Born Edward Alexander Crowley in Leamington, Warwickshire, England, he was the son of a Plymouth Brethren preacher and heir to a small fortune. Crowley spent most of his adult life seeking out, writing about, and teaching a syncretic form of mysticism.
As a young adult, he had been involved in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where he first studied mysticism—and made enemies of William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite. His friend and former Golden Dawn associate Allan Bennett introduced him to the ideas of Buddhism, which would be a continuing influence. In October 1901, after practising raja yoga for some time, he claimed to reach a state he called dhyana. (See Crowley on egolessness.) 1902 saw him writing the essay Berashith (the first word of Genesis), in which he gave meditation (or restraint of the mind to a single object) as the means of attaining his goal. The essay describes ceremonial magic as a means of training the will, and of constantly directing one's thoughts to a given object through the trappings of the ritual. In his 1903 essay, Science and Buddhism, Crowley urged an empirical approach to Buddhist teachings. In 1904, he alleged that he had a mystical experience on April 8, 9 and 10 that year whilst on vacation in Cairo, Egypt which led to his founding of the religious philosophy known as Thelema.
The text Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, which Crowley claimed had been dictated to him in Cairo by the voice (or intelligence) Aiwaz or Aiwass, was to form the cornerstone of Thelema. The book's philosophy is highly opaque, apparently calling in places for peaceful (and erotic) discovery of "magick," and in other places for violence and war. Portions of it are in numerical cipher, which Crowley claimed inability to decode.
In May 1905, he was approached by Dr Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (1868 - 1925) to accompany him on an expedition to Kanchenjunga. Guillarmod was left to organise the personnel while Crowley left to get things ready in Darjeeling. On 31 July Guillarmod joined Crowley in Darjeeling, bringing with him two countrymen, Charles-Adolphe Reymond and Alexis Pache. Meawhile Crowley had recruited a local man Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi to act as Transport Manager. The team left Darjeeling on the 8 August 1905 and used the Singalila Ridge approach to Kangchenjunga. At Chabanjong they ran into the rear of the 135 coolies who had been sent ahead on 24 and 25 July, who were carrying food rations for the team.
Crowley was notorious in his life—a frequent target of attacks in the tabloid press, which labeled him "The Wickedest Man in the World" to his evident amusement. The claims made about him by the press range from the realistic (if scandalous at the time)—that he was an avowed atheist, openly kept mistresses, and had favored the Germans in World War I—to the apparently ridiculous (that he sacrificed hundreds of babies in black magic rituals). At one point, he was expelled from Fascist Italy after having established a sort of commune the organization of which was based on his personal philosophies, the Abby of Thelema, at Cefalu, Sicily.
The religious or mystical system which Crowley founded, into which most of his nonfiction writings fall, he named Thelema. The word is the ancient Greek θελημα, "will", from the verb εθελω, ethelô, meaning "to will" or "to wish." Thelema combines a radical form of philosophical libertarianism, akin in some ways to Nietzsche, with a mystical initiatory system derived in part from the Golden Dawn.
Chief among the precepts of Thelema is the sovereignty of the individual will: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" is, as it were, the system's first commandment. Crowley's idea of will, however, is not simply the individual's desires or wishes, but also incorporates a sense of the person's destiny or greater purpose: what he termed the "Magick Will." Much of the initiatory system of Thelema is focused on discovering one's true will, true purpose, or higher self.
The second commandment of Thelema is "Love is the law, love under will"—and Crowley's meaning of "Love" is as complex as that of "Will". It is frequently sexual: Crowley's system, like elements of the Golden Dawn before him, sees the dichotomy and tension between the male and female as fundamental to existence, and sexual "magick" and metaphor form a significant part of Thelemic ritual.
Thelema draws on numerous older sources, and like many other new religious movements of its time combines "Western" and "Eastern" traditions. Its chief Western influences include the Golden Dawn, Kabbalah, and elements of Freemasonry; Eastern influences include aspects of yoga, Taoism, and Tantra.
The word Thelema finds its origins in the Bible, but was first brought into common usage by Rabelais, who wrote of the Abbey of Theleme, and had the motto "Fay ce que vouldras" or "Do what you will." This theme echoed St. Augustine's "Love and do what you will" and was a part of the emerging philosophy of humanism. Others who adopted this idea was Sir Francis Dashwood and the Monks of Medmenham (a.k.a The Hellfire Club) and Sir Walter Besant and James Rice in their novel "The Monks of Thelema." (1878)
Science, Magick, and Sexuality
Crowley 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. By this he meant that mystical experiences should not be taken at face value, but critiqued and experimented with in order to arrive at their underlying religious meaning. In this he may be considered to foreshadow Dr. Timothy Leary, who at one point sought to apply the same method to psychedelic drug experiences. Yet like Leary's, Crowley's method fell short of objectivity and has received little "scientific" attention outside the circle of Thelema's practitioners.
Crowley's magical and initiatory system has amongst its innermost reaches a set of teachings on sex "magick." He frequently expressed views about sex that were radical for his time, and published numerous poems and tracts combining pagan religious themes with sexual imagery both heterosexual and homosexual.
Sex Magick is the use of the sex act—or the energies, passions or arousal states it evokes—as a point upon which to focus the will or magical desire for effects in the non-sexual world. In this, Crowley was inspired by Paschal Beverly Randolph, an American author writing in the 1870s who wrote (in his book "Eulis!") of using the "nuptive moment" (orgasm) as the time to make a "prayer" for events to occur. While Randolph was interested in both the male and female partners, Crowley's version of sex magick was a male-centered activity and the female partner played a passive role.
In 1934 Crowley was declared bankrupt after losing a court case in which he sued the artist Nina Hamnett for calling him a Black Magician in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso. The evidence against him must have been overwhelming, and it is difficult to see why he ever took the case to court. In addressing the jury, Mr. Justice Swift said: "I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man (Crowley) who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet."
Within the subject of occultism Crowley wrote widely, penning commentaries on the Tarot (The Book of Thoth), yoga (Book Four), the Kabbalah (Sepher Sephiroth), astrology (The General Principles of Astrology), and numerous other subjects. He also wrote a Thelemic "translation" of the Tao Te Ching, based on earlier English translations since he knew little or no Chinese. Like the Golden Dawn mystics before him, Crowley evidently sought to comprehend the entire human religious and mystical experience in a single philosophy. Many of his books he published himself, expending the majority of his inheritance disseminating his views. Many of his fiction works, such as the "Simon Iff" detective stories and Moonchild have not received significant notice outside of occult circles. However his fictional work "Diary of a Drug Fiend" has received acclaim from those involved in the field of substance abuse rehabilitation.
Crowley's other major works include:
Crowley had a particular sense of humour. In his Book Four he includes a chapter purporting to illuminate the Qabalistic significance of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In re Humpty Dumpty, for instance, he recommends the occult authority "Ludovicus Carolus" -- better known as Lewis Carroll. In a footnote to the chapter he admits that he had invented the alleged meanings, to show that one can find occult "Truth" in everything.
Many Crowley biographies relate the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons and their attempt to create a "moonchild" (from Crowley's novel of that name). In Crowley's own words, "Apparently Parsons and Hubbard or somebody is producing a moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts." Clearly the admiration Hubbard had for Crowley was definitely not reciprocated.
Crowley and Rock & Roll
A number of rock musicians have been fascinated by the persona and ideas of Aleister Crowley, and several have made reference to him or his work in their own.
Popular music groups who have made passing references to Crowley have included The Beatles, who placed him among dozens of other influential figures on the cover of their concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who named an album "Blood Sugar Sex Magik." Iconic pop star Michael Jackson's 1992 album Dangerous featured a drawing of Crowley on the cover.
Numerous heavy metal rockers, including Ozzy Osbourne and Ministry, have referred to Crowley in lyrics, though their interpretations more often follow the tabloid "Satanist" image of Crowley and not his actual writings. Such lyrics dwell on Crowley's sometime use of Christian eschatological imagery such as the number 666. Shock-rocker Marilyn Manson once stated that Crowley was one of his favourite authors.
A number of rock bands have taken deeper inspiration from Crowley's work. The British gothic rock band Fields of the Nephilim make numerous indirect references to Crowley and to Thelema in their works, with the songs "Moonchild" and "Love Under Will" being more obvious examples. German pop group Alphaville, noted for mystical references of various sorts, penned a song about Crowley's wife Rose, entitled "Red Rose", which makes coded reference to a number of Thelemic and otherwise occult ideas. The San Francisco-based Folk-Rock band Annwn has performed a similarly themed song, "The Scarlet Muse", about Leila Waddell, one of Crowley's mistresses. Some of the same performers, under the band name Nuit, have produced an album, Mother Night, based in part on Thelemic mystical concepts. Lastly, British music group Current 93 have drawn extensive inspiration from Crowley's writings and works, taking their name from a mystical term referring to Thelema itself.
Perhaps most curiously, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page owned Crowley's Loch Ness estate, Boleskine House, from 1971 to 1992. It is also said that on some pressings of the Led Zeppelin III album, one or more Aleister Crowley quotes are scribed into the runoff matrix of the vinyl (the space between the last groove and the label.)
Crowley also tried to mint a number of new terms instead of the established ones he felt inadequate. For example he spelled magic "magick" and renamed theurgy "high magick" and thaumaturgy "low magick". Many of his terms are still used by some practitioners.
Crowley remains a popular icon of libertines and those interested in the theory and practice of magic.
His last words were supposed to have been: "I am perplexed." Readings at the cremation service in nearby Brighton included one of his own works, Hymn to Pan, which led to newspapers referring to the funeral as a black mass. Brighton council resolved to take all necessary steps to prevent such an incident occurring again.
- Dao De Jing An interpretation by Crowley