"In the beginning doth the Magus speak Truth, and send forth Illusion and Falsehood to enslave the soul. Yet therein is the Mystery of Redemption."
- Aleister Crowley, Liber B vel Magi
Aleister Crowley was the most famous magickal practitioner of modern times, and aside from Merlin himself, quite possibly of all time. His name is known worldwide, his works have been published and continue to be republished decades after his death, and his fame places him far above and beyond any other candidate for the title (although "infamy" may be a better word, because when asked what they know about Crowley, the typical person’s response is practically guaranteed to include a negative moral judgment and no small amount of disdain). The following article examines the reasons for this popular "blackwashing," providing a counterpoint to the popular conception and a basis for further studies.
The Devil You Know
Despite his global renown, it turns out that very few people have actually taken the time to read Crowley’s works before forming their opinion - assuming they might be capable of understanding the man at all. Instead, the majority base their derision on a handful of dog-eared anecdotes, third-hand propaganda, and that oft-repeated epithet: "The Wickedest Man In the World."
Yes, it seems that everyone has an opinion of the man, and very often the same opinion: an almost exclusively negative one foisted upon his memory by the popular press and willingly abetted at times by Crowley himself. Since the reader has no doubt been exposed to this popular conception, there is no need to reiterate it here.
He was wicked, debauched and miserable to be around, sure, when such moods took him, yet rapturous, passionate and breathtakingly beautiful at his opposite extremes. In other words, "beyond good and evil". More than any other writer of his time, his willing embodiment of psychological relativism made him a great danger to morality as the word is commonly understood. Viewed from the perspective of those who defend the status quo of banality and dogma, steering to the middle of the road, how could such an exceptional creature be anything other than villified? Any attempt to marginalize him would be doomed to failure from the outset, thanks to his immense contributions to the western mystery tradition. There was no choice, it seems, but to paint him black.
Paradox and Perspicacity
Those who dismiss Crowley on such simplistic data are doing themselves (not to mention the man) a great disservice - and yet that may have been exactly what he had intended. For Crowley was not only a well-known ceremonial magician, founder of the A∴A∴ and reformer of the O.T.O., agile philosopher, prolific writer, erotic poet, world-class mountainclimber, shameless self-promoter, fearless drug experimenter, exceptional chessmaster, and enduring researcher into the myths and magick of man - he was also a born contrarian who often placed deliberately false messages, images, and correspondences into his work, in order to protect true understanding from the casual reader.
At the same time, he was the scatterer of the secrets in the public square, the progenitor of the "New Age" as we know it today. This would present a paradox for any man of less complexity and capacity. His copious explanations of mystical practices and esoteric symbols were literal handbooks of ceremonial ritual touching on every western tradition (and many eastern ones). For the creation of his classic book Liber 777 alone, Crowley should be held in the same high regard as Sir James Frazer.
But academia was not his style. Indeed, Crowley refuses to be confined to any single style or genre at all. Hardly a sentence in his entire body of work is without at least two connotations - a trait he deliberately cultivated and obviously enjoyed. At times blazingly insightful, uproariously humorous, brutally honest, poigniantly poetic and deadly serious, he defies easy categorization. He worked hard, played hard, and partied hard - and still found time to make monumental contributions to esoteric literature. Every one of Crowley’s multiple magickal personas has its own important teachings for the diligent student.
Early in his career Crowley rocketed through the ranks of the Order of the Golden Dawn to end up publishing and popularizing its innermost secrets, and his subsequent writings covered a range of difficult subjects in meticulous and dangerously revealing detail - subjects like tantric magick, altered states of consciousness, the creative power of morbidity, hedonism and bisexuality - decades before these things were considered valid (or even legal) subjects for self-expression.
His works (whether credited or not) have inspired whole generations of mystics, artists and musicians to explore realms they might have never known if not for this Promethean character. The influenced include such notable personages as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, Phil Anselmo, Piers Anthony, Clive Barker, David Bowie, Neil Gaiman, Ian Fleming, John Frusciante, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson, Somerset Maugham, Ministry, Alan Moore, Mudvayne, Ozzy Osbourne, Jimmy Page, Terry Pratchett, Throbbing Gristle, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Anton Wilson, Rob Zombie, and many others.
Such a combination of creativity and will is something we have a very hard time comprehending in our culture, unless we’re talking about our rock stars - the only people in our culture who are "allowed" to live that way. But that wasn’t always the case - Lord Byron, anyone?
In that half of the last century which could still sustain such a thing, Crowley lived as something of a "cerebral celebrity" - from his publicized world travels and oft-quoted mystical correspondencies to the Equinox magazine, to his voluminous output of self-published books, to his public performances of ancient rites - he was every inch a Superstar as much as he was a Magus.
Certainly he had a very healthy ego. But it was his own, both to build up and tear down, and both he did. His means and ends went far beyond the grasp of average men - both upward to his Holy Guardian Angel, and downward to the depths of the Abyss - and his courageous explorations of human potential left behind a written map of all territories he conquered. To regard Crowley as a mere egotist, one would have to forget all one knows about personal transformation, the politics of occultism, secret societies, illuminism, the Aquarian Conspiracy, the "New Age" movement and the New World Order - and forget just about every book written on the subjects of magick, mysticism, sorcery, divination, astrology, tarot, meditation, tantric sex, the astral planes, qabala, western ceremonial ritual, ancient godforms or occult symbology since the 1950’s.
A Tour of the Crowley Library
The astounding breadth and depth of Crowley’s literary legacy is daunting, and helps to explain why so many choose to accept the popular "Reader’s Digest" condemnation rather than doing the research for themselves. In the words of Israel Regardie, who served as Crowley’s personal secretary from 1928 to 1932: "The intellectually lazy, the merely uninformed or the sexually lame and halt will find little in his writings to appeal to them. Far too many demands will be made upon what they know and what they are intrinsically."
When recently asked to suggest a good place for interested beginners to start reading his works, I found that it was a tricky question to answer. The man wrote on so many subjects, and in such detail, that choosing a starting point depends on what your ultimate goals are. But I can tell you this much with certainty: Very little of his work may be approached casually.
The sole exception may be Moonchild - Crowley’s only actual novel. (Diary of a Drug Fiend was published as a work of fiction, but is actually autobiographical.) A briskly-paced mystical adventure story, Moonchild is a surprisingly good read along the lines of Dennis Wheatley, and also explains many magickal secrets in "human" terms. As a slight criticism it may be noted that the ending of the book was tacked on rather quickly as the world rushed to war, although 90% of it is an excellent romp.
If you’re seeking subjects for mystical medititations - read The Book of Lies (Falsely So Called). A few other works in the same class of Crowleyana would be Liber Aleph ("The Book of Wisdom or Folly") and The Soldier and the Hunchback. As your magickal studies progress, you will find more and more information hidden in these books each time you read them - and yet they can also be enjoyed just for themselves. This is occult philosophy so abstract and pristinely worded - it’s practically poetry.
Speaking of poetry, Clouds Without Water is a beautiful, erotic and sometimes shocking record of love and heterosexual magickal practice - told as a paean to the beloved/obscene - and The Scented Garden of Abdullah is a similar work of homosexual nature (much harder to find since most copies were destroyed by British Customs on grounds of obscenity).
For those interested in the psychological and metaphysical aspects of Yoga (of which Crowley was a master practitioner), he provides an account in very straightforward language entitled Eight Lectures on Yoga. In this small book, Crowley takes on some very abstract eastern concepts, making them easily accessible to the western reader.
Theory and Practice
And then there’s what we might call the "hardcore" stuff - best described by the motto of The Equinox: "The Aim of Religion, the Method of Science" - the massive annex of initiatory writings in the Crowleyan catalog of theory and practice. Reading Crowley for practical purposes - i.e., to study magick as an aspirant - is very much like reading advanced works in the soft sciences. Many terms and definitions are taken for granted as having been covered in the course of student’s "normal" studies, and progress will be difficult (or potentially dangerous) until these core concepts are understood.
When studying these advanced magickal works, the astute reader must bear in mind that some passages have been deliberately obfuscated, and therefore the true meanings will become apparent only after long meditation and comprehension of the symbols involved. This is part of the hermetic tradition of protecting Sophia - the sacred knowledge - from the casual reader.
If you’re serious in pursuing a working knowledge of magick, no list of recommendations would be complete without mentioning the classic Magick in Theory and Practice as a good starting point - although it will take years of reading and meditating before many of those passages make sense to you. Still, right here in the beginning section, this work provides a categorical battery of definitions to work with - Crowley’s overview of what magick is all about: "The Law and Science of Causing Change to Occur in Accordance with Will." This was my personal introduction to the works of Crowley and it serves as a useful "filter" against intrusion by the mundane, for if you cannot wrap your head around the tenets and philosophical ramifications of his basic thesis, you will not fare very well (or go very far) in your pursuits.
To support and round out your early studies, Magick Without Tears is a fascinating collection of Crowley’s correspondence with various students on the details of their independent magickal studies and personal difficulties along the path - very illuminating in that regard.
However, such books should not be tackled alone. You will need a foundation of "traditional" study in the Qabala and the teachings of the Golden Dawn - because Crowley’s works are originally based on that body of knowledge. Crowley’s own The Qabalah and On the Tarot are not bad for starters, but you’ll need a very direct and simple understanding of the Tree of Life to make much headway against the advanced books - and the G.D. can provide that better than Crowley himself. Likewise, the works of more prosaic writers like Dion Fortune and Israel Regardie will be immeasurably helpful in providing this foundation.
If you are interested in joining a magickal order such as the OTO, The Book of the Law should be read early on, because everything about the order and its methods will be reflections of that work (and again, read and meditate on the teachings of the G.D.).
If you’re simply looking for a basic overview of Crowley and his works from a "safe" psychological distance, I would recommend Regardie’s biography The Eye In The Triangle over any of Crowley’s own works. Regardie possesses a keen eye for detail and a well-balanced perspective. His writings are clear and easy to follow, and he was a prominent practitioner and historian of western mysticism in his own right. His observations of his former employer are sometimes critical, sometimes kind, but always objective.
Playing with Fire
It cannot be denied that many who begin traveling this path do so for petty or egotistical reasons, which are entirely beneath the level of devotion and refinement required by the task. Still, I would be remiss not to address this audience, if only because of their sheer number.
That said; if you want a "quick start" in creating your own magickal rituals, 777 is the magickal "filing cabinet" within which everything in the universe is indexed. Most modern reprintings also include the full texts of Gematria and Sepher Sepheroth. At root this book is an examination of Gematria (a form of qabalistic numerology), but its main course consists of the brilliant and massive "Tables of Correspondence" linking the vibrational forces of all mystical traditions - letters, numbers, shapes, sigils, names, spirits, elements, gemstones, colors, numbers, planets, animals and gods - to their corresponding values on the Tree of Life. It is a "Rosetta Stone" of mystical understanding, and is vital for an understanding of the Crowleyan Tarot deck. 777 is an absolute must for any magickal library - but treat it with respect and caution (like fire) - for there is so much knowledge crammed into these tables they can be used blindly (and at your own peril).
Finally (and for the aforementioned audience in particular), I must give council not to take any of this work lightly, or to proceed through your studies hastily. At core, we’re talking about religious texts of the most esoteric variety. Like a powerful drug, reading Crowley’s mystical doctrines with clarity and focus will literally change the structure of your mind. Contrariwise, reading these books without such diligence will simply make you batshit crazy.
I will leave you with these words from Crowley himself, from Liber RV vel Spiritus:
"Let the Zelator attach no credit to statements that may have been made throughout the course of this instruction, and reflect that even the counsel which we have given as suitable to the average may be entirely unsuitable to his own."