Hey, Thoughty2 here.
History is full of monsters: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and the bloke who invented
, If it’s your life goal to be the world’s biggest ‘see you next Tuesday’, there’s
some pretty stiff competition.
So when you earn yourself the epithet ‘the Wickedest Man in the World’, you know you’ve
been a really naughty boy.
But the man who did have that nickname, Aleister Crowley, never cared too much about public
The year was 1875 and Queen Victoria had wedged her ample frame firmly onto the English throne
when, like many of history’s greatest villains, Crowley was born in a rather smart townhouse
in Royal Leamington Spa.
Considering the controversy he would court throughout most of his adult life, Crowley
seems to have been a surprisingly normal kid.
Having said that, in a nice bit of foreshadowing it’s said his mother called him ‘the Beast’,
a nickname he would adopt in later life when he started non-ironically referring to himself
as ‘the Great Beast 666’.
Which sounds like the playstation network username of a sexually frustrated teenager
to me, but I think people were quite impressed at the time.
Crowley’s father died of tongue cancer when little Aleister was just 11 years old, and
it was this tragic event that set him on the path to infamy.
In the space of just a few short years, the nice little boy from Leamington Spa had denounced
his religious beliefs, started causing trouble at school, taken up smoking, and begun sleeping
with prostitutes, one of whom was generous enough to give him gonorrhea along with the
services he’d paid for.
It was to be the first of an impressive collection of STDs Crowley would accumulate in his lifetime.
Despite having become something of a rebel, Crowley was an excellent student, and, at
the age of 20 he left home to study at Cambridge University.
As it is for many young people, uni was a chance for Crowley to experiment.
He switched courses from philosophy to English literature, became an accomplished mountaineer,
and developed into such a strong chess player he briefly considered going pro.
He also conducted experiments of the sexual variety, taking many partners of both sexes
and adding syphilis to his budding STD collection.
Sex - especially of the weird variety - would play a big part in the occultist activities
for which he would one day become famous - but we’ll get to that later.
He was a keen poet, a habit he kept up his entire life.
But his poems were, shall we say, a little ‘unusual’.
In his final year at Cambridge he published a collection about, how can I put this without
getting demonetised - his, erm, ‘solo adventures.’
And just in case my meaning isn’t clear enough, I can tell you he gave his new book
the rather charming title ‘White Stains.’
Which sounds pretty risque even today, so you can imagine how people reacted in 1898
- not well.
In the end he was forced to publish the collection abroad for fear of persecution at home.
Ultimately, it seems Crowley had little time left over for trivial things like studying,
and he left university without obtaining a degree.
The good news was, he’d finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life: Aleister
Crowley was going to dedicate himself to the occult with the aim of becoming the world’s
most powerful magus.
As you do.
To that end he became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society
with an interest in the occult, metaphysics, and the paranormal.
The order had been founded by a couple of freemasons ten years prior, and they were
known to spend their time studying astrology, geomancy, and tarot cards.
At this point you might be picturing some kind of stereotypical secret society full
of aging white men dressing up in silly costumes and taking part in arcane rituals, but in
this case you’d be… correct.
Absolutely 100% correct.
But this was a different time, and grown men playing at wizards didn’t come with quite
the same stigma it does today.
As a result, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn counted some important and celebrated
individuals among its number, including Bram Stoker - he’d just published his seminal
novel ‘Dracula’ when Crowley joined the order in 1898 - Irish poet W.B.
Yeats, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
For the first time in his life, Crowley was truly in his element.
He took to his magic studies like Hermione Granger on amphetamines, demonstrating the
kind of devotion he’d never brought to bear at Cambridge, and he delighted in being around
Well, I say ‘like minded’ - while the Golden Dawn was everything Crowley had been
looking for, the Order did not, unfortunately, feel quite the same way about Crowley.
Many of the higher ups took their calling as wizards and magi very seriously, and they
believed true power could only be attained by those who abstained from drink, drugs,
Unfortunately, drink, drugs, and sex were the three pillars upon which Crowley based
his entire existence, so clashes were inevitable.
It’s rumoured he fell out with Yeats and other important members of the order, and
when he was passed over for promotion to the group’s inner circle, things went south
Instead of taking the setback like a good little wizard, Crowley went rogue, attempting
to seize control of one of the Golden Dawn’s London temples known as the Vault of the Adepts.
Well I say ‘temple’ - it turns out the Vault of the Adepts bears a striking resemblance
to your standard London terraced house, but I guess ‘number 36 Blythe road’ didn’t
sound quite mystical enough.
Unsurprisingly, this little stunt spelled the end of Crowley’s career with the Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn.
But his determination to become a great and powerful wizard had not diminished - if anything,
getting the boot had lit a fire under his arse.
He began scouring the globe for ancient wisdom, working his way through Mexico, the USA, India,
Japan, China, Hong Kong, Paris, Canada, and Algeria.
But it seems it was in Egypt he finally found what he was looking for.
Or should I say, what he was looking for found him.
Crowley had recently gotten married, and the happy couple chose Cairo for their honeymoon.
Once safely in the honeymoon suite, Crowley turned to his new bride and gave her a couple
of suggestive eyebrow raises - she knew exactly what he wanted to do… turn the room into
a makeshift temple and start invoking Egyptian deities.
Ever the enigma, his honeymoon turned out to be the only time Crowley didn’t have
sex on the brain, though the couple must have eventually gotten around to it because they
had their first child the following year.
We know Crowley was happy to become a father because as a thank you to his wife for making
it all possible, he wrote her a charming collection of pornographic poetry.
Because high brow porn is exactly what you need when you’ve just squeezed a baby out
of your vagina.
Anyway, after some vigorous, passionate, and no doubt sweaty deity invoking in Cairo, a
spirit called Aiwass appeared and started whispering in Crowley’s ear.
Aiwass, as it turned out, was a messenger of the God Horus, and it seems he had an awful
lot to say for himself, because once he started talking he didn’t shut up for 3 days straight.
And this was no idle chit chat about the weather or the frankly scandalous price of diesel
- when the 3 days were up, the messenger of the Gods had dictated an entire book which
was to become the foundational text of a new religion known as Thelema.
The text, which came to be known as ‘the Book of the Law’, detailed how humanity
was about to enter a new era, and conveniently enough it named Crowley as a prophet.
It also outlined one supreme philosophy -- “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”
– and this maxim became the cornerstone of Thelema.
According to Crowley, life was all about the pursuit of each person’s will, regardless
of popular opinion, law, or conventional ethics.
In other words, “Look after yourself and screw everyone else.”
And he certainly seems to have practised what he preached.
For example, the following year he made an ill-fated attempt to scale Kanchenjunga, the
world’s third highest mountain that was at the time unclimbed and widely considered
the most dangerous peak on earth.
During the expedition, Crowley’s fellow mountaineers eventually got sick of him being
reckless, weird, and a bit of a dick, and they started making their way back down the
mountain as night fell.
This went against Crowley’s advice, and sure enough, some of them were subsequently
killed in an avalanche … but rather than show concern for his fellow mountaineers,
or even settling for a simple “I told you so”, Crowley is reported to have completely
ignored the survivors’ cries for help in favour of chilling out in his tent.
What a guy.
By 1920, Crowley was making plans to move to the Italian island of Sicily to establish
a new headquarters for his religion.
It would become known as the Abbey of Thelema, and a lot of freaky things went on there,
though almost all of them involved sex and drugs in one form or another.
You see, Crowley was a firm believer in something he called ‘sex magick’, which he spelled
with a ‘K’ to make sure nobody mixed it up with the boring old PG 13 magic you get
at children’s parties.
Sex magick is an extremely complicated belief system that requires many years of study to
even begin to understand and a liftetime to master, but I think I’ve managed to figure
out the gist: it’s a flimsy excuse to convince people to have sex with you.
Basically, if Crowley thought you were hot, there was a good chance Aiwass, messenger
of Horus, was about to appear in a drug-fuelled vision to demand an immediate orgy.
As ridiculous as this premise was, it seems Crowley truly was a master of convincing men,
women, and - according to some rumours - animals that his wand really was magical, because
he practised his brand of sex magick all over the world and with countless partners.
As for the drugs, Crowley is said to have done so much cocaine at the abbey his nasal
cavity began to erode.
It’s actually quite surprising he found the time, considering how much heroin he was
He was rather partial to a bit of opium, was a big fan of hashish as an aid to mysticism,
and was known to offer punch spiked with peyote at get togethers with his followers just to
make sure everyone thought a bunch of weird occult stuff had happened, even if all they’d
been doing was sitting on the sofa giggling.
Anyway, it was all going swimmingly at the Abbey until 1923, when one of Crowley’s
followers died after drinking water from a polluted stream.
The man’s wife immediately returned to London where she sold her story to the press.
As well as the unfortunate death of her husband, she spoke of terrible conditions at the Abbey
of the Thelemites, which sounded quite grand but was actually a small cottage covered in
animal faeces, and of strange rituals performed in the dead of night.
She also confessed she’d been forced to drink the blood of a sacrificed cat on Crowley’s
orders, and that she and other Thelema acolytes were required to cut themselves with razor
blades every time they used the pronoun ‘I’.
And you thought being careful which pronouns you used was a 21st century thing.
The British press had a field day, and it was here that Crowley was branded with the
title that would come to define him for the rest of his days: “The wickedest man in
The negative press was so bad that Mussolini, in power in Italy at the time, had Crowley
You know you’re having a public relations crisis when Mussonlini doesn’t want anything
to do with you.
Mind you, this wouldn’t be the only time Crowley was thrown out of a country.
He’d already been forced to leave India after shooting two muggers, and in later life
he would be told to leave France on account of his reputation for debauchery and occultism..
So yeah, he was about as popular in the queue for immigration as COVID.
But the rough ride Crowley got in the British press didn’t only stem from stories of death
and depravity at the Abbey of Thelema, nor from the fact he was bisexual - homosexuality
was illegal at the time - or his drug use.
No, what really got Crowley in the bad books was his support for the Germans during the
First World War, when he regularly wrote for pro-German propagandist publications like
As you can probably imagine, he was vilified back home in blighty, but as it turned out,
Crowley was actually one of the good guys - at least in this case.
You see, he’d infiltrated German operations so he could actively work against them, and
his overblown, hyperbolic rants in ‘The Fatherland’ were carefully designed to make
the publication a laughing stock.
Aleister Crowley, grand magus and dark wizard, was also working as a double agent for the
British Intelligence service in his spare time.
Perhaps considering all the crap he took in the first World War, by the time the second
World War broke out, Crowley had decided to nail his colours firmly to the mast.
He branded Hitler a “Black Magician” and wrote to the Naval Intelligence Division offering
his services in the fight against the Nazis.
On this occasion they declined, but Crowley maintained close ties with a variety of writers
in the intelligence community, including Dennis Wheatley, Roald Dahl, and Ian Fleming.
He must have had quite an impression on Ian Fleming in particular, as the celbrated writer
not only based the James Bond villain “Le Chiffre” on Crowley, but Crowley was also
Fleming’s first choice to interrogate occult-obsessed Nazi Rudolph Hess when he was captured in
Despite not having much to do during the Second World War, Crowley claimed to have made his
mark by coming up with the "V for Victory" sign used by Winston Churchill, believing
it would be a powerful magical symbol to counteract the swastika.
Whether or not he anticipated it’s modern day usage - a handy way to say ‘eff you’
when someone cuts you up on the motorway - is unknown.
Crowley eventually died in 1947 aged 72 in poverty, obscurity, and no doubt significantly
less sexually active than he was in his prime.
After all, there can’t be many women, or men, who are turned on by the “heroin-addicted-skeleton”
Despite his controversial life, Crowley’s influence on occultism and pop culture can’t
His pet religion, Thelema, is still alive today, and its followers believe Crowley to
have been a great prophet - just as Aiwass claimed back in Egypt.
Hubbard was once a dedicated Thelemite, and it’s probably no coincidence he ended up
following in his mentor’s footsteps in inventing - sorry, I mean ‘discovering’ - his own
But it’s perhaps in the world of music that Crowley is most fondly remembered, which probably
shouldn’t come as a surprise - after all, he may have been a black magician and an occultist,
but on a steady diet of sex, drugs, and, well, more sex and drugs - he truly lived life like
He became an icon for the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s, and was namechecked in
the work of some of the biggest bands in history.
His mugshot made the cut on what might just be the most famous album cover of all time
- The Beatles’ Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he’s cropped up in songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin,
David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was so obsessed with Crowley he even bought his old house.
Whatever Crowley got up to during his highly unconventional life, he not only had an indirect
influence on those more anti-authoritarian parts of pop culture -- the beat poets, rock
n’ roll, and punk -- but also on things like sexual liberation.
He’s often accused of sexism, of course -- between penning porn poems and telling
women they had to sleep with him because his made up God said so he wasn’t exactly a
feminist -- but on the other hand, he also advocated complete sexual freedom for both
men and women.
Not only that, but he argued homosexual and bisexual people should not be ashamed, or
afraid of who they were, and that they shouldn’t have to “violate their own true nature”
due to public opinion.
For that, and many other reasons, he was way ahead of his time.
Crowley once said “Certain actions produce certain results”, and no matter what you
might think about him, his actions produced results which have shaped our world in a variety
In 2002, he was even voted number 73 in the BBC’s list of “100 Greatest Britons,”
which surely would have enraged the tabloids who gave him such a hard time during his life.
So, was Aleister Crowley truly wicked?
Well, kind of.
But as is often the case, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Thanks for watching.