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Who Is Aleister Crowley? The Truth About His Life and Work

Posted by Melissa Brinks | Mar 26, 2019 3:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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The name “Crowley” has become synonymous with occultism, magic, and secret societies—but who was the man behind it all? Who was Aleister Crowley, really, and why has his name come to be synonymous with esoteric writings?

In this article, we’ll discuss who Crowley was, including his life story, the many controversies he inspired, his connection with the occult, and all his famous writings. If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration behind characters like Supernatural or Good Omens’ famed demons, it all comes back to one famed occultist.

 

Who Is Aleister Crowley?

Aleister Crowley (pronounced CROW-lee), born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875, was a famed writer, occultist, and hedonist known for practicing magick—this unique spelling not only differentiated his practices from stage magic, but also encompassed all actions leading toward a person’s destiny, or their “True Will.”

 

Crowley’s Early Life

Crowley was born to a preacher and spent the first part of his life as an evangelical Christian. His father died when he was 11, and Crowley’s beliefs changed quite quickly—soon, he started rebelling by not only questioning the Bible, but also by engaging in all kinds of activities that the church frowned upon. His behavior eventually led to his mother calling him “the beast,” which he adopted and embraced.

By age 20, Crowley had adopted the name ‘Aleister,’ the Gaelic form of Alexander, as his new name. Crowley spent some time attending Cambridge University but dropped out before completing a degree. During his time in college, he considered a career in Russian diplomacy, but an illness caused him to reconsider. The illness also caused Crowley to think more philosophically about life and death, spurring him further toward the occult.

He was known to be sexually promiscuous, primarily with women, but occasionally with men as well—most notably, fellow Cambridge student Herbert Jerome Pollitt. Pollitt and Crowley were not able to make their relationship last, as Pollitt was not interested in Crowley’s occult pursuits. Crowley deeply regretted the loss of their relationship, and his feelings were folded into his religious practice.

 

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Crowley Joins the Golden Dawn

After leaving Cambridge in 1898, Crowley turned his attention toward hedonistic pursuits and his new involvement with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group dedicated to studying the paranormal and the occult. Over the year or so he was involved with the group, Crowley rose quickly through the ranks but found himself butting heads with prominent members, such as Irish poet W. B. Yeats. Some members of the organization found his hedonism off-putting as well as his bisexuality, and he was not permitted to join the higher ranks. Further infighting led to Crowley attempting to take control of certain parts of the Golden Dawn lodge, which discredited his remaining friends in the organization, particularly Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers.

 

Crowley Forms the A∴A∴

After his time with the Golden Dawn, Crowley traveled the world, climbing mountains in Mexico and India while further developing his spiritual practice. In Paris, Crowley met Rose Kelly, who was set to be married to another man in an arranged marriage—the two instead married one another out of convenience in 1903, though they later fell in love. The two bonded over their mutual spiritualism, and during a meditation session, Rose reportedly passed on the message that Horus, an Egyptian god, was waiting for Crowley.

Crowley pursued the idea, reportedly making contact in 1904 with a spirit named Aiwass who served as Horus’ messenger. During this contact, Aiwass is said to have dictated the text of what would later become  The Book of the Law, or the sacred text of Thelema, to him.

Crowley continued to travel the world, though Rose and their daughter, Lilith, remained behind. During this time, Rose developed a serious drinking problem and Lilith contracted typhoid, dying in 1906. Rose’s deteriorating mental health and their daughters’ death put increasing strain on their marriage, and the two divorced in 1909. Rose was later committed to an institution in 1911.

Continuing his involvement in the occult, Crowley founded his own organization as a successor to The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, called A∴A∴, in 1907. Though he already had a reputation, a public court case in which his former friend Mathers sued him for disclosing secrets of the Golden Dawn in his own work shot him to even greater stardom. His involvement with the occult got him branded as a Satanist, a reputation he was more than happy to play up.

 

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Crowley’s Influence Grows

Much of Crowley’s income came from publishing, as he continued writing and releasing books of poetry. He also wrote numerous articles for Vanity Fair, which at the time was edited by his friend Frank Harris. His articles included "On the Management of Blondes" and "Three Great Hoaxes of the War."

His influence grew throughout the early to mid-20th century, as his writings drew in more practitioners of Thelema. He even started his own abbey in 1920, where he and other Thelemites lived and worshiped, practicing sex magic and creating art. His hedonistic lifestyle continued, and he developed a significant heroin problem.

After significant controversy resulting from the quality of living at the Abbey of Thelema, Crowley was branded as “the wickedest man in the world.” He was deported from Italy under Benito Mussolini’s rule, and again deported from France thanks to his reputation.

His hedonistic lifestyle and continued travels led to him becoming destitute. He took on students and even attempted to sue people he believed had libeled him, and though he won some cases, the legal fees were too much. He was declared bankrupt in 1935.

After a brief interest in converting Adolf Hitler to Thelema, Crowley began associating with prominent members of British intelligence, specifically Britain's Naval Intelligence Division, including Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl. He died in 1947, with his funeral being labeled a Black Mass by the press. 

 

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Why Is Crowley Significant?

Aleister Crowley achieved a level of fame quite unlike any other occult figure of his kind. While figures like Mathers and Allan Bennett may have been higher up in famous organizations like the Golden Dawn, it’s Crowley’s name that’s remembered, immortalized on the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in Black Sabbath’s “Mr. Crowley.”

Part of his fame no doubt comes from the influence of his philosophy. One of Thelema’s tenets, and one of Crowley’s major life mottos, was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Though there are multiple ways to interpret the meaning, one popular theory is that this motto, advocating for individualism alongside Thelema’s teaching that the world was approaching a new age, led into the cultural revolution of the sixties, which similarly embraced drug use and sexual liberation as a response to a straight-laced society.

Many figures who helped catapult Crowley to posthumous fame, such as The Doors, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, all grew out of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, even if they were not active during that period. These icons of rock and pop culture helped solidify Crowley’s cultural relevance, but that’s only part of the story—there’s also much to be said about Crowley’s courting of controversy.

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Why Was Crowley So Controversial?

It’s not hard to see why Crowley was a controversial figure; he was unabashedly bisexual in a time when that was frowned upon, he embraced rumors that he was a Satanist and child murderer, and he founded a religious organization that operated in opposition to dominant religions like Christianity. But it wasn’t just rumor that fueled his reputation—numerous events also convinced people that he was literally dangerous.

One such event was the death of Raoul Loveday, a Thelemite who lived at Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema in Italy. According to Betty May, Loveday’s wife, Loveday drank a sacrificed cat’s blood. Other rituals included cutting themselves with razors if they used the pronoun ‘I.’ Loveday died while living in the Abbey after drinking from a polluted stream, prompting May to leave and tell the story to the press.

It was this event that got Crowley branded as “the wickedest man in the world,” by John Bull, a British tabloid. But other events raised suspicions as well, such as when Crowley feuded with a mountaineering group as they tried to climb Kanchenjunga. The group eventually refused to climb any further, and though Crowley warned them that it would be dangerous to turn back, they did so—all of them, except Crowley, died in an accident.

Crowley also exhibited some controversial political and social beliefs, such as his interests in Nazism and Marxist-Leninism or his misogyny and racism. Richard Spence and Tobias Churton have both suggested and that his controversial persona and numerous eccentricities were in fact adopted to hide his true purpose: that of a British spy. 

According to this theory, many of Crowley’s strange activities were done to throw people off the scent. He supposedly joined the Golden Dawn to gather information on Mathers, a Carlist, and that his attempted seizing of power was meant to discredit Mathers. Spence further suggested that some of Crowley’s travels were attempts to further British interests, such as searching for Mexican oil or monitoring the opium trade in China. Crowley was rejected from the British Naval Intelligence Division but did spend some time in the company of famed British spies.

Other historians have noted Crowley’s involvement with George Sylvester Viereck and his paper The Fatherland, which aimed to keep the United States neutral during World War I. Though some have said that this was because he was a traitor to Britain, one biographer, Lawrence Sutin, has written that this was a coordinated attack on German credibility in New York. Sutin argues that, by pulling bizarre stunts and being hyperbolic, Crowley was actually acting under the wishes of British intelligence to discredit the Germans.

Though it’s possible that Aleister Crowley’s “wicked” persona was an affectation to cover up his spy work, that theory isn’t what has drawn people to him. His contemporaries and later generations have long been interested in his connection with the occult, his storied life, and his many magickal writings.

 

Aleister Crowley's Books

Though Crowley is best known as the “wickedest man in the world,” his writings were his main source of income throughout his life. From poetry to religious texts, Crowley’s work is a large part of why he’s such an iconic figure today.

Below you can see a list of his most important and popular publications:

  • White Stains, 1898
  • Alice: An Adultery, 1903
  • Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), 1904
  • Collected Works of Aleister Crowley 1905–1907
  • Konx Om Pax: Essays in Light, 1907
  • Clouds without Water, 1909
  • Which is also Falsely Called BREAKS. The Wanderings or Falsifications of the One Thought of Frater Perdurabo, which Thought is itself Untrue. Liber CCCXXXIII [Book 333], 1912
  • The Equinox: Volume III, Number I, 1919
  • Diary of a Drug Fiend, 1922
  • The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography, 1929
  • Moonchild, 1929
  • The Stratagem and other Stories, 1929
  • The Equinox of the Gods, 1936
  • Little Essays Toward Truth. 1938
  • Eight Lectures on Yoga, 1939
  • Liber OZ, 1941
  • The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians, 1944
  • Magick Without Tears, 1954
  • Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly, 1991
  • 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley
  • The Law is for All
  • Magick, Liber ABA, Book 4
  • The Vision and the Voice

 

Famous Aleister Crowley Quotes

Aleister Crowley, as a prolific writer and public figure, has a great number of memorable quotes. Some of his most famous include:

“Black magic is not a myth. It is a totally unscientific and emotional form of magic, but it does get results — of an extremely temporary nature. The recoil upon those who practice it is terrific. It is like looking for an escape of gas with a lighted candle. As far as the search goes, there is little fear of failure! To practice black magic you have to violate every principle of science, decency, and intelligence. You must be obsessed with an insane idea of the importance of the petty object of your wretched and selfish desires. I have been accused of being a "black magician." No more foolish statement was ever made about me. I despise the thing to such an extent that I can hardly believe in the existence of people so debased and idiotic as to practice it.” - "The Worst Man in the World" in The Sunday Dispatch (2 July 1933)

“Every man and every woman is a star.” - The Book of the Law (1904)

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” - The Book of the Law (1904)

“The conscience of the world is so guilty that it always assumes that people who investigate heresies must be heretics; just as if a doctor who studies leprosy must be a leper. Indeed, it is only recently that science has been allowed to study anything without reproach.” - The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1929)

“The customer is usually wrong; but statistics indicate that it doesn't pay to tell him so.” - Magick Without Tears (1954)

“Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.” - The Book of the Law (1904)

“Happiness lies within one's self, and the way to dig it out is cocaine.” - Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922)

 

What’s Next?

Want to know more about early 20th century literature? Learn more about The Great Gatsby's title and how it reflects the themes of the book!

Like your literature with a twist of the occult? This analysis of the character of Abigail Williams in The Crucible covers her role in the fictionalized Salem Witch Trials of the play.

Aleister Crowley's writings are pretty dense—if you need some help understanding him, check out this collection of AP language and composition terms!

 

Feature Image: Abode of Chaos/Wikimedia Commons

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Melissa Brinks
About the Author

Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.



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