Thelema and Witchcraft, Part Two: Aleister Crowley, Witch?

People entering the magical communities can choose from many paths. Some check out both Thelema and Witchcraft before deciding which path to follow. As an initiated Witch and Thelemite I walk in both worlds. This series will clear up rumors, point out connections, and analyze similarities and differences – take down walls and build bridges!

O.T.O. initiate Richard Kaczynski minutely surveys Crowley’s life in Perdurabo, while initiated Gardnerian Phillip Heselton traces Gerald Gardner’s life in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.

Gardner’s version of his meeting with Crowley

Gerald Gardner met Aleister Crowley in the last year of his life. We know that Crowley initiated Gardner into the O.T.O. and issued him a charter to form an O.T.O. camp (see Thelema and Witchcraft: was Gerald Gardner head of the O.T.O.?). There are persistent stories that the initiatory currents went both ways – not only was Gardner an O.T.O. initiate, but Crowley was a Witch.

Gardner was introduced to Crowley by Arnold Crowther. Crowther’s widow Patricia told Heselton that Crowley had seemed knowledgeable about Witchcraft but wasn’t interested in rituals led by a High Priestess because he “wasn’t the sort to be bossed around by women”. Heselton quotes additional details Gardner provided about that first meeting to John Symonds: “He was very interested in the witch cult, and had some idea of combining it w. the Order, but nothing came of it.”

Gardner also wrote to Cecil Williamson that Crowley was “in the Cult” but found the nudity distasteful, although he highly approved of the Great Rite. Gardner also claimed that Crowley didn’t want to have to kneel to a High Priestess. Heselton immediately quotes sources who find this unlikely. How unlikely is apparent to anyone who has seen a Gnostic Mass in which the priest kneels before the nude (if she chooses) priestess on the altar.

Heselton concludes that Crowley may have said something offhand about knowing about Witchcraft as a form of one-upmanship in his first meeting with Gardner.

Pickingill Brothers

There is however another source of stories about Crowley and Witchcraft. In the 1970s W.E. (Bill) Liddell published a series of articles which he claimed were written by pre-Gardnerian Witches who wished to remain anonymous. Liddell himself claimed both Gardnerian and Hereditary initiations, making him a bridge between the two worlds. The articles discussed the activities of George Pickingill, 1816 – 1909, a Witch in a hereditary line eight centuries old who founded nine covens in Canewdon in Essex. In 1994 Michael Howard assembled these articles in The Pickingill Papers, The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft.

In “Gerald Gardner and his Detractors” Liddell (or the anonymous Witch) claims that Allan Bennett was one of Pickingill’s pupils. Bennett was both a member of the Golden Dawn and a Buddhist and Crowley’s first teacher in these spiritual paths. The article claims Bennett passed a third spiritual practice to Crowley – Witchcraft. Bennett introduced Crowley to one of Pickingill’s nine covens. Crowley received the Second Rite in Hereditary Witchcraft but was rapidly expelled; however he used the material he received in later rituals.

Liddell’s story goes on: this means that when Crowley met Gardner the two men discovered they not only shared Masonry but initiation into Pickingill covens. Crowley reproduced from memory the book of Witchcraft rituals he had received from his initiators and this material was one of the sources Gardner used in creating his books. When Crowley affiliated Gardner into O.T.O, Gardner reciprocated by inducting Crowley into Gardnerian Craft.

There is no documentation to substantiate any of these stories. Heselton notes that Ronald Hutton discounts all the stories of Crowley’s involvements with Witchcraft on the grounds that there is no mention of this in his diaries.

It is interesting that the Liddell articles equally disapprove of Crowley, Gardner, and Pickingill! The Hereditary Craft “brethren” purporting to write this material condemn Pickingill’s rejection of Christianity, Gardner’s insistence on nudity and the power of the priestess, and Crowley’s overt sexuality.

Fellow Travelers

I’m not seriously suggesting that Crowley was an initiated Witch; surely we would have heard about it from him rather than anonymous sources if the rumors were true. What I find interesting is that Crowley’s and Gardner’s work have so much in common. They were English gentlemen and Masons. Both rejected Christianity and explored numerous magical and spiritual paths – Crowley was a Golden Dawn initiate and a Buddhist, Gardner was a Rosicrucian and a Druid. Both were inducted into existing magical groups, Gardner into Witchcraft, Crowley into O.T.O. Both rewrote the rituals they were given and placed an indelible stamp on that spiritual path. Gardnerian Witchcraft is the most widely known and practiced form of Witchcraft in the world. O.T.O. is governed by Aleister Crowley’s foundational writings and performs his initiatory and sacramental rituals.

They knew each other and supported each other’s visions. They share the same critics too. The persistent stories that Crowley wrote Gardnerian rituals or himself used hereditary Witchcraft rituals in his own work are not historical fact, they are disproved or unproved, but are interesting because they point to the consonance of the two men’s work.


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