Who was Aleister Crowley?
He gave himself the title ‘The Beast’ and was known as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ but what is the truth behind this mysterious and sinister man?
Crowley was the Cambridge-educated occultist and inventor of the religion of Thelema and according to Crowley, he isn’t finished yet. “1000 years from now,” Crowley once wrote, “the world will be sitting in the sunset of Crowlianity.” The egotistical Crowley dubbed himself “the Great Beast 666” amongst many other titles. The British press dubbed him “The Wickedest Man in the World,” and is perhaps most famous for his dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.
Born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875 to wealthy British Plymouth Brethren brewers, Crowley very early set about replacing the religion of his family and his culture with a variety of extreme endeavours, from mountaineering to sex magic and all manner of practices derived from a mixture of Eastern religions and ancient and modern demonology. The results were mixed. All but the most adept find most of his occult writing incomprehensible (although it’s witty in places, it’s really the ramblings of someone obviously affected by years of drug-taking). His quite sexy poetry is frequently amusing. Most people found his overbearing personality unbearable, and he squandered his wealth and lived much of life penniless. But his biography is inarguably fascinating—creepy but also heroic in a strange way—and his presence is nearly everywhere inescapable. Crowley travelled the world conducting magical rituals, writing textbooks on magic (or “Magick” in his parlance), founding esoteric orders, and interacting with some of the most significant artists and occult thinkers of his time.
As a mountaineer, Crowley co-leads the first British expedition to K2 in 1902. As a poet, he published some of the most scandalous verse yet printed, under the name George Archibald Bishop in 1898. During his brief time in the occult society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he exerted some influence on William Butler Yeats. He is also indirectly connected to the development of the jet propulsion system—through his American protégée, rocket scientist Jack Parsons—and of Scientology, through Parsons’ partner in magic (and later betrayer), L. Ron Hubbard.
Though accused of betraying the British during the First World War, it appears he actually worked as a double agent, and he had many ties in the British intelligence community. Crowley rubbed elbows with Aldous Huxley, Alfred Adler, Roald Dahl, and Ian Fleming. After his death in 1947, his life and thought played a role in the work of William S. Burroughs, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Genesis P-Orridge, and countless others. Crowley pops up in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and he has inspired a number of literary characters.
So who was Aleister Crowley? A sexually liberated genius, a spoiled, egomaniacal dilettante, a sceptical trickster, a cruel and abusive manipulator, a racist misogynist? A 1915 Vanity Fair profile put it well: “a legend has been built up around his name. He is a myth. No other man has so many strange tales told of him.”
As with all such notorious, larger-than-life figures, who Crowley was depends on whom you ask. Various New Age groups utter his name in reverence or mention it as a matter of course, as physicist’s reference Newton or Einstein. In some countercultural circles, Crowley is trendy, like Che Guevara, but not much more. Dig into almost any modern occult or neo-pagan system of thought, from Theosophy to Wicca, and you’ll find Crowley’s name and ideas. His legacy offers the bizarre, repulsive, intriguing, and completely absurd, that can beggar belief and compel one to learn more about the enigmatic, pan-sexual black magician and self-appointed Antichrist.