Aleis­teir Crow­ley

Mys­tic, philoso­pher, au­thor, poet, con­tro­ver­sial­ist – there were few taboos that the so-called ‘wickedest man in the world’ did not ex­plore

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Joel Mciver

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

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