An influential figure among occultists and popular culture still to this day is Aleister Crowley. Originally born as Edward Alexander Crowley, and also know as both Frater Perdurabo and the Great Beast, he was an affluential English occultist, mystic, ceremonial magician, writer, poet, mountaineer, and was responsible for establishing the religious philosophy of Thelema. In his role as the creator of the Thelemite philosophy, he came to see himself as the prophet who was entrusted with the task of informing humanity that it was entering the new Age of Horus in the early 20th century.
Edward Alexander Crowley was born at 30 Clarendon Square in Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, England on October 12, 1875. He was born into a wealthy upper-class family, to his father, Edward Crowley, and his mother, Emily Bertha Bishop. Both his parents were Exclusive Brethren, a more ultra-conservative faction of the Plymouth Brethren.
In March 1887, Crowley’s father succumbed to tongue cancer and died. This was a significant turning point in his life as he always maintained a healthy respect for his father, describing him as ”his hero and his friend”. After inheriting a third of his father’s wealth, he began misbehaving at school and was harshly punished. He became increasingly skeptical regarding Christianity, pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible to his religious teachers, and went against the Christian morality of his upbringing by smoking, masturbating, and having sex with women, including a prostitute from whom he contracted gonorrhea. In response to his debauchery, he was sent to live with a Brethren tutor in Eastbourne, where he took chemistry courses at Eastbourne College and developed his interests in chess, poetry, and mountain climbing.
He adopted the name Aleister over Edward in October 1895 as he began a three-year philosophy course at Trinity College, in Cambridge. A year later while on holiday in Stockholm, Sweden is where he claimed to have his first significant mystical experience during his first homosexual encounter which enabled him to recognize his bisexuality. During the rest of time, his time at Cambridge, his interest in western esotericism continued to increase.
As a young man in 1898, he became an influential member of the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after befriending the order’s leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Upon his initiation, he acquired his motto and magical name of “Frater Perdurabo”, a Latin term meaning “Brother I shall endure to the end”. Biographers have suggested that Crowley joined the Order under the command of the British secret services to monitor the activities of Mathers, who was known to be a Carlist.
While on a trip to Egypt in 1904, Crowley believed that he was being contacted by his Holy Guardian Angel, an entity known as Aiwass, who dictated the text know as The Book of the Law from what he believed was a divine source. The book proclaimed that humanity was entering a new Aeon and that Crowley would serve as its prophet. It stated that a supreme moral law was to be introduced in this Aeon, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, and that people should learn to live in tune with their “True Will”. This book and the philosophy that it espoused became the cornerstone of Crowley’s religion, Thelema. Crowley was unsure what to do with The Book of the Law and often came to resent it. He ignored the instructions that it commanded him to perform, which included taking the Stele of Revealing from the museum, fortifying his own island, and translating the book into all the world’s languages. Instead, he sent typescripts of the work to several occultists he knew, and then “put aside the book with relief”.
In early 1912, Crowley published The Book of Lies, which was a work of mysticism. The German occultist Theodor Reuss later accused him of publishing some of the secrets of his own occult order, the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) in the book. Crowley convinced Reuss that the similarities were coincidental, and the two became friends. Reuss appointed Crowley as head of the O.T.O’s British branch, the Mysteria Magica Maxima (MMM), and at a ceremony in Berlin Crowley adopted the magical name of Baphomet and was proclaimed “X° Supreme Rex and Sovereign Grand Master General of Ireland, and all the Britons”. Crowley set about advertising the MMM and rewrote many of the O.T.O rituals, which were then largely based on Freemasonry. Fascinated by the O.T.O’s emphasis on sex magic, Crowley devised a magical working based on anal sex and incorporated it into the syllabus for XI° level initiates.
Crowley moved back to London in 1919, where he had ideas of forming a community of Thelemites. He chose Cefalù in Sicily to establish his new found religious commune, which he called Abbey of Thelema after the Abbaye de Thélème in François Rabelais’s satire Gargantua and Pantagruel. He later had to abandon the Abbey amid widespread opposition, where he returned to Britain and continued to promote Thelema until his death.
Aleister Crowley passed away in a boarding house in Hastings on December 1, 1947 at the age of 72. According to one biographer, he died of a respiratory infection. He had become addicted to heroin after being prescribed morphine for his asthma and bronchitis many years earlier. He and his last doctor died within 24 hours of each other, newspapers claimed that Dr. Thomson had refused to continue his opiate prescription so Crowley put a curse on him.
Crowley was a committed bisexual, a recreational drug user, and a social critic. In many of these roles he ”was in revolt against the moral and religious values of his time adopting a form of libertinism based upon the rule of “Do What Thou Wilt”. Consequently, he gained widespread notoriety during his lifetime, and was denounced in the popular press of the day as “the wickedest man in the world”.