Crowley, Aleister (1875–1947)
The most renowned magic practitioner and theoretician of
the twentieth century. He was born Edward Alexander Crowley
on October 12, 1875, in Leamington, Warwickshire, England,
the son of Exclusive Plymouth Brethren parents. As he grew
up, Crowley found himself unsympathetic with the faith of his
father—an elder in the fundamentalist group—and mother.
For his refusal to fall into line both in belief and practice, his
mother called him ‘‘the Beast 666’’ (the Antichrist, from Revelation
1318), a title he eventually accepted with some pride.
Following his father’s death in 1887, Crowley was sent to public
school.
In 1894 he entered King’s College and went on to Trinity
College, Cambridge, the next year. During his college years he
emerged as a poet of some merit. He also spent his leisure time
exploring the joys of sexuality, a theme that strongly influenced
his poetry and led to some trouble with college authorities.
He also discovered and made his first ventures into magic
and the occult. He left college before completing his degree.
In 1898 he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn, the pioneering ceremonial magic group, into which
he was introduced by George Cecil Jones. He was an avid pupil
and quickly progressed until he became involved in the split
that had developed between the bulk of the members, who resided
in England, and the head of the order, S. L. MacGregor
Mathers, who lived in Paris. He sided with Mathers, which cut
him off from fellow believers in London.
In 1903 Crowley married Rose Kelly, and in 1904 they traveled
to Egypt. There, at his wife’s insistence, he sat for a period
on each of three days (April 9–11) and received (channeled)
material from a spirit entity, Aiwass. The finished product, The
Book of the Law, would provide the philosophical distinctives for
what would become Crowley’s own system of magic. The keynote
of the new system would be thelema or will, and its basic admonition,
‘‘Do what thou will shall be the whole of the Law.’’
This ambiguous phrase was often misunderstood by other magicians
and by critics alike as promoting an amoral libertinism,
but that was not Crowley’s teaching or meaning. Rather, he
taught that it was the magician’s duty to discover his or her destiny
(or true will), and, having discovered it, he or she had no
choice but to align actions with the accomplishment of that true
will.
Having left the Golden Dawn, in 1907 Crowley founded the
Argentum Astrum (AA; Silver Star). On its behalf he began issuing
a periodical, the Equinox, a semiannual journal in which he
began to publish the teachings of the AA. The journal attracted
attention, however, because Crowley also began to publish the
secrets of the Golden Dawn, which he denounced as a juvenile
organization.
Crowley was diverted from developing the AA in 1912, following
an encounter with Theodore Reuss, the outer head of
the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a German sex magic group.
Crowley had independently discovered sex magic and made his
first experiments in it several years earlier. In The Book of Lies
he had published a brief section that indicated to Reuss that he
knew about the sex magic teaching of the OTO, and Reuss invited
Crowley into its membership. He was immediately accepted
into the highest levels of the OTO and appointed head of
its British branch, which he organized under the name
Mysteria Mystica Maxima. Crowley also rewrote the OTO rituals,
adding an eleventh degree reflective of his own homosexuality.
In 1914 Crowley moved to America, where he waited for
World War I to end. During his stay he conducted extensive sex
magic experiments, established an OTO lodge in Vancouver,
British Columbia, and initiated Charles Stanfeld Jones (later
known publicly as ‘‘Frater Achad’’) into the order. Because of
his own accomplishments and the unexpected coordination of
Frater Achad’s magic work, Crowley declared Achad his ‘‘magical
child’’ and assumed the title of magus, the second-highest
grade.
In 1919 Crowley moved to Sicily and established a small
magic colony at Cefalu. He remained there for four years, during
which time he proclaimed himself an ipsissimis. Banished by
Mussolini in 1923, he resided for a while in Tunis and France
before settling down in England, where he spent the last 15
years of his life.
All through his life Crowley continued his experimentation
with magic, which soon led him into the use of consciousnessexpanding
drugs. Along the way he became a heroin addict, a
condition he fought but was never able to overcome.
During his mature years he expended much energy in building
the OTO and in getting his writings published though in
both endeavors he was only partially successful. Not until the
1970s—about thirty years after his death—was the order successfully
organized and lodges established across Europe and
North America. Simultaneously, most of his writings, including
his magic diaries, were published, and they have remained in
print.
Following Crowley’s death on December 1, 1947, in Hastings,
England, Karl Germer became the new outer head of the
order of the OTO but did little to assist its growth. Germer died
in the 1960s, and in the 1970s Grady McMurtry, having
learned of Germer’s death, assumed leadership and built the
order into a substantial international body.
Crowley’s influence can be seen throughout popular culture
through such rock bands as Led Zepplin and Ozzie Osborne,
who claim to be Crowley fans and reflect his ideas in their
music. In 1993 an album of his teachings was released and sold
over 8,000 copies, exhibiting a constant interest in Aleister
Crowley.
Sources
Crowley, Aleister. Confessions. New York Hill & Wang, 1969.
———. The Holy Books of Thelema. York Beach, Maine Samuel
Weiser, 1983.
———. Magick in Theory and Practice. New York Castle
Books, 1965. Reprint, St. Paul, Minn. Llewellyn Publications,
1989.
———. Magick without Tears. St. Paul, Minn. Llewellyn Publications,
1973.
———. The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. New York Samuel
Weiser, 1973.
King, Francis. The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. New
York Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978.
Melton, J. Gordon, and Isotta Poggi. Magic, Witchcraft, and
Paganism in America A Bibliography. New York Garland Publishing,
1992.
Parfitt, Will, and A. Drylie. A Crowley Cross-Index. Avon, England
ZRO, 1976.
Suster, Gerald. The Legacy of the Beast. York Beach, Maine
Samuel Weiser, 1989.
Symonds, John. The King of the Shadow Realm. London
Duckworth, 1989.