Aleister Crowley (Edward Alexander Crowley) was born 12
October in the same year as the foundation of the Theosophical Society
(1875), at Leamington Spa at 11.30pm. He was therefore a Libran with
Pisces moon and Leo rising. Contrary to popular legend, he died on the
1st December 1947.
A review in Cambridge University magazine Granta of
1904 provides some guidance on the pronunciation of the great man’s
’Oh, Crowley, name for
future fame!/(Do you pronounce it Croully?)/Whate’er the worth of
this your mirth/It reads a trifle foully.’
The myth of the magus has
grown to prodigious proportions in the half century or more since the
old man’s death. Crowley is now firmly established in the popular
mind as a folk hero (or anti hero?), transmogrified to an icon on a
spectrum somewhere between ’the sandman’ (Clive Barker version) and ’the
To many, Crowley’s magick (I am using the archaic form of the
term as popularized by AC for technical reasons), provides a neat
dividing line between some kind of urban high magical tradition and the
supposedly more earth centred styles of neo-paganism. The truth is, as
always, a lot more complex. Crowley’s magick draws all of it’s power
from nature, see for example an ancient Egyptian formula:
’so that every Spirit of
the Firmament and of the Ether: Upon the Earth and under the Earth;
on dry land and in the Water: of whirling Air; and of rushing Fire
and every spell and scourge of God may be obedient to Me.’ (1)
(1) From Liber
Samekh, as adapted by Crowley from an ancient Hermetic fragment. The
cosmology of the Egyptian original made no sense to Crowley’s teachers,
hence his slight paraphase - the original reads: ’so that every daimon,
whether heavenly or aerial or earthly or subterranean or terrestrial or
Crowley spent all of
his moderately long life exploring countless dramatic astral and mundane
landscapes in search of gnosis. It’s a shame he wasn’t a good enough
travel writer to communicate fully in his many books the real majesty of
to go everywhere, from the deepest jungles to the highest mountains of
An account from Jan Fries’ book Visual Magick,
amply demonstrates that Crowley never quite lost the taste for the great
outdoors and the spirits of nature. In 1925 the mage took the leadership
of the ’Fraternitas Saturni on a long walk up the garden path and
into the forest. Whenever Uncle Aleister noticed a remarkable
plant, stone or tree, he graciously lifted his hat to greet it.
bizarre behaviour apparently astonished his fellows. Some novices, we
are told, dared to whisper
"What is the master
"The elemental spirits
of nature have come to see the master" was the reply "and Sir
Aleister is acknowledging their greeting."
The whole incident including
a rather nice ritual is to be found in an article on ’Pentagramme Magick’
in Praxis (1963).
Towards the end of his life Crowley began to lose interest in the
Ordo Templi Orientis and other organizations he had fashioned as
potential vehicles for the dissemination of the great work. He met
Gerald Gardner and together they may have devised a plan to
transform the OTO into a more popular witchcraft cult. Gardner
duly bought a charter and rose rapidly through the grades, even
travelling to America to meet other OTO initiates.
one of Gardners first acolytes, recalls that American adept Jack
Parsons looked very favourably on the idea of a new witch cult. If
Crowley had lived long enough to complete Gardner’s training,
modern paganism would undoubtedly look quite different, but that’s
Aleister Crowley may have died in 1947, but his influence is
still very much felt by the magician of the 1990s. The CD soundtrack
The Beast Speaks sold 8000 copies since its release in 1993, and the
paperback edition of Crowley’s Confessions was number two in Virgin
Megastores top ten books.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the
magician of the nineties is a slavish follower or member of some mind
bending cult. Crowley’s word was Thelema (The Crowleian
pronunciation is Theh-LEE-mah, the accent bewatching on the vowel of the
second syllable, Greek speakers ay the accent should be on the vowel of
the first syllable for it to be pronounced right....ThEH-lee-mah) -
which means [free] Will.
Those who choose to follow
this magical path aim to de-condition themselves, to develop
independence of spirit and ultimately to become their very own self. One
of the many attractions of Crowley’s type of Magick, was this advice to
follow one’s own way and create your own life style. You don’t need a
priest or a judge to tell you how to act - work it out for yourelf.
As part of the process of developing self knowledge, Crowley
advocated the practice of Magick. This he defined as,
’the science and art
of causing change in conformity with will.’
The history of magick is the
history of human beings. Many of the things that are now labelled
’culture’ began as experiments in ritual and magick viz. drama, music,
art, dance, philosophy and poetry etc., etc. Magick has played a role in
many key moments of our history, for example during the fourteenth
century, it was the philosophy of the Renaissance. In our own time, many
modern art movements have been driven by magical ideas, for instance,
the first abstract painting was made by the Theosophist Kandinsky.
Magick is a valuable and reputable activity to undertake.
Whatever else one can say about it, magick certainly is not a mass
activity, neither is it a spectator sport. Magicians are in many
localities in a minority of one and have to teach themselves the skills
traditionally part of the art viz. trance, divination, invocation and
creative imagination. The solitary magician gathers most of his or her
information from books and Crowley made a substantial contribution to
the vast number of books on the subject.
Most of his books are now in
print, something like 100 titles. The secondary literature of
commentaries and studies, as one might expect after more than 50 years,
is very extensive indeed. However there is no need to read everything
the master wrote. There are a handful of key texts that should give you
a good grounding in the man and his magick.
Sadly, there is still no really objective biography of Crowley.
The standard biography is John Symonds’ The Great Beast, (lastest
edition of which is entitled King of the Shadow Realm) which records all
of the salient facts but is very hostile to Crowley’s ideas and
therefore gives a lively but unbalanced picture.
Jean Overton Fuller’s
Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg is slightly more objective and
written with much inside information. A modern attempt is the late
Gerald Suster’s Legacy of the Beast, which is too short to
cover all the facts, and too sycophantic -nevertheless, it is not
Gerald Suster also wrote Crowley’s entry in Dictionary
of National Biography - Missing Persons (OUP 1993) which is also
worth a read. Incidentally, 1993 was also the year in which Crowley made
it to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for the first time with his
motto ’Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.’
Several newer biographies have recently appeared, two in particular are
worthy of note: Martin Booth, A Magick Life and said by some to be the
best of the whole lot: Do What Thou Wilt by Lawrence Sutin for St
There is a 2004 reissue of Megatherion by Francis King,
published by Creation Press, which was originally published in 1977
under the title The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. There is
also an excellent study of Aleister Crowley’s followers in America
during the Golden Age of Hollywood, entitled The Unknown God,
W.T. Smith and the Thelemites by Martin P. Starr,
published in 2003 by The Teitan Press, Inc.
The modern generation of Thelemites, admires something in the
spirit of Crowley rather than the word. He could be a interesting writer
but as is often the case, the present day re-working of his material is
often easier to follow and less peppered by some of Crowley’s offensive
Writers such as Jan Fries in Visual Magick
and Jack Parsons in Freedom is a Two Edged Sword, seem to
have a better understanding of the magical philosophy for which Crowley
was a conduit.
However, you will undoubted want to make your own mind up
in this, so apart from biography and if you have the stamina his massive
autobiography, and the following are Crowley’s principal works.
This is his textbook of
magick, leads the reader from basic yoga techniques through Golden
Dawn type ritual to his own unique gnostic rituals, many of them
with veiled sexual content. But beware, this is not a book for the
beginner and you might do well to ask a more experienced magician to
suggest a study plan for it beginning with Liber O, or even look at
some of the secondary literature first. For example see Lon
DuQuette’s The Magick of Thelema or Israel Regardie’s
Middle Pillar, Eye in Triangle, and others.
The Book of Thoth, along with the
tarot cards of the same name, is his brilliant study of the tarot,
difficult to follow in parts if you have no familiarity with his ’Thelemic’
imagery, but well worth persevering with. The tarot deck he created
with English ’surrealist’ Lady Frieda Harris, is fast becoming the
most widely used esoteric tarot deck in the world.
777 and other Qabalistic Writings.
A essential summary of his symbol system, which also contains a
reprint of Mathers’ instructional essay on Qabalah.
4. Holy Books of Thelema - all brought together under one
Liber al vel Legis - Book of the Law.
The mystical poem that formed the core of Crowley’s magical system.
’Delivered’ to him by discarnate entity Aiwass during one of
the most important mystical experiences of his life.