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Aleister Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema

When they woke up,
the Virgin Guardian of the Sangraal beat on a gong and proclaimed the Law:
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”,
and everyone, including the children, answered:
“Love is the Law, Love under will”

In April 1920, after consulting the I Ching, Aleister Crowley chose an old villa in Cefalù, Italy, to form a community, which he called the Abbey of Thelema, after the Abbaye de Thélème in François Rabelais’ satire Gargantua and Pantagruel. They wore robes, and performed rituals to the sun god Ra at set times during the day. It was here that Aleister, who called himself “the worst man who ever lived”, got most of his reputation as a “perverse man”. Soon the community was accused of sacrificing children for their ceremonies. In fact, the only child who died during that stay was Poupée, the daughter of Aleister’s “Scarlet Woman”, Leah Hirsig. She died of an incurable illness which prevented her from soaking up food.

Aleister painted the walls of the villa, mainly with sexual scenes, in order to drive every visitor to be familiar with sex, until indifference. He offered a libertine education for the children, allowing them to play all day and witness acts of sex magic. There was no cleaning rota in the villa, wild dogs and cats wandered throughout the building which soon became unsanitary. New followers continued to arrive at the Abbey to be taught by “the wizard of Cefalù”. Among them were Raoul Loveday and his wife Betty May. Betty later said that Raoul was made to drink the blood of a sacrificed cat, and that they were required to cut themselves with razors every time they used the pronoun “I”.

The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini learned of Aleister’s activities and in April 1923 he was given a deportation notice forcing him to leave Italy. Without him, the Abbey closed.

English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer, Aleister spent his life in many countries like Mexico, India, China, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Algeria and United States. Born on 12 October 1875 in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, he died on 1 December 1947, in Hastings, Sussex of chronic bronchitis aggravated by pleurisy and myocardial degeneration.

He had a wider influence in British popular culture, enough to be included on the cover art of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin’s III through his motto of “Do What Thou Wilt”. Jimmy Page bought Boleskine House where Aleister lived from 1899 to 1913, in 1971. Part of the band’s film The Song Remains the Same was filmed in the grounds. David Bowie made reference to Aleister in the lyrics of his song Quicksand, while Ozzy Osbourne and his lyricist Bob Daisley wrote a song titled Mr Crowley. Aleister began to receive scholarly attention from academics in the late 1990s. His magnum opus is Magick, partly written at the Abbey of Thelema.

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