Aleister Crowley was born October 12th, 1875 at 36 Clarendon Square, Leamington, Warwickshire, England as Edward Alexander Crowley into a wealthy and religious family at the height of the Victorian era. Crowley despised and rebelled against his family at every turn, even renaming himself 'Aleister' to avoid sharing the same first name as his father, who passed away when Crowley was 11.
Like many naughty young boys, Aleister entertained himself through several activities, notably creating a "homemade firework" with which he nearly killed himself, as well as torturing a cat in several horrible ways to test the "nine lives" theory. He dispensed of his virginity at age 14 with the help of a maid. At 17, he contracted gonorrhea with the help of a street walker.
Crowley went on to attend Cambridge University, where he apparently studied alpine climbing, living in the manner of the privileged aristocracy and having a great deal of sex with both men and women. He also began working in the Diplomatic Service, but as Crowley himself said "the fame of an ambassador rarely outlives a century", and Crowley wished to make a greater imprint on the world.
Having had this epiphany, he began searching for more lasting pursuits and in 1898, at age 23, Crowley began his path of magical enlightenment by joining The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Led by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers other members included such notables such as William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Constance Wilde, (the wife of Oscar Wilde), Arthur Machen, Moina Bergson, Arthur Edward Waite, Florence Farr, Algernon Blackwood and possibly, though records for their membership are shaky, Sax Rohmer and Bram Stoker.
The Golden Dawn's contribution to the Western Magical Tradition is definitely worth noting, because it was their synthesis of the Kabbalah, alchemy, tarot, astrology, divination, numerology, Masonic symbolism, and ritual magic into one coherent and logical system which led them to influence countless occult organizations to come. Mathers adapted the system of magic outlined by Eliphas Levi, and through Levi, the spiritual ancestry of the Golden Dawn was traced to the Rosicrucian Brotherhood and from there, through the Kabbalah to Ancient Egypt. Mathers' authority was held in part by his link to the "Secret Chiefs", the "true leaders" of the Order, with whom Mathers could communicate with only through metaphysical means.
Adopting the magical name Frater 'Perdurabo', Latin for "I Will Endure", Crowley advanced quickly through the ranks of the Golden Dawn, initially studying under Alan Bennett, who was Mathers' spiritual heir. Bennett left England in 1899 for health reasons, moving to Ceylon, what it now Sri Lanka, where he joined a buddhist monastery. Unfortunately, Crowley, left to his own devices, managed to severely fragment the order through sheer force of personality. In 1900, he completed the studies necessary in order to obtain the rank of Adeptus Minor, however the London controllers of the Order, disapproving of Crowley's homosexual dabblings, refused to advance him. Crowley travelled to Paris, where Mathers himself performed the ceremony, which only served to further outrage the London members.
The ensuing uproar caused several of the London members to resign, and Mathers was eventually expelled from the Order, specifically on the grounds that he had put its authority into jeopardy by revealing his suspicions that the founding documents linking them to an older occult order in Germany had been forged by another member (which they had been). Crowley attempted to obtain possession of the Order's property on behalf of Mathers, interrupting one of their rituals in full Highland regalia, wearing a black hood. As with any serious dispute between occultists, astral attacks ensued. Crowley reported that the rebels directed hostile magic against him as evidenced by the fact that his rubber raincoat burst spontaneously into flames and he found himself in a "furious temper" for no reason, so extreme that horses ran away in fear at the sight of him. In the end, however, it was the police who resolved the matter.
Crowley was expelled from the Golden Dawn, only 2 years after joining, chiefly through the efforts of William Butler Yeats, who reportedly did not approve of Crowley's magical methods.
Crowley, understandably tired of all the fighting, chose to travel the world, visiting Mexico, India, France, Ceylon, where he reunited with Alan Bennett and studied Yoga. He also married Rose Kelly, later revealed to be clairvoyant, travelling with her to Egypt.
In fact it was in Egypt, in March of 1904, that Crowley had the most important experience of his life. Crowley had been trying for several years to contact his Holy Guardian Angel using the methods described in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage with no success. However it was in Cairo that Crowley finally encountered an entity known as Aiwass, whom Crowley believed was his Holy Guardian Angel.
According to Crowley's own account, while (unsuccessfully) trying to summon sylphs for his wife's amusement, she began to receive a very powerful psychic message from the Ancient Egyptian god Horus.
Skeptical of his wife's sudden clairvoyancy, Crowley demanded answers to a series of questions from her, of which she had no possible prior knowledge. Upon answering all things correctly, he took her to a museum, and after passing several images of Horus (which the still skeptical Crowley reports, he "noted with silent glee"), she pointed across the room to a stele which could not be clearly seen from where they stood. When they examined the stele (now referred to as the Stele of Revealing, it was painted with the image of Horus, and to Crowley's further conviction, it was labelled as item number 666 in the museum catalog.
Crowley had himself adopted 666 as his personal moniker in rebellion to his religious upbringing many years before. After invoking Horus, Crowley made his fateful breakthrough. For three days Crowley took dictation from the entity identifying itself as Aiwass, the resulting text, Liber AL vel Legis, became what is now known as The Book of the Law.
This book was to become the central core of Crowley's philosophy. Crowley was named the Prophet of a New Aeon which would end the Age of Osiris and usher in the Age of Horus, a signal that a new era had begun for mankind, and that the old religions were to be swept aside.
The 3 key philosophical ideas outlined in the book are:
Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law
Love Is The Law, Love Under Will
Every Man And Every Woman Is A Star
Interpretation of what "Do What Thou Wilt..." in contemporary times seems to have deteriorated into "do whatever you want...", however it seems clear that the meaning was more along the lines of 'doing that which your higher self dictates'. The higher self, or "Will" is present in all of enlightened people. In order to follow your "Will", one must know oneself. And self knowledge is the central basis of most successful philosophies.
After the encounter with Aiwass, in typical grandiose fashion, Mathers received a letter announcing that the Equinox of the Gods had come, and that Crowley had forged a new link with the Secret Chiefs, thus making him the supreme magical authority. This naturally resulted in a magical duel, which Crowley seems to have eventually won.
According to Crowley, Mathers reportedly sent one of his followers, a vampire, to him. She appeared to him in the guise of a "young woman of bewitching beauty", but was able to defeat her, and she was "transformed into hag of sixty, bent and decrepit". Mathers then sent a "current of evil" which struck Crowley's bloodhounds dead and caused his servants to fall ill. Crowley retaliated by summoning up the forces of the demon Beelzebub and his 49 attendant fiends. Following this effort, Mathers' magical assaults on Crowley ceased. Years later, when Mathers passed away of influenza, many felt that Crowley had murdered him with magic.
It is not clear why shortly after his encounter with Aiwass and his battle with Mathers, Crowley seems to have lost interest in things magical for several years. In 1905, he was part of an ill-fated expedition to climb a Himalayan mountain peak, in which several members of the party died. He spent several years travelling through China, Canada and the United States, with and without his wife and child. It was not until his return from the United States that he found out that his daughter Lola Zaza had died from typhus in Rangoon, India.
In 1907, Crowley formed the Argenteum Astrum, the Order of the Silver Star, a magical organization centered around his re-discovered Book of the Law manuscript. In 1909 he began publishing the Equinox, a biannual publication arriving on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the official organ of the A:. A:., the majority of the writing contributed by Crowley himself.
In 1909, Crowley divorced his wife, on the grounds of her alcoholism. The divorce enabled Crowley to indulge in his passions for magick, drugs, and women unchecked by the constraints of married life.
It might be interesting to note at this point that Crowley believed himself to be the reincarnation of the occultist Eliphas Levi who died the same year that Crowley was born. He had also determined that his past lives had included Count Cagliostro, an 18th century occultist, founder of 'Egyptian Rite Masonry', Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia Pope, and Edward Kelley (who along with John Dee were the Elizabethan court magicians who invented, err, deciphered Enochian, the language of the angels.)
In 1910, Crowley was contacted by the head of a German magical order known as the Ordo Templi Orientis, often referred to as the OTO, (alternately translated as either "the Order of the Templars of the East" and "the Order of the Temple of the Orient" in a variety of sources.) The OTO accused Crowley of having published the secret of their IXth degree. Crowley was mystified until a conversation revealed that a passage he published led the OTO to assume that Crowley was involved in sex magick which they used in their rituals. He join the order shortly thereafter, and in 1912, became the head of the English speaking branch of the Order.
In 1916, while living near Bristol, New Hampshire Crowley promoted himself to the rank of Magus through a ceremony of his own devising. According to Richard Cavendish, in History of Magic and The Powers of Evil in Western Religion, Magic, and Folk Belief (both currently out of print), this involved baptizing a toad as Jesus of Nazareth, then crucifying it. I've been chided by several acquaintances who are involved with the OTO for citing this "utter fabrication".
Crowley waited out the first World War in the United States, publishing a fair amount of Anti-British propaganda. He later claimed that the writing done supporting the German side was done satirically, however this did little to improve his already festering public image.
After the war, Crowley had a daughter, Poupee, with Leah Hirsig (AKA The Scarlet Woman), and in 1920 he set up the notorious Abbey of Thelema in Sicily.
The Abbey, however, was an "unsanitary hovel". Crowley's addiction to both heroin and cocaine raged out of control. The Abbey was the setting for Diary of a Drug Fiend, Crowley's hopeful novel about a couple struggling to free themselves of their drug addiction. Sadly, the truth was much more grim. Poupee died there, while Crowley was travelling between London, Paris and the Abbey. It was when one of the Crowley's undergraduates Raoul Loveday died from drinking impure water, that the Abbey's fate was finally sealed. Loveday's wife Betty May went back to England and sold her story to the London tabloid newspaper The Sunday Express.
The papers were filled with reports of black magic rituals and other scandalous acts allegedly performed at the Abbey. These reports came during the same time as the rise of the Mussolini regime and Crowley was quickly expelled from Sicily in 1923.
In 1925 he was elected World Head of the O.T.O., and 1929 saw the publication of his seminal work Magick: In Theory and in Practice.
In 1955, Kenneth Anger shot the documentary Thelema Abbey at the Abbey, which had been exorcised after Crowley's departure, painstakingly exposing the whitewashed walls to reveal paintings and other physical evidence of Crowley's occult activities.
After his expulsion from Italy, Crowley's life took a turn for the worse. His reputation as "The Wickedest Man In The World" was now more than ever playing against him. Unable to find a reliable publisher for his writing, or for that matter, a reliable place of residence, he spent the remaining years as a wanderer, still addicted to heroin, desperately in need of both disciples and money.
Aleister Crowley died December 1st, 1947 at age 72. His last words are often reported to be "I am perplexed", though since he died alone, this is patently false.