Aleister Crowley is perhaps the most well-known occultist in history. He was born in 1875 in England to a wealthy upper-class family. His birth name was Edward Alexander Crowley, but he later changed it to rid himself of names that he felt didn’t suit him. Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander and he felt would satisfy his romantic ideals. Crowley admired his father, describing him as a hero and best friend, but despised his mother who described him as “the Beast”. The Crowley family were Christian and Crowley was even sent to an evangelical Christian boarding school in Hastings, and later a preparatory school in Cambridge run by Reverend Henry d’Arcy Champney. However, his father died of tongue cancer when he was 11 and Crowley described the event as a turning point in his life.
Crowley inherited his father’s wealth and attended Ebor School in Cambridge where he was expelled for misbehavior. He attended two other schools, Malvern College and Tonbridge School, but left shortly after finding that he despised them. Eventually he began studying at Eastbourne College. He became progressively more skeptical about Christianity due to what he considered to be logical inconsistencies in the Bible, which he pointed out to his religious teachers. He also rebelled against the Christian moral values he’d been taught, notable his penchant for embracing sex with any female he chose to. Perhaps there is something to be said for those values, however, as Crowley contracted gonorrhea from a female prostitute.
Among his hobbies during his studies were mountaineering, writing poetry, and playing chess. He was considered to be a promising climber and spent holidays in the Alps every year from 1894 to 1898. He would later on tackle more difficult mountains including several in Mexico, a country which he grew fond of. It was on one of his vacations to Sweden that Crowley had his first significant mystical experience. This prompted his research into the subject of occultism and mysticism, and a year later he began reading books by alchemists and magicians.
Crowley had his first formal foray into the occult in the year 1898. He met a chemist by the name of Julian L. Baker in Switzerland and the two talked about a common interest in alchemy. When they both returned to England, Baker introduced Crowley to George Cecil Jones who was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley was initiated into the order that same year and it was at this time that he accepted his motto and magical name of “Frater Perdurabo”, Latin for “I shall endure to the end”. He then moved into his own luxury flat and invited a Golden Dawn associate, Allan Bennett, to live with him. Bennett began teaching Crowley more about ceremonial magic and the ritual use of drugs. A schism developed in the Golden Dawn due to the autocratic rule of MacGregor Mathers, the organization’s leader. Crowley pledged his loyalty to Mathers who agreed to initiate him into the Second Order, a further order of the Golden Dawn, where those that were rebelling against him would not. A few years later a trip to Mexico with his good friend Oscar Eckenstein prompted further study into mystical practices. Eckenstein taught many of his own mystical learnings to Crowley and recommended the Indian practice of raja yoga in order to improve control of his mind. Crowley continued practicing this throughout his travels.
Crowley married Rose Edith Kelly in 1903. It was a marriage of convenience but he actually fell in love with her and she would prove instrumental to his life. They travelled to Egypt together and, according to Crowley, Rose, who was pregnant, began experiencing visions while in the country, regularly informing him that “they are waiting for you” but gave no hints as to who “they” were. Crowley sought the aid of the Egyptian god Thoth in a magical rite and discovered that “they” were the Egyptian god Horus and his messenger. When the couple was staying in Cairo, Crowley heard a disembodied voice talking to him, claiming that it was known as Aiwass. Aiwass also claimed to be a messenger from the god Horus and gave Crowley further instructions. Over the next three days Crowley copied everything Aiwass told him and entitled it Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law. This was the beginning of the philosophy of Thelema with the supreme moral law declaring “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and that people should learn to live in tune with their “True Will”.
Upon leaving Egypt, Crowley and he wife travelled separate ways. She went back to Britain and he went to America to arrange another mountaineering expedition. He found no support and returned to Britain to find that his daughter had died and his wife suffered from alcoholism. When Rose gave birth to his second daughter, Lola Zaza, he devised a special ritual of thanksgiving. Crowley now believed he was amongst the highest level of spiritual adepts and began considering forming his own magical society.
Soon, he was successful in this endeavor, forming the Argentum Astrum. He believed that because of his spiritual attainment he could communicate directly with Aiwass. He completed several books through automatic writing that he added to the Holy Books of Thelema. Though he had his own mystic order, he was still an active member of other occult societies. He even became Grand Master of the English-speaking section of Order Templi Orientis and introduced his own degree into the society. Crowley was responsible for introducing homosexual sex magick into the O.T.O. because he believed it to be the most powerful form of magick.
Crowley would go on to continue practicing his magical ceremonies and other occult activities throughout the entirety of his life. Eventually he founded the Abbey of Thelema for his own magical order. There he and his followers spent their time living “according to their own free will and pleasure”. His practices continued until his dead in 1947 at the age of 72. There is controversy over his last words and the actual conditions of his death with several who were close to him providing different stories of the account.
Aleister Crowley certainly left his mark on history. His name is mentioned in several literary works and his personality was even used as a model for many characters. He is almost synonymous with the occult because of his vast involvement. Crowley has also been referenced in recent popular culture such as songs and movies. Fortunately, a very thorough account of his life was kept and there is a host of information on the man who was so influential to esoteric practices.