The Great Beast 666: who was Aleister Crowley?

Satan calling up his Legions, William Blake, circa 1805-09.

The Great Beast 666, Perabduro, Ankh-f-n-khonsu, the wickedest man in the world, Aleister Crowley was a noted – and controversial – occultist. He wrote widely, founded his own religious order, and designed a set of tarot cards that are still used today. Defiantly unconventional in every respect, he lived life according to his own dictum: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’

From Edward to Aleister

The son of a devout Christian couple, Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington Spa in 1875. After Malvern School and Tonbridge College, he read Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. On a visit to Sweden, he experienced a life-changing vision which persuaded him of his spiritual vocation, a calling which he marked by changing his name to Aleister.

Sex and magic

Crowley’s interests combined the erotic and the esoteric. He published poetry, including a volume of verse described by one critic as ‘the most disgusting piece of erotica in the English language.’ He also became involved in secretive groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Gradually he evolved his own set of beliefs which drew on Oriental, ancient Egyptian, and an assortment of other traditions. His sexual preoccupations were equally various. He took many lovers – both male and female – and practised a form of sex magic.

Travel and enlightenment

A brilliant climber, big game hunter, and inveterate traveller, Crowley explored Mexico, India, Egypt, America, and much more besides. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, he wrote a series of tracts outlining his philosophy.  The Law of Thelema – a word taken from the Greek for Will – was, he claimed, dictated to him by an ancient Egyptian spirit. It laid out the key principle of life, as Crowley saw it: the pursuit of each individual’s will, unconstrained by popular opinion, law, or conventional ethics.

Magic and disgrace

In 1920, he moved to Sicily, where he established the Abbey of Thelema as the headquarters for his new religion. Here he pursued spiritual enlightenment, declaring himself Ipssissimus – beyond the Gods – in 1921.

He also experimented with sex and drugs. In 1923 an Englishman died in mysterious circumstances after a ritual during which he was said to have consumed the blood of a cat. The British press and the Italian fascist government were equally appalled. Crowley was expelled from Sicily, the Abbey closed, and the group dispersed.  

Drugs and death

Although impoverished, disgraced, and a near-skeletal heroin addict, Crowley never lacked followers. He fathered several children, most of them illegitimately, and was still in demand as a medium and a magus to the end, designing a new sequence of tarot cards and commentating on it at some length in his Book of Thoth of 1944. He died, in Hastings, in 1947.

The wickedest man in the world?

During the Thelema Abbey scandal, one newspaper referred to Crowley as ‘the wickedest man in the world.’ He would have denied this, claiming that his work was truly good because it freed men from earthly rules and opened up truly spiritual experiences.

But there can be no doubt that he also enjoyed his notoriety, and his fame only increased after death. There are still groups who call themselves Thelemites; still those who use his tarot cards and read his books. He was taken up by the counter culture of the 1960s and can be seen on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album between the Indian guru Sri Yukteswar and the Hollywood star Mae West.

Tredegar House

Tredegar House 

Aleister Crowley was a regular visitor to Tredegar House, home of Evan Morgan, the last Viscount Tredegar. In addition to Crowley, Morgan boasted a wide network of notable contacts including Lloyd George, Queen Mary, GK Chesterton, Augustus John and Aldous Huxley. The proud owner of a menagerie of wild animals, Morgan was also an expert in the occult. Known as ‘the Black Monk’, Crowley described him as ‘adept of adepts’. Morgan created a ‘magik room’ at Tredegar which Crowley declared to be the best equipped he had ever seen.

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