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The British press described him as 'the wickedest man in the world', he drove many of his lovers to madness and inspired the free-love generation of the 1960s. But Aleister Crowley, dark magician, poet and author, died a penniless drug addict who questioned his own philosophies. He spent his life proclaiming himself to be 'the beast 666', but was he just a spoilt rich boy rebelling against a repressive mother?
Baptised Edward Alexander but known as Aleister, the young Crowley was born into a family of staunch Plymouth Brethren, a puritanical Christian sect. He was taught that God was all powerful and that the sins of the flesh would be punished in the fires of hell. For the young Crowley, free will was not an option.
When Aleister was 11, his father died and the boy's feelings towards the church, and his family, turned to hate. He labelled the Plymouth Brethren a 'detestable crew', and it became clear that Crowley was not growing up to be the son his mother had dreamt of when he was caught torturing a cat to test if it had nine lives.
In his early teens, Crowley's mother caught him masturbating and in disgust called him 'the beast'. Far from being ashamed, however, Crowley adopted the name. At 14, as a way of punishing her, he had sex with a maid on her bed. This marked the beginning of Crowley's sexual life and he was forced to leave many schools, on one occasion because he had caught gonorrhoea from a prostitute.
In 1895, Crowley attended Cambridge University and began to publish sexually explicit poetry. A year later, however, a trust fund which had been set up after the death of his father matured, and, freed from dependence on his family, Crowley left university. Three years later, Crowley was initiated into a society called the Golden Dawn, which taught magic, alchemy and tarot. Taking the name Frater Perdurabo (Latin for 'I will endure'), he rose quickly through their ranks.
Over the next few years he travelled extensively and immersed himself in the occult, eventually growing irritated with the members of the Golden Dawn because he felt they were not taking magic seriously enough. Desperate to perform an extreme ritual, Crowley bought a house, Boleskine, in Loch Ness.
Once there, he set about performing the Abra-Melin, a black-magic ritual dating from the 14th century. The purpose of this ritual was to have a conversation with the 'higher self', or Holy Guardian Angel. It took six months, and such was its power that nobody had attempted it for centuries. Halfway through this dangerous ritual, however, Crowley met a young society lady named Rose Kelly – and a day later they were married. The Abra-Melin was forgotten and the newlyweds went on their honeymoon to Egypt.
Triumph of the will
In Egypt, between intense sex sessions with Rose, Crowley practised more black-magic rituals to impress her. Deep within the king's chamber in the Great Pyramid he recited the preliminary invocation of the occult ritual called Goetia. It had unexpected consequences.
Rose, who had previously known nothing of the occult, began to chant. In a trance, she repeated 'They are waiting for you' over and over. Crowley was irritated and sceptical of his new wife and her previously hidden clairvoyant skills but she went on to tell him that he had offended the Egyptian god Horus by not finishing the Abra-Melin. Crowley quickly set about an invocation, and a strange voice identifying itself as Aiwass began to speak in their hotel room.
For three days, between the hour of midday and 1pm, Aiwass spoke and Crowley wrote. The result was The Book of Laws. Believing himself to be the messiah of a new epoch, Crowley swore that he would perform depraved acts and learn to love them. Christianity was dead, he declared. His new religion had one all-powerful doctrine: 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' Free will, denied to Crowley as a child, had now become all powerful.
Magick and sex
While in Egypt, Rose found out that she was pregnant and later gave birth to a daughter, Lola Zaza. Later, on a trek in Vietnam, Crowley abandoned them both, however, and his daughter died of typhoid – a tragedy that Crowley blamed on Rose and her increasing alcoholism. Left alone in grief, she descended into madness. She would not be the last lover of his to do so, nor was Lola Zaza the only child of his to die.
Crowley penetrated deeper into the world of the occult, taking another lover, this time the male writer Victor Neuberg. Together they travelled to Algeria and the Sahara to perform an Enochian ritual to summon up Chorizon, the demon of the abyss. This rite is said to open the gates of hell.
Eventually, like Rose before him, Neuberg was left psychologically ruined. For Crowley their time together was more productive, however. His intense sex sessions with Neuberg had convinced him of the power of sex magick. From then, his two obsessions were married: sex and the occult.
Treason and depravity
Crowley went on to become the world head of the Ordo Templi Orientis, or Order of the Eastern Temple, and he further defined his own religion, Thelema.
After the outbreak of the First World War, Crowley was rejected by the British intelligence service and – in a huff – turned to the Germans, supporting them by writing anti-British propaganda. This made him an outcast in Britain and in 1920, two years after the war ended, he went to Cefalu in northern Sicily and created a temple in an old farmhouse with his new mistress Leah Hirsig. They had a child together, and under the influence of opium and cocaine they founded a new religious cult.
Stories of depraved sexual acts at the abbey quickly began to circulate, one of the most notorious involving Leah. A goat was sacrificed while penetrating her. She, and many others, were becoming severely unbalanced and addicted to drugs, and Crowley himself was increasingly dependent on heroin and cocaine. In this environment, Crowley and Hirsig's child died. She had a nervous breakdown.
Decay and disillusion
The end of the Abbey came when Raoul Loveday, one of Crowley's disciples, died after drinking the blood of a cat. Mortified, his wife Betty May fled back to England and sold her story to the press. The British media immediately dubbed Crowley 'the wickedest man in the world'. The temple was disbanded and many of Crowley's former disciples went mad or committed suicide. Leah Hirsig turned to prostitution. Finally, in 1923, a year after Crowley published his Diary of a Drug Fiend, Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, had him deported.
Crowley went on to publish more books – such as Magick: In theory and practice and his Confessions – but his reputation had been damaged. As the years passed he began losing touch with reality. He spent his final years penniless, a sad figure living on the favours of friends. A chronic heroin addict, he died in Hastings in 1947, disillusioned and questioning the philosophies he built to escape his repressed Christian upbringing.