Aleister Crowley

A concerned friend recently questioned how I can post quotes from Aleister Crowley on my Instagram page, and they cited an aspect of his reputation that would be pretty horrific if it was true. Crowley is definitely a controversial figure, so how do I reconcile that with his teachings on Tarot, The Tree of Life, and Thelema?

Crowley ended up at the centre of a lot of speculation about his work because people heard about it. But only little bits and pieces. I suspect that members of contemporary secret societies along the lines of the Golden Dawn were doing pretty much the same thing, but it was kept rigorously private. Crowley was out on his own, and probably not shy about sharing what he was learning.

And a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I grew up in Dallas, and when I was a teenager, the Mormons built a beautiful new temple in a relatively swishy part of town. No one knew much about Mormons and their temple was pretty different from the kind of buildings Dallas was used to, but people were patient and perhaps looked forward to being able to explore a new culture.

As it turned out, Mormons don’t open their places of worship to the public. I know very little about the faith, but I’m pretty sure that this isn’t because they are hiding anything horrible. It’s more likely to be because they know that without giving everyone a thorough explanation, people are likely to misinterpret what they see. I do know that this is the case with some Buddhist practices. They are kept secret, not because there’s something to hide or to insult anyone, but because there is something to protect. Once you’ve taken your course with a trained instructor, you can learn about the practice.

People in Dallas didn’t respond well to being kept out of the Mormon temple and all kinds of rumours began to spread about what was going on in there. I was a teenager at the time so didn’t really follow it very closely, but even I got wind of the general feeling of hostility that was building up. Religion and ritual are ripe for rumour.

Jimmy Page at Aleister Crowley’s Boleskine House

I read what Crowley wrote himself. It’s all very well to read what other people say about him but it’s only fair, if you’re going to pass judgement, to put it in context. It’s always a good rule of thumb to go to the original source. If you want to write a book about someone’s life, you want to go to their letters and their diary. You also want to talk to people who knew that person, but bearing in mind that these people are secondary sources. Their interpretation of what they saw and experienced with someone is always going to be affected by their personal lives. Of course, no one in their own diary is going to say something like “I’m a nightmare to work with”, so we need other people’s opinions to get a full picture. But we have to balance what they say with why they’re saying it.

Full transparency: I don’t want to believe that Crowley harmed anyone. But I try to keep myself as objective as I can be, because I don’t know. Everything I read that he’s written sounds concerned with Spirit before anything else, so I will proceed along those lines until I find something that stops me. And I ask questions: I read what he has to say about magick, even though I avoid it, because I want to know if that was on the up and up, or if he was for example conjuring money by making devilish promises … (if he was, then what does that actually say about what he was doing because once he spent his inheritance, he always had money problems).

The Dalai Lama said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” If I find proof that Aleister Crowley was a monster, then I’ll change what I do. But I won’t be drawn into rumour.