The Great Beast 666: Taking Another Look At Crowley

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

This is my 666th post for this blog. I thought long and hard about what to write for this post. Numerology, sun worship, the influence of Christian eschatology on Pagan traditions, or the obsession with the anti-christ. In the end, I decided to write about Crowley. I’ve been reading a lot of his work lately.

That his bowtie is crooked in this picture gives me an OCD twitch.

I’ll be honest: I have never liked Crowley. He was brilliant, a genius, but I sincerely disliked the man. Then again, a lot of early founders are people I think I would dislike. Gardner would have irritated me, Alex Sanders would have gotten on my nerves really bad, Cochrane is not someone I’d have much patience with and I have a gut feeling I probably wouldn’t have cared much for Valiente either. Whether or not I’d want to throw back a pint with them on a lazy afternoon, I do love and honor them for their contributions. They were all brilliant and their influence affects Pagans today who may not even know their names.

Crowley is a special case though. While he has been very influential on the Pagan movement, his influence was never direct in the way that Gardner or Valiente was. Even though he and Gardner were pretty chummy towards the end of his life, Crowley isn’t someone most Pagans claim a lineage from or cite as a strong influence. We are, overall, pretty suspicious of him and his influence. As many of us come from a Christian background, his use of the imagery of Revelations and styling himself as 666 rests uneasy on us. Still, it is difficult to read through some of his most important works, especially The Book of the Law, and miss the connections to Gardnerian-influenced Wicca.

So Crowley is like the weird Uncle Al who got us hooked on comic books, taught us to eat our pizza with ranch dressing and watch Dr Who, but we’re afraid to invite to our wedding because he might show up in a Gwar t-shirt. Books like Diary of a Drug Fiend don’t make us feel any more confident in trusting him as an elder. Crowley was writing openly about drug use, sex magick, poking at conservative values and styling himself as the Great Beast 666. It’s no wonder Valiente tried to remove as much of Crowley as possible from Gardnerian Wicca. We found him a bit embarrassing.

Aside from finding him a bit advanced and archaic in his communication style, I also really didn’t care much for Diary of a Drug Fiend. It’s a good book in the sense that it is an important part of our history and a useful insight into Crowley as a person. It’s a crappy book in that it gives you insight into Crowley’s significant failings, highlights his antiquated misogyny, and has sadly been used as justification for addiction. As a human being, Crowley has significant faults. We always prefer it when the good guys wear white hats and the villains have pointy mustaches, but real life is not that simple, and neither is Crowley.

My interest in Thelema is not at all because of Crowley. In fact, I purposefully began seriously studying Thelema by reading books that have very little Crowley in them. That was profoundly helpful. I am unfortunately one of those people who are not wildly brilliant. I graduated from the 4th grade. I can’t pick up deep texts and automatically get them. I had to watch Shakespeare films before I could read his plays and verse and get it. So the only way I was able to get a grasp on Thelema was to look at it without Crowley. And it was liberating and enlightening.

I am currently slowly working my way through The Law Is For All, which is Crowley’s commentary on The Book of the Law. Thanks in part to the non-Crowley Thelemic “newbie education” I have given myself, I’m beginning to find Crowley more accessible and relatable.

I am also beginning to realize that Crowley lived in his own head a lot. I can relate to that. There are several times when it’s obvious he’s talking to himself, making connections in his own head and we’re not really invited to the party. And he gets excited about it! Crowley is that guy who is arguing with himself over whether or not Kurt Cobain would be on a music label today while driving his car in traffic, and enjoying the hell out of it, complete with hand gestures. He’s that friend who has been mumbling to himself and then suddenly turns to you and says “But what if we used Velveeta?”

Crowley has no idea how to write for beginners. He can’t even comprehend what that would take, and I know that there are Thelemic authors, like Rodney Orpheus, who have commented on this. It’s what makes Crowley both charming and frustrating all at once. It’s as if you need basic information from Sheldon Cooper, and Sheldon doesn’t do basic. Part of me relates to that. I swore when I began blogging that I would not write Paganism 101 posts. My one attempt at it, after some pressure from Patheos, was a marvelous disaster. Quoth the raven: Nevermore.

I think one of the biggest obstacles for me to overcome is Crowley’s sexism. He was liberal and advanced for his time, writing passionately for the rights of women and defending homosexuality, but he would still use language and examples that make me roll my eyes and play some Ani diFranco to cleanse my mental palate. In Diary of a Drug Fiend, this sexism is so painfully obvious. You hope Pendragon will evolve beyond his possessiveness of Lou, yet the ending simply caters to his need for control rather than giving Lou an identity and Will of her own. Every man and woman is a star, but Lou’s star trails after Pendragon without an orbit of its own.

While you have to excuse a lot of the sexism for being a product of the times (Crowley died 16 years before Friedan published The Feminine Mystique) it doesn’t mean it needs to be left unaddressed. The language of “Whore” and “Harlot” when referring to the goddess Babalon is quaint in Crowley’s writings, but it jars in the work of more modern writers. The transgressive language of sexual liberation and “Free Love” of Crowley’s era is no longer kosher today, or so oblique as to seem vulgar.

Like many early advocates for social justice and the gospel of liberation, Crowley goes to some weird extremes. Attempting to justify rape as an “end justifies the means” practice is abhorrent. The idea that the True Will of the majority of women is to be baby factories made me laugh until I snorted unattractively. The idea that every time we have sex we produce a child on some plane of existence left me musing on how many astral orphans I have begotten. And all of this talk of sex, magick and begetting children astral and physical from a purely male perspective has me eager to find female Thelemic authors.

I find myself by turns marveling at Crowley’s brilliance and wanting to bop him upside the head for being such a doofus. How would his work be different if written today? Informed by the sex-positive, post-sexual revolution, post-Kinsey, third-wave feminist, HIV-aware era? I think Crowley would like the 21st century. I think he would blog, but I doubt he would tweet.

I find I get the impression that Crowley, despite his many friends and lovers, was a lonely man. You can hear it a little in his description of the importance of a compatible life partner. The fact that the bulk of Thelemic literature was written by him gives the impression he had few true colleagues and contemporaries. Being in a religio-magickal leadership position, he likely found himself bound about with the expectations of others looking up to him, and few mentors in which to confide. He had received The Book of the Law as an almost reluctant seeker and seemed to grapple with it, and even against it, at times. He had a strange and rare life, and it must be difficult to grow old without growing respectable.

My burgeoning study of his work, and of work influenced by him, has not made me a Crowleyite. It has helped me understand him and his work better. That has reminded me of how important it is to see and recognize the flaws in our elders as well as the brilliance. We are all human, after all. Crowley’s prolific writing illustrates his humanity in a way that is missing from other early elders in the Pagan movement. Let enough words flow from you and your soul will be laid bare for all to see. Maybe he is strange Uncle Al, but he was brilliant, and his work has trickled down through modern Paganism so subtly that even someone as observant as myself is still amazed to continue to find bits and pieces that have come from his work.

I think the thing I like best about Crowley is that he was christened The Great Beast 666 by his mother. Apparently she called him that when he misbehaved as a small boy. When I was rowdy or misbehaved as a little girl my family called me a heathen. Perhaps that should be a cautionary tale for parents who fear their children will grow up to be verbose magick-workers.

Love is the law, love under will.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Fabulous essay. Wildly brilliant, even. ;)  I tried reading Crowley a few times and it made me want to throw the book across the room because it just seemed like a jumble of stream-of-consciousness nonsense. Funny thing is, the Thoth tarot was the first one I ever got–not a great starter deck, in retrospect, but Harris’ illustrations fascinated me.

    Sometimes reading Very Difficult Material is just a matter of getting used to the style, cadence, weird terminology, etc, so that you can follow what the author is saying, and sometimes it’s Difficult because it’s actually Very Badly Written!

    • Star Foster

       I find it useful to pretend Crowley is Sheldon Cooper as I read through his work. :)

      Occultists are really just a strange brand of super-geeks!

    • kenneth

      No question Crowley is not a light read by any means. He presumes the reader will already have a fairly deep grounding in whatever references he makes – Kabbalah, numerology, classic literature, Latin, you name it. One doesn’t sit down and read Crowley like you would read a book for pleasure. You have to “make a study of it” – sit down and tackle even just a few pages or sometimes one page a day in depth. Make notes on it. Sometimes you might have to cross-reference a particular term or sentence in one, or several, other works. You’ve got to be willing to dig into the primary sources Crowley drew upon and it also helps tremendously to have some works by Lon Duquette and others who can help translate Crowley’s alchemical concepts and Edwardian university English into something more accessible. 

      • Star Foster

         Perhaps a Crowley concordance is needed? A Crowley reader? Dummies Guide to Crowley?

        • Nicole Youngman

           Oooh, I love the “Dummies” idea. You’ll be the one to write it in a couple of years!

          Geez, and I thought slogging through Marx in grad school was bad. ;)

          • Star Foster

             Likely not. But I am fascinated by the fact that there are very few female Thelemites published.

  • John Beckett

    One of these days I’m going to have to break down and read some of Crowley’s work.  I made it through Ross Nichols (brilliant, but dry and at times obtuse) – I should be able to drag myself through Crowley.

    I love what you’re doing with the self-education.  I graduated from college twice, but I was what the English majors called a “barbarian engineer” (of course, we called them “unemployed”).  While I’ve always read a lot, about 10 years ago I started reading history, anthropology, psychology, biology, plus a lot of religion in many traditions.  I’ll never have a piece of paper certifying my rise out of barbarism, but I’ve got the knowledge just the same.

    Your writing shows you’ve learned quite a bit since 4th grade!

    • Nicole Youngman

       I actually thought about the Nichols parallel too. I made the mistake of tackling his book probably over a decade ago and it made me lose interest in Druidry very quickly. Luckily I had another look at Druidry a few years ago–this time with some real people and much better books–and then it stuck. Reading Nichols now is much easier, but for me it’s more of a “history of ideas” sort of interesting–”oh, so that’s where that idea came from.” And the story in the preface to _The Book of Druidry_ about how his papers were barely saved after his death is fascinating.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Star, needing to see Shakespeare’s works performed before reading them is not lack of brilliance. It’s how it’s supposed to happen. They were never meant to be textbooks, but living creatures. And Crowley as Sheldon Cooper? THAT is brilliant.

  • Melissa

    Thank you so much for your posts on Thelema and most especially for this post about Crowley.  I have found myself in a similar situation.  I have been Pagan/Wiccan for about 20 years, even becoming initiated in a BTW branch, but have still felt something lacking. 

    Some of the biggest influences in my thinking about life, the universe and everything have been somehow involved in Thelema/OTO.  I decided to read up on it and even attend the local Gnostic Mass.  However, reading Crowley and about his life has left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  His ideas were brilliant and important. Even as a BTW we are required to read “Magick Theory and Practice” – the cornerstone of the practice of Magick.  

    There are a lot of beautiful aspects of Thelema that I just love, like the relationship between Nuit and Hadit, and Baphomet.   There are aspects of it that I just don’t get, like the use of Christian imagery (I grew up Secular Humanist – so I am probably a bit prejudiced).  

    Perhaps, I should follow what you did and not begin with Crowley (as I have been doing) but start with books about Thelema with “very little Crowley in them.”  I happen to live in the same city as David Shoemaker – I like his podcasts very much.   His wife is the Lodge Master and both of them are very accessible and kind. Thank you so much for your posts.

    • Star Foster

      Give Rodney Orpheus’ “Abrahadabra” a try. I found it a useful intro to Thelemic thought and it contains the bare minimum of Crowley. I’ve also got some of DuQuette’s books and found them helpful.

      Christian imagery used to bother me. But I’ve moved past it (Baptist background). Don’t ask me how. I just one day relegated it to another strain of human wisdom.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I have yet to read any more of Crowley than what is quoted in other works that cite him or discuss him; I have never owned nor read a book that was actually penned by his own hand.  That may change at some stage, but I haven’t felt the compulsion to do so yet.

    However, something that I might suggest, which I enjoyed a great deal, is Jean Overton Fuller’s The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg, about Crowley’s early associate cum “consort” in certain important workings.  If Crowley’s character makes you wince at times, I’m quite certain Neuburg’s will make you go “Awwww…”  ;)  (Well, maybe not quite, but he’s someone I’d definitely enjoy sitting around the drawing room with, drinking tea and talking; not sure I can say the same for Crowley based on what I know of him at this stage.)

    • Star Foster

       I’ve heard of Neuburg but don’t know much about him. I’ll have to check that book out when I have a chance!