The Solar Lodge will need no introduction to members of LAShTAL.COM, who will have read the breathless accounts of its activities in works by Ed Sanders and Francis King. There were drugs involved, it was said, and animal sacrifices and pornography and firearms and Charles Manson and a poor little kid locked in a box in the desert sun as punishment for torching some Crowley artefacts. Perhaps, though, the fact that the Solar Lodge doesn’t even get a mention in recent editions of Sanders’ “The Family” ought to prompt suspicions that things were not quite as they might have appeared to the author in those heady, early days.
The Solar Lodge, though, remains a subject of great interest to those of us that have studied the influence of Crowley through the decades that followed his death. The opportunity to read an account by someone who was actually there is therefore massively attractive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: what of the book itself? Well, physically it’s a handsome production. It’s a good quality hardcover, its solar-yellow cloth binding hidden behind a slickly professional black dust jacket displaying the author’s personal lamen. There are eight pages of photographs and a short but useful index. The book’s two hundred pages are printed on good quality paper. It’s really rather well done and will look good on any bookshelf.
This first edition is strictly limited to 418 copies (at $45.00) and I’d be very surprised if there are many left for purchase.
So, to return to our story, the presumed history of the Solar Lodge has been massively controversial and continues to be used by some commentators as evidence of the harm that can be experienced by acolytes and cultists having too hardcore a commitment to living the Thelemic life. Many continue to refer to it as a kind of hippy version of the Abbey at Cefalu, transplanted to the heat and dust of west coast America. Think of the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, remixed by Kenneth Anger.
The Solar Lodge – tracing its family tree indirectly to Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis through Ray Burlingame – was established by Georgina “Jean” Brayton (born 1921), an English-born ex-nurse who married a schoolteacher. She began undertaking formal initiations into the Solar Lodge and, seemingly very quickly, attracted a substantial collection of middle-class would-be Thelemites, a significant proportion of whom were dentists and dental students. This must have resulted in some interesting demographics but slightly disconcerting parties, I should imagine! And, at least as Frater Shiva tells the tale, there do seem to have been quite a few parties. There was also a fascination with property: at times the book becomes a bit of an estate agent’s guide to occult centres, complete with grid references for the Google Earth enthusiast. Houses were purchased and rooms let – more houses were purchased, and more, and then land, lots of land. The houses tend to be described as “mansions” which, judging by the photographs, may be overstating things just a little. Suffice to say that compared with Thelemic brotherhoods in the Noughties, the Solar Lodge of the Sixties was absolutely loaded.
It’s perhaps as a result of this organisational material wealth and the desire to live together, away from the mainstream, that the seeds of chaos were unwittingly sown. The early days of group ritual, astrological interpretations and yoga practices are quickly over-shadowed by what are probably best described as “extra-curricular activities”. Banishing rituals performed with no more sinister intent than the discouragement of local “hoodlums” from gathering outside the “mansion” begin, after the death of Burlingame, to be replaced by solitary wandering through desert Hells, interpreting meteor showers as the direct intervention of Qliphoth and Gods: “Years later we discovered that my performance of the invocation had ‘just happened’ to coincide with the annual Perseus meteor shower.”
Unsurprisingly, such an early decision to view every event as an omen or message intended for the edification and education of the cult’s members rapidly caused a descent into paranoia and the like. A sister of the Solar Lodge loses her handbag – which happens to contain a firearm and some mescaline. Rumours reach the group that they are being watched. Frater Shiva gathers up some “secret papers” and his own firearm – of course - and makes for New Mexico, where he is arrested and detained (five days inside for not having a driving licence: they’re clearly very robust about traffic offences in New Mexico). Brayton’s husband is arrested on another occasion for drunk driving, driving without a license, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of marijuana. Mind you, they should have thrown the book at him for introducing himself to a female candidate for initiation with the immortal words: “I’m the Ipsissimus – you can call me Ippy”!
The Solar Lodge employed the OTO system of grades but correlated them with appropriate A.’.A.’. tasks, in a practical approach that seems from this perspective to have been rather ahead of its time.
Brayton appears quite early to have introduced to the Lodge an obsession with the collecting of Crowley memorabilia. Members were actively encouraged to gather such items whenever they appeared in local bookstores or, seemingly, when they were in the care of Karl Germer’s blind and deaf widow, the elderly Sascha. This shocking incident is described in detail in the book and it makes for disturbing reading, involving as it does the administration of medical sedatives for criminal purposes. It is to Frater Shiva’s credit, I suppose, that he describes the event at all, even if his comments are ambivalent: “Other considerations being set aside, [the main offender] was neither a violent nor a physically aggressive person. However … the administration of unwanted, potent drugs is legally considered to be battery.” This ambivalence is poorly placed given the robber’s poignant observation a few lines later that “she kept calling me ‘Karl’.”
It’s made absolutely clear that the Solar Lodge library and archive consisted of a substantial amount of stolen material but that pretty much all of it went up in a fire at the desert ranch they used, with the exception, apparently, of Crowley’s Abra Melin book – more of a photo album filled with talismans, seemingly – which is now lost.
Ah, yes: that fire… And the “boy in the box”.
No story of hippy Thelema is complete without a description of these events, and Frater Shiva is again candid about what happened. One fears that nothing he has written will change the general perception among casual students that a toddler was left alone and chose to play with matches, that something caught fire and the building was destroyed, taking with it the priceless archives of the Solar Lodge, a veritable cornucopia, a museum of Crowley, if you will. In a mood of great anger, it is generally perceived, the community chained the little boy in a box and left him for – was it hours or days? – in the fierce desert sun. The group of devil worshippers were arrested en masse and as a result the cult was disbanded.
But is that how it really was? Not entirely, according to the author of “Inside Solar Lodge – Outside The Law”. The child was six years old, the son of the member we met earlier with the firearm and mescaline in her handbag. He “obtained” some matches and the place went up. It appears that this went unpunished – or at least unremarked in this book – but he’d obviously got the taste for arson and tried again “a couple of months after the first conflagration”. One of the members, acting alone it seems, chained – yes, chained – the boy inside a box-room made from a goat pen. Some hours later the police arrived, released the boy and arrested the dozen members there.
Much of the rest of the book comprises an account of the subsequent scattering of the members, their games – real and imagined – of hide and seek with the FBI and the police, and their attempts to live outside the bonds of their order, often unsuccessfully or briefly. Brayton eventually died in1984, apparently as the result of consuming some oriental medicine provided to her by an acupuncturist – and the Solar Lodge tale was effectively complete.
So, what of the book? Well, it’s sufficient to satiate anyone’s interest in the Solar Lodge, that’s for sure! As a bogeyman of occult orders the Solar Lodge surprisingly fails on so many levels: there’s little evidence of anyone actually developing spiritually and the whole experiment looks from this vantage point at least to have been, well, a little bit naff, really. The rituals were essentially formulaic and the sex and drugs fairly rather peripheral and unimaginative.
Frater Shiva, on the other hand, is rather more interesting. He is an engaging story-teller: his descriptions of visions, dreams and the rest of his inner world adventures counterpoint instructively the description of the chaos and collapse around him. He rarely tries to aggrandise his own role – he ‘wasn’t there’, for example, for the fire, or the chaining, or the robbery - and on occasions he demonstrates a rather touching empathy for those around him. He’s not a natural writer, though. His story jumps all over the place, dialogue is stilted and characters are at best two-dimensional. The women tend to be statuesque and manipulative; the men sometime obese but more often “slender” and argumentative.
But we see in Frater Shiva a kind of Everyman, someone initially puzzled, bemused and overawed by some rather bizarre people and events – and we follow him on his internal journey towards real self-discovery and wisdom. He has a fascinating story to tell and he tells it well.
Not for the first time, then, the name of Teitan Press is associated with an essential purchase. The Press has a reputation for publishing works of great quality and this, the first from the imprint under new management, shows every indication of continuing this tradition. This book demands to be read and enjoyed.
The Solar Lodge will fascinate you but you’ll be quite happy you weren’t there. As, indeed, Manson wasn’t…