Edward Alexander Crowley was born in Leamington Spa, England, in 1875, in the middle of the Victorian Era. He was born into a well-to-do family, one that had owned a successful ale brewery. Crowley Ale was popular and featured a drawing of a crow upon the label, perhaps to aid in the correct pronunciation of the crow part of the name, “Crowley.” Edward eventually changed his name to Aleister, with a unique spelling, the reason for which may become evident to the reader after getting to know Crowley’s humor. He then went on to become a legend in his own time.
As there are numerous sources for a good biography of Crowley, we will focus more on what we consider to be some of the most interesting ideas and misunderstandings about the man. Anyone who studies Crowley for any amount of time will understand how brilliant he was and how much he enjoyed being the antagonist, and for many the bogeyman. His upbringing was in, “The New Brethren of Plymouth,” an intensely religious order that demanded deep study of the Bible. Growing up in this atmosphere gave him access to Scripture, as well as providing a strong example of a narrow religion that, he seemed to feel, was largely impotent.
He viewed the image of Satan, with horns, cloven hooves and so on, to be a representation of Pan, a concept of Nature. I believe it’s safe to say that Crowley didn’t believe in the Devil at all, only in the power of Nature and the drive to create, something that intimidated a more gentle society.
He famously called himself, “The Beast.” In the Book of Revelations, The Beast is not the Devil, nor the Antichrist. He is, in fact, the consort to the Babalon (Crowley’s spelling), the feminine aspect of this iconoclastic duo. It’s my opinion that he is harkening back to older ways and the concept of God and Goddess, denied by most modern religions. Crowley also embraced sex, sexuality and incorporated it into his Magick, giving him a reputation for being a hedonistic pervert. He had no love of evil and usually embraced peace, but he was still vilified, and that was something he didn’t always mind.
Aleister Crowley’s use of hallucinogens was another matter. He had a fondness for Anhalonium, the psychoactive ingredient of peyote, and took much of it during his lifetime. There are two things to note here: firstly, at the time Crowley was using these drugs, they were not yet illegal, and secondly, the use of hallucinogenic drugs has been a part of the occult experience for thousands of years. Fly Agar, the red-capped mushroom often found beneath birch trees, is well-known for its psychotropic effects and was said to have been used by the Ancient Druids, as well as Witches of old, to provide altered states and doorways for shamanistic journeys.
There is a famous photograph of Dr. Timothy Leary, dressed up as Crowley, imitating a photo of the Magician posing while giving the symbol of Pan. Dr. Leary is grinning in that picture in a, well, knowing way. There is no doubt in my mind that Crowley’s drug usage was hugely influential to Leary and his work with LSD for spiritual reasons. Even a brief reading of Aleister Crowley’s works will excite the imagination and raise the question of the veracity of his claims.
Crowley’s honoring of the goddess, in the form of Nuit (his spelling), Aphrodite, Astarte, the Babalon, or any other number of depictions, was an important shift from what had come before. It was not completely unusual for magical orders to honor women, often as ritual sex partners, and he gave them a large role in his work. Ever the contradiction, Crowley could be misogynistic, demeaning and controlling, but his insistence upon the sacrosanct nature of the goddess was unquestionable and welcomed by post-Victorian society. By the time the 60s came along, his works, and those of his contemporaries had helped to pave the way for change in the landscape of our culture.
Crowley loved attention. He was a publicity hound, as long as it benefited him. There are dozens and dozens of photographs of him posing as The Buddha, Winston Churchill, an Arab, the Devil himself, donning theatrical outfits and taking on personas, many of which make it nearly impossible to recognize the man beneath the costume. It seems to me that he only wore the mask of those people that he felt he had an affinity to. Yes, I’m sure he identified with Lucifer, the bringer of light who was fated to be hated by mankind, but I know he never considered him to be evil, just misunderstood.
To understand Crowley, you must recognize the fact that he had a brilliant mind, and that he rarely said exactly what he meant. To put it in modern vernacular, he loved messing with people’s minds in order to get them to think. He had an uncanny ability with numbers, so much so that his friend, Ian Fleming, used Crowley as the model for the villainous, Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale. Le Chiffre means, “The Cipher,” presumably alluding to Crowley’s uncanny ability to perform complicated Qabalistic calculations, known as Gematria numerology, in his head, thus finding hidden meanings in seemingly mundane situations, leading him to say things that can be easily misunderstood.
Crowley loved a joke, often at the reader’s expense. The “Book of Thoth” is his book on Tarot, and the extent of his genius, wordplay, secret puzzles, games and hidden meanings is remarkable. His love of symbolism and the belief that a symbol is a doorway and not just a concept has given folks some of the most exciting revelations, as well as frustrations, of their life. He loved to hide immense secrets in plain sight while making sure to hide the keys to those treasures within the reach of the obsessed student, but totally out of the hands of the lazy and uninspired.
Believe it or not, Crowley actually had no desire to create a new Tarot deck, but Frieda Harris, one of his devotees, finally convinced him that his viewpoint on the art of Tarot was desperately needed. He designed the cards, while she created the artwork. The deck is much more than a simple divination tool. The Crowley Thoth Tarot is a masterpiece of occult literature and is no less than a handbook of Universal Law. A thorough study of each card will reveal much about life and why things are the way they are. By seeking to learn as much about his Tarot as possible, the student will learn about ancient religions, the history of occultism, metaphysical paradigms that still exist today, and the role of religion in modern society. It’s all there waiting for you.
Forget the hyperbole and fear-mongering surrounding Aleister Crowley. What he had to teach was not only worthwhile but absolutely necessary for our future. Maligned, misunderstood, imperfect, contradictory, loved, hated, and persecuted, Crowley is now one of the most famous occultists of all time. If he were alive today, he’d be a billionaire. There are thousands of sites dedicated to him and his Tarot is fast becoming one of the most popular in the world. His work has opened the minds and eyes of millions, allowing them to cast off the chains of dogmatic pedantry and take their rightful position as Natural Beings.
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