Aleister Crowley & the Occult Order of Thelema: The Wickedest Man?

Aleister Crowley was known in his lifetime as the wickedest man alive. But is the philosophy he created, Thelema, truly wicked?

Jun 20, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

aleister crowley thelema


The early 20th-century English occultist Aleister Crowley was known in his lifetime as the wickedest man alive. Often called “the Beast,” this was not simply because he was an avid occultist, but also because he chose to live outside society’s rules, particularly when it came to his sex life. This led to false rumors of him being a Satanist who supported human sacrifice. Eventually, in Egypt, Crowley claimed that he was contacted personally by a supernatural entity who provided him with a new sacred text, which formed the basis of his religion, Thelema.


Making of a Magician

Publicity image of Crowley dressed in Egyptian clothing used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn rituals, 1910, Source: Get Archive


Many tomes have been devoted to Crowley. He was a Renaissance man with a wide range of interests and varied life experiences that went well beyond occultism. But the lead-up to Crowley becoming one of the best-known mystics in England can be captured in a few key episodes.


Born in England in 1875 into a family of fundamentalist Christians, Crowley’s family was independently wealthy. It was Crowley’s inheritance that allowed him to freely pursue his interest in the occult as a young man, though the money would run out.


Crowley’s father was a traveling preacher whom Crowley always respected and admired. His relationship with his mother was more complicated. She was the one who started calling the young boy “the beast.” Crowley became rebellious and began to seriously question his Christian faith when his father died when he was just eleven years old.

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Photo of Aleister Crowley, 1929, Source: Wordsworth Editions


Crowley later attended Cambridge University where he studied philosophy and then English literature. However, his time was mostly dedicated to other interests such as chess, mountaineering, and publishing poetry. He also had an active sex life and pursued his interest in the occult—two key events made these things his focus.


First, he had his first homosexual experience, which Crowley described as a spiritual awakening, and he embraced his bisexuality. He then became ill and nearly died in Russia. Afterward, he decided to devote himself full-time to learning magic and returned to London where he joined the occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to learn ritual magic.


While he learned quickly, Crowley also had personal conflicts with many other members of the order and made enemies as he participated in the politics of the group. As a result, he was sometimes a leader in the organization and sometimes ostracized. This encouraged Crowley to learn more about magic independently, traveling to distant countries such as Mexico, Morocco, India, and China, where he studied their occult traditions and as well as spiritual practices such as Yoga.


The Revelation of Thelema

Cover Sheet from the Book of Law written by Crowley in Egypt, 1904, Source: The Hermetic Library


Crowley’s most fateful voyage would be his visit to Egypt in 1904, which was also his honeymoon. There he studied Islamic mysticism, while his wife Rose seems to have had ecstatic episodes with supernatural entities. On March 20, this would inspire her to take Crowley to a nearby museum where she showed him display number 666—an Egyptian artifact that Crowley would later call the Stele of Revealing.


Less than a month later, Crowley claimed to have been visited by an entity called Aiwass, who called himself the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat. Crowley said that he could hear the voice of the entity coming to him from behind his left shoulder and that he felt like the entity was in the far corner of the room. Though veiled and ghostly, or rather angelic, Crowley said that Aiwass felt like a tall, dark man in his mid-thirties with the face of a savage king. He spoke to Crowley in English, but with no discernible accent, and was dressed in Persian or Assyrian style.


Aiwass visited Crowley at noon for one hour on April 8th, 9th, and 10th. On each of those days, Aiwass revealed a book of knowledge. Crowley wrote these down and published them in three chapters as The Book of the Law, which became the fundamental text for Thelema.


The Unicursal Hexagram, the symbol of Thelema, by Elembis, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Crowley was always adamant that Aiwass had to be an entity separate from himself because he had so much more knowledge than Crowley possessed. He also claimed that Aiwass came to him again in 1907, this time when he was back in England, and recited further texts. It was after this second encounter that Crowley established an independent occult order for Thelema, known as A∴A∴.


Crowley would also continue to be part of other occult orders and he infused Thelemic ideas into those groups. Most importantly, Theodor Reuss, the German founder of the Ordo Templi Orientis, made Crowley the head of the London branch of his temple. This was when Crowley adopted the magical name Baphomet.


Principles of Thelema

Image of Crowley from The Libri of Aleister Crowley, Book 4, II, 1912, Source: Hermetic Library


Thelema is a classical Greek word that is found in the Greek translation of the Bible. In early Christian writing it is sometimes used to refer to the human will but it is more often used to refer to God’s will.


The main principle of Thelema is that you must find your True Will, which is your unique personal destiny. You must overcome your desires to realize that purpose, which is also called “the Great Work.”


The principal teaching of Thelema is: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” While Crowley’s detractors said that this was a way of justifying his decadent lifestyle, that is not what it means. It means that a person should ignore trivial things and follow their true destiny. This idea also has its roots in early Christian philosophy. Augustine of Hippo said: “Love and do what thou wilt.”


There are two additional core principles in Thelema. The first is that “every man and every woman is a star.” This is a reference to Plato’s statement that humans are composed of the same substance as stars and are neither entirely physical nor entirely spiritual. Therefore, this is a reminder that we are more than our physical bodies.


Dilapidated Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily, by Erik Albers, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The third principle is: “Love is the law, love under will.” This suggests that our destinies stem from a place of love, but also that the pursuit of love should not come before the pursuit of the Great Work.


Crowley elaborated on these principles through later publications. One of his main commentaries was that people have the right to live their lives according to their personal law and should be free to work, play, and rest according to their will. They should be able to eat and drink according to their will, and to think, speak, write, draw, paint, carve, etch, mold, build, and dress according to their will. They should be able to love according to their will, and live and die according to their will.


But there are also responsibilities within Thelema, embodied in four duties. The first duty is to yourself, which is to discover and follow your will. The second duty is to others. While you should remember that you are not separate from others, you should also not interfere with their will.


The third duty is to mankind. Committing a crime is considered a violation of True Will. It also says that all laws should be formed to maximize the liberty of individuals. The final duty is to all other beings and things. It says that you should never use an animal or object for a purpose for which it is unfit. This relates to the way humans use resources, and how it should be done with conscience.


Thelema Cosmology

The Stele of Revealing, 680-70 BCE, Source: The Hermetic Library


Thelema has its own dedicated cosmology. It is designed to provide spiritual context, but it is not dogmatic. Many followers of Thelema today also follow other religious traditions. Crowley’s cosmology was largely based on what he saw on the Stele of Revealing before the revelations of Aiwass. The stele was made for an Egyptian priest during the first millennium BCE and it shows the priest facing the god of the sun, Re-Horakhty, while the sky goddess Nut arches over them.


Thelemic cosmology is ruled over by Nuit, a goddess of the night sky based on the Egyptian sky goddess Nut. She is the highest deity and the mother of all. She represents all possibilities and is the source of all things.


While Nuit is vast, Hadit is an infinitely small point in the universe. He is the consort of Nuit and represents the manifestation of current possibilities. He is also described as the fire that burns in the hearts of all men and the core of every star. It represents how we manifest our True Will.


The third god is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, a version of the Egyptian god Horus. He is a god of the sun and represents the active energy that powers Thelemic magick (which Crowley spelled with a k to distinguish it from show magic). The god is symbolized by a man with the head of a hawk and carrying a wand.


There are also some lesser deities in Thelemic cosmology including Hoor-paar-kraat, twin of the sun god and the god of silence and inner strength. There is Babalon, a goddess of pleasure also known as the Virgin Whore, and Therion, the beast that Babalon rides who represents the wild animal within man as a force of nature. In addition, each person’s True Will manifests as a daemon, which is a kind of tutelary deity or personal guardian angel.


Magick Practices

Image of Crowley from The Libri of Aleister Crowley, 1910, Source: Hermetic Library


Traditional magickal practice is not essential to the practice of Thelema, as Crowley considered all intentional acts as acts of magick. But he suggested that magick was a valuable tool for discovering one’s True Will. He also suggested that before engaging in profound magick, practitioners should prepare themselves through spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation.


The Equinox, which was the periodical for Thelema, does share guidance on ritual magick practices, largely inspired by Crowley’s time in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. One of the core elements was the Gnostic Mass, a magical ritual based on the mass in the Greek Orthodox Church.


But Crowley thought that personal experimentation with magick as a pathway to self-discovery was more important, reflecting his own spiritual journey. He encouraged followers of Thelema to treat magickal experimentation like scientific experimentation to test hypotheses. He suggested skepticism is evaluating the results, especially for students who are new to magick. He wanted followers to keep journals recording the outcomes of their experiments and firmly believed that they would create scientific vocabulary for the discussion of magick.


The Rose Cross Lamen, the emblem of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, by Fuzzypeg, Source: Wikimedia Commons


For those who are magick practitioners, the ultimate goal is to cross the abyss and communicate directly with your daemon so that you can truly embody your True Will. To do this, you must relinquish all ego. But people who try to do this without being properly prepared can become a Black Brother. These people slowly disintegrate from the inside out and prey on others.


Crowley was also, famously, a strong believer in sex magick. Most of his bad reputation came from the fact that he was open about both his adultery and his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. But sex magick is not a cornerstone of Thelema. What is important is engaging in practices that help you throw off socially instilled inhibitions that block a person from seeing and understanding their True Will. For Crowley, personally, this was sex magick.


The Wickedest Man Alive

The Silent Watcher, from EQUINOX I, I, 1909, Source: The Hermetic Library


How exactly did Crowley earn the reputation as the wickedest man alive? Certainly, he was a victim of the press who claimed that he was a devil worshiper and supported human sacrifice. But we know from his prolific writings that this was not true.


Crowley was mostly vilified for his sexual proclivities and his libertine lifestyle, both of which he was public about. He also involved himself in personal scraps, such as when he tried to take control of the London Lodge of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. These actions made many other occultists, who could have been his allies, his enemies. He was accused of being a German spy during the First World War when he wrote for the pro-German New York magazine The Fatherland, but the evidence suggests that he was actually working as a British intelligence agent at the time.


So, while Crowley certainly may not have been the most likable man alive, wickedest seems like a stretch. While he struggled with drug abuse and illness in the later years of his life, he still managed to do great things. Most notable among them for occultists, is the production of the Thoth Tarot Deck. Thelema is still widely practiced by groups such as the Order of Thelemic Knights, Thelemistas, and the Ordo Sunyata Vajra.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica holds a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.