Three Common Myths about Phyllis Seckler

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Phyllis Seckler (aka Soror Meral, 1917-2004) was an important figure in the modern revival of O.T.O. and Thelema. A member of Agape Lodge in Southern California in the 1940s, together with Helen Parsons Smith she served as a living link between the first and only U.S. O.T.O. Lodge during Crowley’s lifetime and the reconstituted administration of O.T.O. under Grady McMurtry (to whom she was also married for a time). As a retired schoolteacher, her emphasis was always on education, and she founded the College of Thelema in 1973 to provide much-needed instruction to the still-nascent Thelemic community in California. Her journal, In the Continuum, which ran biannually from 1973 to 1996, included basic instruction in occult subjects such as astrology, qabalah, and tarot, and reprinted some important works by Crowley which had become hard to find. By the 1970s she had become a member of the Sovereign Sanctuary of O.T.O., and she remained an active and committed member of the Order until her death in 2004. She fully deserves recognition for the vital contributions she made to the survival and success of O.T.O. and to the promotion of Thelema in general.

I was a student of Phyllis and a member of the College of Thelema for eight years, from 1989 to 1997. Besides receiving In the Continuum and corresponding with her personally, I also attended the seminars she held at her house in Oroville, California twice a year, during the Memorial Day and Labor Day holiday weekends. These 3-day intensive retreats included lectures, rituals, feasting, and valuable opportunities to spend time with this living legend and her dedicated students. A highlight of these seminars was a “Night unto Nuit,” during which we would take LSD and lie down in Phyllis’ garden, staring up at the stars while she intoned the first chapter of The Book of the Law, lasting seemingly for hours.

I eventually became an officer of her organization and prepared the original incorporation documents and tax exemption applications for the College of Thelema in 1993. I was also a member of the Temple of Thelema during this period, and for a time served as both Cancellarius (secretary) and Imperator (treasurer) of its mother temple in Los Angeles. Thus, as a privileged insider, I bore direct witness to the internal workings of both organizations, which were closely linked at that time. (However, I was never a member of the so-called “Jane Wolfe lineage.” I became an aspirant to the A⸫ A⸫ in 1998, after I left both the College and Temple of Thelema.)

Over the years I have observed a number of myths develop around Phyllis Seckler. Most Thelemites of my generation are familiar with the byzantine history which underlies this myth-making and are not so easily deceived, but I have realized that many people now, having never known Phyllis (and even some who did know her), have been taken in by stories about her which have been presented as factual, but which are actually distortions or outright fabrications. My purpose in this essay is not to cast blame or belabor the motives behind these fictions, but simply to set the record straight. I think we owe it to Phyllis to acknowledge her legacy honestly, and recognize her actual accomplishments rather than propagate falsehoods which were created to exploit her reputation.

In doing so, I will not ask anyone to rely on my opinion or unverifiable assertions, but will cite primary sources which set forth the facts. I’ve even included scans of the original documents where possible. Many of the letters I refer to have been published elsewhere, although with little or no critical analysis. But it is all available in the historical record, and I encourage the reader to do nothing more than to draw their own conclusions, informed by the evidence.

For the purposes of this essay, I will examine three common myths about Phyllis Seckler which have persisted to this day. These began circulating verbally within Southern California O.T.O. circles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were first publicized in an article entitled “The Legacy of Jane Wolfe,” written by James Eshelman and published in the final issue of In the Continuum (Vol. 5, No. 10) in September of 1996.

Myth No. 1: Phyllis was admitted to the A⸫ A⸫ with the explicit authorization of Crowley himself

This myth is recounted in “The Legacy of Jane Wolfe” as follows:

It is occasionally stated—incorrectly—that Soror Estai [Jane Wolfe] never moved beyond the Probationer Grade. It is true that Jane long felt this to be true. Then, in April, 1940, she wrote to Crowley acknowledging that she was only a Probationer, and inquiring whether there was a way that she might nonetheless admit Phyllis to the Order. Crowley wrote back to Jane soon thereafter, indicating that she had, in fact, been a Neophyte for years, and should go ahead. Soror Meral was, therefore, admitted to the A⸫A⸫ not only by a qualified Neophyte, but with the explicit authorization of Crowley himself.”

The problem with this story is that it doesn’t match Phyllis’ own account of events, as she detailed in her biography of Jane Wolfe, serialized in In the Continuum:

She [Jane] wrote to Aleister about taking a pupil in the A⸫ A⸫ and feared this was not possible as she must still be a Probationer. He wrote back that she had been a Neophyte “God knows how many years ago! In any case DO things.”

So far so good, except according to Phyllis, this was in 1934, fully three years before Jane had even met Phyllis, and six years before the event was supposed to have taken place according to Eshelman. So the pupil that Jane wrote to Crowley about taking could not have been Phyllis.

Tracing this tale back to its source, Jane related the incident to Karl in a letter she wrote to him in September, 1942. Jane recalled writing a letter to Crowley about an out-of-town “chela” (pupil or disciple) of hers, to which he replied, “Good Lord, you were passed into the Order long ago.” But this chela was not Phyllis, because in the same letter she went on to ask Karl whether she could admit another chela (to Neophyte), by which she clearly meant Phyllis. By then she was no longer seeking Crowley’s authorization, but Karl’s. And by the way, Karl never gave her that authorization, and Phyllis remained a probationer.

This letter also shows that in spite of Crowley’s off-the-cuff assurance to Jane, after almost a decade he still hadn’t confirmed her as a Neophyte, and she didn’t even know the word of that grade! Note also, in Jane’s usage, full admission to the Order did not occur until one became a Neophyte.

For final confirmation, the original letter from Crowley to Jane is in the O.T.O. Archives. It is dated March 25, 1934, corroborating both Phyllis’ and Jane’s versions of the story. His actual words were “Lord! You were passed to Neophyte Lord knows how many years ago. In any case DO things!” So whoever received authorization from Crowley to be accepted as a Probationer by Jane in 1934, it was not Phyllis.

Nevertheless, since Crowley had evidently given Jane permission to accept Probationers in 1934, there is no reason to doubt the validity of Phyllis’ probation six years later. However, this is a perfect example of the myth-making process, in which a mixture of truth and misdirection are used to support a false conclusion. It also demonstrates the lack of Phyllis’ editorial involvement in “The Legacy of Jane Wolfe” since she surely would have caught this error, contradicted as it was by her own account in an earlier issue.

Myth No. 2: Karl Germer conferred the 5°=6 grade of A⸫ A⸫ on Phyllis

This is one of the most stubbornly enduring of all the myths about Phyllis Seckler, in spite of there being no factual basis for it whatsoever. After being accepted as a Probationer by Jane Wolfe in 1940, Phyllis received no further task papers and did not sign the oath for any subsequent grades of A⸫ A⸫.

Rather than relying on secondary sources or third-party interpretations of correspondence, if we have any respect for the woman at all we must regard Phyllis’ own words on the matter as authoritative. In 1996 she wrote, “I was absolutely bewildered by the material set before me which had to do with Thelema. This was so new to my soul that it took about 30 years of the Probationary period of the A⸫ A⸫ to get some sort of idea about what was involved in Thelema.”

Later in the same article she wrote “One can imagine my sense of bewilderment at not having any of the appropriate reference works or instructions. I had to figure out what to do by myself…. Also lacking were the instructions in LIBER 185 and I did not know about them until Israel Regardie published them in GEMS FROM THE EQUINOX. I also had no access to LIBER 13 which also gave instructions for each Grade level of the A⸫ A⸫.”

Coming directly from the source, it could not be any clearer that until at least 1975, Phyllis Seckler was no more than a Probationer of A⸫ A⸫.

So how did this myth arise, and why does it continue to be believed to this day? Once again, it can be traced back to “The Legacy of Jane Wolfe” published in the final issue of In the Continuum, which carefully constructs a narrative to lead readers to the conclusion that Karl conferred the 5°=6 on Phyllis, without actually contradicting Phyllis’ own assertions to the contrary. This narrative relies entirely on two passages quoted from letters by Karl Germer, taken out of context, and obfuscating the timeline of events. It also exploits a common misunderstanding of the relationship between the grade of 5°=6 and the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (K&C of the HGA).

According to Liber Collegii Sancti (Liber 185), the sole task of the Adeptus Minor (5°=6) is to attain the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. This task must be completed before one can be admitted to the 6°=5, or Adeptus Major grade. However, this does not mean that anyone who has attained the K&C of their HGA automatically becomes a 6°=5, or even a 5°=6 (for which it is not even a pre-requisite). It is entirely possible for someone to attain K&C without being in the A⸫ A⸫ at all. Why is this important? Because the A⸫ A⸫ is not solely about an individual’s attainment. With each grade comes the responsibility to serve the initiates of the lower grades, and assist in their advancement. For example, the Oath of the Neophyte includes the promise “to observe zeal in service to the Probationers under me, and to deny myself utterly on their behalf.” (A similar promise appears in all of the grades of the Outer Order.) If a person has not completed the tasks of the preceding grades (or is not even aware of what they are, as Phyllis admitted she was not), the he or she is in no position to claim any higher grade.

With that in mind, let us turn to the official narrative behind this myth. According to “The Legacy of Jane Wolfe,” Phyllis Seckler attained the Knowledge and Conversation of her Holy Guardian Angel on the morning of July 1, 1952. She wrote to Karl that day about her experience, and he responded by confirming to her, “you have risen to or above Tiphareth where the voice of the Secret Guide is gradually taking over and begins to speak to your soul.”

Significantly, however, this letter does not specifically confer the 5°=6 grade upon Phyllis; in fact, nowhere in the entire letter is the 5°=6 grade or even the A⸫ A⸫ mentioned at all.

Note: all of the correspondence I am citing in this section was published in 2016 by The International College of Thelema (ICOT) in Karl Germer: Selected Letters 1928-1962, edited by David Shoemaker, Andrew Ferrell, and Stefan Voss. I am showing the relevant pages here for confirmation of the quoted material, rather than including the full text of every letter. I encourage readers to peruse the entire correspondence for even greater context.

Once again, the published narrative is deliberately misleading. Phyllis apparently did have an intense dream in the early morning of July 1, 1952, but at the time she did not interpret it to mean that she had attained the Knowledge and Conversation of her Holy Guardian Angel. And she did indeed write to Karl on July 1, but evidently she did not make any mention of this dream. Her July 1 letter has been omitted from the published correspondence, and substituted in its place, with the date removed, is a letter she actually wrote 10 months later, on May 1, 1953, in which she finally told Karl about the dream. So the letters were re-arranged to make it look like Karl was confirming the experience she reported, when in fact he was only speculating about an attainment that he didn’t know about and that she had not even claimed to have herself.

This is how Phyllis responded to Karl’s letter of July 7, 1952:

You mention “the fact that you have risen to or above Tiphareth”. And you surprise me exceedingly. I had never thought of it this way. If anything, I thought my position would be indicative of aspiring towards Yesod.

Eventually Phyllis told Karl about the dream she had on July 1 of the previous year, in which a brilliant light had coursed up and down her spine. When she woke up, all she was able to remember was the word “Azar.” She reported: “When I awoke I thought it had been the Angel, but reason also told me that it might be wishful thinking or pure intuition.” And in the 10 months following her dream, she had not heard from Azar again. She continued to reject Karl’s insistence that she consider herself to have reached Tiphareth, writing “I do not at this time think I have attained to that point!” and “Will I never gain the Knowledge and Conversation?”

So we can see that in their correspondence, over the course of at least a year, Phyllis remained skeptical of Karl’s high opinions of her. Eventually, however, she was apparently persuaded by his persistence, and came to accept that she had attained to the Knowledge and Conversation of her Holy Guardian Angel after all. Of course, according to Thelemic principles, we are in no position to judge whether or not this is true, and I have no reason to doubt that Phyllis sincerely believed it to be so. Nevertheless, it is important to understand Phyllis’ contemporaneous views on the matter, in contrast to the narrative which was constructed about these events over four decades later.

In any event, even if we take Phyllis’ eventual claim to K&C at face value, this is not the same thing as having received the grade of 5°=6, as I’ve already explained above.

So this leaves just one more out-of-context quote from a letter of Karl Germer’s which has been used to justify the claims about Phyllis’ A⸫ A⸫ grade which have been made on her behalf. On June 24, 1952, Karl wrote to Jane: “You know that I have a high regard for P.’s attainment. I’m sure she has gone through the 5°=6, some time ago. I’m sure she is under guidance.” Here again it is evident that Karl is speculating about Phyllis’ attainment rather than actually conferring the grade upon her. He used the phrase “gone through the 5°=6” as a shorthand for K&C of the HGA, as he had already done in another letter to Jane in 1948 when referring to O.T.O. members, who obviously wouldn’t have been eligible for the actual grade. This is reinforced by his subsequent statement, “I’m sure she is under guidance.” After all, if he had actually conferred the grade upon her, he would have simply said so, rather than allude that she had “gone through” it “some time ago.” And one would think he would have told this important fact to Phyllis directly, which he never did. Finally, this letter was written before Phyllis actually had the dream which she would later accept as the moment of her K&C. That Karl was impressed by Phyllis there is no doubt, but in this case his wishful thinking was clearly premature. Especially since he hardly knew her at the time, as he wrote: “I wish I knew her better; when I was in L.A. the first time, I met her, but her image is indistinct. I don’t think I exchanged one word with her.”

I have included this rather lengthy explanation to not only refute the (somewhat thin) basis for the spurious claim about Phyllis’ A⸫ A⸫ grade, but also to show how the myth was constructed, relying on selective quotation, omission, rearrangement of the timeline, and conflation of attainment with conferring of grade. But again, the most important pieces of evidence to consider are the words and actions of Phyllis herself, which are completely unambiguous. In addition to her 1996 statement that she had been a Probationer for 30 years, beginning around 1980 she began to refer to herself as a Neophyte. The “Frater Yod” who she credits with finally supplying her A⸫ A⸫ instructions was James Eshelman. She further detailed their arrangement in a later issue of In the Continuum, in which she wrote “In the many years that followed we helped each other to do the mandated A⸫ A⸫ work and here was the person to monitor what I was working on and to give me encouragement and also advice.” In effect, Eshelman served as her superior in the A⸫ A⸫, having her become a Neophyte so that she, in turn, could make him a Probationer. He very quickly surpassed her in grade after that, eventually claiming 6°=5 for himself in 1995.

Although anecdotal, I offer one final piece of evidence to confirm that Phyllis still did not consider herself to be a 5°=6 throughout the early 1990s. When I traveled to her house in Oroville twice a year to attend her seminars, we always held group performances of the solar adorations as prescribed by Liber Resh. One of the instructions in Liber Resh is that A⸫ A⸫ aspirants shall greet the sun, giving the sign of their grade. Phyllis would always give the Sign of the God Set Fighting, which is the sign of the 1°=10 (Neophyte) grade of A⸫ A⸫. I am sure that any student who attended these seminars over the years (and some are still in the O.T.O. to this day) will readily recall this fact.

Myth No. 3: Phyllis became the head of A⸫ A⸫ after Karl Germer’s death

Of course, proponents of this myth can produce no succession document, letter of appointment, or any indication in any correspondence or papers anywhere that Karl Germer had any intention of naming Phyllis to succeed him as head of the A⸫ A⸫. And yet this myth persists in some circles, sometimes based on the mistaken belief that the succession of leadership in A⸫ A⸫ automatically passes to the senior-most ranking member of the Order. Even if this was the case, as a Probationer, Phyllis did not qualify on that basis either.

But once again, for definitive proof, one need look no further than Phyllis’ own words. At the time of Germer’s death it was abundantly clear that she believed Marcelo Motta to be Germer’s successor as head of the A⸫ A⸫. She was aware of Karl’s deathbed instruction to his wife, Sascha, which named Motta “the Follower,” and she corresponded with him to offer her services. In one of her letters to Motta (dated December 9, 1962) she refers to him as Germer’s “mystical heir.”

But even more conclusively, Phyllis wrote to Motta in 1976, recognizing him as the head of the A⸫ A⸫ and asking for his assistance. She wrote: “Since you are now Praemonstrator of the A⸫ A⸫ and since I am a member of this body, there are details to be worked out in regard to the work of promulgating Thelema.” Lest there be any doubt, the entire letter may be viewed here.

Motta responded on April 29, 1976, suggesting that Phyllis write to his representative in the United States, James Daniel Gunther. “He is a young man, very dedicated, and well-trained. His Grade is 4°=7.” Since it has not been published before, I am including a PDF of the full letter here as well.

For whatever reason, Phyllis never did follow her superior’s advice to work with Gunther, and one cannot help but wonder how things might have been different today if only had she done so. But soon after this, she met James Eshelman, and the “Jane Wolfe lineage” (or should it be the James Eshelman lineage?) was born.

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On a personal note, those closest to me know that I have struggled with writing this essay for some time now. I have known about these myths, and a great deal more about the tumultuous events of the 1990s which gave rise to them, for a very long time, but until now I have chosen to maintain my silence. I decided to come forward now only to ensure that the history we are writing for ourselves as an Order reflects the truth rather than propagates misinformation. No one asked me to write this, and I am not acting on behalf of any organization or ideological cause. It is not my intention to create division in our community, and I beseech my brethren not to use this issue as an excuse for unfraternal behavior, but rather as an opportunity for constructive dialogue. I will not be arguing these points on social media, as I believe the facts and evidence speak for themselves, and it is up to each person reading this to make up his or her own mind.

In Peace, Tolerance, and Truth,

Love is the law, love under will.

Vere Chappell