Aleister Crowley was perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood personality to figure in the new era of modern day witchcraft according to most sources. Known by the popular press of his time as “The Great Beast” and “The Wickedest Man in the World”, Crowley was a powerful magician, poet, prophet and famed occultist. He was also a one-time witch, though most of the elders of the craft seem to discredit him the title.
Crowley was a man before his time. He lived in a society that couldn’t really understand him. His writings so shocked the peoples of his era that he never really got any praise that some believe he deserved, and as a poet he never received any recognition.
Crowley was born on the 12th October 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. His parents Edward Crowley and his wife Emily were wealthy brewers and the epitome of respectability. They were also devout Christians and staunch members of the Plymouth Brethren sect. They brought up young Crowley in an atmosphere of pious religious narrow-mindedness, against which he constantly rebelled. His whole life thereafter seems to have been a revolt against his parents and everything they stood for. His father died when he was 11 years old.
After the death of his father, Crowley inherited the family fortune and went on to be educated at Trinity College Cambridge. There he wrote and studied poetry. He loved the out-doors life and was a capable mountain climber, in pursuit of which he attempted some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. In 1898 he published his first book of poetry called "Aceldama, A Place to Bury Strangers In", a philosophical poem by a 'Gentleman of the University of Cambridge' in 1898'. In the preface he describes how God and Satan had fought for his soul and states: “God conquered – and now I have only one doubt left – which of the twain was God”?
It was while he was at Trinity that Crowley became interested in the occult and with his roommate Allan Bennett, they began to study whatever they could. Crowley soon discovered that he was excited by descriptions of torture and blood. He liked to fantasise about being degraded and abused by a 'Scarlet Woman', one who was dominant, wicked and independent.
One of the books he read about this time was by the author 'Arthur Edward Waite', entitled “The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts”. It hinted at a secret brotherhood of occultists and Crowley became even more intrigued. He wrote to Waite for more information and was referred to "The Cloud upon the Sanctuary – By Karl von Exkartshausen". This book tells of the 'Great White Brotherhood' and Crowley determined he wanted to join this group and advance to its highest levels. Later that year on the 18th November 1898, he and Bennett both joined the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn', the elusive Great White Brotherhood.
In 1899 Crowley is reported to have become a member of one of “Old George Pickingill’s” hereditary covens situated in the New Forrest, although apparently he was not welcome for long. It is alleged that he obtained his 'Second Degree' before being dismissed due to his contemptuous attitude toward women, failure to attend rituals with regularity, his personal ego and sexual perversion (Crowley had a bias toward homosexuality and the bizarre, shocking during his time even amongst witches). The priestess of his coven later described him as “a dirty-minded, evilly-disposed and vicious little monster!”
As well as being dismissed and outcaste by the New Forrest witches, all was not well within the Golden Dawn. By this time Crowley had moved out of Trinity College without earning his degree, and taken a flat in Chancery Lane, London. There he renamed himself 'Count Vladimir' and began to pursue his occult studies on a full-time basis. Crowley had a natural aptitude for magic and advanced quickly through the ranks of the Golden Dawn, but the London lodge leaders considered him unsuitable for advancement into the second order. Crowley went to Paris in 1899 to see 'S.L. MacGregor Mathers', the then head of the Order and insisted that he be initiated into the second Order. Mathers at the time was experiencing growing dissension to his absolute rule from London, and sensed in Crowley an ally. To the consternation of the London lodge he readily agreed to Crowley's request and initiated him into the second order.
However their allegiance was an uneasy one, for Mathers like Crowley was a powerful magician and both were intensely competitive. Mathers taught Crowley 'Abra-Melin' magic but neither attained any of the grades of the A\A\. They quarreled constantly and allegedly engaged in magical warfare. Mathers is said to have sent an astral vampire to attack Crowley who responded with an army of demons led by Beelzebub. In April 1900, Mathers due to problems within the London lodge dispatched Crowley back to England as his 'Special Envoy' where he made an abortive attempt to regain control. Shortly thereafter both Mathers and Crowley were expelled from the order.
Crowley began to travel, mostly in the East studying Eastern Occult systems and 'Tantric Yoga'; he also studied 'Buddhism' and the 'I Ching'. Then for a time he lived in an isolated setting near to Loch Ness in Scotland. In 1903 he met and then married Rose Edith Kelly, sister of the well-known artist Sir Gerald Kelly. She bore him one child. While they were on holiday in Egypt the following year, April 1904, he and Rose took part in a magical ritual during which he alleges to have received a message from the God's. As a result of this communication he wrote down the first three chapters of his most famous book “Liber Legis, the Book of Law”. This book contains his oft-quoted dictum: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, Love under Will”, upon which Crowley based the rest of his life and teachings.
In 1909 Crowley began to explore levels of the astral plane with his assistant, a poet called “Victor Neuberg”; they used 'Enochian' magic. Crowley believed he crossed the Abyss and united his consciousness with the universal consciousness. He describes the astral journeys in “The Vision and the Voice”, which was first published in his periodical “The Equinox” and then posthumously in 1949.
Never far from controversy in 1909 through to 1913, Crowley serialized the secret rituals of the Golden Dawn in his magazine 'the Equinox', which he also used as a vehicle for his poetry. Mathers who had written most of the rituals and who was still his greatest antagonist, tried but failed to get a legal injunction to stop him. His action only served to gained Crowley more press publicity and notoriety.
By now Crowley was fast becoming infamous as a Black magician and Satanist; he openly identified himself with the number 666, the biblical number for the antichrist. He also kept with him a series of 'Scarlet Women'; the best known of these was Leah Hirsig, the so-called “Ape of Thoth”. Together they would indulge in drinking sessions, drugs and sexual magic. It is believed that Crowley made several attempts with several of these women to beget a 'Magical child', none of which worked and instead he fictionalised his attempts in a book called “Moonchild”, published in 1929.
In 1912 Crowley became involved with the British section of the O.T.O. (the Ordo Temple Orientis or Order of the Temple of the East), a German occult order practicing magic. He then moved and lived in America from 1915 to 1919, moving again in 1920 to Sicily where he established the notorious Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu.
In Sicily he proceeded to involve himself in Italian occultism and in 1922 became the head of the 'Ordo Temple Orientis'. However (as he routinely did) he began to attract more bad publicity. The press denounced him as “The Wickedest Man in the World” because of the alleged satanic goings on in the Abbey. It has now come to light that many of the allegations were false and were no more than press sensationalism. However their effect had serious repercussions for Crowley. In 1923 Mussolini the then ruler of Italy stepped in and expelled him from Sicily.
Crowley wandered around for a while visiting such places as Tunisia and Germany before settling for a time in France. While in France he engaged as his secretary the services of another aspiring magician 'Israel Regardie'. Regardie would later become famous himself and played a prominent role in exposing the complete rituals of the 'Golden Dawn' to the public. Crowley continued to travel around Europe during which time he picked up a growing heroin addiction, a habit he would suffer from for the rest of his life. Back in England in 1929 he met and married his second wife 'Maria Ferrari de Miramar'. The marriage took place in Leipzig, Germany.
In 1933 Crowley met with 'Sybil Leek' another famous witch and became a frequent visitor to her home. Sybil a hereditary witch was only 16 years old at the time and later wrote in her autobiography "Diary of a Witch" - (New York: Signet, 1969), that Crowley talked to her about witchcraft. He taught her the words of power and instructed her on the use of certain words for their vibratory qualities when working with magic.
Already notorious and well known to the press, Crowley then became involved in a famous and sensational libel case. In 1934 before Mr. Justice Swift, he sued Nina Hamnett a prominent sculptress. Nina had published a book “Laughing Torso” (Constable and Co., London, 1932) in which Crowley alleged she had libeled him by saying he that the practiced black magic. As the case proceeded the other side produced such evidence of Crowley’s bizarre life-style and scandalous writings (as they were considered at that time), that the justice was horrified. Crowley lost the case and was forced into bankruptcy, much to the delight of the popular press who again had a field day.
In his penultimate year 1946, a mutual friend Arnold Crowther introduced Crowley to Gerald B. Gardner. His meetings with Gardner would later lead to controversy over the authenticity of Gardner’s original 'Book of Shadows'. It was alleged that Gardner paid Crowley to write it for him? But this has now been discounted. While it did contain some of Crowley’s writings, this was the result of Gardner and Crowley comparing notes on rituals used in 'Old George Pickingill’s' covens in the New Forrest area. Doreen Valientes book "Witchcraft for Tomorrow” does much to shed light on this controversy.
At the time of his meetings with Gerald Gardner, Crowley was a feeble old man living in retirement at a private hotel in Hastings, barely kept alive by the use of drugs. It was here that he passed from this world into the next on the 1st December 1947. Unrepentant and unbowed he left this world with a final snub at the society that had so misunderstood him, he left instructions that he was to be cremated and instead of the usual religious service, his 'Hymn to Pan' and other extracts from his writings was to be proclaimed from the pulpit. Finally his ashes were to be sent to his disciples in America.
In many ways Aleister Crowley was not a well-liked man, but he influenced and had an effect on the build up to the new era of modern witchcraft. His knowledge of witchcraft and magic was profound and without question, and he has passed on that knowledge through his books. In today’s more liberal society more and more of Crowley’s books are being reprinted as we begin to appreciate his strangeness. Indeed some of his books have now gained classical status. These include: Gnostic Mass and The Book of Law (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977) from which portions of the well known “Charge of the Goddess” were written by Doreen Valiente. Other books include: Magick in Theory and Practice, 777 And Other Qabalistic Writing and The Book of Thoth to mention just a few.
The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present - By Doreen Valiente
Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi
Witchcraft for Tomorrow - By Doreen Valiente