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Aleister Crowley

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Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12th 1875, dead on December 1st 1947) was an occultist, Freemason, prolific writer, mystic, hedonist, and sexual revolutionary. Other interests and accomplishments were wide-ranging;he was a chess master, mountain climber, poet, painter]], astrologer, drug experimenter, and social critic. He is perhaps best known today for his occult writings, especially The Book of the Law, the central sacred text of Thelema. Crowley was also an influential member in several occult organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the A∴A∴, and Ordo Templi Orientis. Crowley gained much notoriety during his lifetime, and was famously, although dubbed "The Wickedest Man In the World."

Contents

Early years

Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, between 11:00pm and midnight on October 12th 1875. His father, Edward Crowley, once maintained a lucrative family brewery business and was retired when Aleister Crowley was born. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop, drew roots from a Devon and Somerset family. Both of his parents were Darbyites, members of the most extreme wing of the Protestant sect known as the Exclusive Brethren. He grew up in a staunch Plymouth Brethren household. His father, after retiring from his daily duties as a brewer, took up the practice of preaching at a fanatical pace. Daily Bible studies and private tutoring were mainstays in "Alick's" childhood; however, after his father's death, his mother's efforts at indoctrinating her son in the Christian faith only served to provoke his skepticism. As a child, his constant rebellious behaviour displeased his devout mother to such an extent she would chastise him by calling him "The Beast" (from the Book of Revelation), an epithet that Crowley would later happily adopt for himself. He objected to the labelling of what he saw as life's most worthwhile and enjoyable activities as "sinful". In 1895, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and originally had the intention of reading Moral Sciences (philosophy, psychology, and economics), but with approval from his personal tutor, he switched to English literature, which was not then a part of the curriculum offered (“A Magickal Life”, Booth, Martin, ISBN 0340718064). His three years at Cambridge were happy ones, due in part to coming into the considerable fortune left by his father. Throughout this period, he maintained a vigorous sex life, which was largely conducted with prostitutes and girls he picked up at local pubs and cigar shops, but eventually extended into homosexual activities in which he played a passive role (“Magical World of AC”, King, Francis, page 5). In December of 1896, following an event that he describes in veiled terms, Crowley decided to pursue a path in occultism and mysticism. By the next year, he began reading books by alchemists and mystics, and books on magic. Biographer Sutin describes the pivotal New Year's event as a homo-erotic experience (Crowley's first) that brought him what he considered "an encounter with an immanent deity" (Sutin, p. 38). During the year of 1897, Aleister further came to see worldly pursuits as useless. The section on chess describes one experience that helped him reach this conclusion. A few months later, in October, a brief illness triggered considerations of mortality and "the futility of all human endeavor", or at least of the diplomatic career that Crowley had previously considered. A year later, he published his first book of poetry (Aceldama), and left Cambridge, only to meet Julian L. Baker (Frater D. A.) who introduced him to Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn.

The Golden Dawn

Involved as a young adult in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he first studied mysticism with and made enemies of William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite. Like many in occult circles of the time, Crowley voiced the view that Waite was a pretentious bore through searing critiques of Waite's writings and editorials of other authors' writings.

His friend and former Golden Dawn associate, Allan Bennett, introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism, while Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers acting leader of the Golden Dawn organization, acted as his early mentor in western magick but would later become his enemy. Several decades after Crowley's participation in the Golden Dawn, Mathers claimed copyright protection over a particular ritual and sued Crowley for infringement after Crowley's public display of the ritual. While the public trial continued, both Mathers and Crowley claimed to call forth armies of demons and angels to fight on behalf of their summoner. Both also developed and carried complex Seal of Solomon amulets and talismans.

In a book of fiction, entitled Moonchild, Crowley later portrayed Mathers as the primary villain, including him as a character named SRMD, using the abbreviation of Mathers' magical name. Arthur Edward Waite also appeared in Moonchild as a villain named Arthwaite, while Bennett appeared in Moonchild as the main character's wise mentor, Simon Iff.

Crowley, in magical garb, displaying the "horns of Pan"

While he did not officially break with Mathers until 1904, Crowley lost faith in this teacher's abilities soon after the 1900 schism in the Golden Dawn (if not before). Later that year, Crowley travelled to Mexico and continued his magical studies in isolation. AC's writings suggest that he discovered the word Abrahadabra during this time.

In October of 1901, after practising Raja Yoga for some time, he said he had reached a state he called dhyana — one of many states of unification in thoughts that are described in Magick (Liber ABA). 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magick as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing ones thoughts to a given object through ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Matter, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings.

1904 and after

He said that a mystical experience in 1904, while on vacation in Cairo, Egypt, led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema. Aleister's wife Rose started to behave in an odd way, and this led him to think that some entity had made contact with her. At her instructions, he performed an invocation of the Egyptian god Horus on March 20 with (he wrote) "great success". According to Crowley, the god told him that a new magical Aeon had begun, and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. Rose continued to give information, telling Crowley in detailed terms to await a further revelation. On April the 8th and for the following two days at exactly noon he heard a voice, dictating the words of the text, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley wrote down. The voice claimed to be that of Aiwass (or Aiwaz) "the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat," or Horus, the god of force and fire, child of Isis and Osiris and self-appointed conquering lord of the New Aeon, announced through his chosen scribe "the prince-priest the Beast."

Portions of the book are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed the inability to decode (Setian Michael Aquino later claimed to be able to decode them). Thelemic dogma (to the extent that Thelema has dogma) explains this by pointing to a warning within the Book of the Law — the speaker supposedly warned that the scribe, Ankh-af-na-khonsu (Aleister Crowley), was never to attempt to decode the ciphers, for to do so would end only in folly. The later-written The Law is For All sees Crowley warning everyone not to discuss the writing amongst fellow critics, for fear that a dogmatic position would arise. While he declared a "new Equinox of the Gods" in early 1904, supposedly passing on the revelation of March 20th to the occult community, it took years for Crowley to fully accept the writing of the Book of the Law and follow its doctrine. (Sutin, pp. 195-196). Only after countless attempts to test its writings did he come to embrace them as the official doctrine of the New Aeon of Horus. The remainder of his professional and personal careers were spent expanding the new frontiers of scientific illuminism.

Crowley posing as the Bodhisvattva Hotei

Rose and Aleister had a daughter, whom Crowley named Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley, on July 1904. This child died in 1906, during the two and a half months when Crowley had left her with Rose (after a family trip through China) and returned home by a different path. They had another daughter, Lola Zaza, in the summer of that year, and Crowley devised a special ritual of thanksgiving for her birth. (Sutin, pp. 142-143, 171-173)

He performed a thanksgiving ritual before his first claimed success in what he called the "Abramelin operation," on October 9th, 1906. (Sutin, pp. 173-174). This was his implementation of a magical work described in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The events of that year gave the Abramelin book a central role in Crowley's system. He described the primary goal of the "Great Work" using a term from this book: "the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel." An essay in the first number of The Equinox The Temple of Solomon the King, retrieved June 15, 2006 from [1] gives several reasons for this choice of names:

  1. Because Abramelin's system is so simple and effective.
  2. Because since all theories of the universe are absurd it is better to talk in the language of one which is patently absurd, so as to mortify the metaphysical man.
  3. Because a child can understand it.

Crowley was notorious in his lifetime — a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labelled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. At one point, he was expelled from Italy after having established a sort of commune, the organization of which was based on his personal philosophies, the Abbey of Thelema, at Cefalu, Sicily.

Argenteum Astrum and Ordo Templi Orientis

In 1907, Crowley's interest took off once again, with two important events. The first was the creation of the Silver Star Argenteum Astrum and the second was the composition of the Holy books of Thelema (”Magical World” by King, F., page 41).

According to Crowley, in 1912, Theodor Reuss had called on him to address accusations of publishing O.T.O. secrets, which Crowley dismisses, for having never attained the grade in which these secrets were given (9th degree). Reuss opened up the Book of Lies and showed Crowley the passage. This sparked a long conversation which led to the opening of the British section of O.T.O. called Mysteria Mystica Maxima(King, Magical World, pages 80-81)

The Abbey of Thelema

Crowley, along with Leah Hirsig, founded the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily in 1920. (Do What Thou Wilt by Sutin, p.279) The name was borrowed from Rabelais's satire Gargantua (Nature of the Beast by Wilson; page 73), where the "Abbey of Theleme" is described as a sort of anti-monestary where the lives of the inhabitants were "spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure." (Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, F. Ch. 1). This idealistic utopia was to be the model of Crowley's commune, while also being a type of magical school, giving it the designation "Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum", The College of the Holy Spirit. The general programme was in line with the A∴A∴ course of training, and included daily adorations to the sun, a study of Crowley's writings, regular yogic and ritual practices (which were to be recorded), as well as general domestic labor. The object, naturally, was for students to devote themselves to the Great Work of discovering and manifesting their True Wills.

After the Abbey

In 1934, Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued the artist Nina Hamnett for calling him a black magician in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso. In addressing the jury, Mr Justice Swift said:

"I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man (Crowley) who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet."

Aleister Crowley died of a respiratory infection in a Hastings boarding house on December 1st, 1947, at the age of 72. According to some accounts, he died on December 5, 1947. He was penniless and addicted to opium, which had been prescribed for his asthma and bronchitis, at the time.

Biographer Lawrence Sutin passes on various stories about Crowley's death and last words. Frieda Harris supposedly reported him saying, "I am perplexed," though she did not see him at the very end. According to John Symonds, a Mr Rowe witnessed Crowley's death along with a nurse, and reported his last words as, "Sometimes I hate myself." Biographer Gerald Suster accepted the version of events he received from a " Mr W.H." in which Crowley dies pacing in his living-room. Supposedly Mr W.H. heard a crash while polishing furniture on the floor below, and entered Crowley's rooms to find him dead on the floor. Patricia "Deirdre" MacAlpine, the mother of his son, denied all this and reports a sudden gust of wind and peal of thunder at the (otherwise quiet) moment of his death. According to MacAlpine, Crowley remained bedridden for the last few days of his life, but was in light spirits and conversational. Readings at the cremation service in nearby Brighton included one of his own works, Hymn to Pan, and newspapers referred to the service as a black mass. Brighton council subsequently resolved to take all necessary steps to prevent such an incident occurring again. (Sutin, pp. 417-419)

Thelema

The religious or mystical system which Crowley founded, into which most of his writings fall, he named Thelema. Thelema combines a radical form of philosophical libertarianism, akin in some ways to Friedrich Nietzsche, with a mystical initiatory system derived in part from the Golden Dawn.

Chief among the precepts of Thelema is the sovereignty of the individual will: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." Crowley's idea of will, however, is not simply the individuals desires or wishes, but also incorporates a sense of the person's destiny or greater purpose: what he termed "True Will."

The second precept of Thelema is "Love is the law, love under will" — and Crowley's meaning of "Love" is as complex as that of "Will". It is frequently sexual: Crowley's system, like elements of the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence, and sexual "magick" and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual. However, Love is also discussed as the Union of Opposites, which Crowley thought was the key to enlightenment.

Chess

Crowley maintained that he learned chess from books by the age of six, and first competed on the Eastbourne College chess team (where he was taking classes in 1892). He says that he showed immediate competence, beating the handicapped local champion and later editing a chess column for the local newspaper, the Eastbourne Gazette, (“Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley” by Sutin, Lawrence, ISBN 0312252439) through which he criticised the Eastbourne team.

He later joined the university chess club at Cambridge, where, he says, he beat the president in his freshman year and practised 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. 140) His writings make it clear that he and his supporters thought he would achieve this goal:

I had snatched a game from Joseph Henry Blackburne in simultaneous play some years before. I was being beaten in the Sicilian defence. The only chance was the sacrifice of a rook. I remember the grand old master coming round to my board and cocking his alcoholized eye cunningly at me. 'Hullo,' said he. 'Paul Morphy come to town again!' I am not coxcomb enough to think that he could not have won the game, even after my brilliancy. I believe that his colossal generosity let me win to encourage a promising youngster.
I had frequently beaten Henry Bird at Simpson's and when I got to Cambridge I made a savagely intense study of the game. In my second year I was president of the university and had beaten such first-rate amateurs as Gunston and Cole. Outside the master class, Henry Atkins was my only acknowledged superior. I made mincemeat of the man who was champion of Scotland a few years later, even after I had given up the game. I spent over two hours a day in study and more than that in practice. I was assured on all hands that another year would see me a master myself. (Confessions, p. 140).

However, he explained that he gave up his chess aspirations in 1897 at the age of 22, 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 preternatural lucidity that I had not alighted on this planet with the object of playing chess.<(Confessions, p. 140).

Mountaineering

Crowley was obsessed with mountain climbing. He taught himself by 'scrambling' up Cumberland fells and Beachy Head, after which, he started spending every holiday by switching between the Alps and Bernese Oberland (“Nature of the Beast”, by Wilson, Colin, page 41)

In march of 1902, Oscar Eckenstein and Crowley undertook the first attempt to scale Chogo Ri (known in the west as K2), located in Pakistan, and Eckenstein had set out to teach Crowley about the techniques of climbing (Wilson). The Eckenstein-Crowley Expedition consisted of Eckenstein, Crowley, Guy Knowles, H. Pfannl, V. Wesseley, and Dr Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. They ascended June 8, and after eight days, weather conditions were taking its toll. Two months in, they found themselves back down on the plain, which made this Crowley's first recorded defeat (Wilson, pages 60-61)

In May 1905, he was approached by Dr Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (1868 - 1925) to accompany him on the first expedition to Kangchenjunga in Nepal, the third largest mountain in the world. Guillarmod was left to organize the personnel while Crowley left to get things ready in Darjeeling]. On July 31st Guillarmod joined Crowley in Darjeeling, bringing with him two countrymen, Charles-Adolphe Reymond and Alexis Pache. Meanwhile, Crowley had recruited a local man, Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi, to act as Transport Manager. The team left Darjeeling on August 8, 1905, and used the Singalila Ridge approach to Kangchenjunga. At Chabanjong they ran into the rear of the 135 coolies who had been sent ahead on July 24 and July 25, who were carrying food rations for the team. The trek was led by Aleister Crowley, but four members of that party were killed in an avalanche. Some claims say they reached around 21,300 feet before turning back, however Crowley's autobiography claims they reached about 25,000 feet.

Crowley was sometimes famously scathing about other climbers, in particular O. G. Jones, whom he considered a risk-taking self-publicist, and his 'two photographers' (George and Ashley Abraham).

Science, magick, and sexuality

Crowley claimed to use a scientific method to study what people at the time called "spiritual" experiences, making "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion" the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox. By this he meant that mystical experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying religious or neurological meaning. In this he may be considered to foreshadow Dr. Timothy Leary, who at one point sought to apply the same method to psychedelic drug experiences. Yet like Leary's, Crowley's method has received little "scientific" attention outside the circle of Thelema's practitioners.

Crowley's magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex "magick." He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time, and published numerous poems and tracts combining pagan religious themes with sexual imagery both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as pederastic. One of his most notorious poetry collections, entitled White Stains (1898), was published in Amsterdam in 1898 and dealt specifically with sexually explicit subject matter. However, most of the hundred copies printed for the initial release were later seized and destroyed by British customs. [2]

Sex Magick is the use of the sex act—or the energies, passions or arousal states it evokes—as a point upon which to focus the will or magical desire for effects in the non-sexual world. In this, Crowley was inspired by Paschal Beverly Randolph, an American Abolitionist, Spiritualist medium, and author of the mid-19th century, who wrote (in Eulis!, 1874) of using the "nuptive moment" (orgasm) as the time to make a "prayer" for events to occur.

Crowley often introduced new terminology for spiritual and magical practices and theory. For example, he termed theurgy high magick and thaumaturgy low magick. In The Book of the Law and The Vision and the Voice, the old Jewish magical formula 'Abracadabra' was changed to Abrahadabra, which he called the new formula of the Aeon. He also famously spelled magic in the archaic manner, as magick, to differentiate "the true science of the Magi from all its counterfeits." (Crowley, Magick, Book 4, p.47)

He urged his students to learn to control their own mental and behavioral habits, to the point of switching political views and personalities at will. For control of speech (symbolized as the unicorn): he recommended to choose a commonly-used word, letter, or pronouns and adjectives of the first person, and instructed them to cut themselves with a blade to serve as warning or reminder. Later the student could move on to the "Horse" of action and the "Ox" of thought. Liber III vel Jugorum. (These symbols derive from the cabala of Crowley's book 777.) Robert Anton Wilson records a similar course of self-experimentation, but says he used a less drastic form of what Skinner later (writing after Crowley) called "negative reinforcement"[...]I bit my thumb, hard, at each slip. Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, p. 62

Writings

Crowley was a highly prolific writer, not only on the topic of Thelema and magick, but on philosophy, politics, and culture. He was also a published poet and playwright and left behind a countless number of personal letters and daily journal entries. He self-published many of his books, expending the majority of his inheritance to disseminate his views.

Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on magick, the Tarot, Yoga, the Kabbalah, astrology, and numerous other subjects. He also wrote a Thelemic interpolation of the Tao Te Ching, based on earlier English translations since he knew little or no Chinese. Like the Golden Dawn mystics before him, Crowley evidently sought to comprehend the entire human religious and mystical experience in a single philosophy.

Some of his most influential books include:

He also edited and produced a series of publications in book form called The Equinox (subtitled "The Review of Scientific Illuminism"), which served as the voice of his magical order, the Argenteum Astrum or A∴A∴. Although the entire set is influential and remains one of the definitive works on occultism, some of the more notable issues include:

  • III:1 "The Blue Equinox" (largely regarding the structure of Ordo Templi Orientis [3]
  • III:2, The Equinox of the Gods (covering the events leading up to the writing of Liber Legis) [4]
  • III:3, Eight Lectures on Yoga
  • III:4, The Book of Thoth (a full treatise on his Thoth Tarot) [5]
  • III:5, Liber Aleph (An extended and elaborate commentary on Liber Legis in the form of short letters)
  • III:6, The Holy Books of Thelema (the "received" works of Crowley) [6]

Crowley also wrote fiction and plays, most of which have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. Some of his fictional/theatrical works include:

Crowley also had a peculiar sense of humour. He wrote a polemic arguing against George Bernard Shaw's interpretation of the Gospels in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, which was edited by Francis King and published as Crowley on Christ, and shows him at his erudite and witty best. In his Magick, Book 4 he includes a chapter purporting to illuminate the Qabalistic significance of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In re Humpty Dumpty, for instance, he recommends the occult authority "Ludovicus Carolus" -- better known as Lewis Carroll. In a footnote to the chapter he admits that he had invented the alleged meanings, to show that one can find occult "Truth" in everything. In The Book of Lies, the title to chapter 69 is given as "The Way to Succeed - and the Way to Suck Eggs!" a pun, as the chapter concerns the 69 sex position as a mystical act.

Crowley was also a published, if minor, poet. He wrote the 1929 Hymn to Pan [7], perhaps his most widely read and anthologized poem. Three pieces by Crowley, "The Quest [8]", "The Neophyte [9]", and "The Rose and the Cross [10]", appear in the 1917 collection The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Crowley's unusual sense of humour is on display in White Stains [11], an 1898 collection of pornographic verse pretended to be "the literary remains of George Archibald Bishop, a neuropath of the Second Empire;" the volume is prefaced with a notice that says that " The Editor hopes that Mental Pathologists, for whose eyes alone this treatise is destined, will spare no precaution to prevent it falling into other hands."

Some of his published poetry includes:

  • Clouds Without Water. (1974).
  • White Stains. (1973).
  • The Star and the Garter. (1974).
  • Snowdrops From a Curate’s Garden. (1986).
  • Golden Twigs. (1988).
  • The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz. (1991).
  • The Winged Beetle. (1992).

Controversy

Drugs

Crowley was a habitual drug user and also maintained a meticulous record of his drug-induced experiences with laudanum, opium, cocaine, hashish, alcohol, ether, and heroin.[1]


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