About Aleister Crowley
"Edward Alexander Crowley; 12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947) was an English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer. He founded the religion of Thelema, identifying himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century. A prolific writer, he published widely over the course of his life." - Wikipedia
Dozens of books, and several television shows and movies, have been made about Aleister Crowley. Some are well researched and factual and others are pretty much trash.
In several years of traveling to proclaim the Law of Thelema at Pagan and other events, we have generally run into two types of people. Those who already know a good bit about Crowley, and those who have very unpleasant and confused ideas about him. If you’re the first type of person, congratulations, this isn’t for you. Just skip ahead to “Where can I find more information about Crowley.”
The information below is a very basic, a “beginner” level introduction to Crowley, mostly aimed at clearing up some drastic misunderstandings about his life, and getting everyone on the same page with Crowley as a major, queer, generally socially progressive, historical figure.
Most Thelemites consider Crowley to be, at least, “a prophet,” and the organizer of the Thelemic system of belief or understanding. Even when they can’t agree if Thelema is a “religion” or not, they agree Crowley founded it.
We can’t provide a comprehensive biography of Crowley, though we will include some of the better resources below. Here we’ll try to address on a very high level some of the most common misunderstandings about Crowley that we’ve run into in the pagan and magical community.
Crowley was actually pretty brilliant
Historically Crowley’s poetry, when it was not being attacked for obscenity, was often well reviewed and taken quite seriously by other literary figures in his day. He was invited to speak at literary gatherings despite his notoreity. His novels were considered respectable for their day. His painting was exhibited to some scandal but some critical acclaim in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. He was at times contrasted quite favorably with luminaries such as D.H. Lawrence, and authors such as Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh wrote of him, sometimes more, sometimes less, flatteringly.
In the end his reputation, only somewhat earned, dogged him and left him falling short of the film deals and other recognition that assured the immortality of some others in his age. In 2002, BBC broadcast a television series of “100 Greatest Britons.” Aleister Crowley, still controversial, was ranked at 73, just below Shakespeare-storied King Henry V, just above Robert the Bruce and Bob Geldof, and 21 places ahead of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Lens of History
One linking thought is that Crowley must be understood in context. Because our schools fail to teach history in a meaningful or engaging fashion, our history often comes through media which “updates” the sentiments to make them more palatable. This can make it difficult to understand historical figures.
It is easier for Hollywood to portray an Abraham Lincoln whose defense of African-American rights marches alongside Martin Luther King rather than the actual man in transition, moving towards positions we hold today but who as late as 1858 publicly opposed the intermarriage of blacks and whites, the right of blacks to serve on juries, or to vote. This shorthand makes it easier to understand the outcome of Lincoln’s life in two hours, but at the price of creating a sort of “permanent present” in which all right thinking historical people held exactly the same views as enlightened people today.
Crowley must be read and understood, both in tone, and in his thoughts, in light of what other people at his time believed and said. Literarily he was a product of the decadent movement to the extent that Aubrey Beardsley was hired to illustrate one of his works, but died before he could finish. In terms of advocacy and tone he is Oscar Wilde not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but his approach to the society of his day was radical by even the broadest standards of his peers and era.
Crowley as a queer man
There is no question that Aleister Crowley had numerous male sexual partners, and over his life he experimented with his own gender identification. Unlike many other men at the time, who may have had queer relationships, but concealed them, he was as “out” as it was possible to be. His life before the first World War is a set of brazen attempts to declare and legitimize his sexual orientation, with official action focused against him.
At Cambridge he was a close friend of Herbert Pollitt, a female impersonator who perfomed modern dance in the style of Loie Fuller. He eventually broke with Pollitt over his life direction and interests, but would memorialize the friendship in poetry and prose, sometimes bitterly sometimes longingly, for years.
Crowley’s straight biographers have gone to lengths to minimize his bisexuality even though critical elements of his magical work involved homosexual relationships of considerable length and scope.
They have suggested that Crowley’s bisexuality was “incidental,” a product of English Schoolboy culture, but “not political,” that is that neither he nor the culture around him advocated for the acceptance of queer culture, that their private sexuality was an “indiscretion” meant to be kept in the closet.
Most of all they have denied that Crowley was “politically” queer, or a queer advocate, and have, by featuring his queer life as individual events rather than a clear narrative tried to strip him of his power as a queer icon.
Crowley as a queer advocate
In fact, Crowley emerges as a strong political advocate for queer culture.
It’s important to understand that after the trial and exile of Oscar Wilde, he was a focus for the queer world. His name in the words of Magnus Hirschfeld who launched the world’s first gay rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC) in 1897, inspired by Wilde’s imprisonment, his very name having become“an indecent word, which caused homosexuals to blush with shame, women to avert their eyes and normal men to be outraged.”
Queer movement at Cambridge
There was a strong queer rights community at Cambridge, and Crowley was aware of it writing obliquely of a “movement” “associated with the name of Oscar WIlde.” We know a little about this movement from Hirschfeld, who between 1905 and 1907 observed there “a secret ceremony in the English countryside where a ‘group of beautiful, young, male students’ from Cambridge gathered together wearing Wilde’s prison number, C33,” to read his protest work The Ballad of Reading Gaol. His The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz: Bagh-i-Muattar has thinly veiled homosexual themes and was seized by customs.
Where Hirschfeld was earnest, Crowley was a satiricist, preferring sarcasm along the lines of Stephen Colbert to outright attack, especially at a time when open advocacy was grounds for arrest. His Snowdrops from a Curate’s Garden is an unapologetically indecent attack on “straight” society, not published until he managed to get a private publication in limited numbers for his friends in 1904. For a time Crowley’s publisher was Leonard Smithers, the only publisher in London who would handle Wilde’s work after his imprisonment.
It seems very likely that Crowley was at least sporadically engaged with organized Cambridge activists. His younger friends invited him to speak at Cambridge several times, each of which was vehemently opposed. Kenneth Martin Ward along with Crowley’s future partner Victor Neuburg eventually organized the Cambridge Freethought Association to invite him to speak. Sparked by a letter after the publication of Bagh-i-Muattar which claimed falsely that Crowley was a pederast, a slur often thrown at gay men, and possibly correctly that he was being followed by the police, Trinity College Dean Reginald St. John Parry strong armed the society to force them to ban Crowley, eventually threatening the financial support of key members.
The idea that Crowley weathered rejection by his alma-mater, periodic police persecution from 1901 to 1910, and the destruction of his published works by customs over a “lark” or some minor schoolboy interest is ridiculous. Crowley was, by the requirement of law, closeted, but he was clearly part of a broad intellectual movement that we identify today as the dawn of queer rights.
The Looking Glass Trial
The hammer fell in 1911. When Crowley staged his “Rites of Eleusis” in London, the conservative press were outraged. John Bull, the Fox News of the era excorciated him, and the second string publication, Looking Glass extended its attacks to his friends.
Crowley didn’t sue for libel. The reason was obvious. Libel and lawsuit was a manner by which queer men could be made to indict themselves. Wilde’s downfall came when the Marquis of Queensbury left a card at his club calling him a “sodomite.” This was no simple matter of a proud response. If Wilde did not “defend his reputation” he could expect to be blackballed by his club, and that notoriety would likely lead to the closing of his plays and the destruction of his income. By suing he could defend his reputation, but opened himself to testimony in court which the law could not ignore, thus leading to his eventual criminal trial. Wilde’s death at 45 had made it clear that even a brief stint in the English Workhouses might well be a death sentence.
Crowley still had money and didn’t depend on income from his books to support his family, however his friend George Cecil Jones eked out an income as a chemist, and stood to lose his job and livelihood. He sued to defend his reputation in a widely publicized trial Jones v. The Looking Glass Publishing Company Ltd. et al., which became a trial of Crowley’s morality. Crowley’s failure to file suit was taken as an “admission of guilt,” and he was forced into virtual exile, losing two close friends. In retrospect times had changed somewhat since 1895, and nothing came out at the trial solid enough to cause criminal charges to be filed against Crowley however his reputation in England was destroyed and never full recovered. Much of what we know about Crowley as an “evil” magician comes from the field day the conservative press had with him forever after, as well as the readiness of the English public in the teens and twenties to equate “homosexuality” with “diabolism.”
Forced, like Byron, not legally but socially into exile on the continent and then New York, Crowley continued advocacy for queer rights which went well beyond the trivial. In 1912 Crowley was involved in the public controversy over Jacob Epstein’s sculpture for the tomb of Oscar Wilde, a nude which stirred controversy even in France. When the prefect of the Père Lachaise cemetary ordered it covered Crowley staged an official protest in which he removed the tarp.
Straight biographers of Crowley have tended to play these activities off as playfulness, or generally contrarian behavior, but Crowley’s sustained campaign in terms of queer subjects can only be understood as part of an overall lifetime commitment, consolidated through his eventual homosexual workings with Neuburg and advocacy for integration of the homosexual XI degree into his system of sex magick.
Crowley was not only queer, but an advocate of multi-personal relationships. If he did not become a martyr like Wilde, he suffered meaningful losses and lived to be an advocate. His attitudes underwrite much of the permissiveness of the Aquarian era, the cradle of the “Sexual Revolution,” the cultural ferment which gave us Stonewall and our modern Pride Movement.
As we learned above, the idea of Crowley as “evil” is usually based on tropes concerning Satanism, which we’ll discuss below.
Crowley was an ethical person, though like most historical figures he did not always behave perfectly ethically in his own life, and often made obtuse arguments to justify his own behavior.
He also had a lot of enemies, and as we learned above, a conservative press free to excoriate him. The root of much of the teaching that Crowley is “evil” comes from his portrayal in the conservative British press.
As Crowley’s reputation become more defined by his anti-establishment and homosexual poetry and themes in the early 1900s, he took on a defiant attitude, embracing the idea that he was “wicked,” a social evaluation almost entirely based on sexual conduct, which would seem unremarkable today.
Somerset Maugham and Oliver Haddo
Another significant factor is Crowley’s use by the rising British author W. Somerset Maugham, as the monstrous villain in his work “The Magician.” In the literary circles and social circles of London and Paris there was no secret that the character was based on Crowley and Maugham and Crowley even exchanged public letters about it. Nick Freeman has argued that Crowley was used as a stand in for a discussion of Oscar Wilde and homosexual culture, and emerges as a sort of anti-hero from the piece.
With post-war conservatism, this characterization of Crowley served as the basis for a sort of generic evil wizard, an urbane Sauron in a smoking jacket, and built on his reputation for being “wicked.” Maugham’s character Oliver Haddo became a sort of archetype, picked up by dozens of other authors including Dennis Wheatley. His Haddo knockoff, Mr. Mocata, is equal parts Maugham and stories of Crowley from the conservative press. As late as 1968, Hammer Films made Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out in which Charles Grey plays the sinister, but mannered, occultist.
Cefalu and the Conservative Nationalist Press
During the first World War, Crowley, already too old at forty to see enlisted service as a new recruit, seems to have engaged in his own version of freelance intelligence work in New York. Various researchers have established that Crowley acted with at least the blessing and support, if not the actual funding or under orders from, British Intelligence. In this guise he pretended sympathy for the German cause and Irish Independence. The principal evidence for the validity of Crowley’s claims to have been working as a spy is public enough. Returning to England the conservative nationalist press named for Lord Beaverbrook, the original mentor of Rupert Murdoch the modern media magnate, ran articles calling for Crowley’s arrest, but Commodore Guy Gaunt, who had been the British Naval Intelligence attaché in Washington at the time, interceded with the authorities.
Penniless and forced for the most part to live abroad, Crowley became a popular punching bag for the “Beaverbrook Press.” When a young student died at Crowley’s “Abbey of Thelema” in Cefalu Italy, probably from illness related to bad local sanitation and water, the Beaverbrook Press rushed to offer his widow money for horror stories concerning Crowley, though her letters show they’d parted on amicable terms. Broke and abroad Crowley could not sue. When these stories and others were trumped into full length novels later on Crowley did sue, but lost the “black magic case,” in 1934 partially because he had not taken legal action to defend his reputation in the earlier occurrence.
Beaverbrook’s papers and others dragged Crowley’s name through the mud for two decades, trotting stories of his supposed atrocities out at every opportunity. The majority of the charges levelled against him were, essentially, sexual. He had multiple partners, some of whom were male, at a time when that was unacceptable in “decent” society. This, combined with a general inability and disinterest on the part of the sensationalist press to grasp a philosophically complex creed in the 1930s, ensured that through the year of his death, Crowley was roundly vilified.
The Legacy of Crowley’s Ethics
Modern scholars with access to thousands of letters concerning Crowley’s life and work have been able to develop detailed pictures of his life and the reality of the events which were reported in the Beaverbrook Press
In practice, Crowley left behind a complex and systematic ethical system. Certainly it would be “evil” to many Christians, being based not on the Decalogue, but it is not “evil” by any standard meaningful to modern pagans of any stripe.
In the most simplistic of circles it is occasionally suggested that Crowley’s “do what thou wilt” is an evil or at least anarchistic counterpart to Valiente and Gardner’s Wiccan “An it harm none, do what ye will.”
Even if we ignore that “do what thou wilt” is from Rabelais, not Crowley, Gardner understood both statements perfectly well and never advanced that argument in writing or elsewhere. Obviously a brief examination of the concept of the Law of Thelema, and love under will makes it clear the two statements are complementary but different in context, not polar opposites. Even in Rabelais “Abbey of Thelema,” “do what thou wilt” is a counter to hypocrisy and amorality, not a statement of moral anarchy.
The Dark Side of Thelema
On the other side of the coin, Crowley has been embraced as a sort of libertarian prophet, heralding a dog-eat-dog era in which the strong shall rule and the meek be ground under their heel, a sort Nietzschean philosophy in which nothing but the individual will matters. This is a sort of superficial understanding based on reading Crowley without any understanding of his tone or context, not helped by the fact that some spokespeople for well known Thelemic organizations have aired positions generally supportive of classism, racism, and white supremacy.
Thelema has a certain vulnerability to , the idea that if you reduce it to its essential parts it becomes impractical or absurd, but this is true of any creed which values individualism. Crowley saw Thelema contextually, within Society, and expressed, albeit in a somewhat antiquated and Victorian way the need of the individual to cooperate with the group to make society function.
Crowley considered himself to be a highly ethical, and left behind a powerful ethical system. Like any system it can be misread and co-opted for evil.
The issue of whether or not Crowley was “a Satanist,” is more a commentary on Christianity and how paganism was viewed in the early 20th century than a real debate.
First of all it is important to understand the now nearly extinct “God of the Witches” theory which was, from the turn of the century through the 1930s, a core trend in literature and esoteric thought.
Starting with Theosophy’s idea of the commonality of religion and building on the cultural and historical analysis of Frazier’s The Golden Bough in 1890 and Charles Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches in 1899, and building to Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1931) writers and thinkers believed the idea that Western Europe shared a fairly uniform pagan religion.
A significant element of this was the belief that the goddess Janus or Dianus, a horned God, was the principal pagan God of Europe. Hold out worshippers of this deity had been demonized as witches, and the god they worshipped identified as Satan.
A parallel set of beliefs, exemplified by British poet and novelist Robert Graves in his novel The White Goddess was the idea, also having roots in Frazer’s Golden Bough, of a primordial goddess cult, which in some interpretations was overthrown by male deities, thus ancient fertility deities (Persephone, Hera, Astarte) were subordinated to male storm deities around the time of the fall of Mycenae civilization.
Both of these ideas have been subsumed into a much broader and more complex understanding of the vast tapestry of ancient religion, however the idea of a seamless whole was very appealing to period occultists.
The idea of the succession of Mother Goddess by Father Goddess is found in Crowley’s idea of succession of the Aeons. And Crowley, like many mid-century pagans, identifies various primitive deities with Satan. To be fair he equally identifies the same deities with Jesus, seeing the germ of the resurrection story in Dionysian myth.
The medieval Gnostic idea that the spirit is “imprisoned in flesh” after the earth was created by Satan in defiance of God does not seem to have played a major role in Crowley’s brand of Gnosticism, however to the extent that it did, he did not see the world as inherently “evil” in the fashion of the medieval Gnostics.
In any case, to the extent that almost all occultists in the 1920s and 1930s of a pagan vein, those who did not emphatically espouse mystical Christianity, could be considered “Satanists,” Crowley was a Satanist. In his poetry, Crowley draws a clear link between the horned god Pan and the “Devil.”
Like most esotericists of his day, Crowley saw “Satan” as an attempt by Christians to vilify an earlier and legitimate religion, saying for example. “This ‘Devil’ is called Satan or Shaitan, and regarded with horror by people who are ignorant of his formula, and, imagining themselves to be evil, accuse Nature herself of their own phantasmal crime. Satan is Saturn, Set, Abrasax, Adad, Adonis, Attis, Adam, Adonai, etc. The most serious charge against him is that he is the Sun in the South.”
So to the extent that “Crowley was pagan” is, for purposes of the era, the same as saying “Crowley is a Satanist,” the charge is true but meaningless in the usual context of being an advocate of an evil, or at least nihilistic and anti-social deity bent on the destruction of humankind.
Certainly Crowley saw Satan or the Devil, or Lucifer as forces of change, and the resurgent power of paganism and old belief against the restrictions of Christianity.
Crowley was a Product of his Day
For perspective, when Crowley was born the Reconstruction of the Civil War South was still a hot political topic. As we noted above it is common for writers and film-makers to put twenty first century sentiments and ideas in the mouths of characters from other eras. In comparison with the miraculously enlightened knight of some Hollywood romance who happens to, in the midst of the feudal era, have decided to embrace representative democracy.
Crowley held views that were on the bleeding edge of culture for his time, and they remained that way for most of his life. He was notably anti-fascist, writing poems attacking Mussolini, and blaming the Fascists for forcing him into exile from Italy.
Like most people of the time, he embodied an intrinsic racism. Even in this, his actual views are mixed, he contrasted the English unfavorably to the Chinese and Islamics. In other areas, however he accepted the general prejudices of his day. His willingness to question the accepted norm can be seen as unusual, his embrace of norms unremarkable. His racist views are no different from hundreds of thousands of other stockbrokers, gas station attendants, and sports writers of his day. The only difference is that some of his work has stood the test of time, and his typical views are thus exposed to scrutiny, while those individuals are forgotten. Throughout his life, Crowley questioned nationalism and imperialism, sometimes in very vitriolic terms.
His misogyny was, again, typical of his time. His principles led him to uphold the rights of women in a fashion at least commensurate with most of his progressive contemporaries, if behind the bleeding edge of feminism. In practice he tended to relegate women to subsidiary or secondary roles.
His treatment of his partners, which often seems callous or disrespectful, relegating them to the role of bit players on a stage where he was the star, has been cited as evidence of his misogyny, even a “hatred of women,” however the point can be made that his treatment of his male partners, e.g. Neuburg and Pollitt, was no better.
This may support the argument that Crowley was generally selfish and narcissistic though we typically only have one side of the story, or two very different sides. It is notoriously hard to understand the dynamics of couples from a historical remove. His actions, at a remove, sometimes seem very cruel, however his interests, reputation, and later in his life income, relegated him to partners on the outcast fringes of society, where mental illness was common. It is unclear if he was particularly injurious to his partners, or simply, as an older man with a some small income, tended to prove attractive primarily to less stable partners at at time when mental medicine was in its infancy. At best, it could be said that Crowley could be a difficult person to get along with and exile and poverty did not help.
Where Crowley is misogynistic it is with the typical disregard of his day, or with the same personal disregard he evinced towards most of the people in his life, including nearly every person with whom he had financial connections.
Crowley advocated Polyamory
But at a time before it was socially acceptable, and decades before the term, or even the more dated “open relationship,” would gain currency. While “free love” had been a product of enlightenment thought, and artists and thinkers such as William Blake and Mary Wollenstonecraft had advocated against the strictures of marriage, there was no real road-map to success. Free love was often a matter of luck and the right partner. No websites, or forums to discuss the issues of poly couples.
Crowley is hardly an exemplar in how he handled his polyamorous relationships. Holding together an alternative relationship when there is enormous pressure against the lifestyle from family and friends is difficult today. Historical notes show that even “successful” couples such as Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir often dealt with deep and trouble issues.
It is noteworthy that Crowley did not show himself particularly hypocritical. There are many occasions where he encouraged his partners to seek other partners, and the situations where he evinced jealousy seem to have been more about personal influence than sexual access.
Crowley’s personal life was often narrated by people who didn’t like him
There is no doubt that Crowley was difficult. The people who had the impetus to talk about him were often those who were on the outs, and in some cases they sold their stories to the press. Crowley published his own “autohaigiography” which of course whitewashes all his relationships. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but reading largely negative accounts can make him seem more difficult and intolerant than he actually was.
In his writing about Thelema he is socially progressive
We will state here that we interpret Crowley’s comments about “slavery” as meaning mental and emotional slavery to the existing system, a point we make elsewhere. His rebukes to Norman Mudd’s suggestions that Thelema was only meant for the crowned heads and leaders of the world, and his comments in his unpublished essay on Thelema, as well as other comments elsewhere make it clear he does not advocate any existing system of slavery, nor does he believe Thelema belongs to any one “class” of people.
Beyond that, while imperialism, racism, and misogyny can be eked from Crowley’s personal writing or informal literature, it is absent in the corpus of Thelema. To the extent that his writing about Thelema must be considered his deepest and most thoughtful undertaking, it seems that in final estimation, his ethics are far more modern than those of most of his contemporaries.
Some sources for information on Aleister Crowley
Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley, Richard Kaczynski, North Atlantic Books 2010
Aleister Crowley: The Biography: Spiritual Revolutionary, Romantic Explorer, Occult Master and Spy, Tobias Churton, Watkins Publishing, 2014
Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley, Colin Campbell, Llewellyn Publications 2018