Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947) was a British occultist, mystic, poet, mountain climber, sexual revolutionary, and social critic. Born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875 in Leamington, Warwickshire, England, he was the son of a Plymouth Brethren preacher and heir to a small fortune. Crowley spent most of his adult life seeking out, writing about, and teaching a syncretic form of mysticism. As a young adult, he had been involved in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where he first studied mysticism-and made enemies of William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite. His friend and former Golden Dawn associate Allen Bennett introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism, which would be a continuing influence. In October 1901, after practicing raja yoga for some time, he reached a state he called dhyana. 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magic as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing one's thoughts to a given object through the trappings of the ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Buddhism, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings. In 1904, he had a mystical experience whilst on vacation in Cairo, Egypt which led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema.
The text Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley claimed had been dictated to him in Cairo by the voice (or intelligence) Aiwaz or Aiwass, was to form the cornerstone of Thelema. The book's philosophy is highly opaque, apparently calling in places for peaceful (and erotic) discovery of magick, and in other places for violence and war. Portions of it are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed inability to decode.
Crowley was notorious in his life-a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labeled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. The claims made about him by the press range from the realistic (if scandalous at the time)-that he was an avowed atheist, openly kept mistresses, and had favored the Germans in World War I-to the ridiculous (that he sacrificed hundreds of babies in black magic rituals). At one point, he was expelled from Fascist Italy after having established a sort of magickal commune at Cefalu, Sicily.
Thelema is the religious and mystical system founded by Crowley, into which most of his nonfiction writings fell. Thelema (θελημα) is a greek word, meaning "will". It comes from the verb ethelô (εθελω), meaning "to will" or "to wish." Thelema combines a radical form of philosophical libertarianism (akin in some ways to Nietzsche) with a mystical initiatory system derived in part from the Golden Dawn.
Sovereignty of the individual will is considered chief among the precepts of Thelema. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" is, as it were, the system's first commandment. Crowley's idea of will, however, is not simply the individual's desires or wishes, but also the person's destiny and greater purpose (termed the Magick Will). Much of the initiatory system of Thelema is focused on discovering one's true will, purpose, or higher self.
The second commandment of Thelema is "Love is the Law, Love under Will". Crowley's definition of "love" is complex. It is frequently sexual: Crowley's system, like the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence. Sexual magick and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual.
Thelema draws on numerous older systems and, like many other religious movements of its time, combines "Western" and "Eastern" tradition. Its chief Western influences include the Golden Dawn, Kabbalah, and elements of Freemasonry; Eastern influences include yoga, Taoism, and Tantra.
Science, Magick, and Sexuality
Crowley claimed to use a scientific method to study what people at the time called "spiritual" experiences, making "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion" the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox. By this he meant that mystical experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at religious truth. In this he may be considered to foreshadow Dr. Timothy Leary, who at one point sought to apply the same method to psychedelic drug experiences. Yet like Leary's, Crowley's method fell short of objectivity and has received little "scientific" attention outside the circle of Thelema's practitioners.
Crowley's magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex magick. He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time, and published numerous poems and tracts combining pagan religious imagery with sexual imagery both heterosexual and homosexual.
In 1934 Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued the artist Nina Hamnett for calling him a Black Magician in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso. The evidence against him must have been overwhelming, and it is difficult to see why he ever took the case to court. In addressing the jury, Mr. Justice Swift said: "I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man (Crowley) who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet."
Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on the Tarot (The Book of Thoth), yoga (Book Four), the Kabbalah (Sepher Sephiroth), and numerous other subjects. He also wrote a Thelemic "translation" of the Tao Te Ching, based on earlier English translations since he had little or no Chinese. Like the Golden Dawn mystics before him, Crowley evidently sought to comprehend the entire human religious and mystical experience in a single philosophy. Many of his books he published himself, expending the majority of his inheritance disseminating his views. His fiction works, such as the "Simon Iff" detective stories and the mystical novels Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild, have not received significant notice outside of occult circles.
Crowley's other major works include:
Crowley had a particular sense of humour. In his Book Four he includes a chapter purporting to illuminate the mystical significance of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In a footnote to the chapter he admits that he had made it all up to see how foolishly people would react to it. Again in his autobiographical Confessions (which he termed his "Autohagiography") he relates the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons and their attempt to create a "moonchild" (from Crowley's novel of that name). In Crowley's own words, "Apparently Parsons and Hubbard or somebody is producing a moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts." Clearly the admiration Hubbard had for Crowley was not reciprocated. More famously still, he baited Christians by christening himself To Mega Therion, or "The Great Beast" of the Book of Revelation.
Crowley and Rock & Roll
A number of rock musicians have been fascinated by the persona and ideas of Aleister Crowley, and several have made reference to him or his work in their own. Perhaps the first were the Beatles, who placed Crowley among dozens of other influential figures on the cover of their concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page owned Crowley's Loch Ness estate, Boleskine House, from 1971 through 1992. Numerous heavy metal rockers, including Ozzy Osbourne and Ministry, have referred to Crowley in lyrics, though their interpretations more often follow the tabloid "Satanist" image of Crowley and not his actual writings. German pop group Alphaville, noted for mystical references of various sorts, penned a song about Crowley's wife Rose, entitled "Red Rose", which makes coded reference to a number of Thelemic and otherwise occult ideas.
Crowley also tried to mint a number of new terms instead of the established ones he felt inadequate. For example he spelled magic "magick" and renamed theurgy "high magick" and thaumaturgy "low magick". Many of his terms are still used by some practitioners.
Crowley remains a popular icon of libertines and those interested in the theory and practice of magic.
Aleister Crowley died in Hastings, England on December 1, 1947.
- A Crowley Timeline
- Contemporary media accounts and photographic portraits
- The 93 Current many links for Crowley resources
- The Aleister Crowley Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, U.T., in Austin, TX
- Red Flame Desk Reference A complete catalog of Crowley's published works
- Collection of chess columns written by Crowley
- Gallery of Crowley's artwork
- Thelemapedia, the Encyclopedia of Thelema and Magick
- Free Encyclopedia of Thelema