Aleister Crowley, sacred art

Aleister Crowley’s Secret Society of Magick and Excess


Self-promoted as the “Great Beast 666″ from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Slandered by the British press as the “Wickedest Man in the World.” Yet, theatrical occultist Aleister Crowley pioneered a radical re-imagining of self-actualization through managing paranormal spiritual entities called Magick, shaking up early 20th Century polite society. He founded the libertine religion of Thelema, and through sex rituals and extreme drug abuse, emphasized the not-necessarily-wicked ritual practice. 

Aleister Crowley, sacred art
Aleister Crowley: The Sun (Self Portrait) 1920. In pre-Christian mythologies and in the mystical system of the Cabalah, 666 (the mark of the Beast from ‘Revelations’, his nickname) was associated with the sun. Courtesy Ordo Templi Orientis

Mr. Crowley’s Revival: Huckster Magick or a Radical Futurist?

Using the dialectic of “Scientific Illuminism,” Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) broke from his privileged English Christian brewer’s society, endeavoring to use what he called “magick” to expand consciousness and free one from the restraints that hold them back from a higher purpose. Detractors confused this ego-infused pan-sexual ritualism with black magic or Satanism, and he remains a divisive and controversial figure, despite a continuing Occult revival, as well as counter-culture adherents over the years that included John Lennon, Timothy Leary, Ozzie Osbourne, filmmaker Kenneth AngerJimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Malcolm LowryWilliam Burroughs, psychedelic band Hawkwind, Industrial Noise band Throbbing Gristle, and of course David Bowie.

This genius ceremonial magician dabbled in raunchy poetry, “trance” painting, witty, strange, and dark (some say incomprehensible) fiction, and scaling Mexican volcanoes and savage peaks of Pakistan for fun. He authored The Book of the Law (Liber Legis), a text dictated to him while on his 1904 honeymoon in Cairo by a supernatural entity or “praeterhuman” being named Aiwass, which became the central text the religion he founded called Thelema. This Law exhorts followers on a metaphysical level to “do what thou wilt,” and to align themselves with their True Will, their “higher calling,” through the practice of what he called magick.

“I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”  —  Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

Crowley announced himself as the prophet of a new age, marking the 20th Century as the start of the Æon of Horus. Thelema asserted an overcoming of periods in history devoted to the Egyptian Great Goddess Isis (“Mother Earth” pagan) and the Egyptian patriarchal god Osiris (death worship and Christian glorification of suffering). The Aeon of Horus, the newly-born and awakened child god, sees humanity advancing upon a period of self-realization and self-actualization, with a nod toward the Age of Aquarius, which would serve as a 1960s-70s manifestation of Crowley’s tenets mixed with rock-star-hedonism.

Within the Thelemite religion, each of these aeons is believed to be “characterized by their [own specific] magical formula,” the use of which “is very important and fundamental to the understanding of Thelemic Magick.” It seems for Crowley, the formula worked, until it stopped working, and his egomania, substance abuse, and just general lack of disciplined willpower in a religion all about “the will,” became his undoing. Yet, his fame persists.

SLEEPING IN CARTHAGE – By Aleister Crowley
The month of thirst is ended. From the lips
That hide their blushes in the golden wood
A fervent fountain amorously slips,
The dainty rivers of thy luscious blood;
Red streams of sweet nepenthe that eclipse
The milder nectar that the gods hold good–
How my dry throat, held hard between thy hips,
Shall drain the moon-wrought flow of womanhood!

—  From “White Stains” 1898

Aleister Crowley - The Wickedest Man In the World

Aleister Crowley – The Wickedest Man In the World – BBC 4 – beware of the hyperbole of this documentary and the simplistic villain it portrays, Exhibit A in the continuing disinfo campaign. Consider it a 49 minute joke.

The Unveiling of the Company of Heaven: Thelema

Born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875 to wealthy British Plymouth Brethren brewers, as a young man he set about replacing the fundamentalist Christianity of his family and culture with a variety of extreme endeavors, including sex magic and Western esotericism derived from a synthesis of Eastern religions, the Qabalah (Kabbalah), and ancient and modern demonology.

For a brief stint he was a member of the secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Biographers suggested Crowley joined the Order under the command of British Intelligence agency MI-5 to monitor the activities of the group’s leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, who was known to be a Carlist. Crowley’s bisexuality and libertine lifestyle estranged him from prominent members like Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and he and Mathers ended up isolated from the group, which may have been his secret service role to begin with.

After much opium in China, climbing Kanchenjunga in Nepal which resulted in the death of a climber and several porters, losing his daughter to typhoid in Rangoon (and wife to alcoholism), reciting the “Bornless ritual” to his Holy Guardian Angel every night, and romances with miscellaneous actresses, authors, and seekers, led him to physical problems back in London around 1907. Thereafter, he and another founded A-A-, an occult order as a successor to the Golden Dawn. It’s members dedicated themselves to the transgressive advancement of humanity by perfection of the individual on every plane, employing universal initiations that mixed magick with Theraveda Buddhism and vedantic yoga, aiming to advance the notion of Scientific Illuminism.

“I cling unto the burning Æthyr like Lucifer that fell through the Abyss, and by the fury of his flight kindled the air.
And I am Belial, for having seen the Rose upon thy breast, I have denied God.
And I am Satan! I am Satan! I am cast out upon a burning crag! And the sea boils about the desolation thereof. And already the vultures gather, and feast upon my flesh.”
—  Aleister Crowley, The Vision and the Voice: With Commentary and Other Papers

Aleister Crowley, Thelema, Leila Waddell
Australian violinist Leila Waddell, a voluptuous beauty who became a famed Scarlet Woman (Goddess, Great Mother, Babalon) of Aleister Crowley, and a powerful historical figure in magick and Thelema in her own right.

He then kicked around Algeria in 1909 with his collaborator and lover Victor Neuberg, invoking complex Enochian magic, which involved angelic spirits. Critics point out Crowley’s methods were merely shorthand for its more comprehensive Qabalistic precursor, that it lacked sufficient protections for practitioners, leading to physical breakdowns, which one might argue kept happening to the “Beast” himself.

Gary Lachman recently wrote a more general critique of Crowley’s ego-tainted metaphysical practices in favor of the latter’s “cult of excess in all directions,” as friend Louis Wilkinson put it, as well as the problem of a mescaline/cocaine/heroin/hashish-infused “It’s all good,” way of being in the world. Some actions are clearly less good when one attempts to create themselves on a higher order of being for the good of humanity.

Crowley later returned to London to publicly perform the Rites of Artemis and Eleusis, introducing psychedelics to Europe with peyote (mescaline)-laced ceremonial symbolic magic rituals where A-A- embers personified certain deities, adding to his notoriety when the reviews covered his sexual interests and outed homosexual behavior for a number of his adherents.

After publishing the Book of Lies, what biographer Lawrence Sutin described as “his greatest success in merging his talents as poet, scholar, and magus,” he ended up joining forces with the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.). With roots in European Freemasonry, its initiatory system has among its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex magick. Through the ritual dramas, to which Crowley added homosexual practice (with some protest), inspired by Tantric schools of the East, calling initiates to use the immense potency of sexual energy to reach higher realms of spirituality.

When World War I broke out, Crowley headed for the US, where he began to publish hyperbolic support for Germany’s war with Britain, which he later argued made the stance seem ridiculous. Some assert again working for MI-5, he undermined the case for keeping the US neutral, by advocating for the German Navy to sink the Lusitania. Nevertheless, many saw his actions as traitorous to Britain.

“In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”  — Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice

STORY: Lucifer Rising: God of Light and Color in Experimental Film

Aleister Crowley, Thelema
Aleister Crowley: The Moon (Study for Tarot) 1921. Courtesy Ordo Templi Orientis

The “Anti-Monastery” and an Unclassifiable Legacy

In 1920, Crowley traveled to Cefalu, Sicily to establish The Abbey of Thelema, with a number of adepts. They dressed in robes and performed adoration rituals to the Sun god Ra, and free love dominated. He called the central room there The Chamber of Nightmares, painting the walls with demonic faces, revolutionary sayings, and symbolic figures designed to turn what was considered ordinary upside-down and to break down the ego. “The purpose of these pictures,” wrote Crowley, “is to enable people, by contemplation, to purify their minds.” While the Abbey itself is now lost, a handful of the artworks remain.

One of Crowley’s followers there died from drinking polluted water, but the man’s angry wife blamed it on his drinking the blood from a sacrificed cat. Thus, the British tabloids told stories of sex, drugs, and sacrifice, and labeled Crowley as “the wickedest man in the world,” which he did not bother to argue with. The Fascist Benito Mussolini ended up sending the Abby packing in 1923.

Heroin and cocaine addictions, numerous lovers and sex magick, publication of multiple treatises, stories, and poems, and continued money and health problems took over his later years, spent in Tunis, Paris, Berlin, and London. Most people found his overbearing personality unbearable, and he squandered his inherited wealth and lived much of his later life penniless. He died in 1947 from chronic bronchitis in an eccentric boarding house, debt-ridden, all of the former drama disappeared. His funeral was attended by a dozen people and was labeled a “Black Mass” by the tabloids.

It is, therefore, no argument against ceremonial magic to say that it is “absurd” to try to raise a thunderstorm by beating a drum; it is not even fair to say that you have tried the experiment, found it would not work, and so perceived it to be “impossible.” You might as well claim that, as you had taken paint and canvas, and not produced a Rembrandt, it was evident that the pictures attributed to his painting were really produced in quite a different way.  — Aleister Crowley

The Magician (1926) ~ In Hell

The Magician (1926) ~ In Hell. Rex Ingram’s brilliant and satirical adaptation of W. Somerset Maughm’s story about an obsessed magician–inspired by Aleister Crowley. The music is by Modest Mussorgsky (Night on Bald Mountain), orchestrated and conducted by Robert Israel.

Biographers are clear that despite all these impressive achievements, Crowley addictive personality and tendency towards immense physical and emotional cruelty limited his human connections. His political views are hard to contextualize, but academic Marco Pasi classified him as a “conservative revolutionary.” Pasi noted that Crowley sympathized with extreme ideologies like Nazism and Marxism-Leninism, in that they wished to violently overturn society and hoped that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union might adopt Thelema (seeing them through his own narcissistic vision). Crowley described democracy as an “imbecile and nauseating cult of weakness,” and commented that The Book of the Law proclaimed that “there is the master and there is the slave; the noble and the serf; the ‘lone wolf’ and the herd.” In this attitude he was influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and by Social Darwinism. He exhorted folks toward nobility, but treated others more like serfs.

Crowley’s legacy and fame nevertheless only continue to grow, and his O.T.O. today maintains connections with prominent members of world governments and influential leaders in science, law, and culture. He predicted the embrace of the me-generation solar-era, the Aeon of Horus, and the corresponding abandonment of traditional religions by elite and common society. Yet, can we say Crowley has gone mainstream? Nah.

Updated 20 February 2021

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  1. Max Talley: “Not sure if I’m with this guy or consider him the PT Barnum of the sham-anic, selfish pleasure culture, leading to a lot of quasi-mystical, New Age Wiccan believers in Big Sur and Mendocino.”

    An Drea: “Ever read “Diary of a Drug Fiend?” It’s like a novel-length Chick Tract but with Thelema instead of Christianity.”

    Matt Pallamary: “I’m a HUGE fan of Gurdjieff whose philosophy encompasses Ayahuasca shamanism and shamanism in general more than anyone I’ve read, including Jung who was a contemporary and somewhat of a protege of Gurdjieff. I read in a biography of Gurdjieff that when Crowley showed up to meet Gudjieff and spend some time with him, Gurdjieff scared the shit out of Crowley and Crowley took off, terrified after just a few days.
    “I think Mad Max Talley’s PT Barnum assessment is accurate.

    “Just my two cents.”

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