Aleister Crowley (pronounced /ˈkroʊli/; 12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947), born Edward Alexander Crowley, and also known as both Frater Perdurabo and The Great Beast, was an influential English occultist, mystic and ceremonial magician, responsible for founding the religious philosophy of Thelema. Through this belief he came to see himself as the prophet who was entrusted with informing humanity that it was entering the new Aeon of Horus in 1904, a time when old ethical and religious systems would be replaced. Widely seen as one of the most influential occultists of all time, he was a member of the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as a co-founder of the A∴A∴ and eventually a leader of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.). He is known today for his magical writings, especially The Book of the Law, the central sacred text of Thelema, although he also wrote widely on other subjects, including a large amount of fiction and poetry.
Crowley was also a recreational drug experimenter and social critic. In many of these roles he “was in revolt against the moral and religious values of his time”, espousing a form of libertinism based upon the rule of “Do What Thou Wilt“. Because of this, he gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, and was denounced in the popular press of the day as “the wickedest man in the world.” Alongside his esoteric activities, he was an avid chess player, mountaineer, poet and playwright, and it has also been alleged that he was a spy for the British government.
Crowley has remained an influential figure right up till this day, and in 2002, a BBC poll described him as being the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time. References to him can be found in the works of numerous writers, musicians and filmmakers, and he has also been cited as a key influence on many later esoteric groups and individuals, including Kenneth Grant, Gerald Gardner and, to some degree, Austin Osman Spare.
Beliefs and viewpoints
|The Book of the Law
True Will · 93
The Great Work
Holy Guardian Angel
The Gnostic Mass
|Works of Crowley
The Holy Books
|A∴A∴ · EGC · OTO
OSOGD · TO
|Nuit · Hadit · Horus
Babalon · Chaos
Baphomet · Choronzon
Aiwass · Ma’at
|Stele of Revealing
Thoth tarot deck
Thelema is the mystical cosmology Crowley announced in 1904 and expanded upon for the remainder of his life. The diversity of his writings illustrate his difficulty in classifying Thelema from any one vantage. It can be considered a form of magical philosophy, religious traditionalism, humanistic positivism, and/or an elitist meritocracy.
The chief precept of Thelema, derived from the works of François Rabelais, is the sovereignty of Will: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Crowley’s idea of will, however, is not simply the individual’s desires or wishes, but also incorporates a sense of the person’s destiny or greater purpose: what he termed “True Will“.
The second precept of Thelema is “Love is the law, love under will”—and Crowley’s meaning of “Love” is as complex as that of “Will.” It is frequently sexual: Crowley’s system, like elements of the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence, and sexual “magick” and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual. However, Love is also discussed as the Union of Opposites, which Crowley thought was the key to enlightenment.
Crowley claimed the following Masonic degrees:
- 33° of the Scottish Rite in Mexico from Don Jesus Medina.
“Don Jesus Medina, a descendant of the great duke of Armada fame, and one of the highest chiefs of Scottish Rite free-masonry. My cabbalistic knowledge being already profound by current standards, he thought me worthy of the highest initiation in his power to confer; special powers were obtained in view of my limited sojourn, and I was pushed rapidly through and admitted to the thirty-third and last degree before I left the country.” The Confessions of Aleister Crowley pp. 202–203.
- 3° In France by the Anglo-Saxon Lodge No. 343, a Lodge chartered in 1899 by the Grande Loge de France, a body unrecognised by the United Grand Lodge of England, on 29 June 1904.
- 33° of the irregular ‘Cerneau’ Scottish Rite from John Yarker
- 90°/95° of the Rite of Memphis/Misraim from John Yarker.
The United Grand Lodge of England, whose recognition is generally considered the standard for Masonic validity, did not recognize any of the above bodies as being true Freemasonry, thus Crowley never was an “official” Freemason within the common understanding of the term.
Crowley quickly realized that the post-Yarker era meant change. He was not rebellious by reflex, at least where old British institutions were concerned. He undoubtedly believed O.T.O. had authority from Yarker to work the Ancient and Primitive Rite’s equivalent to the Craft degrees in England, but once made aware of the issue of regularity when having his own French Masonic credentials declined, he was not defiant and on his own made changes to the O.T.O. to avoid conflict. He inserted notices into the last number of The Equinox to the effect that the O.T.O. did not infringe upon the just privileges of the Grand Lodge Of England
During WWI Crowley worked slightly revised English Craft rituals in America, but despite the absence of a central Grand Lodge, he met with objections from masonic authorities. He then rewrote the O.T.O. rituals for I° – III° so that they no longer resembled Craft masonry degrees in language, theme or intent.
Science and Magic
Crowley claimed to use a scientific method to study what people at the time called spiritual experiences, making “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox. By this he meant that religious experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying mystical or neurological meaning.
In this connection there was also the point that I was anxious to prove that spiritual progress did not depend on religious or moral codes, but was like any other science. Magick would yield its secrets to the infidel and the libertine, just as one does not have to be a churchwarden in order to discover a new kind of orchid. There are, of course, certain virtues necessary to the Magician; but they are of the same order as those which make a successful chemist.
He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time, and published numerous poems and tracts combining religious themes with sexual imagery both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as pederastic. One of his most notorious poetry collections, titled “White Stains” (1898), was published in Amsterdam in 1898 and dealt specifically with sexually explicit subject matter. However, most of the hundred copies printed for the initial release were later seized and destroyed by British customs.
Crowley’s magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex magick. Sex magick is the use of the sex act—or the energies, passions or arousal states it evokes—as a point upon which to focus the will or magical desire for effects in the non-sexual world. In the view of Allen Greenfield, Crowley was inspired by Paschal Beverly Randolph, an American Abolitionist, Spiritualist medium, and author of the mid-19th century who wrote (in Eulis!, 1874) of using the “nuptive moment” (orgasm) as the time to make a “prayer” for events to occur.
Crowley often introduced new terminology for spiritual and magickal practices and theory. In The Book of the Law and The Vision and the Voice, the Aramaic magickal formula Abracadabra was changed to Abrahadabra, which he called the new formula of the Aeon. He also famously spelled magic in the archaic manner, as magick, to differentiate “the true science of the Magi from all its counterfeits.”
He urged his students to learn to control their own mental and behavioural habits, to the point of switching political views and personalities at will. For control of speech (symbolised as the unicorn) he recommended to choose a commonly used word, letter, or pronouns and adjectives of the first person (such as the word “I”), and avoid using it for a week or more. Should they say the word he instructed them to cut themselves with a blade on each occasion to serve as warning or reminder. Later the student could move on to the “Horse” of action and the “Ox” of thought. (These symbols derive from the cabala of Crowley’s book 777.) Crowley has also been labeled by some anthropologists as a practitioner of neoshamanism and revivalist of shamanistic philosophies in the early 20th century.