Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was an English magician and occultist. Aleister Crowley was adept at dealing with spirits, including powerful Demons. Flamboyant and controversial, he practiced outrageous magic of sex, drugs, and sacrifice, yet made significant contributions to magic.
He was born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. His father was a wealthy brewer and a “Darbyite” preacher, a member of a fundamentalist sect known as the Plymouth Brethren or Exclusive Brethren. Crowley’s parents raised him in an atmosphere of repression and religious bigotry. He rebelled to such an extent that his mother called him “the Beast” after the Antichrist, a name he delighted in using later in life, calling himself “the Beast of the Apocalypse.”
Crowley was drawn to the occult and was fascinated by Blood, torture, and sexual degradation; he liked to fantasize being degraded by a “Scarlet Woman.” He combined these interests in a lifestyle that shocked others and reveled in the attention he drew. He was in his teens when he adopted the name Aleister. In 1887, Crowley’s father died and he was sent to a Darbyite school in Cambridge. His unhappy experiences there at the hands of a cruel headmaster made him hate the Darbyites.
Crowley studied for three years at Trinity College at Cambridge but never earned a degree. He wrote poetry, engaged in an active bisexual sex life, and pursued his occult studies—the Great Work—the latter of which was inspired by The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts by Arthur Edward Waite and The Cloud upon the Sanctuary by Carl von Eckartshausen. In his first volume of poetry, published in 1898, Crowley foreshadowed his occult excesses with his statement that God and Satan had fought many hours over his soul. He wrote, “God conquered— now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”
Crowley was in his third year at Trinity when he formally dedicated himself to magick, which he spelled with a k to “distinguish the science of the Magi from all its counterfeits.” He also pledged to “rehabilitate” it. He saw magic as the way of life, a path of self-mastery achieved with rigorous discipline of the will illumined by imagination.
After leaving Trinity, Crowley took a flat in Chancery Lane, London. He named himself Count Vladimir and pursued his occult activities full-time. Stories of bizarre incidents circulated, perhaps fueled in part by Crowley’s mesmerizing eyes and aura of supernatural power. A ghostly light reportedly surrounded him, which he said was his astral spirit. One of his flat neighbors claimed to be hurled downstairs by a malevolent force, and visitors said they experienced dizzy spells while climbing the stairs or felt an overwhelming evil presence. In 1898, Crowley went to Zermatt, Switzerland, for mountain climbing. He met Julian Baker, an English occultist, who in turn introduced Crowley back in London to George Cecil Jones, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At Jones’ invitation, Crowley was initiated into the order on November 18, 1898. He took the magical motto Frater Perdurabo (I will persevere). He used other names, among them Mega Therion (the Great Wild Beast), which he used when he later attained the rank of Magus.
Crowley was already skilled in magic when he joined the Golden Dawn, and its First Order bored him. He received instruction from Allan Bennett, whom he met in 1899, and Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn. Mathers taught Crowley Abremalin magic from an old manuscript, The Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage, which Mathers had translated. Mathers believed the manuscript was bewitched and inhabited by an entity. The magic prescribed a rigorous six-month program conducted in complete withdrawal from the world, after which the initiate would make talismans that would draw money, great sexual allure, and an army of phantom soldiers to serve at his disposal. Crowley intended to undergo this rite beginning at Easter 1900 at Boleskin Manor, his house in Scotland. His plans were disrupted by internal fighting in the Golden Dawn that led to Crowley’s expulsion from the order in 1900. He retaliated by publishing secret ritual material.
From 1900 to 1903, Crowley traveled extensively, visiting the Far East and delving deeper into Eastern mysticism.
In 1903, he married Rose Kelly, the first of his two wives. Kelly bore him one child, a daughter, Lola Zaza. Their honeymoon lasted several months. In 1904, they were in Cairo, where Crowley was attempting to conjure sylphs, the elementals of the air. While in Egypt, Crowley engaged in his most significant entity contact, with Aiwass, described later. The contact influenced his life and work, to usher in the Aeon of Horus.
Crowley had a prodigious sexual appetite and had numerous mistresses, some of whom he called “Scarlet Women” and some of whom bore him illegitimate children. He was fond of giving his women “Serpent Kisses,” using his sharpened teeth to draw blood. He branded some of his women and eventually abandoned all of them to drugs, alcohol, or the streets. Crowley tried unsuccessfully to beget a “magical child.” He fictionalized these efforts in his novel Moonchild (1929).
Rose descended into alcoholism, and in 1909 she divorced Crowley on grounds of adultery. From late 1914 to 1919, Crowley lived in the United States, where he was unsuccessful in rousing much interest in his message about the Aeon of Horus. He kept a record of his sexual activities, which he titled Rex de Arte Regia (The King of the Royal Art). Many of the prostitutes he hired had no idea that he was actually involving them in sex magic. He and his Scarlet Woman of the moment, Roddie Minor, performed sex magic and drug rituals—by then he was addicted to heroin—for the purpose of communicating with an entity, perhaps a Demon, whom Crowley called “the wizard Amalantrah,” who existed on the astral plane.
In 1916, Crowley initiated himself into the rank of Magus in a bizarre black magic rite in which he crucified a frog.
In 1918, Crowley met Leah Hirsig, a New York schoolteacher, who became his most famous Scarlet Woman. He called her “the Ape of Thoth.” They decided to found the Abbey of Thelema, a monastic community of men and women who would promulgate The Book of the Law, perform magic, and be sexually free.
In 1920, Crowley found an old abbey in Cefalu, Sicily, which he took over and renamed the Sacred Abbey of the Thelemic Mysteries. It served as the site for numerous sexual orgies and magical rites, many attended by his illegitimate children. Leah bore a daughter, Anne Leah, who died in childhood. In 1921, Crowley decided that he had attained the magical rank of Ipsissimus, equal to God. But in 1923, he was forced out of the abbey after a scandal involving the death of a follower, Raoul Loveday.
In 1929, Crowley married his second wife, Maria Ferrari de Miramar, in Leipzig. Her reputed magical powers led him to name her the “High Priestess of Voodoo.” They separated in less than a year when Crowley took up with a 19-year-old woman. Maria entered a mental institution, enabling Crowley to divorce her.
Crowley’s later years were plagued by poor health, drug addiction, and financial trouble. He kept himself barely afloat by publishing nonfiction and fiction writings. In 1934, desperate for money, Crowley sued the sculptress Nina Hammett for libel. Hammett had stated in her biography, Laughing Torso (1932), that Crowley practiced black magic and indulged in human sacrifice. The English judge, jury, spectators and press were repulsed by the testimony in the trial. The judge stated he had “never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff.” The jury stopped the trial and found in favor of Hammett.
In 1945, Crowley moved to Netherwood, a boarding house in Hastings, where he lived the last two years of his life, asthmatic, dissipated, and bored, consuming large amounts of heroin. He died of cardiac degeneration and severe bronchitis on December 1, 1947. He was cremated in Brighton. At his funeral, a Gnostic Mass was performed and his “Hymn to Pan” was read. His ashes were sent to followers in the United States.
Numerous editions and collections of Crowley’s writings have been published. Besides The Book of the Law, his other most notable work is Magick in Theory and Practice (1929), considered by many occultists to be a superb work on ceremonial magic. The Equinox of the Gods (1937) reflects The Book of the Law. The Book of Lies features 91 sermons and commentaries on each. The Book of Thoth (1944) presents his interpretation of the Tarot. The Thoth Tarot deck, inspired by Crowley, is one of the more popular decks in modern use.
Crowley’s work continues to inspire people, and Thelemic organizations exist around the world. He has inspired artists in various fields. Posthumously, Crowley has perhaps gained more fame and credibility than he had during his life. He remains controversial to the extreme, vilified as a “satanic occultist” and praised as a brilliant magician.
On March 18, 1904, Rose suddenly began trance channeling, receiving communications from the astral plane that the Egyptian god Horus was waiting for Crowley. The communicating messenger, Aiwass, was an imposing entity described by Rose as an emissary for the Egyptian trinity of Horus, Osiris, and Isis.
Crowley considered Aiwass to be his Holy Guardian Angel, or divine Higher Self, acting as intermediary for higher beings such as the Secret Chiefs, superhuman adepts of the Golden Dawn. Occultists have debated whether Aiwass was an entity in its own right, or part of Crowley himself. For Crowley, the Holy Guardian Angel was a discrete entity and not a dissociated part of his own personality. Crowley originally spelled the entity’s name Aiwaz, then later changed the spelling to Aiwass for numerological reasons. Crowley envisioned Aiwass as a male entity, and one distinctly different and more unfathomable than other entities he had encountered. Answers to questions posed by Crowley indicated that Aiwass was . . . a Being whose mind was so different from mine that we failed to converse. All my wife obtained from Him was to command me to do things magically absurd. He would not play my game: I must play His. On April 7, 1904, Aiwass commanded that the drawing room of the Cairo apartment leased by the Crowleys had to be turned into a temple. Aiwass ordered Crowley to enter the temple precisely at noon on the next three days, and to write down exactly what he heard for precisely one hour.
Crowley followed the instructions. Inside the “temple,” he sat alone at a table facing the southern wall. From behind him he heard the voice of Aiwass, which Crowley described as “a rich tenor or baritone . . . deep timbre, musical and expressive, its tones solemn, voluptuous, tender, fierce, or aught else as suited the moods of the message.” The voice was “the Speech in the Silence,” he said. Later he called Aiwass “the minister of Hoor-PaarKraat,” or “the Lord of Silence,” an aspect of Horus that was the equivalent of the Greek Harpocrates. During the dictation, Crowley did not see a visual apparition of Aiwass, though he did have a mental impression of the entity. Aiwass had . . . a body of “fine matter” or astral matter, transparent as a veil of gauze or a cloud of incense-smoke. He seemed to be a tall, dark man in his thirties, well-knit, active and strong, with the face of a savage king, and eyes veiled lest their gaze should destroy what they saw. Further, Aiwass seemed dressed in the garb of an Assyrian or Persian.
Crowley took Aiwass’ dictation for three hours on April 8–10, scribbling in longhand to keep pace with the voice. The sessions lasted exactly one hour each. The 65 pages of handwritten material composed the Liber Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley saw as the herald of the New Aeon or a new religion. Each chapter carried the voice of an Egyptian deity: Nut, the goddess of the heavens, and two aspects of Horus, Ha-Kadit, a solar aspect, and Ra-Hoor-Kuit, or “Horus of the Two Horizons.” For years, Crowley remained in awe of Aiwass. In The Equinox of the Gods, he acknowledged that he never fully understood the nature of Aiwass. He alternately called the entity “a God or Demon or Devil,” a praeterhuman intelligence, a minister or messenger of other gods, his own Guardian Angel, and his own subconscious (the last he rejected in favor of the Holy Guardian Angel). Crowley also said he was permitted from time to time to see Aiwass in a physical appearance, inhabiting a human body, as much a material man as Crowley was himself. C. S. Jones, who ran the Vancouver, British Columbia, lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, said he underwent a series of magical initiations that revealed to him that Aiwass was in truth an evil Demon and the enemy of humanity. Others considered Jones to have become mad.
The Book of the Law became Crowley’s most important work. Central to it is the Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” The law has been misinterpreted to mean doing as one pleases. According to Crowley, it means that one does what one must and nothing else. Perfect magic is the complete and total alignment of the will with universal will, or cosmic forces. When one surrenders to that alignment, one becomes a perfect channel for the flow of cosmic forces. Besides the Law of Thelema, the book holds that every person is sovereign and shall be self-fulfilled in the Aeon. “Every man and every woman is a star,” it states. However, the Aeon of Horus would be preceded by an era of great violence, aggression, and fire. Aiwass told Crowley that he had been selected by the “Secret Chiefs,” the master adepts behind the Golden Dawn, to be the prophet for the coming Aeon of Horus, the third great age of humanity. Crowley genuinely believed that the Aeon of Horus would spread around the world as a new religion—Crowleyanity—and replace all other religions. The Book of the Law remained a focus of Crowley’s life for the rest of his years.
Crowley insisted that he never understood all of what was dictated. However, the style is comparable to that of some of his other writings, suggesting that the material may have originated in his subconscious. The promised self-fulfillment seemed to elude him. Throughout his life, Crowley believed he had the ability to manifest whatever he desired, including large sums of money, but after squandering his inheritance he was never able to do so.
After returning home to Scotland, Crowley informed the Golden Dawn that he was its new head, but he received no reply. He then determined that Mathers had launched a psychic attack against him, and he responded by summoning Beelzebub and his Demons to attack in retaliation.
Mathers had prepared himself for six months with magical procedures and rites in order to create a vampiric thought-form Demon by channeling the power of Mars, the planet of war and aggression. Mathers entered a trance state and concentrated his will into the psychic vampire, which rose up from his solar plexus. He ordered it to attack Crowley. However, he committed a grievous error in doing the sending himself. In magic, apprentices are often used to do the sending, for if anything goes amiss and the magic boomerangs back, it will be the apprentice who suffers and not the master magician. Crowley, who was of superior magical skill, took the thought-form, made it nastier, and sent it back to attack Mathers. This warfare supposedly went on for years and was chronicled by journalists around the world. Mathers’ health declined as the attacks continued. When Mathers died in 1918, his widow, Moina, blamed his death on Crowley’s psychic vampirism. Prior to his death, Mathers once described the awful nature of the thought-form vampire Demon: Only the upper portions of its body were visible when it would appear. Obviously female, it had narrow breasts protruding through some kind of dark raiment. Below the waist nothing existed. The curious eyes were deepsocketed, and glowed faintly with an intense coralcolored luminosity. The head was flat, set low between white, blubbery shoulders, as though it were cut off just below those fearful “eyes.” Like tiny useless flippers, the arms seemed almost vestigial. They were like unformed limbs, still in the foetal stage.
But the thing didn’t need arms. Its terrifying weapon was an extraordinarily long, coated gray tongue. Tubelike and hollow, it bore a small orbicular hole at its tip, and that lascivious tongue kept darting snake-like in and out of a circular, lipless mouth. Always trying to catch me off guard it would suddenly strike at me, like a greedy missile, attempting to suck out my auric vitality. Perhaps the being’s most terrifying feature was its absolutely loathsome habit of trying to cuddle up like a purring cat, rubbing its half-materialized form against me, all the while alert, hoping to find a gap in my defenses. And when it was sometimes successful—I was not always prepared nor strong enough to maintain the magical barriers—it would pierce my aura with that wicked tongue right down to my naked skin, causing a most painful sensation. This was followed by a total enervation of my body and spirit for a week or more. A listless, dread experience.
Individuals who knew Crowley believed him to be quite capable of creating such a Demon.
In 1909, after his divorce from Rose, Crowley began a homosexual relationship with the poet Victor Neuberg, who became his assistant in magic. Their most famous workings together took place in 1909 in the desert south of Algiers, when they performed a harrowing conjuration of the Demonic Dweller of the Abyss, CHORONZON. Crowley was inspired to incorporate sex into the ritual, and he became convinced of the power of sex magic. By 1912, he was involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis sex magic occult order, and in 1922 he was invited to head the organization in Britain. He took the magical name BAPHOMET.
In 1918, the same year that Mathers died, Crowley conducted a sex magic ritual called the Almalantrah, with Roddie Minor, known as Soror Ahitha. The working created a portal in the spaces between stars, through which the entity Lam was able to enter the known physical universe. Since then, other entities are believed to enter through this widening portal, and to be the basis for numerous contact experiences with UFOs and extraterrestrials.
One of the revelations of the working was the symbolism of the egg. Crowley and Soror Ahitha were told, “It’s all in the egg.”
Crowley believed Lam to be the soul of a dead Tibetan lama from Leng, between China and Tibet. Lam is Tibetan for “Way” or “Path,” which Crowley said had the numerical value of 71, or “No Thing,” a gateway to the Void and a link between the star systems of Sirius and Andromeda. Lam was to fulfill the work initiated by Aiwass. Crowley drew a portrait of Lam and said that gazing on the portrait enables one to make contact with the entity. Some consider Lam to be a Demon and the portal to be one accessed by other Demons.
See Black Mass; Six-six-six.
- Crowley, Aleister. The Holy Books of Thelema. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser, 1983.
- ———. Magic in Theory and Practice. 1929. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1976.
- Hillyer, Vincent. Vampires. Los Banos, Calif.: Loose Change, 1988.
- King, Francis. Megatherion: The Magickal World of Aleister Crowley. London: Creation Books, 2004.
- Michaelsen, Scott, ed. Portable Darkness: An Aleister Crowley Reader. New York: Harmony Books, 1989.
- Stephenson, P. R., and Regardie, Israel. The Legend of Aleister Crowley. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1970.
- Sutin, Lawrence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.
- Symonds, John, and Kenneth Grant, eds. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, an Autobiography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
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