Crowley’s Experiment into a New Life Style
An important chapter in Crowley’s life was his establishment of the “Sacred Abbey of Thelema.” (Thelema is the name of the religion which Crowley promoted. The word means “will” and the chief doctrine of Thelema is the discovery by each person of his own true will or purpose). The Abbey of Thelema refers to a small house which was used as a temple and spiritual centre founded by Aleister Crowley and Leah Hirsig in Cefalù, Sicily in 1920. Aleister Crowley founded this commune in Sicily to practice the belief that he said would one day will sweep away Christianity and free man from all restrictions. (from documentary, Aleister Crowley: the Wickedest Man in the Wold) “What The Book of the Law proposed, the abbey of Thelema practiced.” (From Aleister Crowley: the Wickedest Man in the World)
The Abbey was modeled on Rabelais’ abbey. Crowley located a vacant villa l/2 mile beyond Cefalu in a fishing village on the northern shore of Sicily. In the spring of 1920, Aleister and his followers rented the villa. The walls were painted with some of Crowley’s sex magick artwork. The name “Theleme” was borrowed from François Rabelais‘s satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, where an Abbaye de Thélème is described as a sort of “anti-monastery” where the lives of the inhabitants were “spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure.” This idealistic utopia was to be the model of Crowley’s commune, while also being a type of magical school, giving it the designation “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum”, A College towards the Holy Spirit. Upon awakening, the Thelemites donned their magickal robes, picked up their magickal weapons and facing the East performed the Kabbalistic Cross and banishing ritual. For special occasions the Gnostic Mass was performed. It began with “Do what you wilt. I proclaim the law of light, life, love, liberty and the name of IAO (Isis, Apophis, Osiris). The general program was in line with the A∴A∴ course of training, and included daily adorations to the sun, a study of Crowley’s writings, regular yogic and ritual practices (which were to be recorded), as well as general domestic labor. The object was for students to devote themselves to the Great Work of discovering and manifesting their True Will.
Crowley had planned to transform the small house into a global center of magical devotion and perhaps to gain tuition fees paid by acolytes seeking training in the Magical Arts; these fees would further assist him in his efforts to promulgate Thelema and publish his manuscripts.
Two women, Hirsig and Shumway (her magical name was Sister Cypris after Aphrodite), both became pregnant by Crowley at the Abbey. Hirsig had a miscarriage, but Shumway gave birth to a daughter (11/12/20), Astarte Lulu Panthea. From 1931, Astarte was raised in the US by Helene Fraux. Astarte would grow up to have four children of her own, including jazz pianist Eric Muhler. On arrival in Sicily, Hirsig had a two-year old son named Hansi and Shumway had a three-year old son named Howard; they were not Crowley’s sons but he nicknamed them Dionysus and Hermes respectively. At some point, Hirsig suspected Shumway of magickal foul play, and Crowley found supporting evidence of it in Shumway’s magickal diary (everybody had to keep one while at the abbey for reasons explained in Liber E). Appalled, Crowley banished Shumway from the abbey, however, she soon returned to take care of her children.
The Scarlet Woman of the Abbey
Problems developed at the abbey. Two of Crowley’s women were jealous of each other. There was a lot of sickness and dysentery. Cynics commented that the magickal record of Crowley’s experiences reads more like a medical chart of a hospital patient. There was certainly drug use on the part of Aleister. Crowley’s child, Poupee, his daughter by Leah Hirsig, remained ill and finally died. Leah also had a miscarriage.
“The Diary of a Drug Fiend’’ as advertisement for the lifestyle of the Abbey
Aleister himself took frequent breaks from the Abbey, for his daily consulting of the I-Ching instructed him to travel to Paris and London. Perhaps he went to London to get his cache of drugs, which were being prescribed by a Harley Street physician. In London Crowley got into a bit of a scrape. He had published his book “Diary of a Drug Fiend” in which he advocated the controlled use of drugs in magickal rituals. The book advertised Crowley and his abbey, inviting any who might be interested in this experiment to contact him. (The folks at the abbey needed money). Some brave or foolish souls did contact him. One such young man claimed never to have had sexual intercourse of any kind, but he did admit to a weakness: he enjoyed being flogged. Crowley replied, “You don’t tell me your age, but you can’t be very old, and messing around with these assorted nuts may find you a very dry and dusty raison at 50. Come to me that I may trample you underfoot and press out wine for the Lord Dionysus.” The newspaper THE EXPRESS attacked Crowley in a big way over the book. This paper also interviewed one Mary Butts, who had lived at the abbey and been shocked. The paper had as its headline, “Complete Exposure of Drug Fiend Author.” The publisher decided to let the book go out of print.
In the summer of 1922 a young Oxford undergraduate, Raoul Loveday, married an artist’s model, Betty Mae. Loveday, who had received a first in history, was in London looking for work. Instead of work, he found Aleister. One night while he and Betty were in the Harlequin, a Soho café, the conversation turned to magick. A Ms. Betty Bickers disclosed that Crowley was staying with her. She offered to introduce Raoul to Aleister. The initial meeting was a great success. Crowley wrote, “His character was extraordinary. He possessed every qualification for becoming a Magickian of the first rank.” The Lovedays packed up to go to the Abbey. Betty Mae was reluctant. But both she and her husband signed the “oath” as affiliates: “I, willing to abide within the Abbey of Thelema, make Oath and sign: That I do utterly deny, abjure and condemn all allegiance soever to all gods and men, accepting the Law of Thelema as my sole Law…that I dedicate myself utterly and without stint my body and soul to the Great Work, which is to proclaim and execute the law of Thelema.” The Lovedays settled in. Betty Mae noted that the head of the abbey was the only person allowed to use the pronoun “I’– everyone else had to say “one.” The penalty was that one had to cut oneself on the arm for every “I.” This practice was meant to rid the Thelemites of their egos.
In 1923, a 23-year-old Oxford undergraduate by the name of Raoul Loveday (or Frederick Charles Loveday) died at the Abbey. His wife, Betty May, variously blamed the death on his participation in one of Crowley’s rituals (allegedly incorporating the consumption of the blood of a sacrificed cat) or the more probable diagnosis of acute enteric fever contracted by drinking from a mountain spring. (Crowley had warned the couple against drinking the water, as reported in biographies by Lawrence Sutin, Richard Kaczynski and others.) When May returned to London, she gave an interview to a tabloid paper, The Sunday Express, which included her story in its ongoing attacks on Crowley. With these and similar rumors about activities at the Abbey in mind, Benito Mussolini‘s government demanded that Crowley leave the country in 1923. After Crowley’s departure, the Abbey of Thelema was eventually abandoned and local residents whitewashed over Crowley’s murals.
Neither Aleister nor Raoul had been feeling well. Mysterious attacks of illness hit both of them. The local doctor diagnosed their problem as an infection of the liver and spleen. Raoul Loveday’s condition got much worse. Crowley consulted Raoul’s horoscope and proclaimed, “It looks as though you might die on the l6th of February at 4 ‘clock.” This remark was made in early February. On 11 Feb. Betty got so angry with the hopelessness of the situation that she left the abbey. She believed her husband had been poisoned by drinking the blood of a sacrificed cat. Crowley denied such a sacrifice. Betty posted a letter of complaint about Crowley and the abbey to the British Council at Palermo. On l4 February Aleister observed “I feel a current of Magickal force–heavy, black and silent threatening the abbey.” The next day Rauol was worse. He died on l6 February.
The Wickedest Man in the World
There followed a tremendous scandal as Betty May hurried back to London to tell the story. The tabloids grabbed hold of it and there were such headlines as “New sinister revelations of Aleister Crowley. Varsity Lad’s Death.” “Enticed to Abbey!” “Dreadful ordeal of a young wife.” “Scenes of horror, drugs, magic and vile practices.” Somewhere around this time, Aleister received the tribute of “the most wicked man in the world.”
The fascists were in power in Italy then. They kicked everyone out of the abbey. After all had departed, the abbey was exorcised and all the pornographic murals by Crowley painted over. In 1955 filmmaker Kenneth Anger went to the abbey and uncovered all of Crowley’s artwork, which still lay beneath the whitewash.
“Tree years later, Mussolini deported Crowley and his followers from Sicily, after reports of human and animal sacrifice and unimaginable sexual depravity caused an international scandal. The British Press call Croley: ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ ” (from documentary Aleister Crowley, The Wickedest Man in the World)
Current status and popular culture
The villa still stands today, but in poor condition. Filmmaker Kenneth Anger, himself a devotee of Crowley, later uncovered and filmed some of its murals in his film Thelema Abbey (1955) now considered a lost film. Recently other murals were uncovered, and pictures of them were posted on the Internet. “Abbey of Thelema” remains a popular name for various magical societies, Witchcraft covens, and Satanist grottoes. It is also the name of a fan club for controversial rock star Marilyn Manson, who included the line “We’re gonna ride to the Abbey of Thelema, to the Abbey of Thelema…” in his song “Misery Machine”. Experimental musicians Coil, known to be fascinated by mysticism, went a step further in “The Sea Priestess” on Astral Disaster, whose lyrics are a bizarre interpretation of the murals in the Abbey. The German/Swiss painter and conceptual artist René Luckhardt built after a visit at the Abbey a replica of the interior paintings and showed them on various occasions.