For me, the story of Aleister Crowley’s moment of truth in Cairo 1904 is one of the most interesting in a lifetime graced by perhaps a half dozen such experiences. 1904 was the pivotal year in Crowley’s career, he was 29 years old and therefore well into what is popularly known as the “Saturn Return”. Difficult as it is to believe, Crowley had more or less given up on magick at this point in his life and concentrated on having a good time with what remained of his inheritance. I think we can surmise that he was disillusioned by his experiences as an unwanted member of the famous Victorian occult society we know as the Golden Dawn. Like any hierarchical organisation, internal reveries often blow things apart and in this case, the conflicts had ended in litigation and even, so it is said, deadly magical battles. Its autocratic master Samuel Liddell Macgregor-Mathers said to be overwhelmed by megalomania, locked in conflict with other former friends but also wannabe masters and mistresses. Crowley, still a relatively young upstart, had taken his chances with the boss. Significantly he had cut short his magical retreat in Scotland, for which he had obviously made lavish preparations – this was the famous Abramelin practice.
In the version he was following, the practice began on Jewish Passover and continued for six months. From a more recent and complete published version, we now know this should actually be 18months. In the 15th century, Abraham began his retreat at Easter (Jewish Passover) itself a very important ancient feast connected with demons and angels of death. These myths make use of doorways of one kind or another, the ancient Hebrews supposedly inscribing magick signs on their lintels, a signal for the angel of death to pass over the house.
It terminated on the old feast of Tabernacles or “Booths”. The modern interpretation tells us this was originally a reminder of the temporary dwellings used by the early Hebrews during their flight from Egypt.
Crowley's short gambit with the Golden Dawn did not go well and he was either expelled or left the sanctuary under a cloud. As for The Book of Abramelin, the magical moment had passed and there was no point in returning to his house at Boleskine until the following Easter. So Crowley travelled to Mexico and as often happens, did not return for several years. When he did he was again distracted by his future wife Rose Kelly.
He eloped with and married Rose Kelly. It was for her patrician family, an unsuitable match, though he was a former family friend. Perhaps to escape the bad family vibe, they set out together on a world tour as a honeymoon. Their cruise ship arrived in Alexandra, a short hop from Cairo, where they planned some sightseeing in the fascinating metropolis. They no doubt took in the sites and the nightlife. Crowley, who already knew the city, having visited a few years earlier, paying a little baksheesh to the local family for special access to the pyramids at night, where in the King’s chamber, he was able to show off some of his old tricks, with a handy copy of the Goetia, which has a preliminary invocation taken from ancient Egyptian magical papyri.
The results cannot fail to have impressed Rose Kelly, who later, back in their lavish hotel room, no doubt having imbibed perhaps a little too much of the local Omar Khayyam vintage, fell into a light trance and said: “They are waiting for you”. I’m paraphrasing really, more accurate accounts are available I’m sure. Some say Crowley had prepared for all this on his visit a few years earlier, why else did he have the right magical books to hand. But key perhaps is that is was Passover in Cairo, the full moon and exactly the right time to restart another Egyptian originated ritual, that of Abramelin, who according to his medieval account, was a supreme ritual of the adepts in Upper Egypt, which he got after his failed quest through Europe in search of illumination.
Already experienced with the Abramelin system, Crowley seems to have used it to put himself in touch with his guardian daemon – Aiwass, an entity which some say was his own psyche. There is a famous photograph of Crowley posed with a magick book, a pentagram emblazoned on the front cover. What’s in the book, nothing other than his complete collection of magick squares neatly drawn during his preparation for the Abramelin practice!
The name of his angel lends itself to a bit of wordplay. Aiwass or “I Was” does indeed have a split personality, dictating a book that proposes entirely contradictory solutions to humanity’s problems viz “The Law of the Jungle” versus “AL True Ism”?
Snoo Wilson takes up the story some years later when Crowley, now reconciled with his revelation in Cairo, makes an attempt to found an alternative community, dedicated to the tenets dictated to him by those Egyptian spirits in Cairo. It was a brave attempt that eventually foundered due to its own internal conflicts, and the events outside the communards control, such as the rise of a fascist government in Italy, which was hostile to such alternative lifestyles. The Sicilian locals apparently had come to enjoy the presence of their purple priest and his followers.
Snoo Wilson who carved out a successful career as a playwright specialising in the tricky genre of black comedy used all his talents on the Crowley story. The result was a successful stage play which is novelised as “I, Crowley, almost the last confession of the beast 666”. These days, Crowley people are not noted for their sense of humour and not everyone is able to see the funny side of some of our pretensions. Which is odd, given how fond Crowley himself was of a good joke or an extended tongue in cheek romp. I’m pretty sure he would have enjoyed Snoo’s retelling of the end of the commune as much as anyone should. Remembering that one must first entertain before getting too serious. In the end, “I, Crowley” does all that, though it starts with a refutation of the accusation common in my hometown, that Crowley killed much loved Oxford student Raoul Loveday with a magick spell. Arthur Calder Marshall wrote that a hit squad was even sent from the Student Union to avenge the crime that never happened. The whole story is set out in this great act of what Snoo once called the “lesser form of magick” although he was again being ironic, there is nothing lesser about writing a good novel.
Part II of this essay
is about Aleister Crowley: A Beginner’s Guide …