Often when people think about witches, wizards, and the occult, their minds go to a couple specific periods of time. To the Salem witch trials, to more ancient times of emperors and kings, and to prehistoric civilizations and their own belief in the powerful magic of gods. However, a time that goes often undiscussed and underrecognized is the growing fascination with the occult that occurred around the turn of the 19th Century.

The occult as a curiosity and a new frontier to explore especially fascinated the rich and powerful. Though I'm sure that pure intellectual curiosity was combined with a darker curiosity driven by the promise of unknown power. This period is sometimes featured in modern horror media, such as Penny Dreadful and Archive 81, but in my opinion, remains shamefully untapped. As far as the figureheads of this period go, there is none larger than that of Aleister Crowley, sometimes known as “The Wickedest Man In The World.”

Crowley was perhaps alternately an avatar and a scapegoat for all of occultism and societal nervousness about black magic, satanism, and the unknown. However, this is a different time than that of the aforementioned Salem. Though he may have been selectively exiled from certain circles and even countries, he was far from a pariah among polite society. You were less likely to find Aleister Crowley in a dungeon or a jail than you were to find him sipping champagne at a high-class party, joking and conversing with some of the era’s great creative minds. Aleister Crowley’s social life most closely resembled that of a modern-day rock star. It’s no surprise Ozzy Osbourne would later release a song called Mr. Crowley, as their lives seemed to follow similar paths, whether by chance or design.

He was originally born Edward Alexander Crowley in Royal Leamington Spa, England. His early years were spent very much on the opposite end of the spectrum of piety, as the son of devout Christian parents, and one who followed their teachings closely. That changed with the untimely death of his father. Unsurprisingly, such a traumatic event, occurring when Crowley was 11 years old, quickly caused fractures to spread in his faith.

He quickly entirely decoupled from his previously held Christian beliefs, pushing away from the holy trinity and journeying towards a certain fallen angel's warmer climates. A young Crowley began thumbing his nose at the Holy Trinity’s teachings at any moment possible, establishing smoking, masturbating, and sleeping with prostitutes as some of his most favorite frequent hobbies. Which, to be fair, does sound like a fun weekend. As he began to basically fill his life with the pursuit of pipe, whether smoked or laid, he earned the nickname “The Beast” from his mother. Unfortunately, she had just made the grave mistake of trying to correct his behavior by reinforcing it with an undeniably cool nickname.

Aleister Crowley

Public Domain

Aleister Crowley, probably thinking about doing some magic sex.

As far as his legal name, we were already nearing the death of Edward Alexander Crowley and the birth of the construct that was Aleister Crowley. Though he reportedly had always disliked the name, it was after a vision during a trip to Sweden that he finally made the decision to jettison the name he’d been given at birth. His reasoning was as follows:

“For many years I had loathed being called Alick, partly because of the unpleasant sound and sight of the word, partly because it was the name by which my mother called me. Edward did not seem to suit me and the diminutives Ted or Ned were even less appropriate. Alexander was too long and Sandy suggested tow hair and freckles. I had read in some book or other that the most favourable name for becoming famous was one consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee, as at the end of a hexameter: like Jeremy Taylor. Aleister Crowley fulfilled these conditions and Aleister is the Gaelic form of Alexander. To adopt it would satisfy my romantic ideals.”

Even just reading this short explanation does start to give an understanding of Aleister Crowley in relation to more modern figures. The mixture of confidence, insanity, and unabashed self-importance draws to mind Charles Manson or David Koresh.

Crowley’s father had left him a tidy fortune in inheritance, which is absolutely one of the best things to possess when you’re a young man primarily focused on absolutely as much sexual intercourse as possible with both men and women. After all, we’re talking about the man responsible for a belief system based on a single law: “Do what thou wilt,” which still rings true for the behavior of a modern trust fund kid, just with less weird hats.

His interest in the occult led him to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society in Europe focused on exploration of the supernatural, founded by 3 Freemasons. One that absolutely sounds like a Dark Souls covenant. However, it seems that the Golden Dawn were a little more focused on the academia of all things unknown, and Crowley was a little more focused on… experiences. The extent of his drug use, bisexuality, and continuing deep financial support for sex workers caused them to block him from any upward mobility within the order.

Aleister Crowley in Golden Dawn Garb

Public Domain

Crowley in Golden Dawn garb.

Frustrated by these stodgy old sorcerers, Crowley responded with basically, “Screw you guys, I’ll start my own occult society, with gay sex and hookers,” and began traveling the world and burning what was left of his father’s fortune. He was, in the words of a Silver Jews song, “slowly screwing his way across Europe”. He was also writing everything from erotic poems to magic (or “magick” as he spelled it) handbooks and texts. He hobnobbed with artists like Auguste Rodin, found love, and founded his own religion, which he called Thelema. Thelema, unsurprisingly, was very close to the structure of the Golden Dawn, just with what I assume was a much more lax substance abuse policy. They set up in Sicily, at least until they were banned after a man died under mysterious circumstances that may or may not have involved drinking a cat’s blood. From here he moved to being what I believe he’d perhaps always wanted to be: equal parts gadabout, enigma, and intellectual curiosity. He continued to travel in vigorous pursuit of all his favorite activities, though he was now without much of the money that had sustained him thus far. He died in 1947 from bronchitis.

Whether you consider him a subversive free-thinker, a dressed-up fraudster, or simply a charismatic and heavily bankrolled hedonist, it’s safe to think he achieved the bulk of what he’d wanted. His whole life, he did exactly what he wanted, and established a lasting legacy while doing so. It seems even almost 100 years after his death, his strange charisma still captivates. After all, it's hard to say your life was wasted when you end up on a Beatles album cover.

Top Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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