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Glossary of Wiccan, Neo-Pagan and Occult Terminology

CROWLEY, Aleister (1875-1947)

Aleister Crowley in Cermonial Regalia

His real name was Edward Alexander Crowley, but he soon exchanged this for Aleister Crowley and was an influential and controversial occultist during the early part of the 20th Century.   In his adult life, Crowley believed himself to be a Reincarnation of the French magician, Eliphas Levi.

Born Edward Alexander Crowley at Leamington Spa, England, to parents who belonged to the extreme Christian denomination of the Plymouth Brethren, he was educated in the strict regime of a Brethren School and later at Malvern College, during which time he suffered from recurrent bouts of ill-health and developed an aversion to the Christian faith.

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but failed to graduate.

On November 18th, 1898, influenced by friends he had met while mountaineering in Switzerland (Julian Baker and George Jones), he was Initiated into the Second Order of Golden Dawn in the Athahoor Temple of the Isis-Urania lodge where he took the magical pseudonym Frater Perdurabo and developed a strong respect for S L McGregor Mathers.

His Initiation caused outrage among the Isis-Urania chiefs, the London Adepti, who regarded him as nearly insane and suspected him of homosexuality.   In the following year it was, however, the second-in-command, Allan Bennett, who evolved as his true mentor and magical tutor, and the two came to share a flat in London.

Through Bennett, Crowley gained an understanding of the Kabbalah until Bennett's deteriorating health forced him to emigrate to Ceylon.

At this time, Crowley purchased a property on the edge of Loch Ness, Boleskine House, and retreated there to concentrate on mastering Abra-Melin.

In 1900 he travelled to Mexico and, while there, coupled with mountaineering expeditions and a burgeoning sexual appetite, he pursued an interest in ceremonial magic under the tutelage of Oscar Eckenstein.   On returning to Scotland in 1903 he met and married Rose Kelly, the sister of Gerald Kelly, who bore him a daughter.   During her pregnancy the couple visited Cairo where Crowley's interests extended to ancient Egyptian occultism.

While there he allegedly received the words of the Book of the Law from a spiritual source and, in consequence, took on the mantle of The Beast 666, something his mother had called him as a child, and of Prophet of a New Aeon.

He continued with his travels, visiting China where his daughter died of typhoid and Rose became an alcoholic.   During these years he wrote prolifically.

Between 1909 and 1913 he was responsible for the publication of a celebrated occult magazine, The Equinox, a facsimile set of which was reprinted in 1992 (Mandrake Press).

While travelling he became interested in the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), being Initiated into the organization in 1912.   He rose to become first the head of the British branch before succeeding the German founder, Karl Kellner, as president of the international order.  

In 1920 he established his famous Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily, where, as in Rabelais' fictional abbey of the same name, the motto was 'Do as thou wilt.'   Stories of drug-taking, sexual orgies and even child-Sacrifice soon began to circulate, until in the end Mussolini ordered Crowley's expulsion from Italy.

It is said that Crowley and Russian magician and metaphysician Gergor Ivanovich Gurdyev of the Vril Society sought contact with Hitler, but actual contact is unconfirmed.   What is undisputable is that the OTO was proscribed by the Nazi's in Germany in 1937 but, during the inter-war years, Crowley spent some time in Sicily where he established the so-called Abbey of Thelema before he was deported under the orders of Mussolini who disapproved of the continuing reports of orgies conducted under its roof.

In May 1946, Crowley Initiated Gerald Gardner into the ninth degree of the Ordo Templi Orientis and, since material attributable to him appears many in Wiccan texts, Crowley is considered to have influenced the formulation of some of Gerald Gardner's ideas.   Suggestions that he compiled some of the original Gardnerian Book of Shadows material are unproven though difficult to ignore.   It seems clear that, at the end of Crowley's life, the two men either collaborated on the compilation, or that Gardner purchased or borrowed material from Crowley.

There are claims that, in 1899, while at Cambridge University, Crowley was Initiated into one of the Covens allegedly controlled by George Pickingill in East Anglia.   Claims also persist that Bennett was a pupil of Pickingill and a group photograph, never published, is supposed to include Pickingill, Crowley and Bennett.

Crowley drifted steadily towards Black Magic largely as a means of appeasing his sexual and drug-taking appetites and of achieving personal power.

Allegedly he wore an aphrodisiac perfume created from ambergris, musk and civet extracts which made him irresistible to women and branded his lovers with the sign of the Great Beast and wore a medallion around his neck proclaiming himself as the Great Beast 666 (after the creature referred to in the Book of Revelation which had fascinated him since childhood).

He also sported a seven-headed 'demon stick' which was later acquired by the Witchcraft Museum of Cecil Williamson.

Among other literary output he wrote a treatise, Magic in Theory and Practice, and the celebrated, if excessively violent, Hymn to Pan.   According to Williamson, who knew him personally, Crowley admitted that most of this was material trawled from the classics and was 'a big con' composed at a time when the ritual and secrecy of Freemasonry was in particular vogue.

Williamson has also made an unsupported claim that Crowley and Gardner's association was not the celebrated friendship claimed by some observers and that Crowley obliged Gardner to pay for his tuition material about which the latter made disparaging claims.

At one time Crowley purchased a property at Boleskine in Scotland where he believed that he could fulfill the demands of the Abra-Melin discipline but, apparently, the exercise failed and he sold up.

He spent the last two years of his life, addicted to heroin, in a private hotel, Netherwood, at Hastings where, according to Williamson, at a meeting that took place in 1945 or 1946, Gardner attempted to make amends with Crowley and where Gardner may have purchased his OTO Charter.   Williamson claims that the animosity remained unresolved and that the meeting was no more than polite.

Crowley died at the age of 72, was cremated at Brighton and his ashes sent to Karl Germer, Crowley's successor as the head of OTO, from whom they were allegedly stolen or who mislaid them after burying them in the garden of his home.

Crowley's Will stated that all the heads of the OTO were to meet at a dinner in London a year after his death to pay homage to his memory.   However Germer was, effectively, the only Grand Master to attend.

Many Wiccans are appalled at any suggestion that their is any connection - at all - between Aleister Crowley and Wicca, and admitedly, most do so in ignorance.

However, in Witchcraft Today (1954) by Gerald Gardner, who is widely held as the 'father' of modern Wicca, he states with a little tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well the facts of the case but also wishing not to take away from the mystery of the "Old Religion" and its "ancient mysteries and practices", that:
"The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites was the late Aleister Crowley.   When I met him he was most interested to hear that I was a member, and said he had been inside when he was very young, but would not say whether he had rewritten anything or not ... There are indeed certain expressions and certain words used which smack of Crowley; possibly he borrowed things from the cult writings, or more likely someone may have borrowed expressions from him."

And in The Meaning of Witchcraft, (1959), Gardner strongly defends and supports his old friend, Aleister Crowley:
"I wish here that I could nail the silly lie that Aleister Crowley was a 'Satanist'.   Crowley, like most intelligent people, did not believe in Satan. ... The statements I have read in 'popular' articles about him, that he had 'made a solemn pact with the Devil', and 'sold his soul to Satan', are either sheer ignorance or journalistic invention."

Details of Crowley's life may be found in The Great Beast, by John Symonds (Rider, London, I958), The Magic of Aleister Crowley, by the same author (Muller, London, 1958), Aleister Crowley, by Charles Cammell (University Books, New York, 1962) and The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg, by Jean Overton Fuller (Allen, London, 1965).


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One of the major problems with 'defining' Paganism and/or its beliefs and practices is that it is an 'organic' movement, in that it is undergoing constant change and re-evaluation from within, and as such any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to understanding Paganism will be found wanting.

Due to the very 'organic' nature of Paganism, and the many differing Paths and Traditions within it, in many cases no one definition may be universally accepted by all Pagans.   Therefore, where such cases of possible conflicting and/or contradictory meanings of certain terms occur I have endevoured to give not only the generally accepted meaning, but also any major 'variations' in belief and/or practice.

Christians who believe this difference in meaning of certain key terms, beliefs and practices to be unique to Paganism need to remember that such conflicts also arise within the Body of Christ - the Church.   Take for instance the differing practices amongst Christians concerning Baptism and the different attitudes towards women in the clergy.

- Jean-Luc
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