Aleister Crowley: His Contribution to the Western Mysteries Tradition

Aleister Crowley: His Contribution to the Western Mysteries Tradition
by Laurette Rockwitz

“There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. For me, the time has come to raise my voice in the interest of clarifying the record of Aleister Crowley. He was one of the greatest mystics of all time, although a very complicated and controversial person.”[1]

Thus begins Israel Regardie's treatise on his former teacher and mentor.

Thirty years later, it seems that this record is no clearer. Aleister Crowley is no less controversial among the growing number of students of the Western Mysteries. He is even less understood with the general public.

Unfortunately, we cannot accomplish here, in a few short pages, even what Regardie did to “set the record straight”, much less what he did not, in this regard. We cannot separate the man from the body of myth and rumor that accompanies his life. We cannot say for certain, any more than the still growing number of biographers, what is true and what is not, in the host of sensationalized stories about Aleister Crowley. It is impossible, within this framework, to explore and come to understand his writing and his work to any acceptable standard at all. The former is a lifetime of study and the latter accomplished only by the most insightful and dedicated student of the Mysteries.

The writer influences the reader, not just by what he includes in his biography, but also by what he does not include. Any biography, then, is slanted by the writer's choice of facts and anecdotes included and discarded. It is impossible for the writer of a biography, no matter how long or short, to keep his opinion to himself. In the life of a man such as Aleister Crowley, there is no firm agreement of the facts. There is even less agreement on how those facts come together to give an accurate perception of the man. In a case such as this, where an accurate understanding seems impossible to reach agreement on, it is nearly an insurmountable task to tell the reader about the man, rather than about the writer's perception of the man.

This article will attempt instead to explore Aleister Crowley's contribution to the Western Mysteries Tradition. It will attempt to inform the reader who is unfamiliar with Thelema about this system of study and magic that grew out of the contribution of Aleister Crowley to the field of Hermetics. The information is basic and simplified, and interested students should seek a more in depth explanation.

This article will also explore Aleister Crowley's relationship with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as how his teaching and input may affect the student of the Western Mysteries tradition as a whole, whatever his focus or background.

With an examination of Crowley's contribution to magic in the foreground, a rough sketch is drawn of the man and the environments and influences that surrounded him at various stages of his life, in order to add perspective to the work. Every attempt is made to avoid sensational and unproved stories, or to write of incidents out of context.

The reader is advised, however, to hold the aforementioned impossibility of truly capturing the essence of a man as perplexing and contentious as Aleister Crowley.

Edward Alexander Crowley was born on October 12, 1875, at Leamington Spa, England. His time of birth is placed between 11 p.m. and midnight, the sign of Leo, ascending.[2] Nicknamed “Alick” by his parents, he was reared with a strict Christian fundamentalist upbringing.[3]

As a young boy he idolized his father[4], a brewer by trade,[5] and a preacher by vocation. Edward Crowley traveled the countryside preaching the doctrine of the “Plymouth Brethren'. These followers of John Nelson Darby lived uncompromisingly by literal biblical application and fear of eternal damnation.[6]

Regardie believed that this childhood awe of his father remained a lifelong influence on Crowley. Young “Alick” admired his father's fervor and eloquence. In many ways Crowley's own life and sense of mission was modeled on that of his progenitor.[7]

Crowley had a less sound relationship with his mother, Emily. He looked upon her with contempt as weak and foolish.[8] His mother seems to have been rather unable to cope with or understand the antics of a young male child. It was she who first called him “the Beast”, implementing a lifelong identification with the antagonist in the Biblical Book of Revelations.[9]

When he was small, Crowley assimilated and affirmed his parents belief system. Crowley wrote, looking back at his childhood, that he “aimed at being the most devoted follower of Jesus in the school”.[10]

“Alick” was not allowed any book except the King James Bible. He developed a fascination with the apocalyptic literature. One may assume that the Book of Revelations served the same psychological outlet in his fantasies that Star Wars, X-men and Power Rangers satisfy in today's youngsters. With the Bible as his only exposure to stories, “Alick” looked to this for adventure and excitement. The Beast, the Dragon, the Whore of Babylon and the False Prophet are the characters of this exhilarating saga depicting the eternal battle of good versus evil. Children today show the same fascination with antiheroes like Darth Maul from the Star Wars Saga or Batman's nemesisses the Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman.[11]

Looking back at his childhood, Crowley would remember these years as a happy time. He attended private Christian schools. The first school that he was enrolled in he disliked immensely,[12] but he was moved, after a short time to another. “He was thoroughly happy at this school; the boys liked and admired him; he made remarkable progress in his studies and was very proud of his first prize, White's “Selborne”, for coming out top in Religious Knowledge, Classics and French'.”[13] Crowley seems to have been a fairly well adjusted, though precocious and roguish boy in his first decade. He says of his child self, “this spirit grew unchecked…the Earth was not big enough to hold him.”[14]. Perhaps this is the one constant that would remain in Aleister's ever-fluctuating aggregate of personas.

Disaster struck the boy's life in his eleventh year. His father, his idol and role model, Edward Crowley, died, on March 5, 1887, after a ten month illness. Crowley tells us that, “from that month onward there is a change…a new factor had arisen, and its name was death.”[15]

This tragic turn of events had a drastic effect on young Crowley's life. He lost his hero, his image of the ideal, the center of his universe. He also lost the rest of his world. His mother moved to London to be near her family, removing the boy from his home, and the circle of Brethren that enfolded the child in a capsule of secure familiarity.[16]

The new man filling the role of male role model in the youth's life was his mother's brother, Tom Bond Bishop. Rather than taking over the part of benevolent mentor, guiding the boy into manhood through a firm belief system reflected in modeling these high ideals, this uncle cruelly bullied “Alick”, hypocritically defying the strict Christian fundamentalism he professed to embrace. [17] Regardie identifies this afflicted relationship with his uncle as a key determinant, beginning the drastic change that the child's view of Christianity would undergo.[18]

Regardie defends the young Crowley for this growing bitterness sympathetically. “He was so emotionally traumatized in those formative years that the psychologist might well wonder that he grew into any kind of productive adult at all.”[19]

His identity and self-esteem now faltering, “Alick” began having difficulties at school.[20] Eventually, abuse at school, which included a punishment of nothing to eat except bread and water while being made, day after day, to march around the playground, took its toll, and “Alick's” health began to fail.[21] He was eventually taken from that school, but began a series or tutors and day and boarding schools, none of which were satisfactory.[22]

These negative experiences in the fundamentalist schools also validated his growing belief that Christians were cruel and merciless. Crowley faced frequent beatings, constant humiliation and confrontation with bigotry, paranoia, and irrationality in these fanatical institutions. With respect to Crowley's educational environment, Regardie asserts, “morally and physically, it must have been a diabolical engine of destruction and corruption.”[23]

Young Crowley was relieved to be free of this restrictive environment when he entered Cambridge University in October of 1895.

“I had the sensation of drawing a long deep breath as one does after swimming under water or [an even better analogy] as one does after bracing oneself against the pain inflicted by a dentist. I could not imagine anything better in life. I found myself suddenly in a whole new world. I was part of the glories of the past, and I resolved to be part of the glories of the future.”[24]

Crowley seems to have also resolved to put the days of strict discipline behind him.

“When I discovered that chapel was compulsory I immediately struck back. The junior dean hailed me for not attending chapel, which I was certainly not going to do, because it involved early rising.”[25]

This lack of discipline was reinforced by Crowley's ability to survive the academics with very little effort. He goes on to state, “In fact, in my three years I only did one day's work for the university, and that consisted in employing a boy to read through a translation of a Greek play while I followed it in the text.” Despite this, he asserts, “I got either a first or second class in every subject.”[26]

Crowley's goal, while at Cambridge, was to eventually enter diplomatic service. He saw this as a way to travel and experience all that life had to offer him. There was some incongruency in this choice, however. Crowley did not have the predisposition to learn the four languages required for this “major”.[27] He also says, “But in those days of adolescence I had no inducement to do any kind of political thinking.”[28]

Crowley continued developing interests that began in childhood. He had learned to play chess at the age of six.[29] At Cambridge he was president of the University Chess Club.[30] He would become so expert at the game that, in later years, Regardie says, Crowley would play him and Gerald Yorke at the same time, blindfolded. Crowley would retain the image of both boards in his mind, and win both games.[31]

Young “Alick” had been writing poetry nearly as soon as he had learned to print.[32] He began writing more earnestly at Cambridge and published several books of poetry. Included in these was Aceldama, which he called his “first published poem of any importance”[33], and “Songs of the Spirit,” a collection of lyrics which reveal an ill-defined longing for spiritual attainment.”[34]. Other books of poetry from this period, also of a spiritual nature, are Green Alps and White Stains.[35] Poetry would remain a lifelong passion for Aleister Crowley. He would later write many devotional poems. AHA! included in Book 4 part 1[36] is a beautiful work, well known by students of the Mysteries. Liber VII vel Lapis Lazuli, and “Liber LXV, Liber Cordis Cincte Serpente” are included in The Holy Books of Thelema[37] and also recommended by Regardie to Golden Dawn students as devotionals.[38]

Liber LXV describes the rising of the Power of Wisdom, often visualized, in the Western Mysteries Tradition, as The Serpent winding his way up the Middle Pillar within, linked to the Egyptian Gods Typhon, and the dead and resurrected Osiris.

I am the Heart; and the Snake is entwined
About the invisible core of the mind.
Rise, O my snake! It is now is the hour
Of the hooded and holy ineffable flower.
Rise, O my snake, into brilliance of bloom
On the corpse of Osiris afloat in the tomb!
O heart of my mother, my sister, mine own,
Thou art given to Nile, to the terror Typhon!
Ah me! but the glory of ravening storm
Enswathes thee and wraps thee in frenzy of form.
Be still, O my soul! that the spell may dissolve
As the wands are upraised, and the æons revolve.
Behold! in my beauty how joyous Thou art,
O Snake that caresses the crown of mine heart!
Behold! we are one, and the tempest of years
Goes down to the dusk, and the Beetle appears.
O Beetle! the drone of Thy dolorous note
    Be ever the trance of this tremulous throat!
I await the awaking! The summons on high
    From the Lord Adonai, from the Lord Adonai![39]

During his years at Cambridge, embittered towards the ideology he was brought up by, but seeking convictions beyond the material, Crowley became interested in the Celtic Church.

“Here was a romantic and mystical idea which suited my political and religious notions to the ground. It lived and moved in an atmosphere of fairies, seal woman and magical operations. Sacramentalism was kept in the foreground and sin was regarded without abhorrence. Chivalry and mystery were its pillars.”[40]

With the Morte d' Arthur, Lohengrin and Parsival as his “holy books” Crowley began his own quest for the figurative holy grail - a quest, that would, in a sense, last his life span, taking him through many strange lands both on this earth and in other planes of existence.[41]

Along with this interest in Celtic mysticism, Edward Alexander would adopt the name that he would be known by from then on, and be remembered by after his permanent departure from Malkuth. Feeling the need to leave his past, and his childhood nickname behind, and perceiving himself to not fit the image of an “Edward” he took the Gaelic form of his middle name as his identity. He became Aleister Crowley.[42]

“Alick'” first began mountain climbing when due to his failing health he was taken out of school and sent to the country, with a tutor, to recover.[43] This interest grew during travels with his mother during school vacations as he met more serious and experienced sportsmen.[44] In 1895 he has his “first serious taste of the Alps,”[45] the summer before his entrance into Cambridge.

Crowley would demonstrate a lifelong passion for travel. Mountain climbing, travel and mysticism would ever be woven together into the complex pattern of the fabric of his life.

It was while spending the winter break in Stockholm Sweden, about midnight December 31, 1896, that Aleister Crowley had a mystical experience resulting in such a profound effect that it determined the course of his life. He referred to this as the first of two events that were to “put me on the road to myself.”[46] He described it as “the key to the purest and holiest spiritual ecstasy that exists.”[47] This experience was repeated exactly twelve months later. Crowley says:

“…my animal nature stood rebuked and kept silent in the presence of the immanent divinity of the Holy Ghost; omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, yet blossoming in my soul as if the entire forces of the universe from all eternity were concentrated and made manifest in a single rose.”[48]

In October of 1897, while experiencing a bout of minor illness, Aleister became contemplative of death. This led to his realization of the futility of incarnate existence, and was a foreshadowing of what is known in hermetics as “the Universal Vision of Sorrow.”

“I had been satisfied to escape from religion to the world. I now found that there was no satisfaction here. I was not content to be annihilated. Spiritual facts were the only thing worth while. Brain and body were valueless except as the instruments of the soul.”[49]

Aleister searched for direction in this pursuit of knowledge of the unseen. He read The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, by A. E. Waite, and wrote to its author asking for guidance. Waite suggested that he read The Cloud upon the Sanctuary by Councillor von Eckartshausen.[50] Israel Regardie would later identify this perusal as a crucial juncture in Crowley's life.[51]

The summer of 1898 Aleister traveled to Switzerland. He spent his time there mountain climbing and reading the Kabbalah Unveiled by S. L. Mathers. One evening, Crowley was relating his interest in Alchemy to a group of men in the beer hall, and was overheard by a practicing Chemist and Alchemist, Julian Baker.[52] Crowley relates that Baker kindly took him aside, afterwards. Though Crowley had little understanding of the subject at the time, perhaps Baker sensed in the young man an earnest intent. Baker treated young Crowley with seriousness and talked to him at length. Crowley was thrilled and excited, and exacted a promise from Baker to meet with him in London, and introduce him to a man who would be able to help him in his quest for Wisdom.[53]

This promised was kept. Baker introduced Crowley to one of the two men whom Israel Regardie later identified as Aleister's primary mentors and role models in the Golden Dawn.[54] This man was George Cecil Jones, known in the Order by the motto Volo Noscere, “I want to know”.[55]

Aleister soon determined that Jones knew things that he himself was seeking to understand. He began visiting Jones on a regular basis. Jones agreed to sponsor his initiation into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the study of the occult.[56]

The other man that Regardie targets as a colossal influence on Crowley, also in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, is Allen Bennett.[57] Bennett had been an adept on the Golden Dawn since March of 1895, with the motto Iehi Aour, which is Hebrew for “Let there be light”.[58]

Crowley clearly had great respect for Bennett. He tells of their first meeting:

“I was aware of the presence of a tremendous spiritual and magical force. It seemed to me to proceed from a man sitting in the east, a man I had not seen before, but whom I knew must be the very Honorable Frater Iehi Aour, called among men Allen Bennett.”[59]

Crowley invited Bennett, who was experiencing financial difficulties, to come and stay with him in what were much more comfortable accommodations than the more experienced magician would have otherwise afforded, and Bennett accepted. The benefit to Crowley, in this arrangement, was that he was now in the position to do ritual with Bennett on a regular basis, and learn from him.[60]

Bennett was a mathematician and scientist, specializing in the study of electricity. He was also a dedicated student of Hindu and Buddhism. Bennett would later move to Burma and become a Buddhist monk, with the name Ananda Metteya. He would play an important role in the Buddhist movement in Burma and Ceylon.[61]

“Close association [with Bennett] played a decisive role in moulding Crowley's intellectual attitudes where Oriental mysticism was concerned. For through Ananda Metteya he became exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism, to yoga and tantra practiced of every kind. From then on, the whole of his literary output is filled with the most profound insights into the doctrines of Sorrow, Change and Impermanence, the three characteristics fundamental to the beliefs of the Theravadin Buddhists.”[62]

It is, however, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn itself that would play the largest role in shaping Aleister Crowley's personality, beliefs, and destiny. This is the assertion of Israel Regardie, the man who would begin his quest for wisdom with Aleister Crowley as a mentor, and go on to become the father of the resurgence in the Golden Dawn movement.[63]

Throughout the first two decades of his life, Aleister seems to be aware of a void in his life; something is missing, something essential; he is searching, but is not sure of what it is that he is seeking. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had the answer, and was able to help him define his goal. What he sought was his own Divinity, his Holy Guardian Angel, the Holy Spirit within.

This ancient abstraction of a part of man, which is one with the divine, goes back to antiquity. The Apostle Paul alludes to it often in the Christian New Testament.

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

9. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,”

10. God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual Truths to those who possess the Spirit.

14. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.[64]

The French Mage Alphonse Louis Constant, writing under the pseudonym Eliphas Levi, describes this force.

“Furthermore, there exists in nature a force which is immeasurably more powerful than steam, and by means of which a single man, who knows how to adapt and direct it, might upset and alter the face of the world. This force was known to the ancients; it consists in an universal agent having equilibrium for its supreme law, while its direction is concerned immediately with the great arcanum of transcendental magic…This agent…is precisely that which the adepts of the middle ages denominated the first matter of the Great Work. The Gnostics represented it as the fiery body of the Holy Spirit; it was the object of adoration in the secret rites of the Sabbath and the Temple, under the hieroglyphic figure of Baphomet or the Androgyne of Mendes.” [65]

This path up the Qabalistic Tree of Life to the Higher Self, is the principal doctrine of the Golden Dawn.[66] Lytton calls this Higher Self Adonai. In Abramelin it is referred to as The Holy Guardian Angel. Theosophists call this the Silent Watcher or Great Master. Gnostics say the Logos, and Egyptians Asar-Un-Nefer.[67]

Israel Regardie describes the teaching of the Golden Dawn, as it was presented to Aleister Crowley.

“What is the function of the qabalistic interpretation of religion? This magic of which both the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley speak? If I say its goal is illumination or the expansion of consciousness, not much at first may be gleaned from that. Yet “being brought to the Light” is a most apt description of the high goals of the system. It is the Great Work. There is no ambiguity in the concept of the Order Rituals as Crowley found them towards the close of the nineteenth century. The theme permeates the entire work from Neophyte to Adeptus Minor, and beyond.”[68]

Regardie had no doubt that this quest for the Light became, from this time onward, the all consuming passion of Aleister Crowley's existence.[69] “These roots”, he says, “were developed, changed and expanded, but they were the same roots to which he was exposed long ago.”[70]

Though Crowley would ardently embrace the metaphysical principles of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he would ultimately become entangled in an unfortunate political struggle within the Order. This struggle would conclude in a division of the Golden Dawn into many smaller bodies and the demise of the great inceptive fraternity.

Undercurrents of discontent were already stirring beneath the surface when Aleister Crowley was initiated into the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn on November 18, 1898. Crowley took the motto Perdurabo, which means, “I shall endure until the end”. This, we can assume, is a declaration of intent to reach the highest planes of enlightenment. In retrospective irony it can be viewed as a dark foreshadowing of the events which led to the termination of this vehicle of magical renaissance.

R.A. Gilbert describes the pivotal group of Golden Dawn adepts as “a potentially disruptive core: enthusiastic but of independent mind, they were not inclined to accept unquestioned the dictates of an increasingly autocratic and eccentric Chief.”[71]

By all accounts, the Chief Adept of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers was all these things. Of the man attempting to lead and control this group of discontented magicians, Gilbert says, “Mathers stands out as a truly great magician, but as a man, as a mortal, he falls.”[72] Mathers insisted on complete submission from the adepts.[73] It was this ego, Gilbert feels, that would eventually cause the great revolt of the adepti.[74]

Virginia Moore lists five potential factors that led up to the great schism. In addition to the reasons listed above, Moore points out the London adepts dissatisfaction with Mathers move to Paris, leaving Florence Farr as deputy and the adepts resentment at waiting years to obtain promised higher grades. Moore also lists a conflict involving Aleister Crowley as a factor in escalating this atmosphere of increasing discontent.[75]

When Aleister Crowley applied to the ruling chiefs of Isis-Uranus Temple, in London, for admittance to the grade of Adeptus Minor he was refused. This was largely due to a variety of factors involving the adepts' disapproval of Crowley's conception of morality. Mathers issued a stern warning to the adepts of Isis-Uranus, and when that was ignored, invited Aleister to Paris and initiated the young man himself.[76] Crowley took the motto Christeos Luciftias, which is Enochian for “Let there be Light”. The influence of Bennett on Crowley may be noted in the similarity of this to Bennett's motto, which was Hebrew for “Let there be Light”.[77]

Commenting on this action, Regardie notes that “Whether Mathers was impressed by the latent promise of Crowley's personality with its energy and enthusiasm, or whether he decided upon his next step to show contempt for the ruling Chiefs of Isis-Uranus Temple, we do not know.”[78]

Whatever the intent behind the action, it served to inflame the conflict even more. Mathers' next move, naming Crowley as his emissary to recover property and paperwork from the London Temple, served to be his last as Chief of the Isis-Uranus Temple. The adepts of the second order voted to sever all ties with Mathers and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. With this act of open rebellion, the great schism commenced.[79]

After the separation of Isis-Uranus from Mathers, Allan Bennett left to pursue his interest in Buddhism. With little left to keep him in London Crowley left England and began a series of adventures. In 1900 he traveled to Mexico. The next year found him in India, and then visiting with Bennett in Burma. From there he went mountain climbing in the Himalayas.[80]

In 1902 Crowley returned to a mansion in Scotland which he had bought in 1899 to attempt the Operation of Abramelin, a magical working for the purpose of integrating the Higher Self or Holy Guardian Angel.[81] Crowley found himself bored and with little interest in re-pursuing the operation at that time.[82] He moved around Europe restlessly, through Scotland, London, and Paris and back again. In July, while visiting a friend, Gerald Kelly, in Edinburgh he met and eloped with Kelly's sister Rose.[83]

Crowley traveled with Rose to Ceylon in 1904 returning via Cairo. It was here, in Cairo that the most important occurrence in Aleister Crowley's life took place. This was the receiving of Liber L vel Legis, the Book of the Law, from a discarnate entity Aiwass, through the mediumship of Crowley's wife, Rose.[84]

In 1906 Aleister walked across China with his wife Rose, after which he completed the operation of Abramelin. Rose and Aleister divorced in 1909. Crowley then traveled through North Africa with Victor Neuberg, performing the Enochian calls of Dr. John Dee.[85]

Crowley visited the United States in 1900 and 1906, and lived there from 1914 to 1919. During this last, extended stay he engaged in extensive magical work during sequestered retirements at Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire[86] and Oesopus Island on New York's Hudson River.[87]

Crowley resided In Italy from 1920-23, where he established the Abby of Thelema at Cefalu. In the spring of 1921 he claimed the highest theoretical grade of Ipissimus, though it seems to have taken him several years to balance the energies involved.[ 88] He was depressed and difficult to deal with in these years.[89]

After being expelled from Italy by the Mussolini Regime he traveled to Tunisia. The time in Tunisia was a low point in Crowley's life. He suffered greatly both from Chronic Bronchitis and addiction to the treatment for it. The common treatment of the day for respiratory illnesses was cocaine. He was also, perhaps, still in a kind of aftershock from the ritual in which he claimed Ipissimus.[90]

Crowley wrote about himself at this time.

“The climax of their dealings with him came in the weeks immediately preceding and following the Spring Equinox of 1924 E.V. At this time he lay sick unto death. He was entirely alone; for They would even permit the presence of those few whom They had themselves appointed to aid him in this final initiation. In this last ordeal the earthly part of him was dissolved in water; the water was vaporized into air; the air was rarified utterly, until he was free to make the last effort, and to pass into the vast caverns of the Threshold which guards the Realm of Fire. Now naught human may come through those immensities. So in that Fire he was consumed wholly, and as pure Spirit alone did he return, little by little, during the months that followed, into the body and mind that had perished in that great ordeal of which he can say no more than: I died.”[91]

By the time of his return to Paris in 1924 Aleister seems to have begun to find some measure of peace and acceptance, though he would remain ever his droll and desultory self.[92]

Over the next few years he traveled around Europe and North Africa, though living quite extensively in Germany.[93]

In 1945 Aleister Crowley went to live in a large Victorian house in Hastings, England, that had been turned into a boarding house.[94] Aleister died there on December 1, 1947.[95] His “Last Ritual” on December 5, was attended by a small number or friends, including frater Achad, Lady Frieda Harris, Gerald Yorke, and Kenneth Grant. Longtime friend, Louis Wilkenson read Hymn to Pan, the Collects and Anthems from the Gnostic Mass and selected passages from the Book of the Law.[96]

Aleister Crowley is perhaps best known, among students of the Western Mysteries Traditions, for his foundation of Thelema. Thelema is Greek for “Will”. As used in the Western Mysteries Tradition it is a religion based on Liber L vel Legis. This is the document Crowley obtained from a the discarnate entity, Aiwass, through his wife Rose, in Cairo, in 1904.

Liber L vel Legis, [sometimes Liber Al vel Legis], the Book of the Law, proclaims a new age for humanity, the Aeon of Horus. During the Aeon of Horus man will look inward for enlightenment. This is in contrast to the age of Osiris, in which man looked to religious leaders to teach him about the divine.

“Life is no longer to be seen as something to be endured with suffering and sorrow, but as a divine, ecstatic, continuous unfolding. Nature and life are continuous. Man is immortal (or at least can be, potentially).”[97]

The main precept of Thelema, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” (I,40) is often misunderstood and taken out of context. Used properly, it refers to the Will. This is our true and perfect path, on which our Holy Guardian Angel guides us when we have learned to hear and to follow our higher selves. For those who are called, it refers to the Great Work. “Do what thou wilt” does not mean, “Do what you like.” It is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond. Do what thou wilt – then do nothing else. Let nothing deflect thee from that austere and holy task. Liberty is absolute to do thy will; but seek to do any other thing whatever, and instantly obstacles must arise. Every act that is not in definite course of that one orbit is erratic, an hindrance.“[98]

In 1907 Crowley joined a German Rosicrucian Society, the Ordo Templi Orientis.[99] This society was under the leadership of Theodore Reuss, with ties back to a group founded by Karl Kellner in 1895.

In this same year he founded the A∴A∴, an organization designed to promote individual occult study, with a strong emphasis on Golden Dawn curriculum.

In 1912 Crowley was given a charter to form his own OTO lodge in England.[100]

With the addition of Thelemic rituals, which grew largely from a study of Roman Catholic ritual, with symbolism specific to Thelema, Crowley became the founder of a unique society made of three distinct but related divisions. These associations, the OTO, the A∴A∴ and the Gnostic Church relate to verse (I, 40) in Liber L vel Legis which states, “Who calls us Thelemites will do no wrong, if he look but close into the word. For there are therein Three Grades, the Hermit, and the Lover, and the man of Earth.”[101]

Today a number of Thelemic organizations exist:

  • Ordo Templi Orientis, U.S. Grand Lodge
  • Thelemic Golden Dawn]]
  • College and Temple of Thelema
  • Ordo Argentum Astrum

Aleister Crowley was a prolific writer who contributed a great deal to the knowledge and study material available to the student of magic today.

A full online library of the works of Crowley can be found at:

Book IV includes four smaller volumes, including Magick (elemental theory), Magick in Theory and Practice (a key book in Crowley's system of Magic), Mysticism (an overall view of mysticism and yoga) and Liber L vel Legis (the Book of the Law).

Much of Crowley's work is in the form of short works called Libers, most of which were published in the Equinox from 1909-1913 and 1919. There are also longer Equinoxes which are book length works. These include Eight Lectures on Yoga, published in 1939, the Book of Thoth, published in 1944, and the Equinox of the Gods, published in 1936.

The Book of Lies, a complex work full of puns, and a fertile ground for qabalistic pondering, was printed in 1913. The Holy Books, 1909-10, contain inspired and devotional poetry. Liber 777, and extensive work of qabalistic correspondences was first published in 1909.

One may find the voice of a somewhat more matured Crowley in Little Essays Toward Truth, published in 1938, and Magic Without Tears, which he began writing in 1945, after his retirement to Hastings.[102]

In 1904 A. E. Waite made the following comment about Eliphas Levi:

“No modern expositor of occult science can bear any comparison with Eliphas Levi, and among ancient expositors, though many stand higher in authority, all yield to him in living interest, for he is actually the spirit of modern thought forcing an answer for the times from the old oracles. Hence there are greater names, but there is no influence so great-no fascination in occult literature exceeds that of the French magus.”[103]

It is interesting today to consider this passage in light of Aleister Crowley's claim to be Levi incarnated. Waite, who was part of the body of Chiefs that refused Crowley admittance to the inner order at Isis-Uranus might well write this about Crowley, if he were alive today to comment.

Whether Aleister Crowley deliberately set himself to mimic and surpass Levi, or truly was the reincarnation of the French magician cannot be determined with certainty. It is a near certainty, however, that all yield now to Crowley in living interest, for he is undoubtedly the most colorful and controversial figure in the history of hermetic arts.

Christopher S. Hyatt remarks that “A.C. flashed his truth [threw it right in our face and rubbed our nose into it] publicly and without any sense of apology or 'good taste'.”[104]

Robert Anton Wilson, Ph.D. tells of a remark made to him by Caliph Hymeneus Alpha of the OTO, that “There is no sense in trying to whitewash Crowley's reputation, Aleister spent most of his life systematically blackening it.”[105]

Wilson's own view of the controversy surrounding Crowley was that, “Crowley was always eccentric, often outrageous on principle, and sometimes downright vicious, but he is unique among the Illuminate in not trying to conceal such traits but, rather, in making every possible effort to ensure that disciples would never be able to sentimentally sanctify him.”[106]

There are certainly many aspects of Aleister Crowley's behavior and lifestyle that may people disagree with in principal, such as sexual promiscuity, experimentation with drugs for altered consciousness and breaking of religious taboos. There is also an abundance of myth and rumor about Crowley that can neither be confirmed nor invalidated. It is, however, perhaps more interesting to speculate on the extremity of the reaction people often have towards Crowley.

Christopher Hyatt observes that this reaction often surpasses reason, and is not in proportion with other, comparable examples.

“Crowley in my opinion is damned and feared by many not because of his explicit sexuality, for who is not aware or involved with the sexual revolution in one form or another. Another explanation of why he is so severely condemned is his drug use, yet Leary and others have surpassed Crowley with this form of experimental brain change. Still another is his hatred of the Christian Tunnel Reality. Yet, some bookstores handle the Satanic Bible while refusing to handle Crowley. Why should this be?”[107]

Invariable when the name of Aleister Crowley is brought up in a discussion, someone mentions his addiction to cocaine. Though it is well know that this was a commonly used remedy for various ailments at the time, and that Crowley's addiction was from using it to treat his chronic and severe Bronchitis. The same is not true in the case of Sigmund Freud, who was also addicted to cocaine, and for the same reason.[97] People also fail to recognize the number of Americans ingesting cocaine when it was the “feel good” ingredient in Coca-Cola.

Similarly the names Casanova and Don Juan are often used, with positive connotation, to mean a charming dashing “ladies man”. Why then do we call Aleister “a misogynist” rather than use his name as a similar form of flattery towards sexually “successful” men? It seems that public opinion has a rather fluctuating standard of determination.

Hyatt gives, as one possible explanation, Aleister Crowley's assault on the ego, as part of his ongoing striving for higher or altered states of mind. It is Hyatt's belief that our own egos feel threatened by this denunciation of “our sacred personalities and the system which feeds on these rigidities and fears”.[108]

This sacred ego, he says “is our greatest obstacle to finding our True Will”, which he asserts is synonymous with the Great Work. The ego is, Hyatt declares “a random collection of input data accumulated from the information [or dis-information] of Mother, Father, Teacher, Culture, Friends, Religion and History”. It is the cause of much pain, and inhibits our true and perfect self.[109]

Robert Anton Wilson, Ph.D. agrees that, “Crowley tried, like all mystics, to abolish the ego”.[110] He points to the dissonance between the imperative need for continuous loosening of ego boundaries in the Great Work and the impossibility of their complete erasure, as well as their evolutionary necessity, as the cause of Aleister Crowley's capricious existence.

Crowley, Wilson tells us, “developed and nurtured a hierarchy of separate selves, each with its own functions and levels of awareness.”[111] This is both a necessity and function of mysticism. It also explains the variability we see in Crowley, from his actions to his words and aptitudes as a transcendentalist and visionary.

Wilson says that “Crowley tackled this problem with his usual fool-hardy Total Commitment. He pushed the techniques of ceremonial magic far beyond the point most occultists dare to go.”[112]

John Symonds seems to agree with Wilson, though it is obvious that he sees this obliteration of the ego in a less favorable light.

“Other people have no ego, are just weak, but Crowley made a religion out of his weakness, out of being ego-less. I know that ego-lessness is a condition which Indian philosophy regards as the supreme state, and towards which Sadhaka strives, but in Crowley's case it is the point from which he begins…Indeed, he rushed in where angels, let alone Sadhakas, fear to tread. … He lacked an inhibitory counterforce; he was always hurling himself into magical and other adventures.”[113]

Sometimes, however, it is the simply the most obvious explanation that is correct. Kevin Carlyon, described in The Observer, an English newspaper, as one of Britain's best known white witches, says “To those who would follow him I say, be aware that he was taking the mickey of everything. He had a sense of humour and so should not necessarily be trusted.”[114]

Aleister Crowley himself noted that this is a trait found to be largely wanting in a substantial portion of the population. He tells of a time that he “wrote a parody of the Declaration of Independence and applied it to Ireland.” With some friends, including a female of Irish descent, and in an inebriated state, he took a motorboat to the Statue of Liberty. Here he read this Declaration, hoisted the Irish flag, and tore up an old envelope that he claimed was his British passport and threw it into the water. His lady friend, a violinist, played the Wearing of the Green. They then went to soak up the alcohol in their stomachs with breakfast, and home to sleep it off.

Of the response from his nation of origin, Crowley tells, “Over in England there was some consternation. I cannot think of what had happened to their sense of humour.”[115]

It is the author's opinion that to truly appreciate Aleister Crowley a sense of humour is essential.

In 1928, Aleister Crowley invited a young man from America, with an interest in mysticism and the occult, to travel to Paris to become his secretary. He did not realize, at the time, that in befriending this young man his relationship with the Golden Dawn would become a full circle. This man was Israel Regardie. Israel Regardie would one day record and publish for all posterity the knowledge and rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, thereby passing this aspect of spirit of the Great Work to a new generation.

Regardie's influence on the modern Golden Dawn movement cannot be discounted, nor can Crowley's influence on Regardie.

Regardie parted company with Crowley in 1932, when Mandrake Press, Crowley's publisher, folded, leaving Crowley unable to keep Regardie in employment. They parted as friends, but sharp words were exchanged, from both sides, via the mail, a few years later. This was apparently a squabble, childish on both sides, where both men ridiculed the other's adopted name. Contact between the two was dissolved, and a derogatory note was circulated about Regardie, which he attributed to Crowley's authorship.[116]

That a strong respect and attachment for the older man remained with Regardie is obvious from his biography of the former, the Eye in the Triangle. Throughout the biography Regardie shows empathy and a sense of protectiveness towards his former mentor. This is illustrated in the many quotes from that book used above.

Regardie, who later joined the Golden Dawn, rechristianed as Stella Matutina, would have had his interest developed, if not begun, by living with Crowley and learning about the Golden Dawn from him. He also learned much of the foundational knowledge of the Golden Dawn at this time.

Regardie refers to Crowley often in The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic.[117] Regardie used insight from Crowley's work, including Liber HHH, in developing potential self-initiation rituals and ideas on starting a Golden Dawn temple.[118] He refers Golden Dawn students to, Book 4 Part II for information regarding the creation and use of magical tools.[119] He applauds Crowley for recognizing the importance of balanced enjoyment of sexuality, though he recognizes that Crowley himself had difficulty achieving this.[120]

In discussing potential pitfalls and dangers involved in the use of Golden Dawn Magic, Regardie quotes Crowley from Liber O, advising, among other things, caution in assigning objective reality to experiences in other planes, and of resting or ceasing the Great Work prematurely.[121]

In examining the use and availability of devotional writing for the Golden Dawn student, Regardie makes this statement.

“I must refer to the work of Aleister Crowley who, after all, whatever is said and done, was once a member of the order and owes a great deal to his initiation therein. I especially suggest reading his instruction which reviews the whole Eastern attitude about Bhakta - Liber Astarte vel Berylli…So far as I am concerned, this Liber is a masterpiece, which I can strongly recommend especially to one complaining about the absence of devotional writing in the order.

“…Furthermore, and this I think is paramount, there is Crowley's early masterpiece Three Holy Books…This volume contains Liber LXV or The Book of the Heart Girt with a Serpent, Liber VII or Liber Lapidis Lazuli and finally Liber 813 vel Ararita. All three are superbly written and breathe devotion in every word…It may be stretching definitions pretty far to state that these may be considered part of the Order's devotional literature. But on the other hand I would rather consider these to be in that category than the religious lucubrations of Mr. A. E. Waite…they convey more devotion and love to me…”[122]

It is clear then, that at their roots, the modern Golden Dawn movement and Thelema are inseparably intertwined. Both claim German Rosicrucian ancestry long before Aleister Crowley began his study of the occult.

Crowley first began his focused quest for divine transformation with initiation into the Golden Dawn and the study of its teachings. After founding Thelema he influenced the man who would publish the Golden Dawn material, risking censure[123] to save the rituals and knowledge from obscurity. This knowledge, now available to a new generation, has inspired countless individuals and has led to the foundation of more than one fraternal organization dedicated to its practice and study.

There are some points of contention between orders that consider themselves Thelemic, and Orders which consider themselves to be in the Golden Dawn tradition.

One of these differences is the employment of sex magic.

Thelemic sex magic focuses the subtle but powerful energies involved in the various aspects of sex to catapult the consciousness higher in the transcendental process.

The use of sex magic in Thelema traces its roots back to tantric yoga, both through the roots of the OTO in Germany before Crowley's initiation[124] and also through Crowley's interest in Eastern practices springing from his association with Allen Bennett and time spent in the East.[125]

Other differences between Thelema and Golden Dawn orders involve the use of symbolism from Liber L vel Legis, used in Thelema but not incorporated into the Golden Dawn system of magic.

Much of this symbolism can be traced [potentially and controversially] back to Crowley's childhood fascination with the Biblical Apocalyptic literature. It also illustrates the duel nature of Chokmah and Binah, the first manifestations of the Divine in its masculine and feminine aspects on the qabalistic Tree of Life.

Regardie says of Crowley “The ecstasy of sex he considered akin to the ecstasy of spiritual experience.”[126] This is often illustrated in the symbolism of Thelema.

A crucial divergence is the Thelemic doctrine that mankind has entered a “new Aeon.”

A full discussion of this deviation of doctrine deserves a more thorough investigation than may be accomplished here, as imperative as that dialog may be. However one implication of this division relates to its application to the vast body of writing by Aleister Crowley that pertains to the highest planes of existence. In traditional Golden Dawn there are three theoretical grades assigned to the “third order”. Some consider these grades impossible, others improbable, in the incarnate state, as the are “across the Abyss”.

Thelema asserts that now, in the Aeon of Horus, these higher levels of attainment are a possibility. This discrepancy becomes crucial in determining the value of Crowley's work on transcendental magic.

Whatever one's fealty, it is illogical to assume that the GD and Thelema live in different eras. There can be no doubt of the great changes western culture has undergone since the Victorian age of Crowley youth and the foundation of the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, however one chooses to describe this. Likewise, one cannot imagine that the demons of the abyss interrogate seekers as to their order allegiance.

Both the Golden Dawn and Thelema are qabalistic in foundation, based on the Otz Chiym, or Hebrew Tree of Life. This ideology, termed theurgy, is a doctrine supposing one Divinity who manifests down through the planes of existence. The gods of various cultures are attributed to these “faces” or manifestations of the Divine according to similarities in their characteristic natures and traits. To say they are guided by different gods contradicts their very foundation. We may accept, however, the potential for a varied nature of this energy depending on the focus of disparate sephirah in ritual and symbolism.

Western culture and mankind is in the age that it is, whatever one chooses to call this age, or wherever one puts to it the boundaries of time. Eternal laws of nature and divinity determine the height we may achieve of transcendence and unity with the one divine force.

That leaves the debate to be exactly what these natural and divine laws afford. This question, it would seem, is not answerable to any degree of satisfaction, to the body of hermetic magicians taken as a whole.What is indubitable, however, is that no practitioner of the western magical tradition tried harder or wrote more about these attempts than Aleister Crowley. Stephen Skinner puts it well, when he says, “Crowley dared to storm the portals of heaven-by the back door or any other method of ingress. If he failed, it was not from want of trying.”[127]

If Crowley's efforts were successful is up to the individual reader to resolve for him or herself. Yet, for those who intend themselves to “endure until the end”, to ignore Aleister Crowley's extensive treatise on the abyss and supernal planes of existence, based on a life, controversial as this life may have been, dedicated to the knowledge and conversion of the Holy Guardian Angel within, is self-defeating and counter productive.


This is an authorized mirror of J S Kupperman's Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition.