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The Occult World of Aleister Crowley

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

His own mother called him “The Great Beast,” and a newspaper named him the “wickedest man in the world.” These were somewhat hyperbolic descriptions of Aleister Crowley, a man who lived a very unconventional lifestyle that involved drugs, sexual promiscuity, and the creation of his own religion.

Aleister Crowley in 1929.

Aleister Crowley in 1929.

Aleister Crowley’s Early Life

Edward Alexander Crowley was born into a wealthy family in 1875. His parents were devout Christians who gave the young man the best of all possible educations―top-quality private schools and Cambridge University.

He was obviously an extraordinary person whose interests covered a wide range. He wrote poetry and novels, although his work was not always greeted with universal acclaim; one critic called a book of verse “the most disgusting piece of erotica in the English language.”

In addition, he was an accomplished painter, a mountaineer, a magician, and became deeply involved in occultism.

He studied Hindu and Buddhist beliefs along with metaphysics and the paranormal. It was during some sort of spiritual revelation that he changed his name to Aleister.

He was a prickly person given to insulting people, a trait that got him kicked out of the prestigious Alpine Club. He craved controversy and frequently called himself “The Beast” using the number 666, the supposed mark of the Devil. He delighted in the outrageous and poked a stick in the face of conventions and social norms.

University of Buffalo cultural anthropologist Phil Stevens says “Crowley knew very well that he was riling people. He did that intentionally. He was intentionally amoral.”

A biographer, Martin Booth, described Crowley as “self-confident, brash, eccentric, egotistic, highly intelligent, arrogant, witty, wealthy, and, when it suited him, cruel.”

Crowley sporting the Billy Goat Gruff look on a Himalayan expedition in 1902.

Crowley sporting the Billy Goat Gruff look on a Himalayan expedition in 1902.

The Magical Order

Crowley joined the secret society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This occultist group flourished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was active mostly in Britain and focussed on theurgy, which is described as having “the ability to contact divine or superior spiritual bodies often through what would typically be thought of as ritual magic” (medievalastrologyguide.com).

(Discard thoughts of magic in the sense of bunny rabbits being pulled out of top hats or scantily clad ladies being sawn in half. This is the kind of magic described by Merriam-Webster “as the use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces”).

The group taught its members concepts of Western philosophy and magic. It is not a religion but a mash-up of freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Wicca, non-Western faiths, and medieval occultism.

Insignia of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Insignia of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Members progressed through various levels, in a process not unlike the Scientology cult. Crowley’s presence caused dissension in the ranks when word of his varied sexual appetites got out. It seems he got bored with the group and decided to pursue other avenues.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn went into decline. However, many of the order’s schemes and beliefs have resurfaced in other groups.

Foundation of Thelema

Aleister Crowley’s inheritance allowed him to wander about the world, climbing mountains and shooting big game. But, he was also keeping up his interest in magical thinking and came to believe, so he said, that he was the reincarnation of the Elizabethan spirit medium Edward Kelley.

In 1904, Crowley was in Egypt when he bumped into Aiwass who is described as an entity connected to Horus, the sky god. While communing with Aiwass, Crowley received all the information necessary to write The Book of Law. This became the central text of the religion Crowley created that he called Thelema.

We can turn to historian Catherine Beyer for an explanation: “Thelemites strive to ascend to higher states of existence, uniting oneself with higher powers, and understanding and embracing one’s True Will, their ultimate purpose, and place in life.”

He proclaimed the Law of Thelema to be “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” However, he pinched that notion from the sixteenth century writer and scholar François Rabelais.

Jake Stratton-Kent is a prominent follower of Thelema and wizardry in England. He has described the paradox of the movement: “There is religion in Thelema for those that require it. There is also freedom from religion in Thelema, for those that require it.” It is a system of thought that is at times so baffling and convoluted that it can mean almost anything adherents want it to mean.

Crowley’s Downfall

In 1920, Aleister Crowley opened the Abbey of Thelema on the island of Sicily. He gathered a group of followers around him as he declared himself to be Ipsissimus; this is the highest grade achievable through the Golden Dawn cult and can be interpreted to be beyond the gods.

He and the members of his commune experimented with drugs and sex. William Whyte (National Trust) writes that “In 1923, an Englishman died in mysterious circumstances after a ritual during which he was said to have consumed the blood of a cat. The British press and the Italian fascist government were equally appalled. Crowley was expelled from Sicily, the Abbey closed, and the group dispersed.” However, Crowley kept his Thelema cult going and it still has followers today.

By the 1930s, he was deep in the claws of a heroin addiction and was running out of money. In 1935, he was declared bankrupt, having burned through his inheritance of $20 million.

He died in 1947 at the age of 72.

The derelict Abbey of Thelema.

The derelict Abbey of Thelema.

Bonus Factoids

  • Crowley had a tumultuous six-year marriage to Rose Kelly. She bore two daughters one was called Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith, the other was named Lola Zaza. He fathered several other illegitimate children.
  • Aleister Crowley and his teaching enjoyed a renaissance in the counter-culture of the 1960s. His mantra of “Do what thou wilt” was echoed in “Do your own thing.” An image of Crowley appears on the Beatles’ 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He also pops up in a song, Mr. Crowley, co-written by Ozzy Osborne.
  • The founder of the Scientology cult/scam, L. Ron Hubbard, said he counted Aleister Crowley as a good friend. However, there is no record of the two men ever meeting.
  • Crowley’s version of humour was expressed in the claim that he sacrificed 150 children every year because many of his ejaculations did not result in pregnancy. But, such was his reputation that some people were prepared to believe that he had engaged in the actual ritualized killing of children.

Sources

  • “Theurgy.” medievalastrologyguide.com, undated.
  • “Golden Dawn: The Secret Society the World Forgot.” Dancy Mason, Factinate.com, undated.
  • “Understanding the Religion of Thelema.” Catherine Beyer, learnreligions.com, January 27, 2019.
  • “The Great Beast 666: Who Was Aleister Crowley?” William Whyte, National Trust, undated.
  • “The Bizarre, Brazen Life of Cultist Aleister Crowley.” John Donovan, Howstuffworks.com, September 27, 2019.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 21, 2020:

Thank you Bev. Coming from you I take that as a huge compliment. I have picked up a lot of writing tips from your coaching of others. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

I'm not sure about Lady Frieda Harris. It's a bit out of my comfort zone to write about art. I couldn't draw a straight line even if I had a ruler. And tarot? Isn't that your world?

Bev G from Wales, UK on August 21, 2020:

Aw... AC would have been a great guest at a dinner party! They don't make them like that any more.

I have his Thoth tarot deck, which was painted by Lady Frieda Harris. Very beautiful deck. Lady Frieda would make a great subject for you, Rupert.

Love your wide variety of topics and beautiful writing style, btw. xxx

Hetalks on August 12, 2020:

Regardless of what men like Crowley claim, they cannot escape death. They die leaving behind a questionable legacy.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 29, 2020:

He's a fascinating and intriguing figure for certain. Recently I learned that famous rock star Jimmy Page was sort of a fan of Crowley, even owned some of his property.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 29, 2020:

Strange but interesting reading.