Occultist, astrologer, mystic, magician, bisexual and drug fiend, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was denounced as “the wickedest man in the world” by the press of his day and served as inspiration for the eponymous villain in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician. His life as a flamboyant libertine influenced the Rolling Stones and earned him a place on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin became so obsessed that he bought Crowley’s former estate. On April 20, 1906 the self-proclaimed Beast 666 was in Shanghai summoning his Holy Guardian Angel.
The visit was to see Elaine Simpson, a former mistress and fellow member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British secret society dedicated to the study and practice of the occult. Crowley had been initiated into the order in 1898 after leaving Cambridge University, where he had developed his interest in arcane arts, in part rebelling against his strict Christian upbringing, in part as an outlet for his voracious sexual appetite – a visitor to prostitutes from his teens, Crowley’s first significant mystical experience was said to be the result of his first receptive homosexual experience, which brought him “an encounter with an immanent deity.”
Despite quickly rising through the ranks of the Golden Dawn, he clashed with other members, who included author of Dracula Bram Stoker and poet W.B. Yeats (Crowley contended that the latter’s animosity was down to jealousy of his ability as a poet). Many of the more staid members believed that a magician should abstain from sex, drink and drugs to keep his mind clear. A keen advocate of all three, it was all too lightweight for the Beast 666, who was soon accused of black magic (while accusing Yeats of using black magic against him in return).
Image via Wikipedia
Crowley decided to outdo them all and set about his first attempt to invoke his Holy Guardian Angel. Buying Boleskine House on the shore of Loch Ness, he commenced performing the Abramelin, a six-month black magic ritual that nobody had dared undertake in centuries. While the aim of the ritual is to invoke the magician’s Holy Guardian Angel, to do so he must also evoke the twelve Kings and Dukes of Hell - including Lucifer, Satan, Leviathan and Belial – and bind them, thereby gaining command of them in his own mental universe. The ceremony has an introduction which states that nobody should perform it.
While Crowley was not afraid to undertake the Abramelin, he broke it off before completion to return to London to take sides in a schism in the Golden Dawn. The Holy Guardian Angel would have to wait. After a mountaineering excursion in Mexico he moved on to San Francisco, where he stayed in Chinatown. “It was the first time that I had come into contact with the Chinese spirit in bulk,” he wrote, “and though the exiles were naturally the least attractive specimens of the race, I realized instantly their spiritual superiority to the Anglo-Saxon, and my own deep-seated affinity to their point of view.
"The Chinaman is not obsessed by the delusion that the profits and pleasures of life are really valuable. He gets all the more out of them because he knows their worthlessness, and is consequently immune from the disappointment which inevitably embitters those who seek to lay up treasure on earth. A man must really be a very dull brute if, attaining all his ambitions, he finds satisfaction. The Eastern, from Lao Tzu and the Buddha to Zoroaster and Ecclesiastes, feels in his very bones the futility of earthly existence. It is the first postulate of his philosophy."
In 1903, Crowley married Rose Kelly, and in early 1904 went on honeymoon to Egypt where - with the help of his new wife, the Egyptian god Horus and a museum exhibit with the number 666 – he was finally put in contact with his Holy Guardian Angel. He was called Aiwass, and over three days, in a disembodied voice, he dictated The Book of the Law to Crowley – the work that would become the cornerstone of his new religion, and which included his most famous maxim: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Crowley remained unconvinced of the authenticity of his experience, and his worldly wanderings continued. First came a disastrous attempt to climb one of the world’s highest mountains, Kangchenjunga, where he is said to have ignored the pleas for help of his party during an avalanche which killed four men, preferring to sit in his tent drinking tea. He was then forced to leave India after shooting dead a man who had tried to mug him in Calcutta. Crowley headed for China.
Image via Wikimedia
His entrance to the country in late 1905 could not have been much more dramatic. Traveling overland from Burma, as he crossed the river that marked the border with Yunnan Province he dismounted from his pony to stretch his legs. Once limbered, he attempted to remount, but the beast reared, sending them both crashing down a forty-foot cliff.
Lying on the ground looking back at the length of his fall, Crowley waited for the pain of his broken body to kick in. It didn’t. Unscathed, he became convinced that he was being protected for some prophetic purpose, and now believed himself to be the world’s greatest magus. He threw himself into his spiritual and magical work, reciting a preliminary invocation daily in order to once again get in contact with his Holy Guardian Angel.
Meanwhile, there may have been a specific reason Crowley was entering China through Yunnan. In his Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult, Richard B. Spence speculates that Crowley could have been working as a spy. Yunnan was a sphere of Anglo-French competition, and tensions were high with the French constructing the Yunnan-Tonkin Railway, a potential path to annexation in Indochina. Crowley himself wrote that the French had “flooded Yunnan-Fu [the provincial capital, today Kunming] with agents.”
Yunnan was also a major opium producer, but the trade’s future was uncertain. A campaign was growing in Britain to curtail or ban it, hurting France’s tax revenue. Crowley writes that among the goals of his trip was to “get available information about the effects of smoking opium,” and the eccentric Englishman’s personal interest would serve as the perfect cover for gathering such information. It would certainly explain Crowley’s passing mention of having “settled my little official affair with the Consul General” in Yunnan-Fu. One thing we know for sure – Crowley certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity to smoke the stuff himself, buying an opium pipe and writing The King Ghost and The Opium Smoker.
The Crowleys spent the next few months traveling around China, but it was decided that in March 1906 that they would return to Britain. Rose was sent via Calcutta to collect their belongings, a risk Crowley dared not take. Unbeknown to her, he instead headed to Shanghai to consult with Elaine Simpson - or Semper Fidelis, as she was known in the Order.
Although Crowley had not seen Simpson for a number of years, they had kept in touch by means of astral journeys - psychic meetings on another plane of existence. It was something that her mother (described by Crowley as “a sixth-rate singer, a first-rate snob, with dewlaps and a paunch; a match-maker, mischief-maker, maudlin and muddle-headed”) was not happy about.
“The ghastly hag put it all round London and New York that I had entered her daughter’s room at night in my Body of Light,” wrote Crowley. “The woman must have been as witless as she was worthless to splash her own daughter with such ditch-water.”
On arrival Crowley and Simpson began working magic together, and she agreed to assist him in invoking Aiwass once again. On April 20, they “went into her temple” where, Crowley explains in his Confessions, he appeared to them on the astral plane in brilliant blue with wand in hand. “He has followed you all along,” Simpson explained. “He wants you to follow his Cult.”
Image via Wikimedia
Aiwass instructed Crowley to return to Egypt, where he would be given three signs. Simpson was not to accompany him though. “Do not take Fidelis. I do not like the relations between you two; break them off!” the spirit declared. “Yet I would wish you to love physically, to make perfect the circle of your union. Fidelis will not do so, therefore she is useless. If she did, she would become useful.”
In other words, unless Simpson would have sex with Crowley, she was to be cast aside. Married, she remained faithful to her husband. Crowley left Shanghai on April 21, for America rather than Egypt, where he hoped to raise funds for a second expedition to Kangchenjunga. “On the 22nd I was sick and stayed in bed all day,” he wrote. “I did no regular invocation, but thought over the recent crisis. I dismissed the Shanghai experience as a morbid dream.”
He showed ambivalence about the role that his use of hashish had played in his experience, and again performed the operation two years later without its use in Paris.
Crowley eventually attempted to put all he had learned to practice, founding a commune in the Abbey of Thelema in Palermo, Sicily in 1920. His sex magick was too much for even Mussolini though, who threw him out of the country three years later amid rumors of an orgy involving a goat, and a young Oxford graduate dying after the ceremonial drinking cat blood.
Crowley was never to reach such personal highs again. He drifted into full-blown heroin addiction, eventually dying in a boarding house in Hastings, England in 1947, after his doctor had refused to continue his opiate prescription. The doctor died within 24 hours of Crowley. It is believed the Beast 666 had put a curse on him.
For more, This Day in History stories, click here.
[Cover image via Wikimedia]