Aleister Crowley and the Occult
"She does so give me the creeps"
Aleister Crowley was a British occultist, novelist, poet, painter, and mountaineer. He was a practitioner of magic (or "magick", as he spelled it), the founder of the religion of Thelema, and a member of several notable religious orders, including the Golden Dawn and the German-based Ordo Templi Orientis. He was known to go by the name "the Great Beast 666" and was widely despised by the British press, who decried him as a Satanist and a traitor. As a result, he spent much of his time abroad, living in France, the United States, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia, Germany, and several other countries.
Crowley has become a cult figure in death. However, he had few followers in his lifetime. He commanded a small group of students - some of whom were extremely devoted, and others who were more passive - who helped him with his writing and followed him on his various excursions around the world. One of these students was none other than Mary Butts.
Butts and Crowley
While studying at Westfield College in London, Mary Butts met and worked under Crowley. She was given co-authorship credit on his magnum opus, Magick (Book 4), under the name Soror Rhodon. Crowley impressed upon Butts a love for magic and the spiritual.
On March 7th, 1921, Butts journals makes it's first explicit mention of Aleister Crowley. Crowley has invited Butts to his temple and spiritual centre in Italy. Butts seems to be excited about this invitation, as she remarks "I am now going to live the best part of my life." She leaves for Sicily several months later, in July, and stays until mid-September. Her time at The Abbey of Thelema drastically changes her life and informs much of her future writing.
The Abbey of ThelemaFounded in 1920 by the author and occultist Aleister Crowley and his devotee Leah Hirsig, the Abbey - a small villa with a chapel - served as a sort of magical school and instruction grounds for Crowley and his students. During its years of operation, the Abbey housed many of Crowley's students, including Mary Butts. It was a source of constant rumour and mystery. Tabloid magazines frequently reported on the inhumane and ungodly acts that may have been taking place there. In 1923, after a young scholar by the name of Raoul Loveday died at the abbey, it was shut down by the Mussolini government. Local residents later scrubbed it of any connection to Crowley and his students.
"I saw at Cefalu the familiar features of religion come again. And obscenity. And something exceedingly bad (not obscene), & something powerful. 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' That is all right. But people are to be made aware of this by fear, coercion, bribery etc, a religious movement re-enacted. The founder is to be Crowley & his gulled, doped women... I am in disgust with professional mysticism."
Mary Butts and The Abbey of Thelema
According to her journals, Butts first arrives at the Abbey of Thelema sometime around July 7th, 1921. Over the following month, she writes about a series of "astral journeys" that she has undergone. These visions frequently place Butts in and amongst nature. She writes of "blue water, a solid lapis-lazuli stuff pouring out the base of a rock", "falling pine trees", a "dark cave, a furious sea breaking through it", and a "wood path." Some of these illuminations seem to take her back to her early years, at Salterns, but "seen in another world."
While at the abbey, Butts begins work on her first book, Ashe of Rings. She also reads several different novels, including Ida Craddock's Heavenly Bridegroom and Ludovico Sinistrari's Demoniality. These works are heavily concerned with spirituality and the occult, themes that Mary Butts own works will equally consider.
On September 1st, 1921, Butts writes in her journal: "I see that astral journeys, with or without drugs (some of my best have been without) can be exploited more than is supposed." This passage is significant because it is Butts first explicit mention of her using drugs. Crowley frequently instructed his students to take a variety of substances - opium, cocaine, and hashish - while completing the various tasks that he laid out for them. It is very possible that Butts' first time ever using opium was at the Abbey.
To read more about Butts opium addiction, see "The Poppy Drug" page:
Butts leaves the Abbey of Themela in late September, 1921. She is disillusioned with Crowley and his version of magical instruction. This disenchantment could be attributed to a variety of factors, but was likely because of Crowley's obnoxious personality and lack of regard for his followers, because the living conditions at Thelema were atrocious, and because she was appalled by the presence of young children at Crowley's rituals.
Butts Examination of the Astral PlaneSeveral months before she leaves to Sicily, Butts details how Crowley taught her to adventure into the astral plane. She at first struggles with this, but eventually seems to understand the practice, and begins going on frequent "astral journeys." While in Italy, she considerably improves upon her ability to travel to the supposed fourth dimension of existence. Following her return to London, Butts details the six astral planes that she visited.
"Examination of the Astral Plane
A list of ‘planes of vision.’
I. There is a series of pictures, like living in a coloured film where one sees bogies—real, unimaginable, dull, harmless, bogies.
II. There is a formal plane with water & heraldic things.
III. There is a high, brilliant world very white where are the archetypal shapes.
IV. There is a heightened image of the world we know—woods more brilliant, cliffs higher, darker seas.
V. There are place memories exceedingly distinct.
VI. There are places no imagination can picture or retain, celestial fields, people no people were ever like, echoed in literature in Fiona Macleod & Morris, in ballads. Also the Good Friday Parzival music."
Despite eventually losing confidence in Crowley and renouncing her time spent in Sicily, Butts nonetheless continued her exploration of the fourth dimension. She went on dedicated astral journeys well into the late-1920s, though it seemed she may have lost some of her skills for magic as she grew older.
In 1928, Butts remarks "I went on the best 'astral journey' I remember in years. I felt Gaby’s hand, physically in mine. Again on the journey—there were little lakes, & first it was red rock & apples, then slowly the great French landscape with its sense of ‘vast horizons,’ slowly rising land, forest-arms & single poplars; chateaux wth high-pitched roofs & occasional modern reconstructions with a tendency to break out into mosaic dragons & general heraldry let into slates... I blessed the Power which has filled my life with poetry."
This is her last mention of the practice.
- Blondel, Nathalie. Mary Butts : Scenes from the Life : a Biography. 1st ed., McPherson, 1998.
- Booth, Martin. “A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley.” (Coronet ed.). London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001, pp. 375–76.
- Butts, Mary, and Nathalie. Blondel. The Journals of Mary Butts. Yale University Press, 2002.
- Clukey, Amy. “ENCHANTING MODERNISM: MARY BUTTS, DECADENCE, AND THE ETHICS OF OCCULTISM.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 60, no. 1, 2014, pp. 78–107, https://doi.org/10.1353/mfs.2014.0003.
- Duignan, Brian. “Aleister Crowley.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aleister-Crowley.