The wickedest man in the world: Aleister Crowley

01:00 Sun 10th Mar 2002 |

Q. The wickedest man in the world

A. So Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) wished to be known. Doubtless you're all aware of Crowley's reputation as a black magician and acolyte of the 'dark forces', but did you know that he was a mountaineer of some considerable repute

Q. Mountaineer

A. In 1902 he tried to climb the world's second highest mountain, Chogo-Ri, (Everest was prohibited to Europeans at that time) and failed dismally. Some time later he led a climb up the third highest, Kanchenjunga, with himself as leader, but was stopped short because of an accident, possibly of his own making, in which some of the climbers were killed. He made things worse by leaving them on the mountain and he was shunned by the mountaineering fraternity thereafter.

However, in the 1980s there was an early-evening BBC television programme on which celebs discussed their personal heroes - the programme's name Heroes; theme tune: the Stranglers' 'No More Heroes' - and when mountaineer Chris Bonnington (not, as far as anyone knows, an occultist) was on he picked Crowley.

Q. Anyway. To the point: what about Crowley's writings

A. Where do you start In his lifetime he published around 70 titles - some commercial, some self-published - and he considered himself a major literary figure, though history has not shared his view.

Q. No

A. Crowley was brought up in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and he is on record as saying that it was 'a strange coincidence that one small county should have given England her two greatest poets - for one must not forget Shakespeare'. Most commentators are less convinced by his abilities as a poet, however.

His most important works are The Book of Lies (a collection of paradoxes), The Book of the Law (in which he states many of his beliefs), The Book of Thoth (a classic of tarot study), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (his autobiography and one of the most famous books on the occult ever written), Diary of a Drug Fiend (in which he describes his drug experiences as well as chronic addiction to heroin - which, incidentally, came about not as a result of recreational use, but medical application) and The World's Tragedy (in which he damned Christianity as 'not only the cause but the symptom of slavery'). There are numerous websites - though many are far from critical - which deal with every aspect of Crowley's written work.

While it would be simple to concentrate on the shocking, pornographic or simply blasphemous elements of his writings, perhaps his enduring literary legacy is the fact that he, for the first time, made publicly available much of the arcane knowledge of mystical and heretical sects from all periods of the Christian era.

Q. What about Crowley in literature

A. Crowley featured as the model for the central character in W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician. Maugham had met Crowley in Paris in 1907, and created the evil Oliver Haddo as a result of the encounter. He also inspired historian of the occult and novelist Colin Wilson to create the character of Caradoc Cunningham in his novel The Man Without a Shadow.

Q. So, was he really the Beast

A. Crowley was brought up as a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and much of his behaviour can be traced back to his outright rejection of the teachings of this fundamentalist Christian sect. He absolutely despised the Christianity of the late 19th century, which he saw as deeply hypocritical and the root of all the repression he saw in the world. His most famous saying 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' was a reaction to the strictures he felt were put on humanity by 'restrictive' religions. True will, he believed, would allow everyone to express their freedom without ever impeding anyone else's. Nice theory, you may think, but in practice, at least as practised by Crowley, it tended to send those around him down the psychological wastepipe - maybe because he surrounded himself with those who would allow themselves to be dominated by him.

His behaviour - and his written work - was, more than anything, about pushing the boundaries of the society in which he grew up, and he unquestionably intended to shock. His enormous ego and sexual appetite, when combined with a complete disregard for the sensibilities and welfare of others, tended to lead to the imposition of his will rather than freedom for all to express themselves as they chose. Rather than being the 'wickedest man in the world' and the Devil incarnate his biographer Martin Gardner suggests that Crowley's 'reputation has been that of a man who worshipped Satan, but it is more accurately that he worshipped no one except himself'.

See also the answerbank articles on the Marquis de Sade , the life of Crowley and Ian Brady

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By Simon Smith

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