Aleister Crowley was one of the most bizarre, fascinating, and mysterious figures of the 20th century. Known in his own time as “the wickedest man in the world,” Crowley equally attracted and repulsed his contemporaries. From spiritualism and writing to mountain climbing, yoga, and the occult, Crowley left his mark on many different facets of life. But he is perhaps most famous – or infamous – for his controversial, influential beliefs.
Facts about Aleister Crowley reveal a complicated, charismatic man who was not afraid to follow his own path. Born in 1875 to religious parents in England, Aleister Crowley ultimately flouted traditional morals and sought his own philosophical and spiritual beliefs that some people ridiculed and others embraced. He founded his own religion – known as Thelema – and was an important member of Ordo Templi Orientis, one of the most important secret societies.
But Crowley was a man of this world, even if he was preoccupied with mining the secrets of other worlds. During his adult life, he endured two global crises – World Wars I and II – and he may have participated in them in truly unique ways. He was also an outspoken bisexual who touted the importance of sex to a scandalized public.
For better or for worse, it cannot be denied that Aleister Crowley was one of the most astonishingly original, imaginative people in modern history.
He Practiced Sex Magick – And Believed That Consuming Body Fluids Was A Sacrament
Crowley passionately believed in the importance of sex, and so sex was an important part of the rituals of Thelema. This so-called “sex magick” was supposed to be transformative and clarifying. Even body fluids were important to Crowley and his religion. In the Mass of the Phoenix, for example, participants had to consume a Cake of Light. What was the Cake of Light? It was a kind of twist on Catholicism’s wafers: Cakes of Light contained either semen or menstrual blood.
As a member of the occult society Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), Crowley also added a new ritual based on anal sex to be practiced by members of the 11th degree.
It is also important to note that Crowley had scores of intense, passionate affairs throughout his life. He considered himself to be bisexual, as he engaged in sexual relationships with both men and women. Crowley’s belief in the power of sex was thus a guiding force in his personal relationships.
He Founded A Religion After Hearing The Voice Of An Egyptian Messenger-God
While in Cairo with his wife in 1904, Crowley claimed that he heard the voice of a messenger from the Egyptian god Horus. The messenger’s name, Crowley claimed, was Aiwass. Crowley dutifully copied down everything Aiwass told him, and the writing became The Book of the Law, the spiritual guide to Crowley’s new religion. Known as Thelema, the religion-philosophy emphasized individual will and magical ritual. Crowley believed he had been chosen as a prophet to help usher humanity into the Aeon of Horus.
His Spiritual Awakening May Have Been The Result Of His First Same-Sex Experience
Many biographers believe that Crowley’s first mystical experience was prompted by his first experience having sex with another man, while on vacation in Stockholm on New Year’s Eve 1896. The product of a repressive culture, Crowley remained ambivalent about homosexuality throughout his life, though he had many male partners, claiming he pursued homosexual sex as a route to enlightenment while still considering homosexual desires to be a source of shame or debasement.
“It was an experience of horror and pain,” he said about his Stockholm encounter, “yet at the same time, it was the key to the purest and holiest spiritual ecstasy that exists.”
He Was Addicted To Heroin And Cocaine
Crowley was a frequent drug user and sometime addict. After first being prescribed heroin to help with his asthma, Crowley quickly became interested in other drugs and how they might support his religious beliefs. Sadly, he developed an addiction to both heroine and cocaine, the latter of which eroded his nasal passages.
He even fictionalized his own drug struggles in the novel Diary of a Drug Fiend. The novel also articulated Crowley’s belief in the power of Thelema to better a person’s life.
He Was A Member Of Elite Occult Groups
In 1898, the 23-year-old Aleister Crowley was initiated into the occult group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded by a group of Masons in the late 19th century, the society embraced mysticism and the occult. Other members included novelist Bram Stoker, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and poet William Butler Yeats. Crowley was drawn to the group by their shared interest in alchemy, though some biographers have suggested that Crowley may have initially infiltrated the organization under orders from the British secret services.
Crowley did not fare well, however – he butted heads with other members (including Yeats) and failed to progress through the stages of membership.
Crowley also joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) secret society, in which he became a prominent and active member.
He Founded A Commune With His Lovers And Their Children
In April 1920, Crowley founded the Abbey of Thelema, a religious commune, in Sicily. He rented a villa and moved in with his lovers Leah Hirsig and Ninette Shumway, and their three children (one of whom was fathered by Crowley).
The adults wore robes and performed rituals and masses, while the children were left to roam around and play all day without constraint. Additional members joined the commune over the next two years, including Raoul Loveday and his wife, Betty May. Loveday loved the commune life, but hs wife complained of it constantly,
Loveday died in 1923, and his wife returned to her home in England, where she reported on many of the absurd and offensive things that happened there, including drinking the blood of a cat. She also claimed commune members were required to cut themselves with razors every time they said the word “I” as a means of breaking down individuality. Crowley disputed many of her claims, but after the British press reported on the scandalous commune, the Italian government deported Crowley and his fellows.
He Wrote Obscene Poetry
Crowley wrote poetry throughout this life, often centering on erotic themes. The first print run of his first collection of poetry, White Stains, were rumored to have been “stained” by Crowley himself. The poems inside were dedicated to every sexual vice, from bestiality to necrophilia.
A British Earl Hired Crowley To Protect Him From His Own Mother
By 1907, Crowley was officially using his beliefs professionally. One client was George Montagu Bennet, 7th Earl of Tankerville. Tankerville, a paranoid drug addict, was convinced that his own mother was trying to use witchcraft to kill him. So he turned to Crowley for help. Crowley provided Tankerville with a talisman, tarot readings, and a vacation away from his family. The vacation to the continent also gave Crowley the opportunity to help Tankerville with his drug addiction using the rituals of Thelema.
He Once Faked His Own Death Just To See What Would Happen
Crowley loved the spotlight, and so he was curious what his death might reveal. So in 1930, while he was in Portugal, Crowley sought to fake his own death. He turned to his friend, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, for help. The two staged Crowley’s death to appear as if he had jumped off a cliff. For effect, Crowley left behind what appeared to be a suicide note. As papers reported on the death of Aleister Crowley, the man was alive and well.
He Worked For Allied Interests During World War I
Crowley spent parts of World War I in the United States, a nation that was notably neutral for the majority of the war. While there, Crowley acted as a kind of spy for Allied interests. He used a cover as an ardent Irish nationalist, since Irish nationalists would appear to be anti-British and pro-German. Using this cover, Crowley published what initially appeared to be pro-German propaganda in America. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear what Crowley’s intentions really were: the writings were so over-the-top that they actually ridiculed the German cause.
Historians have suggested that he also encouraged the Germans to sink the Lusitania, assuring them it would intimidate the Americans and discourage them for joining the war effort, while in fact knowing that the exact opposite would occur. In addition, he took several trips to Russia that some biographers think were covert missions for the British secret service.
He May Have Been At The Center Of A Plot To Lure A Nazi To Britain
Interest in the occult was not limited to Aleister Crowley’s circle. In Germany in the 1930s, ideas of the occult and mysticism infused Nazi culture. Rudolf Hess, a high-ranking Nazi official, was especially interested in the occult.
During World War II, Crowley may or may not have been at the center of a British plot to lure Hess to Britain for interrogation. If the rumors are to be believed, Ian Fleming – intelligence officer and writer of the James Bond series – wanted Crowley to help him bring Hess to Britain under the guise of a meeting about the occult. Fleming hoped Crowley would be able to interrogate the Nazi through their discussions about magic.
He Was An Avid Mountain Climber, Though He Was Blamed For The Deaths Of Fellow Climbers
Crowley first became interested in mountaineering when he was a teenager climbing in the Alps. He joined up with famed mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein, and in 1902, the pair made an attempt to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. Though they did not succeed in summiting the mountain, they reached a height of about 22,000 feet, a record that stood for almost 40 years. Unfortunately, Crowley’s 1905 Kanchenjunga expedition in the Himalayas would not go nearly as well.
The Swiss climber Jules Jacot-Guillarmod asked Crowley to lead an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga and he reluctantly agreed. The pair were joined by three other European climbers and three Kashmiri porters. Crowley feuded with the other climbers, whom he found inexperienced and reckless. They, in turn, found him dominating and over-cautious. (Modern climbers tend to side with Crowley.)
Eventually, the five split into two groups: three climbers and the three porters decided to retreat, even though Crowley warned them of the risk of an avalanche.
Crowley said later, “I ought to have broken the doctor’s leg with an axe, but I was too young to take such a responsibility. It would have been hard to prove afterwards that I had saved him by so doing.”
During the descent, the climbers did, in fact, trigger an avalanche, and one of the Europeans and all three porters died. Crowley heard their cries but didn’t leave his tent to investigate until the following morning (he claimed he didn’t know they were cries of peril and not just shouting conversation.) Later, he would write, “I was not over-anxious under the circumstances to render help. A mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever.”
Though Crowley was in the right, his heartless dismissal of the event offended the climbing community, and as the leader, he was considered to be at least partially at fault.
He Married His Wife To Save Her From An Arranged Marriage, Then Fell In Love With Her
In 1903, Crowley married his first wife, the widow Rose Edith Kelly (the sister of his friend Gerard), in order to save her from an unwanted arranged marriage. It was intended to be only a marriage of convenience. However, during their long honeymoon voyage around the world, he fell in love with Kelly, writing her a series of love poems.
Kelly would become instrumental in his mystical work. The pair had two children, Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith (called “Lillith”) and Lola Zaza. They would remain married until 1909, when they finally separated over the strain caused by Kelly’s alcoholism and Crowley’s infidelity.
He Had To Flee India After Allegedly Murdering A Mugger
He Had A Rotating Cast Of Female Partners He Dubbed His Scarlet Women
Throughout his life, Crowley would dub female partners his Scarlet Woman, or Babalon. The Scarlet Woman was essentially an embodied goddesss who represented the Feminine Divine, including sexual power and fertility. Crowley dubbed seven women Scarlet Woman, including his first wife, Rose Edith Kelly, and his lover Leah Hirsig (whose vagina he described as “the Hirsig patent vacuum-pump” in an erotic poem).
He Regularly Slept With Male And Female Prostitutes
He Claimed He Had Been A Pope In A Previous Life
In 1918, Crowley went on a “magical retreat,” during which time he worked on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. He also underwent past life regression, and claimed he discovered he had previously visited this earth under many other guises, most notably as the controversial Renaissance pope Alexander VI (who lived from 1431 to 1503).
He Referred To Himself As “The Beast”
Crowley was known as “The Beast,” a title that he himself gleefully used. He earned the name as a child, when his exasperated mother would call him “Beast 666” in the wake of his mischief. As an adult, he proudly used the nickname, especially when he could appreciate the mystical context. His use of the term and his occultist activities led some to incorrectly claim that he was a Satanist.
He May Have Been The Inspiration For A Bond Villain
Crowley’s eccentricities were well known in society. So well known, in fact, that the Sunday Express actually labeled him the “wickedest man in the world.” Officer-gentleman-writer Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond – knew Crowley, and Crowley may have been the inspiration for the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.
Fleming wasn’t the only writer to transform Crowley into a character. Christopher Isherwood also used Crowley as a character template in A Visit to Anselm Oaks.
He May Have Influenced Churchill’s Iconic “V” Symbol
Though Aleister Crowley was not formally enlisted in World War II – he tried, but he was ultimately rejected from service – he may have played an important symbolic role. One of Winston Churchill’s most iconic signs – his “V” for victory symbol – might have been influenced by Crowley. Crowley claimed that he suggested the sign to Churchill as a symbol that would counteract the power of the Nazi swastika.
He Inspired A Motley Crew Of 20th-Century Personalities
What do Timothy Leary and L. Ron Hubbard have in common? Aleister Crowley. Both Leary, the Harvard psychologist who experimented with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, and Hubbard, the controversial founder of Scientology, looked to Crowley for inspiration in their work. Crowley was also a mentor to Jack Parsons, a prominent rocket researcher and friend of Hubbard’s (at least, until Hubbard ran off with his wife).
He Taught That Magic Was A Middle Path Between Science And Religion
Aleister Crowley had a religious upbringing and was a brilliant student at Cambridge. Between faith and logic, Crowley felt that there had to be a middle way. He believed magic was a kind of bridge between science and religion. He took magical projects seriously, and even spelled magic like “magick” to distinguish it from frivolous stage spectacles performed by magicians.