Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley, and also known as both Frater Perdurabo and The Great Beast, was an influential English occultist, mystic, ceremonial magician, poet and mountaineer, who was responsible for founding the religious philosophy of Thelema. In his role as the founder of the Thelemite philosophy, he came to see himself as the prophet who was entrusted with informing humanity that it was entering the new Aeon of Horus in the early 20th century.
Born into a wealthy upper class family, as a young man he became an influential member of the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after befriending the order's leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Subsequently believing that he was being contacted by his Holy Guardian Angel, an entity known as Aiwass, while staying in Egypt in 1904, he "received" a text known as The Book of the Law from what he believed was a divine source, and around which he would come to develop his new philosophy of Thelema. He would go on to found his own occult society, the A?A? and eventually rose to become a leader of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), before founding a religious commune in Cefalù known as the Abbey of Thelema, which he led from 1920 through till 1923. After abandoning the Abbey amid widespread opposition, Crowley returned to Britain, where he continued to promote Thelema until his death.
Crowley was also bisexual, a recreational drug experimenter and a social critic. In many of these roles he "was in revolt against the moral and religious values of his time", espousing a form of libertinism based upon the rule of "Do What Thou Wilt". Because of this, he gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, and was denounced in the popular press of the day as "the wickedest man in the world."
Crowley has remained an influential figure and is widely thought of as the most influential occultist of all time. In 2002, a BBC poll described him as being the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time. References to him can be found in the works of numerous writers, musicians and filmmakers, and he has also been cited as a key influence on many later esoteric groups and individuals, including Kenneth Grant, Jack Parsons, Gerald Gardner, Robert Anton Wilson and, to some degree, Austin Osman Spare.
Edward Alexander Crowley was born at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, between 11:00pm and midnight on October 12, 1875.
His father, Edward Crowley, was trained as an engineer but according to Aleister, never worked as one. He did, however, own shares in a lucrative family brewery business, which allowed him to retire before Aleister was born. Through his father's business he was an acquaintance of Aubrey Beardsley. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop, drew roots from a Devon and Somerset family. Both of his parents were Exclusive Brethren, a more conservative faction of the Plymouth Brethren.
Crowley grew up in a staunch Brethren household and was only allowed to play with children whose families followed the same faith. His father was a fanatical preacher, travelling around Britain and producing pamphlets. Daily Bible studies and private tutoring were mainstays in "Alick's" childhood.
On February 29, 1880, a sister, Grace Mary Elizabeth, was born but lived only five hours. Crowley was taken to see the body and in his own words (in the third person):
The incident made a curious impression on him. He did not see why he should be disturbed so uselessly. He couldn't do any good; the child was dead; it was none of his business. This attitude continued through his life. He has never attended any funeral but that of his father, which he did not mind doing, as he felt himself to be the real centre of interest.
On March 5, 1887, his father died of tongue cancer. This was a turning point in Crowley's life, after which he then began to describe his childhood in the first person in his Confessions.
After the death of his father to whom he was very close, he drifted from his religious upbringing, and his mother's efforts at keeping her son in the Christian faith only served to provoke his scepticism. When he was a child, his constant rebellious behaviour displeased his mother to such an extent that she would chastise him by calling him "The Beast" (from the Book of Revelation), an epithet that Crowley would later adopt for himself. He objected to the labelling of what he saw as life's most worthwhile and enjoyable activities as "sinful".
Aleister Crowley died in a Hastings boarding house on 1 December 1947 at the age of 72. According to one biographer the cause of death was a respiratory infection. He had become addicted to heroin after being prescribed morphine for his asthma and bronchitis many years earlier. He and his last doctor died within 24 hours of each other; newspapers would claim, in differing accounts, that Dr. Thomson had refused to continue his opiate prescription and that Crowley had put a curse on him.
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." who worked at the house, 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, who visited Crowley with their son and her three other children, 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 from occurring again.
Aleister Crowley was a highly prolific writer, who published works on a wide variety of topics, including his philosophy of Thelema, mysticism, ceremonial magic, as well as non-occult topics like politics, philosophy and culture. Widely seen as his most important work was The Book of the Law (1904), the central text of the philosophy of Thelema, although he claimed that he himself was not its writer, but merely its scribe for the angelic being Aiwass. This was just one of many books that he believed that he had channelled from a spiritual being, which collectively came to be termed The Holy Books of Thelema.
He also wrote books on ceremonial magick, namely Magick (Book 4) (1912), The Vision and the Voice and 777 and other Qabalistic writings, and edited a copy of the grimoire known as The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King. Another of his important works was a book on mysticism, The Book of Lies (1912), while another was a collection of different essays entitled Little Essays Toward Truth (1938). He also penned an autobiography, entitled The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1929). Throughout his lifetime he wrote many letters and meticulously kept diaries, some of which were posthumously published as Magick Without Tears. During his lifetime 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 A?A?. Although the entire set is influential and remains one of the definitive works on occultism, some of the more notable issues are "The Blue Equinox", "The Equinox of the Gods", "Eight Lectures on Yoga", "The Book of Thoth" and "Liber Aleph".
Crowley also wrote fiction, including plays and later novels, most of which have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. His most notable fictional works include Moonchild (1917), Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922) and The Stratagem and other Stories (1929). He also self-published much of his poetry, including the erotic White Stains (1898) and Clouds without Water (1909), although perhaps his best known poem was his ode to the ancient god Pan, Hymn to Pan (1929). The influence of Crowley's poetry can be seen through the fact that three of his compositions, "The Quest", "The Neophyte",and "The Rose and the Cross",were included in the 1917 collection The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, however The Oxford Companion to English Literature entry on him describes him as a "bad but prolific poet."
Legacy and influence
Crowley has remained an influential figure, both amongst occultists and in popular culture, particularly that of Britain, but also of other parts of the world.
After Crowley's death, various of his colleagues and fellow Thelemites continued with his work. One of his British disciples, Kenneth Grant, subsequently founded the Typhonian O.T.O. in the 1950s. In America, his followers also continued, one of the most prominent of whom was Jack Parsons, the influential rocket scientist. Parsons performed what he described as the Babylon Working in 1946, and subsequently claimed to have been taught the fourth part of the Book of the Law. Parsons would also later work with and influence L. Ron Hubbard, the later founder of Scientology.
Crowley inspired and influenced a number of later Malvernians including Major-General John Fuller, the inventor of artificial moonlight, and Cecil Williamson, the neo-pagan witch.
One of Crowley's acquaintances in the last months of his life was Gerald Gardner, who was initiated into O.T.O. by Crowley and subsequently went on to found the Neopagan religion of Wicca. Various scholars on early Wiccan history, such as Ronald Hutton, Philip Heselton and Leo Ruickbie concur that witchcraft's early rituals, as devised by Gardner, contained much from Crowley's writings such as the Gnostic Mass. The third degree initiation ceremony in Gardnerian Wicca (including the Great Rite) is derived almost completely from the Gnostic Mass. Indeed, Gardner liked Crowley's writings because he believed that they "breathed the very spirit of paganism."
Crowley was also an influence on both the late 1960's counterculture and the New Age movement.
Fictionalised accounts of Crowley or characters based upon him have been included in a number of literary works, published both during his life and after. The writer W. Somerset Maugham used him as the model for the character in his novel The Magician, published in 1908. Crowley was flattered by Maugham's fictionalised depiction of himself, stating that "he had done more than justice to the qualities of which I was proud... The Magician was, in fact, an appreciation of my genius such as I had never dreamed of inspiring." Similarly, in Dennis Wheatley's popular thriller The Devil Rides Out, the Satanic cult leader Mocata is inspired by Crowley, and in turn the deceased Satanist Adrian Marcato referred to in Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby is likewise a Crowley-like figure. Long after his death Crowley was still being used for similar purposes, appearing as a main character in Robert Anton Wilson's 1981 novel Masks of the Illuminati. Additionally, the acclaimed comic book author Alan Moore, himself a practitioner of ceremonial magic, has also included Crowley in several of his works. In Moore's From Hell, he appears in a cameo as a young boy declaring that magic is real, while in the series Promethea he appears several times existing in a realm of the imagination called the Immateria. Moore has also discussed Crowley's associations with the Highbury area of London in his recorded magical working, The Highbury Working. Other comic book writers have also made use of him, with Pat Mills and Olivier Ledroit portraying him as a reincarnated vampire in their series Requiem Chevalier Vampire. Crowley also is referenced in the Batman comic Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth where the character Amadeus Arkham meets with him, discuss the symbolism of Egyptian tarot, and they play chess. He has also appeared in Japanese media, such as D.Gray-Man and Toaru Majutsu no Index, as well as the hentai series Bible Black, where he has a fictional daughter named Jody Crowley who continues her father's search for the Scarlet Woman. He is also depicted in the Original PlayStation game Nightmare Creatures as a powerful demonic resurrection of himself.
Crowley has been an influence for a string of popular musicians throughout the 20th century. The hugely popular band The Beatles included him as one of the many figures on the cover sleeve of their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, where he is situated between Sri Yukteswar Giri and Mae West. A more intent interest in Crowley was held by Jimmy Page, the guitarist and co-founder of 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin. Despite not describing himself as a Thelemite or being a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Page was still fascinated by Crowley, and owned some of his clothing, manuscripts and ritual objects, and during the 1970s bought Boleskine House, which also appears in the band's movie The Song Remains the Same. On the back cover of the Doors 13 album, Jim Morrison and the other members of the Doors are shown posing with a bust of Aleister Crowley. Author Paulo Coelho introduced the writings of Aleister Crowley to Brazilian rocker Raul Seixas, who went on to write and perform songs (most notably, "Viva a Sociedade Alternativa" and "Novo Aeon") that were strongly influenced by Crowley. The later rock musician Ozzy Osbourne released a song titled "Mr. Crowley" on his solo album Blizzard of Ozz, while a comparison of Crowley and Osbourne in the context of their media portrayals can be found in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Crowley has also been a favourite of Swiss Avant-Garde metal band Celtic Frost. In fact, the song Os Abysmi Vel Daath from Monotheist is based partially on some of his writings. In the early 1990s, British Indie band Five Thirty carried with them on tour a front door which they alleged had belonged to Crowley. The door was placed prominently on stage during their gigs.
Crowley has also had an influence in cinema; in particular, he was a major influence and inspiration to the work on the radical avant garde underground film-maker Kenneth Anger, especially his Magick Lantern Cycle series of works. One of Anger's works is a film of Crowley's paintings,and in 2009 he gave a lecture on the subject of Crowley. Bruce Dickinson, singer with Iron Maiden, wrote the screenplay of Chemical Wedding (released in America on DVD as Crowley), which features Simon Callow as Oliver Haddo, the name taken from the Magician-villain character in the Somerset Maugham book "The Magician", who was in turn inspired by Maugham's meeting with Crowley
The Italian historian of esotericism Giordano Berti, in his book Tarocchi di Aleister Crowley (1998) quotes a number of literary works and films inspired by Crowley's life and legends. Some of the films are The Magician (1926) by Rex Ingram, based upon the eponymous book written by William Somerset Maugham (1908); Night of the Demon (1957) by Jacques Tourneur, based on the story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James; and The Devils Rides Out (1968) by Terence Fisher, from the eponymous thriller by Dennis Wheatley. Also: "Dance To The Music of Time" by Anthony Powell, "Black Easter" by James Blish, and "The Winged Bull" by Dion Fortune.
A satirical write-in campaign to elect Aleister Crowley as President of the United States in 2012 was also launched, with the aims of spreading Aleister Crowley's philosophy in the realm of politics and to dispel myths and falsehoods about Aleister Crowley