By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho
Espionage and the occult don’t seem to have any connection. The first is a serious endeavor undertaken by governments to gain vital information about their enemies and about threats against their countries, while the second is considered paranormal mumbo-jumbo. But one man bridged the two in real terms and claimed to accomplish some incredible feats. Let’s find out more about this man.
Aleister Crowley: Con Man or Spiritual Master?
Edward Alexander Crowley, better known as Aleister Crowley, has been dubbed by some as ‘the wickedest man in the world’, but he preferred to call himself ‘The Great Beast 666’.
To some, he was a faker and a con man; to others, he was a spiritual master and misunderstood genius. Regardless, Aleister Crowley was undoubtedly the most influential occultist of the 20th century. And he was also something else: a spy. In fact, Crowley was an agent provocateur—an agent who gains the enemy’s confidence and influences them to commit illegal or self-defeating acts.
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Connecting the Occult and Espionage
Crowley intertwined secret societies, occultism, and espionage in a way that hadn’t been done before. The secret society–occult interplay seems obvious enough. The connection with intelligence agencies is a little harder to figure.
Basically, spy agencies are bureaucratic secret societies. Their aim is to acquire the secrets of others, and conceal their own. They’re selective in recruitment, and bind members by oaths of silence. They prefer to operate outside of public awareness and scrutiny.
The pursuit of occult knowledge is quite similar. As Crowley put it: “Investigation of spiritualism makes a capital-training ground for secret service work; one soon gets up to all the tricks.” It’s not by accident that intelligence professionals are commonly nicknamed ‘spooks’.
Espionage has its own moral code. One British agent recalled being told—at the time of his recruitment—that “you mustn’t be afraid of forgery and you mustn’t be afraid of murder”. Crowley’s personal motto of “Do What Thou Wilt” fit perfectly.
While popular imagination connects the occult with the supernatural, or diabolical, it really just means ‘concealed’. An occultist seeks to reveal what is hidden, and, as often as not, re-conceal it. A cardinal rule in secret societies is that the knowledge such organizations offer isn’t for everyone. It’s for the elect, and part of the elect’s job is to keep it to themselves.
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Who Exactly Was Aleister Crowley?
Crowley is commonly regarded as a Satanist, though that’s highly debatable. Despite occasional claims to Irish ancestry, he was entirely English. Crowley came from a well-to-do, fundamentalist Christian home. That inspired his desire to start a new religion.
He cobbled his mystical experiences and pet beliefs into something he dubbed ‘Thelema’; or ‘Will’. Others called it ‘Crowley-anity’. He dreamed it would push aside Christianity, and usher in a new age of enlightenment. He was also a world-class mountain climber, and chess player.
Crowley’s occultist career began when he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. The Golden Dawn was among the many esoteric societies that popped up like mushrooms in the 1880s. Its notable members included poet William Butler Yeats, and occult scholar Arthur Waite.
From the outside, it seemed like a late-Victorian gaggle of well-heeled crackpots and eccentric artists. But some members of this secret society harbored a political agenda. It was called Legitimism.
In practical terms, it meant getting people like Queen Victoria—a German descendant—off the British throne, and restoring the rightful Stuart line. It promised to return England to the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, and restore autonomy to Scotland and Ireland.
No surprise then that the Golden Dawn had more than its share of Irish members, such as Yeats. Some had ties to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was a secret society fighting for Irish independence.
One leader of the Golden Dawn—the very man who initiated Aleister Crowley—was a British occultist and Legitimist named Samuel MacGregor Mathers. In turn, Mathers was the close friend of a peculiar English peer named Lord Bertram Ashburnham.
Ashburnham was also a militant Legitimist who operated an armed training camp on his estate. In fact, Mathers, Ashburnham, and other Golden Dawners were neck-deep in a conspiracy to arm and finance a revolution in Spain. Once successful, they expected the new king, one Don Carlos, to return the favor.
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British Intelligence Sent Crowley to Infiltrate the Golden Dawn
It’s not hard to see why the British authorities wanted to know what was going on at those lodge meetings. The man they sent to find out was Aleister Crowley. With Mathers’ backing, Crowley wormed his way into the Spanish plot, which included smuggling a shipload of arms. Someone—probably Crowley—betrayed it.
His joining the Golden Dawn was like tossing a grenade into the room. Crowley’s theatrical flamboyance ruffled feathers. He stirred up more trouble by introducing sex into some of their rituals. The result was an internal feud that all but destroyed the Golden Dawn. And that probably suited Crowley’s employers just fine.
A key element in the Golden Dawn’s belief system—and Crowley’s—was a group known as the secret chiefs. They were thought to be advanced spiritual beings who mysteriously guided their initiates; turning revelation on and off like a spigot. Interestingly, Crowley compared them to spy chiefs for their tendency “to keep us in the dark”.
The secret chiefs were served by their own secret society, the Great White Lodge. Appropriately, the White Lodge opposed an insidious group known as the Black Lodge and its Black Brothers. The distinction was between white and black magic. Just about everyone Crowley disliked—and there were many—he branded a Black Brother. Despite his reputation as a black magician, Crowley insisted that he really served the White Lodge.
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Thwarting a Possible Irish Uprising
About 15 years after the Golden Dawn episode, an important Irish nationalist known as Sir Roger Casement visited New York City to negotiate a secret deal for German support of an uprising in Ireland. British intelligence caught wind, and proceeded cautiously.
America was a neutral country, and the Irish cause enjoyed wide support there. But the Brits knew a secret: Casement was a homosexual, and that offered a means to entrap and compromise him.
Crowley was, or affected to be, bisexual. His ability to infiltrate the gay underworld made him ideal to unofficially dig up dirt on Casement. If Crowley was exposed, London’s hands were clean. It’s called deniability.
When Crowley sailed from England, the British believed that Casement was still in New York. But he’d quietly slipped away. So, Crowley arrived in Manhattan to find his ‘egg was addled’. But he found other ways to be useful.
On July 3, 1915, as the first rays of dawn reflected off the Hudson River, 10 people gathered on the 50th Street Pier. Leading them was Crowley himself, acting as self-proclaimed ‘leader of Irish hope’ and a representative of the ‘Secret Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety of the Provisional Government of Ireland’.
Of course, that was an organization that existed only in Crowley’s imagination. Two others in tow were bona fide Irish nationalists, but four were just common drunks. Another in attendance was Crowley’s then current girlfriend—or ‘scarlet woman’—named Leila Waddell. She kept everyone entertained, or at least awake, with lively fiddle tunes.
Also on hand was a reporter from The New York Times. Crowley wanted to be sure the event got plenty of publicity. After rowing out to Liberty Island, he went into high gear, swearing an oath to revolution, and ostentatiously tearing up his British passport. He next ‘declared war’ on England, and swore to fight to the last drop of his blood for Irish freedom. It was pure theater.
Crowley later admitted he “knew almost nothing” about Ireland, or its struggle for independence. His real passport was safe back in his room. He’d torn up an envelope. Nor was he really trying to impress the Irish revolutionaries in New York. The Germans were his target.
Drawing the United States into World War I
The chief German propagandist in New York—a man named George Sylvester Viereck—had hired Crowley to write anti-British articles for his magazine, The Fatherland. Handily, Viereck was an aspiring occultist and a secret society member with a fondness for drugs and orgies.
Through Viereck, Crowley gained the ear of the so-called ‘Propaganda Kabinett’. This was a secret group that included German-American journalists and academics, as well as German officials like the Kaiser’s military attaché in Washington, Franz von Papen. Eighteen years later, von Papen would be one of the men who made Adolf Hitler the chancellor of Germany.
As much as the British wanted to draw the United States into the war, the Germans wanted to keep them out. The question was, how?
Crowley said that at a March 1915 cabinet meeting, he “gradually got the Germans to believe that arrogance and violence were the best policy”. The Americans, he explained, were like children; easily frightened and responsive to firmness. Crowley bamboozled the Germans into believing that his study of the occult gave him insight into the mass psychology of the Americans and British.
The big topic of discussion that day was the ocean liner The Lusitania. The vessel was the pride of the British liner fleet. The Germans knew it was being used to ferry war supplies from New York to Liverpool. That made it a military target, but the sticking point was that there were hundreds of innocent passengers on board.
Would the propaganda benefit from sinking the Lusitania be offset by the negative publicity? Crowley argued that it wouldn’t.
The Propaganda Kabinett forwarded his opinion to Berlin. And, on 7 May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed The Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, and over 1,000 people perished. Though the United States wouldn’t join the war for two more years, Germany’s reputation was now thoroughly blackened in the eyes of much of the American public.
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Crowley Played for All Sides
Some have claimed that Crowley grossly exaggerates his influence. That might be true, but it would equally incorrect to say that he didn’t have any influence. The real key to Crowley gaining German confidence wasn’t Viereck but “a man high in the German secret service” named Theodor Reuss.
Before World War I, Reuss had worked in London as a journalist. He was also a secret society initiate and a spy. Reuss pitched the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO—of which he was a member—as a one-stop occult super store.
Starting in Germany around 1903, the OTO aspired to unify other esoteric societies under its banner. Its claimed affiliates included the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Masonic Rite of Memphis-Misraim, and the Rosicrucians. More importantly, perhaps, the OTO served as a cover for German intelligence.
In 1912, Reuss initiated Crowley into the OTO in Berlin. Crowley then became chief of the order’s operations in English-speaking countries. He even got a new mystical name, Baphomet, which was the idol supposedly worshipped by the Knights Templar.
Whether Reuss simultaneously enlisted Crowley into German intelligence—or thought he did—is another question. Regardless, he and Crowley maintained clandestine contact throughout World War I, while Crowley secretly worked for Britain in America, and as Reuss served as the Kaiser’s agent in Holland and Switzerland.
After Reuss died, Crowley later managed to grab control of the OTO, or a faction of it. And the OTO is still very much alive, along with accusations that it’s linked to intelligence activity.
Common Questions about Aleister Crowley, Occult, Secret Societies and Espionage
A section of people called Aleister Crowley ‘the wickedest man in the world’, but he preferred to call himself The Great Beast 666.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or just Golden Dawn) was founded in 1887 and was among the many esoteric societies that popped up in the 1880s. Its notable members included poet William Butler Yeats and occult scholar Arthur Waite.
Sir Roger Casement was an important Irish nationalist, who had visited New York City to negotiate a secret deal for German support of an uprising in Ireland.
Franz von Papen was the Kaiser’s military attaché in Washington. He was a member of a secret group called Propaganda Kabinett that also included German-American journalists and academics, as well as other German officials. And von Papen was one of the men who made Adolf Hitler the chancellor of Germany.