From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"We have nothing with the outcast and the unfit: let them die in their misery. For they feel not. Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched and the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world." --The Book of the Law (1909) by Aleister Crowley
"The cries of the survivors soon summoned Reymond, who, apparently, found no difficulty in descending alone from the upper camp. Crowley remained in his tent, and on the same evening wrote a letter printed in The Pioneer on September 11, 1905, from which the following is an extract: "As it was I could do nothing more than send out Reymond on the forlorn hope. Not that I was over anxious in the circumstances to render help. A mountain 'accident' of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever ... Tomorrow I hope to go down and find out how things stand.""--The Kangchenjunga Adventure (1930) by Frank Smythe
Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947) was an English occultist, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer. He founded the religion of Thelema, coining the word magick. A prolific writer, he published widely over the course of his life. Crowley gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, being a recreational drug experimenter, bisexual and an individualist social critic. He was denounced in the popular press as "the wickedest man in the world" and a Satanist. Crowley has remained a highly influential figure over Western esotericism and the counterculture, and continues to be considered a prophet in Thelema. He is the subject of various biographies and academic studies.
Born to a wealthy Plymouth Brethren family in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Crowley rejected this fundamentalist Christian faith to pursue an interest in Western esotericism. He was educated at the University of Cambridge, where he focused his attentions on mountaineering and poetry, resulting in several publications. Some biographers allege that here he was recruited into a British intelligence agency, further suggesting that he remained a spy throughout his life. In 1898 he joined the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where he was trained in ceremonial magic by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and Allan Bennett. Moving to Boleskine House by Loch Ness in Scotland, he went mountaineering in Mexico with Oscar Eckenstein, before studying Hindu and Buddhist practices in India. He married Rose Edith Kelly and in 1904 they honeymooned in Cairo, Egypt, where Crowley claimed to have been contacted by a supernatural entity named Aiwass, who provided him with The Book of the Law, a sacred text that served as the basis for Thelema. Announcing the start of the Æon of Horus, The Book declared that its followers should "Do what thou wilt" and seek to align themselves with their True Will through the practice of magick.
After an unsuccessful attempt to climb Kanchenjunga and a visit to India and China, Crowley returned to Britain, where he attracted attention as a prolific author of poetry, novels, and occult literature. In 1907, he and George Cecil Jones co-founded a Thelemite order, the A∴A∴, through which they propagated the religion. After spending time in Algeria, in 1912 he was initiated into another esoteric order, the German-based Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), rising to become the leader of its British branch, which he reformulated in accordance with his Thelemite beliefs. Through the O.T.O., Thelemite groups were established in Britain, Australia, and North America. Crowley spent the First World War in the United States, where he took up painting and campaigned for the German war effort against Britain, later revealing that he had infiltrated the pro-German movement to assist the British intelligence services. In 1920 he established the Abbey of Thelema, a religious commune in Cefalù, Sicily where he lived with various followers. His libertine lifestyle led to denunciations in the British press, and the Italian government evicted him in 1923. He divided the following two decades between France, Germany, and England, and continued to promote Thelema until his death.
The Italian historian of esotericism Giordano Berti, in his book Tarocchi Aleister Crowley (1998) quotes a number of literary works and films inspired by Crowley's life and legends. Some of the films are The Magician (1926) by Rex Ingram, based upon the eponymous book written by William Somerset Maugham (1908); Night of the Demon (1957) by Jacques Tourneur, based on a novel of M. R. James.
The Beatles featured Crowley on the front cover of their eighth album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He's the second cut-out on the first row. Crowley has been influential to many heavy metal bands.
"Crowley has been influential to filmmakers Kenneth Anger (Alfred Kinsey visited the defunct Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu with Kenneth Anger somewhere in the 1950s) and Donald Cammell (Cammell's father, Charles Richard Cammell, knew him and wrote a book about him). Crowley also had a wider influence in British popular culture. He was included as one of the figures on the cover art of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and his motto of "Do What Thou Wilt" was inscribed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin's album Led Zeppelin III (1970). Led Zeppelin co-founder Jimmy Page bought Boleskine in 1971, and part of the band's film The Song Remains the Same was filmed in the grounds. He sold it in 1992. David Bowie made reference to Crowley in the lyrics of his song "Quicksand" (1971). Additionally, the character of Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934) was based on Crowley."
Crowley was a highly prolific writer, not only on the topic of Thelema and magick, but on philosophy, politics, and culture. The poems and plays written in his twenties and found in his Collected Works of Aleister Crowley 1905-1907 were alone enough to substantiate a common writer's career. He left behind a countless number of personal letters and daily journal entries. He self-published many of his books, expending the majority of his inheritance to disseminate his views.
Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on magick, divinatory tarot, Yoga, Qabalah, astrology, and numerous other subjects. He also wrote a Thelemic interpolation of the Tao Te Ching, based on earlier English translations since he knew little or no Chinese. Like the Golden Dawn mystics before him, Crowley evidently sought to comprehend the entire human religious and mystical experience in a single philosophy.
Some of his most influential books include:
- The Book of the Law
- Magick (Book 4)
- The Book of Lies
- The Vision and the Voice
- 777 and other Qabalistic writings
- The Confessions of Aleister Crowley
- Magick Without Tears
- Little Essays Toward Truth
- The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King (translation of original text)
- The General Principles of Astrology (with Evangeline Adams, Hymenaeus Beta, and others)
He also edited and produced a series of publications in book form called The Equinox (subtitled "The Review of Scientific Illuminism"), which served as the voice of his magical order, the A∴A∴. Although the entire set is influential and remains one of the definitive works on occultism, some of the more notable issues are:
- III:1, "The Blue Equinox" (largely regarding the structure of OTO)
- III:2, The Gospel According to St. Bernard Shaw and other papers (proof copy only)
- III:3, The Equinox of the Gods (covering the events leading up to the writing of Liber Legis)
- III:4, Eight Lectures on Yoga
- III:5, The Book of Thoth (a full treatise on his Thoth Tarot)
- III:6, Liber Aleph (An extended and elaborate commentary on Liber Legis in the form of short letters)
- III:7, The Shih I (allegedly. An unfinished/published translation of the I Ching)
- III:8, The Tao Te Ching (a translation of the Chinese classic)
- III:9, The Holy Books of Thelema (the "received" works of Crowley)
- III:10, An issue with mostly O.T.O constitutional papers
- IV:1, Commentary on the Holy Books, and other papers (mainly Liber 65 and Madame Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence)
- IV:2, The Vision and the Voice with Commentary and other papers
Crowley also wrote fiction, including plays and later novels, most of which have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. Some of these fictional works include:
- The Scrutinies of Simon Iff
- Golden Twigs
- Diary of a Drug Fiend
- The Fish (unfinished)
- Simon Iff Abroad (unpublished)
- Simon Iff in America (unpublished)
- Simon Iff, Psychoanalyst (unpublished)
- The Stratagem and other Stories
- The Testament of Magdalen Blair
Crowley also had a peculiar sense of humour, which he often utilised as a teaching instrument. He wrote a polemic arguing against George Bernard Shaw's interpretation of the Gospels in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, which was edited by Francis King and published as Crowley on Christ. In his Magick, Book 4 he includes a chapter purporting to illuminate the Qabalistic significance of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In re Humpty Dumpty, for instance, he recommends the occult authority "Ludovicus Carolus" -- better known as Lewis Carroll. In a footnote to the chapter he admits that he had invented the alleged meanings, to show that one can find occult "Truth" in everything. His "8 Lectures On Yoga" are written under the name Guru Sri Pramahansa Shivaji (which translates into something along the lines of "Great Exalted Guru of Shiva") and are divided into "Yoga for Yahoos" and "Yoga for Yellowbellies". In The Book of Lies, the title to chapter 69 is given as "The Way to Succeed - and the Way to Suck Eggs!" a pun, as the chapter concerns the 69 sex position as a mystical act.
Crowley was rated a good poet by G.K. Chesterton to whom Crowley later dedicated in a part a book. He wrote the 1929 Hymn to Pan, perhaps his most widely read and anthologised poem. Three pieces by Crowley, "The Quest", and "The Rose and the Cross", appear in the 1917 collection The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Crowley's unusual sense of humour is on display in White Stains, an 1898 collection of pornographic verse pretended to be "the literary remains of George Archibald Bishop, a neuropath of the Second Empire;" the volume is prefaced with a notice that says that " The Editor hopes that Mental Pathologists, for whose eyes alone this treatise is destined, will spare no precaution to prevent it falling into other hands."
Some of his published poetry includes:
- White Stains (1898).
- Alice, an Adultery (1903).
- The Sword of Song (1904).
- The Star and the Garter. (1904).
- Orpheus, a Lyrical Legend (two volumes, 1905).
- Snowdrops From a Curate’s Garden. (1904).
- Clouds without Water ("by the Reverend C. Verey", 1909)
- Amphora (Hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Burns & Oates, 1909)
- The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz. ( "translated by Major Lutiy", 1910).
- Aha ! (1910)
- Ambergris: the Selected Poems of Aleister Crowley (1910)
- The Winged Beetle. (1912).
- Olla, an Anthology of Sixty years of Song (1946, his last published work)
The Greek scholar Dionysios Psilopoulos has written on Crowley as a poet (Ph.D., Edinburgh).