THE CHAOTIC: Crowley was an early shock trooper in the ontological guerrilla warfare waged by people like Brion Gysin, A. O. Spare, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Peter Carroll, and Robert Anton Wilson. He wasn’t afraid to directly assault traditional value systems; he demonstrated the limits of logic; he explored the distant cognitive frontier; and he insisted on individual thought instead of dogma. He could sometimes forget his own principles but that’s part of the process too. At least he kept his sense of humor!
THE SKEPTIC: Crowley’s negative view of intellect is comparable with Blake’s view of Newton and Urizen. As Crowley was a freethinker one might think of him as one of the highly differentiated points on the existentialist spectrum, a kind of occult Kierkegaard. Other existentialists also dedicated much of their work to the reclamation and validation of denied or underworld feelings. Crowley may deserve study as a literary contributor but not as a philosophical contributor—he was a sloppy thinker, and his doctrine of contradictions degenerates into an excuse for contradictions.
Crowley was an early shock trooper in the ontological guerrilla warfare waged by people like Brion Gysin, A. O. Spare, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Peter Carroll,
and Robert Anton Wilson.
THE MYSTIC: Truth and falsehood as applied by the intellect are false. Truth is only known to the Master of the Temple, the silent Self first assumed by the Babe of the Abyss who is born after the fall of Reason. Truth can only be spoken by the Magus, but He is Cursed to have His Word be heard as falsehood. This Truth is beyond any possible description in words but could be indicated as the Understanding of the unity of the psyche and the world that it creates.
The Free Love movement and the embrace of Pagan values by Neo-Classical Romanticism in the 19th and early 20th centuries validated sexual inquiries in literature, the arts, popular morals, and Spiritualism. Sexual revolution brought in advocates such as Victoria Woodhull, H. G. Wells, and of course Aleister Crowley.
In world religion, writers such as Richard Payne Knight collected sexual odds and ends from archaeology and mythology and argued for the universal phallic basis of religion.
Rumors spread of the hidden sexual wisdom of the East as reflected in certain Yogic works, the Kama Sutra, and in Tantra, as well as in Islamic texts such as The Scented Garden. These volumes, discreetly translated by adventurers such as Gnostic Saint Richard Francis Burton and circulated by private subscription through gentlemen’s clubs, helped inspire a Rabelaisian revival, including Pierre Louys and the decadents.
In the occult world, African-American mage Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) created a system of sexual magic that influenced writers such as
H. P Blavatsky and Crowley and became the foundation of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an influential but ill-starred occult group contemporary with the Golden Dawn and Theosophy. The Cromlech Temple preached an erotic interpretation of Christian symbolism (their papers were collected by Francis King in Astral Projection, Ritual Magic, and Alchemy, London 1971), while in France saucy Gnosticism and atheism-friendly Freemasonry developed their own sexual interpretations, such as Ragon’s idea of the Rose and Cross as representing the organs of generation, and Eliphas Levi’s identification of Lucifer, Pan and Baphomet as sexual forces.
Theodor Reuss, an associate of Richard Wagner, collected his own ideas of sexual mysticism and those he attributed to Karl Kellner into a new type of esoteric Freemasonry called the Ordo Templi Orientis or O.T.O., which claimed to hold the keys to sex magic. Other forms of esoteric Freemasonry embraced a sexual doctrine under a variety of veils, and the French mystic Papus co-developed with the O.T.O. and H.B.L. sexual interpretations of occult formulae such as the Tetragrammaton. Papus’ reading of YHVH in The Tarot of the Bohemians is remarkably similar to Crowley’s in Magick.
Crowley, born in 1875, was brought up in the thick of this pro-sexual current in Western society and in occultism. Since Rabelais Thélème has been associated with libertinism and Crowley’s Thelema is no exception. Crowley was a libidinous individual and he delighted in flouting Christian sexual taboos. He was a bisexual ritualist and sexual adventurer.
Like many occultists and some scholars, Crowley believed that a unified religious and phallic tradition lay behind all the variations in world religion. He described his system as “solar-phallic” after Jung, and while the particular sexual formulae he employed are secret, it is no secret that the inner formulæ of the A∴ A∴, O.T.O. and E.G.C. are charged with sexual significance.
Crowley’s interpretations of sexual symbolism change over the course of his life. In addition, his systematizing tendency—his desire to present a simple key or formula as initiated meaning—was at war with his freewheeling, variegated, and playfully perverse tastes.
The sexual instinct is sacred and expresses a transgenerational undying intelligence through the mechanisms of evolution and reproduction. Christianity does us harm by denying the sacredness of the sexual instinct and its variations. Sexual experimentation and sex outside marriage are praiseworthy. Christianity’s sacrament of the Eucharist perverts an older pagan ceremonialism in which the Eucharist involved sexual fluids. The Phallus is the true God, while the female deity is either derogated as a temporary refuge (the womb) or exalted as the bearer of the Mundane Egg of the Orphics. The female part in sex magick, which he derogated early in life, assumes greater significance and respect in late works such as The Book of Thoth.
ALEISTER CROWLEY: “I have insisted that sexual excitement is merely a degraded form of divine ecstasy. I have thus harnessed the wild horses of
human passion to the chariot of the Spiritual Sun. I have given these horses wings that mankind may no longer travel painfully upon the earth, shaken by every irregularity of the surface, but course at large through the boundless ether. This is not merely a matter of actual ceremonies; I insist that in private life men should not admit their passions to be an end, indulging them and so degrading themselves to the level of the other animals, or suppressing them and creating neuroses. I insist that every thought, word and deed should be consciously devoted to the service of the Great Work. ‘Whatsoever ye do, whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.’”
—The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, chapter 61.
“Now the Semen is God (the going-one, as shown by the Ankh or Sandal- strap, which He carries) because he goes in at the Door, stays there for a specified period, and comes out again, having flowered, and still bearing in him that Seed of Going. (The birth of a girl is a misfortune everywhere, because the true Going-Principle is the Lion-Serpent, or Dragon; the Egg is only the Cavern where he takes refuge on occasion.)…
The female part in sex magick, which he derogated early in life, assumes greater significance and respect in late works such as The Book of Thoth.
“Why do men insist on ‘innocence’ in women? … To cover their secret shame in the matter of sex. Hence the pretence that a woman is ‘pure,’ modest, delicate, aesthetically beautiful and morally exalted, ethereal and unfleshly, though in fact they know her to be lascivious, shameless, coarse, ill-shapen, unscrupulous, nauseatingly bestial both physically and mentally. The advertisements of ‘dress shields,’ perfumes, cosmetics, anti-sweat preparations, and ‘Beauty Treatments’ reveal woman’s nature as seen by the clear eyes of those who would lose money if they misjudged her; and they are loathsomely revolting to read. Her mental and moral characteristics are those of the parrot and the monkey. Her physiology and pathology are hideously disgusting, a sickening slime of uncleanliness. Her virgin life is a sick ape’s, her sexual life a drunken sow’s, her mother life all bulging filmy eyes and sagging udders.
“These are the facts about ‘innocence’; to this has man’s Christian Endeavour dragged her when he should rather have made her his comrade, frank, trusty, and gay, the tenderer self of himself, his consubstantial complement even as
Earth is to the Sun.
“We of Thelema say that ‘Every man and every woman is a star.’ We do not fool and flatter women; we do not despise and abuse them. To us a woman is Herself, absolute, original, independent, free, self-justified, exactly as a man is.”—The Law is for All, III:55.
THE TRUE BELIEVER: The male is the lively, enlightening, creative, jovial force of the Pillar of Mercy, while the female is the brooding, dark, harsh, silent, but nourishing matrix of the Pillar of Severity in which the divine Seed takes shape. Creation is a higher function than destruction and Light is a higher power than darkness and so ours is a Solar-Phallic Religion. The true God is the Quintessence, the Holy Spirit, the Creative Will as expressed by the Representative of the Sun on Earth, the Phallus.
“We of Thelema say that ‘Every man and every woman is a star.’ We do not fool and flatter women; we do not despise and abuse them. To us a woman is Herself, absolute, original, independent, free, self-justified, exactly as a man is.”
THE CHAOTIC: Sex is a road to magical power and a gateway to the unconscious mind. Crowley deserves credit for his contributions, but sex has moved on from the 19th century and taking Crowley’s views seriously today would be like reading old marriage manuals to understand teenage pop stars. Sex is too wild to be tied down to one formula. There are an infinite number of sexual forms and Crowley’s don’t seem as special or unique today as they did a hundred years ago.
The Stélé of Revealing, ancient Egyptian artifact dear to Thelemites
Sex is a road to magical power and a gateway to the unconscious mind. Crowley deserves credit for his contributions, but sex has moved on from the 19th century and taking Crowley’s views seriously today would be like
reading old marriage manuals to understand teenage pop stars.
THE SKEPTIC: The theory of the universal phallic religion flourished as a reaction against sexnegativity when it was hard to talk rationally about sex in Western culture. The theory has not held up now that barriers to sexual discussion have been lowered. Some of the phallicists’ discussion of truly phallic deities like Priapus and Shiva remains worthwhile, but their universalism does not. Crowley embraced a radical and idiosyncratic exegesis based on tenuous speculative links.
THE MYSTIC: Every person is both man and woman, and every man and every woman is a star. The mystical formula of Union of Opposites or Thelemic Love, related to the Hegelian dialectical formula, can be enacted with thoughts or with bodies and is constantly enacting itself in the world around us. It is the Key to the Stone of the Philosophers and to the Universal Medicine. To downplay or disparage the male-female polarity would be to cripple the magic—it is their very difference from each other that makes their Union powerful. In a ritual involving sex the generative organs of the partners are consecrated ritual tools which must be used according to their natural formula like any other tool of High Magick.
The 19th century brought the West not only sexual revolution but a drug problem. Morphine was invented early in the century; it and other opiates such as laudanum, a popular opiated liqueur, were readily available and widely used in Europe and the United States. Napoleon’s troops brought back marijuana and hashish along with the Egyptian revival, P B. Randolph sold hashish by mail order for spiritual purposes, and Blavatsky was said by a close acquaintance to have used hashish to boost her visionary powers; she for her part made clear enough references to psychoactive plants and Randolph’s drug-induced “Sleep of Siloam.” Crowley was born into an atmosphere that was charged with drugs and mysticism as well as sex.
Crowley experimented with drugs with his teacher Allan Bennett early in life, but he says they were of no use at the time—“Like Huckleberry Finn’s prayer, nuffin’ come of it”—until he had practiced Yoga. Given the powers of mind resulting from meditation, he felt that psychoactive substances could be
useful for breaking through dry spells, provided one had the strength to thwart an uncontrolled flow of delusional visions and the tendency to fall asleep.
Crowley also thought that drugs could wake up ordinary people to the prospects of mysticism by inducing altered states of consciousness without arduous disciplines. Israel Regardie in Roll Away the Stone attributes this idea to William James’ famous statement that “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
A drug-positive approach is evident in The Book of the Law, when it echoes the phrase “lightening [or loosening] the girders of the soul” from the Chaldean Oracles. Crowley interprets this as a hashish reference in his “Psychology of Hashish.” Hadit instructs the reader “To worship me take wine and strange drugs whereof I will tell my prophet, & be drunk thereof!” Crowley took drugs such as cocaine, heroin and hashish throughout his career, all the while claiming to be above addiction. This conclusion is not shared by all of his biographers.
For all the undeniable significance of drug mysticism to Crowley and Thelema, entheogen practices never assumed the importance that sexual ones did in his system. His view of humanity was not physical but metaphysical. He believed in the ability of intelligence to take non-physical forms, so he was unlikely to adopt a concept like the psychedelic idea of consciousness as chemistry. While both the A∴ A∴ and O.T.O. lead to inner sexual instructions, neither reveals a drug practice per se in its foundations. To Crowley drugs were a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Regardie notes this difference between Crowley’s attitudes and the psychedelic idea of drugs such as LSD as inherently illuminating.
ALEISTER CROWLEY: “I could persuade other people that mysticism was not all folly without insisting on their devoting a lifetime to studying under me; and if only I could convince a few competent observers—in such a matter I distrust even myself—Science would be bound to follow and to investigate, clear up the matter once for all, and, as I believed, and believe, arm itself with a new weapon ten thousand times more potent than the balance and the microscope…
“Hashish at least gives proof of a new order of consciousness, and (it seems to me) it is this primâ facie case that mystics have always needed to make out, and never have made out.
“But today I claim the hashish-phenomena as mental phenomena of the first importance; and I demand investigation.
“I assert—more or less ex cathedrâ—that meditation will revolutionise our conception of the universe, just as the microscope has done.”—“The Psychology of Hashish,” Equinox 1:2.