Aleister Crowley and the Legend of Pasiphae

By Michael Osiris Snuffin (2001)


In his commentary on The Hierophant in The Book of Thoth, Crowley states:

“There is a distinctly sadistic aspect to this card; not unnaturally, since it derives from the Legend of Pasiphae, the prototype of all the legends of Bull-Gods. These persist in such religions as Shaivism, and (after multiple degradations) in Christianity itself.”1

As per his usual style, Crowley mentions nothing more on this subject, leaving the investigation of this almost casual remark to the curious reader. So what is the significance of the Legend of Pasiphae, and what is its relevance to the Hierophant and the New Aeon? The answer lies scattered among Crowley’s writings; but first let us recount the Legend of Pasiphae itself.

The Legend is set in ancient Crete, where Poseidon sends King Minos a beautiful white bull up from the sea to offer as a sacrifice to the god. King Minos is so struck with the beauty of this bull that he keeps it, sacrificing one of his own herd in its place. His actions anger and offend Poseidon, who punishes Minos by causing his wife Pasiphae to fall madly in love with the white bull. With the help of Daedalus, who constructs for her a wooden cow covered with real hide, she copulates with the bull and conceives the monstrous Minotaur.

There is little mention of Pasiphae in Crowley’s works, but what commentary and analysis we can find is very enlightening. In The Paris Working, Crowley establishes the general concept behind the Legend as he interprets it:

“This is the great idea of magicians in all times:--

To obtain a Messiah by some adaptation of the sexual process.

In Assyria they tried incest; also in Egypt; the Egyptians tried brothers and sisters, the Assyrians mothers and sons. Phoenicians tried fathers and daughters; Greeks and Syrians mostly bestiality. This idea came from India. The Jews sought to do this by invocation methods. The Mohammedans tried homosexuality; mediaeval philosophers tried to produce homunculi by making chemical experiments with semen.

But the root idea is that any form of procreation other than normal is likely to produce results of a magical character.

Either the father of the child should be a symbol of the sun, or the mother a symbol of the moon.”2

Crowley goes on to link this concept with the Legend of Pasiphae:


There was a labyrinth there; they had the worship of Apis from Egypt.

There was a sacred bull in this labyrinth, quite white. At the spring festival they sacrificed twelve virgins to him.

‘Here the brutish act appeared: Pasiphae

being covered by the bull in the cow’s place’

Aeneid VI

They wanted to get a Minotaur, an incarnation of the sun, a Messiah. They said they had one, but they hadn’t.”3

Here the Legend of Pasiphae is given by Crowley as a historical example of “procreation other than normal.” There is reference to the sacred white bull, as well as the Apis bull that was worshipped in Egypt, another “legend of the Bull gods.” The virginity of twelve women was sacrificed each Spring in hope that one would bear a Minotaur, an offspring of “magical character.”

The idea that “either the father of the child should be a symbol of the sun, or the mother a symbol of the moon” is also supported by the Legend of Pasiphae. The Minotaur’s actual Greek name was Asterius, meaning “of the Sun,” and Pasiphae, “she who shines for all,” was originally a Cretan Moon goddess.4 The virgins are twelve in number to represent the twelve signs of the zodiac through which the Sun travels on his yearly journey, suggested here as starting in the spring with Taurus.

This symbolism of the Legend of Pasiphae is also found in the Hierophant trump. The Hierophant is Osiris, or, taken in context with the bull that supports him, Serapis. The bull is focused on the loins of the Woman, who is Isis, holding the lunar crescent that identifies her with the Moon. It is this relationship between the bull and the Woman that constitutes the “distinctly sadistic aspect to this card.”

The Legend of Pasiphae is also interpreted at the beginning of the 16th Aethyr of The Vision and the Voice, where we begin to understand its relevance:

“There are faint and flickering images in a misty landscape, all very transient. But the general impression is of a moonrise at midnight, and a crowned virgin riding upon a bull.

And they come up into the surface of the stone. And she is singing a chant of praise: Glory unto him that hath taken upon himself the image of toil. For by his labour is my labour accomplished. For I, being a woman, lust ever to mate myself with some beast. And this is the salvation of the world, that always I am deceived by some god, and that my child is the guardian of the labyrinth that hath two-and-seventy paths.”5

The woman speaking is Pasiphae, who wears a crown as the Queen of Crete. The symbol of the Bull itself was originally identified with the Sun and was sacred to Apollo. Her child is the Minotaur Asterius, who is “of the sun.” The labyrinth she speaks of is the sky, which is divided into the 72 quinances of the zodiac through which the Sun passes in a year.

The commentary on this passage of the 16th Aethyr points to a modern representation of the Legend of Pasiphae, to be found in Crowley’s tarot:

“This reference is to Pasiphae and the Minotaur. All mythologies contain this Mystery of the Woman and Beast as the Heart of the Cult. Notably certain tribes in the Terai, at this day, send their women annually into the jungle; and any half-monkeys that result are worshipped in their temples. Atu XI exhibits this mystery; and it is the subject of constant reference in the higher Aires.”6

Atu XI shows a woman riding on a lion-beast, an image almost identical to that in the 16th Aethyr. The elucidation of this card in The Book of Thoth explains the Legend of Pasiphae in terms of the new Aeon:

“The central mystery in that past Aeon was that of Incarnation; all the legends of god-men were founded upon some symbolic story of that kind. The essential of all such stories was to deny human fatherhood to the hero or god-man. In most cases, the father is stated to be a god in some animal form, the animal being chosen in accordance with the qualities that the authors of the cult wished to see reproduced in the child.

“Thus, Romulus and Remus were twins begotten upon a virgin by the god Mars, and they were suckled by a wolf. On this the whole magical formula of the city Rome was founded.

“Reference has already been made in this essay to the legends of Hermes and Dionysus.

“The father of Gautama Buddha was said to be an elephant with six tusks, appearing to his mother in a dream.

“There is also the legend of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, impregnating the Virgin Mary. There is here a reference to the dove of Noah’s Ark, bringing glad tidings of the salvation of the world from the waters. (The dwellers in the Ark are the foetus, the waters the amniotic fluid.)

“Similar fables are to be found in every religion of the Aeon of Osiris: it is the typical formula of the Dying God.

“In this card, therefore, appears the legend of the woman and the lion, or rather lion-serpent. (This card is attributed to the letter Teth, which means a serpent.)

“The seers in the early days of the Aeon of Osiris foresaw the Manifestation of this coming Aeon in which we now live, and they regarded it with intense horror and fear, not understanding the procession of the Aeons, and regarding every change as catastrophe. This is the real interpretation of, and the reason for, the diatribes against the Beast and the Scarlet Woman in the XIII, XVII and XVIII-th chapters of the Apocalypse; but on the Tree of Life, that path of Gimel, the Moon, descending from the highest, cuts the path of Teth, Leo, the house of the Sun, so that the Woman in the card may be regarded as a form of the Moon, very fully illuminated by the Sun, and intimately united with him in such wise as to produce, incarnate in human form, the representative or representatives of the Lord of the Aeon.”7

Here the Beast and the Scarlet Woman are given as modern manifestations of the elements of the Legend of Pasiphae. They are identified with the Sun and the Moon in The Book of the Law:

“Now ye shall know that the chosen priest & apostle of infinite space is the prince-priest the Beast; and in his woman called the Scarlet Woman all power is given. They shall gather my children into their fold; they shall bring the glory of the stars into the hearts of men.

“For he is ever a sun, and she a moon. But to him is the winged secret flame, and to her the stooping starlight.”8

The last verse also identifies the Beast with Hadit (the winged secret flame) and the Scarlet Woman with Nuit (the stooping starlight.) They are likewise described in Liber Reguli as “the earthly emissaries of those Gods.”9 Such is also the role of the Priest and Priestess of the Gnostic Mass.

It is noteworthy that all of the masculine entities of Thelema are given animal forms, each solar in character: Hadit as the “winged snake of light”10, Horus as the “Hawk-Headed Lord of Silence & of Strength”11, and the Beast as the Lion-Serpent. Each is a symbol of the Sun, the essential father in each of Crowley’s interpretations of the Legend of Pasiphae.

Thus does the Legend of Pasiphae manifest in our New Aeon of Horus as expressed through the writings of Aleister Crowley. Blessing & worship to the prophet of the lovely Star!


1 The Book of Thoth, page 79.
2 The Equinox, Vol, 4, No. 2, pages 386-387.
3 Ibid. Note that the quote from the Aeneid originally appeared in Greek in Crowley's text; for convenience I have given the Robert Fitzgerald translation included in the notes of the Equinox 4:2 version.
4 See Robert Graves The Greek Myths for more on the historial basis for the Legends of Pasiphae and the Minotaur.
5 Equinox Vol. 4, No. 2, page 125.
6 Ibid, footnote 3.
7 The Book of Thoth, pages 93-94.
8 AL 1L15-16.
9 Liber ABA, page 566.
10 AL 3:38.
11 AL 3:70.

Copyright (c) 2010 Michael Osiris Snuffin

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