I’m a poet, and I like my lies the way my mother used to make them
The sub-title of the latest biography of Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947), 'Spiritual Revolutionary, Romantic Explorer, Occult Master - and Spy', gives something of the flavour of his extraordinary life. Identifying himself with the 'Great Wild Beast 666', among his vast literary output was some fascinating short fiction which is gathered together in two Wordworth collections.
Born to wealthy Christian fundamentalist parents in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, in 1875, Edward Alexander Crowley (‘Aleister’ was his pen-name), broke the shackles of his upbringing to embrace a life of poetry, magic, mysticism and mountaineering.
Leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1898, Crowley sought spiritual self-realisation through Rosicrucianism (the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), the ‘Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage’, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Shaivite and Tantric traditions, Buddhism, and psychedelic experimentation with legal stimulants. His Buddhist phase was undermined by a positive revelation from a ‘praeternatural’ being called ‘Aiwass’ who, Crowley claimed, dictated a prophetic work in Cairo in 1904. The Book of the Law would become the corner-stone of Crowley’s mature philosophy and magical practice.
Crowley’s life was a cavalcade of complex adventures, punctuated by prodigious literary expression, teaching, and obscure espionage. It was a life much misrepresented. Mainstream commentators have failed to penetrate Crowley’s appalling reputation, a reputation for extraordinary wickedness derived mainly from an outspoken advocacy of full sexual liberation, and an uncompromising opposition to Christianity (he identified himself with the ‘Great Wild Beast 666’). Crowley’s often eccentric wit and wisdom might have had more defenders but for the fact that, unlike Freud, much of his philosophy was expressed in the hieratic language of occultism, thus alienating the twentieth century liberal consensus. Feeling compelled to declare himself the prophet of a ‘New Aeon’ with its own synthetic religious and spiritual system, he described his ideal society as an ‘aristocratic communism’, revealing a further alienating paradox. Undeterred by adversity, Crowley offered his ‘scientific illuminism’ to all comers – a system whose motto, ‘The Aim of Religion; the Method of Science’, flags up Aleister Crowley’s cultural interest and historic significance.
Crowley systematically unified western and eastern spiritual and esoteric traditions, introducing science and psychology into mysticism and magic. He demonstrated an empirical basis for individual spiritual attainment independent of organized religion, while introducing the principle of relativity into magic and mysticism.
A pioneer of liberated sex teaching and the first thoroughly modern magus, Crowley restored sexual alchemy to the Rosicrucian tradition and illuminated the implications of a sexual, spiritual revolution.
Among his vast literary output was some fascinating short fiction which is gathered together in the Wordworth collection, The Drug and Other Stories.
Dying from heart failure in December 1947, Aleister Crowley left a legacy that gains more appreciators as the years pass. His friend Gerald Yorke doubted Crowley’s ‘messiahship’, but cautioned that it might be too early yet to be certain.
Readers wishing to know more may consult Tobias Churton’s reliable and comprehensive Aleister Crowley: The Biography, published in 2011 by Watkins Books.