Last week we began to look at the similarities between the notorious biblical scholar Morton Smith and another infamous character familiar to readers of this blog, Aleister Crowley. If you missed it, I suggest a short review before reading further. You’ll want to understand some of the background presented there in order to follow some of the ideas put forth this week.
And now, part two of the Morton Smith-Aleister Crowley Connection!
Who Was Aleister Crowley?
Most readers of this blog have a passing familiarity with Crowley, but for those not familiar, I’ll give a sketch. Also, there are some elements of Crowley’s history which are especially relevant in this context.
While most would know Crowley as a “black magician,” this reputation is misleading. Though Crowley had always been interested in mysticism, he foremost sought professional success as a poet. Crowley entered Cambridge in 1895 and studied literature, where he adopted a style of dress reminiscent of Oscar Wilde and hoped to become the next Percy Shelley. Crowley was obsessed with the written word and devoured the important works of his day, often to the detriment of his other courses (Kaczynski 32-34).
It was at Cambridge that Crowley began experimenting with homosexuality. Crowley had a very open attitude towards sex in a generally repressive, post-Victorian atmosphere. Taking both male and female lovers over the course of his life, he often pursued more than one dalliance at a time. Many of these relationships were memorialized by Crowley in verse, and the sometimes “decadent” nature of his poetry required that Crowley publish his work anonymously with underground imprints that were willing to take on the risk of putting pornographic material to press at the turn of the 20th century (Kaczynski 49).
Crowley’s writings met with a mixed response from the public. While some praised the enthusiasm of his work, others were less than impressed, with one reviewer calling Crowley a “wind-bag foaming at the mouth” (Kaczynski 92). It didn’t get better after he joined the Golden Dawn, where he met William Butler Yeats, whose poetry was taken seriously by the mainstream literati. Like Crowley’s critics, Yeats, too, felt Crowley had little to offer as a poet, and the two quickly became rivals (Kaczynski 66). Yeats later said of Crowley that he has “written about six lines, amid much bad rhetoric, of real poetry” (Kaczynski 282). Like Smith’s desire for academic acceptance, Crowley yearned to be accepted as a serious poet by the literary mainstream. However, success was elusive. Many of his works sold only a handful of copies, and some sold none at all (Kaczynski 131).
So he did the next best thing, in between self-publishing books of poetry he started a religious movement. Here he was able to combine his love of poetry with occult-based mysticism and radical sexuality.
It could be said that the foundation of Crowley’s religious movement is Liber AL vel Legis, otherwise known as the Book of the Law. Crowley received the Liber AL while in Cairo, Egypt with his wife Rose. At the time, Egypt was a land of great mystery, and England was in the throes of Egyptomania where facets of Egyptian culture were the fad du jour, especially in occultism (Owen 28-29). In 1906, you couldn’t be anywhere more exotically important than Egypt. And Crowley, not only happened to be there, he had a game-changing mystical experience.
The Book of the Law is said to be the channeling of a discarnate entity named Aiwass, which Crowley sometimes associates with his Holy Guardian Angel. Liber AL put forward a philosophy where man can do his will unimpeded, love as he will unimpeded, and generally live a life of liberty and freedom. This philosophy was called Thelema from the Greek word for will. The book is divided into three sections representing the three aeons: That of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. It is this latter “new aeon of the crowned and conquering child” that the book is said to be a message of, with Crowley being its prophet.
Crowley supposedly initially rejected the Book of the Law and had difficulty coming to terms with some of its contents. However, the divine nature of its reception was eventually taken by Crowley as the incontrovertibility of the message and the incontrovertibility of Crowley as its interpreter (Kaczynski 128, 189-190). Those with questions regarding the book’s contents were to appeal to Crowley’s writings for further elucidation. As well, a mysterious comment appended to the end of Liber Al warns against its thorough study. In one shot, Crowley had received a mystical text, founded a religious movement, and installed himself as its sole authority.
Being the founder of Thelema didn’t stop Crowley from writing. Rather, Crowley’s prolific authorship required new means of engaging the public. To meet the demand, Crowley adopted different personae to reflect the material presented: becoming a Chinese professor by the name of Kwaw Li Ya for a piece on haiku in Vanity Fair; and posing as an Indian sage, Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shiva, for his Eight Lectures on Yoga (Kaczynski 294,504). As Alex Owen suggests, Crowley “delighted in playing with identity,” and his pseudonymous works were “both spoof and serious, learned in its own way while designed to amuse” (206, 190). If the real Aleister Crowley couldn’t gain the public’s embrace, he would wear a mask that mocked his critics’ provincial sensibilities while gaining their admiration.
This pseudonymous activity does not stop at authorship. Crowley carefully courted controversy to boost his book sales, and often resorted to outrageous behaviour to gain attention. He favourably reviewed his own books in his journal, The Equinox. He ran essay contests designed to stir up sales of old stock. He wrote anonymous letters to the editor to cloak his work with paranormal mystique. He even inserted himself into local controversies, unveiling an obscene statue of Oscar Wilde and leaking his roguish plan to the press in advance of his civil disobedience. (Kaczynski 214, 136, 2170, 67). Crowley knew respect wasn’t the only way to get attention. It could also be garnered with outrageousness and cunning.
With Crowley, we get the picture of a man who had been shunned from mainstream life, who took extreme measures to impute his work with importance. As Kaczynski observes, “Crowley gained no respect while living and received even less in death” (549). This Crowley would agree with. As the magician observed, when comparing himself to the occultist Eliphas Levi, he was afflicted by ostracism and unable to use his “remarkable talents in any regular way.” Instead he had to resort to “out of the way learning” and “adopt eccentric appearances” in order to “help humanity” (Crowley, 53). This can be seen as a self-confession, the admission of a man who went to extremes to have his voice heard.
Let’s recap so far. Crowley is someone who desperately wanted to be accepted by the mainstream, but this acceptance was not forthcoming. Crowley led an unconventional sex life, and often featured homosexual and sexually risqué motifs in his writings. After failing to make inroads into the literary elite, he received an important document that legitimated his intellectual importance as well as his sexual lifestyle. This document was found in an exotic locale, and Crowley had the sole ability to interpret this document. By becoming the “Prophet of a New Aeon” Crowley gained unquestionable power and authority, as well as a new platform from which to issue his writings. In addition, Crowley was skilled at manipulating the public to get the attention he sought for his work. While success was not immediately forthcoming (most of the notoriety Crowley received during his lifetime derived from unsavory controversy), today, Crowley’s work lives on and his books continue to be in high demand long after his death.
The Morton Smith-Aleister Crowley Connection
Let’s tie this together and finally answer the question: What was Morton Smith’s fascination with England’s most famous black magician? Was Crowley a key influencer on Smith’s molding of a “magicolibertine Jesus” or was something more at play?
Both Crowley and Smith shared alienation from the mainstream and an unconventional sexuality. Both reached recognition by using non-traditional means. Crowley “received” an important text that would be the basis of a new religion; Smith found a very important document that added to the Christian canon. Both men, it could be suggested, helped this process along: Smith by potentially fabricating Secret Mark in a fabulously exotic location, Crowley by writing Liber AL in a similarly fabulous exotic locale. * †
Regardless of whether or not these documents are real, their discovery was sure to gain the discoverer some modicum of notoriety. I would suggest both Crowley and Smith were actively seeking this kind of attention. Both men lived unconventional lives and this was reflected in similarly unconventional work, which led to mainstream ostracization. Both men supported their views with new-found scriptural sources. Crowley used the Law of Thelema to legitimate the pursuit of desire and his personal importance; Smith used the Mar Saba Letter to suggest that Jesus condoned homosexuality and cement his place in the annals of academia. Both men achieved the recognition they sought as a result of this.
I believe that Smith found, in Crowley, somewhat of a confidante; a kindred spirit in magician’s robes. Could it be possible that Smith was attracted to Crowley’s open sexuality? Could Crowley’s pseudonymous exploits have provided Smith with some insight as to how to draw attention to his work? Did Crowley’s emphasis on religious legitimation provide the roadmap for Smith to find acceptance? For Smith, Crowley’s importance is multi-faceted: He was a beacon of sexual freedom, a fellow outsider casting stones at the establishment, and a radical template for mainstream acceptance.
To answer Piovanelli’s question as to why Smith would be so interested in a transgressive figure like Crowley, perhaps these commonalities shed some light. Smith and Crowley both share similar life stories that feature mainstream alienation, unconventional personal and professional ideas, and outrageous means of acquiring social acceptance. While the similarities between Smith and Crowley were not the thrust of his paper, I feel this line of inquiry (briefly explored here) could lend a deeper understanding to Smith’s motivations that contextualizes the “secret gospel” in light of similar purveyors of “game-changing” religious texts.
*According to Owen Davies, the notion of an “exotic locale” often figures into the foundation myth of magical texts, regardless of veracity.
†I am of the personal belief that Liber AL is solely Crowley’s work. To support this claim, I suggest the following observation made by the man himself: “Ah, you realize that magick is something we do to ourselves. But it is more convenient to assume the objective existence of an angel who gives us new knowledge than to allege that our invocation has awakened a supernormal power in ourselves” (Kaczynski, 542). By this logic, Aiwass (and the Book of the Law) is nothing more than an externalized part of Crowley’s psychology.
Also, in Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley states regarding invoking the ‘barbarous names’ that iambic tetrameter, a poetic meter which uses a rhythm consisting of four pairs of syllables, is considered to be “very useful” (Crowley, 69). With this in mind, let’s compare the following:
A selection from Liber AL III:38, received by Crowley in Cairo:
The light is mine ; its rays consume (8)
Me : I have made a secret door (8)
Into the House of Ra and Tum, (8)
Of Khephra and of Ahathoor. (8)
I am thy Theban, O Mentu, (8)
The prophet Ankh-af-na-khonsu! (8)
By Bes-na-Maut my breast I beat ; (8)
By wise Ta-Nech I weave my spell. (8)
Show thy star-splendour, O Nuit! (8)
Bid me within thine House to dwell, (8)
O wingèd snake of light, Hadit! (8)
Abide with me, Ra-Hoor-Khuit! (8)
Note: It has been brought to my attention that the passage cited above was a translation and poetic interpretation of the “Stele of Revealing” inserted into Liber Al by Crowley, and not an indication of Liber Al’s channeled material. Sigh. So close, and yet, so far!
Note: A reader has shared in the comments some other passages from the Book of the Law which share the same iambic tetrameter and are cited by Crowley as originating with Aiwass. Therefore, while the example above does not support my thesis, other channeled material from Liber AL does. Thank you!
An excerpt from “The Riddle,” a poem to his former lover, Jerome Pollitt:
Habib hath heard; let all Iran (8)
who spell aright from A to Z (8)
Exalt thy fame and understand (8)
with whom I made a marriage-bed (8)
Perhaps you would prefer something pre-dating the Book of the Law. Consider this from “Ascension Day”:
Yet by-and-by I hope to weave (8)
A song of Anti-Christmas Eve (8)
And First- and Second-Beast-er Day. (8)
There’s one who loves me dearly (vrai!) (8)
Aiwass, a discarnate intelligence, just happens to have a similar writing style to Crowley, right down to his favourite iambic meter! These are not the only similarities in writing styles, but coupled with Crowley’s quote above, they should suffice for now. Perhaps some enterprising doctoral candidate, with more knowledge of literature than I, would like to pursue this further!
Brown, Chip. 2011. “The Search for Cleopatra.” National Geographic. July.
Davies, Owen. 2009. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Evans, Craig. 2011. “Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark: Exploring the Grounds for Doubt.” Paper presented at the Secret Gospel of Mark Conference, Toronto, Ontario, April 29.
Eyer, Shawn. 1995. “The Strange Case of the Secret Gospel According to Mark: How Morton Smith’s Discovery of a Lost Letter by Clement of Alexandria Scandalized Biblical Scholarship.” Alexandria: The Journal for the Western Cosmological Traditions.
Crowley, Aleister. 1976. The Book of the Law. San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser.
Crowley, Aleister. 2011. Magick in Theory and Practice. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing.
Kaczynski, Richard. 2010. Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (Revised and Expanded Edition). Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Owen Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004.
Piovanelli, Pierluigi. 2011. “Halfway Between Sabbatai Tzevi and Aleister Crowley: Morton Smith’s ‘Own Concept of What Jesus ‘Must’ Have Been’ and, Once Again, the Question of Evidence.” Paper presented at the Secret Gospel of Mark Conference, Toronto, Ontario, April 29.