Aleister Crowley was one of the most bizarre, fascinating, and mysterious figures of the 20th century. Known in his own time as "the wickedest man in the world," Crowley equally attracted and repulsed his contemporaries. From spiritualism and writing to mountain climbing, yoga, and the occult, Crowley left his mark on many different facets of life. But he is perhaps most famous - or infamous - for his controversial, influential beliefs.
Facts about Aleister Crowley reveal a complicated, charismatic man who was not afraid to follow his own path. Born in 1875 to religious parents in England, Aleister Crowley ultimately flouted traditional morals and sought his own philosophical and spiritual beliefs that some people ridiculed and others embraced. He founded his own religion - known as Thelema - and was an important member of Ordo Templi Orientis, one of the most important secret societies.
But Crowley was a man of this world, even if he was preoccupied with mining the secrets of other worlds. During his adult life, he endured two global crises - World Wars I and II - and he may have participated in them in truly unique ways.
For better or for worse, it cannot be denied that Aleister Crowley was one of the most astonishingly original, imaginative people in modern history.
An important part of the rituals of Thelema, this so-called "sex magick" was supposed to be transformative and clarifying. Even body fluids were important to Crowley and his religion. In the Mass of the Phoenix, for example, participants had to consume a Cake of Light. What was the Cake of Light? It was a kind of twist on Catholicism's wafers: Cakes of Light contained either male fluids or menstrual blood.
As a member of the occult society Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), Crowley also added a new ritual based on "taboo positions" to be practiced by members of the 11th degree.
It is also important to note that Crowley had scores of intense, passionate affairs throughout his life. He considered himself to be bisexual, as he had both male and female partners. Crowley's belief in the power of the act was thus a guiding force in his personal relationships.
While in Cairo with his wife in 1904, Crowley claimed that he heard the voice of a messenger from the Egyptian god Horus. The messenger's name, Crowley claimed, was Aiwass. Crowley dutifully copied down everything Aiwass told him, and the writing became The Book of the Law, the spiritual guide to Crowley's new religion. Known as Thelema, the religion-philosophy emphasized individual will and magical ritual. Crowley believed he had been chosen as a prophet to help usher humanity into the Aeon of Horus.
Many biographers believe that Crowley's first mystical experience was prompted by his first "experience" with another man, while on vacation in Stockholm on New Year's Eve 1896. The product of a repressive culture, Crowley remained ambivalent about homosexuality throughout his life, though he had many male partners, claiming he pursued same-gender relationships as a route to enlightenment while still considering these desires to be a source of shame or debasement.
"It was an experience of horror and pain," he said about his Stockholm encounter, "yet at the same time, it was the key to the purest and holiest spiritual ecstasy that exists."
Crowley was a frequent drug user and sometime addict. After first being prescribed heroin to help with his asthma, Crowley quickly became interested in other drugs and how they might support his religious beliefs. Sadly, he developed an addiction to both heroine and cocaine, the latter of which eroded his nasal passages.
He even fictionalized his own drug struggles in the novel Diary of a Drug Fiend. The novel also articulated Crowley's belief in the power of Thelema to better a person's life.