Part 1 of 4
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about!”
- Oscar Wilde
At one time, the world’s most talked-about and notorious lecher was a short, lumpy, balding fat man who claimed he was the true embodiment of evil. His pose stemmed from a lifetime of dissipating behaviors: satyric sexual encounters with men and women; animal sacrifice in the practice of the Black Arts; extensive and addictive substance abuse; and debauched excesses.
This embodiment of evil, however, had many other human failings. He was a racist. He was also an unrepentant misogynist, with a genuine mistrust of women bordering on mania, although he seemed unable to live without them in his life (as muses). Unfortunately, such a man was also highly intelligent, cunning, artistic, poetic, and philosophic. He was a true seeker of knowledge, and had it not been for his particular bent of ego, he might have contributed something far greaterCredit: public domain to humanity than a legacy of exaggerated licentiousness. After his death he was largely forgotten, but was resurrected in the mid 1960s by rock musicians as a cult icon and by an emerging group of Satanists.
But, like another highly intelligent, charismatic, and artistic man – Oscar Wilde – this devilish diviner of magick’s deepest mysteries was brought down by a civil court case of his own making. Aleister Crowley never recovered from his 1934 drubbing in open court; his ruin began over a petty case of libel.
Affectation was in his blood, and he was a self-made character. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was an Irish legend during his own lifetime. He was a dramatist, novelist, poet, and dandy. Wilde was flamboyant in an age of more stolid Victorian conservatism. He was witty and charismatic. He was also a homosexual at a time in history when such behavior was considered criminal.
He was born in Dublin, Ireland. His mother was a writer who conducted a literary salon. Young Oscar grew up hearing the barbs and gibes of the literati, and he became a master of the spoken word himself. He was quick-witted, acerbic, and sarcastic, qualities that often made him speak off-the-cuff without giving proper thought to his words. [In a later court case, a prosecutor read a passage from one of Wilde’s works. The prosecutor then asked, “Is that art?” Wilde replied crassly, “Not the way you read it!” The gallery laughed heartily – the court officers, however, were not amused].
Oscar went to Oxford in 1874. By 1878, having established himself as a scholar and aesthete, he became a celebrity in England. He was caricatured in newspapers and even on stage by Gilbert and Sullivan. His witticisms were often quoted. He published a book of poetry, and in 1882 he ventured to America for a lecture series (a popular occupation of many English writers, Charles Dickens perhaps the most celebrated on his Unites States lecture tour). In 1884 he married a woman named Constance Lloyd (a marriage of convenience; she died in 1898). During this time, though, he wrote prolifically, creating a volume of fairy tales The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and the dark novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), among other works.Credit: public domain images
He turned his hand to stage drama in 1892 and wrote several successful plays. One of his latest would prove his undoing, however. He wrote a play called Salomé in 1893 that was considered lascivious enough by London standards that a license for its public performance was refused. Wilde rewrote the play in French and in 1896 the option to stage it was picked up by another living legend, French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
It was the translation of this play into English before it was staged in Paris that was Wilde’s undoing. Oscar haunted many establishments frequented by homosexuals – the “boys” – and he was well-known in those circles. His sexual proclivities were an open secret among the smart set but generally not discussed in public. Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) was a “member” of this bohemian bunch. He was about 24 years old when he translated Wilde’s Salomé into English from the French.
Wilde was madly in love with the younger Lord Douglas, and the two spent much intimate time together. By 1895 when Wilde’s social satire, The Importance of Being Ernest, was staged in London, however, the cloud of doom glowered over Wilde’s head. Lord Alfred’s father was a very well-placed, influential member of the British Peerage. His name was John Sholto Douglas (1844-1900), and he was the 8th Marquis of Queensberry. He assumed that title upon his father’s death in 1858, and John Douglas was a man’s man of his times. Boxing’s sacrosanct “Marquis of Queensberry Rules of Boxing” were written and instituted by him (1867). He was a peer in the House of Lords from 1872-1880. When he learned of his son’s “relationship” with the foppish and fey Oscar Wilde, the Marquis was livid.
In true British fashion, the Marquis dashed off a letter to the papers that denounced Wilde. This was a calculated move. He intimated that the relationship between Wilde and his son was “immoral”, and it must end. Although he never specified the exact nature of the “immorality”, the public (used to the secret language of Victoriana and with some knowing of Wilde’s homosexuality) simply inferred the truth.
Wilde himself denied the allegations, and the matter should have rested there. However, for a man of Wilde’s intellect and ego, this brute of a Marquis, he thought, should not get away with such scandalous muckraking. He sued the Marquis in court for libel.
The best defense against libel is proving the “libel” to be true. In the end the Marquis was found “not guilty” of libel. This meant, then, that Wilde was indeed “immoral” (read: homosexual), and charges were immediately brought against him under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. He was sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. The defense costs in the criminal case bankrupted him, and his time in prison broke his health and his spirit. Once released, he lived as a shadow of his former self. He never regained his place in British society. He moved to France, rejected by all but playwright George Bernard Shaw (himself of “suspect” sexuality), and he died there in 1900.
Aleister Emulates Oscar
Edward Alexander Crowley (born October 12, 1875), later known as “The Wickedest Man Alive”, grew up a dilettante, a spoiled, British upper-class prat. The senior Crowley (Edward, 1830-1887)Credit: public domain though trained as an engineer, did not work. He had inherited shares in a family brewing concern which left him comfortably a man of leisure, having retired before the boy was born.
Most sociopaths have an unhealthy and pathological devotion to their mothers. Young Edward was the opposite – he loathed Emily Bertha Bishop Crowley (1848-1917). She, too, was from old family money, and she referred to her son as “The Beast”. Edward delighted in this appellation, wallowing in the negative attention it brought, and wore it as a perverse badge of honor.
The father had been born into a Quaker family, an extremely rigid form of fundamentalist Protestantism. Finding the Quakers perhaps not severe enough, Edward Crowley converted to an even more restrictive cult called The Exclusive Brethren. [His wife, Emily, also joined this group when she married Edward, Sr.]. The religious devotions in the household were enforced –father Edward not only spent time as a travelling preacher, he rigidly read an entire chapter from the Bible aloud to his wife and son every day after breakfast.
The boy chafed under such conservatism, but he admired and respected his father despite his conservatism. In 1887 when Crowley was eleven, Edward Crowley died of cancer (of the tongue, a condition common with pipe smokers). As the only child, the pre-pubescent Crowley inherited his Credit: public domainfather’s wealth. He was packed off to a pricey private Brethren school in Cambridge, but he was expelled for boorish behavior. He then went on to two more exclusive private schools, both of which he quit of his own accord after a few semesters, claiming he despised them.
He then enrolled in another school, Eastbourne College. It was here Crowley’s skepticism about Christianity fomented and was nurtured in the intellectually stimulating college environment. He found inconsistencies in Biblical texts and faults in logic, and challenged his religious instructors with those discoveries.
In the spirit of pure early teenage rebellion, the boy took to visiting prostitutes and venting his sexual energies on other girls. He caught gonorrhea from a prostitute. [Crowley claimed later he had been introduced to sex at the age of 14 with a housemaid. Although this is probably true, the act itself was likely rape by coercion. Upper-class Brits habitually “bothered” the help – submission was required or dismissal from the job was certain. For more on this sort of subordinate rape, the unexpurgated text of My Secret Life, a book of “amorous” adventures written by an anonymous Victorian “gentleman” is an eye-opening chronicle of how upper-class Britain really behaved. This unknown’s book can only be described as a rape catalog. In the cases where this anonymous man did not outright force himself on some lower-class scullery maid or farm girl, he coerced her to the point of distraction with constant pestering, bribes, and (as he called it) “chafing”. He even described a brutal scene in which he rapes his own wife. This was Crowley’s world of sex; women, and particularly lower-class women, were there to be used.].
In these earlier years, Crowley had other interests, one of which was mountaineering. He religiously went to the Alps annually from 1894 to 1898 for climbing. He had a taste for poetry as well, and in 1898 he privately (vanity) published a poem called Aceldama. The 100 copies he ordered did not sell well. Also in 1898 he published other poems. One of these, White Stains, was of an erotic nature, and Crowley had it printed abroad to avoid trouble with priggish British authorities for obscenity. [Part of this particular poem, according to a biographer, “deserves a place in any wide-ranging anthology of gay poetry".]. Another pastime was the game of chess, and Crowley joined his university's chess club. Although he desired to become the school’s chess champion, and he practiced diligently, he finally gave up the idea, though he would play the game for the rest of his life.
Crowley’s sexual appetite was huge, however, and as was common in almost all British schools, there was much homosexuality on campus. Crowley spent much time with prostitutes and girls he picked up at pubs and such, but he became an eager participant as a “receiver” in homosexual anal sex at the school among his cohorts. The taboo against this behavior was great; homosexual acts were illegal. Imprisonment was a common punishment (by this time in Crowley’s life the exploits of the homosexual Oscar Wilde were all over the news and in the courts). Initially, Crowley’s involvement in gay sex may have been his natural recalcitrance toward authority and societal standards – he did it because he knew he wasn’t supposed to. Later, though, homosexual sex became his preferred outlet and the one he felt led to a “greater love” than a man could have with any woman.
Crowley claimed his first significant mystical experience happened in December 1896. His biographer believed this resulted from Crowley’s first homosexual experience, leading him to “encounter…an immanent [inherent] deity.” After this pseudo-religious vision, he took up reading about occultism and mysticism. By the next year he delved into books about alchemy and magicians.
It was in October that a severely, but briefly ill, Crowley made a major life decision. Melodramatically faced with his own mortality Crowley decided to give up his original career goal in diplomacy (something in which, with his command of language, he would have excelled). Instead, he decided to devote his life to the mysteries of the Occult; considering he was independently wealthy there was really nothing to stop him in this frivolity.
Crowley’s gayness led him to Herbert Charles Pollitt in 1897. Pollitt was president of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club. He and Crowley became intimately involved, but Crowley broke it off when it was clear Pollitt did not share his growing enthusiasm for more esoteric subjects (mysticism, occultism, Spiritualism, etc.). In late 1897, Crowley quit Cambridge without getting his degree, although records of the university show he was an excellent student, and had placed second in his class in the Fall semester of 1896, moving up to first in Spring 1897.
The newly-minted mystic departed for the Continent and made his way to his beloved Alps and Switzerland.
In Zermatt, Switzerland, Crowley met a chemist named Julian L. Baker. They discovered a mutual interest in alchemy, and a friendship rose from that common ground. Baker was also interested in the Occult. Upon returning to England, Baker introduced Crowley to a member of a mystic, secret society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Such organizations as these flourished in the late 19th century and were usually filled with other posers, dilettantes, and dabblers “exploring” the mysteries of the unknown. The groups were largely fraternal and social and, although much pretense was made at standing on ceremony and secrecy, they accomplished little toward “enlightenment”.
Crowley took to the group, and they to him, and he was initiated on November 18, 1898. He was given a “magickal” name – “Frater Perdurabo” -- which allegedly meant “I shall endure to the end”. And because he could, Crowley moved from his luxurious digs at the Hotel Cecil to a spacious and expensive flat that took up two street numbers (67-69 Chancery Lane in London).
Black & White
Crowley, like any good Satanist would do later in the next century, recognized the dichotomy of any religious pursuits: Good versus Evil, the Yin versus the Yang. In his new apartment he set up two rooms with two diametrically opposed purposes. In one room he practiced White Magick. The other room was set aside for the practice of Black Magick. He invited a fellow member of the Golden Dawn, Allen Bennett, to come live in his spacious spread. Bennett became a tutor to Crowley, and he also introduced Crowley to the ritualistic use of drugs (mostly hallucinogens, the most commonly available then was an extract from peyote).
Crowley bought a manse on the shores of the enigmatic and romantic Loch Ness in 1899. The residence was named Boleskine House. Crowley, in typical arrogant fashion, called himself the “Laird of Boleskine”. Crowley became so enamored of Scotland and its culture he adapted the kilt and the other accessories of Highland garb as part of his normal attire, wearing this gear during his visits back to London. Bennett left Crowley in 1900, and headed for Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to study Buddhism.
W.B. Yeats and the Schism
William Butler Yeats, like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, was an Irishman. Yeats (born in 1865) was about a decade younger than Wilde, but the two men certainly would have known of each other by reputation if not through their published works (Yeats first published in the 1880s, about the same time Wilde was publishing his first works).
He had also studied East Indian theology with self-proclaimed mystic Elena Blavatsky. [Yeats’ passion for Spiritualism and mysticism did not dim, and it extended to his personal life as well – in 1917, he married Georgie Hyde-Leeds, a Spiritualistic medium]. His keen interest in the occult led to his membership in The Golden Dawn (before Crowley’s initiation).
Crowley hated Yeats, and there was a schism developing within the Order of which Yeats was on the “rebel” side. The group’s leader, MacGregor Mathers (the man who had conducted Crowley’s initiation ceremony) was ousted. As in most secret societies there are levels or degrees of membership, with the more advanced members having greater access to the Order’s “secrets” and power structure. Crowley had been thwarted in his wish to advance in the order by Yeats and his cohorts.
Although Mathers was no longer the head of the group he still held a place as chief, and he agreed to induct Crowley into the Second Order in exchange for his fealty. This minor “deal-with-the-devil” meant little to Crowley – as his ends were achieved his loyalties were easily swayed when necessary.
Crowley had a steady-on girlfriend at the time named Elaine Simpson, and she was also an initiate of The Golden Dawn. Bizarrely, this little club’s activities turned militant when Crowley and Elaine attempted to physically wrest control of a meeting place from the “rebels” (who were on hand, including Yeats, to thwart Crowley’s coup).
This absurd “battle” over the group’s “clubhouse” left Crowley with bitter feelings toward other members of The Golden Dawn. His loathing of the very successful W.B. Yeats stemmed from professional jealousy. [In the same way the jealous, and merely mediocre musician/songwriter, Charles Manson would attempt, through his underlings, to kill Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, a record industry insider who had rejected Manson’s ditties. Unfortunately, Terry Melcher and his girlfirend, actress Candice Bergen, had moved to a new home by the time the order was issued; the pregnant Sharon Tate was living in the Melcher house by then, and the slaughter went from there). Yeats, as well as being a part of the rebel faction, had pooh-poohed one of Crowley’s poems.
This blow to the fragile ego of such a man as Aleister Crowley could not be forgotten. He also got into a literary feud with fellow member Arthur Edward Waite. Crowley claimed Waite was a pretentious bore, and he wrote scathing reviews of Waite’s works. Crowley likewise criticized other successful writers in his circle. [This is something the supremely talented Edgar Allan Poe stooped to during his career as a critic, also from jealousy. He went so far as to call Wordsworth “a plagiarist”]. Crowley had put together a periodical, The Equinox, and on its pages he spent much Credit: public domainspace lampooning Waite. One rant was entitled, “Wisdom While You Waite”. He also dummied up a mock obituary on the passing of Waite: “Dead Waite”.
This pettiness aside, Crowley’s ambitions to lead his own group of mystics and seers spurred a need to distance himself from The Golden Dawn. Completely on impulse, in 1900 he traveled to the United States then to Mexico. He found a compliant señorita as a bed mate there, and he and a male friend of his (Oscar Eckenstein) spent time mountain climbing. Eckenstein told Crowley of his own mystical leanings and that he had already studied some of the Indian practices of yoga as a form of disciplining one’s mind. Crowley was keenly interested in this, and when he left Mexico, he traveled on to San Francisco, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, and finally Ceylon. In Ceylon, his old roommate Allen Bennett (who had introduced him to drugs) helped Crowley learn yoga.
Bennett decided to become a Buddhist monk. He left Ceylon for Burma (Myanmar today). Crowley went on to mainland India and studied Hinduism. His mountain climbing friend Oscar Eckenstein joined him there in 1902, and Crowley along with Eckenstein and other mountaineers attempted an assault on K2. [K2 is in Kashmir. The mountain had first been explored by English geologist Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen in the late middle of the 19th century, and for long afterward the mountain was called “Mount Godwin Austen”. One source erroneously reports this attempt by Crowley was the first ever on K2. It is simply untrue – many attempts were made before that time, although it was not successfully conquered until July 1954 by an Italian party.].
Crowley was stricken with influenza, malaria, and snow blindness. He and the group managed to make it to an altitude of about 20,000 feet before illness among the rest of the party forced them to give up the attempt (K2 is slightly over 28,000 feet tall, shorter by less than 900 feet from the record holder, Mt. Everest).
Settling before Unsettling
One of Crowley’s personal friends, Gerald Kelly, was a painter of some note who was also friends with the great British novelist, W. Somerset Maugham (who would model his protagonist in his 1908 novel, The Magician, after Crowley). Gerald had a sister named Rose Kelly (1874-1932). In 1895, Gerald was sent to South Africa to convalesce from a “liver ailment” (the winter months of 1895-1896). In late 1899 or early 1901, Rose married a military man, a Major Skerrett, who was considerably older than she. Skerrett died in 1903. Gerald, meanwhile had gone off to live in Paris, and Rose Edith joined her brother there in 1903. She stayed with him for six months.
Credit: public domain images
Through Gerald, Rose Edith met Aleister Crowley. In 1903, apparently because Rose’s blush was off the bloom (and at 29 years old she was not of desirable marriage age any longer), a marriage was arranged for her to a suitor she did not want. She and Crowley conspired so she could escape this obligation, and the two eloped on August 11, 1903, marrying the next day. They took off for an extended honeymoon and by early 1904 they ended up in Cairo.
When Crowley Came to Egypt’s Land
Crowley’s philosophy about women was rather intriguing. In later writings he would describe them as being suitable for, and desirous of, only one thing – being pregnant and giving birth to children.Credit: public domain He similarly, despite his original lack of interest in Rose Edith, treated her like a brood mare, and she was pregnant very soon after their marriage.
Crowley, always the self-promoter and braggart, had booked their travel arrangements under the fictitious noble titles of “Prince and Princess Chioa Khan.” He claimed these honorifics had been bestowed upon him in the Orient. Crowley’s mysticism turned toward the pagan and the Satanic in Egypt for the first time.
Crowley began seeing omens in many things in his ordinary life. The pregnant Rose was unstrung by Egypt, and she was delusional sometimes. Crowley conducted a magick ceremony invoking Thoth (the Egyptian Moon god) in which Rose went into a light trance, although she claimed to see nothing supernatural. During this she heard voices that advised her to tell Crowley, “They are waiting for you.” She, however, could not tell him who “They” were. In mid March of that year, Crowley invoked the name of Horus, the ancient Egyptian pagan god (with the head of a falcon and the Moon and the Sun for eyes) in a ceremony, and it was then Rose told Crowley the mysterious “They” was Horus and his messenger. Rose may have pranked Crowley or she might have been serious in her delusion, but this revelation intrigued him.
They visited a local Cairo natural history museum soon after this supernatural revelation. There, they saw a mortuary stele from the 7th century BCE (later revered by Crowley and his disciples as the “Stele of Revealing”). Crowley, always sensitive to magick and mystical coincidence, noted the museum had assigned this stele an exhibit number that struck an ominous chord. Recalling the disparaging nickname his mother had used for him as a boy, the exhibit’s number was extra special to Crowley. It was the number 666, the number of the Beast of the Apocalypse in the Biblical Book of Revelations.
[End of Part 1]
Part 3 - Aleister Crowley: Deviant
Part 4 - Aleister Crowley: Devil in Decline