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Aleister Crowley


Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington Spa in 1875. He studied at Malvern and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he changed his name to Aleister. He was a lyrical and dramatic poet with several dozen books to his credit, including a collaboration with Auguste Rodin. He is anthologized in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse.

Crowley was by nature an eclectic spirit, and gained a reputation as a poet, novelist, journalist, climber, explorer, chess player, graphic designer, drug experimenter, prankster, lover of women, beloved of men, yogi, magician, prophet, pioneer in the struggle for freedom, human rights activist, philosopher and artist. He has been compared to Sir Richard Burton, and today Crowley is perhaps best known as the author of the most influential occult manuals of the 20th century, and as the first Englishman to have founded a religion - Thelema - which is now a recognized faith throughout the world.

Crowley was the enfant terrible of the Edwardian avant-garde of London and Paris. Witty and theatrical, and an early advocate of the aesthetic and inspirational virtues of drugs, sex, music and dance, he gravitated to communities in cultural exile: New York during the First World War, the Lost Generation of Paris in the Twenty and the decadent Berlin of Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris in the Thirties. To those who crossed paths with him, Crowley was unforgettable. He appears in countless memoirs, and was used as a model for characters in novels ranging from Somerset Maugham's The Magician to the villain in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale.


It has now been rediscovered and reinterpreted so many times—by The Beatles, hippies, punks, and "industrial culture"—that it has become a recurring symbol of counter-cultural rebellion. The London Sunday Times listed him as one of the 1000 proponents of the 20th century. The Beatles included him among "the people we love" on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's album not once but twice, reportedly with the second photograph withdrawn due to Crowley's too-close resemblance to Paul McCartney.
In 1919 Crowley left New York for Cefalù in Sicily, where he began painting landscapes. He transformed his rented villa by painting erotic murals after the example of Paul Gauguin—one of Crowley's heroes, whom he made a saint in his Gnostic Catholic Church. This was Thelema Abbey, an experiment in spiritual monasticism partly inspired by Rabelais. The students practiced the religious philosophy of Thelema (Greek word meaning "will").

Crowley summarized it as “Do what thou wilt shall be all the Law,” with its corollary “Love is the law, love under the will”—both quotes from The Book of the Law. This book is the text on which the religion of Thelema is based, and was dictated to Crowley in Egypt in 1904 by what he called a "non-human intelligence".

Students came to Sicily from all over the world to "find their true will" or their purpose in life. Crowley's training regime involved breaking down all artificial and societal inhibitions in order to liberate the essential self, while simultaneously providing training in yoga, concentration and self-analysis. The Abbey and its guests prospered, but when an Oxford University student died at the Abbey (from drinking the local water against Crowley's advice), the British press attacked Crowley relentlessly. As was later done with DH Lawrence, Home Secretary Joynston Hicks and his spokesman James Douglas of the Sunday Express demonized Crowley. The press depicted him as "The wicked evil man in the world" and "The man we would like to hang". Ironically, this campaign ensured Crowley's lasting fame, as well as an enduring misunderstanding of his life and work. He died in Hastings, England, in 1947.

Crowley has been the subject of numerous biographies, which are extremely inaccurate if not openly hostile on the subject. In recent years, excellent new biographies of serious authors have been published annually, each complementing the others: Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (2000), Martin Booth, A Magick Life: The Life of
Aleister Crowley (2001) and Richard Kaczynski, Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (2002). A balanced assessment of his life and work can also be found in Gerald Suster's entry in Missing Persons, a supplement to the seminal reference work The Dictionary of National Biography, published by Oxford University Press in 1993. The Temple of Solomon the King (published serially in The Equinox) and Crowley's own The Confessions shed useful light on his life and work.


Other biographies and studies are: JFC Fuller, The Star in the West (1907), CR Cammell, Aleister Crowley (1951), John Symonds, The Great Beast (1951) and The Magic of Aleister Crowley (1958) (later merged into The King of the Shadow Realm (1989)), Israel Regardie, The Eye in the Triangle (1970), Francis X. King, The Magical World of Aleister Crowley (1977), Susan Roberts, The Magician of the Golden Dawn (1978), Colin Wilson, Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast (1987) and Gerald Suster, The Legacy of the Beast (1988).

Literary Overview

Crowley contributed to The Eastbourne Gazette (chess columnist), The Occult Review, The Bystander, The Fatherland, The Open Court, Smart Set, Pearson's, The English Review, and the English and American editions of Vanity Fair. He was editorial director of The International: A Review of Two Worlds (1916-1917).

First Works (1898-1905)

Crowley's early works (1898-1905) include: Aceldama (1898), The Tale of Archais (1898), Jezebel (1898), Songs of the Spirit (1898), Jephthah (1898), An Appeal to the American Republic ( 1899), The Mother's Tragedy (1901), The Soul of Osiris (1901), Carmen Sæculare (1901), Tannhäuser (1902), Berashith (1903), Alice, An Adultery (1903), The God Eater (1903), Summa Spes (1903), Ahab (1903), The Star and the Garter (1903), In Residence (1904), The Argonauts (1904), Why Jesus Wept (1904), The Sword of Song (1904), Oracles (1905) , Orpheus (1905), Rosa Mundi (1905), Gargoyles (1905), Rodin in Rime (1905). These were collected, with revisions and some changes in titles, in The Collected Works of Aleister Crowley (3 vol., 1905-7), which omitted The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King (1904, as editor), the unattributed pornographic poems White Stains (1898) and Snowdrops from a Curate's Garden (c. 1904).

Intermediate Period (1907-1914)

In the intervening period (1907-1914, which includes the period of the first volume of The Equinox), Crowley published works on magic and mysticism as well as poetry: Konx Om Pax (1907), Amphora (1908, republished as Hail Mary, 1912), Clouds without Water (1909), Liber 777 (1909), The World's Tragedy (1910), The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz (Bagh-i-muattar) (1910), Rosa Decidua (1910), The Winged Beetle (1910), Ambergris (1910), Household Gods (1912), Book 4, Parts I-II (1912-1913, with Mary Desti), Liber CCCXXXIII, The Book of Lies (1913), and Chicago May (1914) .

Late Period (1915-1947)

His later period includes novels, autobiography, and most of his major manuals, with poetry generally confined to short pamphlets: Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), Songs for Italy (1923), Moonchild (1929), The Spirit of Solitude, later “re-named” The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1929, vols. 1-2 only), Magick in Theory and Practice (which is Part III of Book 4) (1929-30, with Leila Waddell ), The Equinox of the Gods (The Equinox III(3), 1936), Liber AL vel Legis sub figura CCXX (1938), The Heart of the Master (1938), Little Essays Toward Truth (1938), Khing Kang King ( 1939), Eight Lectures on Yoga (The Equinox III(4), 1939), Temperance (1939), Thumbs Up (1941), The Fun of the Fair (1942), The City of God (1943), The Book of Thoth (The Equinox III(5), 1944, with Frieda Harris) and Olla: An Anthology of Sixty Years of Song (1946).

Posthumos Work

Crowley's major posthumous works are: Liber XXX Ærum vel Sæculi Sub Figura CCCCXVIII: the Vision and the Voice, with Commentary (1952), The Gospel According to St. Bernard Shaw (1953), Magick without Tears (1954), 777 Revised (1955), Liber Aleph vel CXI, The Book of Wisdom or Folly (The Equinox III(6), 1961), The Book of Lies with an additional commentary (1962), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1969, abridged ed. vols. 1-6), Atlantis (1970), Shih Yi (The Equinox III(7), 1971), Liber CLVII, The Tao Teh King (The Equinox III(8), 1971), ΘΕΛΗΜΑ: The Holy Books of Thelema (The Equinox III(9), 1983), Golden Twigs (1988) and The Law is for All (automatic ed. 1996). For Crowley as a translator from French, see Charles Baudelaire, Little Poems in Prose (1928) and Éliphas Lévi, The Key of the Mysteries (book format, 1959).

In general, first editions are cited; many of Crowley's prose works are now available in a revised and corrected second edition with a critical apparatus. Posthumous compilations include: The Equinox III(10) (1986), Commentaries on the Holy Books and Other Papers (The Equinox IV(1), 1996), The Vision and the Voice with Commentary and Other Papers (The Equinox IV(2 ), 1998) and the essay collection The Revival of Magick (1998). The four parts of Crowley's major work on magic and mysticism have been revised, corrected, and republished as Magick (Book 4, Parts I-IV) (1994, 1997).

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