Crowley, Aleister (October 12, 1875—December 1, 1947) - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Crowley, Aleister (October 12, 1875—December 1, 1947)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Despite his notoriety, Aleister Crowley was a master magus wielding tremendous influence over contemporary spiritual and magical traditions. He was involved in all facets of magical practice with the exception of folk magic, which didn’t interest him (and perhaps would have forced him to work with female practitioners as equals). Briefly a member of the Golden Dawn, Crowley also worked with Gerald Gardner in the formational stages of Gardnerian Wicca.

In many ways he was not an admirable person; there are certainly many aspects of his personal life that are easily criticized (he was emotionally, financially, and physically abusive to women, he failed to support his children, he demonstrated cruelty to animals, he had Fascist leanings, and, despite his wealth, sponged off others—and that’s for starters), however, ironically, many in the magical community who condemn Crowley have been influenced by him. Few who condemn him (and few who laud him too!) have actually read his work, which is dense and intended for adepts or almost-adepts. He was extremely influential, a prolific author and, in many ways, a visionary occultist.

Edward Alexander Crowley was brought up a strict member of the ultra-conservative Plymouth Brethren, so conservative they perceived themselves as the only true Christians in existence. His father was a wealthy brewer and preacher for the Brethren. Crowley was taught that God was all-powerful and that sins of the flesh (sins in general!) would be punished in eternal hell-fire. His father died when Crowley was 11, leaving his son a large inheritance that would be his at maturity.

As a child, Crowley preached with his father but at the age of 12, he said, he went over “to Satan’s side.” In his early teens, his mother caught him masturbating and denounced him as “the Great Beast”—as in the one from the Book of Revelation. Crowley took great pride in being called the Beast and adopted the nickname as his identity, also identifying with the number 666.

Despite his reputation, he was not a Satanist or at least not by his standards. Satanism requires a certain interplay with Christianity: the devil is worshipped because he is the enemy of Christ. Satanic rites invert and desecrate Christian rituals.

Crowley wasn’t interested in Christianity or Satanism; his goal was the creation of a new spiritual tradition that would ultimately replace previous ones, making them irrelevant—although from the perspective of fundamentalist Christians that vision would certainly be considered diabolical.

Crowley developed his own theology based on personal communication with spirits. His motto, known as the Law of Thelema, was “Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law.” He published this law before Gerald Gardner published the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what you will.”

Crowley had great emotional investment in being considered “the wickedest man alive” as he was described. He reveled in his reputation and put great effort into enhancing it. He was a trickster and it can be difficult to determine what was authentic in his behavior, what was illusion, and what was meant to inflame.

He enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1895 reading moral science. When the trust fund from his father matured, he was no longer dependent on his family for financial support. A wealthy young man, he mingled with top society. During this period, he read and was very influenced by Arthur Waite’s The Book of Black Magic and Pacts. In Cambridge, he wrote poetry, much of it erotic or pornographic and took up mountaineering. He dropped out of university in 1898 and got in touch with the metaphysical organization, the Golden Dawn.

Crowley was initiated into the Golden Dawn on November 18, 1899 taking the magical name Frater Perdurabo (Latin for “I will endure”). He was not a diplomatic, charming person although he was allegedly very charismatic. He was not generally well liked. W.B. Yeats, another Golden Dawn member, described him as “an unspeakable mad person.” Crowley was either expelled from the Golden Dawn or quit after two years following bitter conflict with its leader MacGregor Mathers (see page 749).

Crowley bought Boleskin House, a manor located on the shores of Loch Ness, in 1900, and devoted the next six months to the techniques of The Sacred Magic of Abramelin. The house was rumored to have been built on the site of a church that had been razed to the ground with the congregation still within and already had a reputation as a haunted house where odd phenomenon occurred.

He married Rose Kelly, the sister of his friend the artist Sir Gerald Kelly, in 1903 and the two traveled widely together. During a visit to an Egyptian museum, Rose was drawn to an exhibit numbered 666 that depicted the Egyptian deities Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Shortly after, she was possessed by a spirit who called itself Aiwass. Aiwass dictated The Book of the Law, the basis for Crowley’s new spiritual philosophies, to Crowley through Rose Kelly’s mouth over three days in April 1904.

Rose Kelly played the role Edward Kelley played for Dr Dee. She spoke while Crowley wrote. She is now largely considered to have been clairvoyant, however she had never previously had a similar psychic episode. Following her experiences in Egypt, her psychic experiences continued and she was Crowley’s first “high priestess” or “Scarlet Woman.”

While in Egypt, Rose discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter on July 28, 1904, named Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith. Crowley would eventually abandon them both. Nuit died of typhoid before she reached the age of two in a hospital in Rangoon. Crowley claimed the cause was an improperly sterilized bottle nipple for which he blamed Rose and her increasing alcoholism. A second daughter, Lola Zaza, survived. Crowley divorced Rose in 1909; she was eventually institutionalized, her brother assuming financial support for Lola.

In 1907, Crowley began the Order of the Silver Star (Argentinum Astrum; AA for short), heavily influenced by the Golden Dawn. In 1909, he founded the magazine Equinox in which, from 1909 to 1913, he published some of the Golden Dawn’s sworn secrets much to their displeasure. MacGregor Mathers went to court to stop him but to no avail.

Among Crowley’s primary magical influences were Abramelin, Madame Blavatsky, and Eliphas Levi. Crowley was born on the day Eliphas Levi died and claimed to be the reincarnation of Levi. He also claimed Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), Edward Kelley and Count Cagliostro as previous incarnations. He was influenced by Buddhism and Tantra and was among the first to combine Western and Eastern mystical traditions into a coherent magical system.

In 1912 Crowley visited Germany and met with Theodor Reuss, head of the ten-year-old Ordo Templi Orientis, heavily influenced by erotic magic and the teachings of magus Paschal Beverly Randolph (see page 760). Crowley was appointed the head of the British OTO, assuming the grandiose title “Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all other Britons within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis” (see DICTIONARY: Ordo Templi Orientis). In 1913, Crowley spent time in Moscow promoting a dance troupe, The Ragged Ragtime Girls, who played violins and danced seductively in scanty clothing.

Crowley defined a magician as one with mastery of the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will. Magic was the science of self-understanding and the art of putting knowledge towards practical action.

In 1915 he moved to New York and spent the following years of World War I writing anti-British propaganda for the Germans; the British press would soon dub him “The Wickedest Man in the World.” He lived in New York until 1919. It is believed that Crowley met or corresponded with German author Hanns Heinz Ewers in New York at this time. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Film: Alraune.)

Crowley envisioned that his magical work required a female partner, the equivalent of a high priestess, whom he dubbed a “Scarlet Woman.” The concept derives from references in the Book of Revelation to the Whore of Babylon intended to denigrate the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna-Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, whose traditions included sacred prostitution.

Crowley intended to return the Scarlet Woman to her former glory. He spent a tremendous amount of time searching for the right Scarlet Woman with whom he would conceive a “magickal child.” It’s believed the closest he came was with Leah Hirsig, whom he met in New York in 1919 and with whom he would have a long, passionate relationship.

In 1920, Crowley and Leah Hirsig moved to Cefalu in Sicily, purchasing an old farmhouse, which they named Thelema and which became the center of his new spiritual tradition. He would be accused of conducting orgies, animal sacrifices and all kinds of diabolical magic there, as well as luring others into drug abuse, addiction, and sexual perversions.

French author François Rabelais’ (1494—1553) fictional utopia the Abbey of Thelema inspired Crowley to create his own version in the early twentieth century. Thelema means “will” or “free will” in Greek and was the name Crowley gave his new religion. Thelema, said Crowley, would represent the New Age and would release humanity from its obsessions with fear and sin. Crowley claimed each individual was the center of their own world.

One of Crowley’s disciples, 23-year-old Raoul Loveday died at Thelema on February 11, 1923. Loveday’s wife, Betty May, who was not a disciple but who had accompanied her husband, fled back to England and sold her detailed, sordid story to the press. She accused Crowley of poisoning Loveday to death by making him drink cat’s blood. (According to the attending physician, the cause of death was enteric fever.)

In April 1923, Benito Mussolini had Crowley deported from Italy. He wandered through France, Germany, and North Africa. Scarlet Women came and went. He married Maria Ferrari de Miramar (born 1894) in Leipzig in 1929 so she could gain entry to England. Ferrari, born in Nicaragua of Italian and French ancestry, was described by Crowley as a Voodoo High Priestess although again whether this is true or Crowley’s attempt to be sensational is unknown. He would eventually abandon her too; she ended up destitute, institutionalized in the same facility as Rose Kelly. Crowley never divorced Maria for fear that she might be entitled, as a lawfully wedded wife, to some of his dwindling property.

In 1934, Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued an old friend, artist Nina Hamnett, for defamation for describing him as a “Black Magician” in her autobiography. Life became increasingly difficult as he battled a debilitating 25-year heroin addiction he was never able to shake.

In 1945, he moved into a boarding house in Hastings on the southern coast of England, where he corresponded with Gerald Gardner among others. Gardner visited Crowley during the last year of his life. Crowley presented Gardner a charter to start a branch of the OTO on the Isle of Man. (Gardner never used the charter but eventually placed it in his museum collection.)

How much Crowley contributed to the Gardnerian Book of Shadows remains subject to bitter debate. He was clearly an occultist and magician and not a Wiccan (Gardner said Crowley perceived Wicca as “too tame”). Many would prefer to think that he had little to do with it. He was, however, a prolific writer and some believe that he originally contributed a great deal to the Book of Shadows, although Doreen Valiente later removed and revised most of his contributions.

He was cremated four days after his death in December 1947 from a combination of myocardial degeneration and severe bronchitis.

Crowley wrote dozens of books including Gems from the Equinox, The General Principles of Astrology, Magick, Enochian World of Aleister Crowley: Enochian Sex Magick, Eight Lectures on Yoga, and The Diary of a Drug Fiend: Magick in Theory and Practice.

Crowley’s fame and notoriety only continues to grow although mainly for his reputation for “wickedness” not from knowledge of his accomplishments or philosophy. He has developed a bit of a rock star reputation, which no doubt he would have enjoyed: Crowley’s is among the faces on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.