Chinese Whispers: The Origin of LAM

The alien invasion has been so subtle we didn’t notice it happening. When did the word ‘alien’ come to mean a bug-eyed, anatomically-challenged, grey-skinned dwarf with an anal probe for a handshake? How did a close encounter with the ‘Greys’ become such an everyday occurrence, their cold, dark eyes monitoring our every move from posters, TV shows, books and bongs?

There are a growing number of people, albeit mostly Satanists, right-wing Christians, ufologists and occultists, who believe they know exactly when the Grey first reared its bulbous head and probed its way into our collective unconscious, and – more astonishingly – whose fault it is.

Aleister Crowley, arguably the greatest magician of the 20th Century, included a curious portrait in his Dead Souls exhibition of 1919, held in Greenwich Village, New York. With its planetoid-like cranium, its virtually non-existent nose and lack of ears, Crowley’s strange drawing bears a striking resemblance to a Grey. According to legend, Crowley later claimed the portrait to be that of ‘his guru’, whom he had ‘drawn from life’.[1]LAM

In the same year, Crowley included the drawing as a frontispiece to his commentary on Mme Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence. The picture is entitled ‘The Way’, and it comes complete with the following inscription:

LAM is the Tibetan word for Way or Path, and LAMA is He who Goeth, the specific title of the Gods of Egypt, the Treader of the Path, in Buddhistic phraseology. Its numerical value is 71, the number of this book. [2]

Crowley left no record of the origin of the portrait, nor does he mention it in any of his writings, including his Confessions. It wasn’t until May of 1945 that the picture re-surfaced. Crowley’s friend and pupil, Kenneth Grant, was leafing through an old portfolio of Crowley’s. According to Grant, Crowley agreed to let him keep the picture if he could correctly guess the subject. Grant went away for a long hard think, and came back confident he’d won his prize: a Trans-Plutonian extraterrestrial!

Despite the fact Grant had failed to solve the puzzle, Crowley later handed over the portrait anyway, after Grant kindly popped out to fetch Crowley some heroin to relieve a particularly nasty asthma attack. [3]

Almost three decades passed before Grant republished the picture in The Magical Revival (1972) as indeed – despite what Crowley might have said – a Trans-Plutonian entity, named LAM. Since then, Grant’s magical order, the Typhonian O.T.O., has developed a cult dedicated to establishing contact with LAM. Instructions for how to do so can be found in their infamous ‘LAM Statement’ (originally published in 1989). [4]

According to the foreword written by Michael Staley, the current Head of the Typhonian O.T.O, ‘it is certain… that the drawing arose from the Amalantrah Working’, and: ‘it has become apparent that LAM is in fact a trans-mundane or extra-terrestrial entity, with whom several groups of magicians have established contact.’ [5]

In January of 1918, a year before his Dead Souls exhibition, Crowley came into contact with a discarnate intelligence calling itself ‘Amalantrah the Wizard’. Through a number of ritually induced visions, Crowley interviewed Amalantrah for over six months, and had this to say in his Confessions:

[Amalantrah] lived in a place as definite as an address in New York, and in this place were a number of symbolic images representing myself and several other adepts associated with me and my work. The character of the vision served as a guide to my relations with these people. [6]

Unfortunately, the only record extant of the Amalantrah Working ends prematurely on June 16th. No one knows what occurred during the remainder of the visions, but thanks to the works of Grant, a growing number of conspiracy theorists are convinced the Amalantrah Working caused a tear in space-time, creating a gateway allowing LAM passage into our dimension.

In other words, Crowley not only let the Greys in, he was also the first alien contactee!

Crowley's big noggin'The symbolism of the egg features heavily in the Amalantrah Working. In the ‘LAM Statement’ much is made of the similarity in shape between LAM’s head and an egg. Similarly, it’s this shape that reminds us most of the Greys.  But couldn’t the same be said of Crowley’s ‘idealised self portrait’ that serves as a frontispiece to his Confessions? [7] And if we bear in mind that the LAM picture is monochrome, hence the grey colour, and that Crowley’s genius didn’t extend to his draughtsmanship skills (and by that I mean he couldn’t draw for toffee), then on what basis can we say this is an accurate drawing of an extraterrestrial?

Grant obviously took the name ‘LAM’ from the inscription in Crowley’s commentary on The Voice of the Silence, despite the fact LAM is defined as ‘the Tibetan word for Way or Path.’ (If anything, shouldn’t his name be LAMA, considering ‘LAMA is He who Goeth’?) Blavatsky had claimed The Voice of the Silence was a fragment of an ancient Tibetan text channelled from her Tibetan masters. Might Crowley’s mention of ‘LAM’ in the inscription appear simply because it is the Tibetan word for a concept discussed in the book, rather than a hint at the name of an ‘extraterrestrial entity’?

Often, websites or books promoting the LAM hypothesis only include a cropped image of the portrait, focussing on the head. If we look at the original picture as it appeared in The Voice of the Silence, we see in the bottom left-hand corner a strange and usually ignored figure. It appears to be the number 49, written in a pseudo-oriental script.LAM with 49

Considering how Crowley challenged Grant to identify the subject of the picture, perhaps ‘49’ is a deliberate clue to solving the subject’s identity. Each sentence in Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence is numbered. This is sentence no. 49, followed by Crowley’s commentary:

49. Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself.

Compare the scene in Parsifal, where the scenery comes to the knight instead of the knight going to the scenery. But there is also implied the doctrine of the tao, and only one who is an accomplished Taoist can hope to understand this verse. (See “The Hermit of Esopus Island,” part of The Magical Record of the Beast 666, to be published in The Equinox, vol. III) [8]

Not only is this sentence explicitly concerned with the concept of ‘the Path’, or what is called ‘LAM’ in Tibetan, but also Crowley equates the Path (LAM) with the doctrine of the Tao. But why the reference to ‘The Hermit of Esopus Island’?

In his Confessions we learn that it was during a magical retirement on Esopus Island that Crowley made a new translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh King,
and recovered the memories of his past lives. The retirement culminated in an experience so profound Crowley was moved to claim: ‘In a single instant I had the Key to the whole of the Chinese wisdom.’ [9]

Interestingly, Crowley performed this retirement (page 838 of his Confessions) immediately after the Amalantrah Working (which ends on page 836), but immediately before he wrote his commentary to The Voice of the Silence (page 842). In other words, Crowley's commentary, and (I think it is safe to assume) the portrait for the frontispiece, came immediately after the events on Esopus Island.


Discussing the memories of his past lives, Crowley tells us:


I merely remember that I was Ko Hsuen, a disciple of Lao Tzu, the author of the King Khang King, the classic of purity; which, by the way, I translated into English verse during this retirement. [10]

When Crowley died, so too did the only means of ascertaining the identity of LAM, but there is no case for entertaining the ludicrous extraterrestrial fantasies of Kenneth Grant.

Crowley described the subject of the portrait as ‘his guru’ and ‘drawn from life’; the portrait was drawn just after Crowley remembers being a disciple of Lao Tzu; the drawing includes what appears to be the number of a passage in The Voice of the Silence that explicitly references the magical retirement where Crowley remembered his past lives; the inscription given in The Voice of the Silence discusses what Crowley considered to be the Tibetan equivalent of the Tao; and the portrait originally appeared as part of an exhibition called Dead Souls. Doesn’t it seem more reasonable to assume we’re looking at a portrait drawn by a Naïve artist of the Taoist master Lao Tzu, rather than a Trans-Plutonian extraterrestrial that forced its way into our dimension?

Perhaps the biggest mystery is not the identity of ‘LAM’, but the fact that this drawing, which the artist himself didn’t consider worth mentioning in his autobiography, has gained more attention than Crowley’s commentary on the book to which it was a frontispiece, not to mention his translation of the Taoist classic the Tao Teh King, arguably his most important work from this period.

It hardly needs to be stated that the LAM fantasy did not originate with Crowley, whose legacy is undoubtedly concerned with genuine spiritual experience:

No one has understood what Lao Tzu meant by either Tao or Teh. I, possessing… experience of the spiritual states which Lao Tzu is discussing, was able to produce a lucid and coherent version of the classic. [11]

Why ignore that large body of work left to us by Crowley, which he considered of genuine spiritual import, to focus instead on an inconsequential drawing with a view to promoting an extraterrestrial fantasy?

It’s likely that Grant has bequeathed an enduring legacy in the LAM myth but, by rights, I think that picture really belongs to me.


1        Michael Staley, Iridescent Undulations: A Workshop on Lam at Treadwell's
Bookshop, Covent Garden, London. March 10th 2007.

2        Helena Blavatsky with commentary by Aleister Crowley, The Voice of the Silence, in Gems from the Equinox (Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 1974), p. 733.

3        Staley.

4        Kenneth Grant, The LAM Statement, Starfire, Vol. 1, No. 3.

5        Ibid, Foreword, p. 1.

6        Aleister Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (London: Arkana, 1969), p. 833.

7        Ibid, Frontispiece.

8        Blavatsky, p. 754.

9        Crowley, p. 840.

10      Ibid, p. 839.

11      Ibid, p. 837.

An amusing comment from the thelemic forum Lashtal, with my response

(Note: This article was published in the Dec 07 edition of Fortean Times entitled 'Who let the Greys in?')

by MichaelStaley on Dec 15, 2007 – 04:40 PM

I thought the piece on "Who Let the Greys In?" particularly poor. It was written by somebody who was on the second of the two Lam workshops at Treadwells earlier this year. We learn that "there is no case for entertaining the ludicrous extraterrestrial fantasies of Kenneth Grant", which makes it clear that if the writer has read any Grant, it is with little attention.

In fact the writer thinks he has got to the heart of Lam on the basis that the Senzar script to the bottom left of the portrait resembles the digits 4 and 9, and is therefore a reference to the 49th verse of The Voice of the Silence. Whilst most of us would find this one interesting pointer amongst many others, the writer is certain that he has now cleared the matter up and we can all move on. Possibly the strangest, most presumptuous remark comes towards the end of this article:

"Why ignore that large body of work left to us by Crowley, which he considered of genuine spiritual import, to focus instead on an inconsequential drawing with a view to promoting an extraterrestrial fantasy?".

This is frankly so ill-considered as to be indolent. Most people interested in Lam see it in the context of the work of Crowley and others; they don't focus on it to the exclusion of the rest of his work. I've been studying Crowley's work since the late 1960s, and for me Lam links up with much else at the heart of Crowley's work, as well as much that is outside his work altogether.

Finally, I was surprised to learn from this article that I am Head of the Typhonian O.T.O. By the time the next issue comes out, perhaps I'll be Head of the Caliphate O.T.O. as well . . .

by LAM_Sandwich (that's me!) on Dec 16, 2007 – 05:16 PM

It’s a shame you didn’t like my article, considering I actually respect your opinion – you’re perhaps one of the only ‘thelemites’ I’ve ever met who wasn’t a disappointment in the flesh. Sadly, I am disappointed by your comments.

I begin the article by claiming ‘there are a growing number of people, albeit mostly Satanists, right-wing Christians, ufologists and occultists’ who believe that LAM is a little grey alien who sneaked into our universe via the Amalantrah Working. To corroborate this, all you need do is enter the key words ‘Crowley’ and ‘grey alien’ in Google and you will see there is a whole host of morons ignoring ‘that large body of work left to us by Crowley, which he considered of genuine spiritual import, to focus instead on an inconsequential drawing with a view to promoting an extraterrestrial fantasy’.

You accuse me of indolence, and yet y
ou assume the above comment is aimed not only at you but also at anyone who has ever worked with LAM. I’ve worked with LAM on numerous occasions, and you don’t need me to tell you his mystery isn’t something to be ‘solved’ by an accurate account of the origins of the drawing (after all, his existence clearly isn’t based on such a thing). I left the workshop believing you were of the opinion that LAM is a gateway, rather than a little grey alien – and yet here you are taking offence to a reasonable refutation of the drawing as an extraterrestrial portrait.

My article isn’t supposed to be the final word on LAM; in fact, it’s not about LAM at all, but the origins of a rather silly picture. Your response is so disappointing because it is so lamentably predictable. Let’s cut to the chase here: LAM is an entity created by Grant. Grant made him up. This does not mean LAM is not a ‘real’ entity who cannot be contacted by magical means and with beneficial results, just as the world you inhabit isn’t ‘fake’ simply because you create that too. Magick is about taking ownership of reality – and it’s the mark of a naïve magician who doesn’t understand magick in the first place who requires the fabrication of supporting ‘real world evidence’ in order to validate his experience.

To be fair, the ‘49’ hypothesis is but one of MANY circumstantial points I raise that all indicate a reasonable origin to the drawing. Can you in all honestly say my article is poorly thought out, my research inaccurate (you’ll always be the head of the TOTO in my eyes Michael), that my conclusion does not follow?

I thought you would have been behind this – rather you seem to be offended that I am promoting genuine magical experience over childish extraterrestrial fantasies.