, from there to be taken up by countless others in turn. Its worldly origins are lost in Antiquity, coming down to us from the syncretic melting-pot of Alexandria, in an obscure fragment of papyrus that was, perhaps, a last desperate attempt to preserve something of the Old World of the many gods before it was too late, and the New World Order of the One True God would close the door on ‘magic’ forever – or at least try to. Resurfacing as an antiquarian curiosity in Victorian times, it is undoubtedly the adoption of the Rite by one of the most notorious enfant terrible of that era, the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, which has contributed most to its survival into these Post-Modern Times.
Much of contemporary Occultism continues to draw from, and be shaped by, the foundation laid down at the end of the 19th Century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and then built upon by its most (in)famous student, Aleister Crowley – who took the bones of their Teachings and used them to shape the conceptual framework of his New Aeon cult of Thelema, and also the Rituals of the various Orders he created (and re-created) to serve it, such as the Argenteum Astrum and the Ordo Templi Orientis, to name but two. This dual influence continues to spread throughout almost all of Western Magic, and much of Neo-Paganism in general – thanks also to his peers and progeny, from Dion Fortune, to Israel Regardie and Kenneth Grant, and not forgetting that even freewheelers like Austin Osman Spare and Gerald Gardner had some acquaintance with or background in the likes of the A.’.A.’. and O.T.O. as well. So we see this influence crop up again and again, not just among the ‘usual suspects’ such as the various groups claiming descent from the Golden Dawn or Crowley, but also among less obvious heirs – including Chaos Magic, Maat Magic, and the various branches of Wicca; and even the Church of Satan, and a Left Hand Path Initiatory School like the Temple of Set.
One concept that originates from this wellspring, and is indeed symptomatic of just how widespread its influence has been, is that of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel: a Rite – or even series of Rites – aimed at connecting the practitioner with what may be considered as anything from a ‘Higher Self’ to literally the intermediary, or even embodiment of, whatever deity he or she chooses to engage with. Whether it be thought of as the Genius of the Golden Dawn, the Augoeides of Iamblichus, the Atman of Hinduism, the Daemon of the Ancient Greeks – or indeed, either a literal messenger from the Divine or the idealised embodiment of all that is highest and best in one’s True Self – the seeking of Contact with this entity is considered by many to be the central most important Work in Magic. It should not only come above and before any other, but success – or failure! – is a key determinant as to any further progress.
As Crowley writes in Chapter 83 of Magic Without Tears:
“It should never be forgotten for a single moment that the central and essential work of the Magician is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.”
And in Chapter 21 of Book 4 (later included in Magick in Theory & Practice), he goes as far as to say:
“. . . the Single Supreme Ritual is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. It is the raising of the complete man in a vertical straight line . . . If the magician needs to perform any other operation than this, it is only lawful in so far as it is a necessary preliminary to That One Work.”
The origin of this idea can be found in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, a 14th Century work attributed to one Abraham of Worms, just one manifestation of the legend of the Jews as Magicians that we will see surface in this tale. This classic grimoire had been translated into English by the head of the Golden Dawn, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, and its system formed a cornerstone of that Order’s method. Aleister Crowley was most likely introduced to it by either his unofficial mentor within the Order, Alan Bennett, or fellow initiate George Cecil Jones (with whom he would later found the Argenteum Astrum.) Abramelin presents a long, complicated program of arduous and gruelling devotions, involving six months – or even nine, depending on which version of the manuscript you consult – of sustained celibacy, fasting, all-night prayer vigils, meditations and rituals of ever-increasing frequency and intensity, requiring the aspirant to take time off from work, marriage and family life, and also purchase a property just to create the right environment for the Working.
Not surprisingly, this has proven to be a major stumbling-block – even for independently wealthy men like the young Crowley – but the lure of a direct hotline to God that would give you power over angels, demons, and elementals, thereby opening up all the powers of magic, was not to be given up in a hurry. The original source for the Ritual Crowley wrote was The Rite of The Headless One, which he had already published as the “preliminary invocation” of his edition of The Goetia as far back as 1904. Although the original text of The Stele of Jeu has no connection whatsoever with the Ars Goetia of the 17th Century Grimoire known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, in many people’s minds the association has stuck. When the Abbey of Thelema was created in Cefalu, Sicily, in the 1920s, with the express intent of being a Spiritual College to help aspiring adepts discover their True Wills, the question of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel became a burning one. After a particularly promising student, Frank Bennett, had experienced what he described as a spontaneous Gnostic contact, Crowley penned Liber Samekh, with the hope that it would be an express handbook for the process. It has been suggested that the more blatantly ‘Satanic’ elements that he added to this revised & expanded version, such as the exhortations “O my Father, O Satan, O Sun!” and “Satan, my Lord! The Lust of the Goat!,” were for the express benefit of Bennett, as a kind of ‘deprogramming’ of any lingering Christian sentiment. The rest of his so-called “restorations” are justified Qabalistically, on the grounds that they are ‘numerologically correct’ – but, to be honest, most of them are at best guesswork, and at worst Crowley pandering to his own personal cosmology.
The true origins of The Stele of Jeu the Hieroglyphist, who wrote it, when, where, and why, are lost in the mists and myths of antiquity. Little or nothing of any certainty is known, other than that the papyrus dates from circa 350 CE, but we can perhaps imagine along certain lines: probably originating in Dynastic Egypt, the text that has come down to us was most likely written by a wandering scribe, still able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, who now eked out a living transcribing texts for a clientele who wanted to be able to access the esoteric wisdom of the Egyptians, but regrettably were without the ritual framework of temple practice. It has also been suggested that the author was simply “a Jew” who knew hieroglyphs – “The Jewish Scribe” we might say – but some effort has also been made to connect the Stele and its contents with the Gnostic texts from the Bruce Codex known as The Books of Jeu. As these are also known as The Books of IEOU, I-E-O-U – a vowel-sequence obviously suggestive of the Seven Sacred Sounds of Greek Hermetica – perhaps such attributions are misleading. Curiously, The Books of Jeu – or IEOU – deal with the Creation of Aeons by way of a process of Ascension, so as to acquire Knowledge of a Word.
In one of those coincidences that the History of Magic seems to be full of, Aleister Crowley’s Golden Dawn colleague, the actress Florence Farr, included sections of the Bruce Codex in her 1896 work Egyptian Magic, published as part of W. Wynn Westcott’s 10-volume series Collecteana Hermetica. In a discussion of what she saw as the Egyptian origins of Gnosticism and Hermeticism, Farr put forward a theory of the ascent and descent of the soul, derived from her reading of the Books of Jeu, and of cycles of aeons that were a product of the will of the magician, that surely must have been an influence on Crowley’s own later thinking on the subject.
Although at first glance the body of texts referred to as the Greek Magical Papyri may appear alien, artefacts of an antiquity long gone, and therefore redundant, the world they came from is very much like our own, its concerns surprisingly similar. The world of the Graeco-Egyptian Alexandria in the first centuries AD was a vibrant melting pot, with a host of different cultures, peoples, and tongues coming together in pursuit of trade, all going about their business against the backdrop of different world powers vying for pre-eminence. Cultures clashed, competed, and even combined like never before, with information as a new currency – and those with the means to record and communicate that information had a key role to play.
Much ink has been spilled on the subject of the exact nature of the cultural mix that gave rise to the Papyri in Alexandria – with gods and names and words of power showing the influence of Samaritan, Persian, Jewish, Gnostic, and even early Christian sources – but by far the most important ingredients are the Egyptian and the Greek. Already by the time of the Greeks, Ancient Egypt had a reputation of being “the home of magic” – and it was possessed of a culture that seemed to stretch back into the mists of time. By the time of the Papyri, however, Egypt was an occupied nation, its glory fading, and its religion in decline with the closure of its temples. Many of the former priests now became wandering scribes, and as they travelled in search of work they took their religious and magical ideas with them.
Of course, in the world of Antiquity, there was nothing like the hard-and-fast distinction between notions of “religion” and “magic” we are used to now – with, in fact, the majority of spells and other magical workings being performed within a context of religious observance. Likewise, the same specialists who might be called upon in their sorcerous or priestly capacity might just as likely be summoned for what we would now consider medical reasons, and the Papyri are as full of spells to relieve migraine or flatulence – or amulets to protect against miscarriage or gout – as they are formulae for more overtly magical purposes.
The world of the Greek Magical Papyri was one built increasingly on trade rather than conquest, and ideas – old or new – and the papyri and scrolls containing them became a sought-after commodity. Just as now, knowledge was power and information exchange currency. In a world of diverse beliefs and the often competing systems that went with them, there was a hunger to compare and contrast techniques, and stockpile whatever tricks of the trade might add to the practitioner’s toolkit and give an advantage. The Papyri are products of a collision of cultures – often enforced through Colonialism and Imperialism – with strange new forms emerging because of perceived correspondences and relationships, such as the identification of the Egyptian god Thoth with the Greek god Hermes because of their similar roles as messenger gods of magic; or the antinomian ‘god-against-the-gods’ Set with the monstrous primal Titan, Typhon – with both of these composite gods, Thoth-Hermes and Set-Typhon, being major presiding forces over the magic of the PGM.
It is to be remembered that although much of the material in the PGM may well have had its origins in the Temples of Ancient Egypt or even the Mystery Cults of Greece, by the time it is being collected together and written down for posterity, magic is increasingly on the retreat to the margins of society, in the face of first Roman Imperial, and then, increasingly, Christian persecution. In this respect, as with so many others, there is an uneasy resemblance to the climate of our own times: information about different beliefs and practices – often from wildly divergent backgrounds – is available like never before, the serious student-practitioner is able to compare and contrast material – and if he or she is committed and serious enough, put it to the test – but it is against a background of mounting hostility and tension with the authorised, official beliefs of the mainstream of society, and what practices are considered acceptable. Although much of this treasured wisdom would survive in the Arab world, in the West it would become an underground stream, which would not resurface until the Renaissance and thereafter.
In certain sections of the PGM there is also a marked preoccupation with Self-Deification: there are whole rituals in which the practitioner, having raised themselves up through their communication with gods and daimons, and exerted their Will to bring about change, is called upon to, quite literally, Speak and Act as a god.
The Rite of the Headless One is just such a working.
So, here is an outline of The Rite of the Headless One, based on the text given in The Stele of Jeu the Hieroglyphist, with my attempt at a pronunciation guide, for English speakers who did not have the benefit of a Classical Education that included Ancient Greek.
First, write the Characters of the Names ‘AŌTH ABRAŌTH BASYM ISAK SABAŌTH IAŌ’ on a strip of clean papyrus. As in this first instance the Names are to be written, rather than spoken, it makes more sense to me that this should be done in the original Greek characters:
ΑΩΘ ΑΒΡΑΩΘ ΒΑΣΥΜ ΙΣΑΚ ΣΑΒΑΩΘ ΙΑΩ
Having done so, mark either end of the Strip with the ‘Beneficial Sign’:
Then hold the strip to your forehead, stretched from temple to temple, the Names facing outward. Take up position at your altar, or other place of Working, and face North, towards the Big Dipper (or what the Ancient Egyptians thought of as “The Imperishable Stars”.) Visualise the strip as a Serpent swallowing its own tail, as you vibrate the Names:
AŌTH ABRAŌTH BASYM ISAK SABAŌTH IAŌ
( Ar-ot’ arb-Ra-rot’ bar-zoom ee-zark zar-ba-rot’ ee-ar-o )
As you do so, imagine your mind expanding to the very limits of Consciousness, until the Ourobourous encircles the Cosmos, the Names you have vibrated radiating out through the Universe, and begin to recite the following, vibrating the Names & Words of Power where indicated:
I summon you, the Headless One,
who created the Earth and the Heavens
who created Night and Day
you who created light and darkness
you are OSORONNOPHRIS, whom none has ever seen
you are IABAS, you are IAPOS,
you have distinguished the just and the unjust
you have made female and male
you have revealed seed and fruits
you have made men love each other and hate each other.
I am Moses your prophet, to whom you have transmitted your mysteries celebrated by Israel
you have revealed the moist and the dry and all nourishment,
I am the messenger of OSORONNOPHRIS
this is your true name which has been transmitted to the Prophets of Israel.
ARBATHIAO REIBET ATHELEBERSETH ARA BLATHA ALBEU EBENPHCHI CHITASGOE IBAOTH IAO
( ar-R-bar-t’-ee-ar-o Re-ee-bet ar-t’-el-eb-eR-set’ ar-Ra blart’ar arl-bew eh-behn-F-khee kht’ars-go-ee ee-bar-ot’ ee-ar-o )
listen to me and turn away this daimon.
I call upon you, awesome and invisible god with an empty spirit
AROGOGROROBRAO SOCHOU MODORIO PHALARCHAO OOO
( ar-Rog-og-Ro-Rob-Rar-o so-khoo mo-do-Rio F-ar-lar-R-khar-o o-o-o )
Holy Headless One, deliver me, (your name), from the daimon which restrains me,
ROUBRIAO MARI ODAM BAABNAOTH ASS ADONAI APHNIAO ITHOLETH ABRASAX AEOOY
( Roob-Ree-ar-o mar-R-ee o-darm bar-arb-nar-ot’ arz-ss ar-don-ey ar-F-nee-ar-o eet’o-let’ ar-bR-ar-zarks ar-er-o-o-oo )
Mighty Headless One, deliver me, (your name), from the daimon which restrains me,
MABARRAIO IOEL KOTHA ATHOREBALO ABRAOTH
( mar-bar-R-rar-ee-o ee-o-el ko-t’ar art’o-R-eeb-ar-lo arb-ra-rot’ )
deliver me, (your name),
AOTH ABRAOTH BASYM ISAK SABAOTH IAO
( ar-ot’ arb-ra-rot’ bar-zoom ee-zark zar-bar-ot’ ee-ar-o )
He is the Lord of the gods,
He is the Lord of the inhabited world
He is the one whom the winds fear
He is the one who made all things by the command of his voice.
Lord, King, Master, Helper,
Deliver this Soul
IEOU PYR IOU PYR IAOT IAEO IOOW ABRASAX SABRIAM OO YY AY OO YY ADONAIE
( ee-eh-oo poo-R ee-oo poo-R ee-ar-ot’ ee-ar-er-o ee-o-o-oo ar-bR-ar-zarks sarb-R-ee-em o-o oo-oo ey o-o ee-ee ar-don-ar-ee-ay )
quickly, quickly, good Messenger of God!
ANLALA LAI GAIA APA DIACHANNA CHORYN
( arn-lar-lar lar-ee g-ay-ar arp-ar d-ay-ar-kharn-nar kho-R-oon )
I am the Headless daimon with my sight in my feet
I am the mighty one who possesses the immortal fire
I am the truth who hates the fact that unjust deeds are done in the world
I am the one who makes the lightning flash and the thunder roll
I am the one whose sweat is the heavy rain which falls upon the earth that it might be made fertile
I am the one whose mouth burns completely
I am the one who begets and destroys
I am the Grace of the Aion
My name is a heart encircled by a serpent
Come Forth and Follow.
Upon successful completion of the Rite, it is said that the Headless One will appear and:
“Subject to you all daimons, so that every daimon, whether heavenly or aerial or earthly or subterranean or terrestrial or aquatic, might be obedient to you and every spell and scourge which is from God. And all daimons will be obedient to you.”
What more could you want?
As for The Rite of The Headless One itself, even if all of the Words of Power are still not totally decipherable, a quick scan yields the following:
AŌTH = “[The god] before whom every god prostrates himself and every daimon shudders, for whom every angel completes those things which are assigned.”
ABRAŌTH = “From Abra (‘four’) and AOTH, the four lettered supreme name.”
BASYM = “This magical name may have originally come from the Aramaic words meaning, ‘In the name of . . .’ For the magician, however, the word serves as a magical name.” [Betz.]
SABAŌTH = “The god who [brought] knowledge of all the magical arts. Derived from the Hebrew Tzabaoth, the god angelic and spirit hosts, rather than the usual interpretation of armies.” Also the Gnostic Demiurge, the Lord of the World.
IAŌ = “The god appointed over the giving of soul[s] to everyone. The Greek transliteration of IHVH.” – can also be related to IAA, an ass-headed manifestation of RA, the Sun-god.
OSORONNOPHRIS = As I Have said, a corruption of the Egyptian Asar-un-Nefer, meaning “Osiris the Beautiful” or “Osiris Perfected”, with whom the Raised Up initiate identifies.
IABAS, IAPOS = Samaritan names for the Almighty, equivalent to the Hebrew IHVH (Yahweh) or Coptic-Gnostic IAO. [Likewise, to my mind it seems pretty likely that the reference to “Moses” and “The Prophets of Israel” is an interpolation at the time of The Stele being written down, adding the newly-developing meme of Moses-as-Magus & the Jews as Magicians, just for a bit more added syncretic oomph.]
ARBATHIAO = related to ABRAOTH [= “From Abra (‘four’) and AOTH, the four lettered supreme name.”]
ATHELEBERSETH = [I’m guessing related to epithets of Set-Typhon, i.e. ERBETH, PAKERBETH, BOLCHOSETH, etc., just thrown in to “shake it up a little.”]
IBAOTH = [possible conflation of ‘IAOTH’ – a combination of IAO and SABAOTH, and IABAS, a form of IAO, would be my guess?]
ADONAI = “Hebrew for ‘the Lord,’ inflected in its Greek form, which assumes the role of a god.”
ABRASAX = “The ‘anguipede’ [=snake-legged.] A solar god with snakes as legs, a cock’s head, whip and shield.”
KOTHA = “The Hollow One.”
This last perhaps relates to the phrase “empty spirit” – which of course refers to making oneself a vessel for the indwelling of the Higher Power. Then there is the curious line about having “sight in my feet” – which could, perhaps, refer to the funereal custom of placing decapitated heads upon the feet of the deceased – but I think simply describes seeing everything that is below, from the perspective of spiritual ascent. Lastly, “the one whose mouth shoots forth tongues of fire”, or “whose mouth burns completely” as other versions have it: this is a description of one whose mouth is full of the fire of sacred speech, whose utterances are literally ‘fired’ by the power of Creation – perhaps not unlike the descent of the Holy Spirit making itself known through “Tongues of Fire”, as it is described in a later such manifestation.
And, of course, as well as all these, there are a number of variants derived from the Seven Sacred Vowels, relating to the seven directions of the Hellenic Cosmos, which were frequently invoked throughout workings in the PGM as a way of attuning and aligning the magician to cosmic and elemental forces, instead of Banishing, or even Casting a Circle, for that matter.
Speaking of Banishing, it has been suggested by some commentators that The Rite of The Headless One is little more than an exorcism. Stephen Skinner has more-or-less said as much in his otherwise excellent Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, perhaps following the example of Goodwin, who rather snippily wrote in his 1852 Fragment: “It will be seen that the object of the present invocation is to cast a demon out of a possessed person.” Regardie also wrote in Ceremonial Magic that “The original simple intention of this ritual was exorcism” – but that – “The modern intent is . . . quite remarkably, the exact opposite . . . To open the mind of the aspirant . . . that he becomes possessed by . . . the Holy Guardian Angel.” If it were the case that exorcism was all there was to the Rite, then what would be the necessity for calling, and then building up the association with, the Holy and Mighty Headless One – yet alone the clear identification of the magician with the summoned deity in the final section, and the pay-off that having achieved the object of the Rite gives you the mastery over “every daimon, whether heavenly or aerial or earthly or subterranean or terrestrial or aquatic” described at the end? That seems like quite a bonus for a simple exorcism!
I would argue that both intentions are already included in the original working, the obvious explanation surely being that the repeated call to “deliver [the subject] from the daimon which restrains him” – which, incidentally, is repeated four times: another survival from its Egyptian origins, no doubt, as in Egyptian magic to say-or-do a thing four times brought about change – is so that he or she is ready to undergo the process encoded in the Rite, without obstacle or restraint.
With regard to the origins of The Stele of Jeu, some critics have been quick to disparage the late Kenneth Grant for ascribing a Sumerian genesis, despite the complete absence of any Sumerian references in the text, as he does in a number of places. For example, in his first book, The Magical Revival [1972, revised 1991 and, most recently, 2010], he refers in the opening chapter to “This antique ritual – the most potent, according to Crowley” and goes on to affirm that it was “composed on the basis of a Sumerian ritual of extreme antiquity.”
However, I don’t think we can lay the blame for this misapprehension solely at Grant’s door. In one of the letters from Jack Parsons to Marjorie Cameron that survive – in which he endeavours to give her a kind of shortcut correspondence-course in Thelemic magick – following a discussion of the Descent of Inanna, Parsons baldly asserts “The Bornless One is a Sumerian ritual of the same period.” But seeing as The Master himself, Crowley, had decided that Aiwass, whom he had come to regard as his very own personal HGA, was of Akkadian or Sumerian origin, and that what he was by then calling Liber Samekh was the procedure for contacting said HGA – is it too much of a leap to think that this misguided ‘Sumerian’ attribution actually starts with him, and was just repeated faithfully thereafter by the likes of Parsons, and, later, Grant?
Like many of the Papyri, the one containing The Stele of Jeu was found in a cache of papers sealed into amphorae and stashed against discovery, the elements and the ravages of time, in a cave. The brothers Ali, who were looking for a stray goat, literally stumbled onto the cache amid pottery fragments, and quickly realised they were ‘on to something.’ From there the papyrus made its way, via the then largely unregulated black market in Egyptian Antiquities, into the hands of the Swedish consul in Alexandria, one Jean d’Anastasi, who later split it in two, selling one half to the Rijksmuseum in Leiden in 1828, and the other to the British Museum in London in 1857.
The first translation of the text to appear anywhere was by one Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, published for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society in 1852 as Fragment of a Graeco-Egyptian Work Upon Magic. Born in 1817, Goodwin was a Bible Scholar, Egyptologist, and lawyer, who in 1865 became Assistant Judge of the British Supreme Court for China and Japan. He was something of a man of letters in his spare time – as well as writing for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, editing and translating Anglo-Saxon lives of the Saints, and contributing to the Literary Gazette, he was also for many years music critic for The Guardian – but it is for his deep-seated love of Egyptology that we are interested in him here. His engagement with all things Egyptian apparently began at the age of 9, when he read an article on ‘Hieroglyphics’ in the Edinburgh Review for December 1826, and throughout his life he would write and lecture extensively on related subjects, corresponding with the leading Egyptologists of the day, and his work on hieratic was credited as “a genuine revolution in the science.”
As for the Fragment itself, Goodwin is fairly scathing in his comments upon the text, dismissing the combination of Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish terms as symptomatic of the confusion of the more pagan Gnostics, and the words of power as being akin to the gibberish of the superstitious primitive. He quotes Porphyry in regard to this heresy:
“The magician lies in order to compel the heavenly powers to tell the truth: for when he threatens to shake the heavens, or to reveal the mysteries of Isis, or the secret thing that lies hid at Abydos, or to stop the sacred boat, or to scatter the limbs of Osiris to Typhon, what a height of madness does it imply in the man who thus threatens what he neither understands nor is able to perform . . .”
Despite this, it came to the attention of Mathers and his Golden Dawn, who thought it was just the sort of thing they needed to lend their ritual theatrics a touch of Graeco-Egyptian authenticity.
Somewhere between Goodwin’s first translation and the Rite’s adoption by The Golden Dawn, the Greek ‘Akephalos’ – meaning literally “headless” – came to be replaced by the approximation “Bornless.” There is no particularly sound reason for this, but Israel Regardie makes a go of suggesting “In many primitive languages, the word ‘head’ is often used as an equivalent of ‘beginning’ . . . So ‘the Headless One’ or the ‘Beginningless One’ is of course the Eternal One, the One without a beginning, the Bornless One.” This is the name that has stuck ever since, but the present author feels it is more authentic to restore the meaning that, even if it is stranger, is decidedly more accurate.
After Goodwin, later Commentaries on The Headless One and related texts would include: in English, Griffith & Thomson’s edition of The London and Leyden Papyrus, which was first published in 1904, just in time for the start of the Aeon of Horus, making one of those neat ‘Remanifestation’ links for Thelemites and Crowley-friendly Setians – Belgian Armand Delatte’s ‘Études Sur la Magie Grecque: Akephalos Theos’ of 1914 – and German Karl Preisendanz, who wrote Akephalos: De Kopflose Gott in 1926. Preisendanz also published two volumes of the various Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri in translation, in 1928 and 1931, before advancing his career by joining the Nazi Party and leaving the Papyri behind. Then, in 1986, the definitive edition – in one volume, and all translated into English, at last – was published as The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, including the Demotic Spells, edited by Hans Dieter Betz for the University of Chicago Press.
Since then, apart from appearing on more blogs than you can shake a stick at, the Rite has been brought to us by Israel Regardie, Alex Sumner, Don Webb, Stephen Flowers, Jake Stratton-Kent, and even Chaos Magic’s latest blue-eyed boy, Gordon White – although I have to say, with the exception of Israel Regardie’s Ceremonial Magic and Alex Sumner writing in The Journal of the Western Magical Tradition (although he still insists on referring to it primarily as ‘The Bornless One’ and ‘The Preliminary Invocation of The Goetia’), most of these are fairly disappointing, inasmuch as they either just copy-paste the original Headless, without comment, from Betz, or else reproduce Crowley’s ‘Bornless’ version. I have a lot of time for Don Webb, and on the whole found his Seven Faces of Darkness refreshing and thought-provoking when it first came out – I mean, the fact that somebody was trying to take a look at Graeco-Egyptian Magic from the Alexandrian period that was both intelligent and imaginative had to be a good thing! – but even he loses his way a bit by trying too hard to fit The Headless into the Setian remit of his ‘Practical Typhonian Magic’ subtitle, for reasons that I hope will become more apparent later. As for Jake Stratton-Kent, frankly I was disappointed: the fact that his booklet from Hadean Press (originally published in 2012, and reissued a couple of years ago – but without being in any way revised or updated, as far as I can tell) is actually called ‘The Headless One’ would make you think he was going to take it back to the source, but no – he just reproduces Crowley’s first ‘Preliminary Invocation of The Goetia’ version from 1904 with its various ‘corrections’ – such as the ludicrous shoehorning of the voces magicae IABAS and IAPOS into “Ia-Besz” and “Ia-Apophrasz”, when they are in fact Samaritan names for the One Great God, equivalent to the Coptic-Gnostic IAO, or Hebrew IHVH – and then compounds matters further by adding even more unnecessarily ‘Thelemic’ references that even Crowley didn’t have the gall to insert, such as ‘Aiwass’ and ‘Babalon.’ To top it all off, Stratton-Kent repeats the mistake of earlier commentators in equating Akephalos with Set, suggesting that ‘The Void Air’ or ‘Empty Wind’ mentioned in the invocation is “the blasting wind of Typhon-Set.”
Goodwin himself, way back in 1852, started the ball rolling with a Note to his version of the Rite in which he commented “The god here addressed is Σήθ, the evil principle of the Egyptians” – rather coyly spelling it out with the Greek sigma, eta, theta – his justification being “The name occurs apparently in the word ATHELEBERSETH in line 12 of this section.” Now, it’s true enough that there’s a whole range of Set-related voces magicae that when they appear in the PGM are generally accepted as being calls on Set, or Set-Typhon as he was more commonly syncretised by this time, including IO ERBETH IO PAKERBETH IO BOLCHOSETH and ATHELEBERSETH – the last two of which do at least include the name ‘Seth’ I suppose – but if there is one thing that has become increasingly apparent with the one hundred and fifty years of study of the PGM that have elapsed since Goodwin’s time, it is that the vast majority of the spells are absolute melting-pots, real everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, and then sometimes even throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure!
There are spells addressed to Helios – who is, after all, a Sun-god, the last time I looked – which start off with invocations of Set-Typhon; there are spells addressed to Besas, or Bes – the funny little lion-faced, pot-bellied ithyphallic pygmy god of Ancient Egypt – that use exactly the same wording that is used here to address The Headless One. For example, here is the invocation to Bes from a spell in the PGM asking for a Dream Oracle, of which there are several, all similarly worded:
“I call upon you, the Headless God, the one who has his face upon his feet, you are the one who hurls lightning, who thunders, you are one of those whose mouth continually pours on himself. You are the one who is over necessity ARBATHIAŌ . . . I conjure you, Daimon, but your two names ANOUTH ANOUTH. You are the Headless God, the one who has a head and his face on his feet, dim-sighted Besas . . . You are the one whose mouth continually burns. I conjure you by the names ANOUTH ANOUTH M… ORA PHĒSARA Ē . . .”
Almost all the key phrases here are used in The Rite of The Headless One, the spell even addresses The Headless One, and it even uses the voces magicae, ARBATHIAŌ, which is also used in The Stele of Jeu. So you would think if Akephalos is not Set, then this surely must clinch it that The Headless One is Bes, or Besas? But if we look a little closer with what’s going on with these barbarous names of invocation, as they used to be called, we start to get a different picture . . .
ARBATHIAŌ, as we have already seen, apparently means something like “The four-lettered supreme name” and is derived from AŌTH, which appears right at the start of The Stele of Jeu, and means “[The god] before whom every god prostrates himself and every daimon shudders, for whom every angel completes those things which are assigned.” So basically it is the Coptic equivalent of something like the Tetragrammaton.
Moving on, ANOUTH ANOUTH: ANOUTH, according to the Glossary at the back of the Betz edition of the PGM, is a name of Osiris.
As for the last fragment in the Dream Oracle Spell, that ORA PHĒSARA Ē is suggestive of the OSORONNOPHRIS – which is one of the few voces magicae that Crowley actually got pretty much right in his version, in that it is a corruption of the Egyptian ‘Asar un Nefer’ meaning “Osiris the Beautiful” or “Osiris perfected.”
So, is the identity of the real Akephalos beginning to suggest itself?
Professor of Egyptology at John Hopkins University and The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, John Colman Darnell, tells us in The Enigmatic Netherworld Books of the Solar-Osirian Unity, in which he deciphers hieroglyphic content from the tombs of Tutankhamun, Ramesses VI, and Ramesses IX, that Akephalos refers to the Egyptian Osiris, but not in the form of the mummified god of the Underworld – rather as a deity of solar-reunification, Ra-Osiris. Darnell provides evidence, based on archaeological finds and Egyptological research, which shows that the Head of the Headless form of Osiris is the Sun, and that the solar Osiris is one with Ra.
Following on from this line of reasoning, it is not too much of a leap to see that lines within The Stele of Jeu may also point to Ra, for example:
You who created the Earth and the Heavens (Geb and Nut – technically Ra’s grandchildren by Shu and Tefnut)
You have made the Female (Tefnut) and the Male (Shu).
You have produced the Moist (Tefnut, goddess of moisture) and the Dry (Shu, god of air) and that which nourishes all life. (Ra, of course, as the Sun is the source of All life.)
Just as the magician in The Stele of Jeu ultimately identifies with the supreme progenitor solar deity, so too do the souls who successfully traverse the Underworld in the Egyptian Afterlife become as one with Ra. The Pyramid Texts display more affinities with Shamanism than is admitted by most contemporary Egyptologists, with the King-as-Initiate identified with the dismembered and decapitated Osiris in the Underworld. The restoration of his head corresponds to his rebirth as a god, one who is as much at home in the world of the spirits as in the world of the living, and whose identification with the solar principle is complete. Just as Osiris himself becomes self-realized as Ra, so too does the worthy soul, united with the risen Sun of the New Day.
But even if one were to identify The Holy Headless One with Osiris – and as we can see, there is a whole body of evidence that one could draw on in support of this – I would suggest it is still too literal an interpretation: Akephalos, in essence, is a formula – a process – by which the consciousness of the magician, hence their HEAD, is put in some other place, whether it be the chthonic realm of Osiris in the Underworld, or the ascended consciousness of the Risen Man, the Perfected Osiris, whose Head has joined with the Sun, and sees all and knows all, because it is at the Centre of the All.
One of the central premises of The Rite of The Headless One is that Man can Act as God. Personally, I see the text as a survival of the Egyptian origins of theurgy. Egyptian priests generally divided their time in office between two particular types of role:
sems-neter, where they were in the service of the gods – performing mostly temple duties, officiating at ceremonies, and the like; acting as what we would call a priest.
paxer-neter, where they were literally acting as gods – to cast spells, perform healings, or divination; acting as what we would call a magician.
The Rite of The Headless One clearly derives from the latter. Here, perhaps, is one of the beginnings of the split between what have come to be thought of as all-too-separate categories: ‘religion’ in the case of the former, and ‘magic’ in the case of the latter.
The Rite of the Headless One draws on what was a relatively newly established idea at the time of its writing, that of Moses as prototype magus: The Man who saw God face-to-face, and came back with His Word to impart His Law, and Act in His Authority. In his Vita Mosis, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Christ and the Apostles, adds to the already accepted notion of Moses as Prophet and Lawgiver the concept that the ‘superior magician’ represents a Logos (Word) and articulates a Nomos (Law), based on that Logos; secondly, that such a Magus no longer needs to be transported in ecstasy like the shamans of old to receive intimations of the Divine or experience the OtherWise, but can instead be raised up so that he or she apprehends them by direct personal knowledge, or Gnosis. As such, The Rite of the Headless One may be seen as the seed by which the ultimate blasphemy against the spiritual monopoly of the monotheist religions survives to later re-manifest in our Post-Modern world: for surely the goal of the Magus has always been, rather than merely to know the Will of God and be its instrument or vessel, to Act as such in their own right?
Perhaps in the final analysis it is meaningless to ask whether one can ever truly act above whatever notion of ‘God’ or ‘the gods’ one has, but maybe it is enough to decide in which direction one’s actions and intent are directed. To my mind the fact that The Rite of the Headless One is a survival from a time when such options were still considered, and is not a Working whose end result is an ecstatic union with the Divine – rather one in which an identification with the Divine, and a claiming of the ability to act as such, is asserted, and of necessity is to be repeated – makes it an ideal tool for those of our times who would truly seek to walk the Path of the Magus, and in so doing speak the Word that establishes a Law, and thus create a World.
Few are Called – Fewer will Try – Fewest still will Succeed.