Of all the occultists and Satanists that have ever graced the history books, Aleister Crowley is perhaps the most well known. His views shocked society at the time and are still quoted by those who want to disassociate themselves from conventional beliefs. In many ways, Crowley was the first true anarchist, this spirit being espoused in one of his most famous quotes: “Do what thou will shall be the while of the Law.”
As his reputation as an agent of darkness grew, Crowley did little to deny it. Instead, he gave himself grandiose titles that furthered his association with the forces of evil, such as The Wickedest Man in the World and The Beast 666. However, at the end of the day Crowley was little more than a man. There are those who still firmly believe that he was a messenger for Satan – but was he just a brilliant manipulator and progressive thinker?
The Book of the Law
Crowley was infamous for many things that he never cared to deny. In fact, he seemed to take pleasure in courting controversy. Perhaps cleverly, he credited the writing of his most famous work, ‘The Book of the Law’ to the practice of automatic writing. He purported that he was contacted by the spirit of a being called Aiwaz who used him as a conduit through which to espouse particularly dark and challenging ideas.
In this respect, Crowley was able to disassociate himself from the views and the content until he felt the time was write to embrace them. At the same time, he was able to cement his reputation as a person who had string links with the darker forces of the supernatural.
Sex and Drugs and Rites and Roles
In addition to his experiments with the occult, Crowley was a self-confirmed drug and sex addict. On his travels through Europe and the Middle East, Crowley encountered the particularly potent drug mescaline, which had a profound effect on the way he viewed himself and those around him.
Shortly after a significantly revelatory mescaline experience, Crowley developed The Seven Rites of Eleusis – rites that would apparently confirm his status as an agent of darkness and test the mettle of those who wanted to follow him. Not content with merely drawing up these rites, Crowley rented Caxton Hall so that he could publicly demonstrate them. Not content with that, he went on to open a church to Satan in London, which was frequented by ladies from society who, perhaps bored with the restrictive conventions of the time, sought to become his pupils.
Never one to disappoint his public, these prospective students were greeted by the sight of a shaven-headed Crowley who had filed his teeth to razor sharp points, so that he could initiate his new disciples with a blood-letting bite to the throat or wrist. The Devil seemed to inhabit the magician and control his every move.
However, it would be easy to think that Crowley’s antics were nothing more than one of the first exercises in media manipulation. While he cheerfully courted the press and leaked shocking information to them, there is also the suggestion that his private life was as contentious as his public persona. Crowley was married twice – a controversial event at the time – and both his wives were certified as insane. Furthermore, he openly pursued extra-marital relationships of both sexes. Amongst his lovers he had many mistresses, five of which who went on to commit suicide. If Crowley was merely hoping to project a public persona, that persona followed him home and it seemed that he was unable to do anything but inhabit it – publicly or privately.
Blurring public and private personas
Even friends of Crowley attested that he was in possession of supernatural powers or in contact with supernatural forces. One story recounts how Crowley and his friend William Seabrook had an argument in which Seabrook demanded proof of Crowley’s abilities. Crowley responded by choosing a random man on the street and imitating his walk. Suddenly, Crowley dropped to the ground and, at the same time, the passer-by did so, too. Even amongst his friends, Crowley was viewed with suspicion and fear; fear that he was, in fact, a messenger from the Devil.
Crowley’s past may have had something to do with his confrontational stance. Born in 1875 in Warwickshire into a wealthy, middle-class family, Crowley was brought up against a strict, religious backdrop. His father was a Quaker, who converted to the Exclusive Brethren. When Crowley was 11, his father - who he described as his hero and his friend - died from cancer. Crowley later admitted that this instance was a turning point in his life. He became increasingly disillusioned with the strictures and scriptures of Christianity and was expelled from Ebor School – a devoutly religious establishment – for misbehaving.
The beginnings of a personal anarchy
Later in life Crowley enrolled at Cambridge University, where he studied philosophy before switching courses to study English Literature. It was during his time at University that Crowley first showed signs of his anarchic inclinations, writing a series of erotic, gay poems that were considered to be so outrageous they had to be published abroad. These poems, however, were not entirely accurate with respect to his sexual inclinations. Crowley was bi-sexual and enjoyed an active sex life at University with both men and women.
It was at University that Crowley’s interest in the occult began to develop and, after leaving Cambridge without a degree, he decided to fully pursue the subject. Whilst staying in Switzerland he met a chemist called Julian L Baker and discovered that they both shared a common interest in alchemy.
On their return to England, Baker introduced Crowley to members of an occult society, known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn was fascinated with all things occult and it was here that the beginnings of the now-familiar modern Tarot deck were developed. One of the main strictures of the Golden Dawn was that all its teachings were to remain secret and unpublished. True to his rebellious nature, Crowley couldn’t uphold this oath and broke it, developing and releasing his own version of the Tarot and publishing a number of articles and books about the Order’s beliefs.
It was on leaving the Order that Crowley began dabbling with drugs and more extreme occultist experiments. However, while many believe that he was an agent of the Devil, the more likely truth is that Crowley found a cause to champion and immersed himself in it. A brilliant manipulator and self-publicist, his mission was to challenge all that society accepted and perceived as real, from the afterlife to the confines of Christianity.