'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law'
Aleister Crowley (Edward Alexander Crowley) was born 12 October in the same year as the foundation of the Theosophical Society (1875), at Leamington Spa at 11.30pm. He was therefore a Libran with Pisces moon and Leo rising. Contrary to popular legend, he died on the 1st December 1947. A review in Cambridge University magazine Granta of 1904 provides some guidance on the pronunciation of the great man's name: 'Oh, Crowley, name for future fame!/(Do you pronounce it Croully?)/Whate'er the worth of this your mirth/It reads a trifle foully.'
The myth of the magus has grown to prodigious proportions in the half century or more since the old man's death. Crowley is now firmly established in the popular mind as a folk hero (or anti hero?), transmogrified to an icon on a spectrum somewhere between 'the sandman' (Clive Barker version) and 'the gringe'.
To many, Crowley's magick (I am using the archaic form of the term as popularised by AC for technical reasons), provides a neat dividing line between some kind of urban high magical tradition and the supposedly more earth centred styles of neo-paganism. The truth is, as always, a lot more complex. Crowley's magick draws all of it's power from nature, see for example an ancient Egyptian formula: 'so that every Spirit of the Firmament and of the Ether: Upon the Earth and under the Earth; on dry land and in the Water: of whirling Air; and of rushing Fire and every spell and scourge of God may be obedient to Me.' (1)
Crowley spent all of his moderately long life exploring countless dramatic astral and mundane landscapes in search of gnosis. It's a shame he wasn't a good enough travel writer to communicate fully in his many books the real majesty of nature. He seemed to go everywhere, from the deepest jungles to the highest mountains of the earth. An account from Jan Fries' book Visual Magick, amply demonstrates that Crowley never quite lost the taste for the great outdoors and the spirits of nature. In 1925 the mage took the leadership of the 'Fraternitas Saturni on a long walk up the garden path and into the forest. Whenever Uncle Aleister noticed a remarkable plant, stone or tree, he graciously lifted his hat to greet it. This bizarre behaviour apparently astonished his fellows. Some novices, we are told, dared to whisper "What is the master doing?" "The elemental spirits of nature have come to see the master" was the reply "and Sir Aleister is acknowledging their greeting." The whole incident including a rather nice ritual is to be found in an article on 'Pentagramme Magick' in Praxis (1963).
Towards the end of his life Crowley began to lose interest in the Ordo Templi Orientis and other organisations he had fashioned as potential vehicles for the dissemination of the great work. He met Gerald Gardner and together they may have devised a plan to transform the OTO into a more popular witchcraft cult. Gardner duly bought a charter and rose rapidly through the grades, even travelling to America to meet other OTO initiates. Fred Lamond, one of Gardners first acolytes, recalls that American adept Jack Parsons looked very favourably on the idea of a new witch cult. If Crowley had lived long enough to complete Gardner's training, modern paganism would undoubtedly look quite different, but that's another story.
(1) From Liber Samekh, as adapted by Crowley from an ancient Hermetic fragment. The cosmology of the Egyptian original made no sense to Crowley's teachers, hence his slight paraphase - the original reads: 'so that every daimon, whether heavenly or aerial or earthly or subterranean or terrestrial or aquatic'.
Aleister Crowley may have died in 1947, but his influence is still very much felt by the magician of the 1990s. The CD soundtrack The Beast Speaks sold 8000 copies since its release in 1993, and the paperback edition of Crowley's Confessions was number two in Virgin Megastores top ten books. Don't be fooled into thinking that the magician of the nineties is a slavish follower or member of some mind bending cult. Crowley's word was Thelema (The Crowleian pronunciation is Theh-LEE-mah, the accent bewatching on the vowel of the second syllable, Greek speakers ay the accent should be on the vowel of the first syllable for it to be pronounced right....ThEH-lee-mah) - which means [free] Will. Those who choose to follow this magical path aim to de-condition themselves, to develop independence of spirit and ultimately to become their very own self. One of the many attractions of Crowley's type of Magick, was this advice to follow one's own way and create your own life style. You don't need a priest or a judge to tell you how to act - work it out for yourelf.
As part of the process of developing self knowledge, Crowley advocated the practice of Magick. This he defined as 'the science and art of causing change in conformity with will.' The history of magick is the history of human beings. Many of the things that are now labelled 'culture' began as experiments in ritual and magick viz. drama, music, art, dance, philosophy and poetry etc., etc. Magick has played a role in many key moments of our history, for example during the fourteenth century, it was the philosophy of the Renaissance. In our own time, many modern art movements have been driven by magical ideas, for instance, the first abstract painting was made by the Theosophist Kandinsky. Magick is a valuable and reputable activity to undertake.
Whatever else one can say about it, magick certainly is not a mass activity, neither is it a spectator sport. Magicians are in many localities in a minority of one and have to teach themselves the skills traditionally part of the art viz. trance, divination, invocation and creative imagination. The solitary magician gathers most of his or her information from books and Crowley made a substantial contribution to the vast number of books on the subject. Most of his books are now in print, something like 100 titles. The secondary literature of commentaries and studies, as one might expect after more than 50 years, is very extensive indeed. However there is no need to read everything the master wrote. There are a handful of key texts that should give you a good grounding in the man and his magick.
Sadly, there is still no really objective biography of Crowley. The standard biography is John Symonds' The Great Beast, (lastest edition of which is entitled King of the Shadow Realm) which records all of the salient facts but is very hostile to Crowley's ideas and therefore gives a lively but unbalanced picture. Jean Overton Fuller's Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg is slightly more objective and written with much inside information. A modern attempt is the late Gerald Suster's Legacy of the Beast, which is too short to cover all the facts, and too sycophantic -nevertheless, it is not without value. Gerald Suster also wrote Crowley's entry in Dictionary of National Biography - Missing Persons (OUP 1993) which is also worth a read. Incidentally, 1993 was also the year in which Crowley made it to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for the first time with his motto 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.'
Several newer biographies have recently appeared, two in particular are worthy of note: Martin Booth, A Magick Life and said by some to be the best of the whole lot: Do What Thou Wilt by Lawrence Sutin for St Martin's Press.
There is a 2004 reissue of Megatherion by Francis King, published by Creation Press, which was originally published in 1977 under the title The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. There is also an excellent study of Aleister Crowley's followers in America during the Golden Age of Hollywood, entitled The Unknown God, W.T. Smith and the Thelemites by Martin P. Starr, published in 2003 by The Teitan Press, Inc.
The modern generation of Thelemites, admires something in the spirit of Crowley rather than the word. He could be a interesting writer but as is often the case, the present day re-working of his material is often easier to follow and less peppered by some of Crowley's offensive cultural baggage. Writers such as Jan Fries in Visual Magick and Jack Parsons in Freedom is a Two Edged Sword, seem to have a better understanding of the magical philosophy for which Crowley was a conduit. However, you will undoubted want to make your own mind up in this, so apart from biography and if you have the stamina his massive autobiography, and the following are Crowley's principal works.
1. Magick - alternatively called Magick in Theory and Practice -or Book Four. This is his textbook of magick, leads the reader from basic yoga techniques through Golden Dawn type ritual to his own unique gnostic rituals, many of them with veiled sexual content. But beware, this is not a book for the beginner and you might do well to ask a more experienced magician to suggest a study plan for it beginning with Liber O, or even look at some of the secondary literature first. For example see Lon DuQuette's The Magick of Thelema or Israel Regardie's Middle Pillar, Eye in Triangle, and others.
2. The Book of Thoth, along with the tarot cards of the same name, is his brilliant study of the tarot, difficult to follow in parts if you have no familiarity with his 'Thelemic' imagery, but well worth persevering with. The tarot deck he created with English 'surrealist' Lady Frieda Harris, is fast becoming the most widely used esoteric tarot deck in the world.
3. 777 and other Qabalistic Writings. A essential summary of his symbol system, which also contains a reprint of Mathers' instructional essay on Qabalah.
4. Holy Books of Thelema - all brought together under one cover, including Liber al vel Legis - Book of the Law. The mystical poem that formed the core of Crowley's magical system. 'Delivered' to him by discarnate entity Aiwass during one of the most important mystical experiences of his life.
There are a small but growing number of groups, based in this country that work with Crowley's ideas. The following list is not exhaustive, but gives some of the main contact points. It is recommended that you do not atttempt to join all of them at once.
OTO This stands for Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Eastern Temple). A magical order, based on eastern eroto-gnostic techniques, some derived from Tantrism. Existed, long before Crowley came on the scene but soon became the principle vehicle for his magical work. Has undergone a big revival over the last ten years. Perhaps it is fortuititous that the OTO split into several rival tendencies following the death of Crowley's successor, Karl Germer. Many magicians feel that magical orders, structured on medieval lines, may not be the appropriate vehicle for Thelema. But as things stand the aspiring candidate must make a choice after investigating and weighing up what both groups have to offer, if anything. In England there are two main groups claiming title to Crowley's mantle: In other parts of Europe and the world, other OTOs exist and can claim priority. There are currently legal threats flying between these groups, so I hope I get it right.
i. OTO 'Caliphate' - BM Thelema, London WC1N 3XX - International HQ: Postfach 33 20 12 D-14180, Germany. More 'traditional' if it can be termed so. Uses original OTO Masonic style rituals and charges annual subscriptions and initiation fees.
ii. OTO 'Typhonian' BM Starfire, London WC1N 3XX. Ruled by famous occult scholar Kenneth Grant, whose book Aleister Crowley & the Hidden God, revolutionised the understanding of Crowley magick. Ditched the old Masonic style rituals in favour of the syllabus very like the Argentinum Astrum, i.e. individual graded magical practices leading to adeptship.
Non OTO Thelemic Groups
Apart from the 'OTOs' there are a number of 'new wave' magical groups and orders that are trying to refashion the occult community on more 'rosicrucian' lines, which seem more in tune with modern needs. Strict hierarchies, authoritarianism and obscurantism are definitely out. An honest attempt to build a fellowship or sodality of magicians is on the cards. Amongst these are:
Golden Dawn Occult Society
PO Box 250, Oxford, OX1 1AP. (email C/O Ogdos@mandrake.uk.net or http://www.uk.net/ogdos.htm. Offers a foundation course in magick and other training to associate members (associate membership is £5 pa.). Is part of a growing network of individuals and groups throughout Britain and all over the world. Online newsletter
Chaos Magic and the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT)
C/O, BM Sorcery, London WC1N 3XX, Another important new style of magick that has developed out of the Thelemic one. Other influences include new physics and European shamanism.
The Kaula-Nath Community (including AMOOKOS). C/O PO Box 250, Oxford, OX1 1AP. East- West tantrik groups, founded by Dadaji, one of Crowley's disciple's in the 1930s who, on the master's advice, went to India and became a sadhu. A unique blend of western occultism with authentic magical Hinduism. Has an older equivalent of Crowley's 'Law of Thelema' - viz: svecchacara - 'the path of ones own will'.
Crowley and the Media
There has been precious little media attention to Crowley, there is still no film or documentary devoted in entirety to Crowley's life. This situation is changing slowly. In year 2000, BBC Scotland made a short documentary about Boleskine, Crowley's house on the banks on Loch Ness. The show was called The Other Loch Ness Monster, but the BBC have so far refused to show it outside of Scotland. Channel Four have filmed a more thoroughgoing documentary although broadcast has again been delayed due to editorial difficulties. It will eventually appear as part of a series dealing with occult themes. BBC Modern Times are currently filming a fifty minute piece on serious magick, which will include a fair amount of material on Crowley. There are been one or two short radio pieces and an interesting stage play by Snoo Wilson some time back. Snoo Wilson appeared in a fifteen minute broadcast for UK's Channel 4 (text reprinted in Thelemic Magick I fromMandrake of Oxford.) Snoo Wilson's Novel I Crowley, has been published to critical acclaim and should go into production as a feature film. It is based on events at the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily.
Obtaining Useful Books etc
Books by and about Crowley are now widely available in UK booksellers such as Waterstones, Borders, Ottakar's etc. The best selection is still to be found in specialist bookshops such as the world famous Atlantis Bookshop, 49a Museum St, London WC1, and Watkins Bookshop, 19 Cecil Court, London WC2 4EZ, as well as several others throughout the UK. However, if you don't live in London or getting to a bookshop is difficult, there are several good mail-order suppliers, including Mandrake of Oxford (mandrake@[removeme]mandrake.uk.net) which is run by and for working magicians. Information is available here on local stockists and sometimes links if you prefer to deal with a bookseller in your own country.
Advice on titles and merchandise is freely available from the Mandrake website clickhere
Love is the law, love under will
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