As one of the most highly misunderstood characters of the 20th century, Aleister Crowley has influenced not just religious and occult thought, but popular culture. He has been a never-ending source of inspiration for lyrical content in music, the main character of a novel, and a contributor to the evolving path of witchcraft and Western mystery traditions as a whole. Infamously and self-identified as ‘The Beast’, associated with the number 666, his lifetime goal was to be remembered as ‘The Anti-Christ’…bringer of the New Aeon. These nefarious connotations really have more in common with Crowley the Legend rather than the Man. Even within the occult community, many are unaware of his attributed advancements in the sport of mountaineering; his strange and beautiful poetry, obsessively written and published; or the sheer experimentation in the arts of High Ceremonial Magick.
Born Edward Crowley (after his father), the self-named Aleister came into the world on the same date as famous Enochian magician Eliphas Levi died. The Crowley family came from a lineage of wealthy brewers in Leamington, Warwickshire in England. They were also part of a fanatical Christian sect known as the “Plymouth Brethren”. Young Crowley often accompanied his father whilst traveling the countryside, preaching and proselytizing. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop, was very strict and initially gave Crowley the nickname ‘beast’. Neither parent allowed toys in the home, with Christmas seen as a pagan holiday. The entire household, including servants, were required to gather together every day for prayer meetings.
As a young man, Crowley’s curiosity in the line of metaphysics was legendary, and true. One story tells of an ‘experiment’ to determine if cats really had nine lives:“I caught a cat, and having administered a large dose of arsenic, I chloroformed it, hanged it above the gas jet, stabbed it, cut its throat, smashed its skull, and, when it had been pretty thoroughly burnt, drowned it and threw it out of the window that the fall might remove the ninth life. The operation was successful. I was genuinely sorry for the animal; I simply forced myself to carry out the experiment in the interests of pure science” (Symonds p.18).
It is understandable that his mother saw her son as the zenith of evil. After this and a few sexual situations with the help, Crowley was sent off to school. It wasn’t until he moved to London after the death of his father, that young Edward dropped the paternal name and was forever after known as Aleister. So obsessed with impressing others and feeding his unusually high appetite for attention, Crowley constantly was re-inventing himself, using various aliases and personalities to match. This is not so different from what modern artists and pop icons do today; i.e. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Prince just to name a few. It was when he entered the Order of the Golden Dawn that he took the name Frater Perdurabo (Latin for “I Will endure to the end”).
Crowley rose quickly through the ranks of the O.G.D. , some members thought it a little too hasty. Whilst engaged with the Order, Crowley met his first guru, or magical mentor, a young man named Allen Bennett, known in the Order as Iehi Aour. The two actually met by chance following an evening ritual:
“Iehi Aour suddenly came up to Perdurabo, looking penetratingly at him and said in an almost menacing manner, ‘Little Brother, you have been meddling with the Goetia!’” (Confessions of Aleister Crowley) .
When Perdurabo denied working with these spirits, Bennett replied, “Well my friend, then the Goetia have been meddling with you!” Ten years Crowley’s senior, Bennett was both highly feared and respected; he also introduced Crowley to mind-altering drugs, primarily through experimental treatment of his own chronic asthma. As a matter of fact, Bennettt moved throughout many South East Asian countries seeking out cures, in the end studying and practicing Buddhism. Eventually he ended up becoming part of a Sangha, taking the name Ananda Metteya. Crowley went to visit Ananda during a mountaineering expedition once in Kandy. Highly interested in yoga, Crowley studied with his old friend and quickly proved his adeptship. The speed which Crowley could achieve altered states of consciousness impressed even the monks.
There is one story in particular of this time period, Crowley recalls later as an old man to his biographer… His friend Ananda had taken refuge in a hut, having achieved a state of nirvana. The other monks became concerned about Ananda and sent Crowley in to see if his friend was still alive.“He opened the door of the bungalow and to his amazement and horror saw Ananda Metteya hovering in the air at eye level. He no longer had any weight and in the draught from the open door he was being blown about like a dry leaf” (Symonds p.40).
Crowley would combine what he learned in the East with the skills acquired through Western traditions. His attitudes were dangerously ahead of his time. Like the Buddha, Crowley saw all beings having the potentiality of obtaining Godhead, even Apotheosis. Contemporaries of Crowley were inspired by his strange adventures. Somerset Maugham, a friend of Crowley’s first wife Rose, was inspired by their relationship and wrote his novel The Magician, published in 1907. The main character is Oliver Haddo, a deranged magician who is very controlling of his new wife; instead of being offended, Crowley was flattered.
His ‘daredevil’ ways spilled over into his life as well; a risk-taking adventure was always on Crowley’s horizon. Pushing himself, and sometimes his climbing crew, to the limits of mountain climbing, including K2, the highest peak available to Europeans in the Himalayas during Crowley’s lifetime. His travels inspired poetry and refined his artistic perspective of alchemy. He spent time in Egypt, India, Southeast Asia, Mexico, North and South Americas, and Russia. It was in St Petersburg, whilst staying at a hermitage, Crowley was inspired to write on of his best beloved and critically acclaimed poems, City of God. The following excerpt emphasizes Crowley’s playful use of words, pushing his imagination to the very edge, whilst conjuring images of an ethereal city:“Gold upon Gold, dome upon dome, faint arrow Kindling sharp crescent, as the sunrays swept, Save for one midnight moment when one narrow Fierce ray, exhaling from no eye that slept Of God, our God, the sun – gold upon gold, Frond upon frond, fold upon fold Of walls like leaves and cupolas like flowers, And spires and domes that were as fabled fruit Of the low lands beyond the pillared seas…” (Crowley, 1945).
Most remember Crowley for the controversial associations he was not afraid to make public through anecdotes. His ramblings of astral journeys and literary focus on ancient traditions, Crowley’s imagery was thematic of Egyptian and Kabalistic teachings. His work with John Dee’s Enochian magick brought a renewed interest into the scholarly pursuits for young magicians of the next 100 years. Crowley’s spiritual ideologies crossover all religious, esoteric traditions; combining not only high ceremonial magick but also personal gnosis, sacred geometry and alchemical mathematics. The complex and rich teachings of Crowley left the world of the occult sciences with the challenge evolving to new realms of consciousness and ways to thinking about connections between science and religion.
Symonds, John. “The Great Beast: The Life of Aleister Crowley”. (1952). Rider and Co., London, U.K.