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Aleister Crowley

by Hymenaeus Beta XII°

Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington Spa in 1875. He was educated at Malvern and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he changed his name to Aleister. He was a lyric and dramatic poet, with several dozen books to his credit, including a collaboration with Auguste Rodin. He is anthologized in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

Crowley was natural polymath, and made a name for himself as a poet, novelist, journalist, mountaineer, explorer, chess player, graphic designer, drug experimenter, prankster, lover of women, beloved of men, yogi, magician, prophet, early freedom fighter, human rights activist, philosopher, and artist. He has been compared to Sir Richard Burton, and Crowley is probably best known today as the author of the twentieth century’s most influential textbooks on occultism, and as the first Englishman to found a religion—Thelema—which is today a recognized faith around the world.

Crowley was the enfant terrible of the Edwardian avant-garde of London and Paris. Witty and flamboyant, and an early champion of the aesthetic and inspirational virtues of drugs, sex, music and dance, he gravitated to the cultural exile communities: New York during WWI, the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s, and the decadent Berlin of Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris in the 1930s. To those who crossed his path Crowley was unforgettable. He figures in innumerable memoirs, and became the basis for fictional characters ranging from Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to the villain in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.

He has now been rediscovered and reinterpreted so often—by Beats, hippies, punks and the “industrial culture”—that he has become a perennial icon of counter-cultural rebellion. The London Sunday Times named him one of their 1000 makers of the Twentieth Century. The Beatles included him on the “people we like” cover of Sergeant Pepper’s not once but twice—the second photo was reportedly dropped as Crowley too closely resembled Paul McCartney.

In 1919 Crowley left New York for Cefalu, Sicily, where he began to paint landscapes. He transformed his rented villa by painting erotic wall murals after the example of Paul Gauguin—one of Crowley’s heroes, whom he made a saint in his Gnostic Catholic Church. This was his Abbey of Thelema, an experiment in spiritual monasticism inspired in part by Rabelais. Students practiced Crowley’s religious philosophy of Thelema (the Greek word for “will”). Crowley summarized this as “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” with its corollary “Love is the law, love under will”—both quotations from The Book of the Law. This book is the founding text of his religion of Thelema, and was dictated to Crowley in Egypt in 1904 by what he described as a “praeterhuman intelligence.”

Students travelled to Sicily from around the world to “find their true wills” or their purpose in life. Crowley’s training regimen involved breaking down all artificial and societal inhibitions to liberate the essential self, while simultaneously giving training in yoga, concentration, and self-analysis. The Abbey and its residents prospered, but when an Oxford undergraduate died at the Abbey (from drinking local water against Crowley’s advice), the British press attacked Crowley relentlessly. As was later done with D.H. Lawrence, the Home Secretary Joynston Hicks and his press mouthpiece, James Douglas of the Sunday Express, demonized Crowley. The press depicted him as “The Wickedest Man in the World” and “A Man We’d Like to Hang.” Ironically, this campaign ensured Crowley’s enduring fame, as well as an enduring misunderstanding of Crowley’s life and work. He died in Hastings, England in 1947.

Crowley has been the subject of numerous biographies, most extremely inaccurate when not overtly hostile to their subject. In recent years, excellent new biographies by serious authors have appeared annually, each of which complements the others: Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (2000), Martin Booth, A Magick Life: The Life of Aleister Crowley (2001), and Richard Kaczynski, Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (2002). A balanced appraisal of his life and work may also be found in Gerald Suster’s entry in the Missing Persons supplement to the standard reference work The Dictionary of National Biography, published by Oxford University Press in 1993. Crowley’s own The Temple of Solomon the King (serialized in The Equinox) and Confessions provide useful insights into his life and work. Other biographies and studies are J. F. C. Fuller, The Star in the West (1907), C.R. Cammell, Aleister Crowley (1951), John Symonds, The Great Beast (1951) and The Magic of Aleister Crowley (1958) (later combined in The King of the Shadow Realm (1989)), Israel Regardie, The Eye in the Triangle (1970), Francis X. King, The Magical World of Aleister Crowley (1977), Susan Roberts, The Magician of the Golden Dawn (1978), Colin Wilson, Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast (1987) and Gerald Suster, The Legacy of the Beast (1988).

Literary overview

Contributor to The Eastbourne Gazette (chess columnist), The Occult Review, The Bystander, The Fatherland, The Open Court, Smart Set, Pearson’s, The English Review, and the English and American editions of Vanity Fair. Managing editor of The International: A Review of Two Worlds (1916-1917). Crowley’s early works (1898-1905) are Aceldama (1898), The Tale of Archais (1898), Jezebel (1898), Songs of the Spirit (1898), Jephthah (1898), An Appeal to the American Republic (1899), The Mother’s Tragedy (1901), The Soul of Osiris (1901), Carmen Sæculare (1901), Tannhäuser (1902), Berashith (1903), Alice, An Adultery (1903), The God Eater (1903), Summa Spes (1903), Ahab (1903), The Star and the Garter (1903), In Residence (1904), The Argonauts (1904), Why Jesus Wept (1904), The Sword of Song (1904), Oracles (1905), Orpheus (1905), Rosa Mundi (1905), Gargoyles (1905), Rodin in Rime (1905). These were collected with revisions and a few retitlings in The Collected Works of Aleister Crowley (3 vol., 1905-7), which omitted The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King (1904, as editor) and the unattributed pornographic works White Stains (1898) and Snowdrops from a Curate’s Garden (c. 1904).

In Crowley’s middle period (1907-1914, bracketing the period of the first volume of The Equinox) he issued works on magick and mysticism as well as poetry: Konx Om Pax (1907), Amphora (1908, reissued as Hail Mary, 1912), Clouds without Water (1909), Liber 777 (1909), The World’s Tragedy (1910), The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz (Bagh-i-muattar) (1910), Rosa Decidua (1910), The Winged Beetle (1910), Ambergris (1910), Household Gods (1912), Book 4, Parts I-II (1912-1913, with Mary Desti), Liber CCCXXXIII, The Book of Lies (1913) and Chicago May (1914). His late period included his novels, autobiography and most of his principal textbooks, with poetry generally confined to small booklets: Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), Songs for Italy (1923), Moonchild (1929), The Spirit of Solitude, subsequently re-antichristened The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1929, vols. 1-2 only), Magick in Theory and Practice (being Part III of Book 4) (1929-30, with Leila Waddell), The Equinox of the Gods (The Equinox III(3), 1936), Liber AL vel Legis sub figura CCXX (1938), The Heart of the Master (1938), Little Essays Toward Truth (1938), Khing Kang King (1939), Eight Lectures on Yoga (The Equinox III(4), 1939), Temperance (1939), Thumbs Up (1941), The Fun of the Fair (1942), The City of God (1943), The Book of Thoth (The Equinox III(5), 1944, with Frieda Harris), and Olla: An Anthology of Sixty Years of Song (1946).

Crowley’s principal posthumous works are Liber XXX Ærum vel Sæculi Sub Figura CCCCXVIII: the Vision and the Voice, with Commentary (1952), The Gospel According to St. Bernard Shaw (1953), Magick without Tears (1954), 777 Revised (1955), Liber Aleph vel CXI, The Book of Wisdom or Folly (The Equinox III(6), 1961), The Book of Lies with an additional commentary (1962), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1969, abridged ed. of vols. 1-6), Atlantis (1970), Shih Yi (The Equinox III(7), 1971), Liber CLVII, The Tao Teh King (The Equinox III(8), 1971), ΘΕΛΗΜΑ: The Holy Books of Thelema (The Equinox III(9), 1983), Golden Twigs (1988) and The Law is for All (auth. ed. 1996). For Crowley as a French translator, see Charles Baudelaire, Little Poems in Prose (1928) and Éliphas Lévi, The Key of the Mysteries (book format, 1959).

First editions are generally cited; many of Crowley’s prose works are now available in a revised second edition with a critical apparatus. Posthumous compilations include The Equinox III(10) (1986), Commentaries on the Holy Books and Other Papers (The Equinox IV(1), 1996), The Vision and the Voice with Commentary and Other Papers (The Equinox IV(2), 1998) and the essay collection The Revival of Magick (1998). The four parts of Crowley’s principal work on magic and mysticism were revised and reissued as Magick (Book 4, Parts I-IV) (1994, 1997).

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