The last name rhymes with "holy." How ironic that is for the man who proclaimed himself to be "The Great Beast" from the Biblical Book of Revelation. The press, ever seeking sensation, labelled him "The most evil man in the world" -- the height of injustice for a poetic man who, living in an age of dictators, in the midst of two horrendous world wars, sought only to liberate the human mind from the constraints of society and hypocritical religion.
Born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875, in Leamington Spa, England, Crowley grew up in a family of strict Christian fundamentalists called "the Plymouth Brethren” (though they themselves did not prefer that term.) Their founder, a Protestant theologian by the name of John Darby, founded the sect in the 1820s and taught a literal interpretation of the Bible and believed in the imminent return of the Christian Messiah. Growing up saturated with such beliefs and the intellectual stultification that they entailed, Crowley -- a headstrong, overly inquisitive lad with loose ethical moorings -- had no choice but to rebel. Like other Victorian rebels such as Oscar Wilde, Crowley's rebellion had sexual elements in it, as all such rebellion must, but for Crowley religion and sexuality were to be inextricably entwined. It is also important to remind modern readers that "the Great Beast" of the Book of Revelation was not a 'beast' in the standard sense but a man, sometimes equated with The Antichrist, who appears on the earth in the latter days and is one of the signs of the imminent Apocalypse, the end of the world-system as humans know it. This "Beast" was very much a prophet, and Crowley knew his Bible well and gleefully acted out the role of anti-Christian prophet and visionary. It is doubtful if he ever for a moment took these Bible stories as anything more than convenient mythological metaphors.
Crowley attended prestigious Cambridge University, studying natural sciences, particularly chemistry. His future writings would show a respectable acquaintence with scientific and chemical terminology and metaphors as a result. Of course, he also studied the standard Classical curriculum that was mandatory in his era, and when he left University (without taking a degree) he was intellectually well-equipped as a Victorian gentleman and man-about-town.
Unlike the typical Victorian gentleman, however, for whom a life in some form of civil service or one of the professions would have been the highest "rational" ambition, Crowley burned with an inner fire, the same sort of fire that leads men to undertake great adventures and explorations (popular in his day), or to lead religious revivals, or to become poets. Crowley, his ambition limitless, would not settle for less than all of the above. It is some indication of his sense of who he was that he numbered among his prior incarnations figures such as Edward Kelly (16th century occultist/adventurer/alchemical charlatan and assistant to John Dee at the court of Queen Elizabeth), Cagliostro (the magician/con-man), Eliphas Levi (French occult writer who died on the same day Crowley was born), Ankh-af-n-Khonsu (an ancient Egyptian priest of the Setian revival in the 26th Dynasty), and even Pope Alexander VI (notorious Borgia pope of the 15th century.)
He studied theosophy and the magickal writings of Levi and Madame Blavatsky (a Russian adventuress and founder of the Theosophical Society, out of which arose another great teacher of the 20th century, Jiddu Krishnamurti). Though he maintained a respect for both authors all his life he was not inclined to remain a poor imitator or follower, and soon took the clues embedded in the writings of these and other authors and used them to blaze his own unique trail that few have been able to follow.
In his early adulthood, seeking a group to belong to that reflected his occult aspirations, Crowley took to a number of membership organizations. The most important of these for our purposes was the Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley saw in its leader, Mathers, a mentor of sorts -- Mather was over twenty years' Crowley's senior -- and kindred spirit. Both men were highly eccentric egotists, much given to exhibitionism and pompous utterances. Both had the spirit of the aristocrat, if not the blood, claiming high titles of dubious legitimacy. Both loved Scotland and enjoyed dressing in Highland fashion. Crowley took the magical name Fra. Perdurabo: "I will endure." (The photo above shows him in his Golden Dawn regalia.)
Crowley only remained in the Order two years, but this was long enough for the young man to attain the high grade of Adeptus Minor. During the schism crisis of 1900, he sided with Mathers and the Paris group against the London faction, but lost out anyway. He realized he had learned everything that the Order (principally via Mathers) had to teach him and needed new lands to conquer, new venues in which to display his innovative ideas. While in the order he had also made an important friend, Allan Bennett -- perhaps the Order's second most powerful magician after Crowley himself. Bennett was also a protege of Mathers, and a contemporary of Crowley with whom he shared the common passions of magic and mysticism, as well as science and chemistry. (See the Bennett biography on this site). The two men roomed together in London for a time pursuing their experiments in "practical illuminism," and when Bennett travelled to Asia, Crowley eventually caught up with him to learn more.
Crowley travelled to Asia, making an arduous overland pilgrimage through India, China, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, and became acquainted with Buddhism and Hinduism, even abandoning the practice of Western ceremonial magick for several years to pursue a path of inner exploration and meditation. He roomed with his former Golden Dawn brother, Allan Bennett, in a house in Sri Lanka, where Bennett taught him yoga. Later, Bennett moved to Burma and became Bhikku Ananda Matteya, a Buddhist monk; Crowley met him at his monastery there and meditated with him. Though he would return to Western forms of practice, Crowley's psyche bore the mark of his inner awakening (experienced in Asia, not Europe) and all Crowley's future writing would show the influence of his Oriental experiences, with liberal references to the states of "samadhi" and "nirvana" sprinkled among discussions of invocations and banishings. Crowley was one of the first writers to combine Oriental and Occidental forms of mysticism into a workable if obtuse system of practical magick.
In 1904, while on honeymoon in Cairo, Crowley received what he believed to be the most important "revelation" of his life, known as The Book of the Law. Fulfilling his role of prophet of a New Age, Crowley believed that a discarnate entity by the name of Aiwass dictated this revelation to him through the medium of Crowley's new wife, who had, amazingly, suddenly been thrust into the role of trance channel, much to her husband's amazement. He insisted later that she had never been inclined to such behavior, which made him believe all the more in the veracity of the message.
Crowley, perhaps still a Plymouth Brethren at heart though he would have denied it, saw the world as divided into multiple cycles or "aeons" of time: he called these the Aeon of the Mother (ancient paganism) followed by the Aeon of the Father or the Dying God (e.g., Christianity). His new revelation, this thin book, dictated in only three hours (one hour each on three successive days, April 8, 9, and 10th of 1904, forming three chapters) heralded a New Aeon -- the Aeon of Horus, the "Crowned and Conquering Child." It was to be an age of unprecendented human freedom (political and sexual), as well as an age of warfare (a prophecy which came only too true) and great opportunity. Its motto was Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law. For Crowley, "will" was always the primary focus of all human experience. To find one's "true will" was for him equivalent to finding one's "true self" -- it means finding one's center, awakening to who one truly is. Differing from the experiences of Oriental mysticism, the "true will" was to be different for each person. It was the ultimate in metaphysical individualism, and Crowley was the perfect prophet for this doctrine.
The Law of Thelema became the focus of his life. He spent everything he had to publish the "good news" (not a term that he used, but it seems fitting) -- in expensive subscription-only printings of his books (which today are very costly collector's items), public lectures and classes, and travel all over Europe and the United States to meet with interested potential followers. As it happened, Crowley did not have the business acumen of, say, someone like L. Ron Hubbard, to make his doctrines successful on the large scale. Or it may simply be that Crowley was too much of an individualist to make the compromises that would have been necessary, or else his gentlemanly upbringing forbade him from working too hard to succeed at this endeavor. His finances were wiped out in more than one poorly-executed lawsuit and at one point he was deported from Mussolini's Italy for his questionable morals.
Crowley encounted yet another Masonic/Rosicrucian fraternal order, the O.T.O., in Germany in 1910 and soon (almost miraculously, it may seem to us) became not only a member but its leader. He quickly set about reformulating its rites and rituals in accordance with the Law of Thelema, and his revisions show his genius for syncretization. One can find elements of Hinduism, Buddhist philopsophy, and Golden Dawn ritualism in the pages of his voluminous writings. Crowley used the O.T.O. as a vehicle to advance the New Aeon, as he believed was his divine (or infernal) obligation. However, we tend to believe that for Crowley, the Law of Thelema was the main focus of his life, and any organization that he may have utilized was merely a convenient vehicle for its propagation. If the O.T.O. had ceased to fulfill its function, Crowley would no doubt have found, or created, a different vehicle to achieve his Will.
Though the O.T.O. does an invaluable service in making Crowley's work available to a wider public, it is a mistake to assume that Thelema is merely equivalent to the O.T.O., or that the Order and the New Aeon are synonymous. Some of the most exciting and innovative work in modern magickal theory and practice has come from independent practitioners outside of the "official" O.T.O. channels -- authors such as Kenneth Grant, not to mention the Chaos Magickians -- who are less concerned with "magickal correctness" than with following their own intuitions and magickal genius. In this, we like to think they may be closer in spirit to "The Great Beast" than the official publishers of his works would have us believe. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Mountain Temple Golden Dawn freely draws upon the inspiration of Crowley, a practice which is somewhat unusual among Golden Dawn organizations, who tend to reject him (and his Aeon) outright. It is also a mistake to assume that because Crowley ceased to work within the Golden Dawn tradition, he had no more interest in it. In fact, the Golden Dawn colors all of Crowley's writing throughout his life. Had he not found the convenience of the O.T.O. to carry forth his work, he may well have returned to a more traditional Golden Dawn style of ceremonialism, or even attempted to jump-start the Order again with himself as head.
Quotes About Crowley
"Crowley's method of achieving and transcending religious visions was based on Hindu Bhakti yoga and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Once a manifestation of a divinity was experienced, Crowley would have the experimenter stop and start over with a different God. After you have run through three or four divinities in this manner... you will be increasing skeptical about everybody's reality maps, including your own." - Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger
"Crowley was aware of the possibility of opening the spatial gateways and of admitting an extraterrestrial Current in the human life-wave...It is an occult tradition - and Lovecraft gave it persistent utterance in his writings - that some transfinite and superhuman power is marshaling its forces with intent to invade and take possession of this planet... This is reminiscent of Charles Fort's dark hints about a secret society on earth already in contact with cosmic beings and, perhaps, preparing the way for their advent. Crowley dispels the aura of evil with which these authors invest the fact; he prefers to interpret it Thelemically, not as an attack upon human consciousness by an extra-terrestrial and alien entity but as an expansion of consciousness from within, to embrace other stars and to absorb their energies into a system that is thereby enriched and rendered truly cosmic by the process." - Kenneth Grant, Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God
"This seems to be a vividly poetic pre-statement of Timothy Leary's theory that Higher Intelligence is 'divided,' by sending out DNA seed to fertilize every womb-planet in the galaxy, 'for the chance of union', and return of these 'children' after they have evolved past the larval circuits into higher modes of consciousness." - Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger
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