Tuesday, 25 November 2014
“Real” Magick in RPGs: Aleister Crowley
December 1st is the anniversary of Aleister Crowley’s “Greater Feast for Death”. That is to say, almost 67 years ago, he croaked.
Certainly, one could have all kinds of material related to Crowley that would spice up any historical/occult campaign set anytime from the 1890s to the 1940s. But what about in a modern campaign? What makes the guy important?
I can’t possibly dedicate a single blog entry to telling you everything about the man and his magick: there are tons of biographies of the guy out there, and feel free to read one if you’re really interested. What matters now is only the “cheat sheet”, of how you can use him in your campaign without knowing every detail.
For starters, Crowley was very important not only to modern magick, but to modern society. As one of his biographer’s put it: “new ageism, witchcraft, hippies, paganism, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: it’s all his fault”.
It really was. Crowley was doing all that shit 40 years before it was cool, in many cases 40 years before it technically existed. And magically, his influence was paramount. He took a bunch of medieval systems and victorian pseudo-masonry and gave it a purpose for our new Aeon, the new astrological age.
And while we’re at it, he ended the world.
Magically speaking, the apocalypse happened in April 1904. The procession of the astrological ages took place at that moment, when Crowley received the Book of the Law from the god Horus, after a vision received inside the great pyramid in Cairo. Essentially, this was the change from the “age of pisces” to that “age of aquarius” the new agers talk so much and know so little about. Its already happened, and it marked a moment when humanity grew up in its capacity for understanding of its relationship to the universe. As a result of this vision, Crowley predicted a number of things that few in 1904 would have expected to come to pass: devastating wars, atrocities, and incredible human destruction; but these were just the birth pangs for an age of societal evolution where equality of all human beings, sexual and gender liberation, a new interest in the discovery of the self, experimentation with drugs as a means for transcendence, new pseudo-scientific/psychological ways of understanding magical symbolism, a breaking free from old restrictions and limits of both morality and human potential, all would come to pass. He predicted, in other words, a world that looks very much like our own.
The essence of his teaching is a word I’ve used in this series before: Thelema. It means “will”, and is represented by the law of this Aeon: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will”.
This is a new magical paradigm that gives a greater purpose to magical work; not that it is completely new, but that it was something that had been long lost or hidden in the background of mumbo-jumbo, of people summoning angels or demons or working with elemental forces or ritual without really grasping a bigger philosophical purpose behind it all. That purpose is to discover your True Will.
“Will” in this case means not whatever the fuck you want (to the chagrin of the many satanists and heavy metal geeks that love Crowley on that mistaken basis) but rather it means that you have a higher self, a higher purpose, that magick is supposed to help you get in contact with. Discover your true will, and then unite to it (in Love, meaning union), and then to the universe itself. This is the purpose of magick, not unlike many other mystical systems, not unlike Tantra or Buddhism, Sufism or Taoism; its to “know thyself” and then become “one with everything”, or nothing.
The Book of the Law itself is a short but fairly complex spiritual text, that most magicians will have read at some point, and certainly every thelemic magician; it might make very little sense to a non-magician who reads it, but you may want to give it a try. Its not hard to find online, and its in the public domain as far as I know (at least, its on a ton of websites).
There is one other mystical operation of Crowley’s that’s very worthy of mention, though probably even more incomprehensible to the non-magician; its the kind of thing that if you were running CoC, would cause you to lose 1d10 SAN just by reading it (the Book of the Law would probably cause you to lose 1d4, while we’re at it): This is “The Vision and the Voice”. I mention it here because it is the record of Crowley’s personal enlightenment, 5 years after writing the book of the law; where in the middle of the North African desert he entered into a series of “pathworkings”, or astral journeys, to the 30 Enochian Aethyrs, gnostic dimensions beyond our own. There he encountered a series of powerfully transformative initiatory visions, that changed his understanding of magick and himself. The system for using the “Enochian Aethyrs” was not invented by Crowley, it was given by angelic beings to Dr. John Dee, the famous Elizabethan magician, in the 1580s; and while the Golden Dawn used some elements of enochian magick, as far as anyone knows no one had actually used the “enochian calls” to travel to the Aethyrs until Crowley did it (not even Dee, although he received the system of magick, there’s no evidence he ever used it). Of course, since then, quite a few other magicians have done so. It's almost as though the Enochian Aethyrs weren't meant to be accessed until the new aeon.
“The Vision and the Voice” is the kind of book that many would-be occultists will own, very few will have read, fewer still tried to seriously understand; and some (though not necessarily the same as those who understood) may try to imitate. Without proper preparation, trying to pathwork to the higher Enochian Aethyrs is a recipe for going batshit nuts. It would do to the psyche what going to the outer planes would do to the health of 3rd level AD&D characters… almost certainly nothing good.
It's a good example of the kind of spiritual visions and trips that a very experienced magician is capable of doing, however.
Aside from these, Crowley wrote a ton of books on the themes of magick, yoga, and taoism (and designed a rocking tarot deck). Remember, in your game, none of these should be very difficult to find!
Resist the temptation to make “books of true occult power” difficult to obtain, they’re NOT. They’re all over Amazon, Ebay, and the internet in general. What’s difficult is having any sense of context to study them properly, and the lack of laziness to actually do the work they suggest and do these right. Crowley’s “Magick in Theory and Practice” alone is, in one very large book, more than enough to get someone all they need to know to start successfully performing magick, yet most people won’t bother to thoroughly read it, even those who own it or claim to be magicians.
In a modern setting, Crowley should be portrayed as misunderstood by the general occult scene, with the know-nothings being generally scared shitless of him, aside from a minority of fawning admirers who like the idea of him because he’s “wicked” without actually knowing anything about him at all (he’s the Occult equivalent of Che Guevara in that sense: far more people will go around wearing his image on a T-shirt than actually know what he did or why). Among serious practitioners, there’s a group of hardcore “old aeon” magicians who despise him, a larger group of modern magicians (self-described as Thelemites or not) who base their magick on what he did, and a third group that express admiration for him but don’t necessarily follow his precepts. But in each sense, every modern magician is affected by him, even those who have never read him; including some who may not have a clue who he is. His teachings have affected all books of magick that came after him whether he gets credit for it or not, as well as movements like Wicca that try very hard sometimes to pretend that he had nothing to do with them, even though the whole basis for what they do started with him.
Crowley also spawned 2 magical orders: the A.’.A.’. and the O.T.O. (the latter, though not founded by him, was completely redefined by him). I’ve talked about these before, and remember: they’re mostly useless in terms of serious magick, though they may have serious magicians in them. They’re usually used by their membership as ego-trips or social clubs.
Other fun things you can do with Crowley:
-From time to time, some magician (usually a total newb) will go around claiming they’re Crowley’s reincarnation. This is usually coupled with the person trying to talk or act like Crowley (though usually not matched with some of Crowley’s non-magical achievement, like being a world-record mountain climber or chess champion), and is met with derision.
-Crowley taught a secret form of sex magic as part of his OTO framework, this is not really secret anymore, its available online, but more than a few unscrupulous people have started sex cults based on it.
-Boleskine, the Loch Ness mansion where Crowley attempted (and failed) his first effort at doing the complex magical operation known as the Abra-melin rite, has long been said to be haunted, and the locals have many stories of people who have gone mad, or killed themselves or others, as a result of the house’s nefarious influence (the Abra-melin operation culminates in summoning up demons, after having obtained a full connection to your Holy Guardian Angel (your higher self or true will), and some have speculated that having failed to complete the operation, the demons got loose with nothing to control them). The mansion was for many years owned by Thelemite and Led Zeppelin frontman Jimmy Page, and has since been turned into a bed & breakfast. Some have even tried to connect Boleskine/Crowley to the Loch Ness Monster, pointing out that modern sightings of the monster only started after Crowley's time there.
-Crowley had a commune in the 1920s in Cefalu, Italy, named “The Abbey of Thelema”. The house where the commune was based has been abandoned for decades, is half-ruined, and has been put up for sale. It is frequently squatted in by crowley-fans and occultists, and still has the fading images of the wall-paintings that Crowley and his students drew there, some of them quite unusual.
-The Book of the Law was received in connection to an ancient egyptian funeral Stele called “The Stele of Revealing”. The Book of the Law contained the instructions that the Stele should be stolen or otherwise obtained (it was at that time on display at the boulak museum in Cairo) and taken to Boleskine, and that if this was done it would have stunning and transformative effects on the world. Crowley himself never got around to doing this; the Stele is now in the Cairo museum, where it was reported unharmed by the recent civil unrest in that country.
-The Book of the Law instructed Crowley to “find the value of the English alphabet”, that is, to figure out a numerical system of gematria (as in, the Kabbalah), by which one could directly determine the number-value of English words without having to translate into Hebrew first. Crowley never ended up accomplishing this (he didn’t seem to bother to try very much, being quite happy with Hebrew Gematria) and after him many would-be “english kabbalists” have broken their minds trying to make a system that makes sense and works magically as well as the Hebrew gematria system. Some have claimed success, but none has been universally adopted and recognized as a success.
-The Book of the Law also contains a code, a series of letters and numbers that Crowley was instructed were not for him to understand, but that someone would come after him to decipher it, and its meaning would be clear to all and near-universally accepted as correct. Up till now, that hasn’t happened, though many many would-be-Crowleys have tried.
-it recently came to light that Crowley was an agent of British Intelligence. He is credited, among other things, with having given Winston Churchill the recommendation of using the “V for victory” sign as often as possible, as a magical countermeasure to the Nazis’ own use of magical symbols (the swastika, the nazi salute, etc).
-every once in a while, items show up on sale on E-bay which claim to have once belonged to Crowley. Most of these are unquestionably fake.
-Crowley was the first white man to have provably used the I Ching for divination on a regular basis. To do so he had designed his own special set of divining sticks. After his death these came into the possession of one of his magical heirs, Grady McMurtry (who re-founded the biggest claimant to the modern OTO). McMurtry in turn lost the pouch with these sticks one night at a party on a California beach when he was either drunk or stoned out of his mind. They have never been found.
-Crowley has no tomb; he was cremated, and his ashes eventually brought to America by one of his students, Karl Germer. Germer’s wife eventually dumped the ashes under a tree in the garden of their New Jersey suburban home.
Anyways, all of these and many many other details about the guy’s life should give ample fodder for modern-occult adventure.
Currently Smoking: Masonic Meerschaum + Image Perique
(originally reposted July 26, 2013; on the old blog)