Aleister Crowley was branded the "Wickedest Man in the World," but what was really going on inside the mind of one of the world's most famous occultists?
There is, perhaps, no man ever to have lived who has scratched the surface of nearly every facet of society quite the way Aleister Crowley did.
As a mountaineer, poet, theologian, black magician, spy, drug fiend, sex addict and “traitor to the British people,” Aleister Crowley drew crowds of followers and hoards of critics. He was branded as evil and egotistical, a raging genius, and a messiah of anti-Christianity.
The tabloids called him “The Wickedest Man In The World,” and a “Master of Darkness,” and yet their words don’t even begin to do him justice, though there are few words in existence that could. After all, how do you begin to describe a man who was banished from Italy for acts of extreme depravity by Mussolini himself, and who rubbed elbows with the most respected writers of the 20th century while penning textbooks on tantric sex magic?
To understand Aleister Crowley, or to come as close to understanding as the man would allow, one must start at his upbringing. Born Edward Alexander, Crowley found himself amongst some of Britain’s most evangelical Christians, the very opposite of the type of people he would attract later in his life. His father was a preacher, and at first, Crowley found himself entirely devoted to the religion, out of respect for his father.
However, upon his father’s death when Crowley was just 11 years old, he began firmly eschewing all sense of Christianity. He would point out inconsistencies in the teachings of the Bible during study groups in school, and would outright defy all Christian morals by smoking, masturbating, and having sex with prostitutes. For his behavior, his mother referred to him as “the Beast,” a title which he reveled in.
Crowley adopted the name Aleister in 1895 when he was 20 years old. His reasons for discarding his old name, outlined in his autobiography, seem to foreshadow every choice he would make in his adult life, as they depict a man with high ambitions, firm ideals, and a complete disregard for personal connection.
“For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. I had read in some book or other that the most favorable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like Jeremy Taylor. Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals.”
Shortly after changing his name, Crowley enrolled at Cambridge University. His life at Cambridge paints a picture of a lifestyle fit for an Austenian hero, a tortured soul practicing chess, penning poetry and inspired literature, and dreaming up exotic mountain climbing adventures in his spare time.
However, Aleister Crowley was about as far from a Mr. Darcy type as one could be. Under his polished, collegian exterior lay a deeply tumultuous man, harboring secret plans of magical, spiritual domination, maintaining borderline-sadistic sexual relationships prostitutes of both sexes, delving ever deeper into the world of the occult.
Once his time at school was over, Crowley briefly considered a career in diplomatic relations. However, after being accused of treason during a trip to Russia, he reverted to writing literature. After a brief illness that triggered his understanding of morality and “the futility of all human endeavor,” he further narrowed his focus to writing occult literature, publishing several erotic poems, and a book of occult musings.
In 1889, Crowley met a chemist named Julian L. Baker, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he subsequently joined. The order was devoted to studying paranormal activity and all matters of the occult, and eventually, Crowley hired a senior member of the group to be his live-in personal tutor on the subject. Together, Crowley and his tutor experimented with ceremonial magic and the ritualistic use of drugs.
Independently, Crowley continued to experiment with his bisexuality and sex with prostitutes. However, while the lifestyle for him was eye-opening and spiritual, the higher level members of the Golden Dawn considered it too libertine and refused to allow him entry into the upper levels.
Having had enough of Europe after his stint with the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley traveled to Mexico, bringing to life his past dreams of mountain climbing, and joining the Freemasons. From there, he traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, Ceylon, and India. In India, Crowley began practicing raja yoga, a Hindu meditation tradition and accompanied mountaineers in the first ever attempt to climb K-2 in 1902.
In November of 1902, Crowley traveled back to Europe, settling in Paris for the time being and immersing himself in the art world. Again, his lifestyle painted quite a different picture than the one he was truly living, as he surrounded himself with famed artists like painter Gerald Kelly and sculptor Auguste Rodin.
To the surprise of many, Paris was where Aleister Crowley fell in love. Gerald Kelly introduced Crowley to his sister, Rose, during a meeting, after which the two married. At first, the marriage was one “of convenience,” as Rose had been set to enter an arranged marriage. However, before long, the two fell in love for real. Crowley even set aside his profane, dark writings, and penned his wife several love poems.
Despite their initial arrangement, Rose and Aleister Crowley could not be a more perfect pair. Rose accompanied Crowley on his journeys and went along with his schemes, and indeed it was through her that Crowley found the inspiration to begin his own religion.
While Rose was apparently meditating, she informed him in a state of deliriousness that the god Horus was waiting for him. Later, through his own meditation, he heard the voice of Aiwass, Horus’ personal messenger. Using the words of the messenger and Horus himself, Crowley transcribed The Book of the Law, the book that would become the basis of his new religion, Thelema.
The main teaching of Thelema was a similar principle to the one that Crowley had lived by his whole life: “Do what thou wilt.” The teachings were intended to act as a successor to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and were seen to be extremely similar to theirs. In 1907, Crowley founded the occult order, naming it the A∴A∴. Crowley devoted almost all of his time to founding the order, writing its literature, and creating a periodical for its members.
While Crowley was consumed by the words of Horus and his desire to feed the masses occult information, his wife was descending into her own darkness. What had started as a penchant for a libation every now and then, had turned into full-blown alcoholism.
Though typhoid was deemed the culprit, Crowley blamed the death of their first daughter, Lilith, on Rose’s inability to keep a grip on the world around her. Despite her apparent failure to remain sober, Aleister and Rose had another daughter, Lola, who was entrusted solely to Rose’s care upon the two’s divorce. Eventually, Rose was institutionalized in 1911.
The bulk of Aleister Crowley’s life after his divorce was spent floating from city to city, as he had before, picking up several “scarlet women” along the way, one of whom bore him a son, who he named Aleister Atatürk. His travels were dogged by rumors that he was working as a British intelligence spy, as several countries he drifted through were coincidentally under investigation by the Brits.
He also rubbed elbows with known figures from the intelligence community, such as Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl, though the rumors of his involvement in actual intelligence, rather than simple discussions of literature were never confirmed. However, he was turned down by the Naval Intelligence Division after offering his services.
He continued to publish occult manuscripts and engage in sex with prostitutes and black magic in the years during World War I, and produced his own set of tarot cards, handpainted by a fellow OTO initiate. He remarried, to a Nicaraguan woman named Maria Teresa Sanchez, so that she could immigrate to England. He gained an assistant, whom he paid in magical teachings rather than actual money, who transcribed his teachings for him and helped him publish his books.
On Dec. 1, 1947, Aleister Crowley died, his body giving out to his chronic bronchitis. The funeral held four days later, dubbed the “Black Mass,” was only attended by a dozen people, despite Crowley’s teachings reaching hundreds of thousands over the years. It seems, that though he’d gained the infamy he’d always wanted, his actual person was not remembered fondly. However, friends and family assured everyone that he wouldn’t have wanted to be.
Though he was gone, the impact of Crowley lived on, not only in occultists – possibly the only people who remember him fondly – but through writers, artists, philosophers, and musicians. Crowley’s image stands, amongst others, on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and his motto “do what thou wilt” is inscribed on Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin III vinyl. David Bowie referenced the man in the lyrics to “Quicksand,” and Ozzy Osbourne paid tribute with a song titled “Mr. Crowley.”
Today, the legacy of Aleister Crowley is a collage of intrigue. Those who remember him often lend their ideas of him to his image of a cookie-cutter villain, one that image might not be too far off. His name is whispered with horror amongst devout Christians, with skepticism amongst conspiracy theorists, and with awe amongst the occultists and pagans, though ultimately Crowley’s goal was achieved – with whatever they whisper his name, it’s still being whispered today.