Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism

Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism

Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism

Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism

Synopsis

Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr offer the first comprehensive examination of one of the twentieth century's most distinctive occult iconoclasts. Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a study in contradictions. He was born into a Fundamentalist Christian family, then educated at Cambridge where he experienced both an intellectual liberation from his religious upbringing and a psychic awakening that led him into the study of magic. He was a stock figure in the tabloid press of his day, vilified during his life as a traitor, drug addict and debaucher; yet he became known as the perhaps most influential thinker in contemporary esotericism. The practice of the occult arts was understood in the light of contemporary developments in psychology, and its advocates, such as William Butler Yeats, were among the intellectual avant-garde of the modernist project. Crowley took a more drastic step and declared himself the revelator of a new age of individualism. Crowley's occult bricolage,Magick, was a thoroughly eclectic combination of spiritual exercises drawing from Western European ceremonial magical traditions as practiced in the nineteenth-century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley also pioneered in his inclusion of Indic sources for the parallel disciplines of meditation and yoga. The summa of this journey of self-liberation was harnessing the power of sexuality as a magical discipline, an instance of the "sacrilization of the self"as practiced in his co-masonicmagical group, the Ordo Templi Orientis. The religion Crowley created, Thelema, legitimated his role as a charismatic revelator and herald of a new age of freedom under the law of ''Do what thou wilt.'' The influence of Aleister Crowley is not only to be found in contemporary esotericism-he was, for instance, a major influence on Gerald Gardner and the modern witchcraft movement-but can also be seen in the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in many forms of alternative spirituality and popular culture. This anthology, which features essays by leading scholars of Western esotericism across a wide array of disciplines, provides much-needed insight into Crowley's critical role in the study of western esotericism, new religious movements, and sexuality.

Excerpt

Studying western esotericism is much like applying psychotherapy to the history of thought. Its first requirement is not to be satisfied with surface appearances and not to take for granted what the official narratives tell us, but to be curious about what they prefer not to talk about: the presence of subterranean archives, or memory vaults, where we store away everything we do not want to accept because it differs too much from our ideal image of ourselves and our cherished values. the German language has found a beautiful expression for this, in speaking of the occult as the Untergrund des Abendlandes. These archives of suppressed memories do not exist just metaphorically but quite literally as well. Scholars of Western esotericism spend much of their time—or so one hopes!—reading and analyzing the primary sources of rejected knowledge: volumes that have been gathering dust on library shelves because nobody reads them anymore, books and manuscripts of authors who never made it into the canon of acceptable and respectable academic literature, or dropped out of it at some point in time, and so on. Such research may resemble a hunt for forgotten treasure, and it is true that, buried underneath lots of stuff that has not withstood the test of time, genuine gems wait to be found; with luck, one will come across profound thinkers and texts of high quality that should never have been forgotten and deserve to be recovered for their intrinsic merits alone. This hope for exciting discoveries is familiar to all working historians, but in the case of Western esotericism, more is at stake. There is a structural logic to the Untergrund des Abendlandes: far from being just a random collection of things that have happened to fall by the wayside, it is a reservoir that represents the shadow side of our own official identity, and we need to learn more about it if we wish to understand ourselves.

The basic identity of modern Western culture rests upon two pillars: a religious tradition of monotheism that defines itself with reference to Jewish . . .

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