Aleister Crowley meets his match

from Aimée Crocker, Queen of Bohemia

Aleister Crowley

Edward Alexander (Aleister) Crowley, the British writer, ceremonial magician, mountaineer and mystic was an influential member in several occult organizations, including the Golden Dawn, the Argenteum Astrum, and Ordo Templi Orientis. Crowley was also a counterculture icon and hero to members of the Beatles, the Doors and Led Zeppelin, glam rock star David Bowie, writer Aldous Huxley, rocket scientist Jack Parsons, new-religion inventor L. Ron Hubbard and stand-up philosopher and acid freak Timothy Leary, who once claimed he was carrying on the great magician’s work.

Crowley began a relentless pursuit of Aimée Crocker Gouraud a couple of years after the death of Jackson when she was in her late forties. Their journey would last some ten years and be among the longest relationships in both of their lives. Crowley, like Aimée, was unabashedly unconventional, and made it his calling to investigate the warnings from the establishment about the dangers of temptation and the terrible consequences of sin.

David Bowie was intrigued by the teachings of Aleister Crowley. His song “Quicksand,” mentions both Crowley and the Golden Dawn.

Crowley’s father was a wealthy traveling preacher for the Plymouth Brethren Sect, a group of radical Protestants who were pathologically anti-pleasure. He would die of tongue cancer when Edward was 11 leaving the devastated son his fortune.

During his Cambridge years, he would adopt the name “Aleister,” a Gaelic form of his middle name, Alexander. Crowley identified strongly with the Bohemians of his age — although he didn’t always hold to all of their values, such as their disdain for property. He tried very hard to integrate himself into their number with limited success. He certainly fit to a certain extent because of his bisexuality, decadent poetry, and rejection of Protestant-inspired values. However, because Crowley came from money and never fully rejected that world, he could perhaps be better thought of as a dandy, which were akin to the Bohemians but did not live in abject poverty, chose to bathe regularly, and enjoyed being in the limelight. Just as Bohemians and dandies often intermingled, so too did Crowley walk in both worlds (similar to Baudelaire, the French poet and a certain heiress from Sacramento).

Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt as Diane de Rougy, 1890s

In 1897, Aleister had a love affair with the very Bohemian Jerome Pollitt, a female impersonator who went by the stage name “Diane de Rougy.” Pollitt was four years Crowley’s senior, a friend of both Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, had been painted by James Whistler, and was the president of the Footlights Dramatic Club at Cambridge. “I lived with Pollitt as his wife for some six months and he made a poet out of me,” is how Crowley described their relationship. Pollitt introduced him to the atmosphere of current aesthetic ideas, and that of the so-called decadents in literature. “He was the only person with whom I had ever enjoyed truly spiritual intercourse,” wrote Aleister. In 1898, just after the short-lived romance, Crowley’s homoerotic laced book White Stains was published in Amsterdam and was soon hailed as “the filthiest book of verse ever written.”

Aleister at 27 on his journey to climb K2

Young Crowley was a fantastic mountain climber and in March 1902, partnering with Oscar Eckenstein, made the first attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan, the second highest mountain on earth. After five serious and costly attempts, the team reached 6,525 meters. They would not make it to the top, but did break altitude endurance records. Leading up to that challenge he climbed extensively in the Alps and also made cutting edge first ascents on British rock.

Crowley’s first real initiation into the world of esotericism and magic occurred around 1898, when he was introduced to a group known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded by William Westcott and MacGregor Mathers in 1887, the Golden Dawn was an eclectic blending of a number of older Western esoteric traditions, including Hermeticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and theurgist arts derived from Jewish Kabbalah. An affluent and elite group, the Golden Dawn attracted a number of prominent artists, poets and intellectuals, including W.B. Yeats and Bram Stoker. Aleister came to believe that he was the reincarnation of another renowned magician, Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), who died in the same year in which Crowley was born.

Crowley’s magnum opus Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), written in 1904, is the central holy text of his spiritual philosophy (referred to by some as a religion) “Thelema.” Thelema mandates that each person follow their True Will to attain fulfillment in life and that no two True Wills can possibly be in real conflict. Crowley believed that to discover the True Will, one had to free the desires of the subconscious mind from the control of the conscious mind, especially the restrictions placed on sexual expression, which he associated with the power of divine creation. “Love is the law, love under will” was (and is) his follower’s central edict.

The Book of the Law by Aleister and Rose Crowley and Aiwass

The Book of the Law is a sacred channeled text, written in Egypt in 1904. It was dictated to Crowley while in trance by a praeterhuman Intelligence calling himself Aiwass. Crowley claimed Aiwass to be his own personal “Holy Guardian Angel.” Knowledge and conversation with one’s personal angel was to become the fundamental task of every adept committed to “The Great Work.” One’s True Will, or one’s sacred destiny or path in life, could not be fully known in consciousness until the Holy Guardian Angel is contacted.

Crowley made contact with his angel, Aiwass, after several experiments performing a centuries old series of rituals called the Abra-Melin Operation. After a preparatory phase of abstinence from all vices and daily prayer work the practitioner’s Holy Guardian Angel is promised to appear and reveal magical secrets. The magical goals that could eventually be employed are typical of those found in grimoires. The magician is promised the powers of invisibility and flight. He also learns how to make and prevent storms, how to turn people into animals, how to find hidden manuscripts, heal sickness, recover treasure and if called upon the magician could make a dead person walk for seven years.

At first, the press showered accolades on the promising young poet and thinker who would bravely climb any mountain. He was the charismatic mystic with a basilisk stare. The Purple Prince. Five years later, Crowley proclaimed himself the prophet of a New Aeon for humanity in his long mystical poem, “Aha!” It was compared by some in beauty and profundity to the Bhagavad-Gita. “In this aeon the emphasis is on the self or will, not on anything external such as gods and priests,” was the revelation.

Within this new religion, Crowley created his own philosophical system, “Scientific Illuminism.” He 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. This series of publications in book form remains one of the definitive works on occultism and magic. Crowley would dedicate a poem to Aimée Crocker Gouraud and four others in the fall 1913 edition called “The Disciples.”

Aleister Crowley, immortal mystic or immoral monster?

According to friend and New York Times reporter William Seabrook, Crowley claimed to teach a higher love morality. His philosophy preached that supreme spiritual exaltation could be obtained by either extreme of living: through drugs, orgies, excesses and debaucheries, or through asceticism and deprivation. He believed that absolutely nothing was in itself evil, but that the evil of anything was in its misuse. Crowley claimed to have cured people of drug habits. While he condemned and denounced people who allowed their wills to be led by their appetites, he didn’t believe in escaping these appetites by either shunning or stifling them. Crowley’s goal was to accept them all and use them rather than abuse them. It is basically the difference, say Crowley admirers, between prohibition and temperance. In time, Crowley became a secret ruler of a strange mystical cult, whose lodges and temples circled the entire globe, from Egypt and Asia to the drawing rooms of Paris, London, Berlin and New York.

When Crowley began to feverishly promote the central idea to his philosophy, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law;” when he took on the titles Frater Perdurabo, Master Therion, Baphomet, and eventually The Great Beast 666; when sensational stories about sex cults, hashish orgies and devil worship hit the newsstands, the public began to question where the real mystic ended and the charlatan began. Was he an immortal genius or an inhuman monster?

The press would eventually dub Crowley the “Wickedest Man in the World.” He was famously booted out of Italy by Mussolini’s new fascist regime. Crowley took a band of acolytes there in 1920 and conducted some of his most extreme excursions into hedonistic “magick” practices. Crowley’s Sicilian commune, dubbed the “Abbey of Thelema,” would also be a type of magical school. He gave the Abbey a secondary designation “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum,” The College of the Holy Spirit. Crowley was later expelled from France.

Crowley, like Crocker, became a scandal in the press.

On the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on the Tarot (The Book of Thoth), the Kabbalah (Sepher Sephiroth) and astrology (The General Principles of Astrology) and numerous other subjects. His Eight Lectures on Yoga — or “Yoga for Yahoos,” as he described it — displays a grasp of classical yoga and would become one of the first vehicles through which yoga was transmitted to the West.

Enter the widow Aimée Crocker Gouraud. The great magician was powerfully drawn to her. It was a mutual attraction though most of Crowley’s hopes and desires regarding the heiress would remain unrequited. They were certainly from the same spiritual-intellectual tribe. He was independently wealthy, a seeker of esoteric knowledge and a fierce individualist like Aimée. Both lost their fathers before they were teenagers. Both had an appetite for celebrity. Both had a long string of lovers. These love partners in both cases did not necessarily serve consecutive terms, but occasionally overlapped. Both Crowley and Crocker were well-traveled students of Hatha Yoga and Buddhism. Both would be interested in the science of energy flow and would consider mystical union of the Self with the Divine life’s most important work. Aleister was also some 11 years younger than Crocker, a big plus for Gilded Age America’s favorite cougar.

To be continued…