Mystic, philosopher, author, poet, controversialist – there were few taboos that the so-called ‘wickedest man in the world’ did not explore
Uncover the controversial life and times of the infamous occultist
f the late Aleister Crowley had been born in 1975, rather than 1875, his public antics as a magician, drug user and sexual experimenter would have been welcomed, or at least tolerated, in the modern world. In his own era, however, his keen interest in occult thought and practice, plus his deliberate attempts to gain infamy for its own sake, provoked rather than intrigued the public, and he was castigated as a serious threat. In reality, Crowley was simply an interesting, if unorthodox, man who loved the attention which his activities brought to him. There is no equivalent to him today – which makes the story of his life all the more compelling.
Much has been written about Crowley as an occult thinker and activist, and also about his personal life. In fact, these two sides of his character are too deeply entwined for them to be meaningfully separated. From his earliest years, he found himself in conflict with his surroundings – and it’s little wonder that he grew up to be a man profoundly at odds with the mores of his era.
Edward Crowley, as he was known until his late teens, was born at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, to a family of comfortable means. His father, also Edward Crowley, owned a share in a successful brewing business, Crowley’s Alton Ales, and had already retired by the time his son was born. Like his wife Emily, Edward Senior was a member of the Exclusive Brethren, a faction of the better-known Plymouth Brethren, which was a Christian movement. He is said to have worked as a preacher for the Brethren and to have read Bible chapters to his wife and son every day. Certain lurid passages in the Book of Revelation concerning the Beast, its number 666 and the tale of the Scarlet Woman fascinated the
Crowley at a yoiung age.
An early turning point for the boy came in 1883, when his father died of tongue cancer. Aged only 11, Crowley inherited one-third of his
father’s wealth, but this does not seem to have made him happy. His relationship with his mother deteriorated; he later wrote that “her powerful maternal instincts were suppressed by religion to the point that she became, after her husband’s death, a brainless bigot of the most narrow, logical and inhuman type”. Emily’s brother Tom Bishop, also a conservative Christian, found no favour with his nephew, who described him with the perhaps exaggerated words “no more cruel fanatic, no meaner villain, ever walked the Earth”.
Worst of all, when Crowley began to cause trouble at his school, Ebor Preparatory School in Cambridge, its owner, the Reverend Henry d’arcy Champney, was quick and sadistic in his discipline. Crowley was punished by being placed in solitaire, or ‘Coventry’, where no student or master could speak to him, or he to them. He was fed only with bread and water, forced to walk around the schoolroom and isolated on the playground. These sadistic measures led him to describe his stay at Ebor as “a boyhood in hell”. A Satanic edge was lent to the situation by his mother’s nickname for her son – “the Beast”.
The pressures of the young Crowley’s situation led him to ill health, firstly with albuminuria, a kidney disorder. This was no doubt worsened by some of the other boys at Ebor, who saw fit to punch him in the kidneys when they discovered his illness. In due course his mother and uncle removed him from the tender mercies of Reverend Champney and sent him to Malvern
College and Tonbridge School, neither of which he enjoyed.
Ultimately he was educated by private tutors in Eastbourne, East Sussex, against whose Christian teachings the teenage Crowley rebelled by pointing out flaws in the Bible. Privately, he enjoyed the forbidden practice of masturbation, of which he wrote, “Here was certainly a sin worth sinning, and I applied myself with characteristic vigour to its practice.” This habit soon graduated to sleeping with local prostitutes, one of whom he later contracted gonorrhoea from.
From today’s comparatively enlightened point of view, we can see clearly that the scene was set and the seeds were sown for Crowley’s career of anti-establishment activities to begin. Here was a young man, barely more than a boy, jolted by the early death of his father (who he later described as a “hero”, apparently sincerely), repelled by over-eager disciplinarians and contemptuous of revealed religion. As an intelligent, educated youth with money of his own, he was free – once he left the family home, at least – to wreak the worst kind of havoc that he could.
In 1895, Crowley adopted the first name Aleister. “I had read in some book or other,” he wrote, “that the most favourable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl [a long syllable plus two short ones] followed by a spondee [two long syllables], as at the end of
“Crowley rebelled by pointing out flaws in the Bible”
a hexameter: like Jeremy Taylor. ‘Aleister Crowley’ fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals.”
In line with his new identity, Crowley developed new interests – chess and mountaineering among them, both of which he indulged after beginning a degree in philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. He also wrote poetry for student newspapers such as The Granta and Cantab, switching his degree to English literature. In 1896, at the age of 21, he endured another paradigm change. Before this point
Crowley had been just another regular, if rebellious, young man – afterwards, he was a keen devotee of the mystical world. It’s thought that he enjoyed a homosexual liaison while on holiday in Sweden, although this was never confirmed. Whatever the case, Crowley returned a changed man, apparently comfortable with being bisexual at a time when this was generally deemed abhorrent. He then struck up a relationship with Herbert Charles Pollitt, the president of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, and the two men were a couple for two years, eventually breaking up when Crowley’s interest in Western esotericism became all-consuming.
The final opportunity for Crowley to pursue a ‘normal’ career came and went in 1897 when he travelled to Russia in the employ of the British Secret Service, which had attempted to enlist him as a spy. However, a spate of illness deterred Crowley from the idea of working for a living – no doubt helped by the fact that he was a man of independent means – and he resolved to pursue his obsession with the occult, now a huge driving passion for him. In 1898 he abandoned his university studies, not bothering to sit his final exams, even though his record indicated that he would probably do well if he had chosen to take them.
Where did all this unrest come from? Perhaps Crowley’s desire to be a poet (he published several poems in 1898, some of them of an erotic nature); possibly his new interest in alchemy (he had met a chemist, Julian L Baker, of similar views to his own); or simply his occult readings.
Two books, AE Waite’s The Book of
Black Magic and of Pacts (1898) and Karl von Eckartshausen’s The Cloud Upon the
Sanctuary (1896), influenced Crowley profoundly. He took an important step into making these interests concrete by joining an occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn, which had been founded in 1888. He was introduced to the Order by George Cecil Jones, Baker’s brother in-law.
Although Crowley was introduced to two influential people through the Order – its leader Samuel Mathers, and a magician named Allan Bennett, who later shared Crowley’s flat in Chancery Lane – his connection with the organisation was rocked by disagreement. While Bennett taught Crowley about the Goetia (the summoning of demons), the ritual use of drugs
(in particular hashish, legal to use in Britain until 1928) and Kabbalah (supposedly ancient Jewish
mysticism), Crowley wanted to move faster through the Order’s ranks than was permitted.
By now determined to explore the world of the occult to its limit, in 1899 Crowley purchased a Scottish mansion, Boleskine House, on the shore of Loch Ness. Here he attempted the exhausting Abramelin Operation, a six-month ritual in which a disciple seeks to converse with a personal guardian angel, invoking demonic spirits at the same time.
The same year he published more poetry collections, one of which, Jephthah, was a success.
Although Crowley made progress through the various grades of the Order of the Golden Dawn, he was unpopular in the group thanks to the reputation he had gained from being a bisexual sybarite, and he conflicted with members including the poet WB Yeats. The Order’s London lodge refused to allow him entry into its Second Order, although Samuel Mathers did so after Crowley visited him in Paris.
This caused a schism between Mathers and the Order, which became irrevocable when Crowley – on Mathers’ orders – attempted to storm and occupy the Order’s temple building in Kensington. The case went to court, and the Order won – Crowley and Mathers were expelled.
However, Crowley was just getting started on his bizarre journey, both physical and spiritual. In 1900 he travelled to Mexico, where he settled in Mexico City with a local mistress and worked with Enochian magic. While there he was initiated into the Freemasons, wrote poems and a play and climbed mountains such as Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl and Colima. He then headed to San Francisco and Hawaii, enjoying an affair with a married woman named Mary Rogers on the ship for good measure. After stopovers in Japan and Hong Kong, Crowley reached Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), where he met Allan Bennett, who had moved there to study Shaivism; the latter decided to train as a Buddhist monk and went to Burma. Crowley chose to to travel to India, studing raja yoga, a variant of Hindu astrology. The sheer amount of esoteric beliefs that Crowley had absorbed by this point was prodigious. Still only in his late 20s, his greatest period of activity – both physical and mental – was upon him. In 1902 he attempted to climb the mountain K2, which had not yet been conquered at the time.
However, influenza, malaria and snow blindness meant that his group only made it to 6,100 metres before turning back.
Later that year he settled in Paris, where he gained a measure of local fame among the urban intelligentsia. As a published poet, occult scholar and man of deviant sexual habits by the standard of the day, he was welcomed in fin-de-siècle
Paris and became friends with the painter Gerald Kelly and the author W Somerset Maugham. Art, philosophy and his extraordinarily vivid lifestyle coalesced for Crowley this year, making him one of the outstanding figures of his time – a view that he himself was quick to endorse.
Another key moment in his personal evolution came in 1904. By then Crowley had returned to Boleskine House, married Gerald’s sister Rose – deeply distressing the Kelly family in doing so – and travelled with her to Cairo, where the couple claimed to be a prince and princess for their own, arcane reasons. However, this was no simple pleasure trip. While in Cairo, Crowley underwent the most profound spiritual experience of his life.
On 18 March Rose – who had become delirious, in a form of hallucinatory trance – told Crowley that the Egyptian god Horus was waiting for him. Two days later, she announced, “The
Equinox of the Gods has come!”
She took him to a nearby museum, containing a 7th-century BCE mortuary stele known as the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-khonsu. The exhibit’s number was 666.
On 8, 9 and 10 April, for exactly one hour at noon on each day, Crowley – seated in his apartment – was addressed by a disembodied voice, identifying itself as Aiwass, the messenger of Horus. He claimed to have written down Aiwass’ words verbatim, and soon after turned these words into a book, Liber L vel Legis, better known as The Book of the Law.
The cornerstone of the book was the statement “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, which may have been controversial at the time but now resonates in the era of libertarianism. This, and the
Ceremonial garments were an integral part of Crowley’s rituals, but they often caused people to dismiss him as a serious thinker
Crowley, aged 26, on a trip to the mountain of K2 in Nepal, which failed due to illness Crowley in magisterial mode in 1912. As the First World War approached, his activities began to adopt a political edge
work, The Book best-knownCrowley’s many of which contains of the Law, thoughts philosophical his early This 1935 image originally ran in Picture Post in 1955 in an article titled ‘The Man Who Chose Evil’. But did he? Crowley with his wife Rose and his second daughter Lola Zaza, pictured in 1910 Pictured around1890, Edward Crowley, as he was then known, showed no outward sign of the chaos to come The hexagram symbol of Thelema is unicursal, meaning that it can be drawn in a single line
Crowley’s concept of vampirism differed from that of Hollywood horror films. To him, vampires could feed on mental energy Crowley in the ceremonial garb of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult organisation