For most of my generation, our introduction to the idea of a sex cult was the film Eyes Wide Shut, where Tom Cruise’s character infiltrates an orgy at a mansion. My introduction was, if possible, weirder.
In my teens, I stumbled across the psychedelic science fiction novel Illuminatus! by former Playboy writers Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Cults that worship the sexual act, and include it in their rituals, play heavily into the novel. For example, one of the protagonists is initiated into just such a cult when he has sex with a woman through a glory hole drilled into a large golden apple set atop a pyramid. At the moment of his climax, a trapdoor in the ceiling pops open, and his effigy is hung by a noose, thereby mingling the sexual act with his visceral fear of death.
Robert Anton Wilson also wrote an encyclopedia of the occult and conspiracy theories that introduced me to, and largely inoculated me from, a number of conspiracist ideas and occult organizations. One of the cults that Wilson focused a good deal of his attention on was the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a fraternal religious order focused on the occult with rituals that are a loose mix of the Freemasons and the Catholic Church.
The members of the OTO were, according to Wilson, the practitioners of ‘sex magick’ as taught by early 20th Century mystic and author of The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley. Crowley taught that we are living in the Age of Horus, who had brought us a new ethical code that conveniently boiled down to the platitude “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.”
All of this sounded very titillating to a small town kid with a predilection for libertine punk music and anti-authoritarian political philosophies. Nevertheless, as a highly religious teenager with no internet in my home and no modern research tools like Wikipedia at my disposal, I promptly filed all of this in the back of my head and forgot it existed.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was listening to the Oh No, Ross and Carrie! podcast. The premise of the show is that the hosts join up with organizations, or buy products from companies, that make extraordinary claims and try them out. They then report back to the audience with the results. Ross and Carrie have done everything from go through confirmation into the Mormon Church to get their colons cleansed by a water hose inserted anally. In the most recent episode, they visited the Los Angeles chapter of the Ordo Templi Orientis and attended mass. The episode brought back all of my memories of Wilson’s books, and left me wondering if there was an OTO chapter in Oklahoma, of all places.
That teenager who was scared of the idea of living in a region with a sex cult, and with no good way to verify the existence of one anyway, is long gone. A quick search pulled up the Sekhet Bast Ra Oasis, an official chapter of the OTO right here in Oklahoma City. The website was clearly a few years old, but a glance at their calendar showed that they were still active and that a gnostic mass was scheduled for the upcoming Saturday.
The gnostic mass is one of the public events of the OTO. Apparently, they have a number of private meetings as well, which is only to be expected of a fraternal order, especially one that focuses on sex magick. The gnostic mass is loosely modeled on the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox alternatives, complete with communion.
My decision to attend this mass led to two very awkward conversations. The first with my wife, where I explained to her exactly what it is that I planned to attend. The second was with a friend that began with, “Hey man, you want to go to visit a sex cult with me tonight?” After reassurances to both that I didn’t expect there to be any actual sex occurring at this mass, and that I expected little to no nudity, especially on my part, I received hesitating consent from both parties.
There will be those who at this point balk at my describing an unorthodox religious sect as a cult, even one that incorporates sexual elements and the occult into its rites. Many like to argue that cults are built around a central figure with a strong personality. Others will object to the use of cult for any religious organization, not wanting to poison the discussion of a religious sect with such a typically normative attribution.
This is actually a good point. I can’t find any indication that OTO falls into the negative categories of what we typically mean by a cult. If brainwashing exists at all, these people don’t seem to be doing it. There is no pressure on members to disengage with family and friends or to separate oneself from those who are critical of the organization. This is one of the myriad of things that gets Scientology labeled as a cult. Also, OTO does not, at least not in the last half century, have a strong charismatic leader associated with the idea of a cult of personality. That said, OTO members do treat Aleister Crowley similarly to how Christians treat Paul, Mormons treat Joseph Smith and Muslims treat the Prophet Muhammad. Finally, OTO doesn’t disallow questioning of its teachings and tenets.
If OTO is a cult it is only in the sense that it lives up to the caricature of what we mean when we talk about cults and the occult in popular culture. The two nearest comparisons I can think of are Wicca and Scientology. Wicca embraces the occult, magic and the casting of spells we typically think of when we characterize non-Christian cults in pop culture. Scientology embraces the cult of personality and strict treatment of membership. Of the two, OTO leans much more in the Wicca direction.
Nevertheless, I posit that many of the cult concepts that we have in popular culture are actually inspired by Aleister Crowley and the OTO, both directly and indirectly. Additionally, many of the rituals from both Wicca and Scientology draw from Crowley’s works, if in very different ways.
I would not consider Wicca a cult. In part because it has mainstreamed into contemporary religious communities. Particularly, Wiccans have found a home in Unitarian Universalist churches. Wiccans are not exclusionary, and they don’t keep their rites or levels of attainment hidden from the uninitiated. The biggest difference between Wicca and OTO is the focus on sex (membership in OTO is 18+ at most lodges and nudity plays a role in rites at some lodges) and de-emphasizing of societal obligations (hence, the “Do What Thou Wilt” motto). It probably isn’t fair to call OTO a cult, though it definitely practices the occult.
Regardless of whether you call it a cult or not, OTO is the nightmare that fundamentalist Christian parents fear their children falling into. I imagine that when Pastor Kern or Pastor Blair talk about satanic forces in the community, it is the OTO and their rituals they are imagining.
On a Saturday evening just before 8:00 p.m., my friend Paul and I pulled up at a nondescript storefront located on North Penn between a Dominos Pizza and an empty office. The only thing to indicate that we were in the right place was an Egyptian goddess on a sign hanging in the window. After a few minutes of mustering our courage, we walked in.
The Sekhet Bast Ra Oasis is broken into three main rooms. As you enter, there is a small seating area and a rack for you to place your shoes. A small end table contains pamphlets on the organization and the main elements of their mass.
Behind a curtain, you find the center and largest room. This is the ceremonial space. Here you’ll find an altar on the eastern wall with steps leading up to it, pedestals for implements important to the mass and chairs and pillows along the wall for congregants.
Along the south wall is the Oasis’ library, stacked from floor to ceiling with books on a variety of topics, including the occult, masonry, various mystics, science and metaphysics.
The third room is a recreational area, with a large sectional, kitchen and bar. Alcohol plays an important role before, during and after the OTO mass.
If you attend an OTO meeting, once it has been established that you are a first-timer, you’ll get asked two questions above all others: “How did you find out about us?,” and “Have you read the Book of the Law?” After answering ‘no’ to the second, Paul and I were given a tour and a quick walk-thru of what to expect.
Things were not prompt at Sekhet Bast Ra. It was nearly 9:00 p.m. before everyone had arrived, around a dozen people including Paul and I, and the mass officially began.
Congregants entered the candle-lit ceremonial room through the curtain by the entrance. On the east wall is the altar and on the west wall is a curtain behind which is an area that represents the tomb. Keep in mind that during the entire mass, there is incense burning and appropriate mood music playing on a stereo in the corner.
There are five official roles in the ceremony: a deacon, priest, priestess, and two children (in our case only one was actually a young person). All but the priestess are wearing robes, while she emerges garbed in what I imagine a Greek temple priestess might have worn.
The deacon greets the congregants as they enter. After some recitations by the deacon, the priestess and the two children enter and perform some rituals. The priestess then approaches the tomb and uses a sword to cut the curtain (I’m seeing obvious Christian overtones to this act, but that’s just my tradition speaking).
Behind the curtain is the priest. There is about as much subtlety in the gnostic mass as there is in the initiation ceremony in Illuminatus! While nobody sees a hanging effigy of himself at the moment of organsm, after the priestess brings the priest back to life in the tomb, she does erotically stroke his spear a number of times.
At this point, the priest takes the priestess to the altar and sets her on it. He then closes a curtain and performs some more rites with the children. With his spear he then, ahem, parts the curtain.
This was the moment of truth. At some OTO temples, such as the one in Los Angeles, the priestess emerges fully nude. This did not happen at our mass, whether because it isn’t general practice at Sekhet Bast Ra, because there was a minor there, or because of the two new guys that the priestess didn’t know and wasn’t comfortable disrobing in front of on their first visit, I couldn’t say.
The spear soon comes into play again when the priestess strokes and kisses it a number of times before taking it from the priest and holding it erect between her thighs.
There is some more recitation and rites before everyone who wants to takes communion (or communication as the OTO folks like to call it) approaches the altar one at a time. While standing before the not-in-this-case naked priestess holding an erect spear between her legs, the congregant takes a cake, known as the cake of light, from one of the children and says, “In my mouth be the essence of the light of the sun,” before eating.
Generally, but not always, this cake has bodily fluids baked into it. I fully intended to participate in the mass, and feared being unable to swallow the cake without embarrassing myself if I was certain it contained what I suspected, so I just didn’t ask. It’s harmless enough if run through an oven beforehand, but I didn’t trust my gag reflex not to kick in.
After the bodily fluids cake, the congregant then takes a glass of wine from the other child, saying “In my mouth be the fruit of the earth” and then downs it. At Sekhet Bast Ra, they don’t screw around with the portions. The cake and wine are a bit of an ordeal complete. After finishing both, the congregant then turns around and declares “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.”
Once everyone declares themselves to be of the gods, the priestess, deacon, priest and two children head off behind the curtain and the mass ends.
At this point, the candles are blown out, everyone retires to the rec room, and food, libations and conversation carry on into the wee hours of the morning. I received a number of congratulations for participating in the communication on my first visit, and Paul was only jokingly called a pussy once for opting to sit on the sidelines.
This gendered slur was one of a number of indications of one additional major difference I noticed between Wicca and OTO. Wicca is much more progressive socially. With the emphasis on sex in OTO comes an emphasis in gender roles. The priestess is played by a woman and the priest is played by a man. These strict gender distinctions are codified into the mass itself.
I honestly haven’t been to any Wiccan ceremonies, but from my limited experience members of Wicca are pretty open to nontraditional gender roles and identities. None of this is to say that the OTO folks are a bunch of prudes. Far from it. I’m pretty sure some of them suspected that Paul and I were partners, and they never batted an eye. At one point before the mass, I brought up the question of strictly-defined gender roles during the ceremony and a member asked another about a preoperative trans woman (my words, not his) playing the role of the priestess. The consensus seemed to be that the priestess had to have a vagina. I suspect a similar conversation would have gone quite differently in most Wiccan covens.
The OTO, at least at Sekhet Bast Ra, attracts an eclectic group of people who are simultaneously diverse and not diverse at all. Participants in the mass, as both congregants and officiants, ranged in age from early high school to probably retired. One member is a philosophy student at OU, while another came in late from his office job. One member appeared to be a soldier, while others wouldn’t have been out of place at a Grateful Dead show. All were Caucasian, and none appeared to be from particularly economically privileged or poverty-stricken classes. They definitely weren’t the powerful wealthy socialites of Eyes Wide Shut, but several had just returned from a cross-country trip to an OTO conference in California.