In the summer of 1916, while staying in a New Hampshire cottage, Aleister Crowley crucified a frog that he had baptized Jesus of Nazareth. The man who called himself the Beast 666 offered it gold, frankincense and myrrh; he worshipped it as God incarnate and then arrested and charged it with blasphemy and sedition. He cried out:
All my life long thou hast plagued me and affronted me. In thy name, with all other free souls in Christendom, I have been tortured in my boyhood; all delights have been forbidden unto me; all that I had has been taken from me, and that which is owed me they pay not in thy name. Now, at last, I have thee: the Slave-God is in the power of the Lord of Freedom. Thine hour is come; as I blot thee out from this earth, so surely shall the eclipse pass; and Light, Life, Love, and Liberty be once more the Law of Earth. Give thou place to me, O Jesus, thine aeon is passed; the Age of Horus has arisen by the Magick of the Master, the Beast that is Man; and his number is six hundred and three score and six.
Then he condemned the frog to be mocked and spat upon and scourged and crucified, and it was done.
The Beast had landed in New York in late October 1914, after an uneventful voyage from Southampton aboard RMS Lusitania, and settled on West 36th Street. He had come to sell copies of his more esoteric published works to John Quinn, the lawyer and Maecenas of prewar New York.
Some thought Crowley a poet and adventurer. In 1900, he had scaled Mexico’s 17,000-foot extinct volcano Ixtacihuatl and the 14,000-foot Popocatepetl. A year later, he climbed the Himalayan peak known as K2, going higher than any man had before, without oxygen cylinders or elaborate equipment. In 1905, he attempted Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.
But others knew him as an occultist. They thought him a fraud, pervert, traitor and black magician. Some whispered he was a Satanist. A few thought him the Antichrist.
Thus, Somerset Maugham’s The Magician, published in 1908, had presented Crowley, very thinly disguised, as the monstrous Oliver Haddo. After the book’s publication, Crowley murmured to Maugham, “I almost wish that you were an important writer.” He then published, under the pen name Oliver Haddo, an article illustrating Maugham’s flagrant plagiarism of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau as well as books on magic and medicine.
Edward Alexander Crowley (from early manhood he had used the Gaelic equivalent of his second name, Aleister) was born on October 12, 1875, in Leamington, Warwickshire. He was the only son of a wealthy brewer. His parents were rigidly puritanical. Crowley seems to have been a difficult child: By his own admission, at the age of eleven, he tested his cat’s nine lives on Christmas Eve 1886 by poisoning, chloroforming, gassing and defenestrating the animal, which failed the test.
His father died while Crowley was young, and Aleister inherited 50,000 pounds when he came of age, roughly equivalent to two million dollars today. He went through it in fifteen years.
His talents were undeniable: He was intelligent, poetic, and skilled at mathematics, chess, and mountaineering. He was witty: During Crowley’s stay in America, Theodore Dreiser, hunting for the word for a young swan, asked Crowley, “What is it? What would you call a young swan?”
“Why not call him Alfred?” Crowley replied.
But he was unstable. Perhaps there was not one but many Crowleys. He seemed to imagine himself a different man at every moment: the English gentleman and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; the visionary; the mountaineer; the world teacher; the debauchee.
He was a superb poetic technician with an exquisite, jeweled Swinburnean style. He also delighted in inventing witty, if obscene, limericks on the spur of the moment. Thus, his clerihew on the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni de’Bazzi ended: “They called him Sodoma/ Which was not a misnomer.”
One may imagine where ends the poem whose lines include “my mistress, my Great Dane, and I,” or the content of “Necrophilia” and “A Ballad of Passive Paederasty.” Most of these appear in his best-known collection, White Stains, first published in 1898 by Leonard Smithers, then Britain’s leading pornographer.
He reacted to his parents’ religious fanaticism by rejecting Christianity. Yet his work’s effect relies on Scripture, even to his self-assumed title, from the 13th chapter of Revelations: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.”
He was fascinated by magic (or, as he spelled it, magick). This was wholly different from mere prestidigitation-the parlor tricks of a David Copperfield, for example. Crowleyan magic might be defined as the disciplined exercise of a wholly focused and trained consciousness upon a given task, summoning an occult force to influence the effects of natural law. This is done by a particular ritual which must be correctly performed at a cosmically suited time to put the desired force into action. As Francis King wrote in Ritual Magic in England, “All the adjuncts of Ceremonial Magic-lights, colors, circles, triangles, perfumes-are merely aids to concentrating the will of the magician into a blazing stream of pure energy.”
To these, Crowley added drugs and sex. He experimented with peyote and other psychedelic drugs long before Timothy Leary, or before Aldous Huxley wrote Doors of Perception. Crowley believed his lust drove him to commit acts of magic, not perversion. He wrote, “Some see a phallus in every church spire. Why not see a church spire in every phallus?”
It is simply factual that he engaged in animal sacrifice, heterosexual orgies, bloody scourgings, bestiality and sodomy. Though he considered his more intimate male relationships to be such as “the Greeks considered the greatest glory of manhood and the most precious prize of life,” he did not shun promiscuous, anonymous bathhouse sex. He liked to think he had revived the religious mysteries of classical times and that his “Orgia,” whether with woman, man, dog or goat (or any three together) were like those in the Golden Age.
Yet despite what might seem (and what might have been) self-indulgence, he did not lack self-discipline: He had learned to meditate with a profoundly focused contemplation; he had learned yoga in Ceylon, mastering through the day-to-day drudgery and discomfort of repeated practice the positions, the breathing, the mantras by which he forced his mind into concentration.
But he lacked humility and true self-knowledge. His growing self-confidence swelled into megalomania, and he believed he had so developed his occult talents as to rise beyond the human: He wrote of passing over the Abyss, the gulf between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, and then of becoming first a Master, then a Magus, and finally Ipsissimus, which is to say a god.
Thus, according to Crowley, on April 8, 9 and 10, 1904, while he was in Egypt, a nonhuman entity named Aiwass dictated to him a prose-poem in three chapters totaling 65 pages, Liber AL vel Legis, The Book of the Law. It referred to the Beast, who appears in the Book of Revelations, as the prince priest of a new age and to the Scarlet Woman as his partner. It enunciated the dogma, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
Crowley saw this book as the basis of a post-Christian religion. To further its cause, he created an order, an occult fraternity (after all, a magician without an order is like a politician without a party). He borrowed from the ritual and degree structure of the Golden Dawn, in which he, William Butler Yeats, and others had been initiates, and drew on its teachings and practices, rewriting them into a more comprehensible form while grafting onto them his interests in yoga and other Oriental practices.
But he exhausted his funds, and so he came to New York. He published occasional articles in Frank Crowninshield’s Vanity Fair, including a series entitled, “The Revival of Magick.” More importantly, he was reintroduced to George Sylvester Viereck, a fine poet and writer who was also a hopeless Germanophile. Crowley, with his usual gratitude for material favors, described Viereck as approaching him “with extended hands, bulging eyes, and the kind of mouth which seems to have been an unfortunate afterthought.” Viereck offered him a job writing pro-German articles for the magazine The Fatherland, which was probably subsidized with German secret service funds. Crowley was also hired to edit another Viereck magazine, The International, which he largely wrote himself; it was the only salaried job he held in his life.
Crowley later argued he was in no sense a traitor to his country; rather, he was serving it by writing propaganda so silly as to bring Germany into disrepute. He might have been telling the truth. He wrote an article in which he compared the Kaiser to Parsifal. In another, he wrote about German air raids on London: “A great deal of damage was done at Croydon, especially at its suburb Addiscombe, where my aunt lives. Unfortunately her house was not hit. Count Zeppelin is respectfully requested to try again. The exact address is Eton Lodge, Outram Road.”
In the meantime, he sought a Scarlet Woman to be his regular partner in acts of sex magic. Several of them came and went, more than one repelled by Crowley’s insistence on anal sex, which he called intercourse “by the unspeakable vessel.” He treated them without tenderness: One mistress, whom he named the “Dog-headed Hermes or Anubis,” was usually called the Dog for short; he called another the Camel.
In January 1919, he met Leah Hirsig, a New York City schoolteacher whom he found overpoweringly attractive, and asked her to be his Scarlet Woman. She accepted, no doubt considering this more agreeable than life in the classroom. Then he marked her with the Sign of the Beast. John Symonds, Crowley’s biographer and literary executor, wrote in The Great Beast, “He branded her breast with a Chinese dagger already heated in the fire, with the Mark of the Beast: the cross within the circle, or the sun, moon, and balls dependent.
Thereafter, they lived together at 63 Washington Square South.
He saw the third volume of his magazine, The Equinox, through the press. In December 1919, the Great Beast sailed for England, leaving a trail of bouncing checks.
Ahead lay his adventures in Sicily, where he attempted to perform a rite Herodotus had observed in a temple in Egypt of the Pharaohs: a priestess copulating with a goat. Leah, who may have endured as Scarlet Woman longer than anyone else, was more than willing. The goat, not having been brought up to respond to a human female, refused. “I atoned for the young He-goat at considerable length,” wrote Crowley in his diary.
Mussolini’s government expelled him, and he became a penniless wanderer, living on the fees and offerings of his followers, still writing, publishing and teaching. Even his signature became obscene, as he chose to form the A as a penis, with a small loop at the base of each arm of the letter. He went from one furnished room to another, spending his last two years in Hastings, a seaside resort town, at Netherwood, a boarding house run by a man with an odd sense of humor. His “House Rules” included:
Guests are requested not to tease the Ghosts.
Breakfast will be served at 9 a.m. to the survivors of the Night.
The Hastings Borough Cemetery is five minutes walk away (ten minutes if carrying body), but only one minute as the Ghost flies.
Guests are requested not to cut down bodies from trees.
The Office has a certain amount of used clothing for sale, the property of guests who no have no longer any use for earthly raiment.
Here, the Ipsissimus died of bronchitis and cardiac degeneration on December 5, 1947. At his funeral in the chapel of the Brighton municipal crematorium, an old friend recited Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, including the violently pagan and erotic “Hymn to Pan,” and closed with this collect:
Unto them from whose eyes the veil of life has fallen may there be granted the accomplishment of their true Wills; whether they will absorption in the Infinite, or to be united with their chosen and preferred, or to be in contemplation, or to be at peace, or to achieve the labor and heroism of incarnation on this planet or another, or in any Star, or aught else, unto them may there be granted the accomplishment of their wills; yea, the accomplishment of their wills.
Then they gave up his body to be burned.
New York Press, September 7, 1999
January 29, 2009 No Comments