Of the many so-called occult philosophers, the man born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875, in the same hillside county which produced Shakespeare, is undoubtedly the most notorious of them all.
His father had made a small fortune in the production of a family ale, and subsequently retired from business to devote himself to the pious preaching of Protestant doctrine. His mother was equally puritanical, and it was no time at all that this diabolically spirited lad was spitting in the face of all that his parents and prevalent society held dear.
While remaining hopelessly undisciplined, even immature in scope, he lived life on the instinctive edge, driven by an unquenchable thirst for adventure, iconoclasm, and sexual deviancy. He was gripped by an urgency and a wanderlust that could be satisfied only by exerting power over others, especially women. He also outlasted others of normal vigor by indulging in great quantities his weakness for hard drugs, and energetically thrashing about in an endless pursuit of fame.
There is speculation that his future magical powers may have been refined after hand-crafted fireworks blew up in his face, rendering him unconscious for ninety-six hours when he was only sixteen. Again, it seems here almost axiomatic to associate an early strong shock to the immune system with the emergence of an intensified personal power, as in the case of other charismatic occultists, including Casanova.
His roaring animal instincts and abrasive sexual appetites no doubt contributed to raising within Crowley the understanding that the practice of magic was somehow linked to the human will, that is to say, the "true will" without which, man is merely a dead leaf floating whichever way the breeze happens to blow.
Throughout his life this inner urge to know all and control all compelled him in near desperation to explore the outer reaches of reality as if there were no yesterday and no tomorrow. His unprecedented selfishness and icy autonomy became trademarks of his chilling personality. These traits, which were found repugnant by generally all those who heard of or met him, had the curious effect of attracting many adoring followers, who inevitably would suffer bouts of mental and physical exhaustion as a result of their close association with the psychic master.
These followers, rather than being hostile to the man calling himself the Beast of the Book of Revelation, fell immediately under his spell and became more than willing devotees, completely taken in by his bad boy persona.
Still a youth when he discovered rock climbing, he remained an avid rock and mountain scaler throughout his life. When he was nearly thirty, he headed a small expedition up Mount Kanchenjunga. After reaching a summit of 20,400 feet on the face of the glacier just below the main peak, the party convened to formally oust Crowley from his leadership role because of his sadistic cruelty to the porters and the rest of the crew. Of course Crowley refused to accept this demotion of rank, causing a disruption and ultimately, the expedition to be aborted. Everyone except Crowley started down for the lower camps. A slip in the loose snow set off an avalanche which buried all the crew except Crowley still mounted above them.
A Swiss climber managing to free himself began yelling for help while furiously working to dig out his colleagues. Crowley heard the pleas for help, but did not trouble himself. That night he wrote a letter, later published in a London newspaper, noting that he was not "over-anxious in the circumstances to render help. A mountain accident of this kind is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever." Several died in the incident, including all of the porters.
Perhaps the most famous of stories about the strange powers of Aleister Crowley takes place in New York City. Strolling down Fifth Avenue with an American writer who asked for a demonstration of his powers, Crowley, after falling into step behind a distinguished looking gentleman, suddenly dropped to his knees in a squat. A split second later he shot up again. The knees of the man he had been following suddenly buckled, and he toppled to the pavement. Crowley and the writer helped the man to his feet who searched about as if looking for a banana peel or something that could have caused his fall.
No discussion of this man, considered by many in his time to be the most wicked man on the face of the earth, would be complete without mentioning his women and the satanic rituals of sex magic he practised without inhibition for nearly fifty years.
He loved dramatic effect and had fashioned himself as the Beast of 666 notoriety. Of course, his primary woman at any given time, by inference, would wear the title and act the role of the Great Whore of Babylon. While in Mexico City, after much quiet contemplation and experiment, Crowley, now in his mid-twenties, was finally completely convinced of his powers, and was ready to expand his stable of friends and followers.
Returning to England he soon met Rose Kelly, an unevenly pretty girl of weak mouth and backbone. He suggested she marry him at once on the condition that they leave the marriage unconsummated. This idyllic condition was made in order to convince her to affirm the proposal, and it worked, although within hours of the ceremony, Crowley would seduce the young female masochist, introducing her with great flair into his new rites of sexual magic.
Many commentators have pointed to Crowley's lack of natural affection, his hatred of his mother, his overwhelming self-absorption, his propensity for boyish shenanigans, and the sadistic strain of sexual dysfunction he displayed, as the marks of a truly confused and shallow personality. But perhaps closer to the truth is that Crowley's natural intelligence had been so suppressed and warped by his early childhood that his own outrageous sense of humor led him to take digs at, or defy, whatever standard he confronted, less interested in forming a philosophy or lifestyle free from contradiction than he was in retaining the satisfaction his private joke gave to him, and him alone.
Crowley was at heart a jester and an actor, a satirical playwright busy dramatizing the foibles the world of magic and showmanship presented him. He wrote many volumes of magical instruction and religious parable. His Book of the Law can be condensed into the single epigraph "Do what thou wilt" echoing a theme of Francois Rabelais some 350 years earlier. The importance of this simple creed is stressed again and again by Crowley throughout his life.
Until late in life he seemed to be able to manage his excesses by sheer force of will. After a typical period of Crowleyesque debauchery, he one day declared it was time for him to spend forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Being broke, some friends staked him to a stash of money, a canoe, and a tent. Upon his departure, to their surprise, they found that he'd spent every dime on buckets of scarlet tinted paint and a few bundles of heavy gauge rope.
Concerned for his welfare, Crowley asserted that, like Elijah, the ravens would feed him, and he would want for nothing. In an act vaguely suggestive of Christo, the geo-artist of our own time, Crowley spent the entire holiday scaffolded to the cliffs south of Kingston, New York, painting the words "EVERY MAN AND WOMAN IS A STAR. DO WHAT THOU WILT IS THE WHOLE OF THE LAW" in enormous scarlet letters. He said later that he did not go hungry, but was made a gift of eggs, milk, and corn by neighboring farmers. Completely restored, he'd rarely looked healthier or more radiant than when he returned back to the city.
Crowley was always impersonating and assuming false identities, usually but not always of a royal or ancient mystical nature. He used many titles claiming they were bestowed by European or Hindu aristocracy, but evidence in this regard has never been recovered. He was quick to share his newly gained titles or pseudonyms with his women of the moment, conferring the equivalent feminine form upon them.
His wife Rose, after a few years with Crowley, seemed to have discovered a few mystical powers within herself, and even began to instruct him by telepathy and in ritual concerning the Egyptian spirit Horus. Rose bore her husband a couple of children before she trailed off into severe alcoholism and subsequent insanity. Toward the end of their marriage, Crowley frequently entertained a string of enchanted mistresses in their home, while Rose was hung by her heels in the wardrobe. He later divorced her, as her mental stability finally slipped away.
His prolific if somewhat unoriginal writings and mild fame were easily counterbalanced by a series of conservative attacks on the man and his lifestyle. Spending his way through his own inherited fortune and several of his followers' financial graces, Crowley finally developed a taste for civil suit litigation to help ease his prevailing poor pockets, but was not very successful. The absurd irony of using the conservative courts to help line his pockets in an age of great contempt in the mainstream for such foolishness as he himself indulged never seemed to restrict or embarrass him.
But the parade of men and women who were starved for his dark attentions hardly ceased. He continued to perform his sexual rites with young society freaks of all stripes including a companion of Isadora Duncan who needed to be beaten to achieve satisfaction. After shaving his domed skull and sharpening his front canine teeth to a bloodletting point, elaborate rituals employing sodomy, defecation, and both physical and mental sadism punctuated his devilish approach to the string of aristocratic female disciples who traipsed to the Satanic Temple he founded.
As mentioned earlier, Crowley was never in lack of someone to play his Great Whore. Just before the end of World War I, a pair of homely sisters made visit. The younger one was named Leah. Her thin gangly build, challenged by a wide mouth full of sharp chalky teeth, immediately magnetized Crowley. He rushed over in "pure instinct" (his own words), and began violently smothering her with his own lips, grabbing violently at her flat breasts.
The outrageous attention given her was not rebuked. She was soon modeling nude for a heuristic painting Crowley dubbed "Dead Souls". She became his next scarlet woman, and help move Aleister into his next creative period: that of artist on canvas. He filled the walls of the Abbey of Theleme in Italy, where they convalesced, with paintings of couples en flagrante.
His philosophy became self-indulgent and unfettered. Facing his own drug addiction, he countered with every ounce of intellectual bamboozle he could muster, launching a personal spin on the fleshly arts which dictated that skillful practitioners could only reject the compulsion for drugs by taking them without restraint, thus vanquishing the need for them. Having given the word, he spred piles of cocaine around the abode, for anyone with the urge to inhale.
Crowley, never to miss a step, was certainly a man of his times. Funds became scarce but his name more prominent, so to help feed the steady flow of visitors seeking out this spokesman of the magical arts he tried to seduce money from publishers by offering his memoirs, and an idea for a book he called the Diary of a Drug Fiend, which might be said to anticipate the focus of several books of that era, including the first writings of William S. Burroughs, just a few years away. There were few takers.
Crowley died on December 5, 1947, after his lifelong peace of mind had begun to give way to doubts, alcoholism, and uncheckedheroin addiction.. His name is still synonymous with unbridled or pure undiluted evil, although it is likely he was far less evil than any number of military leaders of various stripes whose names are celebrated as heroic. But such are the pitfalls of fame and the human whimsy.