Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley, (12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947; the surname is pronounced with the first syllable sounding like the bird) was an English occultist, prolific writer, mystic and sexual revolutionary. He is perhaps best known today for his occult writings, especially The Book of the Law, the central sacred text of Thelema. Crowley was also an influential member in several occult organizations, including the Golden Dawn, the Argenteum Astrum, and Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.).
His friend and former Golden Dawn associate, Allan Bennett, introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism, while Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, acting leader of the Golden Dawn organization, acted as his early mentor in western magick.
In October of 1901, after practicing Raja Yoga for some time, he said he had reached a state he called dhyana — one of many states of unification in thoughts that are described in Magick (Liber ABA). 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magick as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing ones thoughts to a given object through ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Matter, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings. He said that a mystical experience in 1904, while on vacation in Cairo, Egypt, led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema. Aleister’s wife Rose started to behave in an odd way, and this led him to think that some entity had made contact with her. At her instructions, he performed an invocation of the Egyptian god Horus on March 20 with (he wrote) “great success”. According to Aleister Crowley, the god told him that a new magical Aeon had begun, and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. Rose continued to give information, telling Crowley in detailed terms to await a further revelation. On 8 April and for the following two days at exactly noon he heard a voice, dictating the words of the text, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law,which Crowley wrote down. The voice claimed to be that of Aiwass (or Aiwaz) “the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat,” or Horus, the god of force and fire, child of Isis and Osiris and self-appointed conquering lord of the New Aeon, announced through his chosen scribe “the prince-priest the Beast.”
Portions of the book are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed the inability to decode. Thelemic dogma (to the extent that Thelema has dogma) explains this by pointing to a warning within the Book of the Law — the speaker supposedly warned that the scribe, Ankh-af-na-khonsu (Aleister Crowley), was never to attempt to decode the ciphers, for to do so would end only in folly. The later-written The Law is For All sees Crowley warning everyone not to discuss the writing amongst fellow critics, for fear that a dogmatic position would arise. While he declared a “new Equinox of the Gods” in early 1904, supposedly passing on the revelation of March 20 to the occult community, it took years for Crowley to fully accept the writing of the Book of the Law and follow its doctrine. Only after countless attempts to test its writings did he come to embrace them as the official doctrine of the New Aeon of Horus. The remainder of his professional and personal careers were spent expanding the new frontiers of scientific illuminism.
In 1907, Crowley’s interest took off once again, with two important events. The first was the creation of the Silver Star, and the second was the composition of the Holy books of Thelema.
The religious or mystical system which Aleister Crowley founded, into which most of his writings fall, he named Thelema. Thelema combines a radical form of philosophical libertarianism with a mystical initiatory system derived in part from the Golden Dawn.
Chief among the precepts of Thelema is the sovereignty of the individual will: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Crowley’s idea of will, however, is not simply the individuals desires or wishes, but also incorporates a sense of the person’s destiny or greater purpose: what he termed “True Will.”
The second precept of Thelema is “Love is the law, love under will” — and Crowley’s meaning of “Love” is as complex as that of “Will”. It is frequently sexual: Crowley’s system, like elements of the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence, and sexual “magick” and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual. However, Love is also discussed as the Union of Opposites, which Crowley thought was the key to enlightenment.
Crowley claimed to use a scientific method to study what people at the time called spiritual experiences, making “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” the catchphrase of his magazine The Equinox. By this he meant that mystical experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying religious or neurological meaning.
“In this connection there was also the point that I was anxious to prove that spiritual progress did not depend on religious or moral codes, but was like any other science. Magick would yield its secrets to the infidel and the libertine, just as one does not have to be a churchwarden in order to discover a new kind of orchid. There are, of course, certain virtues necessary to the Magician; but they are of the same order as those which make a successful chemist.”
Aleister Crowley’s magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex magick. He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time.
Sex magick is the use of the sex act—or the energies, passions or arousal states it evokes—as a point upon which to focus the will or magical desire for effects in the non-sexual world. In this, Crowley was inspired by Paschal Beverly Randolph, an American Abolitionist, Spiritualist medium, and author of the mid-19th century, who wrote (in Eulis!, 1874) of using the “nuptive moment” (orgasm) as the time to make a “prayer” for events to occur.
He urged his students to learn to control their own mental and behavioural habits, to the point of switching political views and personalities at will. For control of speech (symbolized as the unicorn): he recommended to choose a commonly-used word, letter, or pronouns and adjectives of the first person, and instructed them to cut themselves with a blade to serve as warning or reminder. Later the student could move on to the “Horse” of action and the “Ox” of thought. (These symbols derive from the cabala of Crowley’s book 777.)
Aleister Crowley was a highly prolific writer, not only on the topic of Thelema and magick, but on philosophy, politics, and culture. Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on magick, the Tarot, Yoga, the Kabbalah, 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
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 include:
- III:1 “The Blue Equinox” (largely regarding the structure of OTO)
- 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:9, The Holy Books of Thelema (the “received” works of Crowley)
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