The human need for belonging can be both powerful and blinding. Many religious organizations and other institutions owe at least part of their success to people’s inherent drive to come together in pursuit of a higher purpose. Among such organizations, secret societies and cults often take the media spotlight for their exclusionary and secretive practices.
The precise definition of a cult depends on who you ask, but they almost always have a charismatic leader who preaches unorthodox beliefs and has rigid systems of control in place. From the suicidal cult of Heaven’s Gate to the Keith Raniere-founded NXIVM, a sex cult that engaged in human trafficking, both cults and secret societies can be dark and debilitating institutions.
Perhaps one of the most curious known secret societies is the Ordo Templi Orientis (or “Order of the Temple of the East”), an occult organization. Shrouded in secrecy, the O.T.O. dates back to the early 20th century. It can be traced back to occultists Carl Kellner, Heinrich Klein, Franz Hartmann, and Theodor Reuss, although the exact origins remain difficult to ascertain.
The O.T.O. was notably modeled after Freemasonry principles, including the Masonic Templar organizations. But when author and occultist Aleister Crowley became a member, his influence grew and the O.T.O took on a life of its own. The organization reordered itself under Crowley’s belief system, Thelema—a philosophy and new religious movement with roots in sex magic, or ritual sexual activity.
In 1913, Crowley developed the Gnostic Mass as the O.T.O.'s “central ceremony of its public and private celebration.” Crowley’s influence upon the organization would continue to blossom, and he was soon living primarily off of member dues and donations.
Once someone is initiated into the O.T.O. by taking part in various ritualistic activities, they are expected to participate in the Gnostic Mass and the initiation of the Mysteries. The rituals utilize secret techniques involving masturbation and other sexual activity. It’s all based around Crowley’s The Book of the Law, written in 1904. The book was inspired by Crowley’s vacation to Cairos, where he claimed he was visited by a deity named Aiwass.
The O.T.O. hosts everything from lectures to classes to social events. It’s a truly intriguing secret organization that has edged into the spotlight over the years. However, unlike some organizations that thrive on a sense of community, O.T.O. members are encouraged to keep to themselves and almost never come in contact with one other.
Crowley wrote in his book, Magick Without Tears: “Even after affiliation, you would not meet anyone unless it were necessary for you to work in cooperation with them. I am afraid you have still got the idea that the Great Work is a tea-party. Contact with other students only means that you criticize their hats, and then their morals; and I am not going to encourage this. Your work is not anybody else’s; and undirected chatter is the worst poisonous element in a humane society.”
Interestingly, the organization values secrecy more than socialization. Crowley and the occultist founders might not have wanted the O.T.O. to be so visible. Yet nowadays, it seems like some of the most popular (and richest) celebrities are in fact members…even if they won’t admit it.
Like fodder for the conspiracy theorist, many top-tier celebrities are seemingly connected to the secret organization. Rockstar and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page has incorporated O.T.O. iconography and symbolism in the band’s music. For the astute eye, Aleister Crowley himself can be found on the cover of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thelemic influences and references can be found in both George Lucas’s Star Wars Trilogy and Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller film, Eyes Wide Shut. Rapper and business entrepreneur Jay-Z uses O.T.O. symbols in his Rocawear fashion brand.
Other celebrities that have allegedly alluded to the O.T.O.—be it Crowley’s principles, Thelemic iconography, or O.T.O. philosophies—include Sting, Russell Brand, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Kanye West, Madonna, Johnny Cash, Jim Morrison, and more. It’s unclear whether some of these references are unintentional, or if they’re purposely harnessed to create an undercurrent of intrigue. The uncertainty alone is enough to drive anyone mad.
Everywhere you look, O.T.O. influence is just around the corner. Forget the allegations about Freemasons and the Illuminati running the country; what about the O.T.O.?
Right when it seems like the intrigue is about to fade, whispers about the O.T.O surface again. Just take a look at one of its chapter houses in New Orleans, which was recently listed on Zillow. This impressive two-story home is draped in gorgeous hardwood floors and is fitted with top-tier appliances… as well as O.T.O. symbols built into its windows, door frames, and more.
Ordo Templi Orientis sets itself apart by being extremely secretive and, in doing so, maintains an elitist and exclusive membership. No wonder conspiracy theorists claim that many celebrities are involved in the order: It’s too much of an irresistible and powerful role to play. The O.T.O. feels like it should exist entirely in a thrilling, far more exotic fictional reality. If only we could sit in on a ritual or two.