Aleister Crowley – An Honorary Rational Mystic
Aleister Crowley, voted in at 73 in the BBC’s list of Top 100 Britons (2002), is perhaps one of the most controversial, and I would maintain, misunderstood characters in recent history. Much of the misunderstanding comes from Crowley’s own PR, but some stems from a lack of real consideration of what he was saying at the time he was saying it!
Born Edward Alexander in Leamington Spa in 1875, Crowley was the son of a wealthy brewer. Upon his father’s death when the young Crowley was 11, he inherited a fortune which he used to fund his studies at a variety of schools and colleges. Various reports claim that he was thrown out of his first public school for ‘bad behaviour’ and after a series of educational adventure at Malvern College, Tonbridge School and Eastborne College he ended up at Trinity College Cambridge in 1895. He registered to study Philosophy, but subsequently switched to English Literature.
He spent much of his time at college engaged in four of his most ‘favourite’activities…
Mountaineering – he was considered an better than average climber.
Poetry – he was a prolific writer of poetry – most self-published and some published on the continent as it was too steamy for the UK censor
Chess – he as a chess champion with promise of greater things but other interests became his focus
Sex – yeap, he was very interested in exploring his sexual side. Whilst at Eastborne College he frequent prostitutes and enjoyed the pleasures of both guys and girls contracting gonorreah in his late teens. Many writer see this as a protest and a behavioural backlash to his religious upbringing.
Seems strange that perhaps had he been engaging in these various activities in the 1960’s he would have been totally in step with times in many aspects of his life; his attitude to sex and drugs and his skepticism in the rhetoric of traditional religious teachings.
As Crowley observed…
“Inevitably anyone with an independent mind must become ‘one who resists or opposes authority or established conventions’: a rebel. If enough people come to agree with, and follow, the Rebel, we now have a Devil. Until, of course, still more people agree. And then, finally, we have — Greatness.”
Remember that homosexual relationships were illegal in Crowley’s time and the fact that he not actively engaged in sex with prostitutes; group sex and homosexual sex would have been ‘diabolically evil” to the majority of British Society in the late 1800’s.
Crowley’s growing dissatisfaction with the inconsistencies in the Bible and the way the Church had shaped and defined spiritual life led him to explore alternative traditions and teachings.
Alchemy, Astrology, The Qabbalah, Freemasonry, Yoga and what we now call Ritual Magic captured his interest.
On 18th November 1898 he became a member of the Golden Dawn and was initiated by famed occultist S.L. McGregor Mathers. Crowley took the name Frater Perdurabo which means “I shall endure to the end”.
It was during his ‘training’ with The Golden Dawn that he developed, or perhaps extended his experimentation with drugs particular within the context of ceremony and ritual.
In 1899 Crowley acquired Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness and declared himself himself as the “Laird of Boleskine” and took to wearing traditional highland dress, even during visits back to London.
The Golden Dawn as an organization began to fall apart. Tensions between key members, which included Mathers, Crowley, W B Yeats, and A.E. Waite (of Rider-Waite Tarot fame) saw the order decline in both interest and relevance at least as far as Crowley was concerned.
In 1900 Crowley travelled to Mexico to climb some of the mountains there, including the volcano Popacatpetl . What started out as a journey to Mexico became a major expedition which saw Crowley visiting San Francisco, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from where he travelled to India to study Hindu practices.
In 1903 he married his first wife, Rose Edith Kelly. What started out as a what some may call a marriage of convenience, soon developed into a deeper relationship as Crowley is said to have fallen ‘deeply in love’ with Rose.
On 28 July 1905, Rose gave birth to Crowley’s first child, a daughter, whom he named Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith, although she would commonly be referred to simply as Lilith.
In this year Crowley also established a publishing company which he called the “Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth” – it was intended to be a parody of the Christian publishing house “The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge”.
In 1907 Crowley ‘s daughter Lilith died and Rose was showing signs of illness from her growing alcoholism. He had a short affair with the actress Vera “Lola” Stepp and Rose gave birth to his second daughter Lola Zaza.
It was during this period that Crowley decided that he was amongst the ‘highest order’ of spiritual adepts and set about planning his own magical society. This order was to become known as the A : A –the Argenteum Astrum or the Silver Star.
In 1909 Crowley, who had been separated from Rose, had an affair with Ada Leverson (a friend of Oscar Wildes), and reunited with Rose for a short while decided he wanted a divorce because of her alcoholism. Rather than allowing Rose to be cast in a ‘bad light’ he, apparently ‘allowed’ her to divorce him for infidelity. She was subsequently admitted to an asylum suffering from Alcoholic Dementia.
In an attempt to promote the A∴A∴, Crowley began publishing a biannual journal, The Equinox, which was billed as “The Review of Scientific Illuminism”. Starting with a first issue in 1909, The Equinox containing pieces by Crowley, Fuller and a young poet Crowley had met in 1907 named Victor Neuburg, who was to become a very important collaborator.
Between 1912 and 1913 Crowley was in dispute with the O.T.O (Ordo Templi Orientis) another magical order. It was claimed that he had published their ‘secrets’ but he denied this as he said he had not reached the magical grade to which the secrets related (the IXth grade). The head of the O.T.O pointed to some of Crowley’s writings in his Book of Lies which culminated in Crowley assuming Xth degree mastery within the O.T.O. so becoming Grand Master of the English Speaking section of the Order – the Mysteria Mystica Maxima.
During the later part of 1913 he spent some time in Moscow.
Crowley was in the US during 1914 and 1918, ostensibly developing and extending the A : A. although at least one author suggests that Crowley was a ‘secret agent’ for British Intelligence. Crowley himself did suggest this to be the case and there are purported official documents supporting this claim.
Around 1919 Crowley met Leah Hirsig, a woman who with her sister, were passionate about studying the Occult. She became Crowley’s the latest in his long line of sexual consorts. She was consecrated as his Babalon or, “Scarlet Woman”, taking the name Alostrael, “the womb (or grail) of God.”
It was with Leah that Crowley founded the Temple of Thelema in in Scicily in April 1920. The name of the was borrowed from Rabelais’s satire Gargantua where the “Abbey of Thélème” is described as a sort of anti-monastery where the lives of the inhabitants were “spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. This was Crowleys commune, based upon the teachings of the A : A and the devotion to what he called ‘The Great Work’. In many ways this translated to self-discovery, self-expression and magical practices through sexual experimentation, tantric yoga and drug taking.
This was all too much for the government at the time, so Mussolini deported Crowley in April 1923.
After leaving Scicily Crowley once again travelled.
In 1929 he married Maria de Miramar, but they separated in 1930. They were never divorced, but Maria was admitted to Colney Hatch Mental Hospital where she remained until her death 30 years later.
Crowley was declared bankrupt in 1934 after losing a court case in which he attempted to sue author Nina Hamnett for calling him a black magician in her book “The Laughing Torso”.
In summing up the case Lord Justice Swift said:-
“I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man (Crowley) who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet.”
After the verdict was announced Patricia “Deirdre” MacAlpine approached Crowley and offered to bear him a child, a proposal to which he agreed. Patricia had a son whom Crowley named Aleister Atatürk. Unlike many of his other female consorts Patrician sought no mystical or religious role in Crowley’s life and rarely saw him after the birth an arrangement that apparently suited them both.
During World War 2 Ian Flemming, who was actually attached to the Secret Service for whom his character James Bond worked, suggested that Crowley be used in the war effort by MI5.
The higher echelons of Nazi Germany’s regime were steeped in Occult Law and practices. Flemming suggested a disinformation plot in which Crowley would have helped agents supply Rudolf Hess with faked horoscopes. They could then pass along false information about an alleged pro-German circle in Britain. Hess’s unexpected arrival and capture in Scotland put an end to this plan. However Flemming was a creative operator and not only proposed using Crowley and The Occult as a propaganda tool and as an astrological interrogator , but also using Enochian Script (a particular ‘magical alphabet’) to send coded messages. None of these plans were realized.
In 1944 Crowley embarked upon writing The Book of Thoth. It was Lady Frieda Harris who had realized Crowleys vision of a Thoth Tarot. Her paintings and inspiration with Crowleys knowledge, genius and understanding of symbolism creates one of the most vibrant of all Tarot decks.
Crowley died in 1949 in a boarding house in Hastings of respiratory failure. He had become an heroin addict after apparently being prescribed morphine for asthma and bronchitis manor years earlier.
Was Crowley the Wickedest Man in the World?
Well he certainly lived to enjoy life to the full, and perhaps if he had lived in the society that developed twenty years later then perhaps he would be thought of differently.
Was he a Satanist and a Black Magician?
If we use the Christian definitions of those words then perhaps. But Satanists at their core are materialists who have little, if anything to do with the notion of Satan as he (it) appears in the Bible.
Also ‘Black Magic’ is perhaps too part of a judgement system that is based within a particular cultural framework.
Crowley himself noted..
Black magic is not a myth. It is a totally unscientific and emotional form of magic, but it does get results — of an extremely temporary nature. The recoil upon those who practice it is terrific.
It is like looking for an escape of gas with a lighted candle. As far as the search goes, there is little fear of failure! To practice black magic you have to violate every principle of science, decency, and intelligence. You must be obsessed with an insane idea of the importance of the petty object of your wretched and selfish desires. I have been accused of being a “black magician.” No more foolish statement was ever made about me. I despise the thing to such an extent that I can hardly believe in the existence of people so debased and idiotic as to practice it.
I am certainly of opinion that genius can be acquired, or, in the alternative, that it is an almost universal possession. Its rarity may be attributed to the crushing influence of a corrupted society. It is rare to meet a youth without high ideals, generous thoughts, a sense of holiness, of his own importance, which, being interpreted, is, of his own identity with God. Three years in the world, and he is a bank clerk or even a government official. Only those who intuitively understand from early boyhood that they must stand out, and who have the incredible courage and endurance to do so in the face of all that tyranny, callousness, and the scorn of inferiors can do; only these arrive at manhood uncontaminated.
The sovereignty of Will: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Crowley’s idea of will, however, is not simply the individual’s desires or wishes, but also incorporates a sense of the person’s destiny or greater purpose: what he termed “True Will”.
The second precept of Thelema is “Love is the law, love under will”—and Crowley’s meaning of “Love” is as complex as that of “Will.” It is frequently sexual: Crowley’s system, like elements of the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence, and sexual “magick” and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual. However, Love is also discussed as the Union of Opposites, which Crowley thought was the key to enlightenment.
Crowley endeavoured to use the scientific method to study what people at the time called spiritual experiences, making “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox. By this he meant that religious experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying mystical or neurological meaning.
“The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” was the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox.
“In this connection there was also the point that I was anxious to prove that spiritual progress did not depend on religious or moral codes, but was like any other science. Magick would yield its secrets to the infidel and the libertine, just as one does not have to be a churchwarden in order to discover a new kind of orchid. There are, of course, certain virtues necessary to the Magician; but they are of the same order as those which make a successful chemist”
The Opening to the Book of The Law
Behold! the rituals of the old time are black.
Let the evil ones be cast away; let the good ones be purged by the prophet!
Then shall this Knowledge go aright.
I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star.
I am Life, and the giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death.
I am the Magician and the Exorcist. I am the axle of the wheel, and the cube in the circle. “Come unto me” is a foolish word: for it is I that go.
Every man and every woman is a Star.
After Crowley’s death, various of his colleagues and fellow Thelemites continued with his work. One of his British disciples, Kenneth Grant, subsequently founded the Typhonian O.T.O. in the 1950s. In America, his followers also continued, one of the most prominent of whom was Jack Parsons, the influential rocket scientist. Parsons performed what he described as the Babalon Working in 1946, and subsequently claimed to have been taught the fourth part of the Book of the Law. Parsons would also later work with and influence L. Ron Hubbard, the later founder of Scientology.
Crowley inspired and influenced a number of later Malvernians including Major-General John Fuller, the inventor of artificial moonlight, and Cecil Williamson, the neo-pagan witch.
One of Crowley’s acquaintances in the last months of his life was Gerald Gardner, who was initiated into O.T.O. by Crowley and subsequently went on to found the Neopagan religion of Wicca. Various scholars on early Wiccan history, such as Ronald Hutton, Philip Heselton and Leo Ruickbie concur that witchcraft’s early rituals, as devised by Gardner, contained much from Crowley’s writings such as the Gnostic Mass. Indeed, Gardner liked Crowley’s writings because he believed that they “breathed the very spirit of paganism.”
Crowley was also an influence on both the late 1960’s counterculture and the New Age movement.
- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
- I:40 This famous statement derives from several historic precedents, including that of François Rabelais in describing the rule of his Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua and Pantagruel Fait ce que vouldras (Do what thou wilt), which was later used by the Hellfire Club established by Sir Francis Dashwood. It is also similar to the pagan proverb: An ye harm none, do what thou wilt; but the oldest known statement of a similar idea is by St. Augustine of Hippo: Love, and do what thou wilt.
- “The joy of life consists in the exercise of one’s energies, continual growth, constant change, the enjoyment of every new experience. To stop means simply to die. The eternal mistake of mankind is to set up an attainable ideal.”
- “Everyone interprets everything in terms of his own experience. If you say anything which does not touch a precisely similar spot in another man’s brain, he either misunderstands you, or doesn’t understand you at all.”
- “People think that talking is a sign of thinking. It isn’t, for the most part’ on the contrary, it’s a mechanical dodge of the body to relieve oneself of the strain of thinking, just as exercising the muscles helps the body to become temporarily unconscious of its weight, its pain, its weariness, and the foreknowledge of its doom.”
- “Some men are born sodomites, some achieve sodomy, and some have sodomy thrust upon them…”
- “Paganism is wholesome because it faces the facts of life….”
- “To read a newspaper is to refrain from reading something worthwhile. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter.”
- “The ordinary man looking at a mountain is like an illiterate person confronted with a Greek manuscript.”
- “The Way of Mastery is to break all the rules—but you have to know them perfectly before you can do this; otherwise you are not in a position to transcend them.”
- “Don’t talk for five minutes, there’s a good chap! I’ve a strange feeling come over me–almost as if I were going to think!”
- “In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”
MUSIC IN TONIGHT’S SHOW
The Truths – Tripthych and Jumpcuts
Adrenaliser – Don’t Walk Away
Bryan S – Unnamed Track
All music except Bryan S can be found at Aardvark Music – please support them, they support us