Part 2 of 4
“…Every man and woman is a star.”
- Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley, who would earn the moniker “The Wickedest Man Alive”, spent his early childhood in privilege and comfort. Upon the death of his father he was independently wealthy from an inheritance. In college, he developed a curiosity about mysticism and the Occult (voguish trends of the late 19th century). He dropped out of Cambridge in late 1897, and he joined a secret society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in November 1898. The Golden Dawn was a group engaged in probing the mysteries of the Occult, and a member introduced him to ritualistic, hallucinogenic drug use. Cowley bought a manor on the shores of Loch Ness in 1899, and then embarked on a trip across the globe in 1900 lasting until 1903.
During his travels, Crowley, an avid mountaineer, climbed several peaks in the Alps and Mexico. Later in India to study Hinduism, he and a group of friends traveled to Kashmir and attempted an assault on K2 (the world’s second tallest peak). Crowley and his party were all very ill by the time they hit an altitude of 20,000 feet (the mountain is slightly over 28,000 feet tall), and the project was abandoned.
Although primarily a homosexual at heart (indicating a preference for male anal sex early in his British school years), he had many women admirers and he frequented prostitutes as well. After an impulsive marriage to a 29-year-old widow (Rose Edith Kelly) on August 12, 1903, the couple took an extended honeymoon. They ended up in Cairo, Egypt, in early 1904.
Rise of the Beast
Rose Edith Crowley was pregnant with their first child when the honeymooners arrived in Cairo in early 1904. Crowley’s fascination with the esoteric Egyptian paganCredit: public domain gods bordered on an obsession, and he immersed himself in whatever texts and ceremonies he could uncover.
The pregnant Rose was Crowley’s muse, and she also served as a medium through which he received his first revelation from the ancient Egyptian gods. In a ceremony dedicated to the Egyptian god Horus, Rose entered a trance. When she came out of it, she told Crowley, “They are waiting for you.” This enigmatic statement was not cleared up until a later ritual in which Crowley invoked the name of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian Moon god. At the end of this magick ceremony, Rose told Crowley she now knew the identity of the mysterious “They” of the earlier trance-induced message. “They” according to Rose, were Horus and his messenger, Aiwass.
Rose’s behavior and personality had become immersed in Crowley’s mysticism, and his pursuits were her pursuits. Reportedly, she was delusional at times while the pair was in Cairo, and it is unknown if she genuinely “discovered” who “They” were from a spiritual experience or if she was merely playing a prank on the impressionable and eager Crowley. He even christened her with a new, mystic name: Ouarda the Seeress
Regardless, Crowley was convinced he was destined to know the secrets of Egyptian occult rites. He and Rose visited a local museum in Cairo, and it was there Crowley’s path took the hard left turn he followed for the rest of his life. Up until this time, Crowley had a scholar's thirst for knowledge, and an inquisitive nature. After this day, however, he became something else entirely, a megalomaniacal (albeit charismatic) seeker who would use his search for religious truths as an excuse for complete dissipation and debauchery.
When Crowley was a boy, his mother (whom he loathed – the feeling was mutual) often referred to him as “The Beast”. When he and Rose strolled through the museum they came upon a 7th century BCE mortuary stele. This monument (properly named the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu) had been assigned an exhibit number, clearly visible on its placard. Crowley, always seeking signs of divine inspiration and intervention in his world, found this exhibit’s number quite startling. It was item number “666” in the collection, the number of The Beast of the Apocalypse in Christian scripture. Or, simply, the number of The Beast (which, according to Crowley and his mother, was he).
Rise of The Law
Crowley’s experience at the museum confirmed his belief in his chosen path toward magickal enlightenment. On March 20, 1904, he and Rose conducted another invocation in their rented place in Cairo. Horus was summoned by Crowley, and through Rose (the medium) he was told obliquely afterward, “The Equinox of the Gods had come.”
This is typical of the poser (similar things happen today in New Age “religion” such as Scientology where vague statements are invested with some greater truth they do not have). Crowley interpreted Rose’s meaningless phrase to somehow indicate his time had come to rise to a religious, or mystical, empowerment. The phrase is completely open to interpretation: an “equinox” conjures “balance”. Thus, it could also have been interpreted as “the time has come for good and evil to co-exist in harmonious balance”. Crowley didn’t think so. And, as earlier, it is unknown if Rose wasCredit: William Blake, 1809 simply humoring the man, or she was deluded into pronouncing her decree.
Crowley’s excitement led to one of the world’s most misquoted, misused, misinterpreted, and misunderstood works of literature. Crowley’s brain was flooded with concepts. On April 8, 1904, he allegedly heard a disembodied voice that spoke to him inwardly, giving him the basis for a new world religion (which Crowley named “Thelema”). This religion was couched in Qabalic occultism, ancient Greek divination, classical Egyptian paganism, with sprinklings of other Eastern philosophies intermixed.
Its main icon was a construct that Crowley called Babalon (not to be confused with Babylon). This was another name for the Scarlet Woman, The Whore of Babalon, and The Mother of Abominations. It was a female representative of birth and life, and the keeper of the gates of a mystical city of pyramids. She was also all consumptive, and the term The Scarlet Woman was applied because, like a whore, she took on all customers, but she Credit: Aleister Crowley, 1904exacted a heavy price. She beckoned to the seeker, but once engaged required blood which she consumed, then gave birth to the renewed adept into a higher consciousness. Her male consort was Chaos, also called The Father of Life. In her guise as The Scarlet Woman she symbolically rode upon the back of The Beast, her controlling reign hand a metaphor for their bond. In her other hand is a chalice from which she spilled forth the blood of the saints to the four corners of the earth. This obviously drug-induced fantasy formed the cornerstone of Crowley’s nascent polytheism.
From April 9 through April 12 (as Crowley reported, “over three successive days”), he transcribed what this disembodied voice (although he was unsure of its source, he came to believe it was a messenger of the Egyptian god Horus, one of the “They” to which Rose had alluded).
“Over three successive days” sounds like a Herculean effort of scribing. The truth, however, is his “marathon” sessions with “The Voice” were not strenuous at all. For three consecutive days, at noon, Crowley sat down and wrote for one hour. He did the same for the next two days. The framework of his theosophy was formed from his mind and committed to paper in outline form in three man-hours of writing. The work’s impact, regardless of the brevity of its creation, is indisputable, however.
He called his treatise Liber Al vel Legis (The Book of the Law). Its opening lines are revealing about Crowley’s self-directed and swinish hedonism that was yet to be explored:
“…Every man and woman is a star.
Every number is infinite; there is no difference.
Help me, o warrior lord of Thebes, in my unveiling before the Children of men!”
This is Crowley’s mission statement. It is clearly a selfish directive toward any individual’s acts being equal in merit to any other persons. There are immediate contradictions in the opener. In the line “…every man and woman is a star” (adopted in pop culture as a mantra for many), Crowley said that every person was equal to free expression: artistically, intellectually, and sexually. He noted the greatness of all numbers, each being infinite unto itself. And yet, in the last line of the stanza he calls upon an Egyptian deity to help him make himself known to his fellow humans as an Oracle. In this, Crowley clearly sees himself as not one of the “stars” but a god. His use of the phrase “…my unveiling before the Children of men!” places him above the mere “Children of men” as a leader and giver of wisdom.
As proof positive of Crowley’s perceived superior position over all, he said the voice of Horus’ messenger made it clear a new “Æon” had begun, and that Aleister Crowley was its prophet. Crowley’s supreme moral law (later adopted by many subversive or otherwise crank religions/philosophies) was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. This is a simple, but very powerful tenet. It means that whatever is best for the individual, as an expression of his “True Will” (desires), is good and right, even if it means breaking laws of society or rules of conduct.
Crowley’s “Voice” gave him a protocol to follow in the wake of this writing. First, Crowley was to steal the stele he and Rose had seen in the Cairo museum (in the new Thelema religion, this was now called the “Stele of Revealing”). Then, Crowley was to fortify an island against assault; he was instructed to live there and translate The Book of the Law into all the world’s languages (a daunting task as there are thousands of languages and dialects spoken). [It is unknown what, if any, hallucinogenic drugs Crowley imbibed to produce this revelation.].
Instead, Crowley rationally sat back and decided to reflect. He claimed he’d been dumbfounded by the revelations in The Book of the Law, and he needed time to ruminate over them. Crowley copied the manuscript, and had typewritten versions sent to several of his occultist acquaintances for review. Then he set it aside.
Crowley returned to his Loch Ness home, Boleskine Manor in 1904. Rose gave birth to their first child on July 28, 1904 (another source records the year as 1905, unlikely as Crowley was in China by then). In typical poser fashion, Crowley named his daughter the exceedingly contrived Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith (she was generally called “Lilith” around the manor).
A schism within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had developed before Crowley’s marriage; the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and others led the “rebel” faction. Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, and a former girlfriend of Crowley’s (Elaine Simpson) were in opposition to Yeats’ group. MacGregor Mathers had been the leader of the Order but was ousted by Yeats. He still held a pride of place in the organization, though.
Crowley had been aligned with his former leader, MacGregor Mathers. He settled, instead, into an uncomfortable paranoia about Mathers, developing a full-on persecution complex about the man. He believed Mathers was now so insanely jealous of Crowley’s growing magickal powers that Mathers was putting spells on him. Their relationship disintegrated in the face of Crowley’s fears, and it cost him, perhaps, the only ally he had left in that group.
More constructively, Crowley founded a publishing company, a wise venture for a man of his poetic and literary leanings. Not one to resist a jab at the Establishment, Crowley named his business The Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth. This name was a slap at an organization called The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Using his own publishing outlet and imprint, Crowley published more of his own poetry. Much of his work was reviewed well (except by Yeats, who hated Crowley’s poems), but his work also generated much negative feedback as well. And, just as Oscar Wilde had said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” for Crowley any controversy was good publicity and fed his giant ego.
Despite public reaction to his poetry (either good or bad), his works were not bestsellers. To stimulate interest and to add to his publicity, Crowley created an essay contest . The subject was his poetry, and whoever wrote the best essay about his verse won the contest. Crowley offered an out-of-pocket prize of £100 (well north of $1000 US in today’s money). A British Army officer and historian won the largesse – in his essay the winner further stroked Crowley’s ego by calling his poetry some of the greatest ever written.
Smug in his publishing and personal success, flush with his newfound occult insights, and a family at home Crowley should have been content. However, his wanderlust struck again, and his passion for mountaineering led to his venturing off again for more mountain climbing thrills. He packed up Rose and Lilith, and the family trekked to India. Crowley’s target this time was Kanchenjunga (Kinchinjunga) in Nepal. This is a treacherous peak, and its classification as the third-tallest in the world is misleading – Kanchenjunga, with five distinct peaks, tops out at 28,166 feet. This is less than 100 feet from K2’s height, and less than 900 feet from Mt. Everest’s pinnacle. Although this mountain was first attempted in 1904, no one reached the peak (in recorded human history, anyway) until a British team made it in 1955.
Crowley felt his experience in his attempt of K2 less than two years earlier would stand him well on this trek, too. One of Crowley’s senior party members was also a veteran of his earlier failed K2 climb. Crowley and company set out, leaving Rose and Lilith in India.
Crowley, as the priestly, prophetic prima donna of the group soon tested the patience of the climbing party with his reckless leadership. Arguments broke out often, and finally as night approached the rest of the party abandoned Crowley on the slope and headed back down. Crowley ominously warned them not to leave as it was too dangerous. A climber and several porters were killed in an accident, confirming Crowley’s seer abilities.
Returning from another mountaineering failure, Crowley reunited with Rose and Lilith. However, he soon shot a native, killing him, and he was forced to flee India (Crowley claimed the Indian had tried to mug him. Probably true as there was much resentment against Britain and its citizens in India from its days as a British-occupied colony).
After crossing into China, Crowley tumbled down a forty-foot cliff. Miraculously, he was unharmed. This led him to falsely believe he was under some form of divine protection so that he may live to fulfill his prophetic destiny. On the basis of this “miracle” Crowley promoted himself to a higher order within The Golden Dawn ranks, raising his cachet to that of Exempt Adept ( the highest level in the organization’s Second Order).
Crowley continued his spiritual education. Daily, he recited an invocation to try to commune with his Holy Guardian Angel (presumably Horus’ messenger, Aiwass). He, Rose, and baby Lilith spent a few months traveling around China. Finally, they decided to head for home in March 1906.
Rose, with Lilith, set out separately from Crowley (at his direction). Her route was supposed to take her back to Britain via India. It is uncertain how she came to be there, but Rose ended up in Rangoon, a southwest coastal seaport city in Burma (Myanmar). Lilith died of typhoid (Spring 1906) probably soon after Rose and she parted from “The Beast”. Rose continued on to Loch Ness alone.
Crowley had decided to go home via the United States. He hoped to drum up interest among some other mountaineers to put together another expedition to Kanchenjunga. He made it as far as Shanghai en route to the US. There, he ran into his old girlfriend Elaine Simpson (who was also a member of The Golden Dawn). Crowley decided to spend some time in Shanghai, and there can be no doubt a sexual relationship resumed at that time. However, the crucial element of his meeting Elaine was showing her The Book of the Law. She found the volume fascinating, and she browbeat Crowley for ignoring its “prophetic” message (as he had clearly done: he had no island, he had not translated the book – he had been ignoring it, in fact, and it languished until then).
With Elaine’s urging and participation, Crowley performed a ritual to invoke Aiwass (Horus’ messenger). Aiwass advised him that he should go back to Egypt, to the same place he’d been before in Cairo, and Aiwass would “give thee signs.” Aleister Crowley ignored the mystical demigod and took off for America instead. En route, though, he had a chance to think about his visitation from Aiwass and his message to Crowley. He stopped off in Kobe Japan. While there he had another mystical vision he decided was yet another sign of his prophet status. He now came to think a supernatural group he called “The Secret Chiefs” had promoted him into The Golden Dawn’s Third Order of membership. [As with Crowley’s Egypt “visions” it is unknown what, if any drugs, he was using at the time.]. In the US, though, Crowley found no enthusiasm among his mountain climbing friends for another trip to conquer Kanchenjunga. Dejected, he set sail for Britain, and arrived there in June 1906.
When he got home he learned baby Lilith was dead from typhoid.
Rose Crowley was devastated by the loss of her daughter, and although she was pregnant again, she was drinking heavily. Her bingeing was out of control. Crowley, indifferent to her anguish, ignored her. He, too, was tormented by Lilith’s death, but he was of no comfort to Rose. His health declined (probably from drug use, but unclear), and he had to undergo a few surgical procedures (type and reason unknown).
Instead of staying with his drunken wife, Crowley started a sexual relationship (short-lived, but poorly timed) with an actress named Vera “Lola” Stepp. Crowley conjured Vera as a muse for his poetry, and some of his works were devoted to her. When Rose gave birth to their second daughter, Crowley named her Lola Zaza (in honor of his mistress). He also created and performed a special ritual of thanksgiving for the birth of his new daughter.
Because of his giant ego and the great intellectual strides in mysticism he had made over the last few years Aleister Crowley felt he was now among the world’s highest levels of spiritual adepts. He seriously turned his mind to starting up his own magickal society to rival The Golden Dawn (with whom he was continually on the outs).
A close friend and fellow occultist, George Cecil Jones, encouraged Crowley’s wistful musings, and his idea became better formed when he and Jones spent much time (at the autumnal equinox and on other significant dates) practicing rituals at Jones’ home. Crowley pressed to achieve a greater communion with his Holy Guardian, Aiwass. He composed his own liturgies for these magickal ceremonies, and in October 1907, he felt he had finally achieved a true melding with his godhead, Aiwass. [In this case it is known Crowley used hashish during the rituals.]. He wrote an addendum to The Book of the Law from his communion with Aiwass and called it Liber VII (Book 7). Aiwass dictated the text to him, and Crowley added it to his canonical literature for his developing religion, Thelema. A third Holy Book was created within a few days, Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente.
Soon after the creation of the last two Holy Books of Thelema, Aleister Crowley, George Cecil Jones, and J.F.C. Fuller (the Aleister Crowley poetry essay contest winner!) formed, at least in spirit, a new order to rival the Golden Dawn. Its official name was Argentum Astrum (Silver Star), and its shorthand symbol was “A∴A∴”. Crowley wrote many addenda to the Holy Books of Thelema in the immediate establishment of A∴A∴.
Rose’s drinking raged out of control, and rather than deal with her drunkenness, Crowley physically removed himself from the picture. He started a sexual relationship with a woman named Ada Leverson who was an author and who had been a friend to Oscar Wilde (died 1900). In Crowley’s absence, Rose did her best to stop drinking, and she was moderately successful.
His affair with Ada Leverson was brief. Rose pled for his return after advising him she had stopped bingeing on booze. In February 1908, Crowley went back to Rose. Together they went off to Eastbourne (the town where Aleister Crowley first went to college and questioned the legitimacy of Christian theology) for a small vacation.
Alcohol is a demon, and Rose relapsed. Aleister Crowley, the man who had no problems taking illegal drugs, having sex with men, and cheating on his wife could not tolerate her excessive alcohol use. He disliked her when she was under the influence, and again, rather than stay and try to help her, he ran off to Paris.Credit: public domain
In 1909, Rose’s condition was so bad it was recommended she be institutionalized for her alcoholism. Crowley, instead, decided to shed himself of her, and started a divorce action. However, in an uncharacteristic act of compassion, he worked out the divorce proceedings so it appeared as if she were divorcing him for infidelity. This small sacrifice of his ego earned him her friendship for life, and in 1909 their divorce was final. However, they remained close and he sincerely valued her friendship even after they were no longer married.
“…Something Wicked This Way Comes!”
By 1910, when all was behind him, Crowley had not really done so very much to merit his eternal sobriquet of “The Wickedest Man Alive.” He had shot an Indian man (probably in self-defense). He had engaged in frequent homosexual sex, and he had adulterous affairs. In the eyes of the public up to then someone like Crowley wasn’t much more than a poser studying his spiritualism, his mystic incantations, and his magick. He was not a threat to anyone’s sense of well-being or an affront to “decent, God-fearin’ folk”.
Without the anchor of Rose and the baby in his life, however, Aleister Crowley would more than make up for all of his perceived “beastly” shortcomings soon enough.
[End of Part 2]
Part 4 – Aleister Crowley: Devil in Decline