It is often that those whom stand in opposition to social norms become the scapegoats of society. It never fails that the freethinker is branded as a heretic. During the nineteen twenties and thirties -while a young Adolf Hitler began to plot and scheme- post Victorian England had its finger pointing not at the future Fuehrer, but a young poet and literary by the name of Aleister Crowley. Aleister had made it his life’s mission to fuck with both the Christian authorities and their social values through his own means, occultism.
There have been numerous biographies written over Aleister and a short essay like this will not be able to give the man’s story the justice that it deserves. I will simply try to provide a basic assessment of the man’s life and his evolution. For those who are more interested I suggest the books Perdurabo, by Richard Kazyinski or Crowley’s own Autobiography Confessions.
A.C., as he is often referred to, was born as Alexander Edward Crowley on October 12, 1875, just six months after the death of famed occultist Eliphas Levi. Aleister would later stake a claim that he was the reincarnation of Levi. During his youth and until his father’s death in 1887, Aleister lived exclusively amongst the Plymouth Brethren, a sect of fundamentalist Christians. He was often such a delinquent to their strict doctrines that his mother referred to him as The Great Beast. A title that would come to mean a great deal to Aleister, who during his later life would style himself under the pen name ‘To Mega Therion’, Greek for the Great Wild Beast.
During his teenage years A.C. bounced between numerous tutors and boarding schools, he excelled in chess and became a devout lover of all kinds of outdoor activities. At twenty he entered Trinity College at Cambridge as a literary student, hoping to one day either become a poet or chess master. Here at Cambridge, he was introduced to mountain climbing and the study of occultism, two different subjects he met head on. However, Crowley eventually abandons mountain climbing, his chess aspirations, and even Cambridge to dedicate himself more exclusively to what he felt was his true calling in life, Occult Studies.
In 1898, A.C. was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn under the sponsorship of an adept named George Cecil Jones, who Aleister remained a loyal friend to for many years. The Golden Dawn, which is one of the more famous occult societies of history, included amongst its membership, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, and the actress Annie Horniman. A.C. established a friendship and became the student of one of the Golden Dawn’s principle founders, Samual Macgregor Mathers. He quickly advanced though the Golden Dawn grade work and the 16th of January 1900, was granted admission into the even more pristine inner order of the G.D., called the Red Rose and Golden Cross. By this time, the Golden Dawn was in turmoil and schism. Mathers, attempting to hold the order together under his leadership sent Aleister as an envoy to the London lodge, where he wasn’t received warmly. Feeling betrayed by Mathers for using him as a pawn, Aleister left the Golden Dawn and began travels to Mexico, Japan, and China in 1901. While in China he began a pursuit into Oriental studies under the tutelage of another fellow G.D. initiate, Alan Bennet.
By October of 1901, Aleister attained the rare yogic meditative state of Dharaya and having succeeded in his original intentions withdrew himself from his Yogic studies at this time. The following year he set off on an expedition to climb Chogo Ri (K2) in the Himalayas, where he surprisingly set both an ascension and time record on the mountain. He wouldn’t return home to Scotland until spring of 1903.
In early 1904, Aleister married his first wife Edith Rose Kelly, the sister of the famous philosopher Gerald Kelly. It was upon their honeymoon in Cairo, Egypt, that Aleister, who had only on rare occasions performed magick in the last four years decided on the
spur of the moment to attempt showing Rose the sylphs or air sprits. He used his favorite invocation for the operation, the Bornless Ritual of the Augoeides or Higher Genius. While briefly visiting Egypt the previous autumn he had used the same invocation to fill the King’s Chamber at Khufu with astral light. Well Rose didn’t see the Sylphs as intended or any astral light but did fall into a deep trance and kept repeating, “All Osiris. It’s about the Child. They’re Waiting.”
This original channeled message from Rose led to a series of events in Cairo that would forever change Crowley’s outlook and mission in life. Rose commanded Crowley to enter the makeshift Temple in their Cairo flat on three consecutive days at noon. During each of these days April 8th, 9th, and 10th, Crowley received a dictation from what he described as a Praeter-Human Intelligence named Aiwass. Aiwass communicated to Crowley one chapter each day of a text that became called the Book of the Law.
The book’s basic claim was that the Aeon of Osiris, that of the Dying God, which represented the previous two thousand years of human history was no more. A New Aeon was upon us, the Age of the Crowned and Conquering child, Horus. The book also proclaimed the establishment of a simple set of religious and philosophical commandments that would govern the next two thousand years, called the Law of Thelema.
Thelema, which is Greek for will, stood in opposition to the law of Christianity, which was based on faith. The Law of Thelema is summed up in the Book of the Law in three verses: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law, There is no law Beyond do what thou wilt, and Love is the law, love under will. These three commandments suggested that the means of illumination lies in discovering one’s true will, and that the individual who discovers this fills their life with love. Unfortunately this code of conduct has been constantly misinterpreted as “Do what you want.” It needs to be stated here that Will and Wants seldom coincide with one another.
Aleister at first rejected the Book of the Law and upon returning to Scotland stored it away in the attic of his house on Loch Ness. For the next five years Crowley continued enflaming himself in the studies in Occultism, Yoga, and comparative religion. In 1909, Aleister recovered the book from his attic and upon reading it felt stunned and embarrassed that he had denied its message for so long. He came to the realization that this was the testament of his true will, to develop the religion of the New Aeon. By this time he had also attained initiation from his original Golden Dawn sponsor into the highest order of the occult tradition, the A:.A:.
Admission into the A:.A:. gave Crowley the permission to establish his own lineage of the outer Golden Dawn and Red Rose and Golden Cross orders. He immediately went to work rewriting the orders teachings and bringing them into alignment with the Book of the Law. The primary reading curriculum for these new orders were published in the form of a bi-yearly journal called, The Equinox. The first ten-issue volume of this journal has now become one of the most educational, grounded, and beloved studies of Occult Science to date. The next twenty eight years of Crowley’s life was spent further formulating, establishing, and promoting Thelema and his form of Occult Science, or as he termed it, Scientific Illuminism. He would do this not only through the A:.A:. but also via another organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis.
In 1912, Theodur Reuss the Grandmaster of the O.T.O. and the Memphis-Misraim Rite of Freemasonry approached Aleister. Reuss, claimed that Aleister had published the secrets of the O.T.O. in one of his publications called the Book of Lies. Crowley at the time being only an outer initiate of the O.T.O. and not having ever been revealed the O.T.O.’s secrets was sort of dumbfounded as to what the hell Reuss was talking about. Theodor then pointed out to Crowley several specific verses from his Book of Lies. Crowley later recalled how at that moment the hidden secrets of the world’s spiritual traditions dawned on him. It was the ideas of sex magick, or tantra, that was the universal symbolism in all the religions.
Crowley accepted further initiations into the O.T.O. and took the magickal name Baphomet. He was admitted as an outer head of the order and given the responsibility of governing all O.T.O. initiates in the English-speaking world. In 1922, when Reuss suffered a stroke and could longer fulfill his duties and responsibilities to the order, Aleister was proclaimed the Grandmaster of the O.T.O. by a council of its high ranking initiates.
With the O.T.O. and A:.A:. allied under him and each promulgating the ideas of Thelema, Crowley had begun to etch his New Aeon philosophy into immortality. He would continue to further his ideas and theories, writing endlessly until his death in 1947. By his late life Aleister had bankrupted himself trying to get his various books published and spent his last ten years living in a moderate poverty. However, this did not diminish his creative drive. His last great work was a cooperative effort with one of his students Frieda Harris on a new set of Tarot Cards, these were to be the most abundant in occult symbolism yet. The set was finished just months before his death and contain various forms of cubist artwork, which at times borderlines on psychedelic. They were decades ahead of their time and in many occultists opinion are Crowley’s greatest masterpiece.
Occult works have hardly ever been on best-seller lists, especially in the early twentieth century. But selling books and making money wasn’t Crowley’s gig. At times Crowley didn’t even have enough money to purchase copies of his own books. If it were not for the abundant interest in Occultism today it would be easy to just brush Crowley aside as a footnote in history. However, since his death his books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and his philosophical/religious system of Thelema is estimated as having nearly a hundred thousand adherents worldwide.
In fact much of the new age movement is simply an offshoot of Thelema. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, which is by far the largest New Age movement, may have even hired Crowley to compose part of his Book of Shadows. Gardner was a lower initiate of the O.T.O. and it is known that obtained from Crowley an O.T.O. lodge charter that was never used. Ron L. Hubbard the founder of Scientology admitted he was inspired by Crowley, and was even a short-time colleague of Aleister’s student, Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist and founder of Jet Propulsion Labs. Even Timothy Leary, the Harvard Psychologist and leader of the sixties psychedelic revolution so admired Crowley that he named him as one of the twentieth-centuries Agents of Evolution.
Throughout his life, and even after death Aleister was called many things including a heretic, drug-addict, charlatan, and megalomaniac. At one time English tabloids even penned him as the ‘Wickedest Man in the World’. However, those who have shown so much disrespect to the man have rarely read any of his works. I tend to agree with what Leary said about him, he was ‘an Agent of Evolution’, and should be remembered and even admired as such.