Part 3 of 4
‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law.
- Aleister Crowley
As a seeker of mystical enlightenment Aleister Crowley was more fortunate than many. He grew up in wealth and privilege, and his inheritance after his father’s death insured he could pursue his intellectual development without bother from such picayune distractions as gainful employment. Crowley’s devotions to the Occult, Egyptian mysticism, and Eastern philosophies shaped his desire to form his own group of enlightened seekers. Specifically, he wanted to form a group to rival the one in which he was a prodigal and shunned member, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
He and two comrades did this in October 1907 when Crowley, in a drug-induced religious ecstasy, believed he had communed with his godhead, Aiwass, a messenger of the Egyptian god, Horus.Credit: public domain Crowley had already written the cornerstone theosophy for his new religion in a mystical manifesto called The Book of the Law (over a short period in 1904 while in Egypt). To this canon he added more theosophical writings, couched in the obscure language of the Occult and gibberish of his own devising.
Crowley had married in 1903, but his wife, Rose, became a raging alcoholic, and in 1909 he divorced her. They had two children (both girls), one of whom died of typhoid in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar) in 1906. The other daughter, Lola Zaza, Crowley had named for a woman (actress Vera “Lola” Stepp) he kept at the time of the baby’s birth.
The splitting up of the Crowley family was amicable, and Rose and he remained friends and confidantes afterward. Despite his reputation as a conjurer and practitioner of magick, Crowley was relatively stable in his personal habits (barring his hallucinogenic drug use and the occasional affair while married). However, in the wake of his divorce, Aleister Crowley went on to live up to his self-appointed title of “The Beast”; he engaged in the hedonistic, aberrant behavior that the British press used to name him “The Wickedest Man in the World”.
Sex Cult Creation
Sex and religion have always had an uncomfortable coexistence. Sex in some religions is denounced as “evil” (regardless of the nature of the activity). In other religions, it is healthily considered part of the human condition. And on the fringes, sex is treated as the end-all and be-all of existence; it is to those “sex cults” society’s laser-eye of smugness turns.
When Crowley established his new mystical cult of Thelema, he named it Argentum Astrum (Silver Star). Its shorthand symbol was “A∴A∴”. He wrote many addenda to the Holy Books of Thelema in the immediate establishment of A∴A∴ (usually while imbibing hashish or some other substance to open a “gateway” for visions).
For publicity and to help find new members Crowley’s upstart publishing company (The Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth) developed an Occult themed magazine (published twice a year) called The Equinox. [The Equinox published ten volumes, the last in 1913]. In the pages of this rag, Crowley not only expounded on his Thelemic theosophy, he also used it as a forum to grind personal axes. He had literary beefs with Golden Dawn members Arthur Edward Waite and future Nobel-prize winning poet, W.B. Yeats. Yeats, as a member of The Golden Dawn, had once made little of a poem Crowley had submitted for his critique. Waite, Crowley groused, was a pretentious bore; he regularly published diatribes against the man.
His notoriety spread, and his new group attracted many prime occultists of his day. The Equinox became an authoritative source on Occultism, and Crowley’s success was almost easily won. He published volumes of his own poetry through his company. He continued his explorations of Mysticism, and he also became somewhat of a Renaissance man, painting portraits and writing fiction. His drug use escalated, and his sexual appetite, unfettered by marital obligations, also knew no bounds.
Crowley’s true god, in short, became Aleister Crowley.
Thelema & Scarlet Women
Rose, Crowley’s ex-wife, continued down her path of personal destruction, and he had her committed to an institution in 1911 after she lapsed into alcoholic dementia. When she got out, she married a doctor named Gormley, but she retreated into her alcoholism (she died in 1932).
In 1907 Crowley had met a young poet named Victor Neuburg and the two became friends. Neuburg joined Crowley’s cult. One of Crowley’s students in Thelema was Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell (better known as “Laylah”). She was from Australia (New South Wales, born 1880), and she became Crowley’s sex partner and perhaps his most powerful muse.
Credit: public domain images
Leila Waddell was a bit of an enigma herself. Very somber, melancholic, and artistic, she was a writer and a musician and a serious student of the Occult. She allowed herself to become Crowley’s plaything in addition to his writing partner (she was given a co-writing credit on some of his works, most notably Magick: Book IV from 1912). As Crowley’s physical incarnation of Babalon (“The Mother of Abominations”, “The Great Whore”), Laylah was the first of only a few true “Scarlet Women” in his sphere. As a display of fealty and belief in his theosophy Laylah allowed Crowley to brand her between the breasts with a mystical symbol of his own devising. He called this brand “The Mark of the Beast”.
Crowley’s sexual perspicuity extended beyond his own organization, however. His fondness (and preference) for homosexual anal sex became something of a problem for other Occultists. He was affiliated with an organization called Ordo Templi Orientis (a pseudo-Masonic group). CrowleyCredit: public domain had begun developing his selfish sexual tenets – sex with him was required as a step toward enlightenment and spiritual awakening. Crowley by then believed sex between men was a powerful formula for reaching greater levels of awareness. Many males grudgingly submitted, and this rite caused much resentment.
Crowley generally considered women nothing more than vials to receive his holy seed. He felt they were intellectually inferior to men, and were only capable of and wanting to produce children. He thought if a woman remained childless in a marriage that the woman would do other things of a conniving and destructive nature to undermine her husband’s work (Crowley naïvely tended to assume all men were in pursuit of lofty goals without realizing most were not). Thus, no women could be trusted as equal to any man unless she was helping him in his pursuits or bearing children. Crowley’s “baby farm” approach to femininity extended to his aversion to abortion. He hated the practice not because it removed fetuses from uteri, but because its use deprived women of their greatest glory, giving birth.
Laylah was the exception because she was Crowley’s muse. She bore him no children, and although he handled her roughly, it is certain there was enough of the masochist in her to appreciate and relish rough handling. The brand between her breasts alone is enough evidence of her masochism.
As Crowley became interested in theater he functioned as a producer for plays. He promoted Laylah in a production called The Ragged Ragtime Girls in March 1913. This jollity was far removed from Crowley’s and Laylah’s more sinister pursuits, wallowing in mysticism and debauchery. The play enjoyed a brief run in London, and then moved on to Moscow where it ran for six weeks. In June of that year in Moscow, Crowley met a Hungarian girl, Anny Ringler. Crowley reacted to her as “The Beast” would, and her masochism led to an exquisitely deviant sadomasochistic sexual relationship (in which spectators sometimes watched the “performances”).
He wrote of the girl Anny:
“…She had passed beyond the region where pleasure had meaning for her. She could only feel through pain, and my own means of making her happy was to inflict physical cruelties as she directed. The kind of relation was altogether new to me; and it was because of this, intensified as it was by the environment of the self-torturing soul of Russia, that I became inspired to create by the next six weeks.”
Anny became a secondary muse for Crowley. He would meet her and heap abuses upon her for about an hour; then, he was inspired to write. He wrote two more poetic works over the summer in Moscow: Hymn to Pan and Ecclesiae Gnosticae Catholicae Canon Missae (a Gnostic mass occasionally used by the few remaining poser Thelemites today).
He returned to London in the autumn of 1913. Crowley began altering his physical appearance to Credit: public domainmore closely resemble his image of a conjurer. His hair was falling out, so rather than keep up the pretense, he shaved his head. Upon his bald scalp he applied a noisome balm of his own making (which contained civet musk and ambergris). He thought it was an attractant to women. He also sharpened his teeth to points, and could inflict the “Bite of the Beast” on women’s breasts when the mood struck him. Many of these “love bites” became infected, and one woman developed life-threatening sepsis.
His hedonism raged uncontrolled, and his histrionics, not to mention rumors of Satanism, human sacrifice, and orgies drew unwarranted attention from the community. The thing that seemed most to stick in the craw of the locals was the fact that Crowley’s acolytes were overwhelmingly female, and he made no secret of his sexual activities with them. This flagrant sexual promiscuity was more an affront to “decent” folk than allegations of human or animal sacrifice were. As for sacrifices, there were never any humans killed by Crowley or any of his disciples in any ceremonies or rituals. Animal sacrifices, however, held a certain place in the rites. Crowley, despite being able to receive anal sex from men or to sadistically inflict tortures on a mentally fragile Hungarian girl, was squeamish about many things. He had an affection for animals, and only grudgingly, and with great discomfort, crucified a frog in a particular ceremony. Other instances requiring such acts had to be performed by other members – he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He ventured off to Paris in late 1913 with Victor Neuburg in tow. Crowley, always looking for fresh inroads into the unknown, partnered with Neuburg in what he called The Paris Working. This series of rituals, 24 of them performed over a seven week period, could be likened to performance art (without a public viewing). He and Crowley recorded their experiences in a book. The psychic toll on Neuburg was great – eight months later, he had a nervous breakdown and Crowley never saw him again.
The Great Beast & The Great War
Britain’s involvement in World War I did not incite Crowley to new levels of patriotic fervor for Britannia. He left London for the United States, instead. He spent most of his time pursuing his mysticism. He developed a persecution complex involving the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh, thinking almost every action around him, whether of nature or artificial, was somehow Yahweh testing his mettle.
Crowley’s womanizing led to some small enlightenment in America, however. He surrounded himself with as many sex partners as he could, but he also began to see certain women as worthy of higher status within Thelema. He envisioned them as priestesses. The American bohemian scene took to him like a fish to water. In June 1915, a woman with whom he was having an affair, journalist Hellen Hollis, introduced him to her friend, a poet named Jeanne Robert Foster. Jeanne had a sexual and intellectual relationship with him, too. Crowley’s meditations with her were intense, and at her urging he bestowed upon himself the title of Magus.
Jeanne Foster was famous in New York. She was a model, journalist, and editor as well as being a poet. She was also married. Crowley, having produced only daughters to date, wanted a son, and it was his goal that Jeanne Foster would be his brood mare for the project. However, in spite of multiple inseminations and “magickal” operations, Jeanne did not get pregnant, and their affair ended in late 1915.
Crowley traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and met with an Ordo Templi Orientis lodge leader there. [It is not recorded what this lodge leader, Wilfred Smith, thought of Crowley’s homosexual “sex magick” rites, but he did give Crowley permission to start an O.T.O. lodge in Southern California in 1930]. Crowley also stopped off in Detroit and obtained mescaline.
Crowley practiced his brand of sex magick with an inconsequential German prostitute after his affair with Jeanne ended. Then he had yet another affair with a married woman, actress Alice Richardson. On-stage, she went by the exotic name of Ratan Devi, and she was a mezzo-soprano who interpreted East Indian music. She was married to a respected art historian. Crowley successfully impregnated Alice, but on board ship on a trip to England she miscarried in mid 1916.
Crowley settled briefly in New Hampshire for more magickal experimentation in June 1916. He ingratiated himself to a dabbler/poser named Evangeline Adams (Crowley had ghostwritten two books of astrology for her, and it was in New Hampshire he sacrificed the live frog for his “art”). About a month later under the stupefying influence of ether he said he had a true vision of the secrets of the cosmos. He would make mention of it often in later writings.
He took up residence on an island in the Hudson River. He bought many buckets of red paint and diligently painted in large words, “Do what thou wilt” on cliff faces on both sides of the island (although he did not “fortify” the island or translate The Book of the Law into the world’s languages as his ancient Egyptian messenger, Aiwass, had told him to do in 1904). The odd duck received several visitors on the island, all bearing gifts. He claimed visions of past lives while meditating in isolation there. Crowley ended up with his basic beliefs shaken when in one of his visions he came to recognize the superiority of “Chinese wisdom”, leading him to believe Thelema was insignificant as a theosophy. Nonetheless, he decided to plod ahead with his experiments in magick.
Scarlet Woman # 2
Crowley’s stay on the island drew to a close. He had earlier met a woman named Leah Hirsig, and before leaving the US he began a sex magick Credit: public domainrelationship with her. He found Leah engaging; he felt she was a perfect replacement for Laylah as a muse and living embodiment of Babalon.
Leah Hirsig (1883-1975) had been born in Switzerland. Her family (of nine siblings) migrated to the US when Leah was two. She grew up in New York City, and later taught high school in the Bronx. She married a man named Edward Hammond, and in 1917 gave birth to a son.
In 1918, Leah and her older sister, Alma, having an interest in the Occult, sought out Aleister Crowley where he was staying in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Crowley and Leah were simpatico, both believed, and when they met again in 1919 the relationship bloomed. Leah inspired Crowley’s visual arts leanings, and when she asked him to paint her “as a dead soul”, Crowley produced a macabre portrait that distilled supernatural elements with effective use of bold portraiture lines; it is visually jarring. [Crowley painted Leah or used her as a model for several more artworks over time].
Aleister Crowley bestowed the honor of Babalon upon Leah and gave her a new name, “Alostrael” (“the womb of God”). It must be presumed in giving her this moniker, Crowley was speaking of himself as "God"; Leah was pregnant by May 1919. [She later gave birth to a daughter they named sensibly Anne Leah, nicknamed “Poupée”, French for “puppet”, in France awaiting Crowley].
Crowley’s grander plans included a Mecca of his own for Thelemic rituals and learning, so he told the pregnant Leah where and when to meet him in Europe, and he set off for Italy.
[End of Part 3]