Aleister Crowley, known as "the Wickedest Man Alive," was originally born in England as Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875. He changed his name to Aleister mostly to purposefully alienate himself from his wealthy, aristocratic, Christian fundamentalist family. He studied at Cambridge University and was aiming to become a diplomat, until something better came along. Crowley became involved with The Golden Dawn, a secretive society of sorcerers based in London. He rose quickly through the ranks of the order, but for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with his forceful personality and sexual exploits), he was eventually expelled from the society. Crowley then traveled the world, along with his new wife Rose Kelly, and eventually ended up in Cairo, Egypt. In Egypt he invoked the god Horus and then a deity named Aiwass, from whom which he took dictation that eventually became one of his most important books, Liber AL vel Legis, which translates as "The Book of the Law."
Crowley's philosophy became known as Thelema, which is Greek for "the Will," and his followers were called Thelemites. The name derives from the first of Crowley's three central ideas in his book: "Do As Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law." This is followed by "Love Is The Law, Love Under Will" and then "Every Man And Every Woman Is A Star."
In 1907 Crowley founded the Argenteum Astrum, a magical organization based on his Book of the Law. He divorced Rose in 1909, which left him free to further indulge his tastes for drugs and sex, involving both men and women. In 1910 he joined the German organization Ordo Templi Orientis. During WWI he sequestered himself in the United States and wrote anti-British, pro-German propoganda. After the war, he wrote his novel Diary of a Drug Fiend, which paralleled his own growing struggles with cocaine and heroin addiction. However, in 1925 Crowley was elected World Head of the OTO, and in 1929 he published his most important work, Magick: In Theory and in Practice.
Crowley finally died in 1947. It is often said that his last words were "I am perplexed," but since he died alone, this is probably just an urban legend.
Legacy of the Beast
Crowley adopted the personal moniker of 666 and today is mostly remembered as "The Beast," a reference to the mythical beast from the book of Revelation that is supposed to be marked with the number 666. Of course, that's exactly what Crowley was aiming for - he first chose the number as an act of rebellion against his Christian family.
If you've ever heard of or seen a copy of the Thoth Tarot deck, you should know that it was created and designed by Aleister Crowley. An artist named Lady Frieda Harris did the original paintings for the cards.
Interestingly, Crowley is often credited as "the man who put the 'k' in magick." "Magick" certainly didn't become a widely-used term until Crowley coined it.
The number 93 has taken on an occult significance as the numerical value of Crowley's phrase "Love Is The Law, Love Under Will." Modern Thelemites greet and identify each other using this number.
In the early 1980's, Crowley's writings and self-imagery enjoyed a sudden upsurge in popularity when they were picked up by the 80's punk-rock scene in both the UK and the USA, powered in part by a sudden fascination with "Satanism" and symbols of the occult. In 1983, Flexipop magazine published an article on Crowley written by David Tibet, entitled "Return of the Beast," which did much to decry the then-current fascination with Crowley. You can find the full text of the article archived here.
In 1993, a CD recording of Crowley's incantations, The Beast Speaks, was released and eventually sold over eight thousand copies. In the 1990s, the paperback edition of Crowley's autobiographical Confessions was a top ten bestseller in the UK.
Crowley recieved increasing media attention in the years 1999-2000, but then again, everything got a little bit crazy when a lot of people seriously believed that the world was going to end. Snoo Wilson published a novel entitled I, Crowley, based on the events that occurred at the Thelema Abbey that Crowley founded in Sicily. BBC Scotland filmed a documentary about Boleskine, the home that Crowley owned on the banks of Lake Loch Ness, called The Other Loch Ness Monster. However, no television station outside of Scotland will agree to air the documentary.
One question that most people keep asking about Crowley is, was he a Satanist? Crowley's philosophy and self-image have certainly been co-opted by so-called "Satanic" organizations and, as mentioned above, by death-metal rock stars. However, "Satanic" is one of those labels that is often too quickly applied and too easily misunderstood, and it's an oversimplified word that carries a LOT of sensationalist undertones.
Crowley did not consider himself a Satanist. He practiced Magick and his body of work is referred to as Thelemic; Crowley is a self-proclaimed hater of Christianity, yet he used and adapted a LOT of Christian beliefs and practices into his work.
Yes, Crowley summoned the devil. Yes, he regularly invoked the likes of Beezlebub in his rituals. Yes, he called himself The Beast, and he was a violent and controlling egomaniac, and he was a sexist pig, and he deliberately constructed an image of himself as wicked and evil.
So what is a Satanist? Going by the broad, popular mainstream definition (the same criteria incidentally used by the character Crowley in the novel Good Omens), a Satanist is someone who worships the devil. In that sense, Aleister Crowley was not a Satanist, since he most likely didn't worship anyone or anything except himself. Still, that's definitely not a trait that I personally would choose to admire in anyone.
Further reading, for the curious:
Most of these books are still in print and can be found at Amazon.com.
And some online resources:
Important Note: Page numbers in reference to quotations from the book refer to the 1996 Ace mass-market paperback edition. Disclaimer: Crowley, Aziraphale, and Good Omens are owned and copyrighted by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Excerpts and quotes from the novel Good Omens used throughout this site are reproduced without legal permission, for which I can only hang my head sheepishly and apologize. However, this is a FANSITE, meant in the name of fun, and not intended to make a profit. The lovely model in this site's header graphic is an endangered Eastern Indigo Snake, in a photograph courtesy of SeaWorld.org. Brushes used in the header graphic are courtesy of Paper Flowers.