Who Was Aleister Crowley?

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As a young man, Crowley questioned his religious instructors at Cambridge's Trinity College. Image (c) Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Licensed to About.com

Mention Aleister Crowley in front of a group of Pagans, and chances are good you’ll get a variety of reactions. Several of them will frown and tell you he wasn’t like the rest of us Pagans, and disavow any knowledge of his writings whatsoever. Others will nod wisely as though they’re privy to some secret esoteric information that you’re not special enough to know about, and still others will shrug and say, “Meh, just a guy, and nothing more." So who was the mysterious Mr. Crowley, and why is he even worth mentioning on a website that focuses on the practice of modern Paganism?

Do keep in mind that Aleister Crowley led an adventurous, colorful and scandalous life, and it is not possible to detail every bit of it here. For a more comprehensive look at Crowley, be sure to read A Magick Life: The Life of Aleister Crowley by Martin Booth and Lawrence Sutin’s Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, both of which provide well-sourced, factual, and fair information.

Born in 1875, Crowley was the son of evangelical Christians who were quite well-off financially, thanks to owning a significant amount of stock in a family brewery. His father was a traveling preacher, and died when Aleister was a child. Crowley always held him in very high regard, describing him as not merely his father, but also his friend and childhood hero. How did the son of a pair of wealthy and conservative Plymouth Brethren church members turn into the man that redefined the 19th-century occult movement?

Crowley inherited a portion of his father’s fortune and went off to college, attending several schools where he generally misbehaved and took advantage of all the privilege that un-earned wealth has to offer. The more he learned at school, the more he began to question the Biblical basis of his early upbringing, finding himself doubting the teachings of Christianity and picking arguments about scripture with his religious instructors.

Eventually, Crowley found an academic home for himself at Trinity College, in Cambridge, where he became successful at just about everything he took an interest in. He excelled in literature and poetry, led the school chess club, and even made a name for himself among the Alpine mountaineering community. Around this same time period, Crowley began experimenting sexually, having relationships with both men and women, and enjoying the services of prostitutes of both sexes. It is widely reported that he had contracted venereal diseases at least twice before leaving Cambridge.

Around the turn of the century Crowley became interested in occult teachings and mysticism, and was initiated as a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. A few biographers believe that Crowley actually infiltrated the group as a secret service agent, to keep tabs on founder S.L. MacGregor Mathers. Regardless, Crowley advanced quickly within the group, expanded his use of ceremonial magic, and began exploring the use of various drugs within a ritual context. During all of this Crowley was a prolific writer.

Eventually, Crowley – who wasn’t especially popular with other Golden Dawn members – traveled to North America, settling briefly in Mexico, where he explored more ritual drug use and ceremonial magic.

From there, he spent some time discovering yoga in India, and making himself at home in the art scene of Paris. In 1904, Crowley and his wife, Rose – the sister of a friend – ended up in Egypt, where they checked into a hotel and began studying Islamic mysticism, and calling up a variety of Egyptian deities. Crowley claimed he was getting direct messages from a messenger of the god Horus, and he feverishly spent three days writing out the information he received, and compiling it into a manuscript called The Book of the Law. This was the beginning of the path that would become Thelema.

Over the next several years Crowley and his wife started a family and traveled around the world, climbing mountains, experimenting with more drugs and magic, and never staying long in any one place. Their first daughter died as a toddler from typhoid, and a second was born in 1907.

Crowley delved even deeper into the use of hashish in ritual, writing an essay about it, and continuing his discussions with Aiwass, the messenger of Horus. This led to additional treatises as follow up to The Book of the Law, creating a collection of the Thelemic Holy Books. Crowley used this as the foundation of a group called A∴A∴, a mystical group that combined much of the teachings of the Golden Dawn with the framework of Thelema.

Around 1912, Crowley became involved with Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an occult group with many similarities to Crowley’s work The Book of Lies, and with heavy emphasis on sex magic within rituals. This appealed to Crowley, and he began to work Thelemic elements into OTO rituals. By the time the First World War broke out, Crowley was out of money, relying on donations and handouts from friends, and found himself in America, writing for Vanity Fair and spending a lot of time and money on prostitutes as research for his writings on sex magic. He traveled around the US for several years, painting, writing, getting high and trying to promote the teachings of Thelema.

In 1920, Crowley recruited some of his Parisian followers to join him in a Thelemite community, and formed the Abbey of Thelema in an old Sicilian villa. Two women and their children lived with Crowley at the Abbey, in a fairly debauched existence, while Crowley descended deeper into heroin and cocaine addiction. He wrote a novel, Diary of a Drug Fiend, more scandalous behavior (including rumors of human sacrifice, which were never confirmed) ensued at the Abbey, culminating in the death of a young Thelemite named Raoul Loveday, and Crowley soon found himself deported out of Italy.

Over the course of his lifetime, Crowley had numerous lovers, both male and female, and consistently needed to designate his chosen female companions as Scarlet Women, his partners in sex magic and ritual. Later in life, he underwent nasal surgery several times to repair the damages done by decades of addiction and abuse.

When World War Two broke out, Crowley offered his services to the British government, but they politely declined. In declining health, near the end of the war Crowley was introduced to a young civil servant named Gerald Gardner. Crowley asked Gardner to take over the leadership of OTO. Gardner did so, and Crowley died in 1947.

Because of his well-documented socially questionable behavior, Crowley is often considered a prime example of the “dark side” of metaphysics and the occult. He advocated and promoted hedonistic and frenzied ritual, spoke avidly against people who had displeased him, and left behind a legacy of drug abuse and sex magic. Thelema is still practiced today all over the world, and still based upon Crowley’s writings, and a number of other occult traditions can trace their influence to his work.

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Wigington, Patti. "Who Was Aleister Crowley?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2016, thoughtco.com/who-was-aleister-crowley-2561518. Wigington, Patti. (2016, August 31). Who Was Aleister Crowley? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-aleister-crowley-2561518 Wigington, Patti. "Who Was Aleister Crowley?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-aleister-crowley-2561518 (accessed December 17, 2017).