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Aleister Crowley

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Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley (12 October 18751 December 1947) was a British occultist, mystic, writer, poet, astrologer, sexual revolutionary, drug addict, painter, mountain climber, and social critic. He was quite notorious during his life, and was dubbed "The Wickedest Man In the World."

Contents

Biography

Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington, Warwickshire, England, between 11:00pm and 12 midnight on 12 October 1875.

His father, Edward Crowley, once maintained a lucrative family brewing business and was retired at the time of Aleister's birth. His mother, Emily Bertha Bishop, drew roots from a Devon and Somerset family.

Aleister grew up in a staunch Plymouth Brethren household. His father, after retiring from his daily duties as a brewer, took up the practice of preaching at a fanatical pace. Daily Bible studies and private tutoring were mainstays in young Aleister's childhood, however his parents' efforts at indoctrinating their son in the Christian faith only served to provoke Aleister's skepticism. As a child, young Aleister's constant rebelious behavior displeased his devout mother to such an extent she would chastize him by calling him "The Beast" (from the Book of Revelations), an epithet that Crowley would later happily adopt for himself. He objected to the labelling of what he saw as life's most worthwhile and enjoyable activities as "sinful".

In response, Crowley created his own "philosophical system", Occult Sciences — a synthesis of various Eastern mystical systems (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra, the predecessor to Western sex magick, Zoroastrianism and the many systems of Yoga) fused with the Western occult sciences of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the many reformed rituals of Freemasonry he later reformulated within the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O). This system is founded in scientific skepticism. His undergraduate studies in chemistry helped forge the scientific skepticism which later culminated in the many-volumed and unparalleled occult publication, The Equinox.

Involved as a young adult in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he first studied mysticism and made enemies of William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite. Like many in occult circles of the time, Crowley voiced the view that Waite was a pretentious bore, through searing critiques of Waite's writings and editorials of other authors' writings.

His friend and former Golden Dawn associate Allan Bennett introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism, while Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, acting leader of the Golden Dawn organization, acted as his early mentor in western magick but would later become his enemy. Several decades after Crowley's participation in the Golden Dawn, Mathers claimed copyright protection over a particular ritual and sued Crowley for infringement after Crowley's public display of the ritual. In a book of fiction entitled Moonchild, Crowley portrayed Mathers as the primary villain, including him as a character named SRMD, using the abbreviation of Mathers' magical name. Arthur Edward Waite also appeared in Moonchild as a villain named Arthwaite, while Bennett appeared in Moonchild as the main character's wise mentor, Simon Iff.

In October of 1901, after practising Raja Yoga for some time, he said he had reached a state he called dhyana — one of many states of unification in thoughts that are described succinctly and vividly in MAGICK Book IV (See Crowley on egolessness). 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magic as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing one's thoughts to a given object through ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Buddhism, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings.

He said that a mystical experience in April, 1904 while on vacation in Cairo, Egypt led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema. On 8 April and for the following two days at exactly noon he heard a voice, dictating the words of the text, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley transcribed. The voice claimed to be that of Aiwass (or Aiwaz "the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat," or Horus, the god of force and fire, child of Isis and Osiris) and self-appointed conquering lord of the New Aeon, and announced through his chosen scribe "the prince-priest the Beast."

Portions of the book are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed the inability to decode. This is in part due to the fact that within the Book of the Law it was forewarned that the scribe, Ankh-af-na-khonsu — Aleister Crowley, was never to attempt to decode the ciphers for to do so would end only in folly. The later written, The Law is For All, sees Crowley warning everyone not to discuss the writing amongst fellow critics, for fear that a dogmatic position would arise. It was years after the original trance sessions in Cairo that Crowley accepted the writing of the Book of the Law and followed its doctrine. Only after countless attempts to falsify its writings did he come to embrace them as the official doctrine of the New Aeon of Horus. The remainder of his professional and personal careers were spent expanding the new frontiers of scientific illuminism.

Crowley was notorious in his lifetime — a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labeled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. The claims made about him by the press range from the certain (that he supported the Germans in World War I), to the claim that he was an avowed atheist when he was obviously agnostic, to the unproven (that he openly kept mistresses), to the apparently ridiculous (that he sacrificed hundreds of babies in black magic rituals). At one point, he was expelled from Italy after having established a sort of commune, the organization of which was based on his personal philosophies, the Abbey of Thelema, at Cefalu, Sicily.

In 1934 Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued the artist Nina Hamnett for calling him a black magician in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso. In addressing the jury, Mr. Justice Swift said:

"I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man (Crowley) who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet."

Aleister Crowley died of a respiratory infection in a Hastings boarding house on December 1, 1947. According to some accounts he died on 5 December. He was penniless and addicted to heroin at the time.

His last words have been reported as, "I am perplexed.", though he did not die alone and the only other person with him, Patricia MacAlpine, the mother of his son, denied this. According to MacAlpine, Crowley remained bedridden for the last few days of his life, but was in light spirits and conversational. She claims he died in silence next to an open window. Readings at the cremation service in nearby Brighton included one of his own works, Hymn to Pan, and newspapers referred to the service as a black mass. Brighton council subsequently resolved to take all necessary steps to prevent such an incident occurring again.

Thelema

The religious or mystical system which Crowley founded, into which most of his nonfiction writings fall, he named Thelema. The word is the ancient Greek θελημα, "will", from the verb εθελειν, ethelein, meaning "to will" or "to wish." Thelema combines a radical form of philosophical libertarianism, akin in some ways to Nietzsche, with a mystical initiatory system derived in part from the Golden Dawn.

Chief among the precepts of Thelema is the sovereignty of the individual will: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" is, as it were, the system's first commandment. 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 the "Magick Will." Much of the initiatory system of Thelema is focused on discovering one's true will, true purpose, or higher self. Much else is devoted to an Eastern-inspired dissolution of the individual ego, as a means to that end (see Choronzon).

The second commandment 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.

Thelema draws on numerous older sources and, like many other new religious movements of its time, combines "Western" and "Eastern" traditions. Its chief Western influences include the Golden Dawn, Kabbalah, and elements of Freemasonry; Eastern influences include aspects of yoga, Taoism, and Tantra.

The word Thelema finds its origins in the Bible, but was first brought into common usage by Rabelais, who wrote of the Abbey of Theleme, and had the motto "Fay ce que vouldras" or "Do what you will." This theme echoed St. Augustine's "Love and do what you will" and was a part of the emerging philosophy of humanism. Others who adopted this idea were Sir Francis Dashwood and the Monks of Medmenham (better known as The Hellfire Club) as well as Sir Walter Besant and James Rice in their novel The Monks of Thelema (1878).

Science, Magick, and Sexuality

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 mystical experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying religious meaning. In this he may be considered to foreshadow Dr. Timothy Leary, who at one point sought to apply the same method to psychedelic drug experiences. Yet like Leary's, Crowley's method has received little "scientific" attention outside the circle of Thelema's practitioners.

Crowley's magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex "magick." He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time, and published numerous poems and tracts combining pagan religious themes with sexual imagery both heterosexual and homosexual.

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 this, Crowley was inspired by Paschal Beverly Randolph, an American author writing in the 1870s who wrote (in his book Eulis!) of using the "nuptive moment" (orgasm) as the time to make a "prayer" for events to occur. While Randolph was interested in both the male and female partners, Crowley's version of sex magick was a male-centered activity and the female partner played a passive role.

Women as inspiration

During March 1899 Crowley met, at one of the semi-public performances of MacGregor Mathers' Rites of Isis, an American soprano by the name of Susan Strong (3 August, 1870 - 11 March, 1946). Susan was the daughter of Dennis Strong, an American Congressman and mayor of Brooklyn. She had gone to the UK at the age of 21 and had enrolled in the Royal College of Music, London under the tutelage of the famous Hungarian musician Francis Korbay. Crowley met up with her again in London when she sang the part of Venus in Tannhauser on 22 June 1899. A torrid romance followed during which Susan swore to divorce her American husband and devote herself to Crowley. However on her return to the US, around October 1899, she apparently cooled in ardour. Crowley followed her to New York in June of the following year, but by then she was already on her way back to the UK to appear in perfomances of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During 1900, while in Mexico City, Crowley experienced an epiphany, during which he transcribed his play, titled Tannhauser. He attributed the inspiration of this play to his romance with Susan Strong.

Writings

Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on the Tarot (The Book of Thoth), yoga (Book Four), the Kabbalah (Sepher Sephiroth), astrology (The General Principles of Astrology), and numerous other subjects. He also wrote a Thelemic "translation" of the Tao Te Ching, based on earlier English translations since he knew little or no Chinese. Like the Golden Dawn mystics before him, Crowley evidently sought to comprehend the entire human religious and mystical experience in a single philosophy. He self-published many of his books, expending the majority of his inheritance to disseminate his views. Many of his fiction works, such as the "Simon Iff" detective stories and Moonchild have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. However his fictional work Diary Of A Drug Fiend has received acclaim from those involved in the field of substance abuse rehabilitation.

Crowley's most grandiose work is The Equinox, a large bi-annual periodical that served as the official organ of the A.'.A.'., and, later, the O.T.O. It was subtitled "The Review of Scientific Illuminism" and remains one of the definitive works on occultism.

Crowley's other major works include:

Crowley had a peculiar sense of humour. In his Book Four he includes a chapter purporting to illuminate the Qabalistic significance of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In re Humpty Dumpty, for instance, he recommends the occult authority "Ludovicus Carolus" -- better known as Lewis Carroll. In a footnote to the chapter he admits that he had invented the alleged meanings, to show that one can find occult "Truth" in everything.

Many Crowley biographies relate the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons and their attempt to create a "moonchild" (from Crowley's novel of that name). In Crowley's own words, "Apparently Parsons and Hubbard or somebody is producing a moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts." Clearly the admiration Hubbard had for Crowley was not reciprocated.

More famously still, he baited Christians by naming himself To Mega Therion, or "The Great Beast" of the Book of Revelation.

Crowley and Rock & Roll

A number of rock musicians have been fascinated by the persona and ideas of Aleister Crowley, and several have made reference to him or his work in their own.

Popular music groups who have made passing references to Crowley include:

  • David Bowie, whose song "Quicksand", featured on his album Hunky Dory, makes the reference "I'm closer to the Golden Dawn, immersed in Crowley's uniform of imagery..."
  • Numerous heavy metal rockers, including Ozzy Osbourne and Ministry, who have referred to Crowley in lyrics, though their interpretations more often follow the tabloid "Satanist" image of Crowley and not his actual writings. Such lyrics dwell on Crowley's sometime use of Christian eschatological imagery such as the number 666.
  • Shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, who once stated that Crowley was one of his favourite authors. On his album Antichrist Superstar, the sentence "When you are suffering, know that I have betrayed you" supposedly rephrases a line from Liber AL vel Legis: "Begone! ye mocker; even though ye laugh in my honour ye shall laugh not long: then when you are sad know that I have forsaken you." The line from Disposable Teens "I never really hated a one true god but the god of the people I hated" is believed to be a refrased version of the line from Confessions "I did not hate God or Christ, but merely the God and Christ of the people whom I hated." Also, in the song Misery Machine the chorus goes, 'We've gotta ride to the Abbey of Thelema.'
  • British music group Current 93, fronted by a former member of the OTO, takes their name from a mystical term referring to Thelema itself, and has drawn extensive inspiration from Crowley's writings and works.
  • The British gothic rock band Fields of the Nephilim, who make numerous indirect references to Crowley and to Thelema in their works, with the songs "Moonchild" and "Love Under Will" being more obvious examples.
  • German pop group Alphaville, noted for mystical references of various sorts, who penned a song about Crowley's wife Rose, entitled "Red Rose", which makes coded reference to a number of Thelemic and otherwise occult ideas.
  • The San Francisco-based Folk-Rock band Annwn, who have performed a similarly themed song, "The Scarlet Muse", about Leila Waddell, one of Crowley's mistresses. Some of the same performers, under the band name Nuit, have produced an album, Mother Night, based in part on Thelemic mystical concepts.
  • There is a reference to the Diaries of Crowley in the song "Liezah" by The Coral.
  • The American nu metal quartet Mudvayne references one of Crowley's books in their song "Mercy, Severity". On their album The End of All Things to Come, the sentence "Pain of division is nothing, joy of dissolution is everything." rephrases a line from the Liber AL vel Legis: "This is the creation of the world, that the pain of division is as nothing, and the joy of dissolution all."

Also, several bands have used samples of Crowley reading his own works, including British band Paradise Lost, Costa Rican band Dreams of Decadence and Finnish band Babylon Whores.

Perhaps most curiously, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page owned Crowley's Loch Ness estate, Boleskine House, from 1971 to 1992. It is also said that on some pressings of the Led Zeppelin III album, one or more Aleister Crowley quotes are inscribed into the runoff matrix of the vinyl (the space between the last groove and the label.)

Mountaineering

In May 1905, he was approached by Dr Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (1868 - 1925) to accompany him on an expedition to Kanchenjunga. Guillarmod was left to organise the personnel while Crowley left to get things ready in Darjeeling. On July 31 Guillarmod joined Crowley in Darjeeling, bringing with him two countrymen, Charles-Adolphe Reymond and Alexis Pache. Meawhile Crowley had recruited a local man, Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi, to act as Transport Manager. The team left Darjeeling on August 8, 1905, and used the Singalila Ridge approach to Kangchenjunga. At Chabanjong they ran into the rear of the 135 coolies who had been sent ahead on July 24 and July 25, who were carrying food rations for the team.

Miscellany

Crowley also tried to mint a number of new terms instead of the established ones he felt inadequate. For example he spelled magic "magick" and renamed theurgy "high magick" and thaumaturgy "low magick". Many of his terms are still used by some practitioners.

Crowley remains a popular icon of libertines and those interested in the theory and practice of magic.

In the World of Darkness role-playing game metaverse, the mage faction known as the Cult of Ecstasy claims Crowley as one of its own, though holding him up as an example of what not to do.

Crowley has been attributed as selecting the "V for Victory" sign during World War II as used by Sir Winston Churchill.

"In World War I Aleister Crowley ingratiated himself with a Hermetic sect in order to reveal to the Americans that its head was a highly dangerous German agent. In World War II it was well known in British Intelligence that many leading Nazis were interested in the occult and especially in astrology. Crowley did some work for MI5, but his project for dropping occult information by leaflet on the enemy was rejected by the authorities." - Richard Deacon, Spyclopaedia

See also

References

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External links

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