Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley, and also known as both Frater Perdurabo and The Great Beast, was an influential English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer, responsible for founding the religious philosophy of Thelema. He was also successful in various other fields, including mountaineering, chess and poetry, and it has also been alleged that he was a spy for the British government.
In his role as the founder of the Thelemite faith, he came to see himself as the prophet who was entrusted with informing humanity that it was entering the new Aeon of Horus in the early twentieth century, a time when old ethical and religious systems would be replaced by new ones focused upon the principle of individual liberty.
Born into a wealthy upper class family, as a young man he became an influential member of the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after befriending the order's leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Subsequently believing that he was being contacted by his Holy Guardian Angel, an entity known as Aiwass, whilst staying in Egypt in 1904, he received a text known as The Book of the Law from what he believed was a divine source, and around which he would come to develop his new religion of Thelema. He would go on to found his own occult society, and eventually rose to become a leader of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.).
Crowley was also a bisexual, a recreational drug experimenter and social critic. In many of these roles he "was in revolt against the moral and religious values of his time", espousing a form of libertinism based upon the rule of "Do What Thou Wilt". Because of this, he gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, and was denounced in the popular press of the day as "the wickedest man in the world."
Crowley has remained an influential figure right up till this day, and is widely thought of as the most influential occultist of all time. In 2002, a BBC poll described him as being the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time. References to him can be found in the works of numerous writers, musicians and filmmakers, and he has also been cited as a key influence on many later esoteric groups and individuals, including Kenneth Grant, Jack Parsons, Gerald Gardner and, to some degree, Austin Osman Spare.
Crowley had claimed to be a Freemason, but the regularity of his initiations with the United Grand Lodge of England has been disputed. Shortly thereafter he was introduced to George Cecil Jones, who was a member of the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn'.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or, more commonly, the Golden Dawn) was a magical order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, practicing a form of theurgy and spiritual development. It was possibly the single greatest influence on twentieth century western occultism. Concepts of magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema and other forms of magical spirituality popular today, are drawn from the Golden Dawn tradition.
The three founders, Dr. William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers were Freemasons and members of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), an appendant body to Freemasonry. Westcott, also a member of the Theosophical Society, appears to have been the initial driving force behind the establishment of the Golden Dawn.
The Golden Dawn was technically only the first or "outer" of three orders, although all three are often collectively described as the "Golden Dawn". The First Order taught esoteric philosophy based on the Hermetic Qabalah and personal development through study and awareness of the four Classical Elements. They also taught the basics of astrology, tarot and geomancy. The Second or "Inner" Order, the Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis (the Ruby Rose and Cross of Gold), taught magic proper, including scrying, astral travel and Alchemy. The fabled Third Order was that of the "Secret Chiefs", who were said to be great adepts no longer in incarnate form, but who directed the activities of the lower two orders by spirit communication with the Chiefs of the Second Order.
Influences on Golden Dawn concepts and work include: Christian mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Theurgy, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Enochian magic, and Renaissance grimoires.
History of the Golden Dawn
The Cipher Manuscripts
The fundamental basis of the original Order of the Golden Dawn was a collection of documents known as the Cipher Manuscripts, written in English using a cipher attributed to Johannes Trithemius. The Manuscripts give the specific outlines of the Grade Rituals of the Order, and prescribe a curriculum of specifically graduated teachings that encompass the Hermetic Qabalah, Astrology, Tarot, Geomancy and Alchemy.
The manuscripts were passed on from Kenneth Mackenzie, a Masonic scholar, to Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, whom Francis King acknowledges as the fourth founder (although Woodford died shortly after the Order was founded). The documents did not excite Woodford, and in February 1886 he passed them on to Dr. Westcott and by 1887 Westcott managed to decode them.
Westcott was pleased with his discovery, called on Mathers for a second opinion, and asked for cooperation in turning the manuscripts into a coherent system for lodge work. Mathers then called on William Robert Woodman to assist by being a third collaborator and Woodman, it seems, accepted. Likewise, Mathers and Dr. Westcott have been credited for developing the ritual outlines in the Cipher Manuscripts into a workable format.
Mathers, however, is generally credited with the design of the curriculum and rituals of the Second Order, which he called the Rosae Rubae et Aureae Crucis ("Ruby Rose and Golden Cross", or the RR et AC).
Another theory states that the Cipher Manuscripts had been received by noted Masonic scholar Kenneth Mackenzie from the Secret Chiefs of the "Third Order," a continental Rosicrucian mystery school into which Mackenzie had been initiated by Count Apponyi of Hungary.
Using the Cipher Manuscripts, Mackenzie founded "The Society of Eight" as the first phase of what was to later become the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It should be noted in this context that Mackenzie's group was Temple No. 1, and Frederick Hockley, another member of "The Society of Eight", founded Temple No. 2. Thus when the Golden Dawn was founded, its first temple, Isis-Urania, was numbered as No. 3.
In October of 1887, Westcott wrote to Anna Sprengel, whose name and address he received through the decoding of the Cipher Manuscripts. A reply was purported to have been received with much wisdom, and honorary grades of Exempt Adept were conferred upon Westcott, Mathers and Woodman, as well as a charter to establish a Golden Dawn temple to work the five grades outlined in the manuscripts.
In 1888, the Isis-Urania Temple in London was founded, in which the rituals decoded from the cipher manuscripts were developed and practiced. In addition, there was an insistence on women being allowed to participate in the Order in "perfect equality" with men, which was in contrast to the S.R.I.A. and Masonry.
The original Lodge founded in 1888 did not teach any magical practices per se (except for basic "banishing" rituals and meditation), but was rather a philosophical and metaphysical teaching order. This was called "the Outer Order", and for four years the Golden Dawn existed only in "the Outer". The "Inner Order", which became active in 1892, was the circle of Adepts who had completed the entire course of study and Initiations of the Outer Order contained in the Cipher Manuscripts. This group eventually became known as the Second Order (the Outer Order being the "First" Order).
In a short time, the Osiris temple in Weston-super-Mare, the Horus temple in Bradford, and the Amen-Ra temple in Edinburgh were founded. A few years after this, Mathers founded the Ahathoor temple in Paris.
In 1891 the correspondence with Anna Sprengel suddenly ceased, and Westcott received word from Germany that either she was dead or her companions did not approve of the founding of the Order, and that no further contact was to be made. If the founders were to contact the Secret Chiefs, therefore, it had to be done on their own. It was about this time that Dr. Woodman died, never having seen the Second Order.
In 1892, Mathers claimed a link to the Secret Chiefs had been formed, and supplied rituals for the Second, or Inner, Order called the Red Rose and Cross of Gold. These rituals were based on the tradition of the tomb of Christian Rosenkreuz, and a Vault of Adepts became the controlling force behind the Outer Order.
Later in 1916, Westcott claimed that Mathers also constructed these rituals from materials he received from Frater Lux ex Tenebris, a purported Continental Adept.
Some followers of the Golden Dawn tradition believe that the Secret Chiefs are not necessarily living humans or supernatural beings, but are symbolic of actual and legendary sources of spiritual esotericism, a great leader or teacher of a spiritual path or practice that found its way into the teachings of the Order.
The Golden Age
By the mid 1890s, the Golden Dawn was well established in Great Britain, with membership rising to over a hundred from every class of Victorian society. In its heyday, many cultural celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne (Gonne left after she converted to Roman Catholicism). Some well known members included Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. Many men and women of the 19th century Fin de sicle social culture were members of the Golden Dawn.
Around 1897, Westcott broke all ties to the Golden Dawn, leaving Mathers in complete control. It is speculated that this was due to some occult papers having been found in a hansom cab, in which his connection to the Golden Dawn came to the attention of his superiors. He was told to either resign from the Order or to give up his occupation as coroner.
While there is no proof of Mathers having planted the papers, it appears that the relationship between Mathers and Westcott all but ended after this point. After Westcott's departure, Mathers appointed Florence Farr to be Chief Adept in Anglia. (Although Westcott publicly resigned, he must have continued in some capacity since there are Lodge documents bearing his signature dated years after his "resignation".)
This left Mathers as the only active founding member and in charge of the Order. Due to personality clashes with other members, and being absent from the center of Lodge activity in Great Britain, challenges to Mathers' authority as leader began to develop amongst the members of the Second Order.
Law of Thelema
Thelema is a philosophy of life based on the rule or law, "Do what thou wilt." The ideal of "Do what thou wilt" and its association with the word Thelema goes back to Franois Rabelais, but was more fully developed and proselytized by Aleister Crowley,who founded a religion named Thelema based on this ideal. The word itself is the English transliteration of the Koine Greek noun "will", from the verb: to will, wish, purpose. Early Christian writings use the word to refer to the will of God, the human will, and even the will of God's opponent, the Devil.
In the 16th century, Franois Rabelais used ThŽlme, the French form of the word, as the name of a fictional Abbey in his famous books, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The only rule of this Abbey was "fay e que vouldras" ("Fais ce que tu veux," or, "Do what thou wilt"). This rule was revived and used in the real world in the mid 18th century by Sir Francis Dashwood, who inscribed it on a doorway of his abbey at Medmenham, where it served as the motto of The Hellfire Club.
The same rule was used in 1904 by Aleister Crowley in The Book of the Law. This book contains both the phrase "Do what thou wilt" and the word Thelema in Greek, which Crowley took for the name of the philosophical, mystical and religious system which he subsequently developed. This system includes ideas from occultism, Yoga, and both Eastern and Western mysticism (especially the Qabalah).
Shri Gurudev Mahendranath, in speaking of svecchachara, the Sanskrit equivalent of the phrase "Do what thou wilt", wrote that "Rabelais, Dashwood, and Crowley must share the honor of perpetuating what has been such a high ideal in most of Asia."
Crowley said that a mystical experience in 1904, while on holiday in Cairo, Egypt, led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema. Aleister's wife Rose started to behave in an odd way, and this led Aleister to think that some entity had made contact with her.
At her instructions, he performed an invocation of the Egyptian god Horus on March 20 with (he wrote) "great success." According to Crowley, the god told him that a new magical Aeon had begun, and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. Rose continued to give information, telling Crowley in detailed terms to await a further revelation.
On 8 April and for the following two days at exactly noon he allegedly heard a voice, dictating the words of the text, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley wrote down. The voice claimed to be that of Aiwass (or Aiwaz) "the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat", or Horus, the god of force and fire, child of Isis and Osiris and self-appointed conquering lord of the New Aeon, announced through his chosen scribe "the prince-priest the Beast"
Portions of the book are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed the inability to decode (Setian Michael Aquino later claimed to be able to decode them). Thelemic dogma explains this by pointing to a warning within the Book of the Law - the speaker supposedly warned that the scribe, Ankh-af-na-khonsu (Aleister Crowley), was never to attempt to decode the ciphers, for to do so would end only in folly.
The later-written The Law is For All sees Crowley warning everyone not to discuss the writing amongst fellow critics, for fear that a dogmatic position would arise. While he declared a "new Equinox of the Gods" in early 1904, supposedly passing on the revelation of March 20 to the occult community, it took years for Crowley to fully accept the writing of the Book of the Law and follow its doctrine. Only after countless attempts to test its writings did he come to embrace them as the official doctrine of the New Aeon of Horus. The remainder of his professional and personal careers were spent expanding the new frontiers of scientific illuminism.
Rose and Aleister had a daughter, whom Crowley named Nicole Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley, in July of 1904. This child died in 1906, during the two and a half months when Crowley had left her with Rose (after a family trip through China). They had another daughter, Lola Zaza, in the summer of that year, and Crowley devised a special ritual of thanksgiving for her birth.
He performed a thanksgiving ritual before his first claimed success in what he called the "Abramelin operation", on 9 October 1906. This was his implementation of a magical work described in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The events of that year gave the Abramelin book a central role in Crowley's system. He described the primary goal of the "Great Work" using a term from this book: "the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel".
An essay in the first number of The Equinox gives several reasons for this choice of names:
1. Because Abramelin's system is so simple and effective.
2. Because since all theories of the universe are absurd it is better to talk in the language of one which is patently absurd, so as to mortify the metaphysical man.
3. Because a child can understand it.
Crowley was notorious in his lifetime - a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labelled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. At one point, he was expelled from Italy after having established a commune, the organization of which was based on his personal philosophies, the Abbey of Thelema, at Cefalu, Sicily.
Aleister and Rose were divorced in 1909.