Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Man in the World Documents the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Mountaineer

in History, Literature, Religion | March 20th, 2014

Perhaps no one single person has had such widespread influence on the countercultural turns of the 20th century as Cambridge-educated occultist and inventor of the religion of Thelema, Aleister Crowley. And according to Crowley, he isn’t finished yet. “1000 years from now,” Crowley once wrote, “the world will be sitting in the sunset of Crowlianity.” The self-aggrandizing Crowley called himself “the Great Beast 666” and many other tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic titles. The British press dubbed him “The Wickedest Man in the World,” also the title of the above documentary, one of a four-part BBC 4 series on famously sinister figures called “Masters of Darkness.” Crowley is perhaps most famous for his dictum “Do what thou wilt,” which, taken out of its context, seems to be a philosophy of absolute, unfettered libertinism.

It’s no surprise that the particular treatment of Crowley’s life above adopts the tabloid description of the magician. The documentary—with its ominous music and visual effects reminiscent of American Horror Story’s jarring opening credits—takes the sensationalistic tone of true crime TV mixed with the dim lighting and hand-held camerawork of paranormal, post-Blair Witch entertainments. And it may indeed take some liberties with Crowley’s biography. When we’re told by the voice-over that Crowley was a “black magician, drug fiend, sex addict, and traitor to the British people,” we are not disposed to meet a very likable character. Crowley would not wish to be remembered as one anyway. But despite his pronounced disdain for all social conventions and pieties, his story is much more complicated and interesting than the cardboard cutout villain this description suggests.

Born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875 to wealthy British Plymouth Brethren brewers, Crowley very early set about replacing the religion of his family and his culture with a variety of extreme endeavors, from mountaineering to sex magic and all manner of practices derived from a synthesis of Eastern religions and ancient and modern demonology. The results were mixed. All but the most adept find most of his occult writing incomprehensible (though it’s laced with wit and some profundity). His raunchy, hysterical poetry is frequently amusing. Most people found his overbearing personality unbearable, and he squandered his wealth and lived much of life penniless. But his biography is inarguably fascinating—creepy but also heroic in a Faustian way—and his presence is nearly everywhere inescapable. Crowley traveled the world conducting magical rituals, writing textbooks on magic (or “Magick” in his parlance), founding esoteric orders, and interacting with some of the most significant artists and occult thinkers of his time.


As a mountaineer, Crowley co-lead the first British expedition to K2 in 1902 (the photo above shows him during the trek). As a poet, he published some of the most scandalous verse yet printed, under the name George Archibald Bishop in 1898. During his brief sojourn in the occult society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he exerted some influence on William Butler Yeats, if only through their mutual antipathy (Crowley may have inspired the “rough beast” of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”). He’s indirectly connected to the development of the jet propulsion system—through his American protégée, rocket scientist Jack Parsons—and of Scientology, through Parsons’ partner in magic (and later betrayer), L. Ron Hubbard.

Though accused of betraying the British during the First World War, it appears he actually worked as a double agent, and he had many ties in the British intelligence community. Crowley rubbed elbows with Aldous Huxley, Alfred Adler, Roald Dahl, and Ian Fleming. After his death in 1947, his life and thought played a role in the work of William S. Burroughs, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Genesis P-Orridge, and countless others. Crowley pops up in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and he has inspired a number of literary characters, in for example Somerset Maugham’s The Magician and Christopher Isherwood’s A Visit to Anselm Oakes.


So who was Aleister Crowley? A sexually liberated genius, a spoiled, egomaniacal dilettante, a campy charlatan, a skeptical trickster, a cruel and abusive manipulator, a racist misogynist, a Nietzschean superman and “icon of rebellion” as the narrator of his story above calls him? Some part of all these, perhaps. A 1915 Vanity Fair profile put it well: “a legend has been built up around his name. He is a myth. No other man has so many strange tales told of him.”

As with all such notorious, larger-than-life figures, who Crowley was depends on whom you ask. The evangelical Christians I was raised among whispered his name in horror or pronounced it with a sneer as a staunch and particularly insidious enemy of the faith. Various New Age groups utter his name in reverence or mention it as a matter of course, as physicists reference Newton or Einstein. In some countercultural circles, Crowley is a hip signifier, like Che Guevara, but not much more. Dig into almost any modern occult or neo-pagan system of thought, from Theosophy to Wicca, and you’ll find Crowley’s name and ideas. Whether one’s interest in “The Great Beast” is of the prurient variety, as in the investigation above, or of a more serious or academic bent, his legacy offers a bountiful plenty of bizarre, repulsive, intriguing, and completely absurd vignettes that can beggar belief and compel one to learn more about the enigmatic, pan-sexual black magician and self-appointed Antichrist.

The Wickedest Man in the World will be added to our collection of 200 Free Documentaries, part of our larger collection of 635 Free Movies Online.

Related Content:

Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

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How to Operate Your Brain: A User Manual by Timothy Leary (1993)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (25)

  1. jim p says . . .
    March 20, 2014 / 12:12 pm

    Who was he? A buffoon. That he impressed the upper classes of Britain and Europe tells us more about the pathetic state the Upper Caste had fallen to, than about his abilities. He stumbled across some very basic, introductory-level, esoteric education and practices, mixed it up with his appetites and un-mastered craving for attention, and Boom! Modern Western Impressive Magus. ‘Bogus’ is more like it.

  2. Gone4Good says . . .
    March 21, 2014 / 12:11 am

    Sociopath, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, drug-induced schizophrenia and disassociation, hallucinations . . .a bizarre combination of David Koresh & Charles Manson & every other out of control, self-indulgent sicko out there. The people who bought into this were (are) just weak, suggestible and mentally/emotionally ill themselves.

  3. vankelsing says . . .
    March 21, 2014 / 4:22 am

    Yup, a showy ass. He died weeping, his last words “sometimes I don’t like myself very much.” But his laughable books will sell to Freshmen for the next century.

  4. Moses Horowitz says . . .
    March 24, 2014 / 7:29 am

    Crowley was many things, attractive and repulsive. Yet above all he was a Trickster, amused all the while at those who would condemn his antics with the same Victorian clutch-the-pearls disgust one sees in the average online Comments section. Were he to return and have a gander at the online writings pro and con I dare say he’d fly into bits from his laughter.

  5. Daisy says . . .
    March 3, 2015 / 11:51 pm

    I would like to ask a question on which I have searched for long, but failed to find information…
    Is there any information on why Crowley called his son “Ataturk”? I mean, it is only said that he admired Ataturk, but is there any other evidence, from the diaries, or quotes of him or anything else..? I’d really be grateful if someone has an answer for this…

  6. Abigail says . . .
    May 14, 2015 / 10:43 am

    In case you didn’t know, Aleister Crowley was a brillant man. Crowley was influential in inspiring Gardner to establish his new pagan religion, us wiccans have many thanks to give him.
    Do what thou wilt and Blessed Be )0(

  7. David says . . .
    May 24, 2015 / 9:04 pm

    He was also known to be the real father of Barbara Bush (nee Pierce or nee Crowley). So George W or current Presidental candidate, Marvin Bush, are the illegitmate sons of Aleister Edward Crowley.
    I also do astrological redings and he seemed to have a lot of astrological knowledge.

  8. David says . . .
    May 24, 2015 / 9:05 pm

    And why is his daughter called Barbara Bush? I’m looking for an answer to that one too.

  9. David says . . .
    May 24, 2015 / 9:07 pm

    Yeah we all can recall what an idiot his illegitimate grandson, George W Bush and his dumb-ass quotes were. So much for a ‘Skull & Bones’ Yale graduate?

  10. leigh harrison says . . .
    June 16, 2015 / 12:29 am

    she was called barbara because of abrahadabra

  11. Brad says . . .
    September 23, 2015 / 9:24 am

    Crowley is an amazing person. His writings are so in depth they are often hard to understand. However, once you do you will realize the truth he taught. Do what thy Will.

  12. Christopher says . . .
    December 16, 2015 / 10:23 am

    So anything is permissible then?

  13. Robin says . . .
    March 28, 2016 / 3:01 am

    Crowley is the biggest menance to society of the 19th and 20th centuries! What a total pig and so are his offspring!

  14. Robin says . . .
    March 28, 2016 / 3:02 am

    I hope he’s burning in hell!

  15. Kevin E Dolan says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 6:06 pm

    “Burning in Hell”? Hah!
    He’s more probably running the place as a franchise from the Abrahamic Right Wing and charging admission!

  16. Jean-Paul DuQuette says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 6:25 pm

    Not the best of documentaries, but I’m probably biased (having grown up with the O.T.O.). If you want a comprehensive look at Crowley, I’d check out Perdurabo by Richard Kaczynski.

  17. Willard says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 7:31 pm

    mental illness aside, he had some useful ideas. but, yes, people get lost in the cult of personality.

  18. Josh in Champaign says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 7:54 pm

    My admiration for this site just went down a few notches. The man was a complete waste of a life, chasing after oversized child makebelieve delusions with no productive contribution to humanity whatsoever.

  19. john brucchi jr says . . .
    May 7, 2016 / 5:47 am

    I believe his philosophy of do as thou wilt does not give license to people to behave selfishly but instead simply to follow their own moral path. No matter what is said and done in society ultimately this is the result . People are born, die and reborn in order to gradually realize their place in the universe as one with everything. Along this path of realization depending on where a person is there behavior will be different. The best way to teach someone who is yet to know what can be called god or truth or wholeiness is by example. Sadly though in the end the thing which makes a man empathetic to other living things is the knowledge of this presence. As to which comes first I truly feel their intertwined and one gives strength to the other. Laws are necessary but the good serving as an example is may be more necessary.

  20. Lucifer says . . .
    May 8, 2016 / 1:17 pm

    Wow, such garbage. Funny how people judge someone they know nothing about by taking some of a mans greatest moments out of context to make him come across as a real monster. The real monsters are the ones who run your countries, the ones who baptise your childrwn, and the ones who indoctrinate your children with historical lies.

  21. t'mara says . . .
    May 8, 2016 / 4:40 pm

    he was a reactionary. shocking and scandalous to fight back against the strict religiosity of his family. he didn’t create, he rebelled. his writing was obscure and dense to make it seem to be profound and deep. he never made money on his cult, because he was pandering to anti-structural people. he never understood that magic comes from the power of the individual, that it resides in the individual, and not from angel stand in substitute gophers. crowley was a fraud.

  22. Dèverra Biandaesçû says . . .
    May 23, 2016 / 11:17 pm

    Crowley was nothing more than a mentally-ill, narcissistic fool. I am pagan

  23. Student says . . .
    May 31, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    Any other family history available on his language? Or any suggestions as to a good resource to study up in it? Thank.

  24. burn in hell crowley says . . .
    June 30, 2016 / 12:49 am

    All those ocults based on this man are nothing but delusional psychopaths trying to run from the inescapable reality that is God.paving a way for their own destruction crowley was a stupid deranged maniacle being he is a sad excuse of a often subneglected child, he was often disregarded for his foolish antics as a child and got into rebelious activities just to piss those around him it is sad to find out people base an entire religoin or religions after such a creature surely I hope you burn in hell

  25. Jj villarreal says . . .
    July 23, 2016 / 1:02 pm

    A Man that followed what he believed in evil genuise

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