In 1904 (in)famous Left-Hand Path occultist Aleister Crowley stated that he had contacted an entity named Aiwass. Crowley channeled The Book of The Law from this communication with Aiwass. Through this channeling, Aiwass claimed that Crowley was to be the prophet of The (New) Age of Horus. While mention is often made of Crowley’s very conservative evangelical Protestant Christian upbringing, I’m not aware of any deep dive into the specifics of the kind of evangelicalism Crowley was raised in (premillenarian and dispensationalist) and its uncanny parallels to Crowley's later claims of world aeons/ages in his Thelemite religion. This piece will seek to explore precisely that terrain.
Crowley’s parents (his father particularly) were members of the Plymouth Brethren (Exclusive), a very strict, arch-conservative evangelical fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity, which nevertheless interestingly was heavily involved in the practice of Biblical prophecy. While, on the surface, Crowley’s later occultist Left-Hand path of sex magick couldn’t seem farther than that of his conservative Christian religious upbringing, we’ll see there are some very weird overlaps, often unconscious in nature, between the two.
First I’ll review the theological beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren, particularly those of John Nelson Darby, and then re-examine Crowley’s later claims to be a prophet of The New Age of Horus in light of Darby’s heterodox Christian theology.
In an earlier piece I noted the strange unconscious roots of both transhumanism as well as much New Age religion in orthodox Christianity. This piece follows in that trajectory, specifically as it relates to Crowley.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was originally a member of the Church of Ireland (Anglican Church) who went through a conversion to a more evangelical form Christianity. Darby was part of a Bible study group and conference interested in the question of Biblical prophecy, particularly devoted to the question of whether such prophecies could be seen as literally and physically true (rather than metaphorically or symbolically true) and if so, how to decode such prophecies. We’ll come back to this point as it does wind its way, weirdly, all the way to Crowley himself.
Darby believed in the literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth. The technical term for this position is premillenarian, as Jesus is said to return prior (pre) to the establishing the literal thousand year kingdom (millennium) on Earth. Darby also advocated a view known as dispensationalism which views various epochs (or “ages”) recorded in the Bible as having different revelations from God—each revelation being time bound or contextualized to a period.
Both Darby’s premillenarian and dispensationalist views, it should be noted, are not accepted by the mainline historical branches of Christianity: e.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant.
Darby, with his dispensations or various eras of revelation, is very close actually to Joseph Smith, the prophet of The Latter Day Saints (Mormonism). Smith believed in eras of progressive or further revelation, most famously his claim to have channeled new revelatory scriptures after The New Testament. Please note the clear connection of Crowley with Joseph Smith, as both men were prophets, polygamists, channelers, magicians, and founders of new religions.
Darby then further postulated that a rapture would take place for the saved prior to the Great Tribulation—a period of calamity, violence, war, and destruction—that would come before the establishment of the (literal) thousand year rule of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. In this rapture the elect would be “taken up” to avoid the pain of the tribulation itself.
Darby is therefore the godfather of the apocalyptic futuristic views of authors like Tim LeHaye and the Left Behind Series, as well as Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth. Darby’s premillenarian Rapturist dispensationalism is the origin of all those later texts. It’s very strange to think of the close connection between Crowley and contemporary American fundamentalist Rapture-oriented evangelical Christians but the link is surprisingly quite direct and strong.
Crowley, of course, officially broke with Christianity. But it’s very intriguing to see the connections between Crowley’s later official cosmology and that of his Christian upbringing remain nonetheless.
Crowley saw history moving through three stages: The Age (Aeon) of Isis, The Age of Osiris, and The Age of Horus. According to Crowley, the Age of Isis was a time of matriarchy. In contrast, The Age of Osiris, he believed, was the age of patriarchal religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, even Buddhism (as well as parts of Hinduism). The (New) Age of Horus was said to be an era of self-sovereignty. Hence the motto of Crowley’s religion Thelema: “Do What Thou Wilt.”
Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough was a major influence on Crowley, which is evident here in Crowley’s assertion of a matriarchal age followed by a patriarchal one. Crowley’s views also echo those of J.J. Bachofen.
While the majority of medieval Christian theologians were not dispensationalist or more literalistic in their apocalypticism, one notable exception is that of Joachim of Fiore. Fiore saw history as proceeding through three stages: The Ages of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. I’ve mentioned Fiore before, specifically in terms of his unconscious influence on the rise of secularism in Auguste de Comte’s three stages of history, as well as the great philosopher Hegel, who similarly had a three stage cosmological view of history.
Fiore’s third Age, The Age of the Holy Spirit, was one in which there would be a kind of fusion of monasticism with lay living, as the laity become sovereign spiritual beings aligning directly to The Will of The Holy Spirit as refracted through their individual souls. They would have no need of higher external authorities like the institutional church, but would rather live as their own beings.
For Crowley’s religion of Thelema, one’s individual will was to merge with and master the Cosmic Will. Fiore’s Age of the Holy Spirit and Crowley’s Age of Horus are again, in a rather uncanny way, very similar to each other.
Fiore’s influence leads to that of Giambattista Vico, from whom flows much of modernist philosophical (and theological) thought. So Crowley is clearly in this regard a modernist, with views of progressive eras of unfolding consciousness (“The Enlightenment”) but with a particularly occult or theological spin that, again weirdly, has very deep roots in some aspects of Christian theology, most especially his direct influence from The Plymouth Brethren.
In other words, Crowley’s Aeons or Ages conform perfectly to Darby’s dispensations. Within each dispensation or age there is a guiding revelation or religious-spiritual paradigm, culminating in a final apocalyptic revelation of pure clarity.
To take that connection a step further, in The Book of the Law, Aiwass (channeled through Crowley) claims that humanity is entering a new age—the aforementioned Age of Horus. The Age of Horus was somehow both already present, at least in embryonic form and yet also still further into the future to fully manifest. This perspective of both currently present and yet still to come is known in Christian theology as the “already but not yet”. The already but not yet “squares the circle” (Masonic pun very much intended) of the sayings of Jesus which speak of the kingdom of God already present with those sayings which speak of the Kingdom of God as a future coming.
Crowley is not often thought of as an apocalypticist, largely I imagine because the term apocalypse is so deeply Biblical in nature while Crowley was explicitly anti-Christian. Yet nevertheless in the original sense of the term, he is very much an apocalyptic writer. Apocalypse means “unveiling” or “revealing”. Crowley believed he was a prophet unveiling the present age.
Crowley received much joy from taking on titles like “The Great Beast”. When he went to the Egyptian Museum right before hearing the voice of Aiwass, the Stele he noted was numbered 666 (The Mark of the Beast from The Book of Revelation) and he found that significant. Crowley referenced The Whore of Babylon (which he spelled Babalon) numerous times throughout his work—another image directly from the Apocalypse of St. John.
Crowley’s influence on Jack Parsons and (later Scientology founder) L. Ron Hubbard infamously led to the Babalon Working, which was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton and bring the actual child Horus (it was believed) to birth, via sex magick rites with the incarnation of the Whore of Babylon (Marjorie Cameron). The Babalon Working’s desire to bring on an incarnation or avatar is weirdly very Christian-influenced. There’s a dark inversion no doubt, characteristic of the Left Hand Path, but the influence is there regardless. It seems the more these individuals sought to prove they had destroyed Christianity, the more they seem bound to Christian theology and spirituality, as if they were boxing their own shadows.
(Partial Sidebar: The weird synchs between Crowley, Parsons, and Hubbard to Joseph Smith deepen here as some of the magical rites Parsons & Hubbard were involved in the Western US were the exact same ones Joseph Smith himself had performed a century earlier.)
This Left-Hand, Gnostic orientation is again, oddly, not as foreign to Crowley’s religious upbringing as it would seem at first. John Nelson Darby received a great deal of criticism both in his own day and down to the present, from other Christian theologians, for what are essentially Gnostic views. Darby’s denial of the physical challenges in earthly incarnate existence of the Raptured elect fundamentally goes against the tradition of imitating Christ (“imitatio Christi”) as well as of Christ’s incarnation into human flesh and taking on human nature. In traditional Christian theology this “recapitulation” of humanity by Christ’s Incarnation includes the entirety of his earthly existence, including suffering and death (Crucifixion) as necessary dimensions of the overall plan of salvation. In classic icons of the Resurrection, the Resurrected Christ is seen breaking down the doors of hell and becoming liberated from the chains of death. If Darby’s rapture is correct, then it undermines the entirety of the Christian emphasis on the incarnation and the divinization of the cosmos.
Darby’s views are quite Gnostic in that sense and, as covered earlier on the site, Luciferian (in precisely the way Rudolf Steiner used the term). Darby's theology denies the value of incarnation and physicality, only to see spirituality as “above” (“raptured up”) or higher than physicality. This is classic Gnosticism (covered elsewhere on the site here.) Crowley performed the Gnostic Mass and identified strongly with the Gnostic tradition, again showing a strange lineage from his Plymouth Brethren upbringing.
Meanwhile the actual Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse of St. John) is not a prediction of the future end of the world but rather a way of decoding the “secret history” of the moment during which it was written: about 90 C.E. During that period there was a persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Domitian. This persecution followed the earlier persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. The name Nero, when translated into Greek, sums to 666 through the principle of gematria (where letters have numerical values in ancient languages). So the Beast is not some future being but rather a psychopathic Roman dictator. The Whore of Babylon is code for the Roman Imperial State Religion and Cult.
The Apocalypse of John follows in the tradition of other apocalyptic Biblical texts in The Bible, for example The Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel similarly under the medium of fantastical prophetic imaginal visions encodes hidden meaning referring to an “unveiling” (or disclosing) of the present age. In the case of Daniel it refers to the persecution of the Jewish population by the Greek Syrian Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Biblical apocalyptic theology argues that the goodness of God will overcome the present persecution leading to a new age of righteousness.
As I mentioned in a previous piece on New Age spirituality, the term “New Age” (new aeon) itself is a Biblical term. For the New Testament, the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ initiate a new age (aeon). This new age is a complete break historically with the past and inaugurates the beginning of a new era of humanity—which is why St. Paul called Christ The Second (or New) Adam. Note also that one of the key events that signals this New Age is The Ascension of Christ which is precisely where the emphasis in the contemporary New Age on Ascension derives from originally.
Crowley’s New Aeon (of the Child Horus) is therefore directly borrowing a term from the Biblical tradition.
Understanding Crowley (however unconsciously) as apocalyptic in nature also sheds a new light on his most controversial (and problematic) dynamics of sex magick, drug use, and other Left-Hand Path elements. Within traditions of apocalyptic spirituality there is a tendency known as antinomianism. Antinomian literally means “against the law” (anti + nomos, nomos = law, custom, norm). Antinomian movements are groups that claim that because they had reached some state of enlightenment that had broken with earthly customs and had “become laws unto themselves.”
Not all apocalyptic movements express antinomianism but some do. The notion being that if one is living in the end times (aka “the new age”) already, then the rules of the old order no longer hold sway. Famous antinomian movements include the Sabbatean movement of Sabbati Zevi and especially Jacob Frank.
If we see Crowley as more explicitly apocalyptic then his Left-Hand “redemption through transgression” principles weirdly fit. To be clear, I’m not personally advocating for such views. The history and actual practice of these traditions—whatever the exact merits or demerits of the theory—is usually quite horrifying. Crowley is only one in a very long line of abusive spiritual tyrants in that regard. Rather the point is simply that those aspects of Crowley do fit a pattern, a pattern, very strangely, much more religious than Crowley or his followers might be comfortable with.
Speaking of Crowley’s abusive nature, even those tendencies directly relate to his religious upbringing. I’ve covered the work of Angywnn St. Just on social traumatology in multiple pieces on the site. Crowley’s later abusive behaviors directly flow as a consequence of his spiritually abusive childhood, yet again showing the weird link between his conservative Protestant Christian upbringing and his later Gnostic, sex-magick Left-Hand Path magical practice.
Lastly even Thelema’s famous motto—Do What Thou Wilt—has it’s own very strange connections to aspects of the Christian tradition.
In the New Testament Letter of James, the religious law/path (Torah) is referred to as “the law of liberty”—interesting echoes of Crowley’s Book of the Law there to be sure. Liberty being the freedom to follow one’s deepest impulse as expressions of the Divine Will.
Also St. Augustine of Hippo, whose work I’ve covered elsewhere on the site, in his Easter sermon of 407 C.E. famously stated, “Love and do what thou will.” Augustine’s admonition to Love first and then do what you will as an expression of Love offers a radical response to Crowley but nevertheless is oddly and uncannily similar in many respects. I would argue that Augustine’s “Love and do what you will” is actually a much deeper teaching than Crowley’s. In the context of that sermon Augustine refers specifically to love of one’s neighbor. Of all the things that Crowley did not seem to receive from his (un)orthodox Christian upbringing, it is tragic that the centrality of Love—which was the core of Jesus’ teaching after all—was not what he received nor then communicated. While he strangely mimicked many aspects of Christianity, the piece that would have served him the most—love—was sadly absent.