Aleister Crowley

You'll hear him quoted in the first widely released Industrial song (United, Throbbing Gristle.) You'll year references to him on virtually every Fields of the Nephilim album. Current 93 got its name from the religion he created. You'll even see him staring wan and vaguely out of place on the cover of a Beatles album. Many of the creators of Goth and Industrial music— not to mention several well known pop icons— have found the life and thoughts of Aleister Crowley to be inspiring and dramatic.

He grew up in an extremely fundamentalist home, and after years of his mother calling him the devil, he embraced the slander and concluded that he was The Antichrist. After passing through a youth speckled with animal sacrifice and incest, he became involved with a number of occult secret societies. He mastered the techniques of occultism and the politics of the environment with a remarkable ease, and soon became one of the international luminaries of the movement.

Occultism during that era was a strange blend of Christian invocations, alchemy, and a heavy dose of somewhat mangled orientalism. Crowley never lost his distaste for Christianity, nor did his explorations below the belt give him much sympathy for the established puritanical thinking in the occult. He embraced eventually embraced black magic more emphatically, and combined the old style of occult work with an Egyptian theme, and an emphasis on alchemy fulfilled by extremely sexual rituals. He claimed that he was the annointed prophet of a new religion— Thelema— and that it would eventually take over the world, and reality itself. Behind the scenes, the world of the occult was violently divided whether to embrace him as an innovator or reject him as an infidel. Yet by then, his well-publicized adventurious lifestyle had made him an extremely public figure, and his reputation caused reactions from those of perverse glee, to hatred.

The papers of his day branded him the wickedest man in the world, and he went out of his way to encourage that appellation. At various times he was accused (rightly and wrongly) of treason, cowardice, murder, perversion, devil-worship and woman-beating. Heir to a brewery fortune, he died a penniless heroin addict in a rundown boarding house. And yet Aleister Crowley laid the foundation for much of the New Age. Long before J.Z. Knight or Shirley MacLaine ever channeled their first Ascended Master, Crowley was talking to his Holy Guardian Angel and receiving transmissions from Aiwass. Gerald Gardner, founder of modern Wicca, was a student of Crowley; his purportedly-ancient Book of Shadows contains whole passages from Crowley's Book of the Law... Even L. Ron Hubbard was a student of one of Crowley's disciples... and those pop psychologists telling you to do your own thing are just rewording Crowley's infamous Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law. Philosopher, poet, pop culture icon; Aleister Crowley retains his terror, his mystery and his magic(k) to this day.

Like Wilde, Crowley understood that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about... and like modern Goths, he understood that an aura of danger and the sinister can be very useful. He had a great love for tweaking noses and slaughtering sacred cows, and a wicked sense of humor which his devoted acolytes often miss. Above all else, Crowley was a shameless self-promoter who else would write an autohagiography? This has helped ensure his continuing legend. It has also, at times, detracted from his philosophy and resulted in a steady stream of posers who spout Crowleyan aphorisms without the slightest understanding of what he actually meant.

Crowley's philosophy of Thelema sees the individual as pre-eminent. His Will is not to be subsumed to anything; no law, no rule, no social more is more important than the Will. Anything which would stand in the way of the individual's Will is restriction and the word of Sin is restriction. What was this Will? The higher calling which directs us to become godlike— an urge which is smothered and dispersed by the trivia of modern life.

This resonates with Industrial types, who see our technological society and cultural taboos as hypocritical, evil and dehumanizing and seek to rise above them. They also put his Formula of the Scarlet Woman (accept all impressions) in taking images of ugliness and decay and transforming them into artworks and things of beauty.

Magick (so spelled to separate it from Stage Magic) is a cornerstone of Crowley's thinking. While on one level he saw any willed act as a magickal act, he was also given to performing rituals to gain his desired ends. While frequently influenced by classical or literary sources (Crowley had a brilliant mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of various mythologies), they were tailored to suit Crowley's needs and his philosophy. This do it yourself approach to ceremony can be seen in various Industrial practices. Instead of seeking enlightenment through traditional approaches, Industrials tend to create their own belief structures and symbols as they go along. Also like Crowley, many Industrials experiment with wine and strange drugs in an effort to expand their consciousness; Crowley was taking mind-altering substances, and writing in detail about their effects, before Hoffman took his first bicycle ride and Aldous Huxley knocked at the doors of perception.

Perhaps nothing gained Crowley more notoriety than his sexual excesses. Even by today's standards, Crowley was a profligate and seducer; in Victorian England, his bisexuality and satyritis were cause for general alarm. While mystics like Blavatsky spoke in hushed whispers about the evil use of sexuality in religious rites, Crowley was a regular and enthusiastic practitioner of sex magick, with men, women, and any combination of the above. His enthusiasm has not been wasted on those who came after him, who continue to use sex to alter consciousness in various ways.

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Commentary by Kevin Filan, Tuesday, June 2, 1998.

Illustration by Kurt Komoda