A note from the author of this piece: those who know me from my Facebook page, will not be at all surprised to read these words--that if I could find a way to traverse back in time, I'd love to have the chance to love him, even if for a short while...
A Concise Beginners Introduction to "The Great Beast," Aleister Crowley
by Jude (Joodhe)
His name at birth was Edward Alexander Crowley. He was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. Date of birth, October 12, 1875. Died at Hastings England, at 72 years of age. Date of death, December 1st, 1947.
Crowley (pronounced like holy, not foully) was a magician, and due to the many contributions he made to magick, was potentially the greatest magician of our times. There have been numerous detrimental claims made concerning him, which could be because he existed in a time in history where subscribing to mainstream religion and behaving a certain way, was necessary to fit in, far more so than today. The slander against him held up through time because he did nothing to counter it, and for a significant time he did what he could to fuel it. Why? It was the nature of his personality to rebel against rigidity, and the papers kept him under a veritable magnifying glass, scrutinizing every single move, every word. For their efforts, he gave them a show well worth the price of admission.
He referred to himself as "The Great Beast 666," which was him adopting and embracing a title his mother bestowed on him as a child; it was her way to convey hostility concerning that he rejected Christianity. As for his birth name, he did not like it and changed it, and in the process sought a name that met his requisite. In his words: "I had read in some book or other that the most favorable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like Jeremy Taylor." The name "Aleister Crowley" fit the bill, and Aleister as well, is Gaelic for Alexander; he was Irish after all.
Aleister came from a monied upbringing. His father, Edward, had taken engineer career training, but chose not to work in that trade. Instead, his investment in a family run business, Crowley's Alton Ales, paid off; hence he retired before his son's birth. Edward was also a traveling evangelist for a Christian Fundamentalist religious organization--the Plymouth Brethren, spreading word and handing out literature. Edward's wife, Emily, was serious about having her family regard Christian ways, and pushed religion onto Aleister heavy handedly, which put a strain on their relationship.
Edward passed away due to tongue cancer, and Emily moved to London, taking Aleister along; at that time he was 11. Tom Bond Bishop, Emily's brother, stepped in to fulfill the role of father figure in Crowley's life; but his ways were harsh. Some believe that it was this period in his life, with the loss of his father combined with the cruel uncle as a poor quality stand in, that initiated the downtrend in Aleister's health. It may have been, at least in part, through his mother & uncle's behaviors being hypocritical, that he determined there to be no substance to Christianity; one way or the other he turned away from it to pursue his own path.
At Eastbourne College, Crowley played chess, and took over presidency of the chess club. As well he had a taste for mountain climbing, and regularly visited Scotland and East Sussex to participate (this describes his early climbing exploits; later he took on greater challenges). Later on he went to Trinity, Cambridge, where he began studying moral science, then switched to English Literature. While there he had poetry published, including Aceldama, A Place to Bury Strangers In, then his erotic White Stains, which was banned. It could be said that much of Crowley's time in College was about him rebelling against the fettered upbringing and the confining circle of beliefs he was raised within. His sexual conquests were many, and contrary to what some say about his first male to male encounter being in Stockholm, it was more likely in college. Perhaps the Stockholm experience was his first moving gender same experience.
Crowley was bisexual, with his primary preference being men, and him usually adopting the submissive role. For a while he lived in a partnership with a male by the name of Herbert Charles Pollitt, whom he loved dearly. However, the differences between them in matters of faith ultimately caused them to part ways, as Pollitt had little to no interest in Western esotericism, nor magick.
|Crowley in Golden Dawn robe|
Crowley became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898, and that's where he learnt ceremonial magick, tarot, alchemy, astrology, qabalah, and other hermetic subjects. Aleister was ultimately ousted from the Golden Dawn; it is held that W.B. Yeats was the primary one who pushed for it to happen, as he found Crowley's approach to magick offended his own, and also deemed his behavior to be immoral. However, A.E. Waite probably helped make matters worse, as there was contempt between he and Aleister (you can get an idea of how much through reading the book Moonchild, referring to the character Edwin Arthwait). From there A.C. spent time in Asia, where he learnt yoga, and also mysticism from an Oriental perspective; he felt these things added great value to the magick he had till then practiced.
In 1904 he married Rose Kelly; the two traveled to Cairo, Egypt for their honeymoon. While there, from a message conveyed by a supernatural being, Crowley wrote "The Book of the Law," or "Liber AL vel Legis." Henceforth from the Cairo event and from what was revealed to him from it, he considered himself to be the prophet who would guide humanity into the Aeon of Horus. From Liber AL vel Legis, "Thelema" was born; the book is the faith's sacred text. Thelema's principal tenet is, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will."
It was Aleister that appended a k onto the word magic, in order to differentiate occult works from those conducted by a stage magician. There is great significance in appending the k; it is the eleventh letter of the alphabet, and as well, in adding it on he brought the gematric numerical value of the word to eleven. His aim was to create correspondences, and eleven was the number representative of magick and of the new Aeon. As well, Aiwass told him in Cairo, that "my number is eleven, as all their numbers who are of us."
In 1906 he started a branch of the Great White Brotherhood, named the Astrum Argentium, or Silver Star. A few years thereafter he joined a German Freemasons group, called Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). The organization was deeply steeped in magickal activity, and after a while Crowley became (disputably) the top man there. Some say that him becoming top man was opposed by many, and caused a rift and subsequent separation. But under him they were led to regard Thelemic tenets, and as well they disengaged from the Freemasons, thus women were no longer barred from joining.
Inspiration of a sort was provided to William Somerset Maugham, who with the character Oliver Haddo, portrayed Crowley in his 1908 novel "The Magician." By 1914 A.C. was having his first bouts with financial distress, as he spent his money extravagantly and did his fair share of drugs.
|A.C. in ceremonial robe, 1912|
In the early twenties Crowley was having serious problems with his asthma and was prescribed heroin. It quickly became both an addiction, and a prominent theme in his life. For a while he resided in France, with Leah Hirsig and Ninette Fraux Shumway, in a love triangle situation. They moved to Cefalù, Italy, with three children in tow. It was there that the Abbey of Thelema came to be, and for a few years it was their home. The Abbey and the freewheeling, communal lifestyle its various inhabitants engaged in, had been founded upon Crowley's desire to build a community around Thelemic concepts. Within those few years, much had happened at the Abbey. It became an unhealthy environment; no one took responsibility for maintaining its hygiene. Aside from that, Hirsig's daughter, Anne Leah Crowley (aka Poupée) died. Another child was born, to Ninette Fraux; said child being Astarte Lulu Panthea Crowley.
The children were not given formal education, but their guardians believed them to be stimulated in ways whereby they'd develop a desire to learn by their own accord. They were required to engage in scheduled Thelemic rites (Liber Resh, sometimes Gnostic Mass), and they were not shielded from viewing sex magick rites. Perhaps this last point seems strange, but Crowley wanted them to be raised without socially constructed, false moral values. Apart from the situation with the children, a woman by the name of Mary Butts had an amazing claim to make, which Crowley's own writings supported.
Crowley must have recognized that things were getting out of hand in ways for him, as he made an attempt to kick heroin in 1922. The goings on at Cefalù led to him being ordered to leave Italy; subsequently the Abbey was abandoned. It was not all for naught though; amongst other things he added a Comment to Liber AL vel Legis, and did further work on his Book 4 while there. All along though, without Crowley having been free to do as he pleased when he pleased, much of his insight and philosophy, as well as Thelema, may never have come to be. It could be said that life at Cefalù provided rich fodder for him spiritually. Unfortunately, a man died during Crowley's time at Thelema Abbey; his name was Raoul Loveday. Though he died from drinking polluted water from a local creek, reports released to the news by his wife, Betty May, made it seem as if Crowley himself may have caused the man's death. The papers had a feeding frenzy at Aleister's expense, and he did not have money enough to sue.
In 1929 Crowley wed again, this time to Maria Sanchez de Miramar, to whom he would still be married at the time of his death. Into the mid thirties he was facing far more severe financial issues, and ended up filing bankruptcy. Though he continued to bring in royalties from some of his more widely appreciated works, such as "The Book of Thoth," and "Diary of a Drug Fiend," his addiction ate up much of the funds. For the record, the concept for his Thoth tarot deck was extracted from his Book of Thoth, the artwork was produced by Lady Frieda Harris.
The autumn of 1945 saw Crowley moving into Netherwood. Since becoming a heroin user, he'd occasionally tried to kick the habit; thus he could regather himself enough to get some degree of new foothold from time to time, and this happened yet again in the forties. It was in the mid forties as well that he acquired a male secretary by the name of Kenneth Grant. He had not the money to pay him and thus Grant's wage was the knowledge provided. Grant went on to become not only a Thelemite and a ceremonial magician, but also the co-founder, along with his wife Steffi, of "the Typhonian Ordo Templi Orientis" (the name was later changed to become "the Typhonian Order"). Grant was not necessarily the model Thelemite, and at one point was ousted from the O.T.O. by Karl Germer--this as it was not appreciated that he was appending his own beliefs to Crowley's philosophies. However, later on he was permitted to return.
Aleister lived out the final days of his life as a man of humble means at Netherwood. During his life he was for the main part publicly despised, and was appreciated by and/or followed by, relatively few. Here are quotes from Ronald Hutton, Martin Booth, Richard Spence, Lawrence Sutin, and Lon Milo Duquette (group quote courtesy of Wikipedia):
"He was 'a self-indulgent and flamboyant young man' who 'set about a deliberate flouting and provocation of social and religious norms,' while being shielded from an 'outraged public opinion' by his inherited wealth. Hutton also described Crowley as having both an 'unappeasable desire' to take control of any organisation that he belonged to, and 'a tendency to quarrel savagely' with those who challenged him. Crowley biographer Martin Booth asserted that Crowley was 'self-confident, brash, eccentric, egotistic, highly intelligent, arrogant, witty, wealthy, and, when it suited him, cruel.' Similarly, Richard Spence noted that Crowley was 'capable of immense physical and emotional cruelty.' Biographer Lawrence Sutin noted that Crowley exhibited 'courage, skill, dauntless energy, and remarkable focus of will' while at the same time showing a 'blind arrogance, petty fits of bile, [and] contempt for the abilities of his fellow men.' The Thelemite Lon Milo DuQuette noted that Crowley 'was by no means perfect' and 'often alienated those who loved him dearest.'"
|The unicursal hexagram, the symbol of Thelema, can be drawn without lifting the pen, thus the name|
After his death though, he became famous, especially amongst darker flavored entertainers, such as Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne. The very mention of his name creates rifts of polarity. To some, he will be regarded as one of the greatest, not only magicians who ever lived, but also one of the greatest authors and greatest men. But some feel that his hedonistic lifestyle, drug abuse, and lack of moral standing (though morality is a false value), provide reason to cast disdain thickly onto the volumes of knowledge and wisdom he imparted and onto the effect inspiration wise that his life posthumously had on so many.
There was a circumstance whereby Crowley ruffled at least a feather or two--he claimed to support Ireland's independence from Great Britain; as well he expressed support for Germany as it fought with Britain. In early 1915, Crowley was taken on as a writer for the paper, "The Fatherland." The paper's propagandized content worked to discourage the United States from taking sides in the clash between Germany and Britain. As Crowley got involved in that capacity, there were many pointing fingers at him--he was considered to have committed treason against Britain. In actuality he was working with British Intelligence; he was a double agent, and was working to discover and sabotage Germany's New York activities on their behalf.
Mid 1915 he stood before the Statue of Liberty and declared independence for Ireland. The escapade was conducted as a publicity stunt, to make Germany activists appear absurd to sympathizers in the United States. Additionally it has been said that Crowley urged the German Navy to annihilate the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which at that time was the world's largest passenger ship. The theory was that he persuaded Germany to believe that doing so would prevent the U.S. from getting involved in the war, but was in fact aware that it would encourage them to enter the war, in support of Britain. Did one man talk the German Navy into sinking the boat though? Or is this just more Crowley was the Devil talk...? I shake my head solemnly.
And in conclusion, this author says--Crowley had a great many things to teach the world, some good, some bad; but what he left behind is pure treasure. The icing on the cake of it all, is that he blessed us with Thelema. For those who choose to examine its philosophies, it's as clear as day to see that Crowley was onto something big, that is still undergoing a process of evolution; and also that he was a truly brilliant man.
Aleister, as already mentioned, was a prolific writer, and amongst his works are the ones found here: List of Aleister Crowley Works (Wikipedia)
and here: Crowley at Dark Books
The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, by A. Crowley
The Beast 666: The Life of Aleister Crowley, by John Symonds
Wikipedia on Crowley
Related Reading on Our Blog:
On Crowley, and the Writing of the Liber AL vel Legis
Crowley :: The Legend and the Lies, Myths Exposed
To Mega Therion
The Virgin & the Whore
The Serpent Gate: To Meta Ophion (a tarot resource)