Today we’re talking with Tobias Churton, an authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism, and author of the book “Aleister Crowley in England: The Return of the Great Beast.”
1. I realize it’s hard to summarize, but for my readers who may not be familiar with him, who is Aleister Crowley?
Christened Edward Alexander Crowley, Aleister (his pen-name) Crowley was born in 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, the son of a self-financing Plymouth Brethren Christian preacher whose family had made a fortune in brewing. An only child, Crowley was brought up with little contact with non-Brethren families and encouraged to see the Bible as having the literal truth about everything. After his father’s death, aged 11, he reacted against his mother and uncle’s indoctrination and started to see a pleasant life beyond strict doctrine. He was educated at numerous schools and by private tutors until recommended for Cambridge University’s Trinity College by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. He studied modern languages, literature and chemistry with a view to becoming a diplomat. While a student he distinguished himself as a daring, original mountaineer in the UK and the Alps and devoted his spare time when not climbing to poetry, inspired by Swinburne and Browning. When he came into his fortune he didn’t care to complete his final examinations, decided there was no lasting fame in diplomatic service, and struck out on a personal career in Magick, poetry and mountaineering. He was trained as a ceremonial magician in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded for men and women by British Freemasons. When the Order split apart in 1900 he began his world travels, crossing to America, thence to Hawaii, Japan, China and Ceylon where he studied raj yoga with his friend Allan Bennett, who would go on to lead the first Buddhist sangha to Great Britain. Crowley joined his friend Oscar Eckenstein on the first attempt on K2 in the Karakorams in 1902, then went to Cairo and Paris where he involved himself with the Montparnasse artistic scene, being friendly with painter Gerald Kelly, whose sister Rose, Crowley married as a ruse to get her out of an unwanted liaison in 1903. They fell in love. During their honeymoon in 1904, Rose told him in Cairo that “they” were waiting for him. “They” appeared to be the “Secret Chiefs” of the Order which Crowley had joined. Following Rose’s instructions, he invoked the god Horus in rented rooms in Cairo and over three days took down by direct voice dictation what came to be called The Book of the Law, a message from a kind of angel called “Aiwas” outlining that a new Aeon had come about with a distinctly Nietzschean quality to it; Crowley was its prophet. Crowley initially ignored the text but as time went on he attributed his gradually failing fortunes to his ignoring it. By 1909 he was dedicated to leading a new Order, the Astrum Argentinum, into the new Aeon, which set him against numerous prevailing doctrines of the times. What happened after that time until his death in Hastings in 1947, you can read about in the six volumes of Churton’s biography of Crowley.
2. “Aleister Crowley in England: The Return of the Great Beast” is your fifth book detailing a period of Crowley’s life. What made you to decide to focus on Crowley’s life as a topic?
I felt a great injustice had been done to Crowley and that his achievements and insights deserved an accurate telling without prejudice and based solely on the surviving records, of which there are a great deal. I gained access to his private papers, diaries and letters and have researched the subject over forty years.
3. I’m always so conflicted when considering Crowley. Is he an eccentric iconoclast, sensitive scholar, entitled snob, all of the above?
I think he was all of the above. He had snobbish tendencies but he never turned people away from himself on account of their background. He considered himself a chivalrous aristocrat, insofar as the word “aristocrat” implies government by “the best.” He had a passion for justice, and was a strong advocate of the rights of the individual, male or female to pursue their true goals in life without restriction.
4. I was surprised to learn that Crowley was using medically prescribed heroin for an assortment of health issues later in life. How far back does that use go and how much, if at all, you feel it affected his behavior?
Crowley was prescribed heroin for bronchitis and asthma in 1919 by his family doctor, Dr Harold Batty Shaw of Harley Street, London, a distinguished surgeon. It was the only medicine that brought temporary relief from a condition which got worse during the 1920s, several times nearly resulting in death. When in Germany in 1931-32 he found a German medication which he used instead but could not obtain it after returning to England in May 1932. His heroin was provided by doctor’s prescription. The use of the drug might have made him rather verbose in his writing at certain times, and emphasised occasionally the dreamy and mystical tendency to be out of this world, but his intellect was sharp, and his humour was rich, until the end. Physically he suffered badly during World War Two, on account of nerves over German bombing and concern for others and his mission in life, and he never recovered the great strength he enjoyed until the end of World War One.
5. You’re based out of England, and I’m curious if you notice a difference in the perception of Crowley between England and the United States?
I don’t see a great deal of difference. Perception of Crowley very much depends on education and personal experience. All kinds of “seekers” have some response to Crowley, and it often depends on which bodies of commitment any individual favours. Theosophists, for example, are often deeply suspicious of Crowley, whereas Freemasons vary one way or the other. Some only see the public image, which is ludicrous and deliberately off-putting. There are fanatically minded zealots who seems to be obsessed by their own propaganda, and the US seems to have more than its fair share of such cases, but fanaticism is to be found in most places where people have access to a little knowledge, but little inclination to study subjects in depth and with objectivity. The internet has been a great thing but also a dangerous thing because all information is presented on the same plane. People want to know what’s “really” happening in the world, but don’t want to wait long for an answer, and settle for sketches which are often no more than cartoons or mere graffiti. Obviously, it’s difficult for many Americans to understand the subtle nuances that go into an Edwardian Englishman’s outlook on the world (and vice versa), but Crowley had a universal mind and adored travel and meeting new phases of sensitivity and experience of things. He did not think much of the American dollar-oriented system as a system, but he liked Americans personally very much and would have liked to have spent the rest of his life in the States after he’d been back in England for eight years! He lived in the U.S. exclusively from the end of 1914 to the end of 1919: five long and eventful years. His American followers have been particularly devoted. His anti-Christian stance (which is not at all it seems to be) obviously alienates people who feel threatened by trenchant criticism of some traditional Christian doctrines (such as atonement by blood sacrifice).
6. I loved to learn that Crowley was quite the foodie, and enjoyed seeing his recipes in “Aleister Crowley in England.” Any chance of a Crowley cookbook in future?
I wanted to do that some years back but the copyright holder said the task had been given to someone else years ago – but they hadn’t done it. I should say the recipes in the book could all be created from the information in my book. But you’re right. I could have made it a real joy, I think.
7. You’re the founder of “Freemasonry Today” magazine. I think the general population considers Freemasons a secretive organization, so how did the magazine come about?
I heard the United Grand Lodge of England planned a magazine for public availability to help the public see what Freemasonry really was, and to help Freemasons understand their own Masonry better. So I wrote to the people who hoped to launch it, and was offered the job, which I was happy to do, as it was about finding the truth and telling it clearly.
8. Your work is academic, thoughtful, and accessible, yet you’re so prolific. Can you offer any insights into your research and writing process?
There’s no substitute for work. One thing is that after working in TV as a researcher, writer and director for about ten years in the 1980s, I had a terribly hard time in the 90s until 1997 – funnily enough the bad times followed after my biggest success, the book and TV series GNOSTICS – and I felt I had “lost” vital years where I wanted desperately to create and move forwards with new projects. I feared I would never regain my foothold on the mountain again, that my life was ruined. After 2000, an opening was made in the brick wall of resistance, and I started writing again, having got into the habit of writing and editing through the magazine Freemasonry Today which taught me new disciplines. I’ve felt that I had to make up for those awful lost years, so I do not procrastinate, and am grateful for every single new day where I know I can still write and think and create. My work-output would frighten many people, but I feel it is consistent with the very great driving force that has been in me since I was a child. I have long felt this world is in such a state that personally speaking, my only proper response is to give it every thing I possibly can in terms of the very best things that I can conceive of, and discover, and that I am hopefully and gratefully gifted and qualified to accomplish. The question is always there: how do we get out of the kind of fixed thinking that makes humankind keep repeating its mistakes and not learning from them, and growing up? This means deep, unremitting research and deep thought, and the energy to create. I work strict, long hours and like to finish the day with a trip to the pub and a chat with whoever enjoys good conversation and a joke. Then I like to eat a hearty dinner with a glass of wine, and see a good, classic movie – and hope my dreams match those of an older Hollywood for entertainment value!
9. What’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects that my readers should be aware of?
I have just completed a new book called THE ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY. I have shared that fascination others have felt for this mysterious subject and wanted to get to the true bottom of it, and unravel the Gordian knot of confusion and obfuscation on the subject. I think this book will be the kind of experience I should like to have been presented with 40 years ago! It would have saved myself and others an awful lot of trouble! Next I intend to write an historical novel, and hopefully get my TV drama series I’ve written made for TV or film. It’s set in Paris in the 1880s and 1990s and is poetic, sexy and magical. It would also be nice if I could find a proper outlet for my music. I wrote my first orchestral tone-poem last year (52 minutes) as well as a new album of songs and instrumental works. I need several more lifetimes to feel I’ve given all I wish to give. And then, I expect I’d want to do more still. If my “cup runneth over” it’s because I haven’t yet been given a large enough cup!
10. Parting shot! Ask us at The Magical Buffet any one question.
What do you think England has to offer the world these days?
Magically speaking, I feel England will always have something to offer. So many magical traditions have roots in the country that it will be kind of an eternal touchstone for magical studies. Also, England’s delicious curry and chips have yet to make their mark in America, so I have that to look forward to.
About Tobias Churton:
Tobias Churton is an authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism. Appointed Honorary Fellow of Exeter University in 2005, he holds a master’s degree in Theology from Brasenose College, Oxford, and is the author of many books, including three previous books on Aleister Crowley—”Aleister Crowley in America”, “Aleister Crowley in India”, and “Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin”. He lives in the heart of England. You can find him at https://tobiaschurton.com/
You can learn more about “Aleiter Crowley in England” here.
Did you like the interview? Want to read “Aleister Crowley in England?” Good news! Inner Traditions was kind enough to send me an extra copy to give away to one of my readers! As per usual, I’ll be letting Rafflecopter do the work. The giveaway runs from 05/09/22 until 11:59pm eastern 05/13/22. The giveaway is open to people 18 year of age and older and reside in the United States. Good luck!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
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