Aleister Crowley, The Golden Dawn, and their Influence on Modern Paganism.
So what do we think about when we visualise the word Magic? When we see it floating within our inner vision what lays beyond? I guess it depends somewhat on the spiritual path we are walking. For some it will mean delusion, trickery, a flirtation with dark forces. For others it will mean a beautiful sunrise, or the moon and starlight above the moor. Others will think of Harry Potter or Willow from Buffy, then there will be those whose awareness drives them towards Merlin, Gandalf, and Wulf. But there is a group of you that, when seeing that word a bald-headed figure with a piercing stare will appear. A man whose name can literally polarise the opinion of modern magicians, be those Chaos Magicians, Druids, Wiccans, Witches, whatever, and that name is Aleister Crowley.
I’m currently reading a biography of the man called Do What Thou Wilt – A Life of Aleister Crowley written by Lawrence Sutin. It’s a fascinating read and no wonder Mr Crowley divides opinion.
However, my first foray into Magic was through his books. Back when I was in my early teens in 19(something-or-rather). there was obviously no internet and the myriad of books we now have simply weren’t there. No Kindle Store but there was one amazing New Age store in Brighton that stood out as The Place Where The Serious Magicians Go(tm) and that was a shop called Merlin’s Cave. I haunted that place. It was filled with old magical Grimoires and Tarot decks and even smelt of magic – I only have to get a whiff of Frankincense and my consciousness knows that Magic is Afoot. Although I said there weren’t the myriad of books available there was still plenty to get your teeth into, but most of it had its roots firmly planted in the inheritance of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Unsurprising then that my first steps onto the path of the Magician came from this plentiful source.
The first book I bought from Merlin’s Cave was Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice. It was a hardback with a pink cover and when I got it home I began to devour it. I have to say it wasn’t an easy read for a young teenager. It also didn’t really let me know the reputation of the writer. But Uncle Aleister took me by the hand that day and guided me onto the Path, the same path I am walking today, but more on that later. I remember as I handed it over to the man behind the counter he took it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He held onto it for a few more moments before handing it back and asking me, “So, where do you work?” He wasn’t talking about my physical job, but rather where I worked my magic. I replied that was alone but learning. I was for all intents and purposes the equivalent back then to a Teen Witch. His response may well have encouraged me, or put me off. He smiled and said, “if you need any advice, just ask.” Needless to say, I did.
I soon joined an Order called The Occult Church Society and begun my magical training in ernest. I stayed with the OCS for quite some time, attaining initiation of Philosophus 4=7 and it gave me a serious grounding in Magic and the Western Magical Tradition. Sadly the OCS went through one of those well-known magical group schisms and I found myself no longer the Magical Adept in training, but rather the Seeker once more. This did give me the opportunity to reassess my path and my eyes had already began to look more towards the land than the stars, and there standing upon the land I saw a Druid. As the figure turned so did I, and I followed.
But I digress. Let’s stay for just a little longer at that point before the Druid appeared. All I had known up to that point had been the work of the Golden Dawn, of Crowley, Yeats, Mathers, and Blavatsky. My path was one that many initiated Magicians have known and that was the Paths of the Sephiroth. I had been guided there by the Secret Chiefs of that tradition, and had seen the eyes of Isis, Osiris, and another figure that polarises people, Baphomet – the first Horned God who truly caught my attention and ultimately led me to Pan, Cernunnos and Herne. I was a boy made of magic and it, along with music, was my obsession. My book shelf at home was filled with books like the Sacred Magic of Abra Melin and the Lesser Key of Solomon. Let’s be honest here, I loved it.
Strange then that it only took that figure to appear to me, and I seemed to step off the Sephiroth and onto the Forest Path (of course, things are never quite that clear). On appearance it might seem like I fell from the stars to the earth. From so-called High Magic to Folkloric so-called Low Magic. But where did the path ultimately led me? To the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. Professor Ronald Hutton has said that there are many groups that lay claim to an initiatory lineage to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but OBOD’s is one of the clearest. Philip Carr-Gomm has told me that the Order had for many years within its possession a great censor that was owned by Nuinn (Ross Nichols) and given to him by Crowley. What an amazing time it must have been back then when Gerald Gardner, Cecil Williamson, Crowley and Ross Nichols were all alive and knew of each other. I read last night how some of these magical adepts would meet for deep discussions of magic and philosophy. I guess the closest we have to that now are our own Groves and Coven meetings, and moots. Facebook certainly doesn’t fill that gap, although I am sure there are many who think it does.
So, when I joined OBOD I found the very familiar Magic Circle, and the Four Elements I had been working with for years before. There was far less pentagram casting than I had been used to, but then I met the Wiccans and Witches, and there they were, invoking pentagrams, banishing pentagrams, the elements, the casting of the magic circle. I guess this is a very long roundabout way of saying that, without the work of the Golden Dawn, or Hermeticism and the explorations of Uncle Aleister, if we took all of that away, there wouldn’t be much ritual left in many of our modern Pagan rituals. I know there are groups that have dropped those things, some of the reconstructionist groups see them as un-druidic. They also drop the works of Iolo Morganwg for the same reasons. Me? I’ve worked with this stuff for nearly 35 years now. It’s a part of me, it opens my awareness, grounds me, and gets me ready for magic, and to top it all, I know it works, so there really is no reason at all for me to cast (see what I did there??) it aside.
I may not (in fact I most definitely don’t) agree with everything Crowley did in his lifetime exploring magic. But I also can’t and won’t deny the legacy he left behind. A legacy many of us consciously picked up and ran with, and some who work with that legacy and maybe until now didn’t know its source.
As an aside, when I searched Google for a picture of Crowley, this was the first image that was shown… As time moves on I wonder how many new Pagans will explore deeply enough to find the faces of Crowley, Mathers, Yeats, Blavatsky, Fortune, even Valiente, Gardner or Sanders?
Does it really matter anymore?
I’m always led back to the understanding that it’s not good to dig up the tree, but it is good to know it has strong roots.