Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Magia Sexualis: The Beast with Two Backs

March 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Evidence, Featured

Urban, H. B., (2006). Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Posted with permission.

The Beast with Two Backs

Aleister Crowley and Sex Magick in Late Victorian England

The whole trouble comes from humanity’s horror of Love. For the last hundred years, every first-rate writer on morals has sent forth his lightnings and thunders, hailstones and coals of fire, to burn up Gomorrah and Sodom where Love is either shameful and secret or daubed with dug and sentiment.

The point about Crowley is that he seems to contain all these sorts of ideas and identities—indeed, most of the vices of the twentieth century—and he was dead at the end of 1947.
SNOO WILSON, author of the play “The Beast” (in Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt)

If there is one figure with whom the practice of sex magic is generally associated in the modern imagination, it is surely Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Known in the popular press as “the wickedest man in the world,” and proclaiming himself the “Great Beast 666,” Crowley was the object of media scandal, moral outrage, and titillating allure throughout his life. In the years since his death, he has become better known as one of the most important influences on the modern revival of magic and witchcraft. Yet, despite his importance, Crowley has been largely ignored by scholars of religion. In most cases he has been dismissed as, at best, a pathetic charlatan and, at worst, a sadistic pervert and a ridiculous crank. Most scholars of Western esotericism, such as Antoine Faivre, make only passing reference to Crowley, while leading scholars of New Age religions such as Wouter Hanegraaff give him only the briefest mention.1

Perhaps the primary reason for this neglect of Crowley—and also for the scandal and titillation that surrounded him—was his practice of sexual magic (or magick, to use Crowley’s spelling).2 Rejecting the prudish hypocrisy of the Victorian world in which he was raised, Crowley identified sex as the most powerful force in life and the supreme source of magical power. Taking an apparent delight in outraging the British society of his time, Crowley made explicit use of the most “deviant” sexual acts, such as masturbation and homosexuality, as central components in his magical practice. Not surprisingly, he soon became a favorite target of the popular press of the early twentieth century. As various papers described him, he was known for his “criminal excesses and revolting debauchery,” his “cesspool of vice,” which included “blasphemous and bestial ceremonies—or orgies”3 and amounted to nothing more than a “symposium of obscenity, blasphemy, and indecency”4 In one of the more entertaining accounts of the Beast, My Life in a Love Cult: A Warning to All Young Girls, Crowley is portrayed as a Sadistic Satanist whose main philosophy is “All is evil. Evil is right. Let evil prevail!”5

In this chapter, I will suggest that Crowley is a figure of far more interest than the mere hedonistic sex fiend portrayed by the popular media. Indeed, he is a fascinating figure worthy of attention by scholars of religion and of profound importance for the understanding of modern society as a whole. This importance is threefold. First, with his radical rejection of Victorian morality and his emphasis on sex as the supreme source of magical power, Crowley is a remarkable reflection of his era and of the sexual attitudes of late Victorian England.6Second, with his study of Hinduism and Buddhism, he was a key figure in the transmission of Indian traditions to the West, including the controversial traditions of Tantra. Finally, in part because of this incorporation of Eastern traditions, Crowley has also been one of the most influential figures in the revival of magic and a variety of alternative religions at the turn of the new millennium.

By the late nineteenth century, as we saw in the last chapter, the two currents of Western sexual magic and somewhat mutilated forms of Indian Tantra had begun to mingle, fuse, and often become hopelessly confused. Crowley in many ways represents the culmination of this (con)fusion of Tantra and sexual magic. As John Symonds remarks, “His greatest merit was to make the bridge between Tantrism and the Western esoteric tradition and thus bring together Western and Eastern magical techniques.”7 Yet ironically, Crowley seems to have known little more about actual Tantric practice than did Theodor Reuss or most other Western adepts.8 What he did know came through secondary, superficial, and distorted sources that are deeply colored by the Orientalist biases of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, not long after his death, Tantra would soon be largely confused in the popular imagination with Crowleyian-style sex magick.9 Ironically, despite his general ignorance about the subject, and without ever intending to do so, Crowley became a key figure in the transformation and misinterpretation of Tantra in the West, where it would be largely detached from its cultural context and increasingly identified with sex.

In order to understand Crowley’s highly influential form of sexual magic, I think we need to place it within the historical context of the late and post-Victorian world in which he lived. As Michel Foucault, Michael Mason, and others have argued, the post-Victorian era witnessed an intense reaction against the prudery and hypocrisy of the nineteenth century. From D. H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde to Havelock Ellis, many British intellectuals were throwing off the sexual shackles of their Victorian parents and embracing a new ideal of erotic liberation, including the most “deviant” and “abnormal” acts such as masturbation and homosexual intercourse.10

Crowley’s writings on sexuality and magic, I will suggest, were a key part of this larger fascination with sexuality in the early twentieth century.11 Yet Crowley would also push this discourse about sexuality a good deal further than most of his contemporaries had dared, not just defying but deliberately violating the most sacred sexual taboos. Here I will employ, but also seriously critique, some of the insights of Georges Bataille, and particularly his concept of transgression.12 Crowley, I will argue, hoped to find in deliberate acts of transgression a radical kind of superhuman power, one that went well beyond the transgressive rites performed by Reuss and the early Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO)—indeed, a power that could explode the boundaries of Western society and open the way for a new era of history. Yet despite his often outrageous acts, Crowley still remained caught in an endless dialectic of transgression and taboo, never really transcending his own Victorian childhood. To conclude, I will suggest that Crowley was in many ways a deeply ambivalent, Janus-faced figure, a kind of “beast with two backs”; not only did he reflect his own generation and the sexual anxieties of the late Victorian era, but he foreshadowed our own era and our sexual obsessions at the dawn of the new millennium.


It is sex. How wonderful sex can be, when men keep it powerful and sacred, and it fills the world! like sunshine through and through one!
D. H. LAWRENCE, The Plumed Serpent

[T]o us Victoria was sheer suffocation. . . . She was a huge and heavy fog; we could not see, we could not breathe. . . . [T]he spirit of her age had killed everything we cared for. . . . The soul of England was stagnant, stupefied!
The Confessions of Aleister Crowley

If figures like P. B. Randolph reflect many of the key trends in Victorian culture of the mid-nineteenth century, Crowley is a striking exemplar of the sexual attitudes of the late and post-Victorian era. As Pamela Thurschwell observes, much of the occult literature at the turn of the twentieth century reflects the larger cultural contradictions surrounding sex and gender, and particularly issues like homosexuality and other “pathologies”: “Deep and far-reaching anxieties about the stability of the traditional grounds of gender and sexuality pervade fin-de-siècle culture.”13 Crowley is a remarkable reflection of these sexual anxieties.

As we saw in the previous chapters, many nineteenth-century authors like Richard von Krafft-Ebing identified the sexual instinct as the most powerful force in human life, and so also the primary cause of psychological deviations. By the early twentieth century, this focus on sexuality achieved its most elaborate form in the work of Sigmund Freud and the early psychoanalytic movement—a movement that began to spread at exactly the same time that the Great Beast was developing his magickal system. Even more strongly than Krafft-Ebing, Freud identifies sex as the force is that is most “central to our sense of self” and in fact “the basis of both psychological and political identity.”14 For it is sexual love that gives us “our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness,” including the search for eternal happiness through religious experience.15 Repression or denial of the sexual instinct, conversely, is the root cause of most psychological problems, from neuroses and obsessions to full-blown psychoses.

[M]an’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction, and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness, must have suggested to him that he should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in his life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make genital eroticism the central point of his life.16

As we will see in chapter 6, many later Freudians would take these insights into sex and repression in a much more explicitly political direction. For authors like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, sexual liberation would become the necessary analogue and prerequisite of liberation from totalitarian political regimes like Nazi Germany.17

This new interest in sexuality and liberation also began to pervade popular culture, literature, and the arts, particularly in late and post-Victorian England. As various scholars have observed, the first decades of the twentieth century gave birth to a powerful reaction against the sexual values of the Victorian era. This “deconstruction of Victorian morality” was caused, in part, by the radical challenge to traditional religious authority posed by Darwinian evolutionary theory and by a general loss of faith in the mainstream Protestant churches. If the traditional Christian God and church could no longer be trusted, why bother observing the strict sexual morality of the Victorians? Why not be wicked?

After 1880 severe stresses appeared in the Victorian system of morality that heralded its demise. . . . The crisis of faith brought on by Darwinism and above all by the watering down of Protestantism was significant. . . the crucial ethical question became, what was the point of a lofty Victorian morality when life seemed to lack transcendent meaning? . . . Without religious structures, why not then behave badly?18

As we saw in the previous chapters, much of the discourse of the early Victorian era focused on the importance of heterosexual marriage for the stability of society. In an era that valued economic productivity, generation of capital, and restraint in consumption, healthy sexuality had to be useful and productive: “normal heterosexuality appeared in one guise . . .attraction between men and women that led to marriage and family. Normal sex was consistent with the values of Victorian industrial society—it was another mode of production.”19 Above all, “deviant”—that is, nonproductive— acts such as masturbation and homosexual intercourse were the most dangerous and antisocial of all pathologies; indeed, they “appeared to pose a threat not only to individuals but to society and even the nation.”20, pp. 213-14).] Thus, in one of the more famous cases of 1895, Oscar Wilde was tried and imprisoned for his homosexual relations.

Yet by the early twentieth century, as we see in a wide array of authors like Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and D. H. Lawrence, there was a growing critique of the prudery of the Victorian age and an increasing call for social and sexual liberation. In Carpenter’s words, “the strange period of human evolution, the Victorian Age . . . marked the lowest ebb of modern civilized society: a period in which . . . cant in religion, the impure hush on matters of sex . . . the cruel barring of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives, were carried to an extremity of folly difficult for us now to realise.”21 As the character Kate remarked in Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent, quoted above, sex was believed to harbor some profound secret, the liberation of which was of tremendous, even sacred, power. Sex is thus the key to self-realization: “There has been so much action in the past, especially sexual action, a wearying repetition over and over, without… a corresponding realization. Now our business is to realize sex. Today the full realization of sex is even more important than the act itself.”22 Few figures would seek to realize this secret of sex more fully than would Aleister Crowley.

Unleashing the Beast: Crowley and the Post-Victorian Age

He was . . . the inventor of a new religion, with its pseudo-teaching supposed to be derived from the medieval alchemists, and its licentious cult in which dark rooms, impressionable women and poems recited to throbbing music played their appointed part. . . . [T]he war which brought out the best in human nature, also forced the scum to the top, and Aleister Crowley is of the scum. “
Another Traitor Trounced,” John Bull

I—I am his High Priestess! I am his Woman of Babylon! Not the scarlet woman of the putrid-minded, but the scarlet maiden of the Apocalypse, forever bound to him. . . . With his own dagger, white hot, he branded me his chattel forever! Ah, the exquisite agony! The joy!
MARIAN DOCKERILL, My Life in a Love Cult

Born in 1875, the son of a member of the highly puritanical Plymouth Brethren sect, Edward Alexander (Aleister) Crowley embodied some of the deepest tensions in late Victorian society as a whole. A child raised in a strict Christian home, he would later turn to the occult arts and extremes of sexual excess. A prolific poet as well as an accomplished mountain climber, Crowley would also become one of the most reviled characters of the twentieth century. He has been described variously as “the King of Depravity, arch-traitor, debauchee and drug-fiend”23 and “a perverse idealist, Master of the occult and slave to the demons he liberated.”24 Yet, as his most recent biographer Lawrence Sutin argues, Crowley was far more than a mere sadistic master of the black arts; not only was he a gifted poet, painter, and “master modernist” in his prose style, but he was also one of the first Western students of Buddhism and Yoga, and “one of the rare human beings … to dare to prophesy a distinctive new creed and to devote himself… to the promulgation of that creed.” 25

The details of Crowley’s life are fairly well known, based on his autobiography and numerous popular biographies, so I won’t reiterate all of them here. I will simply provide a brief sketch of his background and context. Educated at Trinity College in Cambridge, Crowley was from an early age fascinated with poetry and pagan religion and was a prolific author of verse and prose. While still a student at Cambridge he had published his first collection of poetry, Aceldama, and his notorious erotic collection, White Stains (1898). Having inherited a large amount of money while still young, he was financially independent for many years and spent much of his time pursuing his passions of writing and mountain climbing. During his Cambridge years, he would also adopt the name “Aleister,” a Gaelic form of his middle name, Alexander, and an homage to the hero of Shelley’s poem “Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude.”

His first real initiation into the world of esotericism occurred in 1898, when he was introduced to a group known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded by William Westcott and MacGregor Mathers in 1887, the Golden Dawn was an eclectic blending of a number of older Western traditions, including Hermeticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Kabbalah. An affluent and elite group, the Golden Dawn attracted a number of prominent artists, poets, and intellectuals, including W. B. Yeats. Eventually Crowley and Mathers would part ways and finally become mired in a lawsuit when Crowley published a full description of the secret rites of the Golden Dawn in his journal, Equinox.26 Revealing secrets and sparking controversy, we will see, was something of an obsession throughout Crowley’s life.

Beginning in 1899, Crowley also began to explore a variety of Eastern spiritual traditions. After studying Yoga in Mexico, he traveled to Ceylon and India in 1901-2, during which time he studied various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. As we will see below, it seems possible that he also learned something of the esoteric techniques of Indian Tantra—though perhaps not as much as most contemporary adepts generally suppose.

However, it was in 1904 that Crowley would receive his first great revelation and the knowledge that he was to be the herald of a new era in human history. According to his own account, Crowley’s guardian angel, Aiwass, appeared to him and dictated The Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis,27 His most famous work, The Book of the Law announces the dawn of the third aeon of mankind: the first aeon was that of the goddess Isis, centered around matriarchy and the worship of the Great Mother; the second aeon was that of Osiris, during which the patriarchal religions of suffering and death—that is, Judaism and Christianity—rose to power. Finally, with the revelation of the Book of the Law, a new aeon of the son, Horus, was born: “the old formulae of magick … the formulae of the dying God—is no longer efficacious—–The formulae of the new Aeon recognizes Horus, the Child, crowned and conquering, as God.”28

Despite his claim that “every man and woman is a star,” however, Crowley’s ideal social order was far from egalitarian and in fact quite elitist. Rejecting the principles of democracy and equality as effete leftovers of Christianity, he asserted the power of the strong over the weak, the aristocratic few over the dull service masses. As he wrote in 1937 in his Scientific Solution to the Problem of Government, the true ruler has no use for absurdities such as liberté, egalité, fraternité, the idea that all men are equal or that woman is equal to man:

The ruler asserts facts as they are; the slave has therefore no option but to deny them passionately, in order to express his discontent. . . .The Master (… the Magus) does not concern himself with facts … he uses truth and falsehood indiscriminately, to serve his ends. Slaves consider him immoral, and preach against him in Hyde Park.29

Crowley had high hopes that his new Law of Thelema would be adopted by the major political figures of his day and so become the foundation for a new social order of the future. According to his own notes, he clearly believed that the nation that first accepted the Book of the Law would become the leading nation the world. In fact, he initially saw Hitler and the rising power of fascism as a possible vehicle for spreading his Law of Thelema. He made copious marginal notes on Hitler’s own writings, which he found much in agreement with his Law of Thelema; and he tried several times to have copies of his work placed in Hitler’s hands, suggesting that it would provide “a philosophical basis for Nazism.”30 However, when his attempts to sway the Fiihrer failed, Crowley tried just as eagerly to sell his Law of Thelema to the British government as the most necessary way to counter the German threat.31

The peak of Crowley’s magical career—and of his infamy as the wickedest man in the world—was in the period after 1920, when he founded his own spiritual community called the Abbey of Thelema at a farmhouse in Cefalu, Sicily. The original inspiration derived from Francois Rabelais’s classic Gargantua (1534), which describes an ideal spiritual community that would transcend the hypocritical corruption of the Christian monasteries. Called “Theleme” (from the Greek, meaning “will”), the rule of the community was “do what you will,” in a joyous blending of Stoic virtue and Christian spirituality.32 Crowley took Rabelais’s ideal a good deal further, however, by creating a Utopian community in which every desire could be gratified and every impulse expressed, through free experimentation in drugs, sex, and physical excess.

Perhaps the most infamous product of this period was the semi-autobiographical novel Diary of a Drug Fiend, published in 1922. Written at top speed to fund his growing drug habit, the Diary is one of Crowley’s most outrageous works but also one that provides the most insight into his character and historical context. A thinly disguised image of Crowley himself, the central character, Peter Pendragon, describes his rapid descent into cocaine and heroin addiction, as he careens through the affluent and wildly hedonistic life of the roaring twenties, exploring every possible sensual pleasure and moral vice. As Leslie Shepard observes,

This book . . . comes from another world—an age of contrasts like a layer cake, with a thick wedge of orthodoxy, a thin covering of daring literary cream, and a certain amount of exotic jam. It was the world of censorship of taste and also the Jazz Age of petting parties, wild automobile rides, speak-easies, silent films. . . . Puritanism and interwar permissiveness lived side by side and made faces at each other.33

Ironically, Pendragon is finally redeemed by a mysterious figure named King Lamus, a thinly veiled mask of Crowley himself, who runs a spiritual center called the Abbey of Thelema in a far-off town called “Telepylus.” In other words, the drug-addicted Crowley has portrayed himself as the character’s own final savior and redemption.

By the 1940s, however, Crowley had exhausted not only his money (already largely spent by 1915) but also his once infinite will to power. Though he continued to believe that his Book of the Law might have a decisive role to play in the unfolding of global events during and after World War II, most people who saw him in those years described him as “a bored old man who found the lonely evenings frightening.”34 He spent his last years in a small guesthouse in London, increasingly addicted to heroin (taking as much as eleven grams a day, enough to kill most men) until his death in 1947. There are conflicting accounts of his final days: according to some hagiographic accounts, he slipped blissfully into the Buddhist state of final liberation, passing from “Samadhi to Super-Samadhi to Nirvana to Super Nirvana, expiring in the boundless bliss of the Infinite.”35 According to more cynical accounts, he died alone in misery and self-loathing, uttering the final words “sometimes I hate myself.”36 Still others say that he died quietly in bed, followed by a gust of wind and a peal of thunder—a sign that “the gods were greeting him.”37

In sum, Crowley might be said to be a remarkable reflection of the era in which he was born. While deliberately setting out to overthrow all established values, he was perhaps only expressing the darker underside or “secret life” of the Victorian world in which he was raised:

Crowley was a contemporary of Freud; he grew out of the matrix of Victorianism. … He was one of many who helped to tear down the false, hypocritical, self-righteous attitudes of the time. What is peculiar in Crowley’s case is not that he chose evil but that in his revolt against his parents and God he set himself up in God’s place.38

And perhaps nowhere was Crowley’s simultaneous reflection of and revolt against the world in which he lived more apparent than in his volatile sexual life.


The sexual act is a sacrament of Will. To profane it is the great offense. All true expression of it is lawful; all suppression or distortion of it is contrary to the Law of liberty.

Rejecting the effete morality of his Christian youth, Crowley deliberately set out to overturn what he saw as the oppressive, hypocritical attitudes of Victorian England. Going much further than Freud and the psychoanalytic movement, Crowley identified sex as not only the most central aspect of the human being (thus, in his Book of Lies, he points out that the English word for the pronoun “I” is itself a phallic shape),39 but as the most profound source of magical power. As he wrote in his Confessions, the main reason for the violence and turmoil of the modern world lies in the repression of the sexual instinct, and conversely, the surest way to solve our contemporary problems lies in its liberation:

The battle will rage most fiercely around the question of sex. . . . Mankind must learn that the sexual instinct is . . . ennobling. The shocking evils which we all deplore are principally due to the perversions produced by suppressions. The feeling that it is shameful and the sense of sin cause concealment, which is ignoble, and internal conflict which creates distortion, neurosis, and ends in explosion. We deliberately produce an abscess and wonder why it is full of pus . . . why it bursts in stench and corruption.

The Book of the Law solves the sexual problem completely. Each individual has an absolute right to satisfy his sexual instinct as is physiologically proper for him.40

In many ways, Crowley was continuing and carrying to its logical conclusion the tradition of sexual magic that began with Randolph, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and the Ordo Templi Orientis. In 1910, in fact, Crowley became involved with the OTO and soon became its most infamous member. According to Crowley’s account, he was approached by Reuss, who had read a cryptic chapter of Crowley’s Book of Lies and accused him of revealing the innermost secret of the OTO: the secret of sexual magic. Though Crowley had done so unintentionally, the story goes, he was named the Sovereign Grand Master General of Ireland, Ioana, and all the Britains. As Crowley suggests, this secret is so powerful and “of such tremendous import,” that it “cannot be used indiscriminately” or revealed to the unworthy.41 As he described it in his Confessions, “if this secret which is a scientific secret were perfectly understood . . . there would be nothing which the human imagination can conceive that could not be realized in practice. . . . If it were desired to have an element of atomic weight six times that of uranium that element could be produced.”42

Crowley developed a number of new rituals for the OTO, including a full-scale Gnostic Mass. An elaborate, highly choreographed ceremony, the Mass is a kind of creative reimagining of the secret rites alleged to have been practiced by the early Gnostics and later corrupted by the Catholic Church. Although there is no physical intercourse involved in the Mass, its symbolism is highly sexual. The primary actors are the priest, who parts a sacred veil with his “lance,” and the priestess, who removes her robes to embody the nakedness of the divine female principle. As the priestess proclaims in the “ceremony of the opening of the veil,” “I love you! I yearn to you! Pale or purple, veiled or voluptuous, I who am all pleasure and purple, and drunkenness of the innermost sense, desire you. Put on the wings, and arouse the coiled splendour within you: come unto me! To me! To me! Sing the rapturous love-song unto me! Burn to me perfumes! Wear to me jewels! Drink to me, for I love you! I love you.”43 The Mass also involves the consumption of wine and “cakes of light,” and it is perhaps worth noting the ingredients for the latter. According to the recipe provided in the Book of the Law, they are to be made with “meal & honey & thick leavings of red wine: then oil of Abramelin and olive oil” and softened with fresh blood. As for this last ingredient, menstrual blood is the preferred form: “The best blood is of the moon, monthly: then the fresh blood of a child . . . then of enemies; then of the priest or of the worshippers: last of some beast.”44

In addition to developing the Gnostic Mass and other elaborate ceremonies, Crowley also revised the OTO’s hierarchy of initiatory degrees, expanding them from ten to eleven. The eighth, ninth, and eleventh of these focused on more explicitly transgressive sexual rites of autoerotic and homosexual intercourse. As Peter Koenig summarizes the upper degrees,

Crowley’s VIIIth degree unveiled . . . that masturbating on a sigil of a demon or meditating upon the image of a phallus would bring power or communication with a divine being. . . . The IXth degree was labeled heterosexual intercourse where the sexual secrets were sucked out of the vagina and when not consumed . . . put on a sigil to attract this or that demon to fulfill the pertinent wish. … In the XIth degree, the mostly homosexual degree, one identifies oneself with an ejaculating penis. The blood (or excrements) from anal intercourse attract the spirits/demons while the sperm keeps them alive.45

As we can see, Crowley’s practice of sexual magic represents a radical departure from the rather prudish system of P. B. Randolph, even more extreme than that of Reuss and the early OTO, that is much more willing to use a wide variety of nonheterosexual forms of sex magick. Indeed, his sexual palate was quite eclectic. In addition to more mundane heterosexual acts, his magic sampled a smorgasbord of techniques, including “mentally meditating on his penis—masturbating—while thinking of gods and angels; consecrating talismans with combinations of semen, vaginal juices and menstrual blood; prolonging and intensifying sex through visualization . . . beseeching gods for information, money and material possessions during sex.”46

Yet, much like Randolph, Crowley does suggest a wide range of both material and spiritual uses for sexual magic. Between 1914 and 1918, Crowley’s own diary, Rex de Arte Regia, records a long series of 309 acts of sexual magic for a variety of purposes. These included both spiritual aims, such as offering praise to Pan or attaining supernatural powers, and more material aims, such as fascinating mistresses or enhancing his youth and sexual attraction. Of these, the largest number (48) were employed for the purpose of generating money. Increasingly worried about his own finances, Crowley developed a sexo-economic technique of imagining a shower of gold coins raining down at the moment of climax. At least in his opinion, this worked, since he claimed to receive several unexpected checks and offers showing up out of the blue.47 Like Randolph, he would also begin marketing his sexual magick in a various ways; perhaps the most blatant was his attempt to sell “Elixir Pills” containing his own semen in a neutral base, which were advertised as a virility enhancers.48

Whatever its form, however, this secret of sexual magic was the key to Crowley’s vision of a new aeon based on full affirmation of the will and liberation from the repressive religions of the past. Indeed, Crowley takes the “repressive hypothesis” and the urge to sexual freedom to its furthest extreme: for he not only proclaims the liberation of sexuality from the prudish bonds of his Victorian childhood, but he also makes the most deviant and antisocial of sexual acts—masturbation, consumption of sexual fluids, and homosexual intercourse—the ultimate keys to magical power. In other words, he hoped to usher in his own new aeon by tearing down the entire social-moral structure of the world in which he was raised.49


Shiva, the Destroyer, is asleep, and when he opens his eye the universe is destroyed. . . . But the “eye” of Shiva is also his Lingam [phallus]. Shiva is himself the Mahalingam, which unites these symbolisms. The opening of the eye, the ejaculation of the Lingam, the destruction of the universe, the accomplishment of the Great Work—all these are different ways of saying the same thing.

[P]aradoxical as it may sound, the Tantrics are in reality the most advanced of the Hindus.

Already in the work of Carl Kellner, Reuss, and the early OTO, Western sexual magic had begun to be mingled with the recently discovered traditions of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. But it is Crowley’s form of sexual magic that most Westerner readers now think of when they hear the word Tantra. As we will see, however, this association of Crowley and Tantra may turn out to be a good deal more spurious and unfounded than most authors have generally assumed.

Most of Crowley’s biographers have assumed that he had some direct knowledge of Hindu Tantra, which he then fused with his own magical practice. As his disciple Kenneth Grant put it, “The revival of Tantric elements in the Book of the Law may be evidence of a positive move on the part of [Crowley] to forge a link between Western and Oriental systems of magick.”50 But the question is, how much did Crowley really know about Indian Tantric traditions—that is, beyond the secondhand comments and bursts of moral outrage about Tantric licentiousness that were common in Orientalist scholarship?

It is true that Crowley did have a reasonably good knowledge of Indian Yoga, including both the raja (royal) Yoga of Patanjali and the physical practice focused on bodily postures known as hatha yoga. His Eight Lectures on Yoga—or “Yoga for Yahoos,” as he described it—displays a competent grasp of the classical Yoga system and would become one of the first vehicles through which Yoga was transmitted to the West.51 And it is also true that he made frequent use of key Sanskrit terms, such as lingam and yoni, the male and female sexual organs, to explain his own magical practice. In fact, he records in his Confessions that it was the Indian worship of the lingam that helped change his attitudes toward sex and to see that the sexual organ can be a source of spiritual power. Unlike repressed and neurotic modern Western society, India had long known the inherent divinity of sexuality and the human body:

One of the great insights of South India is the great Temple of the Shiva lingam. I spent a good deal of time in its courts meditating on the mystery of Phallic worship. . . . My instinct told me that Blake was right in saying: “The lust of the goat is the glory of God.” But I lacked the courage to admit it. The result of my training had been to obsess me with the hideously foul idea that inflicts such misery on Western minds and curses life with civil war. Europeans cannot face the facts frankly, they cannot escape from their animal appetite, yet suffer the tortures of fear and shame even while gratifying it. As Freud has now shown, this devastating complex is not merely responsible for most of the social and domestic misery of Europe and America, but exposes the individual to neurosis. . . . We resort to suppression, and the germs create an abscess.52

Crowley eventually came to have a certain respect for Indian Tantric traditions as well. Unlike most of the Orientalist scholars of his day, who denounced Tantra as a horrible perversion, Crowley described Tantra as a valid form of religion, and in fact as the “most advanced” of all forms of Indian spirituality. Unlike other forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, Tantra does not deny the physical body but affirms and makes use of the flesh and the senses:

The essence of the Tantric cults is that by performance of certain rites of Magick, one does not only escape disaster, but obtains positive benediction. The Tantric is not obsessed by the will-to-die. . . . [H]e implicitly denies the proposition that existence is sorrow and he formulates the postulate . . . that means exist by which the universal sorrow . . . may be unmasked.53

One of the most explicit references to Tantric sexual practices in Crowley’s work is found in his key text for the OTO IX degree rite, De Arte Magica. Here Crowley specifically compares the Tantric view of the semen and the rite of maithuna with the IX degree rite and also demonstrates that he is familiar with at least one Tantric text:

[T]he wise men of India have a belief that a certain particular Prana, or force, resides in the Bindu, or semen. . . .

Therefore they stimulate to the maximum its generation by causing a consecrated prostitute to excite the organs, and at the same time vigorously withhold by will. After some little exercise they claim that they can deflower as many as eighty virgins in a night without losing a single drop of the Bindu. Nor is this ever to be lost, but reabsorbed through the tissues of the body. The organs thus act as a siphon to draw constantly fresh supplies of life from the cosmic reservoir. . . .

Initiates will notice also that these heathen philosophers have made one further march towards the truth when they say that the Sun and Moon must be united before the reabsorption (see almost any Tantra, in particular Shiva Sanhita).54

For these reasons, many authors have speculated that Crowley did have some extensive knowledge of Tantra. Sutin suggests that Crowley may have first been introduced to the more radical left-hand (vamachara) form of Tantra in Ceylon as early 1901. Infamous for its use of normally forbidden substances, such as meat, wine, and sexual intercourse, vamachara Tantra is considered the most rapid and dangerous path to liberation.55 Initially, Crowley seems to have been repulsed by such practices, for example, when he wrote with disdain about “these follies of . . . Vamacharya.”56 However, Sutin goes on to argue that Crowley’s attitudes toward Tantra became a good deal more positive in the years after 1901 and that he began to experiment in Tantric sexual rites of his own. Already by 1902, Sutin suggests, Crowley and his partner, Rose, had begun to engage in a series of “secret rites, of a sexual nature (and related to Tantric practices, such as the emulation of the passive Shiva in cosmic coupling with the mounted energetic Shakti).”57 Unfortunately, Sutin provides no evidence that Crowley and Rose were engaging in any sort of actual Tantric practices or that their sexual relations were in any way influenced by Tantra.

Others have speculated that Crowley was even more deeply involved in left-hand Tantric rituals during his travels in India. In 1936, for example, Elizabeth Sharpe published a semi-autobiographical account entitled Secrets of the Kaula Circle, which describes a mysterious Englishman calling himself by the number “666,” who engages in the most esoteric Tantric rites: “I met a European who . . . called himself by a number. In the beginning he was extremely handsome, afterwards he grew gross. . . . He had many women at his disposal. … He learnt many magical processes by which he drew into his circle great phantoms. . . . 666 wore a ceremonial robe, had a pentacle, a wand, a sword and a cup.”58 At least one author has taken this to be positive proof that Crowley had intimate knowledge of and experience in Tantric practice.59 However, given the fact that Sharpe’s novel was published at a time when Crowley’s reputation as a pervert, black magician, and drug fiend was quite widespread, it seems equally likely that Sharpe appropriated the figure of the infamous “Beast 666,” mingled him with some widespread fantasies about Tantric licentiousness, and incorporated him as a fictional character into her novel.

But apart from these general references, it would seem that Crowley’s actual knowledge of Tantra was fairly rudimentary and largely colored by the Orientalist biases of his era. It is indeed striking, for example, that Crowley does not once mention the work of Sir John Woodroffe (also known as Arthur Avalon), whose work, as we saw in chapter 3, pioneered the modern study of Tantra and helped introduce it to the Western world. One would think that Crowley would have welcomed the publication of a large body of ancient literature that allows for a positive role for sexual experience and this-worldly pleasure, and one cannot help but wonder why he completely ignored it in his own writings on sexual magic.

Moreover, in the few places where he does discuss Tantric practices, Crowley frequently either misunderstands or simply reinterprets them for his own purposes. For example, most Tantric traditions use a form of physical discipline known as Kundalini Yoga. According to the Kundalini system, there are a series of seven energy centers (chakras) located along the axis of the spinal column. At the base of these lies the Great Goddess as power (Shakti) hidden in the human body, which is imagined in the form of a coiled serpent (Kundalini). The aim of Kundalini Yoga is to awaken this serpent power and to raise it through the seven energy centers where it will ultimately be united with the supreme masculine principle, the god Shiva, who is imagined as dwelling in a thousand-petaled lotus at the top of the head. Crowley more or less accepts this basic system of seven chakras and the serpent power; yet, quite remarkably, he also adds a special set of lower chakras located beneath the lowest energy center, in the regions of the anus, the prostate gland (or urethra-cervix region in the female), and the base of the penis (or clitoris in the female). In other words, he has added a series of subchakras that are explicitly associated with the sexual organs and orifices. As he explains in a letter in 1916,

It appears that a special set of nadis [nerves] fed the Muladhara lotus as if it had three roots. The source of these roots is in the three centres. . . . But they are not lotuses of the same order as the sacred Seven. . . .

The anal lotus is of eight petals, deep crimson, glowing to rich poppy color when excited. . . .

The prostatic lotus is like a peridot, extremely translucent and limpid. . . . The petals are numerous, I think thirty-two.

The third lotus is in the glans penis, close to the base. … It is of a startlingly rich purple. . . . The centre is gold like the sun. . . .

In the female . . . these three lotuses also exist, but in a very different form. . . . [T]he second of the chakras is situated between the urethra and the cervix uteri. . . . [I]ts color is neutral grey but in pregnancy it becomes a brilliant orange and flowerlike. . . .

The third lotus is at the base of the clitoris. . . . The petals are forty-nine in number. . . . The basic color is a rich olive green, sometimes kindling to emerald.60

This passage is a telling example of Crowley’s appropriation and reinterpretation of Tantra. Not only does he identify Tantra primarily with its sexual aspects, but, going still further, he also introduces his own series of subchakras identified specifically with the sexual organs.

However, perhaps the greatest difference between the Crowleyian and Tantric systems is the role of sexual intercourse in ritual practice. But here again there is some confusion. Some authors have suggested that the primary difference lies in the way in which the sexual acts are carried out and the manner in which sexual union occurs. Thus Sutin argues that the key difference is that the Hindu and Buddhist Tantrics call for a retention and sublimation of the male semen during union, while Crowley calls for the ejaculation and consumption of the sexual fluids (in fact, Crowley himself pointed this out in De Arte Magica, chapters 14 and 16):

Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism . . . call for retention of semen by the male, even in the heights of mystical sexual union. Crowley followed that alchemical tradition which regarded the fluidic commingling as an “elixir” which, when imbibed, could heighten both one’s physical and spiritual state.61

Actually, this is not quite correct. It is true that later Tantric texts emphasize retention of semen during union, but as we saw in the previous chapter, there are many Hindu Tantric traditions—and arguably, the older traditions—that call for ejaculation of the semen and consumption of the combined male and female sexual fluids. As David Gordon White has argued, this practice of orally consuming the sexual fluids can be found in many of the oldest Tantras and probably predates the practice of seminal retention.62

Instead, I would suggest that the key difference between traditional forms of Tantra and Crowley’s system lies not in the details of sexual union but rather in the emphasis that is placed on sex in the first place. In most Hindu and Buddhist Tantras, sexual union is a fairly minor part of spiritual practice; when mentioned at all, it is often taken in symbolic terms and, when practiced literally, is but one of many ways of awakening the divine power, or Shakti. As N. N. Bhattacharyya observes, “Most modern writers … insist solely on its sexual elements, minimal though they are compared to the vastness of the subject, and purport to popularize certain modern ideas pertaining to sex problems in the name of Tantra.”63 But in most contemporary Western interpretations—and above all, in the wake of Crowley— Tantra has been redefined primarily by its sexual element and often simply equated with “spiritual sex,” the goal of which is primarily heightened orgasm and optimal physical pleasure.

In the end, it seems there is little concrete evidence that Crowley had any extensive knowledge of Indian Tantra, apart from the common association of Tantra and sex in the Western imagination. So how, then, did Crowley’s work come to be so widely identified with Tantra in later literature? The answer lies primarily, I think, in the work of Crowley’s earliest biographers, such as John Symonds and Kenneth Grant. In fact, Grant claimed to have received “full initiation into a highly recondite formula of the Tantric vama marg” at the hands of one David Curwen, who in turn claimed to have been initiated by a Tantric guru in South India. Having met Crowley in 1944 and studying with him in 1945, Grant would go on to write a series of books on Crowley and magic, which repeatedly emphasize the “Tantric” nature of Crowley’s work. Thus, The Book of the Law is even praised as “the New Gnosis, the latest Tantra,” and Crowley is credited with having penetrated the innermost secrets of Tantric sexual practices (which Grant also compares with the orgasm theory of Wilhelm Reich): “Crowley knew that the crux of tantric ritual lay in its connection with the magically induced ecstasies of sexual orgasm.”64 Ultimately, Grant finds in Tantra the confirmation of the central tenet of Crowley’s Law of Thelema—the fundamental belief in the divinity of the human will: “Another point of contact between Tantra and Thelema is contained in the Thelemic aphorism: There is no god but man!”65

But ironically, despite his attempts to read Crowley through a Tantric lens, even Grant admits that Crowley’s actual knowledge of Tantric practice was limited. Thus he recounts Crowley’s correspondence with David Curwen. Apparently Crowley, rather annoyed that Curwen possessed far greater knowledge, was forced to admit that “Curwen knows 100 times as much as I do abut Tantra.”66 Indeed, Curwen claimed to have a recipe for preparing the prized “Elixir of Life” that was far superior to that of the OTO: “The O.T.O. lacked some vital keys to the real secret of magick which Crowley claimed to have incorporated into the higher degrees. Curwen undoubtedly knew more about these matters than did Crowley.”67

But regardless of Crowley’s actual knowledge of Tantra, virtually everyone writing on the subject since the time of Grant and Symonds has accepted this basic identity of Crowleyian magic and Tantra.68 Crowley’s version of the tradition and, above all, his identification of Tantra with its sexual component would have a formative impact on virtually all later forms of sex magic in the West.

Leashing and Unleashing the Beast: Taboo, Transgression, and Power

In my Mass the Host is of excrement, that I can consume in awe and adoration.
ALEISTER CROWLEY, The Magical Record of the Beast 666

Transgression contains nothing negative but affirms limited being— affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time.
MICHAEL FOUCAULT, “Preface to Transgression”

So what are we to make of Crowley’s scandalous and deliberately shocking sexual practices? Were they merely the expression of a perverse and hedonistic character who hoped to satiate every carnal desire? Or were they simply a crude form of sympathetic magic designed to bring him material gain, wealth, and power?

Here I would suggest that the power of Crowley’s sexual magick lay primarily in its explicit and deliberate acts of transgression—and transgression as understood specifically in the terms developed by the influential philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille (1897-1962).69 As we saw in the previous chapter, both Indian Tantra and the early OTO used various acts of transgression in their rituals, deliberately violating social and sexual taboos as a source of magical power. Yet Crowley would take this urge to transgression even further than Reuss or any Indian Tantrikas would have dared, in what Bradford Verter calls a kind of “queering of the occult,” or a turn to deviant, antisocial forms of sexual practice.70

From Oscar Wilde’s homosexual scandals to D. H. Lawrence’s highly erotic novels, the late Victorian era gave birth to many experiments in sexual transgression, challenging both traditional religious belief and the social order that it supported. As Foucault suggests in his essay on Bataille, the rise of sexuality in the twentieth century is closely associated with the “death of God” and the declining power of traditional religious belief. Today we are less and less able to find radical, ecstatic, liberating experiences through conventional religious institutions; instead, we find it now primarily through sexual experience, and particularly through sexual transgression: “with the death of God transgression acquires a different character than before, because now it is transgression itself that is God, most pronounced . . . in what we call sex—that secret that we are henceforth doomed to always speak about precisely because it is secret.”71

As Bataille uses the term, transgression is not simple hedonism or unrestrained sexual license; rather, its power lies in the dialectic, or “play” (le jeu), between taboo and transgression, through which one systematically constructs and then oversteps all laws. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of eroticism. Not a matter of simple nudity, eroticism arises in the dialectic of veiling and revealing, clothing and striptease, between the creation of sexual taboos and the exhilarating experience of overstepping them. So, too, in ecstatic mystical experience or religious rites (such as blood sacrifices, carnivals, etc.), one must first create an aura of purity and sanctity before one can defile it with violence, transgression, or the overturning of law. “The prohibition is there to be violated”; rules are made to be broken, for it is the experience of overstepping limits that brings the blissful sense of continuity and communion with the Absolute:

[T]aboos . . . are not only there to be obeyed. … It is always a temptation to knock down a barrier. . . . Fear invests [the forbidden act] with an aura of excitement. “There is nothing,” writes de Sade, “that can set bounds to licentiousness. . . . The best way of enlarging and multiplying one’s desires is to try to limit them.”72

The ultimate aim of transgression, however, is not mere sensual pleasure; rather, it is the transgression of the very boundaries of the self, an expenditure (dépense) without hope of any return, which shatters the limits of finite human consciousness in order to experience the boundless continuity of the Infinite. It is this experience of transgression and expenditure that links eroticism intimately to the ultimate experience of infinite continuity, that of death:

Eroticism . . . is assenting to life up to the point of death. . . . Although erotic activity is … an exuberance of life, the object of this psychological quest . . . is not alien to death.

Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea.73

Nowhere is this fundamental dialectic between taboo and transgression more apparent than in the case of Crowley. Indeed, Crowley found liberating transgression not just “in the absence of God,” but rather in his own attempt to destroy God and usher in a new era of history. Quite self-consciously overthrowing the restraints of the Victorian Christian world in which he was raised, Crowley made it his mission to shatter the boundaries of conventional morality in order to liberate the supreme freedom of the self. Thus, “The qualities which have made a man, a race, a city, a caste, must be thrown off. . . . All moral codes are worthless in themselves.”74

The true magus is therefore encouraged to seek out the most disgusting, repugnant, and impure sorts of partners for his sexual rites. Indeed, “the supreme masters of the world seek ever the vilest and most horrible creatures for their concubines, overstepping even the limited laws of sex and species in their necessity to transcend normality”75 And, in turn, his sexual partners are to take a vow that demanded the explicit violation of all moral boundaries that confine ordinary beings, embracing the role of the wicked, adulterous Whore of Babalon herself:

I will work the work of wickedness
I will kill my heart
I will be loud and adulterous
I will be covered with jewels and rich garments.
I will be shameless before all men
I will, for token thereof, freely prostitute my body to the lusts of each and every living creature that shall desire it
I claim the Mystery of Mysteries, BABALON the Great, and the Number 156, and the robe of the Woman of Whoredomes and the Cup of Abominations.76

As we have seen above, many of Crowley’s higher-level rituals centered around acts that were considered extremely transgressive by Victorian moral standards. Sodomy and masturbation were foremost among the acts considered both physically and morally dangerous in Victorian society, and they would therefore become among the most powerful tools in Crowley’s magical practice. The original preface to his The World’s Tragedy was in fact subtitled “Sodomy,” in which he vowed “to fight openly for that which no living Englishman dared defend, even in secret—sodomy!”77

However, even Crowley’s heterosexual rites would have been considered somewhat against the grain of Victorian sexual values. As we have already seen, many of his practices involved deliberate inversions of “normal” sexual intercourse, such as the consumption of sexual fluids, which were regarded as the powerful “elixir” employed in many of the IX degree operations.78 In some cases, Crowley seems to have truly exulted in his own depravity, going to great lengths to describe his descent into licentious transgression. As he described his relations with his partner, Ronnie Minor, in 1918, “I now do all those things which voluptuaries do, with equal or greater enthusiasm and power; but always for an Ulterior End. In this matter I am reproached by that whore of niggers and dogs, with whom I am now living in much worse than adultery.”79 Similarly, as he described his relations with a young American, Cecil Frederick Russell, who come to study with him in 1921 and became a partner in his sexual magic,

Now I’ll shave and make up my face like the lowest kind of whore and rub on perfume and go after Genesthai [Russell] like a drunken two-bit prick-pit in old New Orleans. He disgusts me sexually, as I him, as I suspect. . . . [T]he dirtier my deed, the dearer my darling will hold me; the grosser the act the greedier my arse to engulph him!80

Crowley would go to even further extremes of transgression during his years at the Abbey of Thelema. In his diaries, he claims to have transcended all material distinctions, shattering the boundary between pure and impure, such that even the most defiling substances—including human excrement— became for him the pure Body of God. Thus the shit of his Scarlet Woman, Leah Hirsig, became the “Thelemic Host” in his Gnostic Mass:

My mouth burned; my throat choked, my belly wretched; my blood fled wither who knows. . . . She stood above in hideous contempt. . . . She ate all the body of God and with Her soul’s compulsion made me eat. . . . My teeth grew rotten, my tongue ulcered, raw was my throat, spasm-torn my belly, and all my Doubt of that which to Her teeth was moonlight and to her tongue ambrosia; to her throat nectar, in her belly the One God.81

Much like Bataille, Crowley finds in sexual magick the most powerful means to shattering the limited rational mind and finite human ego. As he explains in “De Arte Magica,” the most expedient technique for achieving this radical experience of transgression is that of absolute exhaustion, of pushing oneself to such extremes of sexual excess that one achieves a kind of “eroto-comatose lucidity.” This is the ultimate fusion of orgasm and death:

On the appointed day he is attended by one or more chosen . . . attendants whose duty is a) to exhaust him sexually by every known means b) to rouse him sexually by every known means. Every device and artifice of the courtesan is to be employed, and every stimulant known to the physician. . . . Finally the Candidate will sink into a sleep of utter exhaustion, resembling coma.

The most favourable death is that occuring during the orgasm, and is called Mors Justi.82
Following Nietzsche, Crowley sees the rational, thinking mind as a kind of epiphenomenon and aberration of the true human self, which is bodily and instinctive; indeed, “Mind is a disease of semen.” But in the moment of orgasm the rational mind is dissolved, allowing a fleeting glimmer of the divine: “man only rises to a glimmer of the universal consciousness, while, in the orgasm, the mind is blotted out.”83 This glimmer of universal consciousness in orgasm is the same miracle that is experienced in the tran-substantiation of the elements in the Mass:

The sexual act. . . is the agent which dissipates the fog of self for one ecstatic moment. It is the instinctive feeling that the physical spasm is symbolic of that miracle of the Mass, by which the material wafer … is transmuted into the substance of the body.84

Ultimately, in this moment of sexual excess, the self dissolves into the abyss of the Infinite, beyond all limitations:

As man loses his personality in physical love, so does the magician annihilate his divine personality in that which is beyond.
In love the individuality is slain. . . . Love death therefore, and long eagerly for it.
Love destroyeth self. . . . Love breedeth All and None in One.85

Like Bataille, Crowley found in this radical transgression and shattering of rational thought the source of a tremendous, even superhuman power. The magus who dares to break the boundaries between pure and impure, the rational and the irrational, self and nothingness can unleash the ultimate magical energy and subdue all of reality to his own will:

A Sorcerer by the power of his magick had subdued all things to himself. . . . He could fly through space more swiftly than the stars. Would he eat, drink, and take his pleasure? There was none that did not obey his bidding. In the whole system of ten million times ten million spheres upon the two and twenty million planes he had his desire.86

However, the ultimate goal that Crowley sought through his sexual magic went far beyond the mundane desire for material wealth or mortal power. In his most exalted moments, Crowley believed that he could achieve a supreme spiritual power—the power to conceive a divine child, a godlike being, who would transcend the moral failings of the body born of mere woman. This goal of creating a divine fetus, Crowley suggests, lies at the heart of many esoteric traditions, from ancient Mesopotamia to India to the Arab world:

This is the great idea of magicians in all times—To obtain a Messiah by some adaptation of the sexual process. In Assyria they tried incest. . . . Greeks and Syrians mostly bestiality. . . . The Mohammedans tried homosexuality; medieval philosophers tried to produce homunculi by making chemical experiments with semen. But the root idea is that any form of procreation other than normal is likely to produce results of a magical character.87

Sex magic, particularly in its transgressive, nonreproductive forms, can thus unleash the supreme creative power: the power to create not an ordinary fetus, but a magical child of messianic potential.

As we can see in this passage, however, Crowley seems to have regarded women as rather limited and ultimately expendable companions in spiritual practice. For Crowley, “Man is the guardian of the Life of God; woman but a temporary expedient; a shrine indeed for the God, but not the God.”88 Ultimately, because she lacks a penis and creative semen, woman can only be an “assistant” who serves “at best as a blank, unwitting partner” in the operations of magick: “At a certain point, this expedient, this convenience, is no longer necessary. A dog will do.”89, p. 39).] Though he used a variety of “Scarlet Women” in his magical rites, he seems to have regarded the highest stages of practice as rituals of homosexual intercourse.90 He was, moreover, notorious for his psychological and physical exploitation of women. At least one of his wives was left insane, and various other partners were left penniless and abandoned.

In this sense, the sort of transgression described by both Bataille and Crowley seems rather problematic and disturbing in the end. For transgression is usually tied, not just to ecstatic mystical experience or the liberating bliss of expenditure, but also to real relations of power; it often carries with it very negative effects in addition to its positive liberating ones. While transgression may be empowering and liberating for some individuals, it is often oppressive and exploitative for others (indeed, in his later work on economic and political history, The Accursed Share, Bataille seems to have a kind of romantic nostalgia for the good old days of human sacrifice and warfare, before the ecstatic power of transgressive violence was co-opted by modern capitalism).91 In the case of Crowley’s magick, these transgressive rituals were usually quite androcentric, arguably misogynistic, and exploitative of the female body. They were, moreover, tied to a larger social vision that was fundamentally elitist and nonegalitarian based on the power of the few strong individuals over the ignorant masses.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that transgression, for both Bataille and Crowley, seems inevitably locked in its own endless dialectic with the moral strictures of the taboo. In the “zigzagging incandescence of transgression” there is, apparently, “no end to unmasking.”92 There is, it would seem, no ultimate transcendence of the taboo; there is only the constant desire to transgress it and the momentary pleasure that it brings. If anything, the act of transgression does not contradict but in effect exacerbates the taboo. As various authors have observed, Crowley himself seems to have remained trapped in the prudish Victorian world in which he was raised, having dedicated himself to a relentless attempt to defy every one of its social and sexual taboos: “One of the glaring weaknesses in Crowley’s practice of sex magic is his apparent inability to transcend his need to be a very bad boy. . . . [T]he Beast, for all his talk of liberation, seemed stuck in the futile recreation of the initial transgression of taboo … it is doubtful that he ever erased the ‘sense of sin’ he inherited from his puritanical Plymouth Brethren family.”93 Despite his most outrageous attempts to overthrow them, Crowley in many ways embodied and bore witness to the sexual values of his Victorian childhood.

Legacy of the Beast: Jack Parsons and the Birth of the Antichrist

An end to the pretense, and lying hypocrisy of Christianity. . . . An end to prudery and shame, to guilt and sin, for these are of the only evil under the Sun, that is fear. . . . An end to restriction and inhibition, for I, the Antichrist, am come among you preaching the Word of the beast 666.
JACK PARSONS, The Book of Antichrist

Parsons opened a door, and something flew in.
KENNETH GRANT, Outside the Circles of Time

No history of sexual magic, transgression, and the influence of Aleister Crowley would be complete without at least a brief mention of the bizarre story of Jack Whiteside Parsons (born Marvel Parsons, 1914-52). Called by some the “James Dean of the Occult,” Parsons was a brilliant young engineer who helped develop rockets and explosives for the U.S. government and even had a crater on the moon named after him.94 In addition to his scientific research, however, Parsons was an avid practitioner of the occult, who from 1941 on was deeply involved in the OTO’s Agape Lodge in Southern California and became the most infamous American disciple of the Beast. A handsome and charming man, described as the “antithesis of the common image of a black magician,” Parsons was also one of the main sources of money for the aging, drug-addicted Crowley.95

Parsons, it seems, was determined to put Crowley’s most radical and transgressive ideals into living practice. The most remarkable of Parsons’s ritual operations was his “Babalon Working,” which had as its goal to shatter the boundaries of time and space in order to bring about the incarnation of the “magickal child,” or Thelemic messiah, that Crowley had described as the herald of the New Aeon of Horus. Parsons’s cohort in this operation was none other than L. Ron Hubbard, who would later go on to write the best-selling self-help manual Dianetics and found the Church of Scientology, one of the most lucrative new religious movements of the twentieth century. The first stage of the Babalon Working was designed to attract a female partner for Parsons, who could then assist him in his sex magic rites. The method used here was the OTO VIII degree ritual—that is, masturbation, with Parsons using his “magickal wand” to whip up a vortex of energy so that the elemental world could be summoned. Parsons apparently believed this ritual had worked successfully, since he shortly thereafter met a beautiful redhead named Marjorie Cameron, who agreed to participate in his magical rites.

The ultimate goal of these operations, carried out during February and March 1946, was to give birth to the magical being, or “moonchild,” described in Crowley’s works. Using the powerful energy of IX degree Sex Magick, the rites were intended to open a doorway through which the goddess Babalon herself might appear in human form. Incarnate as a living female, Babalon would then become the Scarlet Woman and consort of the Antichrist (a role Parsons would later claim for himself).96 In a letter to Crowley, Parsons claimed that the operation had been successful, that he had in fact given birth to “One who is Holy and Beautiful,” and that he was to act as her “guardian” for nine months: “Then it will be loosed in the world.”97

Parsons would not, however, live to see his dream of the moonchild fulfilled. His spiritual cohort, Hubbard, turned out to be a devious charlatan who ran off with his partner Betty and $10,000 of his money (just a few years later founding the wildly successful Dianetics and Scientology enterprises). The aging Crowley, meanwhile, considered the whole affair ridiculous and was outraged by the “idiocy of these goats.” Finally, in one of the more ironic twists in the history of sexual magic, Parsons himself literally went up in flames, killed in an accidental chemical explosion in 1952. Nonetheless, many of Parsons’s admirers have suggested that his Babalon Working may have had some real-world effects, that it had served to “crack open the Apocalyptic gateway and activate the cult forces necessary for the upheaval of consciousness,” as we see in the increasing chaos of war, disease, famine, and terrorism in the late twentieth century.98

On a somewhat less apocalyptic note, however, at least one of Parsons’s many projects would later come to fruition. He had in fact planned to devise a new kind of pagan religion called “The Witchcraft”—an idea that was soon to come to pass with the rebirth of neo-pagan witchcraft in the mid-1950s.99


The magician creates a commotion by disturbing the balance of power.
ALEISTER CROWLEY, Magick in Theory and Practice

Actually you already know Aleister Crowley for he is part of you. You are as multiselved, polysexual, and chaotic as he was for eight hours out of every twenty-four—one third of your whole life. Unfortunately you have probably not learned to take that side of your Self seriously as Crowley did.

The bizarre and tragic case of Jack Parsons is telling evidence that Aleister Crowley left a profound impact on virtually all of the occult traditions that followed in the twentieth century. Perhaps even more than his writings or ritual performances, Crowley’s influence lay in his persona—his image as the wickedest man in the world, as the Beast 666, as an icon of radical transgression and the violation of all social and sexual taboos. As Ronald Hutton aptly observes, “Crowley’s greatest. . . bequest to later paganism and magic(k) was to be his reputation.”100

Yet Crowley was also a deeply ambivalent and contradictory figure, a man who embodied many of the fundamental cultural contradictions of Western society in the early twentieth century. A kind of “Beast with Two Backs,” he was a striking exemplar of the very same late Victorian society that he fought so hard to violate and transgress.101 His own relentless quest for transgression and his preoccupation with masturbation, sodomy, and self-defilement only show that he was never really able to transcend the taboos of his Victorian childhood. As Nikolas Schreck and Zeena Schreck observe, even Crowley, “who spent decades energetically reacting to the sexual repression of his upbringing in an extreme Christian sect, never completely deprogrammed himself. Even in his sixties, one gets the impression he was still ‘being a bad boy,’ doing everything he could to outrage his long-dead parents.”102 By the end of his life in the 1940s, moreover, Crowley also seemed to have reached much the same state of exhaustion and collapse experienced by Britain and most of Europe at the end of World War II: like the grand ideals of European modernism, his dreams of a glorious new age of Thelema had ended not in a Utopian society but in drug addiction, loneliness, and squalor.

In this sense, Crowley might be said to be both the “last great Victorian” and a remarkable prefiguration of our own generation at the turn of the new millennium. With his radical attempt to tear down an old, obsolete, repressive society; with his relentless search for experiences that shatter the boundaries of the human self; and with his insatiable thirst for the transgression of every social taboo, Crowley also foreshadowed much of what would follow in late-twentieth-century Western society. As we will see in chapter 8, Crowley was in many ways a striking precursor of many of the intellectual trends of the late twentieth century, such as postmodernism and deconstruction, as well as a forefather of contemporary movements such as Chaos Magic.

But perhaps more than anything else, Crowley foreshadowed the profound obsession with sexuality and transgression in our own generation at the turn of the millennium. As Foucault argues, it may not be the case that we in the modern West have liberated sex in any radical way, but what we have done is to intensify our discourse about sex, arguing and fantasizing about it as an endless source of titillation. At the same time, we have also taken sex to the furthest possible extremes—to extremes of transgression and excess, not resting until we have violated every taboo: “The twentieth century will undoubtedly have discovered the related categories of exhaustion, excess, the limit and transgression—the strange and unyielding form of these irrevocable movements which consume and consummate us.”103 More than one author has observed that Crowley in many ways anticipated the sexual revolutions of the late twentieth century and our own age of mass consumption at the turn of the millennium. As Leslie Shepherd notes, “it is just as well that Crowley was ahead of his time”; had he been unleashed today, amid our obsessions with sex and transgression in contemporary consumer society, “he might have taken the world by storm.”104 Actually, I think there’s still a good chance that he might.


  1. Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman’s volume Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1992) makes no reference to Crowley; Faivre makes very brief reference to Crowley in Access to Western Esotericism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), pp. 91, 94, 97, 106. Wouter Hanegraaff’s New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998) makes only passing reference to Crowley. Among the few serious treatments of Crowley are Stoddard Martin, Orthodox Heresy: The Rise of “Magic” as Religion and Its Relation to Literature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989); Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). More recently, there is Bradford Verter’s “Dark Star Rising: The Emergence of Modern Occultism, 1800-1950” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1997); and Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  2. Crowley uses the spelling magick to distinguish his art—the art of changing nature in accordance with one’s Will—from vulgar understandings of the term. See Crowley, The Law Is for All: The Authorized Popular Commentary on Liber AL sub figura CCXX, The Book of the Law (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon, 1996), p. 39; Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice (Paris: Lecram, 1929).
  3. “The Wickedest Man in the World,” John Bull, March 24,1923.
  4. “Aleister Crowley’s Orgies in Sicily,” Sunday Express, November 16, 1922. See “A Wizard of Wickedness,” John Bull, March 17,1923; “The King of Depravity,” John Bull, March 10,1923. For a good discussion of this popular literature, see Verter, “Dark Star Rising,” pp. 257-343. As Verter comments, “These charges were not wholly unprovoked—Crowley and his avant-garde associates cultivated attention by publicizing their transgressive behavior” (“Dark Star Rising,” p. 24).
  5. Marian Dockerill <Alma Hirsig>, My Life in a Love Cult: A Warning to All Young Girls (Dunellen, NJ: Better Publishing, 1928), p. 53. Hirsig had been a priestess in the Tantrik Order led by Pierre Bernard before writing this exposé. She also introduced Crowley to her sister, Leah, who then became one of the Beast’s Scarlet Women.
  6. Here I am using the phrase “Victorian era” to refer primarily to the period of Victoria’s rule, ending in 1901. However, as Michael Mason argues, many of the cultural attitudes that we associate with the Victorian era would persist well into the early twentieth century. See Mason, The Making of “Victorian Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Lesley A. Hall, Sex, Gender, and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
  7. John Symonds, introduction to Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography, edited by John Symonds (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969), p. xxv. See also Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), p. 126.
  8. See Hugh Urban, “Unleashing the Beast: Aleister Crowley, Tantra, and Sex Magic in Late Victorian England,” Esoterica 5 (2003): 138-92.
  9. Hugh Urban, “The Cult of Ecstasy: Tantra, the New Age, and the Spiritual Logic of Late Capitalism.” History of Religions 39 (2000): 268-304; and Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), chap. 7.
  10. Mason, Making of Victorian Sexuality, 9-12.
  11. As Alex Owen observes, Crowley’s sexual rites were “performed in a colonial context against a backdrop of fin-de-siecle ‘decadence'” (Place of Enchantment, p. 187).
  12. See Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986); Bataille, The Accursed Share, 3 vols. (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
  13. Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 2. See also Owen, Place of Enchantment.
  14. Dennis Altman, Global Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 104.
  15. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, edited and translated by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), pp. 29, 48.
  16. Ibid., p. 29.
  17. See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1966). Although he would later recant this argument in the 1966 edition, Marcuse made a direct link between sexual and political liberation: “The vision of a non-repressive culture . . . aims at a new relation between instincts and reason. . . . [Liberated from the tyranny of repressive reason, the instincts tend toward free and lasting existential relations” (p. 197).
  18. Kevin White, The First Sexual Revolution:The Emergence of Male Het-erosexuality in Modern America (New York: New York University Press, 1993), pp. 9-10. See also Mason, Making of Victorian Sexuality, pp. 9-12.
  19. Patricia Anderson, When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 17-18.
  20. Robert A. Nye, ed., Sexuality: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 137. “Masturbation, homosexuality, promiscuity . . . prostitution . . . are all degenerate forms of adult sexual experience, since they are ascribed to the Other” (Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985
  21. Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams (London: Allen & Unwin, 1916), pp. 321-22.
  22. D. H. Lawrence, quoted in Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 157.
  23. “The King of Depravity,” John Bull, March 10,1923.
  24. Leslie Shepard, foreword to Aleister Crowley, The Diary of a Drug Fiend (Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1970), p. v.
  25. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, pp. 4-5. Martin similarly describes Crowley as an expression of the late and post-Victorian Zeitgeist (Orthodox Heresy, p. 88). See also Owen, Place of Enchantment.
  26. Colin Wilson, The Occult (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 362.
  27. Actually, the revelation came first through Crowley’s wife, Rose, during their trip to Cairo, when the voice of the god Horus began to speak through her. She later revealed that the being speaking through her was an emissary of Horus named Aiwass, and Crowley eventually claimed to have received the Book of the Law directly from Aiwass without Rose’s mediation.
  28. Crowley, Law Is for All, p. 47. See Symonds, introduction to Crowley, Confessions, p. xxii.
  29. Crowley, The Book of Lies, Which Is Also Falsely Called Breaks (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1952), p. 100. “The only solution of the Social Problem is the creation of a class with the true patriarchal feeling” (Book of Lies, p. 172).
  30. “One of my colleagues informed me . . . that the Fuhrer was looking for a philosophical basis for Nazi principles. . . . Some of my adherents in Germany are trying to approach the Fuhrer with a view to putting my Book of the Law in its proper position as the Bible of the New Aeon. . . . Hitler himself says emphatically in Mein Kampf that the world needs a new religion” (Crowley, letter to George Sylvester Viereck, July 31,1936, in Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 378).
  31. “The Law of Thelema is an altogether new instrument of Government, infinitely elastic. … I offer this Law to His Most Gracious Majesty in my duty as a loyal and devoted subject and I suggest that it be adopted secretly by His Majesty’s Government” (Crowley, “Propositions for Consideration of H.M. <His Majesty’s> Government,” written October 1936, sent January 1937, in Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 380).
  32. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 126.
  33. Shepard, foreword to Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend, pp. i-ii.
  34. Wilson, The Occult, p. 373; cf. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, pp. 405ff.
  35. Gerald Suster, The Legacy of the Beast: The Life, Work, and Influence of Aleister Crowley (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1989), p. 75.
  36. John Symonds, The Beast 666: The Life of Aleister Crowley (London: Pindar, 1997), p. 585.
  37. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 418.
  38. Symonds, introduction to Crowley, Confessions, p. xiii.
  39. Crowley, Book of Lies, p. 12. “When you have proved that God is merely a name for the sex instinct, it appears to me not far to the perception that the sex instinct is God” (Crowley, in Israel Regardie, The Eye in the Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley <St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1970>, p. 417).
  40. Crowley, Confessions, pp. 874-75.
  41. Crowley, Book of Lies, pp. 5-6. “Shortly after publication, the O.H.O. (Outer Head of the O.T.O.) came to me. . . . He said that since I was acquainted with the supreme secret of the Order, I must be allowed the IX° and obligated in regard to it. I protested that I knew no such secret. He said ‘But you have printed it in the plainest language.’ I said that I could not have done so because I did not know it. . . . (T)aking out a copy of the book of lies, he pointed to a passage in the despised chapter. It instantly flashed upon me. The entire symbolism not only of Free Masonry but of many other traditions blazed upon my spiritual vision. … I understood that I held in my hands the key to the future progress of humanity” (Crowley, Book of Lies, pp. 5—6).
  42. Crowley, Confessions, p. 767. See also Peter R. Koenig, “Ordo Templi Orientis Spermo-Gnosis,” Ordo Templi Orientis Phenomenon,
  43. The text of the Mass can be found in Magick: Liber Aba, Book Four (New York: Weiser, 1998), appendix 6. As Kenneth Grant observes, “The word orgasm implies a sacred rite, or working, besides its indicatory meaning of emotional paroxysm and swelling. The Gnostics call this rite the Mass of the Holy Ghost, and the male-female essences . . . were symbolized by bread and wine. The Gnostic Mass is … an eidolon of the metaphysical ecstasy or orgasm” (Magical Revival, p. 39).
  44. Crowley, Law Is for All, III.23-4. On Crowley’s recommended use of blood and human sacrifice, see Verter, “Dark Star Rising,” pp. 311-12.
  45. Koenig, “Ordo Templi Orientis Spermo-Gnosis.” See also Crowley, Magick: Liber Aba. Two of the most important texts for the IX degree rituals are Liber Agape and De Arte Magica, republished as Liber Agape, De Arte Magica (Toronto: Kadath Press, 1986), and the diaries based on his sexual operations: John Symonds and Kenneth Grant, eds., The Magical Record of the Beast 666: The Diaries of Aleister Crowley (London: Duckworth, 1972). The IX degree rite was also published in censored form as “Two Fragments of Ritual,” Equinox 1, no. 10 (1913): 81-86. See also Francis King, ed., The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973).
  46. Scott Michaelson, ed., Portable Darkness: An Aleister Crowley Reader (New York: Harmony Books, 1989), p. 143.
  47. Stephen Skinner, The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley (Boston: Weiser Books, 1996), pp. 5-6. See Symonds and Grant, Magical Record.
  48. John Carter, Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons (Los Angeles: Feral House, 1999), p. 90.
  49. “Crowley quickly came to believe that he was a new magical messiah— the Lord of the New Aeon—whose doctrine would supersede . . . other outmoded religions which had constructed barriers to spiritual freedom. For him the basis of this freedom was sexuality” (Nevill Drury, The History of Magic in the Modern Age <New York: Caroll & Graf, 2000>, 95).
  50. Grant, Magical Revival, p. 126.
  51. Aleister Crowley, Eight Lectures on Yoga (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon, 1992). He claimed to have achieved the highest yogic state of samadhi while meditating in Ceylon in 1901. See Crowley, “The Temple of Solomon the King,” Equinox 1, no. 4 (1910): 166-67.
  52. Crowley, quoted in Regardie, Eye in the Triangle, p. 63.
  53. Crowley, in Grant, Magical Revival, pp. 36-37.
  54. Crowley, Liber Agape, De Arte Magica, chap. 16.
  55. On ritual transgression in Tantra, see Hugh Urban, “The Power of the Impure: Transgression, Violence, and Secrecy in Bengali Sakta Tantra and Modern Western Magic,” Numen 50, no. 3 (2003): 269-308. On Crowley’s possible Tantric influences, see Urban, “Unleashing the Beast.”
  56. Crowley, “Temple of Solomon,” p. 161.
  57. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 141.
  58. Elizabeth Sharpe, The Secrets of the Kaula Circle (London: Luzac, 1936), pp. 48-49.
  59. Nik Douglas, Spiritual Sex: Secrets of Tantra from the Ice Age to the New Millennium (New York: Pocket Books, 1997), p. 208.
  60. Grant, Magical Revival, pp. 82-83. This quotation comes from a notebook in the Yorke Collection, Warburg Institute. The press-mark is YC I, 20(b). The date is roughly June 1916.
  61. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, pp. 243-44.
  62. See David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Hugh Urban, “The Conservative Character of Tantra: Secrecy, Sacrifice, and This-Worldly Power in Bengali Sakta Tantra,” International Journal of Tantric Studies 6, no. 1 (2002).
  63. Narendranath Bhattacharyya, History of the Tantric Religion (Delhi: Manohar, 1982), p. v. See Urban, Tantra, chap. 1.
  64. Grant, Magical Revival, pp. 7, 37.
  65. Ibid., p. 127.
  66. Letter to Kenneth Grant, 1946, in Grant, Remembering Aleister Crowley (London: Skoon, 1991).
  67. Grant, Remembering Aleister Crowley, p. 49.
  68. Even fine historians of modern witchcraft such as Ronald Hutton accept the belief that Crowley had “drawn upon oriental traditions of tantra” (Triumph of the Moon, p. 231).
  69. In addition to his philosophical works and pornographic novels, Bataille also formed a secret society called Acephale. The group engaged in various esoteric rites, including a planned (but never completed) human sacrifice. See Allan Stoekl, introduction to Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. xix.
  70. Verter, “Dark Star Rising,” pp. 275-343.
  71. Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 5. See Michel Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression,” in Religion and Culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 57-71.
  72. Bataille, Erotism, pp. 64, 48. See Bataille, Accursed Share, pp. 89-111; and Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 26-75.
  73. Bataille, Erotism, pp. 11, 21-22.
  74. Crowley, Book of Lies, p. 129. See Crowley, “Concerning Blasphemy,” reprinted in The Equinox, vol. 3, no. 10 (New York: Thelema Publications, 1986), p. 222.
  75. Crowley, “De Lege Libellum,” in Gems from the Equinox (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1974), p. 121.
  76. John Symonds, The Great Beast:The Life of Aleister Crowley (New York: Roy Publishers, 1952), p. 334.
  77. Crowley, The World’s Tragedy (private edition of 1910), xxvii. One of Crowley’s most intense periods of experimentation in sex magic began in 1914, during his “Paris Workings,” conducted with the help of his lover, Victor Neuberg. Crowley engaged in a variety of rites intended to achieve the goals of “invoking the gods Jupiter and Mercury” and “getting these gods to supply Crowley and Neuberg with money.” In the course of the operations, Crowley became possessed by an evil spirit posing as the god Mercury. This being informed them that the ultimate act of magic would require the “rape, ritual murder and dissection of the body of a young girl.” Yet even the Beast recoiled from this act (Francis King, The Magical World ofAleister Crowley (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, p. 85). For a good discussion of his relations with Neuberg, see Owen, Place of Enchantment.
  78. On the consumption of the “elixir,” see especially De Arte Magica, chaps. 14-16, and his Rex de Arte Regia (in Symonds and Grant, Magical Record of the Beast 666), which is a written record of his experimentation with sexual magic. Many entries discuss preparation of the “elixir,” the commingled male and female fluids integral to the OTO IX degree ritual (Symonds and Grant, Magical Record, pp. 45ff.
  79. Crowley, 1918 diary (OTO archives), in Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 265.
  80. Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt, p. 288.
  81. Symonds and Grant, Magical Record, p. 235.
  82. “De Arte Magica,” in Michaelson, Portable Darkness, pp. 164-65. As Julius Evola suggests, Crowley saw in orgasm (as in drug experience) a means to create “breakages of consciousness” by pushing the mind to a point of extreme exhaustion and so opening it to the “supersensual”: “The technique . . . was that of excess; through pain or pleasure, sex or intoxication, it was necessary to attain a condition of exhaustion taken to the extreme limit” (Metafisica del sesso, 1969; translation, The Metaphysics of Sex <New York: Inner Traditions, 1983>, pp. 264, 266).
  83. Crowley, Book of Lies, pp. 72, 25, 26.
  84. Crowley, Law Is for All, p. 62.
  85. Crowley, Book of Lies, pp. 40, 41, 65.
  86. Ibid., p. 63.
  87. Crowley, The Vision and the Voice (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1911), pp. 385-86.
  88. Crowley, “The Book of the Unveiling of Sangraal,” in King, Secret Rituals, p. 221.
  89. Michaelson, Portable Darkness, pp. 144,145,147. “It is better and easier that the other partner should be in ignorance of the sacred character of the Office” (“De Arte Magica,” in The Works of Aleister Crowley, vol. 1 [Keighly U.K.: Kadath Press, 1986
  90. Thus the highest XI degree of Crowley’s OTO passed beyond autoerotic and heterosexual practice to homoerotic practice. See Michaelson, Portable Darkness, pp. 144-45; Koenig, “Ordo Templi Orientis Spermo-Gnosis”
  91. Bataille, Accursed Share, vol. 1, pp. 45-61.
  92. Taussig, Defacement, p. 148.
  93. Nikolas Schreck and Zeena Schreck, Demons of the Flesh (New York: Creation Books, 2002), p. 241. As Michaelson comments, “What can be made, then, of a grown man preoccupied with sex to the point that it came to rule his ‘profession,’ but who chose to hide his habits in the closet?” (Portable Darkness, p. 143).
  94. Richard Metzger, “John Whiteside Parsons: Anti-Christ Superstar,”, The best biography of Parsons is Carter, Sex and Rockets. Parsons’s most famous work is Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon, 2001).
  95. Carter, Sex and Rockets, p. 86.
  96. See John Whiteside Parsons, The Book of Antichrist (Edmonton, U.K.: Isis Research, 1980), and Parsons, The Book of B.A.B.A.L.O.N. (Berkeley: Ordo Templi Orientis, 1982).
  97. Carter, Sex and Rockets, pp. 147-48.
  98. Metzger, “John Whiteside Parsons.”
  99. Carter, Sex and Rockets, p. 99. Parsons’s Liber 49 orders his disciples to create a revival of witchcraft, when Babalon will “wander in the witchwood in the covens of old” (Schreck and Schreck, Demons of the Flesh, p. 258).
  100. Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, p. 180.
  101. See also Martin, Orthodox Heresy, p. 183; and Owen, Place of Enchantment, p. 187.
  102. Schreck and Schreck, Demons of the Flesh, p. 142.
  103. Foucault, Religion and Culture, p. 69.
  104. Shepard, foreword to Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend, pp. vii-viii.


7 Responses to “Magia Sexualis: The Beast with Two Backs”
  1. Interesting. Have been trying to learn a different language for a while now so this is extremely relevant! Thanks.


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