Aleister Crowley was born on 12 October 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, into a religious family, his parents being Plymouth Brethren. His father died when he was 11, and he was cared for by an uncle, said to have been publicly philanthropic but surreptitiously cruel. Crowley attended a school in Streatham for a while (see also London Cross, my online book of a walk across London), as well as Malvern College and Tonbridge School briefly, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. There he spent his time pursuing non-academic interests - mountaineering, for example, playing chess, and writing and publishing poetry - which, with money inherited from his father’s brewing business, he could afford to do.
While climbing in Switzerland, and expounding his increasingly spiritual ideas to fellow climbers, Crowley made contacts which led him to a magical society in London called the Golden Dawn, and its leader Samuel Liddell Mathers, a learned occultist. Crowley learned much about ceremonial magic from Liddell, but also from another of the society’s members, Allan Bennet, who he invited to live with him in his London flat.
In 1899, Crowley purchased a property on the south-east side of Loch Ness, renaming it Boleskine House, where he set up his own magical operations and rituals. Crowley travelled to Mexico, to go climbing, and to Ceylon, Burma and India to study Buddhist practices. In 1904, he married Rose Edith Kelly, the sister of his artist friend Gerald Festus Kelly. While honeymooning in Cairo, Crowley claimed to have been contacted by a supernatural entity named Aiwass, who provided him with a scared text he called The Book of the Law. Over the next few years, and using the text, he helped set up a new magical order, called the A∴A∴; and he became the leader of the British section of a German order Ordo Templi Orientis. He was a prolific writer, producing poetry, articles, and short stories, as well as spiritually-based texts. Rose had three children by Crowley, but he divorced her in 1909, on the grounds of his own adultery. Crowley was never other than extremely promiscuous, and later in life regularly changed partners, calling each new lover his scarlet woman.
During the First World War, Crowley decamped to the United States, where he earned money by writing and giving astronomical readings. Apart from continuing his sex-based spiritual investigations, he also took up painting and campaigned for Germany (though later he claimed he was working as a British spy). Back in Europe, in 1920, he established the Abbey of Thelema, a spiritual community in Cefalù, Sicily, where he lived with his acolytes and their children, developing his rituals and magical practices, many of them involving sex. By this time, his addiction to drugs, heroin and cocaine, had come to dominate his daily life. Still, new followers continued to arrive - some famous like the film star Jane Wolfe - and all of them were initiated into the Abbey’s bizarre practices. There was little concern at the Abbey for health and safety, with one baby (born to Crowley and his consort Leah Hirsig) and a young man dying there. (Another woman at the abbey also gave Crowley a child at this time, Astarte, who was alive until 2014 - the longest lived of Crowley’s known children.)
In time, the British media got to hear about Crowley, and stories on his depraved practices appeared in newspapers and magazines. He was dubbed the wickedest man in the world and such like. Although he denied many accusations, he was too poor to sue. It didn’t help his reputation when he published a novel called Diary of a Drug Fiend. News of activities at the Abbey finally filtered through to Italy’s Fascist government. Crowley was given a deportation notice, and the commune soon closed without him. He and Hirsig moved to Tunisia, where Crowley began writing his so-called autohagiography, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, parts of which were first published in 1929. Around the same time, he published one of his most significant works, Magick in Theory and Practice, and he became friends with Gerald Yorke, who began organising his finances.
Having moved around from Tunis, to Paris and London a lot, he moved to Berlin for a while in 1930, returning to London a year or two later. There, he launched several court cases against those he felt had libelled him, and won some of them. Nevertheless, Crowley was declared bankrupt in 1935; and, with few contributions arriving from his magical society links any longer, he was chronically short of money. He published Equinox of the Gods, containing a facsimile of The Book of the Law, which sold well. During the Second World War, he removed to Torquay until he tired of it and returned to London, only settling in Hastings in 1944. There he took a young Kenneth Grant as his secretary, and also appointed John Symonds as his literary executor. Crowley died in 1947, and his funeral was held at Brighton Crematorium - a dozen people attended.
There is much information about Crowley scattered across the internet, at Wikipedia, at the Harry Ransom Center (which holds a large Crowley archive), Vigilant Citizen, Controverscial.Com
Crowley left behind a large number of writings: a score of poetry books, many magical texts or Libri (teachings, methodologies, practices, or Thelemic scripture), short stories, and autobiographical works. A bibliography can be found at Wikipedia and at The Hermetic Library. Among his autobiographical writings are a number of diaries, which are all archived at the Yorke Collection in the Warburg Institute, London. Not all the archived diaries, however, are original manuscripts, but typescripts made from the originals (now lost) under the guidance of Crowley’s friend Gerald Yorke (who later bequeathed all the material to the Warburg).
The most significant of Crowley’s diaries that have emerged in published form can be found in The Magical Record of the Beast 666, subtitled The Diaries of Aleister Crowley 1914-1920 edited with ‘copious annotations’ by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant (Duckworth, 1972). In fact, this includes two separate diaries: Rex de Arte Regia kept by Crowley in New York from 1914-1918 to record his sexual operations and his efforts to perfect sexual magic; and The Magical Record of the Beast, a more general diary Crowley kept in 1920 mostly at Cefalù. At the time of writing, a pdf of the book can be read online here.)
The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley, edited by Stephen Skinner (Neville Spearman, 1979) covers the year 1923, in Tunisia, after his expulsion from Italy. (An American version can be previewed at Amazon or Googlebooks, and a review can be read Obsidian Magazine). Otherwise, there is a text called The Amalantrah Working, a kind of diary from the first half of 1918, describing, indeed quoting, a series of hash/opium-induced visions and trance-communications received by the oddly-named Roddie Minor, who was at that time acting as Crowley’s scarlet woman. At some stage during the proceedings, Crowley underwent a form of experience involving a large-headed entity now known to occultists as Lam. The name derives from the Tibetan word for ‘way’ or ‘path’, and later Crowley was to draw a portrait of him/it that has become famous. See Ian Blake’s article on this. Finally, a further diary, a fragment really, was found recently. It concerns a visit Crowley made to Lisbon in 1930 and his meeting with the writer Fernanda Pessoa. The text can be read within a paper by Marco Pasi’s available at Brown University’s website. The paper, incidentally, provides an excellent overview of Crowley’s diary legacy.
From Rex de Arte Regia
16 January 1915
‘Weather like a fine day in May. Light of gas stove. Margaret Pitcher. A young pretty-stupid wide-mouthed flat-faced slim-bodied harlotry. Fair hair. Fine fat juicy Yoni. Object: Money. I invoked Ic-zod-heh-ca at the same time, thinking thus to propitiate the gnomes [earth elementals who preside over hidden treasure]. And I offer him a portion of the Sacrament. The ceremony was not good, as the girl was even more concentrated than I on the object of the Operation. But the Elixir [semen] was copious, well-formed, and of very pleasing quality. It was a fairly orgiastic rite, considering all.’
22 August 1916
‘Object: To become the greatest of all the Magi. Operation of long-since-unheard-of vehemence. Elixir of miraculous strength and sweetness. Mental concentration, Samadhic in intensity.’
12 October 1917
‘Object: ‘Io Pan!’ Operation: Orgie from 8.15 circa, continuous work, aided by C[ocaine] and B[randy]. Wonderful. Elixir admirable in all ways.’
From The Magical Record of the Beast
19 May 1920
‘I have been thinking over the question of the routine of the Abbey, both as to daily life and as to disciples. I want a minimum of things which disturb, and at the same time enough to breed Order. Daily Life: 1. Alostrael to proclaim the Law on waking. 2. Adoration of Ra. 3. Grace before breakfast at 7.00 a.m. 4. ditto dinner, noon. 5. Adoration of Ra. 6 and 7, ditto supper at 6.00 p.m. 8. Ritual work.
For newcomers: First week, 1, three days’ hospitality. 2. One day’s silence. 3, Three days’ instruction. 4. The Magical Oath, followed by four weeks’ silence and work. Sixth week, 5, one day’s instruction. 6. Six days’ Vision. Seventh and ninth weeks, 7. three weeks’ silence and work. Tenth week, 8, one week’s instruction and repose. Eleventh and thirteenth weeks, 9, as 7. This makes one Quarter. At the end, the survivor revises the whole period, and takes new counsel and Oath accordingly; but no routine can be appointed for this further period; all will depend on what seems advisable.
Saw Diana renewed tonight, the loveliest slim maiden, rich pale gold in a sea of blue shaded into pink, green, orange, and violet with clouds of ever delicate tone of purple and grey, in every form from solid banks to films of mist.
Her disappearance in the Hell below Amenti, where I suspect her of conduction with Tum, has been the signal for me to renew activity. Made a volcano panel. I wrote The Moralist.’
26 May 1920
‘3.40 a.m. It has been a trying night. I wrote two poems. Leah screamed terribly for over an hour until, twenty minutes ago, I felt it inhuman not to stop it, and so, in the impossibility of getting the doctor’s permission, I gave her about ⅛ grain of heroin under the tongue. She is now calm. I thought heroin better than my only alternative, ether, as he has been giving her laudanum, and ether is irritating to the system, and so contra-indicated in anything like enteritis (P.S. It acted splendidly, with no bad reaction.)
3.45 a.m. I notice that Language itself testifies to the soundness of my ontological theories; for the adjective of Naught is Naughty! Wrote two more poems.
11.00 p.m. Leah is still very ill; and this doctor rather trimmer. I think, without much confidence in himself. A tiring day, though I slept off some arrears.’
18 June 1920 [a few sentences from a much longer entry]
‘10:30 p.m. I accuse myself of not keeping my Diary properly. There ought to be a discoverable relation between my health, my worldly affairs, and the tone of my thoughts. For even Absolute Ego in eruption makes the relation between its modes of illusion a ‘true’, or harmonious one; for all moods are alike to It, despair a theme of pastime equally with exaltation. [. . .]
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
10:36 p.m. I beginning a new MS book. My Magical Diary has been very voluminous in these last weeks; I seem to find that it is the sole mode of my initiated expression. I don’t write regular essays on a definite subject, or issue regularly planned instructions. This is presumably normal to my tense and exalted state, to the violent Motion proper to the resolution of all symbols. [. . .]
I am drunk with the pride-absinthe that I am great, the greatest man of my century, its best poet, its mightiest mage, its subtlest philosopher, nor any the less for that classed among the very few well eminent mountain-climbing, in chess-play, and in love.
I am aflame with the brandy of the thought that I am the sublimest Mystic in all history, that I am the Word of an Aeon, that I am the Beast, the Man, Six Hundred Sixty and Six, the self-crowned God whom men shall worship and blaspheme for centuries that are yet wound on Time’s spool, yea, I am insane as if with hashish in my Egomania and Folly of Greatness, that is yet Fact steel-hard, gold-glittering, silver-pure; I want to be yet more than this. [. . .]’
Two years later, in early 1982, I found myself at The Bush to see a revival of Wilson’s play, retitled The Number of the Beast. It was hard to believe there was no link between The Bush having seen/read my Aleister Crowley play in mid-1979, and its commissioning of Wilson to revise his play on the very same subject. On entering the theatre, I was bemused to find the set looking rather like the one I had proposed for my play - i.e. the Abbey of Thelema. Indeed, I soon discovered that the play had been rewritten so that most of the action actually took place at the Abbey - just as in my own play. Coincidence? It seems unlikely. Any how, here are several extracts from my own diary (all available online) about my researching/writing the play, and about seeing Snoo Wilson’s revised version.
29 January 1979
‘Gerald Yorke enthralled me for hours. He told me tales to make the blood curdle. We took tea in the drawing room: marmalade sandwiches, biscuits and tea, no sugar. The man of means took trouble with his words but his laugh rocked me off balance. He seemed pleased that I wasn’t just another occult freak, but dismayed that I wasn’t a Thelemite. He said he had intended once to walk across to China, but found marriage better for his feet. My Aleister Crowley play project moves one step forward. Will, I ever start to write. Yorke told me that Snoo Wilson has already written a play on Crowley, a farce. I had to explain that I’d never written a play before, but that it was simply a challenge I’d set myself.’
22 February 1979
‘Pushing myself to get two or three pages of Crowley’s life written each day. The clickety clack of the typewriter seems to be the secondary thing that I do between the cleaning and the cooking and the talking or the playing. The translation of my imagination into scenes on paper is the most difficult - creating characters, working with them, showing them up through conversations. Then there is the swamp of stage directions that are the length of a novel in themselves. In capital letters stand out bold. And now, with a new ribbon in the clickety-clack machine, their blackness is overwhelming. How can I will myself to work eight-ten hours a day when the ideas run out. I have to search all the books for the next scene or spark of talk. I resort to a cigarette or cup of coffee or leave the house. Today, for example, I went to the Warburg and spent two hours submerged in Crowley in Therion, in The Beast 666, in the Great Hand of Boleskine. I handled some manuscripts typed by Leah Hirsig - ‘Record of the Abbey of Thelema’. She describes in detail the incidents relating to Betty May’s expulsion from the Abbey. It’s perfect. There was also a folder with letters written to and from AC, some about blackmail, money and debts. I touched with care AC’s magical (or drug) record for a period of two weeks at Fontainebleu in March 1922. In intricate detail, he recorded the times and amounts of cocaine and heroin he took. He also recorded conversations with himself, justifying the next dose, and how he felt he should be able to use drugs forever without becoming addicted, but nevertheless intended to wean himself off them. He noted, for example, how he would excuse an extra does of heroin because it soothed his asthma. He does continue to fascinate me, and I would like to get access to more of his papers.’
24 June 1979
‘Colin read my Crowley play. Jenny Topper at the Bush read it, and now there is nothing left of it. A dead play. No one wants it. The characters are unshaped, there is no theatrical development etc etc yawn yawn. Colin thinks I should go on writing stories. Ha ha, did you hear the one about the man called Frederic [my estranged father] who wanted to be a writer.’
20 February 1982
‘ ‘The Beast’ by Snoo Wilson was initially commissioned by the RSC almost a decade ago. In its original form it was nothing more than a farce but now it’s been extensively rewritten so that the bulk of the play takes place at the Abbey of Thelema. On entering the Bush theatre I was agreeable surprised to see a set much as the one I had imagined for my own play about Aleister Crowley. All the action takes place outside the rundown barn-temple. The acting was first class, although the writing and direction left little room for the characters to be truly difficult or even unlikeable. John Stride playing Crowley refused to shave his head but would have given a better and truer performance if had.’