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Monday, 11 February 2013

A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley by Martin Booth

I started my One Deck Wonder with the Thoth Tarot at Imbolc (1st Feb), and decided after slogging around in DuQuette's guide book, and briefly dipping into a book on Qabbalah that I wanted to find out more about Aleister Crowley. I read a few reviews of the many books about him and settled on A Magick Life by Martin Booth, because I had read that it was relatively unbiased in its presentation, and gave equal weight to some of Crowley's other interests. In theory, Crowley had three passions in life: poetry, mountaineering, and magic. (In my opinion, they were actually himself, sex acts and the attempt to become a god). I believe that the author is a bit over-generous in his assessment of Crowley's writing talents. Apparently Crowley could have been an important mountaineer if not for the failings of his personality and his abysmal lack of PR skills. And then of course we have Crowley's magical career.

Having read this book, I can say that I find Aleister Crowley absolutely repugnant on every level. I believe he was a sociopath, in the textbook sense. I won't go into any details of his life to support this because, frankly, the thought wearies me. (Do check out the link. Crowley's life provides dozens of examples for each and every point listed in the definition of sociopath.)

A few impressions:

1) I found out where the pervading Bible imagery comes from -- his parents were involved in an extreme Protestant group called Plymouth Brethren, and as a child he was allowed to read only the Bible, thus his young imagination was peopled only by images from this source. He was never able to shake them. This also explains his strange obsession with rebelling against Christianity. (Had he been born in the modern era when no one cared what you believed, he could have ended up taking an entirely different path indeed. It wouldn't have been normal, but...)

2) His mother had some serious issues herself, and took to calling him 'Beast' (yes, after the anti-Christ) when he was naughty. That helped!

3) He was introduced to buggery (as they called it) at boarding school at a very young age -- his first roommate was a rent boy to the other students! He also thought at least for a time that he was a hermaphrodite, because of his homosexual feelings and his podgy breasts, which were caused ofcourse by baby fat.

4) He came into a fortune at 21 and never held down a job in his entire life. He did manage to squander the fortune by 1914 and then lived on the money he could convince his followers to contribute.

5) He had an outrageous ego, completely narcissistic, with a tremendously overdeveloped sense of entitlement. I could provide some jaw-dropping quotations, but I won't.

6) He was intelligent, fluent in several languages, and extremely well-read in occult and magical subjects.

7) He seems to have been irresistably attractive to psychologically fragile and vulnerable people. They attached themselves to his life continuously, and he used them accordingly.

8) His magical practices revolved around his own personal sexual tastes and perversities, which were legion, and invariably involved drug use. Nothing that can be imagined was out of bounds to him. He took no personal responsibility about the consequences of his actions. In fact, he seemed to want to push himself to do things that are against human nature (and the gag reflex).

In essence, it's my opinion that he was, as I said before I even read the book, a pompous twat. I can now amend that to 'pompous twat on an epic scale defying all reason'.

Funnily enough, as I said in a previous post, the more I have learned about his life, his 'magic', etc, the less sinister and dangerous I find the Thoth Tarot. Yes, I believe Crowley was a very nasty man. But he has been demystified, and so his deck does not feel dangerous to me anymore.

At least that's how I'm feeling today. :)

[Try this. Freaked me out and everyone I've shown it to. Look at the photo of the cover of the book above. Use your hand to cover over the right side of Crowley's face (the one that's on the left side of the photo). Study the uncovered half of his face. It seems amiable enough, even rather handsome, like an aged Robert Redford, dimple and everythig. Then switch, cover over the left side of Crowley's face and look at the right (the side you had covered first). Good lord! Psycho eye! Cue the scary music! Entertain and startle your friends with this, 'Nice guy, crazy guy' trick. I know, no one's face is symmetrical, but wow.]


  1. Hilarious! Thanks for the synopsis - now I don't have to read all that yucky stuff for myself ;) Without knowing all the details, I knew I wasn't very impressed with him. Somehow, though, that never put me off the Thoth deck. The cold images did that all by themselves...

    1. The more I use this deck, the less chilly it seems. But it's all relative. I'm sure the North Pole don't feel that cold to the esk-ee-mos (southern accent), if you know what I mean. I'm in Thoth land, so I'm getting habituated, maybe? :)

    2. Hey, so long as there are still internet connections between here and Thoth land :D

  2. I think he was a complete sociopath who, when noticing that his "power insane" style drew people to him, used it without thinking twice. I remember he one visited one of my favorite Portuguese authors, Fernando Pessoa, who seemed to admire him very much.

    Then again, Fernando Pessoa was a bit of head case himself.

    I never saw the Thoth deck as dangerous. In fact I'm rather annoyed y people who use its mystique to imply that it's a 'truer' or 'deeper' tarot deck. Crowley was a talented madman, but a madman nonetheless, who used spirituality to fulfill his perverted fantasies. If a reader considers that this background adds power to his, tool, then he seriously need a sharp reality rap on the head.

    1. Lots of people admired him, and a lot of those came to loathe him in the end. He never was able to maintain a relationship. He just used people up and moved on.

      I don't think there's anything special about the Thoth Tarot that was added by Crowley... or even Harris. I do know I've done some of my best reading for others with this deck. So something's there.

    2. This deck HAS powerful imagery. It's like classic music - it hits you in mysterious ways, but even if you can't tell how it happens, you do know that it stirs something inside you. It brings up special ideas and emotions.

      I think Harris added to it by putting her talent into the art - the art is, in big part, responsible for the way people react to this deck. As for Crowley, he gave it his name and that was enough, lol! :p

  3. This is the most amusing (and witty) synopsis of a biography I've ever read. Thanks for that. I tried your little photo exercise, as well--that was fun. (Yes, there is a Redford resemblance there).

    It's funny how despite my upbringing in fundamentalist Christianity (and my continued self-identification as someone of the Christian "bent," albeit progressive and unorthodox), I don't think I ever felt a wave of menace emanating from the Thoth. Well--not menace perhaps, but I think I was slightly wary of it; I sensed it was for deeper and perhaps darker purposes than what I was doing with tarot at the time (the 90s, early in my tarot life). And I didn't like the Two of Pents that was the only image printed on the decks in the store shelves at that time.

    Of course, as someone born to collect, I soon absorbed it into my collection. When I looked at the cards, I must not have felt much menace because it seems--according to my old tarot journals--that I used it a fair bit, including for a birthday reading. Perhaps I felt it was more powerful and authoritative than my other decks; Crowley would be proud.

    By the time I got to the Book of Thoth years later, I was an older and cynical person who instinctively knew that everything that comes from a "Great Man" (or Great Woman, rarer though they are in society) cannot help but also reflect the human failings of the people of whom we make heroes (and in Crowley's case--villains).

    Now, menace born of my Christian upbringing---that would be the Enochian Tarot. I have had the same reaction to it as many people seem to have to the Thoth. It's the only deck that feels truly unwholesome to me.

    Your explorations with a deck for which you have a history of unsettled feelings and with a system (hermetic Qabalah) for which you have ambivalence are quite impressive. It is not often I find others who affirmatively search for knowledge and experience, even in areas where their natural tastes might not lead them.

    1. Just the name Enochian Tarot disturbs. I have looked at a few images online based on your mentioning it here, and I don't like it. I don't like the whole concept of Enochian magic, or even ceremonial magic, really. Summoning demons is not a good idea, whether they're real or not, surely the headspace required to want to do it and then to actually perform the rituals--well, that can't be a good place to be! And of course, with my Christian training firmly in place, I was taught that when we try to summon a force to do our bidding, no matter if we think that force is an angel, it's a demon. Ooh, them demons, I was raised not mess with 'em!

      I feel kind of proud of myself, too, actually, for using a deck I didn't really like and studying a system I think is a bunch of hokum.:)

    2. Lon Milo DuQuette actually talks very interestingly (I think in the Chicken Quabbalah, though I may be misremembering), about summoning demons being a psychological procedure. Calling out our own shadow elements so we can harness and use their energy in a more productive way...

    3. Presumably DuQuette some other Thelema types have watered down Crowley's...whatever. Crowley's full on 'I stand in a circle, the demon appears in a triangle and I control him' ceremonies were not about confronting his inner fears. He believed he was summoning demons, and he believed they appeared to him. And they weren't part of his psyche, in his thinking, they were beings from another plane.

      I'm all for confronting our shadows, but I'm not going to say that was what Crowley did, because I don't think Crowley would say that was what he was trying to do.

      I am going back to Chicken Qabalah and the other DuQuette book now that I've read my Crowley bio.

  4. funny how i get such a different impression of the deck and, if i had to guess about its creator based on the images, i would get something very different than what you write.

    i guess its a result of starting to read with the deck with very, very limited knowledge about crowley (I read the wiki page, basically...its on my to read list to find out more but er...that list is long and he is not a priority...). I wonder how much of that is Harris's influence and how much a matter of interpretation.

    Also, the first book I got with my thoth and the main one i still use when I consult something is Banhoff's keywords book. It has none of the blah blah blah of Crowleys book of thoth or duquette just...simple charts that give simple associations/descriptions/explanations of images, colors, etc. For me its just enough info to set my intuition off to fill in the rest how i see fit.

    1. I am impressed with you for being able to read the deck intuitively. I suppose if I could have got past my initial rejection of it, I might have been able to as well. For me it's been kind of like learning to drink black coffee. It's yucky, until one day it actually tastes pretty good.

  5. Robert Redford, yes I can see that. The moment I saw his face on the cover I thought he looked like a bit of a plonker. I am reading an Autobiography at the moment by a guy called Wolfgang Flur who used to be one of the two electronic drummers in the band Kraftwerk and I am quite shocked and in some cases amused by tales of his sexual antics, although I wouldn't class him as a pompous twat........maybe just a twat :-/ xx

    1. Crowley's practices were not 'antics'. Blurgh.

    2. No, he was certainly a very nasty bloke!!!

  6. Okay, forgive me while I take a circuitous journey around this topic, starting with the truly beautiful (but freaks-me-out-because-of-its-association-with-another-self-appointed-guru-person) Osho Zen Tarot. What a gorgeous deck. What insightful associations. What . . . that's as far as I get because I'm so personally freaked out by Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, etc., etc.

    I'm a wuss when it comes to decks (and, unfortunately, sometimes other forms of art) and learning uncomfortable-making things about their makers and/or inspirations.

    I've never gotten cozy with the Thoth, though it is beautiful, and that's partially due to my laziness/ignorance when it comes to esoteric symbolism--which this deck seems founded on. But I thought, what the heck? This is an important deck with which I should at least have a nodding acquaintance, so I bought it (trimmed it--ye Gods!), and got going.

    Realizing I needed more information, I found a "basic" book about Crowley and the Thoth by Duquette, and just, well, couldn't get with the program. Then I had a bizarre dream in which Crowley was towering (Tower!!) over me and telling me that I couldn't study tarot without dealing with him--and that was it.

    Dear Aleister--

    Yes I can, too. So there.


    1. The very first deck I bought was Osho Zen. I was thoroughly frightened by the 'Master' card and wanted to throw it away, but was scared to!!! So I shoved it in the box, behind the compartment the cards go in.

      I proceeded to try to use the deck but discovered 1) the guidebook berated me continually for not being 'perfect' 2) the swords suit implied that I should never use rational thought at ALL, ever and 3) the 'Master' card, though hidden, continued to freak me out. I bought the Universal Waite to compare to the Osho Zen, and realised that it was easier to use the real RWS (for me at that time) than to deal with a deck based on it. Plus the swords suit continued to disturb and annoy me. The King of Swords, frozen solid. And that one card with the lips and grimaces on it--yuck. Then it occurred to me that rainbows didn't seem terribly earthy. I tried whacking the key words off the cards. I began to resent the deck. I said on Aeclectic Tarot that I was going to throw the deck in the trash, and someone piped up saying they would give it a home, so I gave it to that person.

      But before I sent it, I took out the Master card and ripped it into shreds and threw it away.

    2. Jamie, did you carry on with your study of Thoth? I did need to deal with Crowley first. I suppose reading his biography has been my way of tearing up his 'Master' card. But I actually find reading with Thoth rewarding, whereas the Osho Zen just made me feel chastised.

  7. Oh, Carla, you are so FUNNY! Your struggles with the Osho Zen mirror mine. I ended up giving mine to my ex-husband (need I say more?) who was very guru-headed. Thank you for affirming my feelings about the Osho. I thought there was something wrong with me!

    That was years ago--maybe 25?--and yet, just recently, reading Tarot Dame's daily draws with the Osho on her blog, I felt I couldn't stand even reading them. And I really like her work! I had to drag myself through that week with her. It just felt ucky.

    As for the Thoth, I didn't carry on. I admire your intellectual rigor, but I actually just ended up hating them and tore every single one of them up (funny how both of us did that--to me, it's a way of allowing the energy to release from the cards) and threw them away. But I did much of what you did with the Osho Zen first, including trimming them and scribbling keywords on them in gold marker, in an attempt to make them mine.

    I'm happiest with RWS-oriented decks: DruidCraft, Sidhe, and even the goofier Halloween, among them. But I do have one, the Glastonbury Tarot, which slides over to the Thoth orientation--or BOTA? Golden Dawn? Haven't been far enough down those roads to distinguish. I LOVE this deck, and it's the reason I bought the Thoth in the first place, to help me understand the Glastonbury better. But instead, I got a good little book that compares RWS to Thoth (lite) and helped anyplace I got stuck.

    May I say again, I LOVE the Glastonbury!! (But I may be in the very tiny minority.)

    1. You tore the Thoth to shreds? LOL I can just see you sitting there for 78 cards, tearing each one up. Now that's some seriously negative feeling!

    2. The Glastonbury is extremely hard to find, is it not? Temptress!