Aleister Crowley, Hero or Villain? A Look at the Beast’s Life
He was called the wickedest man in the world. Yet he also empowered the LGBTQ+ community, wrote numerous books and poetry, founded a pagan religion and created the Thoth tarot system. There are many who walk the left hand path and who practice the occult who claim he wasn’t wicked but grossly misunderstood. That he was actually a powerful, magical person with the right intentions, who sought to change the way we look at the world, at life, love, and our own personal power. But who is Aleister Crowley really? Is he truly a hero or a villain? In this article, we will meet the man who referred to himself as the Beast, and explore the many good things he accomplished in his life and for the modern occult movement. And his darker side.
Cover artwork by Abode of Chaos.
Who is Aleister Crowley? His Origins and History
Crowley was born as Edward Alexander Crowley in Warwickshire, England in the year 1875 to Edward Crowley and Emily Bishop. His parents were evangelical christians in the Plymouth Brethren movement. And from what I found in my research this evangelical movement is quite similar to Pentecostalism in that they believe the Bible is to be taken literally. They believe in prophecy, spontaneity of worship and preaching. Interestingly, the faction the Crowleys belonged to even followed a dress code. I believe Crowley’s upbringing in a strict evangelical environment with concepts of esotericism sprinkled in definitely contributed to his beliefs and pursuits later on. Isn’t it also obvious this particular faction displayed cult-like behavior?
Names, Nicknames and the Devil
Crowley’s family nicknamed him Alick, which later inspired his own renaming with the Celtic name Aleister. Which, interestingly, if you look up the meaning of Alistair, it means “the one who repels men”. Or “man-repeller”. It was a name given to warriors.
Crowley’s relationship with his mother was “strained” at best. She often referred to him as “the beast”, another nickname which he would later come to call himself and reveled in. Some sources say Aleister “despised his mother” and “praised his father”, but unfortunately his father died when Aleister was only thirteen years old. Following his father’s untimely death, there was a noticeable change in the young man. Some of his teachers claimed he had “turned to Satan”. But what if he was mourning the loss of his father and didn’t know how to grieve? Thirteen is such a liminal age…and to lose your parent at the same time must be confusing. I’ll bet anything he started asking questions about god and religion that no one could answer. I actually feel like I can relate to the young Crowley here.
Crowley’s College Education and Mountaineering
Crowley went to college at Cambridge University. There he gave in to three joys of life he had previously been restricted from: sex, smoking and literature. This is where he began reading voraciously things like poetry and the classics, English and French literature. And he also began writing and playing chess. Crowley was a highly intelligent individual. While at university, Crowley explored his sexuality and often had sexual encounters with female sex workers. It was here that he decided the double standard for both men and women’s sexual expression should be eradicated. He believed men and women should be free to experience sex however they please and not be shamed for it. He also began speaking openly of his own bisexuality. This was during a time when sexuality outside the normal heterosexuality was kept secret. If it wasn’t, it could be dangerous.
The Alps and the Esoteric
While at Cambridge, Crowley became a mountaineer and successfully climbed Eiger in the Alps by himself. From the Chicago Press, “During the Cambridge vacations Crowley went climbing in the Alps, achieving a lone ascent of the Eiger, and began to read widely on esoteric subjects. Inspired by the apparent allusion to a Hidden Church in A. E. Waite’s Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, Crowley wrote to Waite requesting further information. Waite responded by recommending that Crowley read the occult classic The Cloud upon the Sanctuary by Councillor von Eckartshausen, which had recently been translated by Isabelle de Steiger; the book duly accompanied him on a climbing and walking holiday during the Easter vacation of 1898.
Crowley discovered that Eckartshausen indeed elaborated on Waite’s theme, describing a Secret Sanctuary and a hidden community of saintly beings who possessed the keys to the mysteries of the universe. From that moment, Crowley determined to find and enter into communication with this “mysterious brotherhood”: “I longed passionately for illumination…for perfect purity of life, for mastery of the secret forces of nature.”
Aleister Crowley’s First Steps into the World of the Occult
In 1898, Crowley was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was essentially a magical order that sought to practice metaphysics and study the occult. As well as the study of paranormal activity. The order had a hierarchy and initiation process similar to the Freemasons, and they incorporated much of the Hermetic Qabbalah as well as astrology, tarot cards and other forms of divination into their practices.
While climbing the ranks in the Order, Crowley met other influential members that taught him how to use hallucinogenic drugs in conjunction with magic. Around the same time, Crowley also began practicing Abramelin magic with another member of the Golden Dawn. Because of his practices and studies focusing on demonic forces (his bisexuality and experimental drug use were likely also factors), his reputation in the order quickly turned sideways. Although, some say the members were jealous of Crowley’s abilities and dedication to the occult. Crowley attempted to climb all the way up the ranks, so to speak, and eventually left the order because of a dispute with the leader of the Golden Dawn. He wanted to lead, and I guess that didn’t sit well with the current leader.
Marriage and Children
Crowley proceeded to climb more mountains and married a woman named Rose Kelly. They gave birth to a daughter. Then, in 1907, he established his own magical order. Over the next few years, Crowley would take on a recruit named Neuberg, as well as go through a divorce with Rose who had sadly become an alcoholic. The process with which his initiate Neuberg had to endure was a long, arduous one sometimes filled with more questions than answers. And at Neuberg’s retirement in 1909, he not only accused Crowley of things but in the same breath “praised his spiritual guru”.
Crowley’s Contributions to the Occult
Crowley’s most famous and notable work is called the Book of the Law, aka Liber al vel legis. It is the central text to Crowley’s established religion Thelema. From the New Perspectives in the Brill Journal Author Manon White describes the book’s beginnings, “On honeymoon in Cairo, Crowley sought to impress his wife Rose with some invocations, when she entered a trance state, proclaiming that someone awaited him. This someone was later identified as the god Horus. At Rose’s behest, Crowley over the course of April 8–10 penned The Book of the Law, which he claimed was dictated to him by a discarnate entity named Aiwass. The text announces the advent of a new epoch in the spiritual evolution of humanity, with Crowley, as the Beast, as its prophet. This new age was to be characterised by individual liberation and self-realisation, epitomised by the maxim: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’, and the word Thelema (Greek for “will”), which became the title of Crowley’s religion.5”
Thelema, A Religion and Philosophy
Thelema today boasts thousands of people from various walks of life, including those who consider themselves atheists and polytheists who have adopted Crowley’s philosophies. A few famous people who were influenced and inspired by Crowley include David Bowie, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (who actually bought one of Crowley’s homes called Boleskine Manor on Loch Ness in Scotland), and Jack Parsons who was the found of NASA’s jet propulsion lab and modern day rocket science. Parsons is still one of the most influential figures in modern American space exploration AND was a dedicated Thelemite. Some say he even recited Crowley’s Hymn to Pan before conducting experiments.
Other Books and Poetry Written by Aleister Crowley
Other books written by Crowley include The Equinox, The Book of Lies, The Book of Thoth and Moonchild (among many others). Crowley wrote at least nineteen works of poetry on everything from romantic sonnets to war poems. Fascinating factoid, in one of Crowley’s poems, he uses the phrase “love and light”, a popular phrase now spewed by many in the new age community. By some who even oppose Crowley’s teachings altogether. I wonder if folks even know that phrase has its origins in esoteric movements like Thelema and Spiritualism?
Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck
Many tarot enthusiasts today might have heard or own the Thoth Tarot Deck, which is a set of tarot cards painted by Lady Frieda Harris who designed the deck based on Crowley’s instructions.
Crowley’s Contribution to the LGBTQ+ Community
Crowley was openly bisexual and had affairs with men during a time when homosexuality and sexuality in general wasn’t discussed and often suppressed and shunned. Not only did he have affairs with men and women alike, he also encouraged the idea of sexual liberation and verbally supported sex workers. In addition, he incorporated both men and women in his practices of tantra and sex magick. He is arguably the most famous occultist of the twentieth century who also was part of the LGBTQ+ community.
A Darker Side to Crowley
We can sit here and discuss all of the positive things Crowley gave to the world and to the occult movement, but there’s a darker side that we should also address. In one of our recent podcast episodes, we explore the light and dark side of Crowley. And there most definitely was a dark side. One of the first things that comes to mind is Crowley’s drug abuse disorder. He actually died of chronic bronchitis and heart congestion at the age of seventy-two. But it should also be known he was a chronic heroin addict at the time of his death. The drug abuse likely impacted his physical health negatively.
The Paris Incident
In one rumor that circulated online forums, Crowley was accused of a young man’s mysterious death in an event referred to as the “Paris Incident”. According to Peter Rogers on Hubpages, “Crowley set out to invoke Pan. During the night, those waiting down below heard load banging and screaming. This grew so loud that they went upstairs thinking whether to enter the room or not. This was locked from inside and would mean breaking down the door. Crowley’s instructions prevailed so despite the noise and shouting inside, they went back downstairs to wait the dawn.
Dawn came, neither Crowley, nor his assistant MacAleister appeared. Several hours went by with no further sound from the room above. Eventually those waiting went upstairs and after knocking and receiving no reply, broke down the door. The scene inside has been described as something from a horror movie. Furniture was broken and splintered to pieces. Both Crowley and his assistant were naked, scratched, bruised and battered, their robes torn to shreds. MacAleister was dead.” I cannot truly find any evidence to back up this claim, but it is supposedly a popular motif in occult circles.
Wrapping It Up
So, what do you think? Was Crowley potentially a hero in the occult community, a pioneer for the metaphysical movement? You can go and listen to our full episode on Aleister Crowley: Heroes and Villains here: