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666 - the number of the beast
“For the sake of pleasure we give in to lust. For the sake of smoking we smoke! (Aleister Crowley sucking on an opium pipe during a sexual magic ritual.) – John Symonds,“The Great Beast”
Who was this Aleister Crowley, the man that called himself “The Beast”, really? Was he a sex addict, a drug freak, and the Devil incarnate or was he actually a visionary, and really in contact with spiritual powers? His opponents like to portray him as a representative of modern Satanism. An opinion that is mainly based on Crowley’s often radically phrased writings. Many of his statement are still misinterpreted today, because Crowley possessed a bitingly sarcastic wit, which he liked to employ in order to veil his true intentions. He lived in two extremes – on the one hand, he distanced himself from black magic, on the other, his companions referred to his rituals as acts of black magic, mainly the so-called sexual magic rituals. Crowley regard himself as a mystic, who did not act out of egotistic reasons but on the grounds of his superior dictum – “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” – which licensed him to put a prophetic gloss on everything he did. Crowley’s religion was an anti-Christian, irregular form of Freemasonry with Egyptian, tantric, alchemistic, and cabbalistic influences. Despite all Satanistic reputations he actually had a vision of a better humanity. Regardless, his theses were also employed by a number of less likeable fellows in order to support their own believes; Scientology founder Ron Hubbard, for example, referred to Crowley’s teachings when he wrote “Dianetics”. Among other incidences it is for reasons like this that Crowley already possessed the image of the scandalous, darkly glamorous magician in his lifetime; something that flattered him very much because it suited his extreme craving for recognition perfectly.
Aleister Crowley was born in Hastings, England on 12 October 1875 into a strictly religious family. His parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a highly conservative, non-denominational Christian movement and began sending him to bible class at an early age. There he noticed for the first time that gory descriptions of torture and fantasies in which he was subjected to mortal agony excited him. With the death of his father, the 13 year-old Crowley was sent to a church-run boarding school. There he learned about the full extent of Christian fundamentalism the hard way when he was discovered in a fondling match with fellow pupils and punished with one and a half years of isolation. During this period he allegedly received the messages of the divine being Aiwass for the first time. In 1895 he began to study humanities. Apart from an enthusiasm for literature and writing – and an extremely busy sexual life with members of both genders – the course of his university years also saw the awakening of his fascination for magic. Magic used to be an exceedingly popular pastime in the intellectual circles of the fin de siècle. The search for the mythical, the excursion into Asian or Oriental rituals and religions were considered a form of parlour game.
Apart from his studies of occult writings Crowley spent a lot of time mountaineering. He actually took part in a number of expeditions all over the world. During one of these journeys he encountered a member of a secret society who introduced him to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – a Rosicrucian-freemasonic Order for occult arts. There he met Allan Bennet with whom he practiced ritual and sexual magical exercises. Bennet also familiarised him with the use of drugs and Crowley began to experiment with different substances; allegedly, in order to gain occult insights. When he was expelled a short time later from the Golden Dawn for his homosexual inclinations, Crowley decided to independently continue studying and experimenting with the occult. He left England and travelled around the world. Among other things he attempted the first ascent of K2 during this time.
In 1903 Crowley married Rose Kelly. Their honeymoon took them to Cairo, where they both made extensive endeavours to invocate various occult powers. Rose believed to have discovered clairvoyant abilities in herself, which allegedly turned the couples’ attention towards a funerary tablet in the Boulak Museum indexed under the number 666 in the museum’s catalogue. Crowley was deeply moved by this “coincidence”. Since his name in the Cabbala adds up to the checksum 666 and he had been calling himself “The Beast” for a longer period of time before, he was convinced that he had received a sign from a mystic entity. In three consecutive days Aiwass, the astral being that had already appeared to him in his boarding school days, dictated the notorious “Book of the Law” to him that became the fundamental theory for his works. The central idea of the book is the advancement of the individual to a point of absolute autonomy when the mind reveals the true nature of humanity. This thesis is expressed in the motto “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” (Do what you want shall be your only rule). However, this does not mean to lead a life governed by a principle of hedonistic pleasures but guided by the realisation of the spiritual will. After this dramatic event in Cairo Crowley pressed on with the advancement of his occult career with additional fervour.
He founded the magical order Astrum Argenteum before he joined the Ordo Templi Orientis, to which he introduced the “Book of the Law” as new groundwork. In order to do this, he arranged sexual magical circles, celebrated drug excesses, and travelled the world always on the lookout for financial funding and new followers. When he eventually took over the leadership of the O.T.O. he propagated the homosexual act, which he regarded as the inverted form of the satanic coitus, as the highest level of sexual magic. The idea was met with great reluctance among the brethren of his order and so he turned his back on the O.T.O. in 1920 to start his own spiritual commune.
Crowley travelled to Cefalù in Sicily where he and his two wives of the time, Leah and Ninette, formed the Abbey of Thelema (Greek for “will”) in order to be able to live exclusively by the words of the “Book of the Law”. As ambitious as his aims and as intensive as his sexual magical ceremonies, as miserable and chaotic was the life in Cefalù. Not only were both women constantly fighting because they were jealous of each other, he also failed to attract students and the scandals multiplied especially due to the massive drug abuse of the communards. In Crowley’s rooms, opium, cocaine, ether, morphine, and hashish were always kept close at hand, not to mention wine and other spirits. The drugs were freely available for everybody and even children developed a certain curiosity for the manifold substance (“Do what thou wilt,…”). Of course this anti-authoritarian education did not remain without consequence, a cost that the children had to bear. At the age of five, Crowley’s stepson was already a chain smoker, his preferred drink brandy and he had a tendency to extreme fits of rage during which he regularly threatened to “rip the world apart”.
The entire undertaking of the Abbey seemed to be an ill-fated one. First Crowley’s favourite daughter died, a short time later Raoul Loveday, Crowley’s “magical heir” succumbed to a severe gastric disease. In the aftermath of his death, Loveday’s wife turned to the press claiming that her husband had died in the course of a ritual in which he had had to imbibe blood of a cat. The newspapers jumped at the scandal and Crowley was deported from Italy in 1923 by the personal order of the Italian dictator Mussolini himself. On top of all this, he was tried for the Loveday affair in England.
In the following years Crowley became a restless wanderer, always on the quest for money, heroin, and followers, always striving to finish his magnum opus. In the course of this he did not tire of recruiting countless women for his sexual magical operations. While German occultists proclaimed him the saviour of the world, English society circles considered him nothing more than a fucked up low-life junkie, a fact that made it impossible for him to find a publisher. Severely addicted to heroin Crowley died on 1 December 1947 from a heart attack in Hastings. His last words were as enigmatic as his entire life. Shortly before he slipped into a coma he said: “I am perplexed.” Whatever he may have meant by this remains unsolved.
Text: Katja Vaders
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