Aleister Crowley and His Views on Supernatural Entities

In an earlier post comparing Morton Smith to Aleister Crowley, one of the suggestions I made was the controversial idea that Crowley’s reception of the Book of the Law was an uncovering of his own psyche and not the product of a supernatural entity. I attempted to support this view by citing Crowley’s views on supernatural entities as psychological manifestations. However, some astute readers also pointed out evidence to the contrary. In other words, the issue could go both ways.

But is a resolution in sight?  The winter 2011 edition of the journal Magic Ritual, and Witchcraft has a great article by Marco Pasi  on this very topic. Pasi’s research attempts to clarify just how Crowley viewed these supernatural entities. Alas, Crowley had different views on the validity of such entities, including the Holy Guardian Angel (HGA), at different times in his life so the short answer to whether there’s a resolution is, quite simply, no. However, Pasi attempts to explain why this might be, and this is where things get really interesting. I thought I would share some of his ideas, as they are quite fascinating!

Pasi sees Crowley as taking two, somewhat oppositional, views towards these sort of manifestations: one a psychological interpretation, the other one situated in a magical reality:

“In [the introductory essay to the Goetia], he expressed the view that is it not necessary to consider these spirits and demons as ‘really’ existing, that is to say as existing independently from the magician’s self. They can be seen on the contrary as ‘portions of the human brain.'”

The above is a “naturalistic” view which Pasi suggests is not “adopted consistently” by Crowley, who also characterized similar spiritual interactions thusly:

“We have in fact plenty of instances in Crowley’s magical curriculum where he makes contact with entities that he is far from considering mere “portions of his brain” or as parts of his unconscious psyche…Interestingly enough, the initial contact with most of these entities was established by Crowley through the aid of a visionary partner…This is in fact how things went with the most spectacular case among them, namely the apparition of Aiwass through his wife Rose and the consequent revelation of the Book of the Law.”

Aiwass, however, presents a unique case. According to Pasi, Crowley viewed Aiwass differently throughout his career. What first began as a discarnate entity, evolved into Crowley’s HGA. How—and more importantly why—did this happen?

To develop his thesis, Pasi cites as his major evidence the timeline of the Book of the Law’s reception and Crowley’s personal attainment of the HGA. The Book of the Law was received in 1904, but it wasn’t until 1906 that Crowley attained the degree which would confer attainment of the HGA. According to Pasi, “This means that in 1904, in his perception, this result has not been attained yet.”

Pasi backs this up with Crowley’s failure to address Aiwass as his HGA following the initial reception of the Book of the Law:

“When Crowley received the book, and then in the years immediately following the event, there seemed to be no identification at all between Aiwass and his own guardian angel…Aiwass was consistently perceived by Crowley as a distinct personality, who had a completely autonomous existence from him.”

However, by the time Crowley wrote Magick in Theory and Practice in 1929, Aiwass had become synonymous with Crowley’s HGA. Pasi shares some insight as to how Aiwass makes this jump from independent being to Crowley’s personal guide:

“It seems likely that Crowley could not understand Aiwass as being simply a manifestation of his psyche, be it called “unconscious” (in psychoanalytical terms), “Higher Self” (in occult terms), or otherwise. This, in fact, would have undermined the universality of his religious claims concerning Thelema…How could he have claimed that his message was going to change the destiny of millions of people for centuries to come, if its ultimate source was just his unconscious (or even higher) mind?”

Now we are starting to get somewhere. Crowley’s adaptable views on the nature of spiritual entities changes because Crowley’s agenda changes. Crowley is no longer mucking about in the Goetia, he is up to something much more grand—the establishment of a new religion. And this, Pasi suggest, is why Aiwass, several years later, becomes identified as Crowley’s HGA.

“But then why would Crowley at one point identify Aiwass as his guardian angel? One possible explanation lies in Crowley’s personal evolution, and his increasing conviction, since the 1910s, of being the prophet of a universal religious message. Magick in Theory and Practice is full of references to the Book of the Law and of discussions of Thelemic principles. It is therefore likely that Crowley at one point felt it necessary to identify Aiwass with his guardian angel because he was now perceiving himself as fully invested in his role of prophet and messiah.”

So was Aiwass really real or just part of Crowley’s unconscious?  The nature of Aiwass, and Crowley’s views on such entities, seems to have shifted throughout the course of Crowley’s magickal career. According to Pasi, these two views, fundamentally in tension to each other, get resolved by Crowley’s full identification with the outside entity, much in the way a prophet of religion would be identified with the message being transmitted. Was Aiwass real or was he Crowley? The answer: He was both.

That Crowley held a variety of views on whether or not these sorts of beings were real is without question. Crowley seems to apply different perspectives on these entities depending on context. Positing Aiwass as an independent spirit does much more to legitimate Thelema as a religion than claiming the Book of the Law was yet another opus in Crowley’s extensive literary canon. Was this a politically motivated decision on Crowley’s part or was it as result of his spiritual attainment? Either way, the question is fascinating regardless of outcome.

Pasi, Marco. “Varieties of Magical Experience.” Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft  6.2 (2011):123-162. Print.

Photo by setiadi.

6 thoughts on “Aleister Crowley and His Views on Supernatural Entities
  1. Sarah, since discovering your blog yesterday I’ve been reading with great interest. As you discussed in an earlier post, Crowley loved to play with identities and, therefore, with worldviews. It is this seeming willingness to adopt and shed different roles and paradigms that has stimulated some chaos magicians to claim him as a pregenitor of the chaos current. So, in one sense, it’s no surprise he’s not consistent. However, I think you are likely correct in suggesting that the changes in his attitudes towards Aiwass reflect some need in him to be seen as- and to believe himself to be- a prophet, or quasi-messianic figure. In your second post on Morton Smith and Crowley you explore Crowley’s psychological needs, and what you wrote there is relevant here too. Having read some of Crowley’s poetry (most of which strikes me as pretty poor, though maybe it didn’t come across as so windy and hackneyed at the time), it seems to me clear that the Book of the Law is written by the same person: there are obvious stylistic resemblances- the breathless recitation of exotic names, the love of violent imagery, the ferocious anti-Christian rhetoric. That said, there is a kind of giddy exaltation, a heady flow of ideas and images, evident in the Book of the Law, and I can certainly accept that, at the time of its writing, he was in an unusual state of mind and tapping into a well of inspiration not normally open to him. But your question- “was Aiwass really real or just part of Crowley’s unconscious?” seems to suggest that unconscious forces are not ‘really real’, and maybe this is not the way to think about it.

    1. Thanks!

      I’ll have to think a little bit more about what I mean by “real.” Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my usage. It is definitely a fuzzy term, for sure.

  2. I’m guessing you are familiar with the English writer Alan Moore. When he was writing ‘From Hell’ he put the following statement into the mouth of the central character: “The one place gods and demons are unquestionably real is in the human mind”. (That might not be the exact wording, I’m quoting from memory, but that’s the gist). He says that, having written these words, he realised he could think of no counter-argument to them… and that his worldview changed, almost in an instant.

    The question becomes one about the nature of the relationship between what we perceive as inner reality, and what we perceive as outer reality. The interface between these is the human body, in particular the nervous system. It is around this interface (or shoreline, as I might be tempted to call it) that the great questions coalesce.

    1. While not familiar with Alan Moore, I will agree that what we perceive as reality, regardless of its objective validity, can have very real physiological and behavioural effects. For instance, we can enter a dark room and react to what looks like a snake–sweaty palms, anxiety, etc..–even if, after the light is turned on, it was only a piece a rope. (To steal an analogy form the Buddhists.)

      Of course, when talking about objective validity, you have to ask, according to whom and by what criteria.

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