Born on October 12, 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Edward Alexander Crowley was brought up in a strict, pious Christian family who jealously guarded their reputation for respectability.
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It is possible that Crowley’s later beliefs and behavior started then as a rebellion against the narrowness of extreme religion and continued for the rest of his life.
As his father died when he was eleven-years-old, Crowley was obliged to shoulder the burden of a fortune which he had not earned himself.
Freed of the necessity of work, he threw himself into his studies, exploring knowledge and writing poetry. As soon as he was able, he changed his name to Aleister to further distance himself from his despised father.
Introduction to the Occult
According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary, while he was at Trinity College he began to study the occult. He soon discovered that he enjoyed reading descriptions of bloodshed and abuse, and fantasized about being tortured by a woman.
Crowley, although bisexual, had a homosexual phase, and had by this time developed a fairly strong contempt for women, which made this fantasy even odder.
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
The Biography Project: Aleister Crowley reports that around this time, Crowley discovered a book about black magic by a man who was called Arthur Edward Waite.
This book talked about a secret brotherhood which Crowley became determined to join. After writing to Waite, he was eventually successful at finding and being inducted into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the relatively young age of twenty-three.
Crowley joined a coven of witches, but was later cast out because of his contempt for women and his disregard for rules and rituals.
He dropped out of Trinity College, changed his name to Count Vladmir, and gave himself totally to studying the occult.
Association with S.L. McGregor Mathers
Crowley’s goal was power, and he intended to achieve it through the Golden Dawn. He advanced quickly but his lodge leader, perhaps sensing Crowley’s chaotic personality, refused to initiate him into the second order.
He enlisted the aid of the head of the Order, S.L. McGregor Mathers, who was having trouble with the lower lodges anyway. Seeing a potential ally in Crowley, Mathers quickly initiated him into the coveted order.
Mathers and Crowley were swiftly at each other’s throats, engaging in a war of spiritual and supernatural aggression with each claiming to have cast spells on and sending paranormal beings after the other.
In 1900, after Mathers tried to regain power over the lower lodges, both he and Crowley were thrown out of the Order.
After traveling extensively in the Near and Far East, Crowley returned to Britain in 1903 and married Rose Kelly. They had one child, Lola, who died while Crowley was traveling in the United States. Crowley divorced Rose in 1909.
The Law of Thelema
By 1913, Crowley was well-known for practicing black magic and for being a devout Satanist; he identified himself with the number “666.” He lived by the Law of Thelema (The Will), “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Love is the Law, Love under Will,” which he said was among the truths revealed to him by the Egyptian god Horus.
He had begun to experiment with magic under the influence of alcohol and drugs (he had become addicted to heroin during his travels), and kept a series of women as his magical consorts, engaging in sexual rituals with them.
One of these women was Leah Hirzig, whom he called the Scarlet Woman, and with whom he had another daughter, Poupee, who also died in childhood.
Abbey of Thelema
Crowley became involved in another occult order, the Ordo Temple Orientis, and in 1929 became the head of the Order. In Sicily, he built the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu, where he continued to be notorious for performing satanic rituals.
The press called him “The Wickedest Man in the World.” He was expelled from Sicily in1923 by Benito Mussolini.
After more travel, he met and married his second wife, Maria Ferrari de Miramar. In 1934 he sued sculptress Nina Hamnett for libel over her published allegation that he practiced black magic.
However, his reputation was too far gone, and when the justice trying the case heard the defense’s evidence about the bizarre rituals Crowley performed (much of it from Crowley’s own writings) he promptly ruled in Hamnett’s favor. Crowley was forced into bankruptcy, from which he never recovered.
Death and Legacy of Aleister Crowley
On December 1, 1947, Crowley died. His will specified that his funeral service was to be based on his writings, and that he was to be cremated and his ashes distributed among his American followers.
Several of Crowley’s biographers aver that his writings and motives have been misunderstood. Certainly he was a man of strong intellect – one might even say genius.
Certainly he influenced the practice of magic, although whether for good or bad depends on the individual’s perception.
However his sadistic bent, lack of discipline, and determination to possess power at all costs resulted in his dying a broken and lonely man, linked forever with the disturbing and bizarre aspects of his lifestyle.