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Aleister Crowley and Thelema

The twelfth of August marks the Feast of the Prophet and his Bride, a holiday that commemorates the marriage of Aleister Crowley and his first wife Rose Edith Crowley in the religion he created, Thelema. Born in 1875, Crowley traveled the world, living in Cambridge, Mexico, Cairo, China, America, Sicily, and Berlin. Here, using Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism as our trusted guide, we take a closer look at the man and his religion.

Photo of Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley, Golden Dawn. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1898 Alesiter Crowley was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as Frater Perdurabo. The teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were based upon an imaginative reworking of Hermetic writings further informed by nineteenth-century scholarship in Egyptology and anthropology. The order was structured around the symbolism of the kabbalah and organized into temples that were run on strictly hierarchical lines. Authority was vested in leading individuals, and initiates were given a rigorous and systematic training in the “rejected” knowledge of Western esotericism. They studied the symbolism of astrology, alchemy, and kabbalah; were instructed in geomantic and tarot divination; and learned the underpinnings of basic magical techniques.

Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA
Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Crowley’s magical self, Perdurabo, was a part of his concept of selfhood. In his own words:

As a member of the Second Order [of the Golden Dawn], I wore a certain jewelled ornament of gold upon my heart. I arranged that when I had it on, I was to permit no thought, word or action, save such as pertained directly to my magical aspirations. When I took it off I was, on the contrary, to permit no such things; I was to be utterly uninitiate. It was like Jekyll and Hyde, but with the two personalities balanced and complete in themselves.

Photo of K2 expedition.
The base camp of 1902 expedition for K2. Aleister Crowley is in setted in the middle. By Jules Jacot Guillarmod. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1902, Aleister Crowley was a part of the team who made the second serious attempt to climb the world’s second highest summit, K2.

Frontpage from a published versions of Liber AL vel Legis
Frontpage from a published versions of Liber AL vel Legis. By Ordo Templi Orientis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring of 1904, while on his honeymoon in Cairo, Egypt, he received a short prophetic text, which came to be known as Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law. The book announces the doctrines of a new religion called Thelema, with Crowley—referred to in the book as “the prince-priest the Beast”—as its prophet.

The most important book of The Holy Books of Thelema, The Book of the Law is a channeled text that consists of 220 short verses divided into three chapters.

Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA
Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The core doctrines of this new creed of Thelema were expressed in three short dictums: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” “Love is the law, love under will,” and “Every man and every woman is a star.”

Thelema Abbey, Cefalù, Sicily
Thelema Abbey in Cefalù, Sicily, by Frater Kybernetes. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Thelema Abbey was established in the small Italian town of Cefalù in the period between 1920 and 1923. It consisted of one large house occupied by a small number of Crowley’s disciples and mistress(es). Life at the Abbey was for the most part Crowley’s attempt to translate his magical and Thelemic ideas into social reality. For the participants, the regime of life involved a great deal of occult and sex-magic activity as well as experiments with various mind-and mood-altering substances, such as hashish, cocaine, heroin, and opium.

Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr, is the first comprehensive examination of an understudied thinker and figure in the occult.

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