Who Was Aleister Crowley?

Famed occultist Aleister Crowley was once labelled the “wickedest man in the world.” Nonetheless, his eclectic life and works profoundly influenced modern culture.

Dec 12, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

who was aleister crowley


Aleister Crowley was one of the most prolific and influential occultists of the modern era. A prodigiously talented author, poet, and mountaineer, he became infamous for his writings on the occult, rampant drug use, and extreme sexual practices. Crowley’s life reflected the paradoxes of norm and taboo that animated Victorian society. The self-proclaimed “Great Beast 666” was the subject of intense media speculation and roundly denounced in his lifetime. Yet despite his fame, had few followers. However, posthumously his influence became pervasive and he ascended to the status of a cult icon.


Youth Towards the Golden Dawn

Aleister Crowley dressed as Osiris (1899)


Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was born into a wealthy household in Leamington Spa, England. His father owned Crowley’s Ales and was an active member of the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian church. Crowley experienced a strict and tumultuous upbringing. At eight he endured the rigors of an evangelical boarding school and struggled to get on. His teenage rebellion consisted of masturbating, smoking, torturing animals, and having sex with prostitutes. 


He later excelled in the study of English literature at Cambridge University and exhibited prowess in chess. However, the drive that began to consume – and define – him, was the desire to transcend his father’s faith and seek enlightenment beyond the confines of Christianity.


In 1898, Crowley delved into this pursuit and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ritual magic secret society dedicated to exploring the Occult. Nonetheless, his confrontational demeanor, open bisexuality, and libertine lifestyle clashed with the society’s principles, prompting his swift departure in 1899.

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The Law of Thelema

Crowley in full ceremonial costume (1912), Source: Wikipedia


Aleister Crowley’s pivotal claim to fame is that he founded the esoteric new religious movement of Thelema. Thelema is codified in The Book of Law (1904), a text Crowley claimed was dictated to him by a spiritual entity named Aiwass, during his honeymoon in Egypt.


The central doctrine of Thelema is the revelation: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” The essence of this “Law of Thelema” is that every individual, by following their true purpose shines akin to the stars in the universe. In alignment with one’s true will, “Love is the law, love under will”. 


The cosmology of Thelema intertwines ancient deities from Ancient Egyptian religion with wisdom gleaned by Crowley from Indian yoga and tantric Buddhism. Practically, Thelema revolves around a regimen of physical, mental, and spiritual exercises, from basic yoga to elaborate rituals and ceremonial “sex magick” (as per Crowley’s unique spelling). 


Sex Magick

Aleister Crowley, sexual magician, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Much of Crowley’s life revolved around his exploration of sex and masturbation. He openly engaged in sexual relationships with both men and women, defying the norms of the time (homosexuality was illegal). In 1898 he published an entire book of poetry dedicated to male masturbation, White Stains


Thus, the innermost secret of the Law of Thelema was sexual magick, of which Crowley was both a practitioner and theorist. Under this doctrine, the teachings of Thelema instruct all manner of sexual magick, from masturbatory and heterosexual techniques to ritualistic anal sex and so-called transgressionary “deviant” acts. 


Sexuality and magic have a deeply intertwined history in Western esoteric thought. However, Crowley’s emphasis on sex was more profound – and central to his system. Sexuality is seen as the most profound and supreme magical power in human history. Predictably, his perspective on such matters both shocked and titillated his contemporaries in equal measure. 


Crowley the Mountaineer

Crowley bathing in a spring close to the K2 basecamp (1902)


Amongst his more peculiar achievements, Crowley also made a mark as a record-breaking mountaineer. He gained early fame through his pioneering solo ascents of the infamous chalky cliffs of Beachy Head in southern England, and successfully summited the Eiger, Wetterhorn, Jungfrau, and Mönch peaks in the Swiss Alps. His adventurous spirit led him to attempt Mexico’s most imposing peaks and most famously, mount an ill-fated yet record-breaking attempt to climb K2. The K2 trip was marked by atrocious weather and severe altitude sickness. Afflicted by malaria and snow blindness, Crowley, for his part, attempted to alleviate his ailments by drinking champagne. Blind drunk, and delirious with fever, he drew a revolver on a fellow climber. 


While the attempt to summit ultimately failed, Crowley’s team spent 68 days at 20,000 feet – setting a then world record for the longest time spent at that altitude. K2’s peak would not be reached for another 52 years. 


Crowley’s Legacy

“Welcome into the Realms of Magick”, note the use of Crowley’s spelling.


Aleister Crowley left an enduring imprint on modern culture. Thelema went on to inspire many followers. The Book of Law was accepted as scripture by the Ordo Templi Orientis (whom he joined in 1912) and was influential in shaping the foundations of Wicca. His interpretation of a new tarot card deck in The Book of Thoth (1944) remains in popular use today. 


By the 1960s, Crowley had become a counter-cultural icon. He appears on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His influence reached musical legends, from Jimmy Page and David Bowie to Ozzy Osbourne. Contemporary artists from Lady Gaga to Kanye West have cited his influence. 


Perhaps above all Crowley reflected the cultural contradictions of his era. His rebellion against Christian morality outraged polite society, yet his quest for sexual liberation – foreshadowing the debates that were to come – firmly placed him as a man ahead of his time. 

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.