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Aleister Crowley

This article was written by John Michael Greer on April 01, 2005
posted under Aleister Crowley

(Edward Alexander Crowley) English writer, occultist, Antichrist, and self-proclaimed messiah of the New Aeon, 1875-1947. Easily the most controversial figure in the recent history of Western occultism, Crowley was born into the Plymouth Brethren, a small and deeply puritanical Protestant sect that originated most of modern Fundamentalist Christian theology. His father, a wealthy brewer, died when Crowley was five years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother and uncle. He had an excellent (and expensive) public school education and went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he dabbled in chemistry but left without taking a degree.

While at college, he wrote and self-published his first books, a collection of philosophical poetry entitled Aceldama and a volume of pornographic verse entitled White Stains. Upon encountering a copy of A. E. Waite’s Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, however, his interests turned to the occult, and in 1898 he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

As a member of the order, he studied with the occultist and Buddhist Alan Bennett (1872-1923), but was denied advancement to the Adeptus Minor grade and the order’s inner magical teachings because the senior adepts of the order in London disapproved of his behavior. The order’s chief, Samuel Liddell [MacGregor] Mathers (1854-1918), proceeded to initiate him into the Adeptus Minor grade in Paris, an act that helped bring about the schism in the order in 1900. During the schism Crowley remained loyal to Mathers and acted as the chief’s emissary, although his inept handling of his mission and his insistence on parading about in full Highland dress through the whole affair did not help Mathers’ cause.

Crowley’s lifestyle at this time was still fueled by his inherited money, and he traveled widely, went on mountain climbing expeditions, and devoted much of his time to chess, poetry, and a variety of sexual liaisons. It is entirely in character that he paid the chef of a London hotel to name a dish after him, Sole à lá Crowley, and commissioned Augustus John—the most prestigious portraitist of the time—to paint his portrait.

In 1903 he married Rose Kelly, the daughter of a portrait painter, and took her on a world tour by way of honeymoon. The next year, while in Cairo, he received—according to his account, via a disembodied but clearly audible voice—a communications from a spirit named Aiwass, who claimed to be the representative of the spiritual powers governing the next age of world history, the Aeon of Horus. Over a three-day period, Aiwass dictated to Crowley the text of Liber AL vel Legis, the Book of the Law, and proclaimed Crowley the Beast 666 from the Book of Revelation.

Thereafter, as his marriage disintegrated and his literary career ground to a halt, Crowley’s involvement in magic became steadily more intense, and he gradually became convinced of the accuracy of Aiwass’ message and his own messianic role. With the last of his inherited money, he funded and ran a lavish magazine—The Equinox—devoted to the occult. In its pages, he published many of the Golden Dawn papers and brought them for the first time to the attention of the broader occult community. A variety of intensive magical workings, alone or with others, convinced him that he was working his way up the grades of magical attainment. He also accepted initiations into the Ordo Templi Orientis, a small quasi-Masonic organization run by a dubious character named Theodor Reuss and went on to take over large parts of the order and reshape it to fit his philosophy.

At the outbreak of World War I he moved to the United States, where he supported himself by journalism, pursued his magical training, and involved himself in the politics of the American occult scene. In 1920 he and a small group of followers moved to Cefalu, in Sicily, where they established what would now be called a commune and devoted their time to sex, magic, and drugs. There Crowley went through an experience that, in his opinion, marked his ascent to the grade of Ipsissimus, the highest level of magical attainment. Shortly thereafter Raoul Loveday, one of the community’s members, died of food poisoning. The result was a public scandal in Great Britain and Italy, and the Italian dictator Mussolini, ordered Crowley expelled from the country.

After the collapse of the Cefalu community, Crowley spent a while in Tunisia and France, becoming a heroin addict in the process, and finally returned to England. Not long after his return, he happened to read a passage in the autobiography of British sculptor Nina Hammett that referred to him as a "black magician." Crowley reacted by suing her for libel. Unfortunately for him, British libel law required her to prove the accuracy of her statement in order to defend herself. This she did, in the eyes of the jury, the press, and the public, in a sensational trial that left Crowley’s reputation and finances in shreds.

Crowley spent the remainder of his life in cheap lodgings, first in London and later in Hastings, on the Sussex coast, corresponding with a small circle of students and scrambling to support his drug habit. While rumors in the occult community have claimed for decades that he was hired to write the original WiccanBook of Shadows by Gerald Gardner, there is no evidence that this is true and a good deal of evidence that Gardner wrote it himself after Crowley’s demise. On Crowley’s death, his estate was valued at fourteen shillings.

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