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Was Aleister Crowley a Witch?

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons
Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Gardner’s version of his meeting with Crowley

Gerald Gardner met Aleister Crowley in the last year of his life. We know that Crowley initiated Gardner into the O.T.O. and issued him a charter to form an O.T.O. camp. There are persistent stories that the initiatory currents went both ways – not only was Gardner an O.T.O. initiate, but Crowley was a Witch.

Gardner was introduced to Crowley by Arnold Crowther. Crowther’s widow Patricia told Heselton that Crowley had seemed knowledgeable about Witchcraft but wasn’t interested in rituals led by a High Priestess because he “wasn’t the sort to be bossed around by women”. Heselton quotes additional details Gardner provided about that first meeting to John Symonds: “He was very interested in the witch cult, and had some idea of combining it w. the Order, but nothing came of it.”

Gardner also wrote to Cecil Williamson that Crowley was “in the Cult” but found the nudity distasteful, although he highly approved of the Great Rite. Gardner also claimed that Crowley didn’t want to have to kneel to a High Priestess. Heselton immediately quotes sources who find this unlikely. How unlikely is apparent to anyone who has seen a Gnostic Mass in which the priest kneels before the nude (if she chooses) priestess on the altar.

Gardner’s biographer Phillip Heselton concludes that Crowley may have said something offhand about knowing about Witchcraft as a form of one-upmanship in his first meeting with Gardner.

Pickingill Brothers

There is however another source of stories about Crowley and Witchcraft. In the 1970s W.E. (Bill) Liddell published a series of articles which he claimed were written by pre-Gardnerian Witches who wished to remain anonymous. Liddell himself claimed both Gardnerian and Hereditary initiations, making him a bridge between the two worlds. The articles discussed the activities of George Pickingill, 1816 – 1909, a Witch in a hereditary line eight centuries old who founded nine covens in Canewdon in Essex. In 1994 Michael Howard assembled these articles in The Pickingill Papers, The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft.

In “Gerald Gardner and his Detractors” Liddell (or the anonymous Witch) claims that Allan Bennett was one of Pickingill’s pupils. Bennett was both a member of the Golden Dawn and a Buddhist and Crowley’s first teacher in these spiritual paths. The article claims Bennett passed a third spiritual practice to Crowley – Witchcraft. Bennett introduced Crowley to one of Pickingill’s nine covens. Crowley received the Second Rite in Hereditary Witchcraft but was rapidly expelled; however he used the material he received in later rituals.

Liddell’s story goes on: this means that when Crowley met Gardner the two men discovered they not only shared Masonry but initiation into Pickingill covens. Crowley reproduced from memory the book of Witchcraft rituals he had received from his initiators and this material was one of the sources Gardner used in creating his books. When Crowley affiliated Gardner into O.T.O, Gardner reciprocated by inducting Crowley into Gardnerian Craft.

There is no documentation to substantiate any of these stories. Heselton notes that Ronald Hutton discounts all the stories of Crowley’s involvements with Witchcraft on the grounds that there is no mention of this in his diaries.

It is interesting that the Liddell articles equally disapprove of Crowley, Gardner, and Pickingill! The Hereditary Craft “brethren” purporting to write this material condemn Pickingill’s rejection of Christianity, Gardner’s insistence on nudity and the power of the priestess, and Crowley’s overt sexuality.

Fellow Travelers

I’m not seriously suggesting that Crowley was an initiated Witch; surely we would have heard about it from him rather than anonymous sources if the rumors were true. What I find interesting is that Crowley’s and Gardner’s work have so much in common. They were English gentlemen and Masons. Both rejected Christianity and explored numerous magical and spiritual paths – Crowley was a Golden Dawn initiate and a Buddhist, Gardner was a Rosicrucian and a Druid. Both were inducted into existing magical groups, Gardner into Witchcraft, Crowley into O.T.O. Both rewrote the rituals they were given and placed an indelible stamp on that spiritual path. Gardnerian Witchcraft is the most widely known and practiced form of Witchcraft in the world. O.T.O. is governed by Aleister Crowley’s foundational writings and performs his initiatory and sacramental rituals.

They knew each other and supported each other’s visions. They share the same critics too. The persistent stories that Crowley wrote Gardnerian rituals or himself used hereditary Witchcraft rituals in his own work are not historical fact, they are disproved or unproved, but are interesting because they point to the consonance of the two men’s work.

Read more:

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Was Gerald Gardner head of the O.T.O.?

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons
Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Many Witches are unaware how deeply involved Gerald Gardner was with Ordo Templi Orientis. How Gardner came to think of himself of head of the O.T.O. in Europe, however briefly, shines a light on Gardner’s wide contacts in the esoteric communities, the last days of Aleister Crowley’s life, and the chaos caused by the Second World War.

Seventy years after the end of World War II we have forgotten how violently it disrupted life in Europe and England. Nazis imprisoned and killed not only Jews but many other targeted groups, including O.T.O. members. Karl Germer, second in command of the Order, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp precisely because of his O.T.O. leadership. By the end of the war the only functioning O.T.O. group was Agape Lodge in southern California, well away from the front lines.

Crowley lived through the bombing of London but was ultimately forced out of the city. Eventually he settled in a haunted Victorian guest house called Netherwood in the medieval port town of Hastings. He knew his health was fading and keenly felt the obligation to assure continuity of leadership of O.T.O. He was greatly relieved to learn that Germer survived the war. However, worried about Germer’s age and health, Crowley cast about for additional leaders to succeed Germer after his death.

Among the visitors to Netherwood was Grady McMurtry, an American ordnance officer stationed in England, as well as a first degree initiate from Agape Lodge. McMurtry became Crowley’s student. Eventually Crowley appointed him representative of O.T.O. in America and issued him emergency authorization to take charge of the Order should it ever be necessary.

Gardner meets Crowley

Gerald Gardner also met Crowley at Hastings. The two Masons apparently hit it off. Crowley affiliated Gardner into the O.T.O. based on his Masonic membership. Heselton pieced together interviews with people who knew Gardner and Crowley to contextualize what appears to have happened. The O.T.O. in England had dwindled to just a few people, and Crowley was in ill health, so it wasn’t possible to mount an elaborate initiation as we do today. Crowley and another O.T.O. initiate probably performed the Minerval initiation, and then Crowley “read through” Gardner to the subsequent grades. Gardner did pay the going rate for the VII, and Heselton and Kaczynski both settle on VII as his likely degree.

Charter to form an O.T.O. camp

In 1947 there were O.T.O. initiates in the U.K. but there was no functioning body. Crowley wrote to a contact that a new camp was forming and London candidates for initiation should be referred to Gardner. It is clear that Crowley had issued Gardner a charter to initiate and to form an encampment. A charter does exist and is currently in the possession of Allen Greenfield.

The charter however does not appear to have been written by Crowley – it is not in his handwriting and the language is not correct. Heselton concludes that Crowley probably scribbled something and Gardner prepared a more official looking document himself. Is the signature on the document Crowley’s? He might have signed it, or Gardner could have copied the signature from the original.

Who gets the papers?

Gardner traveled to America that winter and was still there when Crowley died on December 1, 1947. What was Gardner’s standing after Crowley’s death? Lady Frieda Harris wrote to Karl Germer in January calling Gardner the head of the Order in Europe. A few weeks after Crowley died, Gardner wrote to the owner of Netherwood, Vernon Symonds, identifying himself as the head of the O.T.O. in Europe and asking for any papers Crowley had left. Heselton believes that Gardner was interested in preserving Crowley’s papers and making sure they did not fall into the wrong hands.

In the event Karl Germer succeeded Crowley as Outer Head of the Order and did receive most of the materials from his estate. Grady McMurtry represented O.T.O. in America, and Gerald Gardner was sorted out as head of the O.T.O. in the U.K.

Gardner chooses Witchcraft

Gardner returned to England in March 1948. On his return he did not continue the work of setting up an O.T.O. camp. Crowley had referred candidates for initiation to Gardner, but Gardner wrote later that these candidates had been sent away by the army or lived at some distance so he was unable to bring them into the Order. At that point he was 63 and cited ill health among the reasons he did not pursue setting up the camp. Heselton notes:

He was far from being a bright young spark ready to take over and revitalize a moribund O.T.O. but an ailing and aging asthmatic who was set in his ways and, when it came to it, unwilling and unable to give the level of commitment that such a post demanded.

Instead, Gardner focused his energies on promoting, preserving, and publishing information about Witchcraft. We know him today as the person who brought Witchcraft out into the open, inspiring a religious revival that has grown into a worldwide movement.

Gerald Gardner himself explored Thelema but chose Witchcraft as his life’s work. His involvement demonstrates as clearly as anything can that these are compatible paths.

Read more:

O.T.O. initiate Richard Kaczynski minutely surveys Crowley’s life in Perdurabo, while initiated Gardnerian Phillip Heselton traces Gerald Gardner’s life in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.