Nietzsche once said "all great things must first wear a terrifying and monstrous mask, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity."* Surely he must have been prophesying the rise, fall and remarkable afterlife of one Edward Alexander Crowley, aka Greast Beast 666, aka Uncle Aleister. For a man who died alone and forgotten, the Great Beast's shadow in death has been nothing short of long. In fact, Crowley's restless ghost seems to haunt the dark corners of the Information Superhighway, a tabula rasa on which to project the fears, needs and lusts of an age of uncertainty and decay. He's become his own archetype.
Who he was depends on who you ask. For goths and metal heads, he's a bitchin' t-shirt design (man). For aspiring magi, he's a spectral mentor, there to guide them through the dark jungles of the black arts (albeit one given to occasionally kicking them into the quicksand for a laugh). For Fundamentalist drama queens, he's an all-purpose boogieman, ready-made for the apocalyptic hysteria required to shore up their ever-fragile faith. To some students of occult history, he was a showboat and a grifter, with barely-disguised sociopathic tendencies.
A man for all seasons, in other words.
But who was this man? What exactly did he do to earn his fearsome reputation? In a century filled with mass murderers, mad scientists and pompadoured witch doctors, Crowley seems like very weak tea indeed, with his cosplay and his rituals and his buggery and his drugs. But somehow he's struck a chord in the Collective Unconscious, like an eternal embodiment of the collective Id, struggling for slack in the tightening noose of the new world order. Why?
Well, I have no idea either, so to get to the bottom of all of this I contacted Paul Weston, author of Aleister Crowley and the Aeon of Horus, an exhaustive study at the mischievous mage's life, work and influence. In addition to a detailed biography on the "Wickedest Man Alive," Paul tosses in the Babalon Working, the Sirius Mystery, the Stele of Revealing, Psychedelia, the Church of Satan, the Process Church of the Final Judgement, the Manson murders, the Mothman, the Illuminati, the Men in Black, the Loch Ness monster, and -of course- UFOs and the "Extra-Terrestrial Gnosis." And much more besides.
OK, enough preamble- let's get to the interview already...
CK: Your book takes a contrarian view on a whole host of controversial topics. In your view, who was Aleister Crowley as an individual and as man of history?
PW: As an individual, Crowley was an extraordinarily multi-faceted being. Thoroughly imbued with classical learning and a love of literature, experimental and prodigious in his sexuality, he was an extreme product of the Fin de Siecle zeitgeist. He had also been born into a fundamentalist Christian sect. This helped produce a life-long attitude of revolt against the old dispensation mixed with a religious and somewhat apocalyptic mindset.
A man of considerable physical vitality, by the time he was thirty he had climbed mountains in Mexico and the Himalayas, practiced yoga in India and Sufism in Egypt, been thoroughly trained in the Western Mystery Tradition through its most powerful vehicle of the time, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and experimented with a variety of drugs including some we would now describe as psychedelic. He was able to access states of consciousness that allowed a torrent of poetry and mystical magical literature to flow forth from him.
As a man of history, the least we can say is that this incredible blend and mix of experience probably rendered him sensitive to deeper currents at work in world affairs. His 1904 Book of the Law proclaimed that the old world had been destroyed by fire and a new epoch known as the "Aeon of Horus" characterised by an intense mix of ferocious warfare and wild bliss and abandonment had begun.
If he was simply a poet we would grant him some level of prescience and acknowledge the creation of some powerful metaphors to understand the modern world. The real difficulties come with trying to assess his more metaphysical claims. Can this Aeon of Horus be said to be a fundamental truth underlying the great world drama of the twentieth century? Was Crowley himself a prophet ordained by non-human intelligences that run the show to tell us all what it’s all about and how we should respond? I am willing to believe the answer is yes but that does not necessarily exclude other models of reality.
Your book left me with the impression that you see The Book of the Law as a work of prophecy, foretelling the horrors of the 20th Century. Does this work still hold its power today?
I believe it does. After the initial onset of the Aeon of Horus there were many extreme manifestations of its qualities ranging across the spectrum from the Nazi to psychedelic eras. From the time of its reception in 1904 we have seen a simultaneous acceleration of knowledge and the rate of change, together with dissolution of old forms. This tension, that is so problematical for human psychology, is a major issue right now. The knowledge of how to alter our consciousness and take control of our lives is more widely available than any other time in recorded history.
New paradigms are emerging at exponential rates. Our whole understanding of what has happened in history and how the world works is mutating. An ongoing critique of the governing establishment gathers ever greater density on the noosphere internet. Inevitably, the forces of reaction and conservatism twitch with Emotional Plague in response. The desert monotheisms throw up ever more intolerance and fear. It’s still not out of the question that a Middle Eastern Armageddon mega-death scenario may occur.
Where The Book of the Law differs from the old dispensation scriptures is its clear advocacy of Do what thou wilt as the way forward. And the religious practices proper to Nuit, the divine feminine, do not demand sacrifice but putting on the wings and arousing the coiled splendour within. This is in contrast to the ferocity of the times, of which we have already seen far too much with Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Crowley’s reporting of the compassionless horror of the governing ethos in Chapter III, which he himself considered to be “gratuitously atrocious,” must not be mistaken for him endorsing such manifestations. They are an inescapable sign of the breakdown of old realities but rather than waiting on some particular external event to somehow save us we are urged to take responsibility ourselves.
Crowleyites seem to take a pretty contemptuous view towards the neopagan/wicca subculture, but your book takes time to explore its roots in mid-century Britain. Could it be argued that Wicca is just Crowley Lite? Explain to us Crowley's influence on the development of Wicca.
There are two basic sides to this scenario that run together and leave an interesting mystery behind. Firstly, you could say it’s a kind of accident of history that when circumstances such as the repealing of an archaic witchcraft law in Britain and the cumulative effect of the inspiration provided writers such as Margaret Murray and Robert Graves combined to create the option of a witchcraft/pagan revival there happened to be a big template of material provided by Crowley in terms of poetic invocations to a number of deities and rituals such as the Gnostic Mass in place that could quickly be adapted to serve the purpose. The historical record is quite clear that Gerald Gardner used AC in his early Book of Shadows.
We know that Doreen Valiente was a bit uncomfortable with the Beast and also wrote some fine stuff of her own that rapidly replaced Crowley in the Wiccan canon. The traces remain though, in the Charge of the Goddess, where Nuit from the Book of the Law remains audible, and in the Third Degree ceremony. That all seems fairly straightforward but Gardner met Crowley before becoming the public advocate of witchcraft he’s now remembered as. It seems he was interested in the OTO and was initiated and given a charter.
There’s no evidence that Crowley and Gardner discussed witchcraft but as far back as 1914 the Beast had written to one of his followers that ‘The time is just ripe for a nature religion. People like rites and ceremonies, and they are tired of hypothetical gods. Insist on the real benefits of the Sun, the Mother-Force, the Father-Force and so on…In short be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult.’
This indicates that he felt something beyond his existing magickal orders was required to spread the flavor of the Aeon that would appeal to a larger number of people. It’s entirely appropriate on a spiritual level that AC was somewhere in the vicinity around Gardner. I believe that witchcraft was hanging in the airwaves and ready to revive. If Dion Fortune was its magical mother then Crowley was the father.
NEXT: THE AFTERSHOCKS
* Or at least he's credited as such. I can't seem to find the source for it.