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Pronounced /θɛˈliːmɪk/Help with IPA

This refers to the fictional abbey of Thélème in the first part of Rabelais’ sixteenth-century Gargantua and Pantagruel: “In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed, Do What Thou Wilt” (in the original French Fay ce que vouldras, usually now translated as “Do as you please”). Rabelais believed that a rule as libertarian as this was possible among men “that were free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies” because they have “naturally an instinct and spur that prompts them unto virtuous actions”. He took the name of the abbey from the Greek word thelema, will.

Rabelais’ ideas were distorted by the notorious Hell-fire Club of the eighteenth century, founded by Sir Francis Dashwood at the former Cistercian abbey at Medmenham, on the banks of the Thames near Marlow. Rabelais’ motto was placed over the entrance, but the members indulged themselves not with virtuous actions but with obscene parodies of the rites of the Christian religion. The word was taken up in the early twentieth century by the occultist Aleister Crowley in reference to what he called his “thelemic power-zones”.

Page created 30 Jun. 2001

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 30 June 2001.