CEFALU, Sicily: From the major Sicilian tourist resort of Taormina, the main coast road leading to Cefalu trails along the north-easterly edge of the island, a ribbon of bright blue coast always to your right peppered with occasional stumps of volcanic rock.
We were being driven by an Irish friend who lives on Sicily, now well on his way to become an adoptive Sicilian. This is an island that has been invaded by conquerors extending back to the ancient Greeks. It has a tolerance of strangers enforced by thousands of years of history.
Our friend Michael was politely amused at our request to find Aleister Crowley’s abbey. A gracious host to the last, he drove us the two-and-a-half hour distance from Taormina to Cefalu on a hot day in late September.
Approaching Cefalu, you see a several gigantic rocks – huge soaring inland cliff faces, abrupt and angular, with occasional marks of historic battlements and obscure dwellings burrowed into their stone faces.
One huge rock towers directly above Cefalu, a town of about 18,000 people, giving it the superficial appearance of a kind of mini-Gibraltar.
The town itself is a mix of modern food and clothes shops, creating a momentary air of affluence that fades away quickly down the sloping side streets. Here, tall 18th century former noblemen’s homes are now a kind of modern tenement. Old faces peer from rusting ornate balconies now festooned with washing. The stone is dismal grey, and there is an air of permanent dusk, the tall buildings creating a twilight canyon of their own.
In fact, a scene largely unchanged from 1920, when Crowley arrived on the island with his girlfriend or “scarlet woman” of the moment – Leah Hirsig – and another Crowley groupie, Ninette Shumway.
Why Cefalu? Crowley hit on the spot when he got a “lucky” hexagram from the Yi King, the Chinese book of divination. Jerusalem – or Crowley’s version of it – was to be built here based on its omen of good fortune.
We had no need of the Yi King to find the Abbey of Thelema – as Crowley would dub it – but rather Michael’s fluent Italian language skills.
In the town centre, our host jumped manfully from the car to ask a petrol station attendant: where do we find the house of Aleister Crowley?
From the prolonged conversation, and various geographical looking waves of the arms, I released we had got a steer.
We drove slightly out of the town centre, up a steep hill, following directions for the sports stadium. Then, a dead end – the road curves to an abrupt halt amid dusty scrub and the faint cement haze of new building developments.
So, time to flag down another bemused local. Michael leans in through the car door of a man in his early 60s. Again, a purposeful exchange. We were right on the spot.
Then, just off the main road, with the vast spider like structure of one of the sports stands in view, I saw the roof of the Abbey – which I recognised from photos of the building posted on a Crowley-interest website.
So, what does it look like now, this ark of the new covenant?
The “Abbey” is a traditional farm building, with six rooms and terraced doors that in the early 1920s opened onto a sloping view of the bay and surrounding vineyards.
Crowley reportedly struck a bargain for the property with a local on the spot. Like Boleskine – Crowley’s house on the shores of Loch Ness – he generally acted with alacrity when he decided he had found a property with the requisite “magick” atmosphere.
Signs of decay – decades of neglect – are now evident everywhere at the Abbey. The new road leading up from the town centre winds like an arm lock around the few properties on the site, almost obscuring them entirely from view.
Part of the red tiled roof has fallen through, revealing the beams inside. The thick, white stone walls are fading, but graffiti-free. The wooden shutters are closed, diagonal planks nailed across them.
I stood by the main terrace doors, faded grey slats above a raised step, from which Crowley and his followers would descend three times a day to perform a ritual they called “The Adoration of the Sun.” More prosaically, the climate was good, the cost of living cheap, and a rail line – then as now – connected Cefalu with the Island’s capital, Palermo.
By the terrace doors of the Abbey were clear and recent signs of camping, or more probably squatting. A small portable gas stove sat by the step, with charred grass nearby. on a nail in the wall, somebody had rather incongruously hung a pair of sunglasses – the ultra-sleek wrap-around type favoured by cyclists – and a small black plastic torch.
The front garden beyond the stove was brush, littered with rubbish. In front of the house was a mound of empty plastic water bottles. Clearly, squatting at the lair of the Great Beast is thirsty work throughout the height of a Sicilian summer.
Only one window had its wooden shutters prised open.
And then, looking in, you come face to face with Crowley’s presence. While the walls of the only visible room are now peeled and fading, there before you, still distinct, are the curious murals drawn by the Great Beast and his followers.
These range from the phallic and serpent motives loved by Crowley to geometric squiggles and larger, Gaugin-like depictions of human figures. Across one wall, still legible, runs a crude limerick celebrating Crowley’s admiration for women, cognac and cocaine.
Again, some modern follower had obviously squatted in this room. In the darkness was a squalid-looking camp bed, and in the middle of the floor a small rectangular piece of marble – most likely a makeshift altar.
It was momentarily tempting to haul myself into the room and explore further. I leaned in through the window with its white sill bearing the image of a white feather, suggestive of some Egyptian hieroglyph.
Michael and my wife offered wiser counsel. The chief anxiety was whom, in the gloomy darkness of the interior, you might run into. You risked, the party considered, not so much an encounter with hellish demons summoned by Crowley but an unscheduled meeting with either an unhinged devotee or a drug addict. Or both.
But it was a temptation. Momentarily, you can see the fading black and white pictures of Crowley and his followers melt into living colour.
The three-year lifespan of the Abbey has been frequently and luridly described in the many Crowley biographies now available.
In essence, Crowley envisioned this building as a kind of occult college. Adherents were to practice his brand of magick, celebrating among other things Crowley’s “Gnostic Mass” – not, as critics claimed, the kind of Black Mass depicted in horror novels but a new rite marking, Crowley believed, the dawn of a new aeon.
The Abbey was not without the odd celebrity visitor. This was where the minor Hollywood starlet Jane Wolfe came to dry out. Wolfe, morose from an excess of gin and a failed affair with a leading man of the time, was offered a plain robe and a wooden hut to sit in. After intense boredom, she suddenly enjoyed the enforced rest and returned to Hollywood, apparently much refreshed by the experience.
There was, however, a darker side. The Crowleyan devotee Raoul Loveday died after contracting acute enteritis. Loveday’s older wife blamed Crowley for urging him to drink the blood of a cat sacrificed during a ritual for the illness. Her resentment would find its revenge as part of the sensationalist articles about Crowley published by the Sunday Express, which had by then firmly identified the Great Beast as tabloid quarry.
Crowley used his own writings to idealise the Abbey in print. It forms a major part of the plot in his novel Diary of a Drug Fiend, written in 1922 for a £160 advance – money badly for the permanent black hole that usually constituted Crowley’s finances.
In the book, a young couple recover from the ravages of heroin addiction – about which Crowley knew a good deal personally – by retiring to the Abbey and becoming initiates. Like Crowley’s other novel Moonchild, his “magickal” retreats are always places of perfect order, where followers in robes move with cheerful efficiency, buildings and gardens are beautifully tended, and huge unseen bank accounts appear to provide a stock of available cars for the protagonists.
Of course, the reality was entirely different. The Abbey was a kind of proto-hippy squat, where virtually nobody appeared to particularly like cooking, and absolutely nobody liked cleaning up. Sanitation was reputedly non-existent, so both enteritis and enlightenment were daily options.
Some visitors honestly believed they had found wisdom. Others possibly enjoyed the considerable sexual freedom, fuelled by the availability of drugs, within its thick walls. Others enjoyed, rather ironically considering Crowley’s in-house pharmacy – the healthy walks available over the crags.
Crowley is said to have often wanted more order at the Abbey, and even something bordering on a timetable of activities. But, hounded by the Sunday Express, beset by the constant need to earn money, and the eternal complications of his private life, Crowley’s activities ricocheted from one minor calamity to the next.
The brief life of the Abbey ended in 1923 when the newspaper headlines surrounding Crowley reached the attention of Mussolini. It is likely Il Duce knew little and cared less about occultism. The sexual antics of foreign women and local goats – said to be not unconnected within the Abbey – could also be dismissed as harmless diversions for as long as no Italians were inconvenienced.
The Abbey became caught up in a much larger purge ordered by Mussolini against secret societies in general, which from the Masons to the Mafia, have always formed part of Italian life.
Crowley was summoned to the local police station and ordered to leave, his followers allowed to stay.
From 1923 onwards, the Abbey was largely deserted. Despite Crowley’s recurrent wish to resurrect it, the Abbey was left to resume a more normal life on the north-east tip of Sicily.
In the intervening decades, it has become an occasional footnote in Crowley history. At one point it was reportedly owned by two brothers who loathed each other – and make a visible demonstration of their rift by literally dividing the property in two with an internal wall.
The cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger, a Crowleyan disciple, visited the Abbey and attempted to preserve the murals. According to one Crowley biography, Crowley admirer and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page also visited in the early 70s.
Certainly, with the revival in Crowley sparked by the Great Beast’s appearance on the album cover of the Beatle’s 1967 Sergeant Pepper, suddenly the Abbey began cropping up as a must-see on the occult tourism map of Europe.
However if Crowley’s admirers want to preserve the Abbey, then they need to act quickly. The house at Boleskine, once the site of a Fraser clan hunting lodge, is today a beautifully kept Georgian building. The Abbey appears to be lacking a saviour to stop it falling prey to developers.
Several years ago, the author of this article was told that several wealthy Russians with an interest in Crowley had bought the Abbey. It was even suggested the Sicilian tourism authority would help with the renovation.
If so, there is little sign of the new owners. The only tilt towards modernity is a television aerial fixed to a wall and the late 20th century litter left around.
So the Abbey, in its small way, looks set to become – like the ancient Green ruins, or the Greco-Roman amphitheatre at Taormina, or the Byzantine tombs that run under the town – just one more visible and decayed symbol of Sicily’s cosmopolitan inheritance.
We finished our visit to Cefalu with lunch at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the long, sweeping harbour wall. Old wooden fishing boats lurched at odd angles on the shingle alongside newer vessels. Out towards the horizon, the sea was dotted with the occasional white sails.
Occult enthusiasts and historians will doubtless continue to argue over the significance of the Abbey. Was it a bold but flawed attempt at a college of occult theory, or a slovenly and anarchic drug squat, remarkable only for pre-empting the flower power movement by four decades?
Beneath a clear sky, with a powerful September sun beating down, I was happy to leave that arcane debate to others and instead picture Crowley, garbed in magician’s robes, standing against the wooden shutter door.
As we left Cefalu, I looked back at the huge rock overhanging the old town, defiantly wild and raw on an island sustained by tourism. Fantastic outpourings of rock, as irregular and eccentric as the Englishman who once founded his own Abbey in their shadow.