Crowley, Aleister (1875–1947)

The most controversial and perhaps least understood magician and occultist
of his time, Aleister Crowley has been both vilified and
idolized. He was a man of both low excesses and high
brilliance. He considered himself to be the reincarnation
of other great occultists: Pope Alexander VI, renowned
for his love of physical pleasures; Edward Kelly, the notorious
assistant to occultist John Dee in Elizabethan England;
Cagliostro; and occultist Eliphas Levi, who died on
the day Crowley was born. Crowley also believed he had
been Ankh-f-n-Khonsu, an Egyptian priest of the XXVIth
dynasty.
Crowley was born in Warwickshire, England. His father
was a brewer and a preacher of Plymouthism, the
beliefs of a sect founded of the Plymouth Brethren in 1830
that considered itself the only true Christian order. As a
child, Crowley participated in the preaching with his parents,
then rebelled against it. His behavior inspired his
mother to call him “the Beast” after the Antichrist. Later,
he called her “a brainless bigot of the most narrow, logical
and inhuman type.” His father died when he was 11.
As Crowley grew older, he became interested in the
occult. He also discovered he was excited by descriptions
of torture and blood, and he liked to fantasize about being
degraded by a Scarlet Woman who was both wicked
and independent.
Crowley, Aleister    79
He entered Trinity College at Cambridge, where he
wrote poetry and pursued, on his own, his occult studies.
He loved to climb rocks and mountains and attempted
some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. In 1898 he
published his first book of poetry, Aceldama, A Place to
Bury Strangers in. A Philosophical Poem. By a Gentleman of
the University of Cambridge, 1898. In the preface, he described
how God and Satan had fought for his soul: “God
conquered—now I have only one doubt left—which of
the twain was God?”
After reading Arthur Edward Waite’s The Book of Black
Magic and of Pacts, which hints of a secret brotherhood
of adepts who dispense occult wisdom to certain initiates.
Intrigued, Crowley wrote to Waite for more information
and was referred to The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, by
Carl von Eckartshausen, which tells of the Great White
Brotherhood. Crowley determined he wanted to join this
brotherhood and advance to the highest degree.
On November 18, 1898, Crowley joined the London
chapter of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
which was the First or Outer Order of the Great White
Brotherhood. He discovered he had a natural aptitude for
magic and rose quickly through the hierarchy. He began
practicing yoga, in the course of which he discovered his
earlier incarnations. He left Trinity College without earning
a degree, took a flat in Chancery Lane, named himself
Count Vladimir and pursued his occult studies on a
full-time basis. He advanced through the First Order and
sought entry into the Second Order of the Great White
Brotherhood, a Rosicrucian order also called the Order of
the Red Rose and the Golden Cross. Beyond this was the
top order, the Silver Star or A∴A∴ (Argentum Astrum),
which had three grades: Master of the Temple, Magus and
Ipissimus. The latter could be achieved only by crossing
an unknown and uncharted Abyss.
Crowley was intensely competitive with S. L. MacGregor
Mathers, the chief of the Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn and a ceremonial magician. Mathers taught
Crowley Abra-Melin magic (see Abramelin the Mage)
but had not attained any of three grades in the A∴A∴.
The two quarreled, and Mathers supposedly dispatched
an army of elementals to attack Crowley. Crowley also
argued with other members of the Golden Dawn as well
and as a result was expelled from the order. He pursued
the attainment of Ipissimus on his own.
Crowley traveled widely. He studied Eastern mysticism,
including Buddhism, Tantric Yoga and the I Ching.
For a time he lived in Scotland, in an isolated setting near
Loch Ness. In 1903 he married Rose Kelly, who bore him
one child. Rose began to receive communications from
the astral plane, and in 1904 she told Crowley that he was
to receive an extremely important message. It came from
Aiwass, a spirit and Crowley’s Holy Guardian Angel, or
True Self. Crowley also later identified Aiwass as a magical
current or solar-phallic energy worshiped by the Sumerians
as Shaitan, a “devil-god,” and by the Egyptians as
Set. On three consecutive days in April 1904, from noon
until 1 p.m., Aiwass reportedly manifested as a voice and
dictated to Crowley The Book of the Law, the most significant
work of his magical career. It contains the Law
of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the
law.” Though some have interpreted it to mean doing as
one pleases, it actually means that one must do what one
must and nothing else. Admirers of Crowley say the Law
of Thelema distinguishes him as one of the greatest magicians
of history.
Aiwass also heralded the coming of a new Aeon of
Horus, the third great age of humanity. The three ages
were characterized as Paganism/Christianity/Thelema,
represented, respectively, by Isis/Osiris/Horus. Crowley
considered himself the prophet of the New Aeon.
From 1909 to 1913, Crowley published the secret rituals
of the Golden Dawn in his periodical, The Equinox,
which also served as a vehicle for his poetry. Mathers
tried but failed to get an injunction to stop him. By 1912
Crowley had become involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis,
a German occult order practicing magic.
In 1909 Crowley explored levels of the astral plane
with his assistant, poet Victor Neuberg, using Enochian
magic. He believed he crossed the Abyss and united his
consciousness with the universal consciousness, thus
becoming Master of the Temple. He described the astral
Aleister Crowley (Harry Price Collection; courtesy
Mary Evans Picture Library)
80 Crowley, Aleister
journeys in The Vision and the Voice, published first in The
Equinox and posthumously in 1949.
Crowley kept with him a series of “scarlet women.”
The best known of these was Leah Hirsig, the “Ape of
Thoth,” who indulged with him in drinking, drugs and
sexual magic and who could sometimes contact Aiwass.
Crowley apparently made several attempts with various
scarlet women to beget a “magical child,” none of which
was successful. He later fictionalized these efforts in his
novel, Moonchild, published in 1929.
From 1915 to 1919 Crowley lived in the United States.
In 1920 he went to Sicily and founded the Abbey of Thelema,
which he envisioned as a magical colony.
In 1921, when Crowley was 45, he and Hirsig conducted
a ritual in which Crowley achieved Ipissimus and
became, according to his cryptic description, a god (“As a
God goes, I go”). He did not reveal attaining Ipissimus to
anyone, only hinting at it in his privately published Magical
Record much later, in 1929. After the transformation,
however, Hirsig found him intolerable. Crowley later discarded
her and acquired a new scarlet woman, Dorothy
Olsen.
In 1922 Crowley accepted an invitation to head the
Ordo Templi Orientis. In 1923 the bad press that he routinely
received led to his expulsion from Sicily, and he
had to abandon his abbey. After some wandering through
France (where he suffered from a heroin addiction), Tunisia
and Germany, he returned to England.
In 1929 he married his second wife, Maria Ferrari de
Miramar, in Leipzig.
In his later years he was plagued with poor health,
drug addiction and financial trouble. He kept himself financially
afloat by publishing nonfiction and fiction. In
1945 he moved to a boardinghouse in Hastings, where
he lived the last two years of his life, a dissipated shadow
of his former vigorous self. During these last years,
he was introduced to Gerald B. Gardner by Arnold
Crowther. According to Gardner, Crowley told him he
had been initiated into the Craft as a young man. This
claim is unlikely, as there is nothing in Crowley’s published
or unpublished writings referring to involvement
in witchcraft. Crowley seemed disinterested in the Craft
because of the authority of women; according to Patricia
Crowther, he said he “refused to be bossed around
by any damn woman.” Crowley died in a private hotel in
Hastings in 1947. His remains were cremated and sent to
his followers in the United States.
Crowley’s other published books include The Diary
of a Drug Fiend; Magick in Theory and Practice, still considered
one of the best books on ceremonial magic; The
Strategem, a collection of fiction stories; The Equinox of the
Gods, which sets forth The Book of the Law as mankind’s
new religion; and The Book of Thoth, his interpretation of
the Tarot Confessions originally was intended to be a sixvolume
autohagiography, but only the first two volumes
were published. He argued with the publishing company,
which was taken over by his friends and then went out
of business. The remaining galleys and manuscripts—he
had dictated the copy to Hirsig while under the influence
of heroin—were lost or scattered about. They were collected
and edited by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant
and published in a single volume in 1969.
Crowley referred to himself in some of his writings as
“the Master Therion” and “Frater Perdurabo.” He spelled
magic as magick to “distinguish the science of the Magi
from all its counterfeits.” Some modern occultists continue
to follow suit.

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