Saturday July 10, 2004
From yoga to punk, notorious occultist Aleister Crowley has had a profound influence on modern culture, writes Tim Cummings
“There is no law beyond do what thou wilt; every man and woman is a star; the word of sin is restriction.” For some, these three short epigrams heralded the end of Christianity and the dawn of a new age. They certainly provided successive generations of beats, hipsters, hippies, punks and ravers, whether they knew it or not, with a manifesto of sorts.
The words come from The Book of the Law, an obscure prose poem written 100 years ago by Aleister Crowley, often described as the key to the notorious Magus’s vast pantheon of writings. A multi-layered template of a magickal system, encompassing Qabalah, single-point meditation, sex rituals, excessive drug use and a good deal more, The Book of the Law made Crowley one of the 20th century’s hidden prophets, a truly outrageous figure presiding over rock culture’s original spirit of misrule.
Crowley died in relative obscurity in an eccentric Hastings boarding house in 1947. And yet, in the 21st century, his legacy has an afterlife, one that few of his contemporaries would have imagined possible. Last year he was voted number 73 in the BBC’s league of the top 100 Britons. There is a continual stream of biographies and editions of his work, from a centenary edition of The Book of the Law to a reprint of Francis King’s excellent study Megatherion. “To Mega Therion”, meaning “the great beast”, was one of Crowley’s numerous magickal names. In The Book of the Law, he is identified as 666. “It means merely sunlight,” he told the judge in a libel case that bankrupted him. “You may call me Little Sunshine.”
He wrote The Book of the Law over three days in April 1904, between midday and 1pm, in a room near the Cairo Museum. The 29-year-old Crowley had come to Egypt to honeymoon with his wife Rose. Together they spent a night in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid, where Crowley tried to impress her by conducting a magickal ritual to illuminate the chamber with astral light. Rose had no interest in the occult, but soon afterwards it was she who fell into a trance, repeating “They are waiting for you”, and instructing her husband to take his dictation at the appointed day and hour.
However, Crowley always denied he was the author of the book, claiming that it had been dictated by an entity called Aiwass, an emissary of the hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus promising ecstatic union and violent conflict in more or less equal measure. Aiwass would overthrow the “slave religion” of Christianity and liberate humanity with one commandment instead of Christianity’s 10. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” is probably the phrase most associated with Crowley, and the key to much of his work. For him it became a liberation theology in 11 single-syllable words, with “Love is the law” as the addendum. “Love under will.”
Though the likes of WB Yeats called him “indescribably mad” – they engaged in magickal battle when both were members of the Golden Dawn in the 1890s – Crowley’s reputation as the world’s wickedest man obscures much that is fascinating about him. He was a master of ceremonial magick, yoga, Qabalah, Tarot and numerous meditation traditions; a mountaineer, poet, and chess player of distinction; mentor to the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a friend of the American writer Frank Harris, and the source of Malcolm Lowry’s magickal symbolism in Under the Volcano.
Yet the hysterical press accounts of sex, drugs and sacrifice at his Abbey of Thelema, in Sicily in the early 1920s, remain the core of the myth of Crowley as evil incarnate. It was an image, along with his famously hypnotic stare, that led Bond author Ian Fleming to model Blofeld on Crowley. They met when Fleming worked in British intelligence during the war. That a man so publicly reviled could still penetrate the corridors of power is a prime example of his unlikely reach. Crowley was Fleming’s first choice for interrogating Rudolf Hess when the occult-obsessed Nazi was captured in Scotland after a bizarre astrological sting.
It was also Crowley who gave Churchill his famous victory sign, a magickal gesture to counteract the Nazi’s use of the swastika. Indeed, his hand appears in many unexpected places – there is even a story that he aligned Stamford Bridge and gave Chelsea its team colours – but his hidden influence was not restricted to the British war effort or the Premiere League. In the 1940s, one of his closest followers was a young Californian adept, Jack Parsons, one of the founding fathers of the American space programme. His work at the fledgling Jet Propulsion Laboratories lay the groundwork for the Apollo moon missions.
Rocket fuel, space exploration and Crowley’s brand of ceremonial sex magick was a powerful mix. Working with Parsons was none other than L Ron Hubbard, who later founded the cult of Scientology, which now attracts so many Hollywood stars. Hubbard would also abscond with Parsons’ money and wife, but not before Parsons had written a fourth “chapter” of The Book of the Law and unleashed the powerful sex magick of the Babalon Working with his Scarlet Woman, Beat artist Marjorie Cameron. Cameron would go on to star in films by Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington, and was the inspiration behind the classic Eagles song, Hotel California. As for Parsons, he blew himself up in his lab in 1952 and there is a crater named after him on the dark side of the moon.
A hundred years on, Crowley remains one of those figures often dismissed in public, but whose work is collected and studied in private. His immediate following may have been small, but his influence on modern culture is as pervasive as that of Freud or Jung. As an occultist, he can justly claim to have made a lasting change on the world, refashioning the occult with his famous dictum to combine the aim of religion with the method of science.
There were followers such as Gerald Yorke, the epitome of the English gentleman, who worked as his secretary for many years, and who later became the Dalai Lama’s emissary, almost single-handedly bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the west. Crowley himself played a pioneering role in the western study of eastern religions. His writings on yoga are still regarded as the most lucid ever produced. His writings on drugs, too, are prescient; decades later, psychedelic gurus such as Timothy Leary would find themselves literally following in Crowley’s footsteps.
“Worship me with wines and strange drugs whereof I shall tell my prophet, and be drunk thereof! They shall not harm ye at all!” proclaimed The Book of the Law. Six years after it was written, Crowley introduced psychedelics to Europe, with a sacrament of mescaline in his 1910 staging of the Rites of Eleus in London. It was a kind of prototype of the rock band Hawkwind’s epic Space Ritual of the early 1970s. Both comprised music, dancers, poetry, hallucinogens, and, in Hawkwind’s case, projections and strobes they turned on themselves as well as the audience.
As Gary Lachman makes explicit in his book on the occult and the 1960s, Turn Off Your Mind, Crowley’s most visible presence is in rock music and the post-Beat counterculture; on films such as Don Cammell’s Performance, and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising; on the Satanic Majesties-era Stones, with Jagger donating a dissonant synthesiser soundtrack to Anger’s cinematic enactment of one of Crowley’s rituals, Inauguration of My Demon Brother.
Crowley is there on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, and in the music and myths of Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page is one of the most famous rock’n’roll adherents. And then there is David Bowie, “closer to the Golden Dawn, cloaked in Crowley’s uniform of imagery”. Bowie lived almost entirely on a ritual level for several years in the mid-1970s and, like Crowley, his drug use had a magickal as much as a hedonistic base. It is a period he now professes not to remember, preferring to dine out on the fruits of that work instead.
But while the hippy era is most closely identified with the explosion of the occult, it was punk that was the manifestation of Do What Thou Wilt. The energy of punk at its purest was about disruption, chaos and transformation – with whatever magickal accoutrements came to hand. Bands from Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke to the only ones, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Coil absorbed, by osmosis or design, the essence of Crowley’s Thelema.
Rock’n’roll has always been the devil’s music, with a powerful, uncontrollable element of invocation, and Crowley is one of its grandfathers. Rock’s initial spirit of upset, outrage and teenage rampage was the very spirit Crowley believed was unleashed with The Book of the Law.
In the age of the crowned and conquering child, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in Crowley’s magick or not. Like Tarot or astrology, it’s not a question of belief; it’s whether and where the pattern fits. “Certain actions,” said Crowley, “produce certain results.” Sentiments worth bearing in mind for those curious about the life, work and legacy of this extraordinary, flawed, complex and often shocking figure.
· The Book of the Law is published by Samuel Weiser (Airlift Book Co, 020-8804 0400). Megatherion is published by Creation Books (Turnaround, 020-8829 3000).