There are names we all recognise, even if what we know about them is entirely wrong. So it is with Aleister Crowley. Sometimes described as a Satanist , and during his lifetime labelled “the wickedest man in the world” , in truth Crowley was neither of those things. What he was instead was a product of transition. Had he been born a century earlier he would have been imprisoned, institutionalised or forced into obscurity. Had he been born a century later he would simply have been another outré poet. Instead he was born during the period when conservative mores were beginning to be shed, and became for many the new face of the unacceptable side of society. In a twist of irony, the would-be magician became a symbol more powerful than any of his magical sigils.
He was born in 1875 under the name of Edward Alexander Crowley in the small British town of Royal Leamington Spa. His parents were members of the Exclusive branch of the Plymouth Brethren, an offshoot of the fundamentalist group that believed that members should not mix with anyone from outside their numbers . Surprisingly for such a conservative family, their fortune (which was considerable) came from the alcohol trade, with Crowley’s Alton Ale being a popular brew in the area. Crowley’s father had sold his share and invested the proceeds, of course, and it was this money that was to allow Aleister the freedom to pursue his hedonistic lifestyle. Crowley’s father was a devout man, who travelled and preached, and sent Aleister off to a Christian boarding school ran by a man he would later diagnose (with some experience) as a sadist. Despite this, his father was a hero to young Crowley, and his death of cancer in 1886 affected Aleister greatly. In his teenage years he began to rebel against his family’s imposed boundaries, pointing out inconsistencies in Bible verses to his teachers as well as smoking and associating with “loose women”.  This only increased when he went to study at Trinity College in Cambridge, adopting the name of Aleister to replace his mother’s nickname for him of Alick, which he loathed. During this period he adopted many of the hobbies that would later define his life, such as mountaineering (he spent most summers climbing the Alps) and poetry (he adored Shelley and Richard Burton, and his own poems were published in the college magazines). It was also during this period that he discovered his own bisexual nature, and while he still visited prostitutes frequently  he also had several (illegal at the time) homosexual relationships. But the most significant event of his life at university was his discovery of the occult.
In July 1898 Crowley left Cambridge without a degree, despite having done relatively well in exams prior to his finals. A bout of illness the previous year had led him to reconsider his priorities, and he had decided to abandon the diplomatic career path he had chosen and instead follow his dreams. The next month, as if to confirm his decision, he met a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn while mountaineering in the Alps, and when he returned to London he was initiated into the order, with the magical name of Perdurabo, “I shall endure to the end”.  The Golden Dawn believed that there were supremely powerful spiritual entities, known as “Secret Chiefs”, that could be contacted by those who had sufficient occult development. This idea of a world behind the world fired up Crowley’s enthusiasm, and he rose through the ranks of the order swiftly.  Not all viewed him kindly however – his notoriously decadent lifestyle drew criticism from those who viewed the Order as a scholastic pursuit, such as Irish poet WB Yeats. When the Order in London refused to initiate him into the next rank, he visited Paris and was initiated by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the leader of the order. At Mather’s request, he then attempted to get the London Order evicted from their headquarters, but the court ruled that since the rent was paid by the rebellious Londoners, they were the legal tenants. As a result, in 1900 both Crowley and Mathers were forced out of the Order.
The court case accomplished one thing – it made Crowley a public figure. His licentious lifestyle and unusual beliefs, combined with his talent for creating controversy, would prove to be a potent combination. In the immediate aftermath of the expulsion, however, he set out travelling around the world. He first lived in Mexico for some time, climbing mountains and practising magic, before heading to San Francisco and then on to Hawaii. He continued west, passing through Japan and China before coming to Sri Lanka, where he met Allan Bennett, another former member of the Golden Dawn. The pair studied together before Bennett decided to become a Buddhist monk. The monastic life held no allure for Crowley, and he continued west, studying yoga and contracting malaria in India, taking part in an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, and then travelling back to Europe where he spent six months in Paris before he completed his circumnavigation by returning to Britain. It is said that travel broadens the mind – in Crowley’s case, where the mind was already broader than most, it seems to have totally opened it up. Hereafter he regarded society’s rules as simply contrivances which he would sometimes be forced to work within, but for which he had not even the slightest respect.
This was exemplified, perhaps, in his next action. He got married. Specifically, he eloped with Rose Edith Kelly, the sister of his friend the painter Gerald Festus Kelly. Originally this was a marriage of convenience to help her escape an arranged marriage, but Crowley fell in love with Rose and managed to win her affections in return. The two travelled to Egypt, and it was here that Crowley found religion. First his wife, who had developed a fever, told him “they are waiting for you”, before leading him to various exhibits on Egyptian gods in a local museum. Then Crowley himself began to hear voices, specifically that of an entity called Aiwass which claimed to come from the Egyptian god Horus. Under this influence Crowley wrote The Book of the Law, the holy text of the new religion he would found. At first, however, he ignored the book (which ordered him to, among other things, steal the Egyptian stele that had prompted his revelation). Instead he had a daughter with Rose (who would die of typhoid while he was off travelling), went mountaineering in Nepal once again and, in an amusing incident, was hired by the Earl of Tankerville to protect him against witchcraft. Crowley was not the fraudster he is sometimes painted as however, and realised that the Earl’s paranoia was actually the result of cocaine addiction, which he persuaded him to be treated for.
Crowley’s religion was not to be denied for long though, and he had several more visions and wrote several more holy texts.  His new religion was named Thelema, from the ancient Greek word for Will. Will was a central concept of the religion – its famous primary commandment of “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the law” was not, as it is often interpreted, a call to anarchy or hedonism but rather an exhortation to follow your True Will, or divine purpose. In 1907, Crowley (in co-operation with another ex-Golden Dawn member named George Cecil Jones) founded his own Order to spread his new religion, calling it “A^A^”.  At first, a rivalry developed with a different group named Ordo Templi Orientalis, the Order of Eastern Templars, over claims by their leader Theodor Reuss that Crowley had stolen some elements of his philosophy from them. The rivalry turned into an alliance when he convinced them that the similarities were due to similar insights rather than theft, and the two became allies, with Crowley becoming the head of OTO in Britain and, after the outbreak of World War I led him to move to America, the USA. The OTO introduced Crowley to the concept of “sex magick”, and this had a profound impact on his own magical practices, to the extent of becoming an almost self-destructive obsession.  Eventually, after Reuss had a stroke in 1920, Crowley assumed the leadership of the OTO and converted it fully to his own Thelemic philosophy. It was fortunate for him that he had managed to gain such a position, as around this time the money he had inherited from his father ran out, leaving him with no income other than donations to the OTO. This left him unable to afford to sue the papers for libel no matter what they printed about him, a privilege they gleefully abused, lambasting him for having spoken in support of Germany during World War I  and declaring him “a fellow we’d love to hang”. Crowley at this point was living in an OTO commune in Sicily (and battling a heroin addiction he had developed after being prescribed it as an asthma medication), but the lurid stories of the goings on there (not necessarily too far from the truth, as drug use and public fornication were both common in the “Abbey”) led to Mussolini’s government deporting him in 1923.
Crowley spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe in infamy, a common piece of fodder for the tabloids and the occasional source of scandal. He suffered financial problems, and did attempt to sue some of those who had written about him for libel. Some of these cases he won, others he lost, and in 1935 he was declared bankrupt. At the outbreak of World War 2 he offered his services to Naval Intelligence but was declined. Nonetheless, he was acquainted with many literary intelligence officers such as Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley.  In 1947, at the age of 72, he died of bronchitis. Twelve people attended his funeral, which was (again, inaccurately) described as a “Black Mass” in the tabloids.
Free of the inconvenience of being attached to his ailing elderly body, his legend continued to grow apace. The counterculture of the 60s and 70s embraced him, as a symbol of rebellion and of hidden wisdom. He appeared on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and was an influence on the Rolling Stones through their association with the Thelemite filmmaker Kenneth Anger. However the band most famously influenced by him were Led Zeppelin, who quoted his writings on their album covers. Jimmy Page even bought Crowley’s old house on the shores of Loch Ness. Ozzy Osbourne went one step further, writing the darkly perfect ballad “Mr Crowley” about him. Of course, this association would prove a boon to later writers who sought to prove the “Satanic” influences on rock and roll music, and who were free to make up the kind of hyperbolic stories that tabloids during his lifetime could only have dreamed of. But it’s hard to imagine that Crowley would have minded this much. During his lifetime he rarely cared what anybody else thought of him, and if he had been told that his legacy was to inspire others to throw off the strictures of society and do what they would, he’d probably have been quite pleased. He was, by the standards of his day, a criminal and a menace to society. His writings give the impression of someone incredibly impressed with their own cleverness, and he was frequently controversial simply for the sake of being controversial. In short, he was a bit of a tosser.  But he never compromised on his own beliefs, he remained true to his own philosophy, and in the end he achieved the closest to apotheosis that anyone can achieve. He became more than a man – he became a symbol of Magic itself. What magician could ask for anything more?
Images via wikimedia.
 Which was incorrect, as his religion was neither Christian nor the peculiar (and generally apocryphal) inversion of it that is generally labelled as Satanism.
 Also inaccurate, especially given that this appeared in print the same year that Hitler was in a German jail writing Mein Kampf.
 The Exclusive branch of the Brethren were founded by John Nelson Darby, whose family came from the infamous Leap Castle in County Offaly.
 It was from one of these that he caught the first of many STDs he would suffer from in his lifetime, gonorrhoea.
 Chalking up STD number 2, syphilis.
 Such motto names were adopted by all members of the Dawn. Other notable examples include that of WB Yeats (Demon est Deus inversus, “The demon is the reverse of God”) and Maud Gonne (Per Ignem ad Lucem, “Through fire to the light”).
 It was around this time that he purchased Boleskine House, a lodge next to a cemetery on the shores of Loch Ness.
 Crowley’s other works included poetry, erotica and semi-autobiographical fiction. His attitudes in writing were typical for one of his class at the time, which is to say blatantly racist and misogynistic by modern standards.
 It’s worth noting, for the modern internet generation, that this meant that Crowley knew how to triforce.
 Crowley introduced homosexual sex magick into the OTO’s rites, but he was most famous for having the office of “Scarlet Woman”, the earthly representative of the Thelemic deity Babalon, whose duty it was to participate in their sacred sexual rites of initiation. Most of Crowley’s lovers during this period served in the role.
 Crowley claimed in his autobiography that his speeches in support of Germany in the US were actually done at the request of British Intelligence in order to taint them by association with him. It’s certain that this was the effect they had.
 Wheatley met Crowley in 1934, when he gave him a great deal of advice on lending authenticity to his first occult-themed novel, The Devil Rides Out. The two are often inextricably linked in the public consciousness, though that may have been the only time they ever actually met.
 In the literal sense, in fact. A line in one of his books often misinterpreted as advocating human sacrifice is actually a veiled reference to masturbatory sex magick (much beloved by modern comics writer Grant Morrison).