Misunderstood and even feared during his lifetime, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) channelled his brilliance into the black arts, believing that he was the greatest of the world's magicians, brought back to life.
Aleister Crowley (the surname rhymes with "slowly") was an iconoclast among iconoclasts. In an era noted for decadence and rife with religious experimentation and deviation from the rigid Christian strictures suffocating Victorian society, he diverged from even the more bizarre religious factions through his insatiable lust for sensation. Beginning what would become a lifelong study of the occult while still a child, Crowley's thirst for knowledge would cause him to travel the world, studying the Eastern mystics as well as the pagan religions of the ancients. Finally believing that he had achieved a kind of spiritual nirvana, he wrote his The Book of the Law, which has been studied as a primer by students of the occult since its publication in the early 1900s. Crowley's excesses extended to drug use; his health gradually declined after he reached the age of fifty and he spent his final years in relative obscurity, reviled for his outrageous activities and impoverished by the financial extravagances of his youth. His bizarre reputation has earned him a posthumous following: rock and roll performers Ozzie Osborne and Jimmy Page are long-term fans of Crowley's Satanic leanings.
Father's Zeal Proves Early Influence
Crowley was born in Warwickshire, England, in October of 1875. He was the son of a brewer and part-time preacher in the church of the Plymouth Brethren whose zeal for his religion as the only true form of Christianity prompted him to train young Aleister to preach alongside him from an early age. When the boy rebelled, his mother reacted by dubbing him "the beast," implying that her son's rejection of their faith was somehow motivated by the devil. It was an implication that Aleister took to heart; a fascination with non-Christian religions and the black arts would consume much of his adult life.
As a young man, Crowley attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he wrote poetry, publishing his first book, Aceldama, a Place to Bury Strangers In. A Philosophical Poem. By a Gentleman of the University of Cambridge. His academic pursuits, however, did not fully interest him. He left before receiving his degree, opting instead to devote himself to mastery of the occult. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the first order, or lowest tier, of the secret Great White Brotherhood of Rosicrucians. The Order, led by Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers, included elements of astrology, the tarot, alchemy, and magick in its rites; other members of this group included the British poet William B. Yeats. After joining the London chapter of the Golden Dawn on November 18, 1898, Crowley dubbed himself Count Vladimir and began moving up through each successive level of ability. He eventually graduated from the first order and sought entry into the second, the Order of the Red Rose. Crowley ran afoul of certain leaders of the Golden Dawn, however, who prevented his advancement because of jealousy. After being attacked by several henchmen, Crowley decided to leave England for a period, to travel and study independently.
Continues Move up Religious Ranks
In addition to being intelligent and fascinated by his new course of study, Crowley was also very ambitious, with a desire to be in a highly visible role. After traveling from England to Asia in 1900, where he disciplined his approach to mysticism through studying the physical and mental aspects of Tantric yoga and gained an appreciation for other religions of the Far East, he returned to London, determined to expand the vision of the Order of the Great White Brotherhood. However, not surprisingly, there was resistance on the part of the existing leadership, and Crowley still found his efforts to move up the ranks thwarted. At one point, it is reported that he attempted to stage a coup, appearing at a meeting of the Second Order wearing a black mask and carrying a dagger. His growing dissatisfaction was fueled by his wife, Rose Kelly, whom Crowley had married in 1903. While she originally had no interest in the occult, she began falling into trance-like states shortly after her honeymoon trip to Egypt; she convinced Aleister that Horus, the Egyptian god of light, was trying to communicate with him. Crowley saw no reason to be skeptical of his wife's assertions and, in April of 1904, went into retreat for three days. When he emerged, he had with him The Book of the Law, which he maintained that his guardian spirit, the devil-god Aiwaz, an agent of Horus, had narrated to him.
The Book of the Law, a three-part long poem, would prove extremely influential among fellow occultists. It maintained that the age of Horus was upon mankind, ushering in the age of "Thelema," a Greek word meaning "will." Crowley, as the receiver of the word of Horus, must, then, be the prophet for this new age, as well as the interpreter of its laws. The central tenet of The Book of the Law is "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." While some have interpreted this to justify a life of self-indulgence, Crowley placed a different interpretation on the words, seeing in the term "will" the ability to control the actions of others or create a change in one's surroundings through one's psychic powers. Breaking with the teachings of the Golden Dawn, he determined to dedicate the remainder of his life to developing his Thelemic philosophy, including this development of will, which he referred to as "magick." The number 666 gained in significance in his teachings, and he began to call himself "The Great Beast." The reputation for wickedness that this name provoked from most people only added to his growing sense of self-esteem and empowerment.
Joins Ordo Templi Orientis
In 1906 Crowley founded his own chapter of the third order of the Great White Brotherhood, known as the Astron Argon or Silver Star. Four years later, he was contacted by Theodore Reuss, leader of a German cult of Freemasons called the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). They too were deeply involved in magick, and Crowley joined, eventually becoming the head of the Order. He restructured the OTO to conform to his Thelemic principles, and broke with the Freemasons, thereafter allowing men and women to join. From 1909 to 1913 he also published The Equinox, a newspaper that exposed the secret rituals used by the rival Golden Dawn as well as Crowley's verse.
As Crowley gained in power in the OTO, he also gained in notoriety. In 1923, he was exiled from Cefalu, Sicily, where he had formed a branch temple, after a scandal involving several prostitutes broke out. But he took the event in stride, bragging thereafter that he had been "expelled from Italy." Rumors grew about his leadership of rituals involving animal sacrifice, celebration of the Black Mass, hallucinogenic drugs, and outlandish sexual conduct, but Crowley continued his Order unabated. During the 1920s he published several books, including Clouds without Water, Confessions, The Herb Dangerous, and The Winged Beetle, although their circulation remained clandestine due to their subject matter. Continuing to add fuel to his reputation as a Satanist, he blithely remarked in one essay that "for nearly all purposes, human sacrifice is best." Such comments, when made public, did little to endear him to most English people, although he continued to draw to him a small but loyal band of converts.
Reduced to Obscurity in Later Years
In 1929 Crowley married his second wife, Maria Ferrari de Miramar, and published Moonchild, a novel that depicts the efforts of rival magicians to create the miracle child predicted to be the future leader of their craft. While critical of its plot, Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature contributor Brian Stableford called Moonchild valuable "as part of a psychological case study. What value it has rests in whatever insight it provides into the character of [its author], an actor for whom the stage of life itself was too confined." By the mid-1930s, reality caught up with the author of this fantasy fiction. His lavish lifestyle had extended far beyond his thirty thousand pound inheritance, and a heavy drug addiction did little to stabilize a failing financial picture. By 1939 Crowley's creditors were forced to take a small percentage of the money owed following bankruptcy proceedings. The following decade would prove to be a black one for Crowley, who supported himself through royalties off such published books as Diary of a Drug Fiend, The Book of Thoth, and Magick in Theory and Practice, and whose home had been reduced to a room in a boardinghouse. His popularity in the United States had been slight on the heels of the pro-German propaganda he released there during World War I; in World War II he shocked and alienated even more people by commenting that "Before Hitler was, I am." The atrocities of the Nazi government diminished Crowley's past activities by comparison, and such a comment reduced him to a pathetic, jealous, disturbed man. He died in Hastings, England, on December 1, 1947, shortly after his physician had refused to supply the morphine on which Crowley had become dependent. He was seventy-two.
After his death, two schools of thought rose up about Crowley. In some appraisals, he has been considered perhaps the greatest magician of the twentieth century. Others, however, have portrayed him as a hedonistic egomaniac, bent on acquiring power over others and addicted to sex and a multitude of mind-altering drugs. His greatest influence has been felt in the arts, particularly in the rock music of Ozzie Osborne and Led Zeppelin, as well as in the art of Austin Osman Spare and filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Crowley also served as the basis for the character of Oliver Haddo in William Somerset Maugham's 1908 novel, The Magician. A recording of Crowley's teachings titled The Beast Speaks was release on compact disk in 1993 and sold upward of eight thousand copies. And the OTO, while splitting into rival factions following Crowley's death, would enjoy a revival of sorts, particularly in England, during the later part of the twentieth century.
Further Reading on Aleister Crowley
The Beast Speaks (recording), Virgin Records, 1993.
Cammell, Charles Richard, Aleister Crowley: The Man, the Mage, the Poet, New York University Press, 1962.
DuQueste, Lon Milo, The Magick of Thelema: A Handbook of Rituals by Aleister Crowley, S. Weiser, 1993.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Facts on File, 1989, pp. 75-77, 157-59.
Magill, Frank N., editor, Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Volume 3, Salem Press, 1983.
Suster, Gerald, Legacy of the Beast, W. H. Allen, 1988.
Symonds, John, The Great Beast: The Life and Magic of Aleister Crowley, Roy, 1952, revised as King of the Shadow Realm, Duckworth, 1989.
Aleister Crowley Homepage, http:/ http://www.crl.com/thelema/crowley.html (March 15, 1998).