Aleister Crowley is one of history’s most fascinating and jarring figures. Equally heralded as a genius and an occult lunatic, Crowley was a mountaineer, a chess master, a poet, and the leader of a still-followed religion known as Thelema. On top of all that, the man was a spy for the British government, and even faked his own death! It’s no wonder his influence makes waves to this day, over 70 years after his death. For just a taste of the wild life Crowley lived, here are 49 facts on the infamous occultist himself.
1. Cool Nickname
As a child, Crowley’s mother referred to him as “the Beast 666” when he would misbehave. Unfortunately, Crowley loved this and referred to himself this way throughout his life.
2. The Unforeseen Circumstances of Skepticism
Crowley was brought up by devoted Christian parents, and even sent to religious schools throughout his childhood. However, after his father died of tongue cancer, he started to lose his faith. He started sinning regularly and caught gonorrhea while doing so.
3. Every Cultist Needs a Hobby
Crowley was an avid mountain climber. He climbed Beachy Head, the Bernese Alps, Jungfrau, and Trift, among other infamous mountains.
4. Chess Master Crowley
Growing up Crowley was a big chess fan. While attending Cambridge University he played the game for two hours each day. He even considered becoming a professional chess player.
5. Rock N’ Roll
Crowley’s legacy has had a long-lasting impact on the music world. He appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and is referenced in David Bowie’s Quicksand. His motto “do what thou wilt” appears on the cover of Led Zeppelin III, and is the subject of Ozzy Osbourne’s infamous song "Mr. Crowley."
6. The Name Formula
The occultist was born Edward Alexander Crowley, but decided to go by Aleister sometime during college. Crowley changed his name because he hated how people called him Alick. He claimed Edward, Ted, and Ned suited him no better, and Sandy “suggested tow hair and freckles.” He chose Aleister as it consisted of a dactyl followed by a spondee, which he read was the most favorable formula for famous names. Whatever you say, Aleister...
7. Finding Identity
Despite it being against the law in the 1800s, Crowley was bisexual. It’s highly believed that his first mystical experience was brought on by his first romantic encounter with another man.
8. Heart Broken
In fact, Crowley even had a relationship with the president of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, Herbert Pollitt, though they eventually split up due to different interests. Crowley regretted this break up for a long time after.
9. Inspired or Stolen?
People debate to this day as to whether Gerald Gardner, who was highly responsible for spreading Paganism, hired Crowley to write the rituals for the religion. Some say Gerald paid three guineas per page, while others say Gerald borrowed from Crowley, just changing a few words.
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10. Getting Witchy
After falling ill for a little while, Crowley gained an interest in the occult. He took inspiration from Waite’s book The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and Eckartshausen’s The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary.
Crowley met a chemist named Julian Baker in Switzerland. The two were interested in alchemy, which led Baker to introduce Crowley to George Cecil Jones. Jones was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the occult. He was inducted into the society that year.
12. I Shall Endure
Like any aspiring occultist, Crowley took up a magical motto and name. The motto was “Perdurabo,” interpreted as “I shall endure to the end.” This became the main driving force of his life and religion.
13. Secret Agent Man?
One biographer believes Crowley only joined The Order to spy on the leader, Samuel Mathers, for the British government. Mathers was known to be a part of a European political conspiracy, so it makes sense the government would want to keep tabs on him.
14. Definitely Secret Agent Man
While the extent of his spying is up to speculation, Crowley did work for the secret service. In his book Confessions, Crowley makes reference to working in intelligence in the US, but keeps the details vague. Files exist that list Crowley as an employee of the British government and prove that he was once paid by the Germans to write anti-British propaganda.
15. Epic Magic Battle of History
Legendary poet W.B. Yeats was also a member of the Golden Dawn, but he and Crowley didn’t get along. Crowley was attracted black magic, while Yeats stuck to white magic. Yeats convinced the Order not to let Crowley into the inner circle because of this, which put Crowley on the attack. He came in shouting magical curses at the poet, who used white magic to make Crowley fall down the stairs.
This fight is now known as “the Battle of Blythe Road.”
16. Definitely Haunted
Crowley bought and lived in Boleskine House, a home just off of Loch Ness. The home is infamous in Scotland, and has housed not only Crowley, but also Jimmy Page, the guitarist for Led Zeppelin. Crowley claimed he needed a secluded house like this to perform magic from The Book of Abramelin.
17. Rising the Ranks
Crowley’s feuds with people like Yeats and Bram Stoker, as well as his bisexuality, stopped him from progressing to Second Order in the Golden Dawn. He had to go visit Mathers personally to get accepted to a higher rank of Adeptus Minor Grade.
18. Meeting My Angel
While visiting Egypt on his honeymoon, Crowley claimed he met his guardian angel. The angel, Aiwass, dictated Crowley’s The Book of the Law to him over three days in a disembodied voice. This would become Crowley’s most important work.
19. Continuing Crowley
Despite his controversial views and actions, Crowley inspired countless people going forward. Timothy Leary, the psychologist who is responsible for popularizing LSD, once said on national TV that he wanted to continue Crowley’s work.
Crowley spent a lot of his time traveling and visited places like Mexico, India, and Paris shortly after joining The Order. He also went to Canada, New York, and across Europe.
21. Wedding Denied
While in Paris, Crowley became friends with painter Gerald Kelly. In a strange turn of events, he actually ended up marrying Kelly’s sister Rose in order to get her out of an arranged marriage. The Kelly family was horrified by the entire arrangement, and Crowley's relationship with Gerald was irreparably damaged.
22. Being Jesus
The Book of Law, as dictated to Crowley by Aiwass, is the basis for Crowley’s religion, Thelema. The book claims that Crowley is the prophet who would lead the people of Earth through the world's new Aeon. The book tells that people should live in tune with their Will, and do what they wish.
23. A Way With Words
Crowley wrote poetry throughout his life, starting in college. He even started his own publishing company, the Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth. His poetry never sold particularly well, and holds a love-it-or-hate-it mentality amongst critics.
24. Out of India Like a Speeding Bullet
Crowley went on a big-game hunting trip to India—but as with so many things in his life, it ended up going horribly wrong. The trip was cut short after he shot two men who tried to rob him. The men survived, but he had to leave the country nonetheless.
25. Highly Undercover
Although many occultists were against the use of drugs, Crowley absolutely loved them. After leaving India, he visited China, where he smoked opium and worked on his spirituality. Those in the “Crowley is a spy” camp believe he went to China to gain insight into the opium trade.
26. Tricky Crowley
When Crowley was supposed to be leaving China to return to Britain, he instead traveled to Shanghai in secret. There, he connected with old friend Elaine Simpson, who was into The Book of Law. The two decided to try and summon Aiwass. They apparently succeeded, and Aiwass instructed Crowley to return to Egypt. Aiwass did not want Simpson to join him, but did want Crowley and her to sleep together.
Yeah, sure, that's what Aiwass was thinking. Definitely Aiwass. No one else...
27. What a Crossover
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was an intelligence officer when Crowley was working as an intelligence agent. Rumor has it that the two had a plan to lure Rudolf Hess, a high-ranking Nazi officer, to a meeting of the occult with Crowley. Allegedly, the goal was to have Crowley use his abilities to interrogate Hess, but no word on whether or not the scheme worked.
28. Hashish Heaven
Crowley used hashish heavily during rituals. He loved it so much as an aid to mysticism he wrote an essay on it titled The Psychology of Hashish. Hashish even helped him achieve samadhi, a Hindu and Buddhist form of enlightenment.
29. Passing the Habit
Among the famous faces that Crowley in his life met was Aldous Huxley, writer of Brave New World. The men bonded over their love of doing drugs, and it’s said that Crowley even introduced Huxley to peyote!
30. White Witchcraft
At one point, the Earl of Tankerville hired Crowley to protect him from "witchcraft." Crowley quickly realized that the desperate and paranoid Earl wasn't being attacked by witches; he was just hopelessly addicted to drugs. Despite the fact that Crowley probably wasn't the best sponsor, he took the Earl to Morocco to try and kick the addiction.
31. Historically Vulgar
Many of Crowley’s poems are highly...adult. British authorities frequently banned and burned them adult and homosexual themes. White Stains is one of these works, which Crowley had to publish under the pseudonym George Archibald Bishop for his own safety. Published in 1898, this makes Crowley one of the first published gay poets.
32. The Demon
On one occasion, Crowley summoned the Thelema version of Satan, Choronzon. Choronzon is a formless demon who takes the shape of someone the summoner finds provocative. If you summon Choronzon, you must defeat him or face dire consequences. Crowley allegedly did just that, trapping the demon in a magical barrier before debating and eventually defeating him.
Ok guys, I'm starting to think that some of Crowley's exploits are a little too good to be true...
33. It’s Not What You Think!
When WWI came about, Crowley actually sided with the Germans (at least publicly). He was involved in New York's pro-German movement and wrote for The Fatherland, a pro-German propaganda paper. However, neither the public nor his comrades knew that Crowley was hiding a secret. He was actually acting as a double agent for British Intelligence agencies, attempting to undermine Germany's efforts in America from within.
34. Making Contact
Crowley became interested in a ritual called Amalantrah Working. Amalantrah looks to create a portal between our universe and another, giving aliens a passageway to earth. Crowley claimed to make contact with Lam, an interdimensional being. He later drew the creature, and it looks remarkably like the typical gray alien that we see all the time in movies and TV.
When he returned to England, a doctor diagnosed Crowley with asthma. The prescribed remedy? Powerful opiates. It was a different time. Crowley became hopelessly addicted to the drug. I'm sure he cared about his asthma a lot less though.
36. The Cool Kids Cult
Crowley started the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. He and his followers worshiped the sun god Ra, wore robes, held mass, and performed black magic rituals together. Otherwise, they largely did what they wanted to, something Thelema puts great importance on. Honestly sounds like a fun vacation.
37. Just a Little Fictional
While in the throes of his drug addiction, Crowley wrote Diary of a Drug Fiend. The fictional work follows a man who becomes addicted to just about every drug under the sun. Although fictional, it’s very likely this was based on Crowley's own struggles.
38. All About Us
All sorts of questionable occult activity happened at the Abbey. Children were allowed to watch and learn from all the highly...ahem, sensual magic that was happening—but that wasn't even the most disturbing thing happening behind closed doors. The occultists even forced one man, Raoul Loveday, to drink a sacrificed cat’s blood. Followers were also told to cut themselves if they used the pronoun “I” rather than “we.” OK, the vacation is starting to sound less fun.
39. Shutting Down Shop
Loveday ended up expiring at the Abbey after drinking from a polluted stream and contracting a liver infection. This and other chilling stories about the Abbey began to leak, with the press calling Crowley “the wickedest man in the world.” The Italian government eventually got fed up shuttered the place, deporting Crowley at the same time.
40. Nasal Decay
Crowley was so into drugs while at the Abbey that his nasal passages started to decay. After his deportation, he underwent several drastic surgical operations to have this solved. Did he learn his lesson? Not really—he would go through these procedures routinely for the rest of his life.
41. Kiss Me, I’m Irish
Although English-born, Crowley considered himself an Irishman. He wrote a poem for St. Patrick’s Day, wrote a declaration of independence for the Irish, and even designed his own flag for the country. The flag was green with a red sun on it, and he called it the "True Flag of Ireland."
42. Pulling an Elvis
In Portugal, Crowley decided to fake his own demise. He went to Boca do Inferno with poet Fernando Pessoa, and the two made it look like Crowley jumped off the cliff onto the rocks below. Pessoa gave his suicide note to the newspapers, and the word was spread. Crowley came back three weeks later at an art gallery showing his works. The whole thing was mostly a publicity stunt.
43. Will Perform Magic for Food
Crowley declared bankruptcy in 1935 after trying to sue multiple people for libel. He had significant financial issues due to his drug use and travels, and he wasn't exactly good with his money. The courts found that Crowley was actually spending three times his income!
Although not proven, Crowley claims to be the one who popularized the “V” or “peace” sign. He claimed to have inspired Winston Churchill’s use of the sign when working for English intelligence. Crowley spoke of the sign before WWII in his book The Equinox I. Hey, everything else this guy claimed seems pretty on the level, so why not?
45. All In the Cards
Unsurprisingly, Crowley was also quite influential to the world of tarot cards. He and Lady Frieda Harris, an occult associate, created their own deck in the 40s. They also published a book with it, The Book of Thoth, which looked to explain the mysticism of the tarot. This book remains one of his most popular works.
46. The Black Mass
At age 72, Crowley passed of chronic bronchitis. His funeral was controversial and labeled a Satanic “Black Mass” as it involved readings from the Gnostic Mass and black magic rituals.
47. Sipping the Tea
Although an experienced mountaineer, tragedy struck when Crowley and a crew tried to climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. An avalanche killed four of the men on the expedition. What did Crowley do during the disaster? He sat in his tent drinking tea. He was later quoted as saying, "A mountain 'accident' of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever."
When he passed the site of the avalanche the next day, he didn't even bother stopping to talk to the survivors.
48. Tragic Return
Crowley eventually made it back to Europe—but when he arrived, he received utterly heartbreaking news. His daughter Lilith had passed on. She had contracted typhoid while in Rangoon, and a devastated Crowley blamed her death on his wife Rose's alcoholism.
49. Going Out Cursing
Despite how ridiculous most of Crowley's claims sound, he does have some chilling "coincidences" to back up his magical abilities. In his last days, Crowley asked his doctor for some opiates. The doctor refused, and Crowley allegedly put a curse on him. Within 24 hours of Crowley’s passing, the doctor also passed while bathing. Now that’s spooky.