Aleister Crowley (whose last name rhymes with holy, not foully—yes, Ozzy had it wrong) was one of the most intriguing, and largely misunderstood, figures of the twentieth century. Called “The Beast” by his Puritan mother, and “The Wickedest Man in the World” by his Christian antagonists, such epithets were reductive to say the least. Never mind that Crowley took sinister delight in self-applying them, and in profaning all things dubbed holy by the Victorian establishment of his day.
Crowley was many things, but a run-of-the-mill occultist and coarse, dyed-in-the-wool heretic were not among them. Crowley certainly was not the sex-crazed, cannibalistic Satanist that the tabloids of his day (and the Christian legends of ours) would have us believe. Crowley was a serious, lifelong student and teacher, who saw his role as nothing less than preparing humanity for an evolution into cosmic consciousness.
In addition to his well-known occult and spiritual writings and self-appointed role as “Aleister Crowley, Prophet of Thelema,” Crowley had many unusual and impressive accomplishments which may surprise the uninitiated.
A prolific poet and novelist, Crowley was also a talented chess competitor and an accomplished mountaineer who is still on the books as a record-holder today. Crowley was also one of the first serious European students of the Eastern spiritual traditions, composing many treatises on yoga and the I-Ching, and completing a translation of the Tao Te Ching. In this way, Crowley was one of the first Westerners to anticipate the massive spread of the Oriental philosophy into the Occident.
Aleister Crowley, simply put, was kind of a badass.
Crowley and Chess
Maybe you were pretty proud of yourself when you first learned algebraic chess notation, or forked an opponent’s queen with your knight. Well, try playing chess blindfolded instead, which Crowley was known to do, in addition to playing simultaneous games.
As a student at Eastborne college, the young Aleister Crowley quickly dispatched the adult town champ from his throne. Crowley also edited a chess column in the Eastborne Gazette, where, in typical Crowley fashion, he took wicked delight in stirring the pot, and harshly criticizing the chess team’s formation and play.
Crowley had ambitions to be a chess master, and during the years 1896-1897 at Cambridge University, Crowley took his chess studies to the next level, putting in two hours of study a day, minimum. He was cured of his passion for the game rather suddenly, during a visit to a Berlin Chess conference:
“I was seized with what may justly be called a mystical experience….I saw the masters—one, shabby and blear-eyed; another, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest. These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission. ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley,’ I exclaimed to myself in disgust.”
In other words, Crowley was just too cool and sexy for those maladjusted nerds.
Crowley the Yogi
Best known as a practitioner of ritual magic and the Western occult sciences, Crowley’s insatiable interest in all spiritual disciplines also led him towards the serious study of yoga, Buddhism, and I-Ching at a time when these were held by the prevailing Victorian standards to be “primitive” and “uncivilized.”
One of Crowley’s first sustained experiments with yoga took place during 1901 while on a climbing expedition in Mexico. Frustrated by a lack of progress in his spiritual studies, Crowley’s climbing mentor, Oscar Eckenstein, introduced Crowley to the disciplines of Raj Yoga, a path which incorporates meditation and visualization techniques as a means to mental control. Crowley was heartened by the effects of these techniques on his mind and abilities.
Shortly thereafter, Crowley traveled to Ceylon, where he immersed himself for several months in yogic studies with his friend, confidant, and teacher, Allan Bennett.
Of the so-called ‘eight limbs of yoga,’ the limb that gave Crowley the most difficulty was Yama, which includes five basic vows of abstinence intended to free the consciousness of the aspirant toward a full dedication to yoga alone. That this was difficult for Crowley to accept shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Never one to shun his sexual desires, Crowley resolved this contradiction by incorporating Tantra—the focusing of sexual energy for the purpose of spiritual liberation—into his yogic practice.
The spirituality of the East had a deep and lasting impact on Crowley. Indeed, during his Great Magical Retirement in the year of 1918, Crowley used a backward memory technique to recall his past lives, one of which, he determined, was Ko Hsuen—a disciple of the great Taoist master Lao Tsu. (Other incarnations included the decadent Alexander Borgia and the infamous Italian magician, Cagliostro.) During this retreat, Crowley completed a translation of the Tao Te Ching, aided by what he believed was a deep, genetic knowledge of this past incarnation.
Crowley’s understanding of Eastern philosophy was full and nuanced. Check out his Eight Lectures on Yoga, for a good introduction.
Crowley the Mountaineer
Yoga wasn’t the only thing tying Crowley to the Orient. An intrepid mountaineer, Crowley’s rugged swashbuckling took him deep into the Himalayas and Karakorum ranges of India, China, and Pakistan.
Crowley’s interest in mountains was first sparked during his tenure at Cambridge University. Always ready to tackle challenges as a means to self-actualization, Crowley was immediately drawn to the extreme mental and physical trials of mountain climbing. The Alps were Crowley’s favorite vacation spot during his years at Cambridge. His athleticism and unconventional (but effective) climbing tactics were noted by many prominent climbers of his day. His impressive list of Alpine climbs included the first guideless traverse of the Monch, the first descent of the west face of Trifthorn, and a challenging ascent of the Northeast ridge of Mont Collon.
In 1902, Crowley was part of the first team to ever make a summit attempt on Chogo Ri (K-2) in the Himalayas. Lead by his climbing mentor Oscar Eckenstein, the expedition was beset with in-fighting and trivial interpersonal wars, with Crowley (predictably) at the center of many.
Early on in the expedition, Crowley faced-off with Eckenstein when he refused to part with his editions of Milton and Shelley in order to meet weight limits. Crowley claimed the volumes were essential to his “perfect mental balance” and therefore the success of the expedition as a whole. But apparently, the poetry didn’t do its job. At one point, out of his mind from fatigue and malnutrition, Crowley pulled his colt revolver on a team member during an argument, although he was disarmed in short order.
Still, Crowley more than earned his salt on the trek, reconning most camp locations, and skillfully (Crowley would insist, clairvoyantly), routing their course up the impossible slopes until weather and logistics finally turned them around.
Crowley also proved himself a talented diagnostician on the journey, diagnosing a member of their team with pulmonary edema (the spontaneous filling of the lungs with fluids at high altitudes), long before such a diagnosis was well-known in the medical and climbing communities. According to author and eminent mountaineer Galen Rowell: “The isolation of edema from pneumonia in Crowley’s account was long before its time and one of the earliest ever recorded.”
The Eckenstein-Crowley expedition never reached the summit of K-2, but the attempt is still highly regarded in mountaineering circles, and Crowley at least snagged one world record for the longest continuous time spent on a glacier –68 days on Boltoro Glacier— two days longer than the rest of his party due to being an advanced scout.
Crowley: The Man, The Myth
Though admired and even heralded by such figures as Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, and Allan Watts, most laymans’ knowledge of Aleister Crowley is limited to his tabloid legacy as “The Wickedest Man in the World,” “The King of Depravity,” and “A Cannibal at Large.” Crowley, among his other talents, was brilliant at blackening his reputation. But dig a little deeper and you will find that Aleister Crowley was one of the most intriguing and impressive figures in modern history, at least in this writer’s humble opinion.
If your curiosity has been piqued, go ahead and pick up Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Crowley, Do What Thou Wilt, and track down Crowley’s autobiographical tome, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Confessions is one of the most fun and downright delightful romps in print, definitely worth the pretty penny you’ll have to pay for it.
Be forewarned, Crowley was an inveterate jokester, prankster, and self-aggrandizer. Confessions at times reads more fantastically than some of his supernatural, occult novels. But hey, why not just trust the man? After all, As Crowley writes in the preface,
“I have no reason for deception, as I don’t give a damn for the whole human race—you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”