«I am the great beast that rise from the sea».
What is there to say about Aleister Crowley that hasn’t already been said? How to describe the indescribable? Many people do their best, in articles and biographies to analyze persons and situation to death. That’s both a waste of time and energy, and also quite silly. It tells very little about what actually happened and the person one claims to know so much about. Actually it tells much about the writer of the piece or the book. About how dull and uninteresting said writer is. Well, Crowley is, fortunately so a person beyond any analysis, any reasonable, mundane understanding, and perhaps precisely because of that reason does his life and magick continue to be controversial. Many have attempted to analyze Crowley. Some has declared him a genius. Most have condemned the man. This is neither. It’s simply put my personal take on him (admittedly clearly on the positive side), 56 years after his death, 128 years after his birth. It is also an inevitable description of the society he grew up in, and the modern society he continues to live in.
What is there to say about his life motto? «Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law»? One may, once again strive to analyze, interpret it to death, as many has done in their despair. Was he being ironic (he was skilled in the art of irony)? Was it a provocation (he could provoke a rock)? But why take detours all the time? Perhaps he actually meant what he said. No need for interpreters. As he, himself, is supposed to have said: Any human should follow their true will, no matter the surroundings and possibilities for public and private condemnation. In a truly free society this is no problem. In the twentieth and twenty-first century’s narrowmindness and lack of freedom it is more important than ever. And to hell with the consequences. That was by the way one of Crowley most singular (and sympathetic) characteristics: He didn’t give a damn about what others thought about him. During his entire life, from early childhood he followed this bright star.
There has been held some Crowley annual celebrations during the years since his death. This is quite common when important people have been dead for a certain number of years, usually when there is a zero behind that number. Statesmen and leaders are standing in line, stating what a great man the dead guy was, and what a «positive contribution» he or she has made to mankind. It serves Crowley well that it will probably never happen in his case. It will never be raised public monuments in his «honor». Because it is fairly easy to state one (or two things) about the Great Beast. He was neither a saint nor one who is hailed in speeches.
Since I first wrote this seven years ago, though, I have occasionally been contacted by members of the Thelema religion, the people who do try their best to «edit» his life and writings, and generally making a mockery out of both, attempting to portray him as something he wasn’t, and change his teaching into something he clearly not intended. One example of this is a woman who scolded me for showing the insides of the Book of the Law in public. So I guess Good ol’ Aleister, the retouched version might become a savior of the masses sometime in the future.
What follows is a short, incomplete biography. One without an agenda and/or glorification/condemnation. Yes, that sounds like a good idea. A somewhat unbiased opinion is always a good idea.
Edward Alexander Crowley was born October 12th 1875 (Christian, western time frame). The wealthy family belonged to the pietistic Christian cult called the Plymouth Brethren. This as Crowley senior earned a fortune as an owner of breweries and outlets. Without turning to silly psychology it’s not improbable that this contributed quite a bit to Edward’s later disgust with everything smacking of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy and religion have always walked hand in hand. The same way his beautifully disastrous years at school enhanced a natural and already well-developed contempt for authorities.
Eleven year old, in a vision he saw his father dead. Later that year his father did indeed die. Edward and his mother moved to London, to his Uncle Tom. According to the adult Crowley both his mother and Tom were «two braindead racists». The next few years were not pleasant for Crowley. At home there was no escaping Tom. At the school, run by the Plymouth Brethren he was promptly «sent to Coventry», a description of a type of punishment became a non-person, one who was forbidden to speak to, by both pupils and teachers over a certain period of time. In an environment encouraging snitching a fellow pupil claimed that Crowley had been drunk on the floor at home. In one and half term the boy was condemned to what was, for all practical purposes solitude. The school offered also whipping and worse for those who broke the god-given rules. But Edward wasn’t a domestic sheep like the rest of the inmates, and refused to submit. Involuntarily aided by the school and Uncle Tom’s firm hand he evolved the last few stretches to a full-blooded rebel.
He was so downtrodden, so worn down by the increasing terrorizing that it became necessary to remove him from school in order to save his life. The solution, suggested by a physician meant a lot of fresh air, fishing, and a string of private tutors he rapidly exhausted and who was replaced at increasingly faster intervals. A solution truly a mixed blessing seen from Uncle Tom’s viewpoint. He learned mountain climbing on one of those trips. A reverend Fothergill attempted to drown him after Crowley had thrown him off the boat. That night, as a young teenager he fulfilled his first act of sex and magick, the two urges he would unite as his great ambition and obsession later in life. He didn’t wait long to repeat the success.
Archibald Douglas, a bible salesman, one of the private tutors appointed by Uncle Tom, quite amazingly brought Aleister a great leap forward into the deep waters, the future path starting to crystallize in the boy’s mind. Douglas behaved like quite a normal healthy human being. He introduced Crowley, in major ways to strong drinks, gambling and women. Crowley writes: «The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl from the theatre in the first ten days of Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsessions of sin fell from my shoulders... I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful, damned souls». As soon as the rumor of the fiery bible salesman reached Uncle Tom he fired him. But it was too late. The young Edward had tasted heaven and hell, a thirst never more to be even remotely sated...
The blood is boiling, under the kettle of his pietistic upbringing.
At Malvern Public School he starts writing poems. One in particular in defense of Florence Maybrick, a woman sentenced to death for poisoning her husband. This is just the feeble start of his (in his family’s eyes) decline. He is now becoming a serious liability for the family. Any attempt to keep him reined in is a dismal failure. There is nothing more they can do to keep in check. When he turned twenty-one he received his part of the family inheritance. In dependence and freedom awaited him.
Nothing and on one could any longer hold him back.
Aleister Crowley, as he now was calling himself was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn November 18th 1898. He was given the magickal name Perdurabo (I will endure). Another major step further. He was given advanced tutoring in the Cabbala, (the jewish magickal system that had to that day been seen as a cornerstone in western occultism), and other techniques. But in more ways than one it was just as frustrating to him as his years at Cambridge. The rituals were traditional and boring. The members were either from rich and established families, or they were boring poets and/or artists (among the members were William Butler Yeats). The rituals demanded that an initiated had to prepare in an atmosphere of total celibacy. It created a conflict in him, this, to distance himself from life, instead of embracing it.
The following year he bought Boleskine House on the southern shore of Loch Ness. He took the title Laird of Boleskine and Abertarff, and immediately began the preparations for the rituals of the sorcerer Abra-Melin, taught him by Samuel Liddel Mathers, the current leader of the Golden Dawn. Chaos and violent incidents started virtually instantaneously. There are countless independent witnesses to what happened. Shadows filled the house, and made it necessary to use strong lights at the height of day. A friend left the house in a panicked run. Crowley’s driver became an alcoholic over night. The housekeeper vanished into thin air, never to be seen again. A worker turned insane, and attempted to kill Crowley. Wind raged between the house’ four walls, even though every window or door was closed. Demons and their servants were seen and felt, as they ravaged the house and the villages nearby. Crowley didn’t care for the meat sold to him by the local butcher. He wrote the names of two demons on the bill. The butcher cut a vein shortly thereafter, and died in a pool of blood. The Lord of the house seemed strangely unaffected by it all, and continued unabated his invocations. It is said that he and those in his presence had visions of fire angels, earth spirits and other elementals.
The unrest continued as Crowley grew tired of constant fasting, prayer, meditation and celibacy. In spite of his unwillingness to submit to the Golden Dawn’s hierarchy and rigid system of conduct he succeeded in being initiated into the order’s second level. But the London chapter denied him the relevant papers he felt he had earned. The members who had, from day one seen Frater Perdurabo as a boorish parvenu now got their change to duck him. Sparks turned to open disagreement and quarrel. Among several memorable incidents was one where the good Lord Boleskine attempted to charge the order’s premises dressed in kilt and black mask, a sword in hand. A policeman convinced him, with an uncanny submissive mannerism to withdraw. It ended in court and a suit, which Crowley lost. But his opponents behaved in such a strange and confused manner afterwards that the fight smacked more of a draw, than any sort of victory.
He did some halfhearted attempts to do the Abra-Melin ritual, but decided he wasn’t ready for six months of «purification» and prayer. He joyfully changed his mind, and did instead go on his first physical Journey, World Tour. In Mexico he hired an Indian girl as a maid and other functions. After a few failed séances with a Don, he climbed the mountain Popacatapetl with his friend Eckenstein, «in a stride». After a rather disappointing trip on the North American continent and a less failed trip to Hawaii (he had an affair with a married woman and wrote several poems), he went to Hong Kong. In India he met his friend Eckenstein again, and they made a failed attempt to climb K2 (Chogo Ri).
If you by now have the impression that Crowley’s life reminds of a rollercoaster ride... I agree that’s probably more than a correct observation. With much rides downhill, than the boring pulls up.
Things seemed to calm down a bit when he arrived Paris in winter. That impression was quickly proven false and right. It didn’t take long before he landed on unfriendly terms with his old friend from the Golden Dawn, Samuel Mathers. Even that rush failed to stimulate his ever more demanding mind, though. He descended into what he himself described as «total boredom». He returned to Boleskine in Scotland, and discovered that it had gained a very bad reputation in his absence. People refused to go near the house in the dark, and made major detour to avoid it. Even this great development failed to improve his mood.
Then he met his first wife and «Scarlet Woman», Rose Kelly. After a night where he considered committing suicide they got married and went on honeymoon to Egypt, the land of Magick. There, for the first time he called himself Chioi Khan, Hebrew for the Great Beast. And during and after a number of séances where his Scarlet woman actively participated he wrote The Book of the Law. A text that more than anything in the twentieth century changed the way Magick was perceived.
The next few years aren’t any less hectic.
August 22nd 1905 he’s participating in an expedition setting out to climb Kanchenjunga, the world’s third tallest mountain. Slightly a week later the entire gathering is collapsing in a mire of disagreements and chaos.
In 1906, after a prolonged Journey through Asia his daughter Nuit dies of typhoid fever in Rangoon.
It is after that he leaves the Golden Dawn. Or he was, as some members claim kicked out. Whether or not he leaves unprompted, or is forced to do so is more or less immaterial. As often is the case it’s probably a bit of both. Since he some years earlier had fought his magickal war with Samuel Mathers, his last ally in the order, the final severing of ties wasn’t that hard.
Not long afterwards he starts his own order, Argentum Astrum, The Silver Star.
During a demonic ritual he realized fully what is to dominate the rest of his life; that sex makes it easier to focus magickal energy. Everything he had learned to that point claimed the opposite was true. When he in 1912 met Theodore Reuss, the leader of OTO - Ordo Templi Orientis - The Order of the Temple of the East, with the same belief something substantial dawned on him. Crowley’s two obsessions, sex and magick joined and turned into one. Life suddenly looked bright.
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