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Aleister Crowley (Oct. 12, 1875-Dec. 1, 1947) — however one judges him — was a fascinating man who lived an amazing life. He is best known as being an infamous occultist and the scribe of The Book of the Law, which introduced Thelema to the world. Crowley was an influential member in several occult organizations, including the Golden Dawn, the A.'.A.'., and Ordo Templi Orientis. He was a prolific writer and poet, a world traveler, mountaineer, chess master, artist, yogi, social provocateur, drug addict and sexual libertine. The press loved to demonize him and dubbed Crowley “The wickedest man in the world.”
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A brief summary of major events
Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire on October 12, 1875. His parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren, an extremely devout Christian sect. It was in this Christian childhood that he came to refer to himself as The Beast 666. He was also fortunate to be heir to a small brewing fortune, which he largely used for travel and publishing his works over his lifetime.
He entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1895, and left just before finishing his degree. He was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. The next year he purchased Boleskine House at Loch Ness in order to perform the ritual known as the Abra-Melin Operation.
In 1900 Crowley traveled to Mexico where he was initiated as a 33° Mason.
In 1902 he began the practice of yoga in Ceylon with Allan Bennett, an associate from the Golden Dawn. He returned to Boleskine in 1903 and married Edith Rose Kelly, the sister of the painter Sir Gerald Kelly. On their honeymoon, they visited Cairo, Egypt in 1904. It is here that he came to write The Book of the Law on April 8, 9, and 10.
In 1907 Crowley founded the Order he called the A.'.A.'. Two years later, he divorced Rose and traveled to the Sahara Desert with poet Victor Neuberg, where they performed a series of rituals that resulted in the book The Vision and the Voice.
In 1913 Crowley was initiated into Ordo Templi Orientis by Theodor Reuss. The following year Crowley was advanced to the X° and became head of O.T.O. in Great Britain and Ireland. That same year, while on a trip to Moscow, he wrote the Gnostic Mass.
With the beginning of WWI, Crowley retired to America in 1914, where he began editing the publication The International. He returned to Europe in 1919. The next year he founded the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalú, Sicily -- an experimental commune based on the principles of Thelema and inspired by the works of Rabelais. He was expelled from Italy by Mussolini in 1923. During his time at Cefalú, in 1922, Crowley proclaimed himself Outer Head of the Order of O.T.O.
In 1929 Crowley took his second wife, Maria de Miramar — a native of Nicaragua — although she eventually succumbed to mental delusions and died in an institution three decades later.
By 1935, largely because of his lifelong self-publishing efforts and a lost libel suit, Crowley had lost his personal fortune and settled into bankruptcy. For the next decade he kept himself afloat through publishing and occasional help from associates and students. His final years were characterized by poor health and heroin addiction alongside a continued zeal for promulgating Thelema. In 1945, he retired to Netherwood, a boarding house in Hastings, England. On December 1, 1947, at the age of 71, and with his son Ataturk by his bed, Aleister Crowley good-spiritedly and quietly celebrated his Greater Feast. His ashes were later buried next to a tree in Hampton, New Jersey on the property of Karl Germer (Crowley’s successor to OHO).
Prophet of Thelema
Perhaps Crowley's most significant contribution was bringing Thelema into the world with the reception of The Book of the Law on April 8, 9, and 10, 1904. The writing occurred in Cairo, Egypt, where Crowley and his new wife, Rose were honeymooning. On March 16, Crowley had attempted a ritual to show his wife elemental beings called Sylphs. Although she didn't see them, she apparently did begin to channel a series message to Crowley over the next few days regarding Horus and "a child." Crowley is highly skeptical and questions the veracity of the message, finally becoming satisfied when Rose pointed out Horus to him on a funerary tablet in the Bulaq Museum (labeled "Stele 666" and eventually becoming known as the Stele of Revealing). These events culminate in the actual three days of writing, each of which took place at noon in a chamber of their flat which was used as a temple. (See: Reception of Liber Legis)
Initially, Crowley rejected this document. He writes of himself in Magick (p.444):
- [Crowley], to whom this revelation was made with so many signs and wonders, was himself unconvinced. He struggled against it for years. Not until the completion of His own initiation at the end of I909 did he understand how perfectly he was bound to carry out this work. Again and again He turned away from it, took it up for a few days or hours, then laid it aside. He even attempted to destroy its value, to nullify the result.
- I have fought this Book and fled it; I have defiled it and I have suffered for its sake.
Yet, after his acceptance of Liber Legis, Crowley was a tireless advocate of its teachings (as he interpreted them) and labored for the rest of his life to promulgate the Law of Thelema. He founded the A.'.A.'. in 1907 and he adapted the initiations rituals of Ordo Templi Orientis, both of which were largely based on the principles of Thelema. He wrote countless letters, essays, and epistles regarding Thelema, including The Message of the Master Therion (http://www.scarletwoman.org/docs/docs_message.html), De Lege Libellum (http://www.scarletwoman.org/docs/docs_lege.html), and The Law of Liberty (http://www.scarletwoman.org/docs/docs_liberty.html); and he wrote The Gnostic Mass in 1911 based on Liber AL as well.
Crowley was convinced of the objective truth of Liber Legis, and that its speaker, Aiwass, was both his Holy Guardian Angel and in possession of knowledge completely unavailable to Crowley. He writes in Magick: "Man has no such fact recorded, by proof established in surety beyond cavil of critic, as this Book, to witness the existence of and Intelligence praeterhuman and articulate, purposefully interfering in the philosophy, religion, ethics, economics and politics of the Planet." This knowledge, as Crowley understood it, represented the formula of an entire age of mankind, which he referred to as the Aeon of Horus, the Word of which is Thelema, which had been ushered in by himself as its prophet.
Thelemites today hold a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding Crowley's status as prophet. Some view Crowley as he did himself—the literal messenger of a new spiritual Law for mankind. Others believe that "Aiwass" was simply an unconscious (or even fraudulent pseudonym) of Crowley, and that the merit of the Book rests solely on its content without need for objective verification. Yet others disregard Crowley altogether. However, it is reasonable to say that Crowley still plays a very large role in the understanding of Thelema, and his words are constantly used to promulgate its doctrines today.
Mystic & yogi
Golden Dawn, A.'.A.'. and O.T.O.
Crowley's father was Edward Crowley (1834-1887)—a wealthy retired brewer (Crowley Ale) and lay preacher of the Plymouth Brethren sect—and his mother was Emily Bertha Bishop (d.1941). Crowley's paternal grandparents were Edward and Mary Sparrow (m. 1823) who also had uncle Jonathan (m. Agnes Pope), and aunts Mary and Sarah.
On the death of his father, Crowley was sent to live with his maternal uncle, Tom Bishop, who was by all accounts a bully towards young Alexander.
Crowley married twice in his lifetime. The first was to Rose Edith Kelly (July 23, 1874 - 1932). They were married in 1903 and divorced in 1909. Rose is considered to be Crowley's first Scarlet Woman, and aided him in his finding of the Stele of Revealing and the writing of The Book of the Law. His second wife was Maria Teresa de Miramar—born 1894 in Nicaragua. They were married in 1929. They never were divorced, although by 1930 their marriage had collapsed, largely due to Maria's worsening mental condition. She died sometime in the 1960s in the Colney Hatch Mental Hospital in New Southgate (Sutin, p.395).
Crowley had five children in his life:
- Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith (July 1904-Spring 1906)—daughter of Rose Crowley
- Lola Zaza (b.1906)—daughter of Rose Crowley
- Anne Léa "Poupée" (Feb. 1920-Oct. 14, 1920)—daughter of Leah Hirsig
- Astarte Lulu Panthea (b. 1920)—daughter of Ninette Shumway
- Aleister Ataturk (b.1938)—son of Patricia "Deidre" MacAlpine
Crowley was an incredibly prolific writer, having left behind dozens of books, hundreds of essays, a host of rituals and ceremonies, and a countless number of personal letters and daily journal entries. He wrote poems, short stories, magazine articles, novels, criticism, plays, and more.
Some of his best known books are:
- The Book of the Law
- Magick, Book 4
- The Book of Lies
- The Vision and the Voice
- 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings
- Confessions of Aleister Crowley
- The Equinox (a series of publications in book format)
- Magick Without Tears
For a more complete listing of published books, see Works of Aleister Crowley (Books)
Most of Crowley's most influential work was in the form of "Libers" (lit. "books"), which were usually shorter items consisting of core teachings, methodologies, practices, or Thelemic scripture. All the libers are given a number in the Greek numbering system, and those that are part of the A.'.A.'. curriculum are assigned a "class" as follows:
- Class [A] consists of books of which may be changed not so much as the style of a letter: that is, they represent the utterance of an Adept entirely beyond the criticism of even the Visible Head of the Organization.
- Class [B] consists of books or essays which are the result of ordinary scholarship, enlightened and earnest.
- Class [C] consists of matter which is to be regarded rather as suggestive than anything else.
- Class [D] consists of the Official Rituals and Instructions.
- Class [E] consists of manifestos, broadsides, epistles and other public statements. Some publications are composite, and pertain to more than one class.
Many of his Libers appeared in published books, especially editions of The Equinox and The Holy Books of Thelema, although some Libers are books in their own right (such as Magick, which is Liber 4).
For a complete listing of Crowley's Libers, see Works of Aleister Crowley (Libers)
Many of his fiction works, such as the "Simon Iff" detective stories and Moonchild have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. However his work Diary Of A Drug Fiend, while fictional, reflects his views about his own addictions to heroin and cocaine.
Crowley was also a prolific poet.
For more on Crowley's poetry, see Works of Aleister Crowley (Poetry)
Crowley was a gifted, if technically unsophisticated, artist and painter "in what might loosely be called the Expressionist mode" (Sutin, p.5). In 1931, an exhibition of his work was hosted at the Galerie Neumann-Nierendorf in Berlin which served to up his reputation in Germany, but it is not known if he actually sold any paintings.
A modern art show for Crowley's work was put on at the October Gallery in London in April of 1998. The show was facilitated by OHO Hymenaeus Beta and attended by Martin Starr and Kenneth Anger. By all accounts it was well attended and successful in renewing interest in Crowley as a painter.
- "The average man cannot believe that an artist may be as serious and highminded an observer of life as the professed man of science." —Confessions, p.138
- "It is at least the case that I have no use for artists who have lost touch with tradition and see nature secondhand. I think I have kept my head pretty square on my shoulders in the turmoil of the recent revolutions. I find myself able to distinguish between the artist whose eccentricities and heresies interpret his individual peculiarities and the self-advertising quack who tries to be original by outdoing the most outrageous heresiarch of the moment."—Confessions, p.584
- " "Las Meninas" [by Goya] is worshiped in a room consecrated solely to itself, and I spent more of my mornings in that room and let it soak in. I decided then, and might concur still had I not learnt the absurdity of trying to ascribe an order to things which are each unique and absolute, that "Las Meninas" is the greatest picture in the world. It certainly taught me to know the one thing that I care to learn about painting: that the subject of a picture is merely an excuse for arranging forms and colours in such a way as to express the inmost self of the artist." —Confessions, p.585
Crowley was an accomplished mountain climber is his time, and is still mentioned in mountaineering literature (although silly rumors and his reputation in the yellow press are often mentioned). He owed his ability to Oscar Eckenstein, who was not only a highly skilled climber, but also had a great interest in Eastern philosophy (which had a distinct influence on Crowley).
Crowley made some significant climbs, including a 1902 attempt on Chogo Ri (or K2), the second tallest peak in the world. On that climb, the expedition achieved a record: "the greatest number of days spent on a glacier—65 days on the Baltoro" (Equinox of the Gods Ch.1). He also had the record for "the greatest pace uphill over 16,000 feet—4,000 feet in 1 hour 23 minutes on Iztaccihuatl in 1900" (Ibid).
Crowley is also known for his 1905 attempt (and failure) on Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas—a peak that would not be successfully ascended until 1955. On the upward climb, a porter fell to his death in the process of leaving the expedition. More porters accused Crowley of beating them, and a general mutiny began among them and the other core climbers (namely Guillarmod and de Righi), based on Crowley's route (which was later vouched as a good one in 1954), his supposed ill-treatment of the porters, and the bad feelings between him and several of the climbers. Guillarmod took charge, leading the bulk of the men back down. On that descent, a porter's stumble triggered an avalanche that buried four men under ten feet of snow. It took three days of digging to recover their bodies. Crowley, remaining in the higher camp, did not respond to the cries for help when the avalanche began, a fact which later demonized him in mountaineering circles.
Crowley learned to play chess at the age of six and first competed on the Eastbourne College chess team (where he was taking classes in 1892). He showed immediate competence, besting the adult champion in town and even editing a chess column for the local newspaper, the Eastbourne Gazette (Sutin, p.33), which he often used to criticize the Eastbourne team. He later joined the university chess club at Cambridge, where he beat the president in his freshman year and practiced two hours a day towards becoming a champion—"My one serious worldly ambition had been to become the champion of the world at chess" (Confessions, p.193).
However, he gave up his chess aspirations in 1897 when attending a chess conference in Berlin:
- But I had hardly entered the room where the masters were playing when I was seized with what may justly be described as a mystical experience. I seemed to be looking on at the tournament from outside myself. I saw the masters—one, shabby, snuffy and blear-eyed; another, in badly fitting would-be respectable shoddy; a third, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest. These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission. "There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley," I exclaimed to myself with disgust, and there and then I registered a vow never to play another serious game of chess. I perceived with praeternatural lucidity that I had not alighted on this planet with the object of playing chess. (Confessions, Ch.16).
Crowley wrote some brief notes of guidance on the playing chess and gave them, together with a "pocket chess set", to Grady McMurtry. Following the latter's death they were given by the OTO to one of Crowley's grandsons, a son of Aleister Ataturk.
List of Crowley’s Masonic degrees
- 33° of the Scottish Rite in Mexico From Don Jesus Medina.
“Don Jesus Medina, a descendant of the great duke of Armada fame, and one of the highest chiefs of Scottish Rite free-masonry. My cabbalistic knowledge being already profound by current standards, he thought me worthy of the highest initiation in his power to confer; special powers were obtained in view of my limited sojourn, and I was pushed rapidly through and admitted to the thirty-third and last degree before I left the country.” - The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1969), pp. 202-203.
- 3° In France by the Anglo-Saxon Lodge No. 343, a Lodge chartered in 1899 by the Grande Loge de France, a body unrecognised by the United Grand Lodge of England, on 29 June 1904.
- 33° of the irregular 'Cerneau' Scottish Rite From John Yarker
- 90°/95° of the Rite of Memphis/Misraim. From John Yarker.
But as it turns out, The Grand Lodge Of England the official body of Freemasonry did not recognize any of the above bodies as being true Freemasonry. Thus Crowley never was an “official” Freemason and when he understood this he started to change the O.T.O. rituals to remove the Masonic content.
“Crowley quickly realized that the post-Yarker era meant change. He was not rebellious by reflex, at least where old British institutions were concerned. He undoubtedly believed O.T.O. had authority from Yarker to work the Ancient and Primitive Rite's equivalent to the Craft degrees in England, but once made aware of the issue of regularity when having his own French Masonic credentials declined, he was not defiant and on his own made changes to the O.T.O. to avoid conflict. He inserted notices into the last number of The Equinox to the effect that the O.T.O. did not infringe upon the just privileges of the Grand Lodge of England.
During WWI Crowley worked slightly revised English Craft rituals in America, but despite the absence of a central Grand Lodge, he met with objections from masonic authorities. He then rewrote the O.T.O. rituals for I° - III° so that they no longer resembled Craft masonry degrees in language, theme or intent.” - Frater Superior Hymenaeus Beta The Magical Link Vol. IX No. 1
A counter culture icon
Name change, magical mottoes, and pseudonyms
Crowley was born Edward Alexander Crowley, and was nicknamed "Aleck" by his mother. In Confessions (p.139-140), he explains his adoption of "Aleister":
- For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. 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". Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals. The atrocious spelling A-L-E-I-S-T-E-R was suggested as the correct form by Cousin Gregor, who ought to have known better. In any case, A-L-A-I-S-D-A-I-R makes a very bad dactyl. For these reasons I saddled myself with my present nom-de-guerre—I can't say that I feel sure that I facilitated the process of becoming famous. I should doubtless have done so, whatever name I had chosen.
- Perdurabo ("I will endure til the end")—Neophyte
- Parzival —Adeptus Minor
- Ol Sonuf Vaoresaji ("I reign over ye")—Adeptus Major
- Ou Mh (O.M.—" No, definitely no! or Not Yet!")—Adeptus Exemptus
- Vi Veri Vniversum Vivus Vici (V.V.V.V.V.—"By the force of truth, I, while living, have conquered the Universe")—Magister Templi
- To Mega Therion ("The Great Beast")—Magus
- Baphomet as the X° in O.T.O.
- The Beast 666
- Khaled Khan
Pseudonyms and aliases
This is but a short list of his dozens of aliases he used for many magazine and newspaper articles:
- Works of Aleister Crowley
- The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
- Ordo Templi Orientis
- The Gnostic Mass
- Reception of Liber Legis
- A Crowley Timeline (http://www.abrasax.net/timeline.htm)
- Contemporary media accounts and photographic portraits (http://www.lashtal.com/nuke)
- The 93 Current (http://www.93current.de/crowley.shtml)—many links for Crowley resources
- The Aleister Crowley Collection (http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/research/fa/crowley.aleister.html) at the Harry Ransom Center, U.T., in Austin, TX
- Red Flame Desk Reference (http://www.redflame93.com/DeskReference.html)—A complete catalog of Crowley's published works
- Collection of chess columns written by Crowley (http://www.lashtal.com/nuke/modules.php?op=modload&name=Downloads&file=index&req=viewdownload&cid=3)
- Gallery of Crowley's artwork (http://www.aleistercrowleysociety.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=11)
- AC2012 political art / parody to elect Aleister Crowley in 2012 (http://ac2012.com/)
- O.T.O. (2005). Aleister Crowley (http://oto-usa.org/crowley.html)
- Red Flame. (2005). Aleister Crowley Desk Reference (http://www.redflame93.com/DeskReference.html)
- Sutin, Lawrence. (2002). Do What Thou Wilt : A Life of Aleister Crowley. New York : St. Martin's Griffin.
- Crowley, Aleister. (1974). Equinox of the Gods. New York, NY : Gordon Press.
- ____. (1979). The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. London;Boston : Routledge & Kegan Pa
- Hymenaeus Beta. (1998). "Good Show". The Magical Link. New Series #2, Spring-Fall 1998.