Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley
1912 photograph of Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley, c. 1912
Born
Edward Alexander Crowley

(1875-10-12)12 October 1875
Died1 December 1947(1947-12-01) (aged 72)
EducationMalvern College
Tonbridge School
Eastbourne College
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
OccupationOccultist, poet, novelist, mountaineer
Spouse(s)
Rose Edith Kelly
(m. 1903; div. 1909)

Maria Teresa Sanchez
(m. 1929)
Children5
Signature
Aleister Crowley's signature

Aleister Crowley (i/; born Edward Alexander Crowley; 12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947) was an English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer. He founded the religion of Thelema, identifying himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century. A prolific writer, he published widely over the course of his life.

Born to a wealthy family in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Crowley rejected his parent's fundamentalist Christian Plymouth Brethren faith to pursue an interest in Western esotericism. He was educated at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he focused his attentions on mountaineering and poetry, resulting in several publications. Some biographers allege that here he was recruited into a British intelligence agency, further suggesting that he remained a spy throughout his life. In 1898 he joined the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where he was trained in ceremonial magic by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and Allan Bennett. Moving to Boleskine House by Loch Ness in Scotland, he went mountaineering in Mexico with Oscar Eckenstein, before studying Hindu and Buddhist practices in India. He married Rose Edith Kelly and in 1904 they honeymooned in Cairo, Egypt, where 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. Announcing the start of the Æon of Horus, The Book declared that its followers should "Do what thou wilt" and seek to align themselves with their True Will through the practice of magick.

After an unsuccessful attempt to climb Kanchenjunga and a visit to India and China, Crowley returned to Britain, where he attracted attention as a prolific author of poetry, novels, and occult literature. In 1907, he and George Cecil Jones co-founded an esoteric order, the A∴A∴, through which they propagated Thelema. After spending time in Algeria, in 1912 he was initiated into another esoteric order, the German-based Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), rising to become the leader of its British branch, which he reformulated in accordance with his Thelemite beliefs. Through the O.T.O., Thelemite groups were established in Britain, Australia, and North America. Crowley spent the First World War in the United States, where he took up painting and campaigned for the German war effort against Britain, later revealing that he had infiltrated the pro-German movement to assist the British intelligence services. In 1920 he established the Abbey of Thelema, a religious commune in Cefalù, Sicily where he lived with various followers. 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 a recreational drug experimenter, bisexual and an individualist social critic. He was denounced in the popular press as "the wickedest man in the world" and a Satanist. Crowley has remained a highly influential figure over Western esotericism and the counterculture, and continues to be considered a prophet in Thelema. He is the subject of various biographies and academic studies.

Early life

Youth: 1875–1894

2017 photograph of Crowley's birthplace
Aleister Crowley was born as Edward Alexander Crowley at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 12 October 1875.

Crowley was born as Edward Alexander Crowley at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 12 October 1875.[1] His father, Edward Crowley (1829–1887), was trained as an engineer, but his share in a lucrative family brewing business, Crowley's Alton Ales, had allowed him to retire before his son was born.[2] 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.[3] The couple had been married at London's Kensington Registry Office in November 1874,[4] and were evangelical Christians. Crowley's father had been born a Quaker, but had converted to the Exclusive Brethren, a faction of a Christian fundamentalist group known as 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.[5] Following the death of their baby daughter in 1880, in 1881 the Crowleys moved to Redhill, Surrey.[6] At the age of 8, Crowley was sent to H.T. Habershon's evangelical Christian boarding school in Hastings, and then to Ebor preparatory school in Cambridge, run by the Reverend Henry d'Arcy Champney, whom Crowley considered a sadist.[7]

In March 1887, when Crowley was 11, his father died of tongue cancer. Crowley described this as a turning point in his life,[8] and he always maintained an admiration of his father, describing him as "my hero and my friend".[9] 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 developed albuminuria.[10] He then attended Malvern College and Tonbridge School, both of which he despised and left after a few terms.[11] He became increasingly skeptical regarding Christianity, pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible to his religious teachers,[12] and went against the Christian morality of his upbringing by smoking, masturbating, and having sex with prostitutes from whom he contracted gonorrhea.[13] Sent to live with a Brethren tutor in Eastbourne, he undertook chemistry courses at Eastbourne College. Crowley developed 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.[14]

Cambridge University: 1895–1898

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.[15] 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 as a chess player.[16] Crowley also embraced his love of literature and poetry, particularly the works of Richard Francis Burton and Percy Bysshe Shelley.[17] Many of his own poems appeared in student publications such as The Granta, Cambridge Magazine, and Cantab.[18] He continued his mountaineering, going 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.[19]

For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. I had read in some book or other that the most favourable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like Jeremy Taylor. Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals.

Aleister Crowley, on his name change.[20]

Crowley had his first significant mystical experience while on holiday in Stockholm in December 1896.[21] Several biographers, including Lawrence Sutin, Richard Kaczynski, and Tobias Churton, believed that this was the result of Crowley's first same-sex sexual experience, which enabled him to recognise his bisexuality.[22] At Cambridge, Crowley maintained a vigorous sex life with women—largely with female prostitutes, from one of whom he caught syphilis—but eventually he took part in same-sex activities, despite their illegality.[23] 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, a break-up that Crowley would regret for many years.[24]

In 1897, Crowley travelled to Saint Petersburg in Russia, later claiming that he was trying to learn Russian as he was considering a future diplomatic career there.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[28] In 1898 Crowley privately published 100 copies of his poem Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers In, but it was not a particular success.[29] That same year he published a string of other poems, including White Stains, a Decadent collection of erotic poetry that was printed abroad lest its publication be prohibited by the British authorities.[30] 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.[31]

The Golden Dawn: 1898–99

Crowley wearing the ceremonial garb of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
Crowley in Golden Dawn garb

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.[32] Back in London, Baker introduced Crowley to George Cecil Jones, Baker's brother in-law, and a fellow member of the occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which had been founded in 1888.[33] 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 in the Golden Dawn's Isis-Urania Temple held at London's Mark Masons Hall, where Crowley took the magical motto and name "Frater Perdurabo", which he interpreted as "I shall endure to the end".[34] 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.[35]

Crowley moved into his own luxury flat at 67–69 Chancery Lane and 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,[36] until Bennett left for South Asia to study Buddhism.[37] 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.[38] He continued writing poetry, publishing Jezebel and Other Tragic Poems, Tales of Archais, Songs of the Spirit, Appeal to the American Republic, and Jephthah in 1898–99; most gained mixed reviews from literary critics, although Jephthah was considered a particular critical success.[39]

Crowley soon progressed through the lower grades of the Golden Dawn, and was ready to enter the group's inner Second Order.[40] He was unpopular in the group; his bisexuality and libertine lifestyle had gained him a bad reputation, and he had developed feuds with some of the members, including W. B. Yeats.[41] When the Golden Dawn's London lodge refused to initiate Crowley into the Second Order, he visited Mathers in Paris, who personally admitted him into the Adeptus Minor Grade.[42] A schism had developed between Mathers and the London members of the Golden Dawn, who were unhappy with his autocratic rule.[43] Acting under Mathers' orders, Crowley—with the help of his mistress and fellow initiate Elaine Simpson—attempted to seize the Vault of the Adepts, a temple space at 36 Blythe Road in West Kensington, from the London lodge members. When the case was taken to court, the judge ruled in favour of the London lodge, as they had paid for the space's rent, leaving both Crowley and Mathers isolated from the group.[44] Spence suggested that the entire scenario was part of an intelligence operation to undermine Mathers' authority.[45]

Mexico, India, Paris, and marriage: 1900–1903

In 1900, Crowley travelled to Mexico via the United States, settling in Mexico City and starting a relationship with a local woman. 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 there, and 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.[46] Spence has suggested that the purpose of the trip might have been to explore Mexican oil prospects for British intelligence.[47] 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; saying he had fallen in love with her, he wrote a series of poems about the romance, published as Alice: An Adultery (1903).[48]

Crowley bathing in a spring during the K2 Expedition
Crowley during the K2 Expedition

Briefly stopping in 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.[49] Crowley decided to tour India, devoting himself to the Hindu practice of Rāja yoga, from which he claimed to have achieved the spiritual state of dhyana. He spent much of this time studying at the Meenakshi Temple in Madura. At this time he also composed 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.[50] 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.[51]

Having arrived in Paris in November 1902 he socialised with friend and future brother-in-law, the painter Gerald Kelly, and through him became a fixture of the Parisian arts scene. Whilst there, Crowley wrote a series of poems on the work of an acquaintance, the sculptor Auguste Rodin. These poems were later published as Rodin in Rime (1907).[52] 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).[53] 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 Rose and worked to prove his affections. While on his honeymoon, he wrote her a series of love poems, published as Rosa Mundi and other Love Songs (1906), as well as authoring the religious satire Why Jesus Wept (1904).[54]

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