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Aleister Crowley, c. 1912
|Born||Edward Alexander Crowley|
12 October 1875
Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
|Died||1 December 1947 (aged 72)|
Hastings, East Sussex
Aleister Crowley, c. 1912
|Born||Edward Alexander Crowley|
12 October 1875
Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
|Died||1 December 1947 (aged 72)|
Hastings, East Sussex
Aleister Crowley (//; 1875–1947), born Edward Alexander Crowley, was an English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, and mountaineer. He was responsible for founding the religion and philosophy of Thelema, in which role he identified himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Aeon of Horus in the early 20th century.
Born to a wealthy Plymouth Brethren family, Crowley rejected this faith to pursue western esotericism, poetry, and mountaineering. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he embraced his bisexuality. Some biographers have claimed that he was recruited as a spy for British intelligence there, a role they allege he maintained throughout his life. In 1898 he joined the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, before moving to Boleskine House by Loch Ness, and travelling to Mexico and India to study Hindu and Buddhist practices. He married Rose Edith Kelly and they travelled to Cairo in 1904; there, Crowley claimed to have been contacted by a supernatural entity named Aiwass, who provided him with The Book of the Law, a sacred text that served as the basis for Thelema.
After an unsuccessful attempt to climb Kangchenjunga, Crowley returned to Britain where, in 1907, he and George Cecil Jones co-founded the A∴A∴ as a Thelemite order. After spending time in Algeria, he was initiated into the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) in 1912, rising to become the leader of the Order's British branch, which he reformulated in accordance with his Thelemite beliefs. After spending the First World War in the United States, where he worked for British intelligence services to infiltrate the pro-German lobby, in 1920 he moved to Cefalù in Sicily, to run a commune known as the Abbey of Thelema. His libertine lifestyle led to denunciations in the British press, and the Italian government evicted him in 1923. He divided the following two decades between France, Germany, and England, and continued to promote Thelema until his death.
Crowley gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, being openly bisexual, a recreational drug experimenter, and an individualist social critic. As a result, he was denounced in the popular press as "the wickedest man in the world" and erroneously labelled a Satanist. Crowley has remained a highly influential figure over western esotericism and the counter-culture, and continues to be recognised as a prophet in Thelema. In 2002, a BBC poll ranked him as the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time.
Crowley was born as Edward Alexander Crowley at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 12 October 1875. His father, Edward Crowley (1834–87), was trained as an engineer but never worked as one, instead owning shares in a lucrative family brewing business, Crowley's Alton Ales, which allowed him to retire before his son was born. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop (1848–1917), came from a Devonshire-Somerset family and had a strained relationship with her son; she described him as "the Beast", a name that he revelled in. The couple had been married at London's Kensington Registry Office in November 1874, and were evangelical Christians. Crowley's father was born a Quaker and converted to the Exclusive Brethren, an ultra-conservative faction of the Plymouth Brethren, with Emily joining him upon marriage. Crowley's father was particularly devout, spending his time as a travelling preacher for the sect and reading a chapter from the Bible to his wife and son after breakfast every day. Following the death of their baby daughter in 1880, in 1881 the family moved to Redhill, Surrey. At age 8, Crowley was sent to H.T. Habershon's evangelical Christian boarding school in Hastings, and then to the preparatory Ebor school in Cambridge, run by the Reverend Henry d'Arcy Champney, whom Crowley considered a sadist.
In March 1887, when Crowley was 11, his father died of tongue cancer. Crowley described this as a turning point in his life, and he always maintained an admiration of his father, describing him as "his hero and his friend". Inheriting a third of his father's wealth, he began misbehaving at school and was harshly punished by Champney; Crowley's family removed him from the school when he contracted albuminuria. He then attended Malvern College and Tonbridge School, both of which he despised and left after a few terms. He became increasingly sceptical regarding Christianity, pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible to his religious teachers, and went against the Christian morality of his upbringing by smoking, masturbating, and having sex with women, including a prostitute from whom he contracted gonorrhea. Sent to live with a Brethren tutor in Eastbourne, he undertook chemistry courses at Eastbourne College. Crowley developed his interests in chess, poetry, and mountain climbing, and in 1894 climbed Beachy Head before visiting the Alps and joining the Scottish Mountaineering Club. The following year he returned to the Bernese Alps, climbing the Eiger, Trift, Jungfrau, Mönch, and Wetterhorn.
Having adopted the name of Aleister over Edward, in October 1895 Crowley began a three-year course at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was entered for the Moral Science Tripos studying philosophy. With approval from his personal tutor, he changed to English literature, which was not then part of the curriculum offered. Crowley spent much of his time at university engaged in his pastimes, becoming president of the chess club and practising the game for two hours a day; he briefly considered a professional career in the sport. Crowley also embraced his love of literature and poetry, becoming a particular fan of Richard Francis Burton and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and many of his own poems appeared in student publications The Granta, Cambridge Magazine, and Cantab. Another hobby was mountaineering; he went on holiday to the Alps to climb every year from 1894 to 1898, often with his friend Oscar Eckenstein, and in 1897 he made the first ascent of the Mönch without a guide. These feats led to his recognition in the Alpine mountaineering community.
Crowley later claimed to have had his first significant mystical experience while on a holiday in Stockholm in December 1896. Several biographers, including Lawrence Sutin, Richard Kaczynski, and Tobias Churton, believed that this was the result of Crowley's first homosexual encounter, enabling him to recognise his bisexuality. At Cambridge, Crowley maintained a vigorous sex life, largely with female prostitutes, from one of whom he caught syphilis, but eventually he took part in same-sex activities, despite their illegality. In October 1897, Crowley met Herbert Charles Pollitt, president of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, and the two entered into a relationship. They broke apart because Pollitt did not share Crowley's increasing interest in Western esotericism, something Crowley regretted for years.
In 1897, Crowley travelled to St Petersburg in Russia, later claiming that he was trying to learn Russian as he considered a future diplomatic career there. Biographers Richard Spence and Tobias Churton suggested that Crowley had done so as an intelligence agent under the employ of the British secret service, speculating that he had been enlisted while at Cambridge.
In October 1897, a brief illness triggered considerations of mortality and "the futility of all human endeavour", and Crowley abandoned all thoughts of a diplomatic career in favour of pursuing an interest in the occult. In March 1898, he obtained A.E. Waite's The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts (1898), and then Karl von Eckartshausen's The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary (1896), furthering his occult interests. In 1898 Crowley privately published 100 copies of his poem Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers In, but it was not a particular success. That same year he published a string of other poems, including the collection White Stains, a piece of decadent erotica that had to be printed abroad in case it caused trouble with the British authorities. In July 1898, he left Cambridge, not having taken any degree at all despite a "first class" showing in his 1897 exams and consistent "second class honours" results before that.
In August 1898, Crowley was in Zermatt, Switzerland, where he met the chemist Julian L. Baker, and the two began discussing their common interest in alchemy. Back in London, Baker introduced Crowley to George Cecil Jones, a member of the occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which had been founded in 1888. Crowley was initiated into the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn on 18 November 1898 by the group's leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. The ceremony took place at the Isis-Urania Temple in London's Mark Masons Hall, where Crowley accepted his motto and magical name of "Frater Perdurabo", a Latin term meaning "Brother I shall endure to the end". Biographers Richard Spence and Tobias Churton have suggested that Crowley joined the Order under the command of the British secret services to monitor the activities of Mathers, who was known to be a Carlist.
Crowley moved from the Hotel Cecil to his own luxury flat at 67–69 Chancery Lane. He soon invited a senior Golden Dawn member, Allan Bennett, to live with him as his personal magical tutor. Bennett taught Crowley more about ceremonial magic and the ritual use of drugs, and together they performed the rituals of the Goetia, until Bennett left for South Asia to study Buddhism. In November 1899, Crowley purchased Boleskine House in Foyers on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland. He developed a love of Scottish culture, describing himself as the "Laird of Boleskine" and took to wearing traditional highland dress, even during visits to London. He continued writing poetry, publishing Jezebel and Other Tragic Poems (1898), Tales of Archais (1898), Songs of the Spirit (1898), Appeal to the American Republic (1899), and Jephthah (1899); most gained mixed reviews, and the latter was a critical success.
Crowley soon progressed through the grades of the Golden Dawn, and was ready to enter the inner Second Order. He was unpopular in the group; his bisexuality and libertine lifestyle had gained him a bad reputation, and he developed feuds with members like W.B. Yeats. When the London Golden Dawn refused to initiate Crowley into the Second Order, he visited Mathers in Paris, who personally upgraded him. A schism had developed between Mathers and the London members of the Golden Dawn, who were unhappy with his autocratic rule. Acting under Mathers' orders, Crowley – with the help of his mistress and fellow initiate Elaine Simpson – attempted to seize the Vault of Rosenkreutz, a temple space at 36 Blythe Road, from the London rebels. When the case was taken to court, the judge ruled in favour of the rebels, as they had paid for the space's rent, leaving both Crowley and Mathers isolated from the group. Spence suggested that the entire scenario was part of an intelligence operation to undermine Mathers' authority.
In 1900, Crowley travelled to Mexico via the United States, settling in Mexico City and taking a local woman as his mistress. Developing a love of the country, he continued experimenting with ceremonial magic, working with John Dee's Enochian invocations. He later claimed to have been initiated into Freemasonry while in the city, and spending time writing, he wrote a play based on Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser as well as a series of poems, published as Oracles (1905). Eckenstein joined him later that year, and together they climbed several mountains, including Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl, and Colima, the latter of which they had to abandon owing to a volcanic eruption. Spence has suggested that the purpose of the trip might have been to explore Mexican oil prospects for British intelligence. Leaving Mexico, Crowley headed to San Francisco before sailing for Hawaii aboard the Nippon Maru. On the ship he had a brief affair with a married woman named Mary Alice Rogers; claiming to have fallen in love with her, he wrote a series of poems about the romance, published as Alice: An Adultery (1903).
Briefly stopping at Japan and Hong Kong, Crowley reached Ceylon, where he met with Allan Bennett, who was there studying Shaivism. The pair spent some time in Kandy before Bennett decided to become a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition, travelling to Burma to do so. Crowley decided to tour India, devoting himself to the Hindu practice of raja yoga, from which he claimed to have achieved the spiritual state of dhyana. He spent much of this time studying at the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madura, and also wrote poetry which was published as The Sword of Song (1904). He contracted malaria, and had to recuperate from the disease in Calcutta and Rangoon. In 1902, he was joined in India by Eckenstein and several other mountaineers: Guy Knowles, H. Pfannl, V. Wesseley, and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. Together the Eckenstein-Crowley expedition attempted K2, which had never been climbed. On the journey, Crowley was afflicted with influenza, malaria, and snow blindness, and other expedition members were also struck with illness. They reached an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,100 m) before turning back.
Arriving in Paris in November 1902, he associated largely with the painter Gerald Festus Kelly, and through him became a fixture of the Parisian arts scene, authoring a series of poems on the work of an acquaintance, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, published as Rodin in Rime (1907). One of those frequenting this milieu was W. Somerset Maugham, who after briefly meeting Crowley later used him as a model for the character of Oliver Haddo in his novel The Magician (1908). Returning to Boleskine in April 1903, in August Crowley wed Gerald's sister Rose Edith Kelly in a "marriage of convenience" to prevent her entering an arranged marriage; the marriage appalled the Kelly family and damaged his friendship with Gerald. Heading on a honeymoon to Paris, Cairo, and then Ceylon, Crowley fell in love with her and set about to successfully prove his affections. He wrote her a series of love poems, published as Rosa Mundi and other Love Songs (1906), also authoring Why Jesus Wept.
In February 1904, Crowley and Rose arrived in Cairo. Claiming to be a prince and princess, they rented an apartment in which Crowley set up a temple room and began invoking ancient Egyptian deities, also studying Arabic and Islamic mysticism. According to Crowley's later account, Rose regularly became delirious and informed him "they are waiting for you". On 18 March, she explained that "they" were the god Horus, and on 20 March proclaimed that "the Equinox of the Gods has come." She led him to a nearby museum, where she showed him a seventh-century BCE mortuary stele known as the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu (Crowley later termed it the "Stele of Revealing"); Crowley was astounded, for the exhibit's number was 666, the number of the beast in Christian belief.
According to later claims, on 8 April Crowley heard a disembodied voice claiming to be coming from Aiwass, an entity who was the messenger of Horus, or Hoor-Paar-Kraat. Crowley said that he wrote down everything the voice told him over the course of the next three days, and titled it Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law. The book proclaimed that humanity was entering a new Aeon, and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. It stated that a supreme moral law was to be introduced in this Aeon, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law", and that people should learn to live in tune with their "True Will". This book, and the philosophy that it espoused, became the cornerstone of Crowley's religion, Thelema. Crowley was unsure what to do with The Book of the Law, and often came to resent it. He ignored the instructions that it commanded him to perform, which included taking the Stele of Revealing from the museum, fortifying his own island, and translating the book into all the world's languages. Instead he sent typescripts of the work to several occultists he knew, and then "put aside the book with relief".
Returning to Boleskine, Crowley came to believe that Mathers had begun using magic against him, and the relationship between the two broke down. On 28 July 1905, Rose gave birth to Crowley's first child, a daughter named Lilith, with Crowley authoring the pornographic Snowdrops From a Curate's Garden to entertain his recuperating wife. He also founded a publishing company through which to publish his poetry, naming it the Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth in parody of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Among its first publications were Crowley's Collected Works, edited by Ivor Back. His poetry often received strong reviews (either positive or negative), but never sold well. In an attempt to gain more publicity, he issued a reward of £100 for the best essay on his work. The winner of this was J.F.C. Fuller, a British Army officer and military historian, whose essay, The Star in the West (1907), heralded Crowley's poetry as some of the greatest ever written.
Crowley decided to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, widely recognised as the world's most treacherous mountain. Assembling a team consisting of Jacot-Guillarmod, Charles Adolphe Reymond, Alexis Pache, and Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi, the expedition was marred by much argument between Crowley and the others, who felt that he was reckless. They eventually mutinied against Crowley's control, with the other climbers heading back down the mountain as nightfall approached despite Crowley's warnings that it was too dangerous. Crowley was proved right as Pache and several porters were killed in an accident, something for which Crowley was widely blamed by the mountaineering community.
Spending time in Moharbhanj, where he took part in big game hunting and wrote the homoerotic work The Scented Garden, Crowley met up with Rose and Lilith in Calcutta before being forced to leave India after shooting dead a native who tried to mug him. Briefly visiting Bennett in Burma, Crowley and his family decided to tour Southern China, hiring porters and a nanny for the purpose. Spence has suggested that this was part of Crowley's job as an intelligence agent, in order to report on the region's opium trade. Crowley smoked opium throughout the journey, which took the family from Tengyueh through to Yungchang, Tali, Yunnanfu, and then Hanoi, before sailing to Hong Kong. On the way he spent much time on spiritual and magical work, reciting invocations from the Goetia on a daily basis. 
While Rose and Lilith returned to Europe, Crowley headed to Shanghai to meet old friend Elaine Simpson, who was fascinated by The Book of the Law; together they performed rituals to contact Aiwass. Crowley then sailed to Japan and Canada, before continuing to New York City, where he unsuccessfully attempted to gain support for a second expedition up Kangchenjunga. Upon arrival in Britain, Crowley learned that his daughter Lilith had died of typhoid in Rangoon, something he later blamed on Rose's increasing alcoholism. Heartbroken, his health began to suffer, and he underwent a series of surgical operations. He began short-lived romances with actress Vera "Lola" Stepp and author Ada Leverson, and Rose gave birth to Crowley's second daughter, Lola Zaza, in February 1907.
With his old mentor George Cecil Jones, Crowley continued performing the Abramelin rituals at the Ashdown Park Hotel in Coulsdon, Surrey. Crowley claimed that in doing so he attained samadhi, or union with Godhead, thereby marking a turning point in his life. Making heavy use of hashish during these rituals, he wrote an influential essay on "The Psychology of Hashish" (1909). He also claimed to have been contacted once again by Aiwass in late October and November 1907, resulting in two further texts, "Liber VII" and "Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente", which was later classified in the corpus of Holy Books of Thelema. Crowley wrote down more received Thelemic Holy Books during the last two months of the year, including "Liber LXVI", "Liber Arcanorum", "Liber Porta Lucis, Sub Figura X", "Liber Tau", "Liber Trigrammaton" and "Liber DCCCXIII vel Ararita". In June 1909, when the manuscript of The Book of the Law was rediscovered at Boleskine, Crowley finally came to fully accept Thelema as objective truth.
Crowley's inheritance was running out. Trying to earn money, he was hired by George Montagu Bennett, the Earl of Tankerville, to help protect him from witchcraft; recognising Bennett's paranoia as being based in his cocaine addiction, Crowley took him on a holiday to France and Morocco to recuperate. In 1907, he also began taking in paying students, whom he instructed in occult and magical practice. Victor Neuburg became his closest disciple, whom he met in February 1907. They became close friends and sexual partners, and in 1908 toured northern Spain before heading to Tangier, Morocco. In 1909, Neuburg stayed at Boleskine, where he and Crowley engaged in sadomasochism. Crowley continued to write prolifically, producing such works of poetry as Ambergris, Clouds Without Water, and Konx Om Pax, as well as his first attempt at an autobiography, The World's Tragedy. Recognising the popularity of short horror stories, he wrote his own, some of which saw publication, and he also published several articles in Vanity Fair, a magazine edited by his friend Frank Harris. He also wrote Liber 777, a book of magical and Qabalistic correspondences that borrowed from Mathers and Bennett.
In November 1907, Crowley and Jones decided to found an occult order to act as a successor to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, being aided in doing so by Fuller. The result was the A∴A∴. The group's headquarters and temple were situated at 124 Victoria Street in central London, and their rites borrowed much from those of the Golden Dawn, but with an added Thelemic basis. Its earliest members included solicitor Richard Noel Warren, artist Austin Osman Spare, Horace Sheridan-Bickers, author George Raffalovich, Francis Henry Everard Joseph Feilding, engineer Herbert Edward Inman, Kenneth Ward, and Charles Stansfeld Jones. In March 1909, Crowley began production of a biannual periodical that acted as the "Official Organ" of the A∴A∴, titled The Equinox, which was billed as "The Review of Scientific Illuminism". The philosophy it espoused was described as "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion", and it contained both articles on occultism, non-fiction pieces, and artworks.
Meanwhile, unable to stand her alcoholism, Crowley divorced Rose in November 1909, on the grounds of his own adultery. Lola was entrusted to Rose's care; the couple remained friends and she continued to live at Boleskine. Her alcoholism worsened, and as a result she was institutionalised in September 1911.
In November 1909, Crowley and Neuburg travelled to Algeria, touring the desert from El Arba to Aumale, Bou Saâda, and then Dā'leh Addin, with Crowley reciting the Quran on a daily basis. During the trip he performed the 19 Calls of Enochian magic, with Neuburg recording the results, later published in The Equinox as The Vision and the Voice. Following a mountaintop sex magic ritual, Crowley also performed an invocation to the demon Choronzon involving blood sacrifice, considering the results to be a watershed in his magical career. Returning to London in January 1910, Crowley found that Mathers was suing him for publishing Golden Dawn secrets in The Equinox; the court found in favour of Crowley. The case was widely reported on in the press, with Crowley gaining wider fame. Crowley enjoyed this, and played up to the sensationalist stereotype of being a Satanist and advocate of human sacrifice, despite being neither.
The publicity attracted new members to the A∴A∴, among them Frank Bennett, James Bayley, Herbert Close, and James Windram. The Australian violinist Leila Waddell soon became Crowley's lover. Deciding to expand his teachings to a wider audience, Crowley developed the Rites of Artemis, a public performance of magic and symbolism featuring A∴A∴ members personifying various deities. It was first performed at the A∴A∴ headquarters, with attendees given a fruit punch containing peyote to enhance their experience. Various members of the press attended, and reported largely positively on it. In October and November 1910, Crowley decided to stage something similar, the Rites of Eleusis, at Caxton Hall, Westminster; this time press reviews were mixed. Crowley came under particular criticism from West de Wend Fenton, editor of The Looking Glass newspaper, who called him "one of the most blasphemous and cold-blooded villains of modern times." Fenton's articles inferred that Crowley and Jones were involved in homosexual activity; Crowley did not mind, but Jones was incensed and unsuccessfully sued for libel. Fuller broke off his friendship and involvement with Crowley over the scandal, and Crowley and Neuburg returned to Algeria for further magical workings.
The Equinox continued publishing, and various books of literature and poetry were also published under its imprint, like Crowley's Ambergris, The Winged Beetle, and The Scented Garden, as well as Neuburg's The Triumph of Pan and Ethel Archer's The Whirlpool. In 1911, Crowley and Waddell holidayed in Montigny-sur-Loing, where he wrote prolifically, producing poems, short stories, plays, and 19 works on magic and mysticism, including the two final Holy Books of Thelema. In Paris, he met Mary Desti, who became his next "Scarlet Woman", with the two undertaking magical workings in St. Moritz; Crowley believed that one of the Secret Chiefs, Ab-ul-Diz, was speaking through her. Based on Desti's statements when in trance, Crowley wrote the two-volume Book 4 (1912–13) and developed the spelling "magick" to differentiate what he practised from the tricks of illusionists.
In early 1912, Crowley published The Book of Lies, a work of mysticism that biographer Lawrence Sutin described as "his greatest success in merging his talents as poet, scholar, and magus". The German occultist Theodor Reuss later accused him of publishing some of the secrets of his own occult order, the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), within The Book. Crowley convinced Reuss that the similarities were coincidental, and the two became friends. Reuss appointed Crowley as head of the O.T.O's British branch, the Mysteria Magica Maxima (MMM), and at a ceremony in Berlin Crowley adopted the magical name of Baphomet and was proclaimed "X° Supreme Rex and Sovereign Grand Master General of Ireland, Iona, and all the Britons". With Reuss' permission, Crowley set about advertising the MMM and re-writing many O.T.O. rituals, which were then based largely on Freemasonry; his incorporation of Thelemite elements proved controversial in the group. Fascinated by the O.T.O's emphasis on sex magic, Crowley devised a magical working based on anal sex and incorporated it into the syllabus for XI° level initiates.
In March 1913 Crowley acted as producer for The Ragged Ragtime Girls, a group of female violinists led by Waddell, as they performed at London's Old Tivoli theatre. They subsequently performed in Moscow for six weeks, where Crowley had a sadomasochistic relationship with the Hungarian Anny Ringler. In Moscow, Crowley continued to write plays and poetry, including "Hymn to Pan", and the Gnostic Mass, a Thelemic ritual that became a key part of O.T.O. liturgy. Churton suggested that Crowley had travelled to Moscow on the orders of British intelligence to spy on revolutionary elements in the city. In January 1914 Crowley and Neuburg settled in to an apartment in Paris, where he was involved in the controversy surrounding Jacob Epstein's new monument to Oscar Wilde,, and they performed the six-week "Paris Working", in which they invoked the gods Mercury and Jupiter. Involving strong drug use, they performed sex magic themselves and with journalist Walter Duranty. Crowley wrote down the results of the working, among them Liber Agapé, a treatise on sex magic. Following the Working, Neuburg began to distance himself from Crowley, resulting in an argument in which Crowley cursed him.
By 1914 Crowley was living a hand-to-mouth existence, relying largely on donations and the membership fees from the O.T.O. and A∴A∴. In May he transferred ownership of Boleskine House to the MMM for financial reasons, and in July he went mountaineering in the Swiss Alps. During this time the First World War broke out. After recuperating from a bout of phlebitis, Crowley set sail for the United States aboard the RMS Lusitania in October 1914. Arriving in New York City, he moved into a hotel and began earning money writing for the American edition of Vanity Fair and undertaking freelance work for the famed astrologer Evangeline Adams. In the city, he continued experimenting with sex magic, through the use of masturbation, female prostitutes, and male clients of a Turkish bathhouse; all of these encounters were documented in his diaries.
Professing to be of Irish ancestry and a supporter of Irish independence from Great Britain, Crowley began to espouse views supporting Germany in their war against Britain. He became involved in New York's pro-German movement, and in January 1915 German spy George Sylvester Viereck employed him as a writer for his propagandist paper, The Fatherland, which was dedicated to keeping the U.S. neutral in the conflict. In later years, detractors denounced Crowley as a traitor to Britain for this action. In reality, Crowley was a double agent, working for the British intelligence services to infiltrate and undermine Germany's operation in New York. Many of his articles in The Fatherland were hyperbolic, for instance comparing Kaiser Wilhelm II to Jesus Christ; in July 1915 he orchestrated a publicity stunt – reported on by The New York Times – in which he declared independence for Ireland in front of the Statue of Liberty; the real intention was to make the German lobby appear ridiculous in the eyes of the American public. It has been argued that he encouraged the German Navy to destroy the Lusitania, informing them that it would ensure the U.S. stayed out of the war, while in reality hoping that it would bring the U.S. into the war on Britain's side.
Crowley entered into a relationship with Jeanne Robert Foster, with whom he toured the West Coast. In Vancouver, headquarters of the North American O.T.O., he met with Charles Stansfeld Jones and Wilfred Talbot Smith to discuss the propagation of Thelema on the continent. In Detroit he experimented with anhalonium at Parke-Davis, then visited Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, and the Grand Canyon, before returning to New York. There he befriended Ananda Coomaraswamy and his wife Alice Richardson; Crowley and Richardson performed sex magic in April 1916, following which she became pregnant and then miscarried. Later that year he took a "magical retirement" to a cabin by Lake Pasquaney owned by Evangeline Adams. There, he made heavy use of drugs and undertook a ritual after which he proclaimed himself "Master Therion". He also wrote several short stories based on J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough and a work of literary criticism, The Gospel According to Bernard Shaw.
In December he moved to New Orleans, his favourite U.S. city, before spending February 1917 with evangelical Christian relatives in Titusville, Florida. Returning to New York, he moved in with artist and A∴A∴ member Leon Engars Kennedy, in May learning of his mother's death. After the collapse of The Fatherland, Crowley continued his association with Viereck, who appointed him contributing editor of arts journal The International. Crowley used it to promote Thelema, but it soon ceased publication. He then moved to the studio apartment of Roddie Minor, who became his partner and Scarlet Woman. Through their rituals, Crowley believed that they were contacted by a preternatural entity named Alamantrah. The relationship soon ended.
In 1918, Crowley went on a magical retreat in the wilderness of Esopus Island on the Hudson River. Here, he began a translation of the Tao Te Ching and experienced past life memories of being Ge Xuan, Pope Alexander VI, Alessandro Cagliostro, and Eliphas Levi, also painting Thelemic slogans on the riverside cliffs. Back in New York, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he took Leah Hirsig as his lover and next Scarlet Woman. He took up painting as a hobby, exhibiting his work at the Greenwich Village Liberal Club and attracting the attention of the New York Evening World. With the financial assistance of sympathetic Freemasons, Crowley revived The Equinox with the first issue of volume III, known as "The Blue Equinox." He spent mid-1919 on a climbing holiday in Montauk before returning to London in December.
Now destitute and back in London, Crowley came under attack from the tabloid John Bull, which labelled him traitorous "scum"; several friends aware of his intelligence work urged him to sue, but he decided not to. When he was suffering from asthma, a doctor prescribed him heroin, to which he soon became addicted. In January 1920, he moved to Paris, renting a house in Fontainebleau with Leah Hirsig; they were soon joined in a ménage à trois by Ninette Shumway, and also by Leah's newborn daughter Anne "Poupée" Leah. Crowley had ideas of forming a community of Thelemites, which he called the Abbey of Thelema after the Abbaye de Thélème in François Rabelais's satire Gargantua and Pantagruel. After consulting the I Ching, he chose Cefalù on Sicily as a location, and after arriving there, began renting the old Villa Santa Barbara as his Abbey on 2 April.
Moving to the commune with Hirsig, Shumway, and their children Hansi, Howard, and Poupée, Crowley described the scenario as "perfectly happy ... my idea of heaven." They wore robes, and performed rituals to the sun god Ra at set times during the day, also occasionally performing the Gnostic Mass; the rest of the day they were left to follow their own interests. Undertaking widespread correspondences, Crowley continued to paint, wrote a commentary on The Book of the Law, and revised the third part of Book 4. He offered a libertine education for the children, allowing them to play all day and witness acts of sex magic. He occasionally travelled to Palermo to visit rent boys and buy supplies, including drugs; his heroin addiction came to dominate his life, and cocaine began to erode his nasal cavity. There was no cleaning rota, and wild dogs and cats wandered throughout the building, which soon became unsanitary. Poupée died in October 1920, and Ninette gave birth to a daughter, Astarte Lulu Panthea, soon afterwards.
New followers continued to arrive at the Abbey to be taught by Crowley. Among them was film star Jane Wolfe, who arrived in July 1920, where she was initiated into the A∴A∴ and became Crowley's secretary. Another was Cecil Frederick Russell, who often argued with Crowley, disliking the same-sex sexual magic that he was required to perform, and left after a year. More conducive was the Australian Thelemite Frank Bennett, who also spent several months at the Abbey. In February 1922, Crowley returned to Paris for a retreat in an unsuccessful attempt to kick his heroin addiction. He then went to London in search of money, where he published articles in The English Review criticising the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 and wrote a novel, Diary of a Drug Fiend, completed in July. On publication, it received mixed reviews; he was lambasted by the Sunday Express, which called for its burning and used its influence to prevent further reprints.
Subsequently, a young Thelemite named Raoul Loveday moved to the Abbey with his wife Betty May; while Loveday was devoted to Crowley, May detested him and life at the commune. She later claimed that Loveday was made to drink the blood of a sacrificed cat, and that they were required to cut themselves with razors every time they used the pronoun "I". Raoul drank from a local polluted stream, soon developing a liver infection resulting in his death in February 1923. Returning to London, May told her story to the press. John Bull proclaimed Crowley "the wickedest man in the world" and "a man we'd like to hang", making various slanderous accusations against him, but he was unable to afford the legal fees to sue them. As a result, John Bull continued its attack, with the stories also being picked up by newspapers in North America and throughout Europe. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini learned of Crowley's activities and in April 1923 he was given a deportation notice forcing him to leave Italy; without him, the Abbey closed.
Crowley and Hirsig went to Tunis, where, dogged by continuing poor health, he unsuccessfully tried again to give up heroin, and began writing what he termed his "autohagiography", The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. They were joined in Tunis by the Thelemite Norman Mudd, who became Crowley's public relations consultant. Employing a local boy, Mohammad ben Brahim, as his servant, Crowley went with him on a retreat to Nefta, where they performed sex magic together. In January 1924, Crowley traveled to Nice, France, where he met with Frank Harris, underwent a series of nasal operations, and visited the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, thinking positively of its founder, George Gurdjieff. Destitute, he took on a wealthy student, Alexander Zu Zolar, before taking on another American follower, Dorothy Olsen. Crowley took Olsen back to Tunisia for a magical retreat in Nefta, where he also wrote To Man. After spending the winter in Paris, in early 1925 Crowley and Olsen returned to Tunis, where he wrote The Heart of the Master. In March Olsen became pregnant, and Hirsig was called to take care of her; she miscarried, following which Crowley took Olsen back to France. Hirsig later distanced herself from Crowley, who then denounced her.
According to Crowley, Reuss had named him head of the O.T.O. upon his death, but this was challenged by leader of the German O.T.O., Heinrich Tränker. Tränker called the Hohenleuben Conference in Thuringia, Germany, at which Crowley attended. There, prominent members like Karl Germer and Martha Küntzel championed Crowley's leadership, but others opposed it, resulting in a split in the O.T.O. Moving to Paris, where he broke with Olsen in 1926, Crowley went through a large number of Scarlet Women over the following years, with whom he experimented in sex magic. Throughout, he was dogged by poor health, largely caused by his heroin and cocaine addictions. In 1928, Crowley was introduced to young Englishman Israel Regardie, who embraced Thelema and became Crowley's secretary for the next three years. That year, Crowley also met Gerald Yorke, who began organising Crowley's finances; he never became a Thelemite. He also befriended Thomas Driberg; Driberg did not accept Thelema either. It was here that Crowley also published one of his most significant works, Magick in Theory and Practice, which received little attention at the time.
In December 1929 Crowley met the Nicaraguan Maria Teresa Sanchez, who became his most significant Scarlet Woman of the period. Crowley was deported from France by the authorities, who disliked his reputation and feared that he was a German agent. So that she could join him in Britain, Crowley married Sanchez in August 1929. Now based in London, Mandrake Press agreed to publish his autobiography in a limited edition six-volume set, also publishing his novel Moonchild and book of short stories The Stratagem. Mandrake went into liquidation in November 1930, before the entirety of Crowley's Confessions could be published. Mandrake's owner P.R. Stephenson meanwhile wrote The Legend of Aleister Crowley, an analysis of the media coverage surrounding him.
In April 1930, Crowley moved to Berlin, where he took Hanni Jaegar as his new Scarlet Woman; the relationship was troubled. In September he went to Lisbon in Portugal in order to meet the poet Fernando Pessoa. There, he decided to fake his own death, doing so with Pessoa's help at the Boca do Inferno rock formation. He then returned to Berlin, where he reappeared three weeks later at the opening of his art exhibition at the Gallery Neumann-Nierendorf. Crowley's paintings fitted with the fashion for German Expressionism; few of them sold, but the press reports were largely favourable. In August 1931, he took Bertha Busch as his new lover; they had a violent relationship, and often physically assaulted one another. He continued to have affairs with both men and women while in the city, and met with famous people like Aldous Huxley and Alfred Adler. After befriending him, in January 1932 he took the communist Gerald Hamilton as a lodger, through whom he was introduced to many figures within the Berlin far left; he was potentially a spy at this time.
Crowley left Busch and returned to London, where he took Pearl Brooksmith as his new Scarlet Woman. Undergoing further nasal surgery, it was here in 1932 that he was invited to be guest of honour at Foyles' Literary Luncheon, also being invited by Harry Price to speak at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research. In need of money, he launched a series of court cases against people whom he believed had libeled him, some of which proved successful. He gained much publicity for his lawsuit against Constable and Co for publishing Nina Hamnett's Laughing Torso (1932) – a book he thought libeled him – but lost the case. The court case added to Crowley's financial problems, and in February 1935 he was declared bankrupt. During the hearing, it was revealed that Crowley had been spending three times his income for several years.
Crowley developed a platonic friendship with Deidre Patricia O'Doherty; she agreed to bear his child, who was born in May 1937. Named Randall Gair, Crowley nicknamed him Aleister Atatürk. Crowley continued to socialise with friends, holding curry parties in which he cooked particularly spicy food for them. In 1936, he published his first book in six years, The Equinox of the Gods, which contained a facsimile of The Book of the Law and was considered to be volume III, number 3, of The Equinox periodical. The work sold well, resulting in a second print run. In 1937 he gave a series of public lectures on yoga in Soho. With the A∴A∴ effectively defunct, Crowley was now living largely off contributions supplied by the O.T.O.'s Agape Lodge in California, led by rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons. Crowley was intrigued by the rise of Nazism in Germany, and influenced by his friend Knüsel believed that Adolf Hitler might convert to Thelema; when the Nazis abolished the German O.T.O. and imprisoned Germer, who fled to the U.S., Crowley then lambasted Hitler as a black magician.
When the Second World War broke out, Crowley wrote to the Naval Intelligence Division offering his services, but they declined. He associated with a variety of figures in Britain's intelligence community at the time, including Dennis Wheatley, Ian Fleming, and Maxwell Knight, and claimed to have been behind the "V for Victory" sign first used by the BBC; this has never been proven. In 1940, his asthma worsened, and with his German-produced medication unavailable, he returned to using heroin, once again becoming addicted. As the Blitz hit London, Crowley relocated to Torquay, where he was briefly hospitalised with asthma, and entertained himself with visits to the local chess club. Tiring of Torquay, he returned to London, where he was visited by American Thelemite Grady McMurty, to whom Crowley awarded the title of "Hymenaeus Alpha." He stipulated that though Germer would be his immediate successor, McMurty should succeed Germer as head of the O.T.O. on the latter's death. With O.T.O. initiate Frieda Harris Crowley developed plans to produce a tarot card set, designed by him and painted by Harris. Accompanying this was a book, published in a limited edition as The Book of Thoth by Chiswick Press in 1944. To aid the war effort, he wrote a proclamation on the rights of humanity, Liber Oz, and a poem for the liberation of France, Le Gauloise. Crowley's final publication during his lifetime was a book of poetry, Olla: An Anthology of Sixty Years of Song. Another of his projects, Aleister Explains Everything, was posthumously published as Magick Without Tears.
In April 1944 Crowley briefly moved to Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, where he was visited by the poet Nancy Cunard, before relocating to Hastings in Sussex, where he took up residence at the Netherwood boarding house. He took a young man named Kenneth Grant as his secretary, paying him in magical teaching rather than wages. He was also introduced to John Symonds, whom he appointed to be his literary executor; Symonds thought little of Crowley, later publishing negative biographies of him. Corresponding with the illusionist Arnold Crowther, it was through him that Crowley was introduced to Gerald Gardner, the future founder of Gardnerian Wicca. They became friends, with Crowley authorising Gardner to revive Britain's ailing O.T.O. Another visitor was Eliza Marian Butler, who interviewed Crowley for her book The Myth of the Magus. Other friends and family also spent time with him, among them Doherty and his son Aleister Atatürk. On 1 December 1947, Crowley died at Netherwood of chronic bronchitis aggravated by pleurisy and myocardial degeneration, aged 72. His funeral was held at a Brighton crematorium on 5 December; about a dozen people attended, and Louis Wilkinson read excerpts from the Gnostic Mass, The Book of the Law, and "Hymn to Pan". The funeral generated press controversy, and was labelled a Black Mass by the tabloids. Crowley's ashes were sent to Germer in the U.S., who buried them in his garden in Hampton, New Jersey.
Crowley believed that the twentieth century marked humanity's entry to the Aeon of Horus, a new era in which humans would take increasing control of their destiny. He believed that this Aeon follows on from the Aeon of Osiris, in which paternalistic religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism dominated the world, and that this in turn had followed the Aeon of Isis, which had been maternalistic and dominated by goddess worship.
Thelema revolves around the idea that human beings each have their own True Will that they should discover and pursue, and that this would exist in harmony with the Cosmic Will that pervades the universe. In his book Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley defined Magick as "the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will." He also told his disciple Karl Germer that "Magick is getting into communication with individuals who exist on a higher plane than ours. Mysticism is the raising of oneself to their level." Crowley saw Magick as a third way between religion and science, giving The Equinox the subtitle of "The Method of Science; the Aim of Religion".
Both during his life and after it, Crowley has been widely described as a Satanist, usually by detractors. Crowley did not consider himself a Satanist, nor did he worship Satan, for he did not accept the Christian mythological world-view in which Satan was believed to exist. He was also accused of advocating human sacrifice, largely because of a passage in Book 4 in which he stated that "A male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence is the most satisfactory victim". This was intended as a veiled reference to masturbation. Philosopher John Moore opined that Crowley's thought was rooted in Romanticism and the Decadent movement, an assessment shared by historian Alex Owen, who noted that Crowley adhered to the "modus operandi" of the decadent movement throughout his life.
Crowley biographer Martin Booth asserted that Crowley was "self-confident, brash, eccentric, egotistic, highly intelligent, arrogant, witty, wealthy, and, when it suited him, cruel." Similarly, Richard Spence noted that Crowley was "capable of immense physical and emotional cruelty". Biographer Lawrence Sutin noted that Crowley exhibited "courage, skill, dauntless energy, and remarkable focus of will" while at the same time showing a "blind arrogance, petty fits of bile, [and] contempt for the abilities of his fellow men". The Thelemite Lon Milo DuQuette noted that Crowley "was by no means perfect" and "often alienated those who loved him dearest." Crowley enjoyed being outrageous and flaunting conventional morality, with John Symonds noting that he "was in revolt against the moral and religious values of his time". Describing democracy as an "imbecile and nauseating cult of weakness", he was a Social Darwinist and "amateur eugenicist"; he opposed abortion on moral grounds, believing that no woman following her True Will would ever desire one. Crowley also saw himself as an aristocrat, describing himself as Lord Boleskine; he had contempt for most of the British aristocracy.
Crowley was bisexual, and exhibited a sexual preference for women. In particular he had an attraction toward "exotic women", and claimed to have fallen in love on multiple occasions; Kaczynski stated that "when he loved, he did so with his whole being, but the passion was typically short-lived." Even in later life, he was able to attract young bohemian women to be his lovers, largely due to his charisma. During same-sex anal intercourse, he usually played the passive role, which Booth believed "appealed to his masochistic side." Crowley argued that gay and bisexual people should not suppress their sexual orientation, commenting that people "must not be ashamed or afraid of being homosexual if he happens to be so at heart; he must not attempt to violate his own true nature because of public opinion, or medieval morality, or religious prejudice which would wish he were otherwise."
Biographer Lawrence Sutin stated that "blatant bigotry is a persistent minor element in Crowley's writings". Sutin thought Crowley "a spoiled scion of a wealthy Victorian family who embodied many of the worst John Bull racial and social prejudices of his upper-class contemporaries", noting that he "embodied the contradiction that writhed within many Western intellectuals of the time: deeply held racist viewpoints courtesy of their culture, coupled with a fascination with people of colour". He insulted his close Jewish friend Victor Neuburg using anti-Semitic slurs, and he had mixed feelings for Jews as a group. Although he praised their "sublime" poetry and claimed that the "Jewish race" contained "imagination, romance, loyalty, probity and humanity in an exceptional degree", he also thought that centuries of persecution had led some Jews to exhibit "avarice, servility, falseness, cunning and the rest". He was also known to praise various ethnic and cultural groups, for instance he claimed that the Chinese people exhibited a "spiritual superiority" to the English, and praised Muslims for exhibiting "manliness, straightforwardness, subtlety, and self-respect." He had an especially high regard for the Balti people of northern Kashmir. Throughout his "Confessions", Crowley's strongest contempt is reserved for the English, and especially for the English middle class.
Crowley also exhibited a "general misogyny" that Booth believed arose from his bad relationship with his mother. Sutin noted that Crowley "largely accepted the notion, implicitly embodied in Victorian sexology, of women as secondary social beings in terms of intellect and sensibility". Crowley described women as "moral inferiors" who had to be treated with "firmness, kindness and justice." Conversely, Crowley also wrote that "We of Thelema say that 'Every man and every woman is a star.' We do not fool and flatter women, we do not despise and abuse them. To us, a woman is herself, absolute, original, independent, free, self-justified, exactly as a man is."
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. In 2002, a BBC poll placed Crowley seventy-third in a list of the 100 Greatest Britons. Wouter Hanegraaff asserted that Crowley was an extreme representation of "the dark side of the occult", while philosopher John Moore opined that Crowley stood out as a "Modern Master" when compared with other prominent occult figures like George Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, or Madame Blavatsky, also describing him as a "living embodiment" of Oswald Spengler's "Faustian Man". Biographer Tobias Churton considered Crowley "a pioneer of consciousness research", and Sutin thought that he had made "distinctly original contributions" to the study of yoga in the West.
Thelema continued to develop and spread following Crowley's death. In 1969, the O.T.O. was reactivated in California under the leadership of Grady Louis McMurty; in 1985 its right to the title was unsuccessfully challenged in court by a rival group, the Society Ordo Templi Orientis, led by Brazilian Thelemite Marcelo Ramos Motta. Another American Thelemite was the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who had been influenced by Crowley's writings from a young age. In the United Kingdom, Kenneth Grant propagated a tradition known as Typhonian Thelema through his organisation, the Typhonian OTO, later renamed the Typhonian Order. Also in Britain, an occultist known as Amado Crowley claimed to be Crowley's son; these claims have been refuted by academic investigation. Amado argued that Thelema was a false religion created by Crowley to hide his true esoteric teachings, which Amado claimed to be propagating. Several Western esoteric traditions other than Thelema were also influenced by Crowley. Gerald Gardner, founder of Gardnerian Wicca, made use of much of Crowley's published material when composing the Gardnerian ritual liturgy, and the Australian witch Rosaleen Norton was also heavily influenced by Crowley's ideas. L. Ron Hubbard, the American founder of Scientology, was involved in Thelema in the early 1940s (with Jack Parsons), and it has been argued that Crowley's ideas influenced some of his early work. Two prominent figures in religious Satanism, Anton LaVey and Michael Aquino, were also aware of Crowley's work, and had conflicting thoughts on it.
Crowley also had a wider influence in British popular culture. He was included as one of the figures on the cover art of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and his motto of "Do What Thou Wilt" was inscribed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin's album Led Zeppelin III (1970). David Bowie made reference to Crowley in the lyrics of his song "Quicksand" (1971); Ozzy Osbourne and his lyricist, Bob Daisley wrote a song titled "Mr. Crowley" (1980).
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