Depending on who you ask, someone might either think of Aleister Crowley as being famous or infamous, if they’ve ever even heard of him. This is because, for one thing, he was a poet, a painter, a novelist, a mountaineer, and much more. Of course, the most remarkable thing about Crowley was the fact that he was an incredibly accomplished occultist. Unfortunately, this has led people to accuse him of everything from Devil worship to human sacrifice and more, most of which is patently untrue, of course. With that being said, here’s my personal take on the whole thing. It all began in England when a boy named Edward Alexander Crowley was born on October 12th of 1875. The young lad was raised by very wealthy Plymouth Brethren parents, which deeply impacted his impressionable psychology and overall attitude toward life. This extreme religious indoctrination traumatized Crowley and caused him to become extremely rebellious. As a teenager, he lost his virginity at the age of 15 and became an incredibly hedonistic, bisexual, nymphomaniac in virtually no time at all. His behavior was so bad that his mother took to calling him a beast. She did this so often, that he eventually just came to identify with the “Beast” of The Bible, in the Book of Revelation.
Out of this extreme religious indoctrination also grew a deep-seated need to understand the Western mysteries, which led to increasingly more esoteric thoughts as he got older. So, having adopted the name of Aleister over Edward, in 1895 Crowley began a three-year course at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied philosophy. Then, on New Year’s Eve of 1897, around midnight, Aleister Crowley had an out of body experience, for the very first time in his life. Little did he know that this set the stage for a long, and distinguished, mystical career to follow. He became a highly disciplined occultist, who was absolutely obsessed with ritual sorcery. In line with this, the studious young Aleister Crowley graduated from Cambridge University in 1898, and then promptly devoted his life to poetry and spirituality. As a result of this decision, he became a prominent member of a number of influential secret societies, in 19th, as well as 20th century England, even giving rise to his own lodges and temples, such as Argentium Astrum (A∴A∴), which translates to “Silver Star”.
It really all started when Aleister Crowley became acquainted with a man named George Cecil Jones. George Jones was a chemist by day and an alchemist by night. More to the point, George Jones brought Crowley into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which would turn out to be the most important secret society of the 19th century. The three founders of that esoteric organization were Freemasons, the most influential of which was Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. More to the point, this is when Crowley’s life as an occultist really began. Aleister Crowley was initiated into the Order by S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife Moina, on November 18th of 1898. There in the Isis-Urania Temple, he became Frater “Perdurabo”, meaning “I will endure”, which in many ways he has.
Following this, Aleister Crowley got to know some rather remarkable people, like Bram Stoker, Helena Blavatsky, and Arthur Edward Waite, to name but a few. Then, working alongside great minds like those, he quickly developed into a highly influential occultist, in his own right. Crowley rose through the ranks in record time, which gave him some rather unwanted attention from their leader, Master Mason Mathers. A year before Aleister Crowley joined the Golden Dawn, Samuel Mathers had translated The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, and he was worried that Aleister might misuse the teachings if he advanced too quickly. After all, the text contains information that can be used to perform an incredibly powerful theurgic ritual, which allows someone to attain the Knowledge and Conversation of their Holy Guardian Angel.
Sure enough, just as Mathers had warned, at the end of the 19th century, Crowley enlisted the help of the occultist Charles Henry “Allan” Bennett, to help him perform forbidden rites. Plus, before the start of the 20th century, Aleister Crowley had already begun to be investigated for homosexuality, which was considered quite criminal all through the Victorian Era. It was becoming rather obvious that Aleister and Allan were deeply devoted to each other, as well as the occult, which was still all considered very taboo in England, at that time. Still, eventually, Aleister Crowley became Allan Bennett’s generous patron, for private esoteric tutoring. As was to be expected, when Allan mentored Aleister in Western mysticism, they both ended up learning a great deal from each other. In the end, Bennett finally just wanted to become a Buddhist Monk. He desperately wanted to go to Salon, India, to study Eastern mysticism.
Crowley summoned forth a demonic presence from The Lesser Key of Solomon to bring him a great fortune, in the form of cold hard cash. Then, just as he had confidently expected, without knowing what would happen, just that it would, a letter arrived in the mail from India. A former mistress of his had invited him to come to visit her. Once there Crowley was told that he could have whatever he wanted from her, so the astute sorcerer simply demanded what he needed to pay for Allan to come to study Buddhism. Then, a little while later, after returning home to the British Isles from the Indian Subcontinent, Aleister inherited his father’s estate. He used that money to buy a country house to convert into a temple, in order to contact his Holy Guardian Angel, which is what the Order would call his “Genius”. By 1899, Aleister Crowley had moved to the Boleskine House in the Scottish Highlands on Loch Ness, to do just that.
A few weeks into the ceremonial operation, which would have taken half a year to complete, Crowley was interrupted by the news that he was not going to be admitted to the next rank in the Order. So, Aleister Crowley promptly left the Boleskine House, to confront Samuel Mathers, face-to-face. This was a very unwise thing for him to have done, from a magickal point of view. Regardless, in the end, Aleister Crowley just bribed his way closer to the top. Perdurabo became an Adeptus Minor within the Golden Dawn, but in a strange twist, the members rejected him. Among the dissenters was none other than William Yeats, who was very outspoken against Aleister Crowley. So, in retaliation, Mathers and Crowley had to team up to thwart the coup. Crowley convinced the landlord of the temple that it was his and then had all the locks changed. Then, when the next meeting came, everyone had to swear allegiance or be demoted in the Order. However, having nothing to do with it, Yeats called the authorities, and a constable came to set things right.
Aleister Crowley was cast out of the Golden Dawn, which in many ways was doomed to fail without him. So, Crowley went to Salon, to visit Allan Bennett, who had become a Buddhist Monk named Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya. He taught Crowley everything he knew about yoga and other aspects of Eastern mysticism. Then, they parted ways, yet again. The monk went to Burma, while the magus wandered around India. Then, Crowley was eventually compelled to go to France, to track down an old friend. In 1902, Aleister Crowley went to Paris, to visit a man named Gerald Kelly. There, he became enamored with Gerald’s sister, Rose. It was love at first sight, and they were married within days of the encounter.
In 1904, Crowley was called to Cairo, that is to say, he intuitively felt compelled to go to Egypt. There, Aleister and Rose began preparing to do a number of ceremonies, in honor of the old pantheon of ancient Egypt. On April 8th, Aleister Crowley heard a disembodied voice named “Aiwass”. This was thought to be his Holy Guardian Angel, seeking to bestow spiritual wisdom upon him. As such, Crowley wrote down everything that the Messenger of Horus said, verbatim, over the course of the next three days. This would go on to become The Book of the Law, which now serves as the basis of the religion of Thelema. Aleister Crowley became absolutely obsessed with Aiwass, so much so, in fact, that the obsession caused him to lose his family.
In 1905 Jules Jacot-Guillard proposed his plans for a Kanchenjunga expedition to Aleister Crowley, with whom he had participated in Oscar Eckenstein’s K2 expedition in 1902. Crowley agreed to do so, but only on the condition that he would be the sole leader of the mountain climb, thus giving him the opportunity to break the altitude record. Jacot-Guillarmod recruited two of his countrymen, Alexis Pache and Charles-Adolphe Reymond, while Crowley recruited his hotel-keeper as a transport officer. During the expedition, Crowley’s arrogant behavior and brutal treatment of the porters upset the others. So, the next day, Jacot-Guillarmod and De Righi attempted to depose him from expedition leadership. However, the enraged sorcerer ended up cursing the men. Then, when they tried to retreat down the mountain, a fall precipitated an avalanche that killed Alexis Pache and three of the porters. The next day Crowley passed the site of the accident without uttering a single word to the survivors. He simply left on his own to Darjeeling, taking the expedition funds with him.
Having become the “Prophet of the Æon of Horus”, Aleister Crowley teamed up with George Cecil Jones in 1907, to put together a new kind of mystical organization. This was, and still is, an amazing group of people, who are dedicated to the advancement of humanity, through the perfection of individuals on every plane of existence, in a graded series of initiations. Their highly syncretic approach incorporates a number of different techniques, such as Vedantic Yoga, Qabalistic Sephirot, Scientific Illuminism, etc… It’s all part of the religion of Thelema, which is guided by advanced esoteric books like The Equinox, The Book of the Law, and Magick: Book 4, the latter of which has always been my personal favorite.
During this time, Aleister Crowley met a man named Victor Neuburg. He soon became his sexual partner and closest disciple. The following year, they toured northern Spain together, before heading to Tangier, Morocco. Then, in November 1909, Crowley and Neuburg traveled to Algeria, touring the desert, as Aleister recited the Qur’an, each day. They also delved into a number of Enochian ceremonies, which were developed by John Dee and Edward Kelley in the 16th century. Then, one day, after some sadomasochistic, mountaintop, sex magick, Crowley went on to perform an incredibly risky invocation of Choronzon, the “Demon of Dispersion”. This put Crowley’s immortal soul in grave danger. As part of a ritual sacrifice, during the ceremony, three pigeons had their throats cut, and their bodies were placed at the corners of a magick triangle, inscribed in the desert sand. Crowley then went on to leave the safety of the magick circle. He entered the triangle with the “Dweller in the Abyss”, which serves as the last great obstacle between an adept and enlightenment. Ultimately though, the possession became too overwhelming, and Crowley was forced to banish the vicious specter. Lucky for Crowley he was already a bit insane, so the madness of that monster didn’t render him certifiable.
In 1912, the German occultist Theodor Reuss ran the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and he accused Crowley of publishing some of the secrets of the Order in The Book of Lies. Nonetheless, Aleister Crowley became a member and rose all the way to the ninth degree, in record time, like he always did. At this point, Crowley took on the title Magus “Baphomet”. This was done, in part, to honor his past life as Eliphas Levi, who drew the classic occult illustration that has become an iconic image. More importantly, Aleister Crowley became highly significant in the O.T.O., completely taking over the organization, all the way up to the international level. In fact, the Gnostic Mass that he wrote is still being performed, once every week, by members around the world, to this very day. According to the tradition, that Crowley started all those years ago, the altar must face the direction of Boleskine, and the ritual is only supposed to be performed by a celibate priest or priestess of the Order.
In 1920, Aleister Crowley and Leah Hirsig founded the Abbey of Thelema as a commune temple in Cefalu, Sicily, Italy. It was meant to be a school of magick, designated the “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum”. The general program included a daily adoration to the Sun, a study of Crowley’s writings, regular yoga, ritual ceremonies, and general domestic labor. Crowley had planned to transform the small house into a global center of Thelemic devotion and to gain tuition fees paid by acolytes seeking training, but that never really happened. In 1923, an Oxford undergraduate named Raoul Loveday died at the Abbey, after consuming untreated mountain spring water, followed by copious amounts of cat blood from a sacrifice. This story quickly hit the tabloids and then Benito Mussolini expelled Aleister Crowley from the country. After Crowley’s departure, the Abbey of Thelema was eventually abandoned and local residents whitewashed over Crowley’s murals.
Unlike most magi, Aleister Crowley was rather exceptional, in a number of different ways. For one thing, he was able to affect the world around him by means of instantaneous magick. In contrast to this, most spells take a long time to manifest, so they are usually cast with the assumption that the results might not happen right away. However, with enough practice, a highly proficient magus can make something happen as soon as a spell is cast. For instance, one day in the 1920s, Aleister Crowley was in New York with William Seabrook. They were discussing esoteric philosophy when Seabrook began to express a great deal of doubt about magick, which Crowley spelled with a “k” to distinguish it from stage magic. So, in a demonstration of his profound thaumaturgical abilities, Aleister Crowley pointed to a man walking down the street in front of them. Crowley then began to mimic the way the man was walking, and suddenly dropped down to his knees and stood back up. No sooner than he did, the man in front of them fell down, right before their eyes. William was instantly convinced of the Master Therion’s power to such an extent that the story has become legendary.
In 1924, while in Paris, Aleister Crowley underwent the “Supreme Ordeal”, which transformed him from a Magus to an Ipsissimus. Crowley’s theurgic ritual was performed with a number of assistants, whose job it was to provide him with sexual stimulation, once he had become properly intoxicated. As part of this, it is required that the candidate achieve peak sexual release, at a critical moment, leading to complete exhaustion from the evocation of divine will. Following this fully heightened mystical experience, an Ipsissimus becomes his or her truest self. The word is difficult to translate directly from Latin to English, but it’s basically the superlative of “self”, meaning “His most Selfness”. Furthermore, moving up from grade 9 to 10 within the Silver Star, corresponds to an ascension to Kether on the Tree of Life, when “Wisdom” leads to the “Crown”. As one might suspect, there are many things that need to be done to achieve this. As an example, in Liber B vel Magi a Magus seeking further progress is urged to identify the Buddhist Three Characteristics with the opposite states. The thing is that, quite hypocritically, having reaped the rewards of the title himself, Crowley decreed something different for others.
An Ipsissimus is meant to keep the achievement of the final grade secret, even from the rest of the Order. This means that they are to continue with the work of the Magus, all the while expressing the nature of an Ipsissimus in word and deed. Building up to this on his own, Aleister Crowley created Tarot cards along the way. The Deck of Thoth is a divinatory set of cards that was painted by Lady Frieda Harris according to specific instructions from Aleister Crowley, between 1938 and 1943. The complex esoteric illustrations feature symbolism based on Thelemic incorporation of imagery from many disparate disciplines, including science and philosophy and various occult systems, as described in detail in his The Book of Thoth from 1944. As a cartomancer myself, I always use the Deck of Thoth and refer to The Book of Thoth when doing a reading. In it, Crowley renamed several of the Major Arcana trumps as compared to the Rider-Waite Tarot, and he also re-arranged the astrological and Hebrew alphabet correspondences of some of the cards, in accordance with The Book of the Law.
This was also around the time that Aleister Crowley met Jack Parsons. In 1939 Parsons went to the Church of Thelema on Winona Boulevard, in Hollywood, and witnessed a ceremonial performance of the Gnostic Mass. Shortly thereafter Parsons came to strongly believe in the divinity of Crowley and the power of his magick. Moreover, Parsons felt that it was a force that could be explained by quantum mechanics. In many ways, Jack was yet another chemist by day and an alchemist by night. Parsons even went so far as to recite the “Hymn to Pan” prior to every test launch of a new rocket, on the cutting edge of space exploration. He made absolutely no distinction between being a scientist and an occultist, and this infuriated the academic community. Two years before JPL emerged out of Jack Parsons’ Suicide Squad, he and his wife Helen Northrup joined the Agape lodge, which was the Californian branch of the Thelemite O.T.O. Then, at Aleister Crowley’s bidding, Jack Parsons replaced Wilfred Talbot Smith as its leader in 1942. Then, Parsons ran the lodge from his mansion on Orange Grove Avenue, otherwise known as the “Parsonage” in Pasadena.
Of course, the thing is that not even an Ipsissimus can ward off death. So, as the end of his life drew near, in 1944, Aleister Crowley moved to Hastings in Sussex, where he took up residence at the Netherwood boarding house. There, he hired Kenneth Grant to do Israel Regardie’s old job, paying him the same way, with knowledge rather than money, to be a personal secretary. Then, he appointed John Symonds as his literary executor. Shortly thereafter, Aleister Crowley became acquainted with Gerald Gardner, who would go on to found the Wiccan religion, thus reviving witchcraft in England. Prior to achieving that enormous feat, Crowley had also authorized Gardner to revive the O.T.O., which was remodeled after the A∴A∴. So, with everything in place, having known his time was up, on December 1st of 1947, Crowley finally passed away. At his funeral, Louis Wilkinson read excerpts from the Gnostic Mass, The Book of the Law and “Hymn to Pan”. Crowley’s ashes were then sent to Karl Germer, who buried them in a garden, in Hampton, New Jersey. Ultimately, Aleister Crowley died a poverty-stricken heroin addict. Worse than that, his fellow O.T.O. members created religions that far surpassed his own. Wicca and Scientology both have way more adherents than Thelema, but Crowley still successfully founded his own religion. So, although he may be dead and gone, Aleister Crowley will not be forgotten.