High Times Greats: Aleister Crowley

The dope and sex magick of the “the wickedest man in the world.”
High Times Greats: Aleister Crowley
Illustration of Aleister Crowley by Jeffrey Schrier

It’s the 145th anniversary of the birth of Good Old 666, aka Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). To celebrate, we’ve resurrected David Dalton’s July, 1978 feature from the print edition of High Times, republished below in conjunction with Crowley’s birthday on October 12.

“Come I am ready, my soul radiant, my mind whirling, my limbs trembling: is not your being equally electric, clamorous, for mine? Come, the lamp also waits, and the smooth purple tube of lacquer waits, its bowl a blossom, and the vase brimmed with poison is ready as I to my love’s hand—to her slim deadly hand! For Lust’s sake let us lust, for Smoke’s sake let us smoke!”
—Aleister Crowley, The Magical Record of the Beast 666

Whenever the lurid British press runs low on copulating peers, moors murders and mistreated animals, they wheel out that marvel of infamy, Aleister Crowley. In his own day he was called “the wickedest man in the world; a criminal lunatic made mad by his own depravities!!!” Nothing was so monstrous that it could not be ascribed to him. He was said to be a pimp dope fiend, pederast, black magician, ghoul murderer…a twentieth-century cannibal who fattened up children for human sacrifice!

The Great Beast, as he was affectionately called by his followers, was born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875 in the English market town of Leamington, bearing on his body the three most important distinguishing marks of a Buddha; he was tongue-tied, had four hairs over his heart curling from left to right and suffered from phimosis, a malformation of the foreskin. His father, Edward “Get Right with God” Crowley, was a wealthy beer baron and hellfire preacher of the strict Plymouth sect. The year of the Beast’s birth marked both the founding of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and the death of Eliphas Levi, considered by many to be the most powerful magician since the Middle Ages.

In his own humble appraisal, Crowley felt that his appearance on earth “compensated for the discovery of America.” Shortly after his father’s death 12 years later, he had already chosen the demonic path: “I simply went over to Satan’s side, and to this day I cannot recall why,” he confessed in his massive Autohagiography. By the age of 13 he had become an inveterate gambler and dedicated his life to what he liked to call “the Three Wicked Kings” (Smo-king, Drin-king, Fuc-king).

In 1898 he became a member of the elite occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, rapidly achieving the grade of Magus. With equal dexterity he scaled two extinct volcanoes, Ixtaccihautl and Popocatepetl, “in an unbroken sprint.” In 1902 he ascended the formidable Himalayan peak of Chogo Ri. By the age of 29 he had become a magician feared by his peers, an accomplished mountaineer and the author of over a dozen books and pamphlets including the flagrantly pornographic White Stains, considered by authorities on erotica to be the single filthiest volume to appear in the English language.

While in Egypt in the spring of 1904, something happened to him that was to make all his achievements before and afterward seem insignificant by comparison. Crowley, dressed in ceremonial robes, was performing a rite unheard since the time of the Pharaohs (an invocation of Horus, the falcon-headed god of ancient Egypt) when he received a visitation from a demon spirit carrying an imperative message for mankind. The revelations of the demon Aiwass amounted to no less than the end of the Judeo-Christian era and, had this inspired doctrine become the basis for an established religion, would have made Crowley a prophet equal to the Buddha or Muhammad.

In Cairo, from twelve noon until one p.m. on the afternoons of April 8, 9 and 10 of the year 1904, Crowley received by dictation from his “Holy Guardian Angel, Aiwass” The Book of the Law, the spiritual text for this dawning new era that Crowley called the Equinox of the Gods and what a later generation was to call the Age of Aquarius. Besides being a book of prophecy (it foretold the coming of both world wars and Hitler, among other things), The Book of the Law contained what was to become the heart of the Crowley philosophy, the Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt!” Although it is peppered with commands, curses and exhortations (it contains more exclamation marks, it is said, than any other work of similar length), Crowley did not immediately know what had happened to him or what to do about it.

Until his death in 1947 in Hastings, England, the better part of Crowley’s literary career was spent interpreting the fine points of The Book of the Law for the generation that would populate the 2,000-year-long age to come. The book of the demon Aiwass differs from all other books of inspired wisdom in that it insists upon what was traditionally thought of as “sin” as central to its philosophy.

“I am the Snake that giveth Knowledge and Delight and bright glory, and stir the hearts of men with drunkenness,” announced the demon from a small cloud, and Crowley dutifully copied down his words with a fat Swan fountain pen. “To worship me take wine and strange drugs… They shall not harm ye at all. It is a lie. This folly against self. Be strong, O man! Lust, enjoy all things of sense… Fear not that any God shall deny thee for this.” And Crowley obeyed these commandments religiously, incorporating “lust” and “strange drugs” as sacraments in a new system of worship.

The demon merely sanctified Crowley’s indulgence in “all things of the sense.” These were “devotions” to which he came early, expelled from boarding school at the age of 11 for “corrupting another boy.” Two years later he was seducing the parlor maid on his mother’s bed while she was at chapel. As for “strange drugs,” by his 23rd birthday Crowley had investigated every known drug and had the courage and complete waywardness to experiment with his formidable arsenal both on himself and others. He smoked opium and hashish, sniffed cocaine, took liberal doses of Veronal and anaholium (peyote), swallowed morphine tablets and shot heroin. He even considered syphilis a drug, beneficial for inducing genius: “It would be salutary for every male to be impregnated with germs of this virus in order to facilitate the culture of individual genius.”

Since most of his experiences predate the English Dangerous Drug Act of 1921, Crowley had little trouble obtaining the drugs he used. He also had the advantage of a private income; there is something ironic about the fact that the inheritance that allowed him to indulge in mind-altering substances came from the family brewery business.

Lacking inhibitions, Crowley was the ideal prophet of enlightened drug use. The quality and quantity of Crowley’s writings on these substances remain unsurpassed. He is possibly the most documented drug taker of all time, recording his experiences as a series of chemical love affairs. Hashish, you might say. went directly to his head. His essay, “The Psychology of Hashish,” is a study in cerebral overload (at one point he unglues the word h-o-r-s-e and glues it, backwards, on his own synapses!).

In Liber Aleph Crowley, like some hashish huckster pontificating in front of a metaphysical side show, honestly admitted his inability to say anything at all on the subject: “O my Son, yester Eve came the Spirit upon me that I should eat the Grass of the Arabians… Now then of this may I not speak, seeing that it involveth the Mystery of the transcending of Time, so that in One Hour of our Terrestrial Measure did I gather the Harvest of an Aeon, and in Ten Lives I could not declare it.”

Crowley was a tireless propagandist of ecstatic drug taking. His novels, plays, poems, paintings, acts of magic and mountaineering revolve around drugs, were created on them, were, in Crowley’s imagination, manifestations of the gods. As their evangelist, Crowley turned on the great minds of his generation: Cole Porter to coke, Katherine Mansfield to opium, H. G. Wells to hashish. It was Crowley who first made peyote (in the form of the liquid anaholium) popular in intellectual circles in Europe. His most important convert was Aldous Huxley, whom he introduced to peyote in a Berlin hotel room.

It was through peyote that Crowley came closest to the drug that his friend Allen Bennett had told him would “open the gates of the World beyond the Veil of Matter.” Crowley, anticipating the lysergic mysticism of the ’60s by half a century, wanted to use the effects of peyote and hashish “to give proof of a new order of consciousness,” a sort of acid test of mysticism. Lysergic acid was discovered only shortly before his death in 1947, and Crowley was never to know about this ideal metaphysical instrument whose synthesis he had speculated on in his essay on hashish.

When he died at the age of 72 in complete possession of his considerable mental powers, Crowley had been consuming drugs continuously for 50 years. Despite his battles with heroin, he never thought of drugs as other than highly beneficial substances. “Intoxication is Ecstasy and Ecstasy is the Key to Reality,” he wrote. Drugs, according to the principles of Crowleyanity, merely permitted nature to manifest itself without impedence. For this reason, prohibitions of any kind were sheer folly. “How can you know what too much is unless you know what too much is?” he was fond of asking. As he pointed out in his multiphrenic, autobiographical, hallucinatory travelog Diary of a Drug Fiend (or Europe on 10 grams a day), the only reason for abstaining from anything is to enable one to get higher later on—by recovering your “drug virginity.”

Drugs were an essential ritual in the Beast’s religion of Crowleyanity, but, with the deadly insight of one who has often made himself a victim of his own rationalizations, Crowley knew only too well the insidious collusion between ritual and habit. His mock catechism of indulgence (“Reasons for taking it”) from Diary of a Drug Fiend is a wry catalog of human guile, resourcefulness, self-delusion and looking-glass logic:

I am worried about the drug because of my not having any. If I were to take some, my mind would clear up immediately, and I should be able to think out good plans for stopping it.

I’m feeling so very, very rotten, and a very, very little would make me feel so very, very good.

We can’t stop while we have it—the temptation is too strong. The best way is to finish it. We probably won’t be able to get any more anyway, so we take it in order to stop taking it.

Suppose I take all these pains to stop drugs and then get cancer or something right away, what a fool I shall feel!

Although Crowley certainly never needed an excuse to imbibe any mind-altering substance at hand, it is doubtful that even the Great Beast would have pursued drug taking with such avidity if it had not meshed so neatly with his even greater obsession, the practice of ritual magic. Crowley was a ceremonial magician; like the famous magi of the past who were his teachers (i.e., Eliphas Levi, Cagliostro, Abra Melin), Crowley would perform carefully prescribed rituals to enlist the aid of supernatural beings in such human endeavors as making money, attracting a lover or finding a publisher.

Unlike his predecessors, who believed that one should call down the spirits of the astral plane to communicate with the magician on earth, Crowley held that it would be far better to visit the needed spirit on the spirit’s own turf. This would avoid the hostility usually present in visiting spirits who had been dragged from their comfy astral niches at the whim of some earthbound magician. Thus the crux of the magical ritual for Crowley was getting the magician literally “high” enough to penetrate the realm of the supernatural.

Crowley reasoned that two human experiences, sexual orgasm and drug ecstasy, most closely approximated the type of transcendence necessary to gain access to the astral plane. The magician, he felt, should prepare his or her mind before beginning the invocation by meditating upon the characteristics of the entity being contacted. The bond between invoker and invoked might be strengthened by creating talismans or sigils with the astral being’s name upon them or by dressing in colors appropriate to the spirit.

After heightening sensitivity with a carefully chosen drug, the magician could begin the act of ritual intercourse, all the while envisioning the invoked spirit. At the moment of orgasm the magician should call out the spirit’s name. Hopefully at that instant, magician and spirit would merge identities, and a clear understanding of the astral plane would be achieved.

Stated this matter-of-factly, the magical operation does suggest some of the problems inherent in trying to rub one’s head and pat one’s stomach at the same time. However, once the timing was mastered, here was a path to enlightenment theoretically available to anyone with the courage and energy to attempt it. If nothing else, Crowley’s theories certainly lightened the burdens of would-be magicians who for centuries had resigned themselves to such dismal tasks as saying mass backwards or locating suitable gallows near gloomy crossroads. Magic can be fun!

Crowley’s method also relieved the magician of the nagging paranoia that perhaps the ritual wasn’t performed exactly right (“Let’s see… was that three drops of frog’s blood and two salamanders, or…”). Using ecstasy as a criterion for success brings a wonderful specificity to magic workings. One knows precisely when the climax occurs. Seen in another light, the “secrets” of Crowley’s magic lay in the charming paradox familiar to drug users everywhere: that is, when one is “getting off” one is really “getting on” to something. Similarly, for sexual experimenters, if one “comes” then one has “arrived.”

Since Crowley believed that the only proof for magic was its success, he kept a very thorough diary in which he noted every magical experiment and its outcome. Even the most casual reader of the diaries will notice that Crowley was rarely at a loss for sexual partners or psychedelic drugs.

Whether the former good fortune stemmed from his “sex-appeal” ointment called Ruthvah, the perfume of immortality (one part ambergris, two parts musk, three parts civet) or from his sheer audacity (he was known to go up to strange women at parties and bite them on the lip until he drew blood, an endearment he termed “The Serpent’s Kiss”), we may never be certain. Certainly the reader will mourn the passing of the helpful American pharmacist, which Crowley describes during his trip across the U.S. in 1919:

My first stop was Detroit, where Parke-Davis were charming and showed me over their wonderful chemical works. They had installed countless and ingenious devices for conducting the processes involved in manufacture by machinery. Many of these produced effects of exquisite beauty of a land till then dreamed of in my philosophy. A great mass of pills in a highly polished and rapidly revolving receiver was infinitely fascinating to watch. The spheres tumbled over each other with a rhythmical rise and fall in a rhythm which sang to the soul. They were kind enough to interest themselves in my researches in Anhalonium lewinii [peyote] and made me some special preparations on the lines indicated by my experience which proved greatly superior to previous preparations.

Perhaps the most interesting implication of Crowley’s practice of sexual magic is magic’s ability to transform even the most casual sexual encounter into an
opportunity for spiritual and material gain. Crowley claimed to enjoy sex for its own sake very rarely, much preferring to use the orgasm as a springboard to the astral plane.

The ironically pompous tone the Beast adopted when discussing sex, however, was often a huge joke. When he announced with religious solemnity that he had been “attending to his devotions,” he might well mean that he had been practicing his favorite perversion, “per vas nefandum” (heterosexual sodomy), with a particularly ugly whore.

If one were to single out any one period in the Beast’s magic-filled life as being most fantastic, most legend making, surely it must be those rip-roaring days from April 2, 1920, to May 1, 1923. Crowley had long wished to found a center for his ongoing work, a sort of pagan retreat house, where followers could stay for extended periods of time and study the doctrine of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

On a fateful April day, Crowley and his two current concubines moved into a rustic farmhouse in Cefalu, Sicily, which became (by virtue of the magical power of names) the infamous Abbey of Thelema. Crowley’s original plans for the Abbey looked good on paper: followers at the Abbey would rise at a given hour, perform their morning and evening rituals together, dine as a community and spend their days perfecting their magical techniques under Crowley’s enlightened guidance. Any survivor of the communes of the psychedelic ’60s may well guess just what went wrong.

Crowley’s notions of home decoration were eccentric but harmless enough. He spent long hours blissfully painting wall murals, the purpose of which, he claimed, was to make sex so familiar that devotees would become indifferent to it. How indifferent one might become to a super graphic of a naked man being sodomized by Pan under the approving gaze of the Whore of the Stars is a moot point!

Believing that one should explore one’s sexual personality to the fullest, during his days at the Abbey Crowley dubbed his female persona Alys Cusack. Over his bed she/he hung a sign reading, “ALYS CUSACK IS _OT AT HOME.” To indicate his magico-sexual leanings for the night, Crowley would fill in the blank with an N or an H.

Unfortunately, other members of the Abbey did not possess Crowley’s degree of sexual sophistication and playfulness. Among the household demons lurked the green-eyed monster, and as early as April 20, Crowley records in his diaries a jealous scene between the two concubines that ended with one lady outside baying at the moon, the other inside vomiting and throwing a fit. The usual panacea, a few puffs of opium, provided an uneasy peace.

Still in all, the Abbey might have succeeded far better and longer than it did if only it could have remained unobserved by the unsympathetic, magic-fearing outside world. The ever explosive combination of drugs and sex kept detonating into mushroom clouds of gossip. One female visitor reported that, upon arrival, Crowley offered her “a goat’s turd on a plate.” These Crowley portentously called his “Cakes of Light.”

There were enough genuinely bizarre happenings at the Abbey to lend substance to the most far-fetched rumor. The writer Mary Butts reported a “devotion” involving the Whore of Babylon copulating with a he-goat, whose throat the Beast slit at the moment of climax. Drenched in animal blood, the “priestess” pathetically asked, “What shall I do now?” To which Butts replied, “I’d have a bath if I were you.”

The journalists of the London periodical The Sunday Express, who had long found Crowley the hottest news item since Jack the Ripper, were far more malicious. Although they piously maintained that “the facts are too unutterably filthy to be detailed in a newspaper,” they did manage to report that “children under ten, whom the Beast keeps at the ‘abbey,’ are made to witness horrible sexual debauches unbelievably revolting. Filthy incense is burned and cakes of goat’s blood and honey are consumed in the windowless room where the Beast conducts his rites. The rest of the time he lies in a room hung with obscene pictures collected all over the world, saturating himself with drugs.” In 1923, Crowley and his remaining disciples, victims of Italy’s fascism and British yellow journalism, were expelled from Sicily.

A riddle to his biographers, an enigma to astrologers, the Great Beast a.k.a. Prince Chioa Khan a.k.a. Laird of Boleskine a.k.a. Fa-hi, god of laughter a.k.a. Professor Kwaw (sexologist) a.k.a. Alastor the Destroyer, Wanderer in the Waste a.k.a. Paramansa (the Divine Swan) a.k.a. Count Vladimir Svareff a.k.a. Baphomet, Holy King of Ireland and Iona, persona of no fixed abode, was at a loss as to what Crowley to “put on” next. Which Crowley was left, in fact, to wear out?

He wrote like some earth-bound Buddha weary of reincarnating:

I have died already often enough: died to calf-love, to stamp-collecting, card-playing. first-edition hoarding, society-fluttering, chess-excelling, tiger-hunting, salmon-fishing, golf-loading, woman-bagging, rock-scrambling, ice-maze-threading, sight-seeing, power-grasping. I have tried the hashish-life, the opium-life, the alcohol-life, the ether-life, the heroin-life; none of them has interfered with any other of the lives…

“This Aleister Crowley,” he explained with characteristic megalomania in the preface to his Autohagiography, “was not a man, or even a number of men; he is obviously a solar myth… his name is associated with fables not less fantastic than those which have thrown doubt upon the historicity of the Buddha.” Somehow he managed to keep the kaleidoscopic pieces of himself together until that fateful day in May of 1921 when he ceased to be Aleister Crowley and became God! He recorded the event with cosmic resignation in his Magickal Diary: “9:34 p.m. As God goes, I go.”

Since his death in 1947 the Great Beast has slept a troubled sleep. “The unsung hero of the hippies…,” International Times, London’s underground newspaper, called him, and yet he remains an obscure cult figure to a generation who were his natural offspring. He somehow lacked the necessary pieties. Nevertheless that fiendish presence has impishly insinuated itself in the films of Kenneth Anger, on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (appropriately between Mae West and an unidentified Indian holy man). Jimmy Page has moved into his old manor, Boleskine House, which doubles as a museum of Thelemic memorabilia; first editions of his books have become prized collectors’ items; and an English occult magazine, Sothis, in a recent issue published a Crowleyesque ritual involving the god Anubis, sexual magic and LSD.

What can be said conclusively about a man who turned his friend Victor Neuberg into a camel, predicted World War II, stopped Gramophones in German railway stations, dematerialized himself (wearing a jeweled crown and scarlet cloak) at midday in Mexico City, smashed the crockery of his sworn enemy Hierophant McGregor Mathers by telekinesis, seduced heiresses in pastry-shop windows through hypnosis, made love on the astral plane and lowered the bank rate by 3 percent in 1913 by magic? And who could say it better than the “ostrogobulous” Crowley himself: “I am the Beast, I am the Word of Aeon. I spend my soul in blazing torrents that roar into Night, streams that with molten tongues hiss as they lick. I am a hell of a Holy Guru.”

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