|Temple of Set|
|Classification||Religious organization, magical order|
|Scripture||The Book of Coming Forth by Night|
|High priest||Michael Aquino|
San Francisco, California
|Separated from||Church of Satan|
The Temple of Set is a Left-Hand Path initiatory order founded in 1975. A new religious movement and form of Western esotericism, the Temple espouses a religion known as Setianism. This is sometimes identified as a form of Satanism, although this term is not often embraced by Setians and is contested by some academics.
The Temple was established in 1975 by Michael Aquino, a political scientist, military officer, and a high-ranking member of Anton LaVey's Church of Satan. Dissatisfied with the direction in which LaVey was taking the Church, Aquino resigned and – according to his own claim – embarked on a ritual to invoke Satan, who revealed to him a sacred text called The Book of Coming Forth by Night. According to Aquino, in this work Satan revealed his true name to be Seth, which had been the name used by his followers in ancient Egypt. Aquino was joined in establishing the Temple by a number of other dissatisfied members of LaVey's Church, and soon various Setian groups had been established across the United States.
Although believing in Set as a preternatural force that can aid humanity, Setians do not worship Set as a deity. Highly individualistic in basis, the Temple promotes the idea that practitioners should seek self-deification and thus attain an immortality of consciousness. Setians believe in the existence of magic as a force which can be manipulated through ritual, however the nature of these rituals is not prescribed by the Temple. Specifically, Aquino described Setian practices as "black magic", a term which he defines specifically and idiosyncratically.
The Temple is divided into groups known as pylons, which bring together practitioners in a particular area. Pylons of the Temple are now present in the United States, Australia, and Europe, with estimates placing the number of Temple memberships between 200 and 500.
Eclectically drawing upon a wide range of ideas from throughout Western esotericism, the Temple of Set is far more rooted in esoteric ideas than the Church of Satan had been. It has thus been termed "Esoteric Satanism", a term used to contrast it with the "Rational Satanism" found in LaVeyan Satanism. Accordingly, it has been labelled the "intellectual wing of esoteric Satanism". The Temple of Set presents itself as an intellectual religion. Aquino possessed a PhD in political science and this formal education was reflected in the way that he presented his arguments, in which he draws broadly upon Western philosophy and science.
However, the religious studies scholar Kennet Granholm argued that the Temple of Set should not be considered a form of "Satanism" because it does not place an emphasis on the figure of Satan. He nevertheless acknowledged that it was an "actor in the Satanic milieu" and part of the wider Left-Hand Path group of esoteric traditions. Conversely, the religious studies scholars Asbjorn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen believed that it was apt to consider the Temple of Set as a Satanic group despite its reluctance to use the term "Satanism" because of its genealogical link to other Satanic groups and its continuing use of "many elements of satanic mythology".
In the United States, the temple is registered as a non-profit organisation, with accompanying tax benefits.
Born in 1946, Michael Aquino was a military intelligence officer specialising in psychological warfare. In 1969 he joined Anton LaVey's Church of Satan and rose rapidly through the group's ranks. In 1970, while he was serving with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, Aquino was stationed in Bến Cát in South Vietnam when he authored a tract entitled "Diabolicon" in which he reflected his growing divergence from the Church of Satan's doctrines. In this tract, teachings about the creation of the world, God, and humanity are presented, while also conveying a dualistic idea of Satan complementing God. In this tract, the character of Lucifer is presented as bringing insight to human society, a perspective that was inherited from the depiction of Lucifer in John Milton's seventeenth-century epic poem Paradise Lost.
By 1971 Aquino was ranked as a Magister Caverns of the IV° within the group's hierarchy, was editor of its publication The Cloven Hoof, and sat on its Council of Nine. In 1973 he then rose to the previously unattained rank of Magister Templi of IV°. According to scholars of Satanism Per Faxneld and Jesper Petersen, Aquino had become LaVey's "right-hand man". He had nevertheless developed concerns about the organisation, feeling that it had attracted many "fad-followers, egomaniacs and assorted oddballs whose primary interests in becoming Satanists was to flash their membership cards for cocktail-party notoriety". When in 1975 LaVey abolished the system of regional groups, or grottos, and declared that in future all degrees would be given in exchange for financial or other contributions to the Church, Aquino was disenfranchised and resigned from the organisation on June 10, 1975.
Aquino provided what has been described as a "foundation myth" for his Setian religion. Having departed the Church, Aquino embarked on a ritual intent on asking Satan for advice on what to do next. According to his account, at Midsummer 1975, Satan appeared and revealed that he wanted to be known by his true name, Set, which had been the name used by his worshippers in ancient Egypt. Aquino produced a religious text, The Book of Coming Forth by Night, which he alleged had been revealed to him by Set through a process of automatic writing. According to Aquino, "there was nothing overtly sensational, supernatural, or melodramatic about The Book of Coming Forth By Night working. I simply sat down and wrote it." The book proclaimed Aquino to be the Magus of the new Aeon of Set and the heir to LaVey's "infernal mandate". Aquino later stated that the revelation that Satan was Set necessitated his own exploration of Egyptology, a subject that he had previously known comparatively little about. By drawing connections between itself and Ancient Egypt, this young religion adopted a legitimisation strategy that tried to antedate both Judaism and Christianity.
Aquino's Book of Coming Forth by Night makes reference to The Book of the Law, a similarly 'revealed' text produced by the occultist Aleister Crowley in 1904 which provided the basis for Crowley's religion of Thelema. In Aquino's book, The Book of the Law was presented as a genuine spiritual text given to Crowley by preternatural sources, but it was also declared that Crowley had both misunderstood its origin and message. In doing so, Aquino presented himself as being as much Crowley's heir as LaVey's, and Aquino's work would engage with Crowley's writings and beliefs to a far greater extent than LaVey ever did.
In establishing the Temple, Aquino was joined by other ex-members of LaVey's Church, and soon Setian groups, or pylons, were established in various parts of the United States. The structure of the Temple was based largely on those of the ceremonial magical orders of the late nineteenth century, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis. Aquino has stated that he believed LaVey not to be merely a charismatic leader but to have been actually appointed by Satan himself (referring to this charismatic authority as the "Infernal Mandate") to found the Church. After the split of 1975, Aquino believed LaVey had lost the mandate, which the "Prince of Darkness" then transferred to Aquino and a new organization, the Temple of Set. According to both the historian of religion Mattias Gardell and journalist Gavin Baddeley, Aquino expressed obsession with LaVey after his departure from the Church, for instance by publicly releasing court documents that reflected negatively on his former mentor, among them restraining orders, divorce proceedings, and a bankruptcy filing. In turn, LaVey lampooned the new Temple as "Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert".
From 1980 through to 1986, Aquino worked as a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Aquino was fascinated with the connections between occultism and Nazism, resulting in some accusations that he was sympathetic to Nazi ideology. In 1983, he performed a solitary rite at Walhalla, the subterranean section of the Wewelsburg castle in Germany that was utilised as a ceremonial space by the Schutzstaffel's Ahnenerbe group during the era of Nazi Germany. This resulted in his formation of the Order of the Trapezoid, a Setian group who understood themselves as a chivalric order of knights. From 1987 through to 1995, the Grand Master of the Order of the Trapezoid was Edred Thorsson, who had joined the Temple of Set in 1984 and risen to the Fifth Degree in 1990. Thorsson exerted a "discernible influence" over the Setian community through his books, in which he combined aspects of Satanic philosophy with the modern Pagan religion of Heathenry.
In the 1980s, Aquino attracted greater publicity for his Temple through appearances on television talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Geraldo. During the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria, in 1987 the three-year old daughter of a Christian clergyman accused Aquino of sexually abusing her during satanic rites held at his Presidio home. Responding to the allegations, police raided Aquino's home, however – after no evidence was found to substantiate the allegation and it was revealed that Aquino was living in Washington D.C. at the time of the alleged abuse – the police decided not to charge him with any felony. The Temple first registered a website in 1997, the same year as the Church of Satan. It would also establish its own intranet, allowing for communication between Setians in different parts of the world.
One member of the Temple was the New Zealander Kerry Bolton, who split to form his own Order of the Left Hand Path in 1990. In 1995, another couple who joined were LaVey's daughter Zeena Schreck and her husband Nikolas Shreck, both of whom were vocal critics of Zeena's father. In 1996, Don Webb became the high priest of the Temple, a position that he held until 2002. He was replaced by Zeena Schreck, but she resigned after six weeks and was replaced by Aquino, who took charge once more. In that year, Schreck led a schism within the organisation.
The individual human is at the centre of Setian philosophy, and it places great emphasis on the development of the individual, postulating self-deification as the ultimate goal. The realization of the true nature of the Setian is termed "becoming" or "coming into being" and is represented by the Egyptian hieroglyphic term kheper, or "Xeper" (a phonetic of _Xpr_), as the Temple of Set prefers to write it. This term is described in The Book of Coming Forth by Night as "the Word of the Aeon of Set". Members attempt "to preserve and strengthen" their "isolate, psyche-centric existence" through adherence to the left hand path. This idea is in supposed opposition to the traditional goal of Hermetic and mystical practices: the surrendering of the ego into a union with God or the universe.
Aquino taught that the human's essence is immortal and that there is an afterlife. The Temple teaches that the true self, or essence, is immortal, and Xeper is the ability to align consciousness with this essence. Self-initiation is knowledge understood as a conjunction of intellect and intuition. The Temple operates in the context of objective and subjective universes. The objective universe is the natural world and collective meaning systems, while the subjective universe is understood as the individually experienced world and meaning system.
Aquino's understanding of Satan differed from the atheistic interpretation promoted by LaVey. The Temple of Set has been described as being "openly theistic", in that it believes Set to be a real entity. It further argues that Set is the only god who has not been created by the human imagination. The Temple presents the view that the name "Satan" was originally a corruption of the name "Set". According to Webb, "we do not worship Set - only our own potential. Set was and is the patron of the magician who seeks to increase his existence through expansion."
Set is a "role model" for initiates; a being totally apart from the objective universe. Set is considered ageless and the only god with independent existence. Set is described as having given humanity, through the means of non-natural evolution, the "Black Flame" or the "Gift of Set"; a questioning intellect which sets humans apart from nature and gives us "isolate self-consciousness" and the possibility to attain divinity.
Embracing the idea of aeons from Crowley's Thelema, Aquino adopts the Crowleyan tripartite division between the Aeon of Isis, Aeon of Osiris, and Aeon of Horus, but adds to that the Aeon of Satan, which he dates from 1966 to 1975, and then the Aeon of Set, which he dated from 1975 onward. Despite presenting these chronological parameters, Aquino also portrayed the aeons less as time periods and more as mind-sets that can co-exist alongside one another. Thus, he stated that "A Jew, Christian or Moslem exists in the Æon of Osiris, a Wiccan in that of Isis, and a Thelemite in that of Horus".
Aquino placed an emphasis on what he understood as the division between the objective and subjective universes. Following earlier esotericists like Crowley, Aquino characterised magic as "causing change in accordance with will". Unlike LaVey, Aquino expressed belief in the division between black magic and white magic. He described white magic as "a highly-concentrated form of conventional religious ritual", describing it as being "more versatile", "less difficult" and "less dangerous" than black magic. However he criticised the latter as "fraud and/or self-delusion" which deceives the consciousness into thinking that it has been accepted in the objective universe.
Aquino divided black magic into two forms, lesser black magic and greater black magic. Aquino stated that lesser black magic entails "impelling" things that exist in the "objective universe" into doing a desired act by using "obscure physical or behavioural laws" and into this category he placed stage magic, psychodramas, politics, and propaganda. Conversely, he used the term greater black magic in reference to changes in the subjective universe of the magician, allowing them to realize their self in accordance with the principle of Xeper. It is accepted that there may be changes in the objective universe as a result of greater black magic, however such effects are considered secondary to the impact on the subjective universe.
Within the Temple, rituals are typically known as "workings", and are most often carried out alone. Stressing its individualist nature, there are no rituals that are specifically prescribed by the Temple. Aquino also emphasized that in order to achieve a desired aim, the Setian should carry out physical actions alongside magical ones. There are no regular occasions which are marked by fixed rituals, and the Temple holds to no calendar of festivals.
All members of the Temple must be affiliated with a pylon, and thus membership is by application, requiring contact with a Setian priestess or priest followed by an evaluation period. The participation of non-initiated in the Temple's rituals are forbidden, due to the belief that their rituals would be dangerous in the wrong hands.
The Temple of Set recognizes several stages or degrees of initiation. The degrees indicate the individual Setian's development and skill in magic. The degree structure is based on that of the Church of Satan, which in turn was based on the degrees of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Temple terms the progression through degrees as "recognitions", because the organization's philosophy sees that the individual member initiates himself and the Temple merely acknowledges this by granting the degree.
These degrees are:
The priesthood of the Temple of Set consists of members holding the third degree or higher. Full membership comes with recognition to the second degree. Many members do not advance beyond the second degree, nor is this expected of them, as while the first and second degree members use the organization's teachings and tools for their own development, the priesthood involves greater responsibilities towards the organization, such as being its official representatives. Recognition is performed by members of the priesthood. The fourth degree, which is acknowledged by the high priest/priestess, entails that the individual is so advanced in his magical skills that he is able to found his own school of magic, represented in the different orders of the Temple. The fifth degree can only be awarded by the unanimous decision of the Council of Nine and by the approval of the high priest/priestess. A fifth degree member has the power to utter and define a concept which somehow affects the philosophy of the organization, such as the concept of Xeper defined by Aquino in 1975. Only a handful of members have attained this degree and most "fifth-degree" concepts defined in such a manner are no longer studied in the organization. The final sixth degree represents a Magus "whose Task is complete". This degree is held by a very select few in the Temple, although any fifth-degree member can assume the sixth degree based on their own assessment.
The organization is led by a high priest/priestess, who is also the public face of the Temple. The high priest is chosen among fourth or higher degree members by the chairman of the Council of Nine. This ruling council has nine members chosen from the priesthood (third degree or higher), whose mandate lasts for nine years with a new member being elected every year. The chairman of the council is chosen from among the council members each year. The council has the ultimate ruling power in the Temple and even the high priest is responsible to it. The Temple also has an executive director, whose task is to deal with administrative issues.
Since its founding in 1975, the temple has had the following high priests/priestesses:
In addition to the international organization, the Temple sponsors initiatory Orders and Elements and local groups called Pylons. Pylons are intended to facilitate the initiatory work of the Temple's members by conducting meetings where discussions and magical works take place. The purpose of a pylon is to provide a space in which the Setian can focus on their religion, aided by like-minded individuals. Pylons typically meet in a members' home. Members usually join the Pylon located geographically closest to them. Correspondence- or Internet-based Pylons also exist. A Pylon is led a by a second-degree (or higher) member who is called a Sentinel. The term pylon derives from the architectural features which served as fortified gateways to ancient Egyptian temples. One Finnish Setian informed Granholm that the relationship between the orders and the temple was like that of different departments in a university.
Elements are loosely structured interest groups, where specific themes and issues are addressed. They can be open for non-members and are commonly in operation only for short periods. Topics of interest include, for example, animal rights, which were the subject of the Arkte element operated by Aquino's wife Lilith.
There are sections of the Temple known as Orders, each of which focus on a particular theme, for instance ancient Egypt, Norse culture, Tantric Hinduism, or vampirism. Orders can be understood as schools of different aspects of magic providing different paths of initiation. Orders are led by grand masters, who will usually be the founder of the order. In longer-lived orders the founder may have a successive grand master. Orders are founded by members of the fourth degree. When a member reaches the second degree of initiation, they are expected to join an order of his choosing. In normal circumstances, a Setian is only permitted to join one order, however special dispensation can be obtained for a practitioner to joint two.
As of 2000, the Temple has thirteen pylons, which were operating in the United States, Australia, Germany, and across Sweden and Finland. The extent of the Temple's membership has not been publicly revealed by the group, however in 2005 Petersen noted that academic estimates for the Temple's membership varied from between 300 to 500, and in 2007 Granholm suggested that the Temple contained circa 200 members. In 1999, Jean La Fontaine suggested that in Britain, there were 100 members of the Temple at most, and possibly "considerably fewer". The Temple's members come from a variety of racial backgrounds.