Much has been written over the years about Aleister Crowley. Some of it has even been true. Chronicling a life so far from the mainstream is a challenge I could not resist...
When the idea of doing a series of articles about the life and notoriety of this extraordinary man was first mentioned, I knew it would be a monumental challenge. So much 'information' is in circulation about this most anti-heroic of 20th century icons that it would be an act of near suicidal hubris to attempt a rational reappraisal. However, it was not just the apparent familiarity of his name and exploits which was a problem. Much of what has already been said about Crowley is reactionary, propagandist and, in some cases, just plain nonsense. Always one to court and exploit media attention, Crowley played up to the very worst accusations levelled at him. And yet much of what he believed and wrote has, over the years, been distorted not only by his detractors but also by his so-called followers. There is far more to Aleister Crowley than a quasi-demonic egomaniac with a depraved religious fetish and a penchant for sex and debauchery. To paint him as 'the wickedest man in the world' no doubt appealed immensely to his sense of self-aggrandisement, but it is very far from being the whole story.
Edward Alexander Crowley was born on October 12th 1875 in the provincial Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa, into a wealthy brewing family. His father, whom he greatly admired, was a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren, and young Aleister's home life seems to have been overshadowed by this staunchly religious man and an hysterically pious mother who despairing of his wilfulness dubbed him 'the Great Beast' after the Antichrist figure of Revelation, a title he remained proud of all his life. Anecdotes of his teenage years suggest that Aleister was something of a spoilt brat who flew into vicious but often petty tantrums when he could not get his own way. When his father died when Aleister was just 11 years old, he increasingly looked to his uncle as a role model, since his mother was somewhat less than emotionally stable, and it was this uncle who fostered and developed the young Aleister's hatred and distrust of Christianity. Aleister's rebellion against his family's religious mania continued for many years, fuelled by an early interest in the occult and a fascination with blood, torture and sexual degradation. When he seduced (or, as some reports have it, was seduced by) a maidservant on his mother's bed while she was at church, it was all too much for his family to cope with.
Crowley was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge to complete his education, and in the hope of calming down his wild temperament and even wilder ideas. The staid environment of the old university did nothing of the sort. He devoted more of his time to learning about the occult and writing poetry than he did to his studies, and ultimately failed to attain a degree. However, Crowley's first love was always literature, and while his ideas of his own literary excellence may have been rather over-inflated he once remarked that it was 'a strange coincidence that one small county should have given England her two greatest poets for one must not forget Shakespeare!' he was at least committed to his work. At his own expense he published and printed collections of his rather Swinburnian poetry, and even published his first novel, a shockingly Sadean pornographic novel which earned him much early notoriety with his fellow students.
It was this schoolboyish desire to shock his family and the bourgeois society in which he moved which was to develop as he grew older, culminating in the kind of shenanigans which earned him the lurid press title of 'the wickedest man in the world', 'king of depravity' and even 'cannibal at large'. His desire to mock and deride the hypocrisies of this society inevitably made him a dangerous commodity, and in his later years he was to travel widely not always of his own volition in an attempt to find somewhere to settle.
His early interest in the occult was developed when he began reading such tomes as McGregor Mathers' translations of the three books of the Zohar, collectively entitled 'The Kabbalah Unveiled' and A E Waite's works on ceremonial magick, though Crowley always maintained that his magickal 'awakening' occurred in Stockholm. He later wrote that at that point he 'awakened to the knowledge that I possessed a magical means of becoming conscious and of satisfying a part of my nature which had up to that moment concealed itself from me.'
Following this revelation he wrote to Waite, and was accepted within the ranks of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on November 18th, 1898.
His sense of self-importance would not allow him to rest content being a mere member of the Order, however, and he soon entered into a lengthy and often dramatically confrontational battle of wills with the Order's founder and president, McGregor Mathers. It is even rumoured that they manifested psychic vampires and demonic entities to send against each other in an attempt to gain ultimate control over the Order.
By 1904, Brother Perdurabo ('I will endure to the end') as Crowley was now known to the Golden Dawn and his hysterical and mediumistic wife Rose Kelly, had settled in Cairo, and it was here that the 'master work' of Crowley's life was shown to him. Rose had a vision of the Egyptian god Horus, in which he ordered Crowley to prepare himself for first contact with his Guardian Angel. This entity, whom Crowley called Aiwass, and referred to as his 'True Self', channelled through Crowley and Kelly what became known as 'Liber Legis' or 'The Book of the Law'. This was to become the first of many such works, and was the foundation of Crowley's unique religious mania, and his subsequent cult following. It is from this that the Law of Thelema, and the scandalous stories of the Abbey at C้falu, ultimately derive and I shall cover this work at greater length in a future article in this series.
All these strands fused together in Crowley to create a legendary figure, and as with all such legends he attracted his fair share of myths and fantastical tales. Some of what is said of Crowley is undoubtedly true, despite the hyperbole of the press and his many detractors. He claimed an exotic cast of past lives, including Pope Alexander VI, Edward Kelly (the Elizabethan Dr Dee's most infamous assistant), Cagliostro, and arch-mage Eliphas L้vi, who actually died on the very day that Crowley was born. Once his Egyptian mania took hold, he also claimed to be the reincarnation of Ankh-f-n-Khonsu, a 26th Dynasty high priest.
Crowley's writings were many and varied, though it is perhaps his works on demonology and ceremonial magick which remain the most well-known and well-read. 'The Book of Thoth', his seminal interpretation of the Tarot, remains to this day a classic of its kind, and the Crowley Tarot deck has almost as many wild stories attached to it as its creator. 'Magick in Theory and Practice' is still considered one of the cornerstones of modern magickal theory, alongside the works of such luminaries as Dion Fortune. What is less well known is that he also wrote fiction: a collection of short stories called 'The Stratagem'; and more famously his two novels 'Moonchild', about his attempts to sire a child by magickal means, and 'Confessions of a Drug Fiend'. His two volume autobiography 'The Confessions' is hard to get hold of, but well worth the effort. In keeping with his sense of self-importance, Crowley always referred to this work as 'the autohag' (a hagiography being the story of the life of a saint!)
Poet, writer, theorist, practitioner, magickian, religious iconoclast, polysexual egomaniac say what you like about Aleister Crowley, he is a remarkable and complex figure, a true anti-heroic icon of his own age, and a legend to us now.
Love him or loathe him, you cannot ignore him: his influence on the shaping of modern witchcraft is unparalleled, and although he died over fifty years ago in December 1947 his name and myth can still strike irrational fear into the hearts and minds of many. Surely it is only fitting that this great man be honoured in the pages of this magazine, and I hope that as his story unfolds over the next few issues, you will come to appreciate him and re-evaluate him as I have done. Ave Aleister.
see also on this site: John Polidori Gilles de Rais Catherine de' Medici Mozart Bathory More Bathory
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