Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley (October 12, 1875 – December 1, 1947), was an English occultist, writer, mountaineer, poet, spy and yogi.1 He was an influential member of several occult organizations, including the Golden Dawn, the A∴A∴, and Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.),2 and is best known today for his occult writings, especially The Book of the Law, the central sacred text of Thelema. He gained much notoriety during his lifetime, and was dubbed "The Wickedest Man In the World."3 Crowley was also a chess player, painter, astrologer, hedonist, bisexual, drug experimenter, and social critic. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" is his motto for OTO. In practice, for Crowley this meant rejecting traditional morality in favor of the life of a drug addict and womanizer. In a poll conducted by the BBC in 2002 to find "the 100 Greatest Britons,"4 Crowley was voted number 73. Crowley's face is one of many on the cover of the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
His father, Edward Crowley, was trained as an engineer but according to Aleister, never worked as one.6 He did, however, own shares in a lucrative family brewery business, which allowed him to retire before Aleister was born. Through his father's business he was an acquaintance of Aubrey Beardsley. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop, drew roots from a Devon and Somerset family.7 Both of his parents were Exclusive Brethren, a more conservative faction of the Plymouth Brethren.8
Crowley grew up in a staunch Brethren household and was only allowed to play with children whose families followed the same faith. His father was a fanatical preacher, travelling around Britain and producing pamphlets. Daily Bible studies and private tutoring were mainstays in "Alick's" childhood.
The incident made a curious impression on him. He did not see why he should be disturbed so uselessly. He couldn't do any good; the child was dead; it was none of his business. This attitude continued through his life. He has never attended any funeral but that of his father, which he did not mind doing, as he felt himself to be the real centre of interest.10
After the death of his father to whom he was very close, he drifted from his religious upbringing, and his mother's efforts at keeping her son in the Christian faith only served to provoke his scepticism. When he was a child, his constant rebellious behaviour displeased his mother to such an extent that she would chastise him by calling him "The Beast" (from the Book of Revelation), an epithet that Crowley would later adopt for himself. He objected to the labelling of what he saw as life's most worthwhile and enjoyable activities as "sinful".
In 1895, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, after studying at the public schools Malvern College, Eastbourne College and Tonbridge School.11 He originally had the intention of reading Moral Sciences (philosophy), but with approval from his personal tutor, he switched to English literature, which was not then a part of the curriculum offered.12 His three years at Cambridge were happy ones, due in part to coming into the considerable fortune left by his father.
Here he finally broke with the Church of England, internally if not externally:
The Church of England … had seemed a narrow tyranny, as detestable as that of the Plymouth Brethren; less logical and more hypocritical. When I discovered that chapel was compulsory I immediately struck back. The junior dean halled me for not attending chapel, which I was certainly not going to do, because it involved early rising. I excused myself on the ground that I had been brought up among the Plymouth Brethren. The dean asked me to come and see him occasionally and discuss the matter, and I had the astonishing impudence to write to him that 'The seed planted by my father, watered by my mother's tears, would prove too hardy a growth to be uprooted even by his eloquence and learning.'13
In December 1896, following an event that he describes in veiled terms, Crowley decided to pursue a path in occultism and mysticism. By the next year, he began reading books by alchemists and mystics, and books on magic.14 Biographer Lawrence Sutin describes the pivotal New Year's event as a homo-erotic experience (Crowley's first) that brought him what he considered "an encounter with an immanent deity."15 During the year of 1897, Aleister further came to see worldly pursuits as useless. The section on chess below, describes one experience that helped him reach this conclusion. In October a brief illness triggered considerations of mortality and "the futility of all human endeavour," or at least the futility of the diplomatic career that Crowley had previously considered.16
A year later, he published his first book of poetry (Aceldama), and left Cambridge, only to meet Julian L. Baker (Frater D.A.) who introduced him to Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Throughout the period of 1895, he allegedly maintained a vigorous sex life, which was largely conducted with prostitutes and girls he picked up at local pubs and cigar shops, but eventually he took part in same-sex activities in which he played the passive role.17 During the course of his life, Crowley practised sexual magic rituals with both men and women. Sutin recounts Crowley's relationship18 with, and lasting feelings19 for, Herbert Charles Pollitt, whom he met while at Cambridge in 1897. Pollitt did not share his partner's mystical leanings, and Crowley had this to say about ending their relationship:
I told him frankly that I had given my life to religion and that he did not fit into the scheme. I see now how imbecile I was, how hideously wrong and weak it is to reject any part of one's personality.20
He would have made any public expressions of "distaste" at a time when British law officially forbade homosexuality. The arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde took place in Crowley's first year at Cambridge. In the autobiographical preface to Crowley's drama The World's Tragedy, he included two pages on "Sodomy" where he openly admitted his bisexuality and praised sex between men. However, the section was removed from all copies of the book except those given to close friends.21
There have been about four men in my life that I could say I have loved… Call me a bugger if you like, but I don't feel the same way about women. One can always replace a woman in a few days.22
While that claim about women conflicts with other statements and actions of Crowley's,23 it accurately describes his relationships with Pollitt and various working class women during his college years.24
Changing his Name
Crowley described his decision to change his name as follows:
For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. I had read in some book or other that the most favourable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like "Jeremy Taylor". Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals. The atrocious spelling A-L-E-I-S-T-E-R was suggested as the correct form by Cousin Gregor, who ought to have known better. In any case, A-L-A-I-S-D-A-I-R makes a very bad dactyl. For these reasons I saddled myself with my present nom-de-guerre—I can't say that I feel sure that I facilitated the process of becoming famous. I should doubtless have done so, whatever name I had chosen."25
The Golden Dawn
Involved as a young adult in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he first studied mysticism with and made enemies of William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite. Like many in occult circles of the time, Crowley voiced the view that Waite was a pretentious bore through searing critiques of Waite's writings and editorials of other authors' writings. In his periodical The Equinox, Crowley titled one diatribe, "Wisdom While You Waite", and his note on the passing of Waite bore the title, "Dead Waite".
His friend and former Golden Dawn associate, Allan Bennett, introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism,26 while Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, acting leader of the Golden Dawn organization, acted as his early mentor in western magic but would later become his enemy. Several decades after Crowley's participation in the Golden Dawn, Mathers claimed copyright protection over a particular ritual and sued Crowley for infringement after Crowley's public display of the ritual. Both also developed and carried complex Seal of Solomon amulets and talismans.
In a book of fiction, titled Moonchild, Crowley later portrayed Mathers as the primary villain, including him as a character named SRMD, using the abbreviation of Mathers' magical name. Arthur Edward Waite also appeared in Moonchild as a villain named Arthwaite, while Bennett appeared as the silent, monkish Mahathera Phang.
While he did not officially break with Mathers until 1904, Crowley lost faith in this teacher's abilities soon after the 1900 schism in the Golden Dawn (if not before).27 Later in the year of that schism, Crowley travelled to Mexico and continued his magical studies in isolation. Crowley's writings suggest that he discovered the word Abrahadabra during this time.
In October 1901, after practicing Raja Yoga for some time, he said he had reached a state he called dhyana—one of many states of unification in thoughts that are described in Magick (Liber ABA) (See Crowley on egolessness).28 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magick as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing one's thoughts to a given object through ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Matter, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings.
In 1903 he married Rose Edith Kelly.
1904 and after
Crowley said that a mystical experience in 1904, while on holiday in Cairo, Egypt, led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema. Aleister's wife Rose started to behave in an odd way, and this led Aleister to think that some entity had made contact with her. At her instructions, he performed an invocation of the Egyptian god Horus on March 20 with (he wrote) "great success." According to Crowley, the god told him that a new magical Aeon had begun, and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. Rose continued to give information, telling Crowley in detailed terms to await a further revelation. On 8 April and for the following two days at exactly noon he allegedly heard a voice, dictating the words of the text, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley wrote down. The voice claimed to be that of Aiwass (or Aiwaz) "the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat", or Horus, the god of air, child of Isis and Osiris and self-appointed conquering lord of the New Aeon, announced through his chosen scribe "the prince-priest the Beast".
Portions of the book are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed the inability to decode. Thelemic dogma explains this by pointing to a warning within the Book of the Law—the speaker supposedly warned that the scribe, Ankh-af-na-khonsu (Aleister Crowley), was never to attempt to decode the ciphers, for to do so would end only in folly. The later-written The Law is For All sees Crowley warning everyone not to discuss the writing amongst fellow critics, for fear that a dogmatic position would arise. While he declared a "new Equinox of the Gods" in early 1904, supposedly passing on the revelation of March 20 to the occult community, it took years for Crowley to fully accept the writing of the Book of the Law and follow its doctrine.29 Only after countless attempts to test its writings did he come to embrace them as the official doctrine of the New Aeon of Horus. The remainder of his professional and personal careers were spent expanding the new frontiers of scientific illuminism.
Rose and Aleister had a daughter, whom Crowley named Nicole Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley, in July 1904. This child died in 1906, during the two and a half months when Crowley had left her with Rose (after a family trip through China). They had another daughter, Lola Zaza, in the summer of that year, and Crowley devised a special ritual of thanksgiving for her birth.30
He performed a thanksgiving ritual before his first claimed success in what he called the "Abramelin operation", on October 9 1906.31 This was his implementation of a magical work described in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The events of that year gave the Abramelin book a central role in Crowley's system. He described the primary goal of the "Great Work" using a term from this book: "the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel". An essay in the first number of The Equinox32 gives several reasons for this choice of names:
- Because Abramelin's system is so simple and effective.
- Because since all theories of the universe are absurd it is better to talk in the language of one which is patently absurd, so as to mortify the metaphysical man.
- Because a child can understand it.
Crowley was notorious in his lifetime—a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labelled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. At one point, he was expelled from Italy after having established a commune, the organization of which was based on his personal philosophies, the Abbey of Thelema, at Cefalù, Sicily.
Aleister and Rose were divorced in 1909.
A∴A∴ and Ordo Templi Orientis
In 1910, Crowley performed with members of the A∴A∴ his series of dramatic rites, the Rites of Eleusis.
According to Crowley, in 1912, Theodor Reuss had called on him to address accusations of publishing O.T.O. secrets, which Crowley dismissed, for having never attained the grade in which these secrets were given (9th degree). Reuss opened up the Book of Lies and showed Crowley the passage. This sparked a long conversation which led to the opening of the British section of O.T.O. called Mysteria Mystica Maxima.34
Spying in America, 1914–1918
Richard B. Spence writes in his 2008 book Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult that Crowley was a lifelong agent for British Intelligence. While this may have already been the case during his many travels to Tsarist Russia, Switzerland, Asia, Mexico and North Africa that had started in his student days, he was most involved with this line of work during his life in America during the First World War, under a cover of being a German propaganda agent and a supporter of Irish independence. Crowley's mission was to gather intelligence about the German intelligence network, the Irish independent activists and produce aberrant propaganda, aiming at compromising the German and Irish ideals. As an agent provocateur he played some role in provoking the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, thereby bringing the United States closer to active involvement in the war alongside the Allies.35 He also used German magazines The Fatherland and The International as outlets for his other writings.
During his time in the U.S., Crowley practiced the task of a Magister Templi in the A∴A∴ as he conceived it, namely interpreting every phenomenon as a particular dealing of "God" with his soul.36 He began to see various women he met as officers in his ongoing initiation, associating them with priests wearing animal masks in Egyptian ritual.37 A meditation during his relationship with one such woman (Jeanne Robert Foster) led him to claim the title of Magus, also referring to the system of the A∴A∴.
Two periods of magical experimentation followed. In June 1916, he began the first of these at the New Hampshire cottage of Evangeline Adams, having ghostwritten most of two books on astrology for her.38 His diaries at first show discontent at the gap between his view of the grade of Magus and his view of himself: "It is no good making up my mind to do anything material; for I have no means. But this would vanish if I could make up my mind." Despite his objections to sacrificing a living animal, he resolved to crucify a frog as part of a rehearsal of the life of Jesus in the Gospels (afterward declaring it his willing familiar), "with the idea…that some supreme violation of all the laws of my being would break down my Karma or dissolve the spell that seems to bind me."39 Slightly more than a month later, having taken ethyl oxide, he had a vision of the universe from modern scientific cosmology that he frequently referred to in later writings.40
Crowley began another period of magical work on an island in the Hudson River after buying large amounts of red paint instead of food. Having painted "Do what thou wilt" on the cliffs at both sides of the island, he received gifts from curious visitors. Here at the island he had visions of seeming past lives, though he refused to endorse any theory of what they meant beyond linking them to his unconscious. Towards the end of his stay, he also had a shocking experience he linked to "the Chinese wisdom" which made even Thelema appear insignificant.41 Nevertheless, he continued in his work. Before leaving the country he formed a sexual and magical relationship with Leah Hirsig, whom he met earlier, and with her help began painting canvases with more creativity and passion.42
Abbey of Thelema
Crowley, along with Leah Hirsig, founded the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalù, Sicily in 1920.43 The name was borrowed from Rabelais's satire Gargantua,44 where the "Abbey of Theleme" 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."45 This idealistic utopia was to be the model of Crowley's commune, while also being a type of magical school, giving it the designation "Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum," The College of the Holy Spirit. The general programme was in line with the A∴A∴ course of training, and included daily adorations to the Sun, a study of Crowley's writings, regular yogic and ritual practices (which were to be recorded), as well as general domestic labor. The object, naturally, was for students to devote themselves to the Great Work of discovering and manifesting their True Wills. Mussolini's Fascist government expelled Crowley from the country at the end of April 1923.
After the Abbey
In February 1924, Crowley visited Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. He did not meet the founder on that occasion, but called Gurdjieff a "tip-top man" in his diary.46 Crowley privately criticized some of the Institute's practices and teachings, but doubted that what he heard from disciple Pindar reflected the master's true position. Some claim that on a later visit he met Gurdjieff—who firmly repudiated Crowley.47 Biographer Sutin expresses skepticism,48 and Gurdjieff's student C.S. Nott tells a different version. Nott perceives Crowley as a black or at least ignorant magician and says his teacher "kept a sharp watch" on the visitor, but mentions no open confrontation.49
In 1934, Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued the artist Nina Hamnett for calling him a black magician in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso. In addressing the jury, Mr. 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.
However, Patricia "Deirdre" MacAlpine approached Crowley on the day of the verdict and offered to bear him a child, whom he named Aleister Ataturk. She sought no mystical or religious role in Crowley's life and rarely saw him after the birth, "an arrangement that suited them both."51
During World War II, Ian Fleming and others proposed a disinformation plot in which Crowley would have helped an MI5 agent supply Nazi official Rudolf Hess with faked horoscopes. They could then pass along false information about an alleged pro-German circle in Britain. The government abandoned this plan when Hess flew to Scotland, crashing his plane on the moors near Eaglesham, and was captured. Fleming then suggested using Crowley as an interrogator to determine the influence of astrology on other Nazi leaders, but his superiors rejected this plan. At some point, Fleming also suggested that Britain could use Enochian as a code in order to plant evidence.52
Aleister Crowley died of a respiratory infection in a Hastings boarding house on December 1 1947 at the age of 72.53 He had become addicted to heroin after being prescribed morphine for his asthma and bronchitis many years earlier.54 He and his last doctor died within 24 hours of each other; newspapers would claim, in differing accounts, that Dr. Thomson had refused to continue his opiate prescription and that Crowley had put a curse on him.55
Biographer Lawrence Sutin passes on various stories about Crowley's death and last words. Frieda Harris supposedly reported him saying, "I am perplexed," though she did not see him at the very end. According to John Symonds, a Mr. Rowe witnessed Crowley's death along with a nurse, and reported his last words as "Sometimes I hate myself." Biographer Gerald Suster accepted the version of events he received from a "Mr W.H." who worked at the house, in which Crowley dies pacing in his living room.56 Supposedly Mr W.H. heard a crash while polishing furniture on the floor below, and entered Crowley's rooms to find him dead on the floor. Patricia "Deirdre" MacAlpine, who visited Crowley with their son and her three other children, denied all this and reports a sudden gust of wind and peal of thunder at the (otherwise quiet) moment of his death. According to MacAlpine, Crowley remained bedridden for the last few days of his life, but was in light spirits and conversational. Readings at the cremation service in nearby Brighton included one of his own works, Hymn to Pan, and newspapers referred to the service as a black mass. Brighton council subsequently resolved to take all necessary steps to prevent such an incident from occurring again.57