Aleister Crowley

In most families there emerges from time to time a “black sheep” - an “enfant terrible” - or a member who does not conform to the rules and regulations on which their brothers and sisters or cousins and aunts have been brought up to believe in. For all one knows, that person may have inherited some far-back genes from a distant ancestor. Unfortunately, in our case, a child came into this world who developed into something far more dangerous than a “black sheep”.

On of my great, great grandfather’s brothers (there were eight in the family) was Edward and he married Mary Sparrow of Wandsworth. According to my grandfather, it was from the Sparrows that a bad streak infiltrated into the Crowley-Curtis Quaker stream. I am not convinced of this because of the marriage of Edward’s grandson.

Edward and Mary Sparrow married in 1823 and they had four children: Jonathan who married Agnes Pope, Mary, Sarah and Edward who married Emily Bertha Bishop. Jonathan and Agnes had three children, one of whom was Claude and I think it was he that my grandfather refused to take into the brewery, although his uncle Fredrick (the same one who presented Alton with a new school in 1867) pressed him to do so. Claude did not have a good reputation, but far worse was that of his cousin, Edward Alexander, known as Aleister, born in 1875, son of Edward and Emily.

The only book I have read about Aleister is C.R. Cammell’s: Aleister Crowley: The Black Magician, now out of print. And as far as I can judge this book is a fair and objective account of Aleister’s life. Although Cammell had heard about Aleister for a long time and wanted to meet him this did not happen until Aleister was sixty years old. Cammell’s account of the meeting was favourable and he could see nothing sinister in Aleister’s face. They became friends, particularly on a mental level, and although Cammell disagreed with much of Aleister’s philosophy, particularly his blasphemies and his virulent anti- Christian attitude, their friendship lasted until very shortly before Aleister’s death in 1947. They were together during a terrible air raid which took place in London and Richmond when Aleister, although without any fear, was almost exhausted by an attack of asthma.

Fairly early on in their acquaitance Aleister asked Cammell to write his biography, putting at his disposal the famous Confessions. At first Cammell refused to do this, being occupied with other journalistic articles but finally he relented. He had read the Confessions and found them “too large, too profuse, too specialised for popular consumption”. Moreover, one volume was lost but a German translation apparently was in existence.

As I cannot possibly go into Cammell’s book in detail, it may throw some light on Aleister’s character if I quote a few paragraphs from the introduction.

What sort of man was the real Crowley: the man behind the legend? …During a period of five years (from 1936-41) I saw A.C. (as his friends styled him) frequently. I came to know him well: better mentally, I believe than many who knew him longer and, in a sense, more intimately…

Crowley’s powerful intellect was a riddle: now acute in judgement, now nebulous and unbalanced. His erudition, however, was solid and far-reaching, and his genius was prodigious. I have heard an eminent personage, General J.F.C. Fuller, a man famous in arms and letters, one who has known the great statesmen, warriors, dictators, of our age, declare solemnly that the greatest genius he ever knew was Crowley …

He could master with astonishing facility any subject which he set him self to study. He spoke or read more or less fluently many languages. He was skilled in mathematics, profoundly versed in philosophy, natural and metaphysical. The religions of all races he had pondered on and compared. With the doctrine of Kabalists and Rosicrucians he was familiar. The ancient mysteries were a field for his speculations.

From such exercises, he found mental repose in the game of chess, at which he excelled, and physical relaxation in daring exploits of mountain and rock climbing. As a mountaineer he was world famous. Across desert he had gone to strange Eastern Lands, braving unimaginable hardships. He had mused alone in ruined temples of long perished creeds, had invoked the dead and spirit entities far more potent, in the wilderness; had learnt conjuring and wizardry of dervishes, fakirs, and witches and communed with Brahmins, Sufis and Buddhist Lamas …

Beyond and above all these gifts … Crowley was a poet and a poet of lyric genius …

In 1936-37 Crowley urged me to write his life: a full length one-volume biography for the general reader, based on the volumes of his Confessions …

I advised Crowley to undertake the work himself: no one, I felt, could do it so well …

On January 11, 1937, he wrote to me (from London to Richmond): “Can’t do popular autobiography - haven’t the popular touch. Can’t do any book at all, not knowing from one week to another whether I shall have a roof over my head. Utterly tired of starting things which outside disturbances won’t let me finish. You could do it easily from around 800,000 words in type. But I don’t know if I shall be around by publication day. My health won’t stand much more. See you 8,15 Wednesday.”

This letter was the only revelation of weariness or mental depression I ever witnessed in that indomitable man.

In the last paragraph of his introduction he wrote:

Of the muck-raking around the poet’s life there will be none found here … Crowley living was the ideal victim for assassins of reputations. May no jackal howl around the lion’s remains: no scavengers be busy around the ruins of his temple, whatever the gods he worshipped. With his gods let him be judged by the One God, who sees all, and by whom all is comprehended.

As children we were discouraged form speaking about Aleister, but when I was eighteen, in 1923, he became rather well-known as an infamous character from articles written in the Sunday Express and John Bull. He was then forty-eight. The Sunday Express referred to him as “the wickedest man in the world”. John Bull castigated him and gave a good deal of exaggerated - even false - information about him, particularly on a group of young people he persuaded to follow him to Cefalu in Sicily, where he is said to have founded an Abbey based in its teachings on Rabelais’ Abbaye de Theleme and he preached the Doctrine of “Do as thou wilt”. To Aleister Good and Evil were one and the same thing and to crowd into your life every experience you could - the best and the worst - the greater would be your fulfilment! Could any philosophy implanted into the minds of the young be more dangerous? Things, as usual with Aleister went very wrong at Celafu and the community fell apart. What he set out to do failed, causing mainly harm of one kind or another. But although it was said in the press that he had been responsible for the death of a young man who followed him there, this, according to Cammell, was not so. His death was caused by the young man drinking water from a stream which Aleister warned him not to do.

In the opening chapter of Cammell’s book he suggests that the Crowley family is of Celtic origin, and that they come from Wales: personally I think it more likely that their roots were in Ireland. However, what concerns us most is Aleister’s immediate and deplorable heritage from his father and mother.

His grandfather belonged, as we know, to a well-to-do Quaker family, but Aleister’s father broke away from that tradition. He joined the Plymouth Brethren and became a religious fanatic. His mother also belonged to that branch of Christian hard-liners. She was very small in stature and looked oriental: in fact at school she was known as “The little Chinese girl”. After her husband’s death in 1887, according to her son, as quoted in chapter one of Cammell’s book: She became a brainless bigot of the most narrow, illogical and inhuman type. Yet … she was almost daily distressed at finding herself obliged by her religion to perform the most senseless acts of atrocity.

These acts of atrocity, I take it, were inflicted on her son, because he failed to live up to the tenets of the Plymouth Brethren. She called him “The Beast”, meaning the man-monster mentioned in the Book of Revelation, chapter 13.

Let him who has understanding count the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six. Revelations 13, Verse 18 from the Revised Standard Version Bible.

The result of all this was that Aleister believed that he really was The Great Beast 666 and this led him into worshipping Satan rather than God. He became a Satanist. Not only did this wretched child suffer at the hands of his mother, but she put in him the guardianship of a cruel maternal uncle who, in turn, sent him to be educated by a cruel master. Eventually he went to Tonbridge School and, as usually happens, a bully makes a bully, so does a cruelly-handled child inflict punishment on others, and this he did at Tonbridge, thrashing and kicking certain boys “and shaming the masters”. From Tonbridge he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was thought of by his tutor and many of his colleagues to be a young man of outstanding promise, but because of his early influence and because, as a small boy, he had taught himself to pray to Satan, he began to take up occultism of the most dangerous forms. To quote Cammell again:

He drifted into dubious (or worse) occultism and all sorts of extravagances and lunacies.

Among the blessings or curses that were bestowed on him was riches. He had inherited a great deal of money from the Crowley side of the family and also from various aunts on his mother’s side. Cammell says “he had inherited a fortune”. Rich or very rich, he was able to travel and write and follow his own devices. He did travel widely and he met all sorts of people as erudite as himself: people who were interested in mysticism and all kinds of occultism, from whom he learned a great deal. He poured over books in Latin. I do not know if he was acquainted with Arabic. He studied riddles of the Tarot and a Chinese system called Yi-King from which he learned about divination; in fact there were no limits to his studies which led him ever deeper and deeper into dangerous experiences. But as well as all this he wrote poetry; some of it extremely good and very beautiful. And when he was twenty-eight years old he met Rose. They married almost immediately.

Rose was the daughter of the Rev. Fredrick Festus Kelly. Her first marriage had been dissolved and according to Aleister he saved her from being forced into an unwanted second marriage. They met at Strathpeffer and they were married at Dingwall on August 12th, 1903. They had two children: a boy and a girl. The boy died in infancy and the girl, named Lola Zara, I have no trace of.

Rose and Aleister fell passionately in love with one another and his poetry at times rose to heights of beauty which, according to his critics, he never surpassed. After their marriage they travelled to Paris, Marseilles, Naples and finally to Cairo. In writing about his wife Aleister said: The love of my wife had made me the richest man on earth, and developed the human soul to its fullest stature … indeed my life was a perfect lyric, and left no surplus energy to overflow into words. I wrote nothing … as my poetry had petered out so had my magick and my meditation. I let them go without a pang. I was supremely happy; love filled the universe: there was no room for anything else.

But, as happened time and time again in Aleister’s life, things fell apart. In Cairo he wanted to show his wife what a great magician he was and so they spent nights in the Kings’ Chamber of the Great Pyramid, Aleister, as he claimed, invoking the astral light which they watched until they fell asleep.

He must have returned to his former practices. Eventually Rose became ill and none of his charms could bring back her health. This led to separation and divorce and finally her death. After the divorce they remained friends and at her death Aleister was completely shattered. Cammell wrote:

That Aleister adored Rose is certain and certain it is that the wreck of his marriage poisoned his life and unsettled his reason, which never totally recovered from the anguish, the agony, the torture and martyrdom (he describes his suffering in all these terms) which he endured during the dreary, inexorable march of her declining health. Towards her cure he did much - so he asserted, and so I have been informed - but the malady was not to be exorcised. Separation and then divorce followed; still the once lovers remained friends …

Here is one of the poems to Rose

The Rose and The Cross

Out of the seething cauldron of my woes Where sweets and salt and bitterness I flung; Where charmed music gathered my tongue, And where I climbed strange archipelagoes Of fallen stars; where fiery passion flows A curious bitumen; where among The glowing medley moved the tune unsung Of perfect love: then grew the Mystic Rose

Its myriad of petals of divided life; Its leaves of the most radiant emerald; Its heart of fire like rubies. And the sight How shall I pluck this dream of my desire? And lo! there shaped itself the Cross of Fire.

In the Oxford Book of English Verse, now also out of print, there are two more poems of Aleister’s: one entitled “The Quest”, the other “The Neophyte”. Where the others, once so highly praised by his contemporaries are to be found, I do not know. Reading these three it seems to me that he is looking into mysteries of a world beyond this one: perhaps under the influence of drugs: perhaps not. All I know is, with exception of the one to Rose, I do not really understand the other two; at least not in their intensity. After the death of Rose, Aleister turned once again, but with ever increasing concentration to demonic mysteries. Little by little he lost whatever integrity had been his past. Friends deserted him, so did his lovers. He suffered from acute persecution mania. He lost all his money and his health from asthma, which finally broke him up completely and he died in 1947.

I think it was some time in the forties towards the end of the War, that my parents went for a few days to stay in their favourite hotel in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire. On this particular occasion, to their dismay, they found Aleister was also staying there: a red hair woman was with him. Needless to say, my parents approached neither of them. Since reading Cammell’s book, I have wondered if the red-haired woman was Lady Harris, who made a whole series of beautiful symbolic paintings with which to illustrate his book about Tarot. She was, incidentally, the only woman friend who was faithful to him to the end of his life. One other faithful friend was a man who had known Aleister for forty years: his name was Louis Wilkinson.

After leaving Richmond Aleister went to Devon and while he was staying at Torquay he became seriously ill with pneumonia. Lady Harris went down there to nurse him. She asked him if he had any money and he said under the bed was a box containing £4000 in notes. It had been sent to him from America to enable him to publish some of his books. I have little doubt that she had helped him financially many times as had other people when he was quite without funds. He was forever moving form place to place and he eventually went to Hastings where he died on December 1st. His friend, Louis Wilkinson, was with him at the time. As he lay in bed he told Wilkinson that there were newspaper men hiding in the garden waiting for him to die. As soon as he did die the press was all agog once more to vilify him; particularly the Daily Express and John Bull (John Bull was rather like Private Eye is today). Both these newspapers came out with the most virulent accusations against him; referring to the “Black Mass”, “Human Sacrifices” and so on.

Cammell quotes in his book part of the obituary in the Daily Express and then goes on to give a brief account of the funeral. About the obituary he wrote:

… It must have been the most cruel, cowardly and generally contemptible obituary that was ever printed.

He continues:

The cremation took place at Brighton on December 5th. He had written his own funeral service, composed the last ritual from his own works: The Hymn to Pan, which was read, as he had wished, by Louis Wilkinson … four collects from the Gnostic Mass, and the Gnostic Anthem- a truly divine poem in which the Christian and the Pantheistic join hands …

That Aleister encouraged a legend of wickedness and depravity to grow up around him might of been his idea of a practical joke: if it was it certainly boomeranged on him. He had often enough played rather illconceived practical jokes on people. One of these was to invite a number of friends to dinner, and to cook a curry so hot they could hardly eat it.

On one occasion, when he was fairly young, he invited for a whole week various “snobs” who lived well, to different restaurants in London. At each of these places the most delicious food and the best wines were served and when it came to paying the bill, Aleister would throw onto the table a hundred pound note. The embarrassed waiter would pick up, take it away and then return and explain, full of apologies, that it could not be changed. Would, perhaps, some of the guests come to Mr. Crowley’s assistance? This they willingly did and the party broke up until the next evening. All this was done for a bet, and when the money was collected from the bet, he repaid his guests. Whatever Aleister’s jokes, they were always set to cause discomfort or pain.

What Louis Wilkinson had to say about his lifelong friend after his death was this:

He was never quite grown up, there was, in fact, a pathos about him, something irresistibly lovable.

Well, it might be so, but that he had that lovable quality about him was not, I should have thought, among the general assessments of his character.

Because I had said, in an offhand moment that I would try and write about the Crowley family, I felt that those who I know well and those who I know only slightly, would expect to read something about Aleister - a wicked man usually being of more interest than a good man. And so, with this in mind, I paid a visit to the Atlantis Occult Bookshop in Museum Street, London, WC1. In this rather eerie place they told me what I had already guessed; namely that C.H. Cammell’s book was out of print and also that another book entitled The Great Beast 666, but they had the Confessions which cost £25. Also one of Aleister’s early books, The Eye in the Triangle was about to be reprinted (It is now available for £15). While I was standing at the pay-desk, explaining that I had not come to buy anything, only to make enquires, I noticed, high up on a coat-hanger, a white T-shirt with Aleister’s face on it outlined in black and various magic signs around the head. His face was not horrific, as it is sometimes made to look, but all the same I was somewhat shocked at the thought of young follower’s of Crowley’s philosophy wearing such a garment.

It seems a pity to me that the name of Edward Alexander Crowley, known as Aleister, 1875-1947, is not allowed to sink into oblivion, but the present trafficking in drugs and the habit of certain young people to try the out and go on a “trip” in search of a moment of truth, or just out of curiosity, has brought Aleister and his demons to the surface again. I have been informed, but not by the Atlantis bookshop, that another book is in the offing and that the author is, or was, willing to reimburse a willing helper to do the necessary research. It is certainly not for me to pontificate, but I am quite sure that the path, or paths, that Aleister followed and taught others to follow, is dangerous and wrong. Also to follow his teachings demands scholarship and long study: it is definitely not for the average person who is usually gullible and at the mercy of their leader. What about the Scientologists, the Mooneys and so on? There are more reputable ways for those who are interested in esoteric things, if they only take the trouble to find out groups which are led by serious and enlightened people.

Being unwilling to end this account of the Crowley/Curtises with Aleister as a sort of highlight, I would like to add an appendix with the story of the Curteys or Curtis crest. It was first told to me by Aunt Gwen and then I found it at the end of Hugh Curtis’s book. There is also a Crowley crest which has no fairy tale attached to it. To hope is surely the best thing we can do for ourselves and the motto is simply “Spes”. I do not know why the crest and the title were bestowed on Ambrose Crowley, the event said to have taken place in Queen Anne’s bedchamber, nor do I know which branches of the Crowley family are entitled to use it, but my family has it on signet rings and silver spoons and forks. The Curteys or Curtis crest is much much older.

During the latter part of the 14th century a certain Henry George de Curteys, found himself in a very uncomfortable position at the Bohemian Court. The King of Bohemia, Wencelas IV, every now and then, suffered from mental breakdowns and while he was indisposed he could not attend any court functions or deal with any business matters. And at such times Henry George de Curteys, who was in the English Embassy, and who looked exactly like the King and even spoke like him, took his place.

There came an occasion when the King was taken ill for a longer period then usual and his country was in very precarious position. A regency was formed and a substitute had to be found to attend the country’s needs. War suddenly broke out with the Duke of Burgundy and the King’s ministers persuaded Henry de Curteys to take over the throne for the timing being at least. This he agreed to do and he ruled Bohemia for two years. As soon as the King recovered de Curteys was rewarded with a large sum of money and permission to bear the crown of Bohemia on his coat of arms.

While he was acting for the King, the King’s mistress, to say the least of it, expecting some attention from her lover and receiving only a cold shoulder, attempted the kill de Curteys. Standing behind his chair of state, and with a little dagger in her hand, she tried to stab him, but the cuff of her long sleeve caught the arm of the chair, thus impending her thrust.

If one looks carefully at the Curtis crest it is possible to decipher the cuff and the small golden- handled dagger: obviously a lady’s weapon. For any one who has read Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda it would appear that he had taken the basic theme of his wonderful story from some such event which took place somewhere in Central Europe.

Turning once more to Hugh Curtis’s book, he had written that in the year 1838 “Mr. George H. Rogers Harrison, Bluemantle, Herald College, and later Windsor Herald, emblazoned the Curtis and Wright Arms for his friend, Dr. Samuel Curtis, a son of Samuel Curtis F.L.S.”.

In a letter addressed to Elizabeth Crowley (nee Curtis) and Emma Curtis (nee Wright), wife of Dr. James Curtis of Brighton, he writes: “Brighton, November 28, 1978 … The united arms (Curtis-Wright) were most kindly emblazoned by our old friend Mr. Harrison … so we may be sure they are quite correct. He sent them to us nearly 40 years age.” Could anything be further from Aleister’s cry of, “Lo as thou wilt”, then the Curtis motto from St. Bernard: “Fortiter, Fideliter, Feliciter.”