Aleister Crowley was an English occultist who preferred to go by the names of 'Master Therion' or the 'Great Beast of the Apocalypse', and was dubbed by the press of his day the 'Wickedest Man in the World' (a title in which he reveled). He was born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875 to upper-middle class, puritan parents. This was the same year that Eliphas Levi died, leading Crowley later to claim to be a reincarnation of the French occultist (though he also said the same of a number of other figures from esoteric history). He openly rebelled against the religious bigotry and repression of his upbringing by pursuing interests in the occult and degraded sexuality. Crowley devoted his time at Trinity College, Cambridge to the occult and poetry, and left without attaining a degree but with a penchant for calling himself Count Vladimir Svareff.
He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on November 18, 1898, taking the name 'Frater Perdurabo', and soon rose through the ranks before internal clashes saw him expelled in 1900. Instrumental in the factionalism that destroyed the Golden Dawn, Crowley was refused initiation into the Inner Order because, according to William Butler Yeats, "we did not think a mystical society was intended to be a reformatory". After his acrimonious departure, Crowley founded an Order of his own, the Astrum Argenteum (the 'Silver Star'), published some of the Golden Dawn's secret papers in his magazine The Equinox, and traveled widely. In Paris, he met Rose Edith Kelly, whom he married in 1903. His "Scarlet Women", mistresses such as Leah Hirsig whom he called "the Ape of Thoth", were a necessity to Crowley, giving rise to a number of illegitimate half-siblings to his daughter with Rose, Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith.
1904 saw the genesis of one of Crowley's primary works, Liber Legis ('The Book of the Law' - also called Liber AL vel Legis and often abbreviated as AL). One version of events is that Rose received psychic instructions to contact Aiwass, a spirit messenger of the Egyptian god, Horus, which Crowley did through magical ritual. Crowley decided that Aiwass was his "True Self", and Liber Legis was dictated to him over a period of three days (April 8-10) in Cairo. The central tenet of the work is the Law of Thelema: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law", a statement that highlights the primacy of True Will, rather than justifies license and self-indulgence. "Love is the law, love under will."
Crowley joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Templars of the Orient), and was its leader by 1922, the year of the publication of his Diary of a Drug Fiend. The Great Beast lived in the United States from 1915 to 1919, and in 1920 he established his Abbey of Thelema in a Sicilian villa. Both the name and the central tenet of Thelemic Law are taken from the medieval French satirist, François Rabelais, in his work La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua ('The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua') of 1534. Rumors of orgies, drugs and even (falsely) human sacrifice at the villa led to Crowley's expulsion from Italy by Mussolini in May 1923. In 1929 Crowley published a novel, Moonchild, based on his failed attempts to sire a child by magic (though his success on this score by more traditional methods was unquestioned), and he married his second wife, Maria Teresa de Miramar, in Leipzig. This year also saw the publication of an important magical work, Magick in Theory and Practice (Crowley appended the 'k' to magic to distinguish the ceremonial from the stage variety).
One of Crowley's greatest contributions to mystical study is the Tarot deck he designed. The Thoth deck was painted by Lady Freda Harris under Crowley's instruction, and was developed between 1938 and 1943 (considerably longer than the anticipated three months). Though Crowley published his study of the Tarot, The Book of Thoth, in 1944, the deck itself was not published until 1969.
Crowley's final years were characterized by poverty, dissipation and drug addiction. His abandoned wife, Rose, had died an alcoholic, and many of those associated with him had already met tragic ends. Crowley lived in a boarding house in Hastings, England from 1945, where he died on December 1, 1947. After cremation, his ashes were delivered to followers in the United States.
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