Aleister Crowley and the Devil’s Weed

“The action of hashish is as varied as life itself and seems to be determined almost entirely by the will or mood of the ‘assassin,’ and that within the hedges of his mental and moral form. I can get fantastic visions, or power of mind ? analysis, or spiritual exaltation, or sexual excitement of various kinds, or ravenous hunger, or vigor of imagination, whichever I please, absolutely at will, on a minute dose of the Parker Davis extract. This is simply because I have discovered the theory and perfected the practice of the instrument.”
– Aleister Crowley 1920

Birth of the Beast

Born at the height of the Victorian era in 1875, into the household of a strict religious sect of Plymouth brethren, the young Aleister Crowley was given little to read as a child besides the Bible. Being both a prodigious and rebellious lad, and having soon mastered the contents of the Good Book, he concluded at an early age that his mother’s references to him being a “beast”, indicated his identification with “the Beast, whose number is 666” of the New Testament’s book of Revelation. This was a role he strove to fulfill for much of his controversial life.

A world class mountain climber and master chess player, Crowley was a fit and intellectual individual who took a scientific approach to the emotionally and imaginatively charged art of magic (which he renamed magick, to differentiate it from the popularized entertainment form). A pioneer of free-love and the mystical use of drugs, Crowley was amongst the weeds that broke the pavement of the stodgy and morally repressed Victorian era.

The supreme ritual

In a 1907 Essay, The Psychology of Hashish, Crowley wrote that in his extensive studies into the history of the occult he “found this one constant story. Stripped of its local chronological accidents, it usually came to this ? the writer would tell of a young man, a seeker after hidden Wisdom, who, in one circumstance or another, meets an adept; who, after sundry ordeals, obtains from the said adept, for good or ill, a certain mysterious drug or potion, with the result (at least) of opening the gate of the other world. This potion was identified with the Elixir Vitae of the physical Alchemists, or one of their ‘tinctures’ most likely the ‘white tincture’ which transforms the base metal (normal perception of life) to silver (poetic conception)?”

After “poisoning” himself with “every drug in (and out of) the Pharmacopoeia” in search of the above preparation, Crowley came to believe that this substance was a “sublimated or purified preparation of Cannabis Indica.” Preceding the theories of Gordon Wasson, Jonathan Ott, Terrence Mckenna and others by more than half a century, the Beast went so far as to speculate that “this ceremonial intoxication constitutes the supreme ritual of all religions.”

Crowley further claimed that this mysterious herb was one of the prohibited trees in the Garden of Eden, “?if not the Tree of Life, at least of that other Tree, double and sinister and deadly?” In rhetorical response to Jehovah’s ancient taboos, the Beast wrote: “Nay! for I am of the Serpent’s party; Knowledge is good, be the price what it may.”

Cannabis consciousness

In The Psychology of Hashish Crowley indicates a vast knowledge of the esoteric history of the herb, quoting the works of fellow hemp enthusiasts such as Zoroaster, the medieval alchemists, the works of members of Paris’ Hashish Club, and other 19th century literary figures. Unfortunately, he was forced to hold back much of this knowledge, due to his association with certain occult groups, who believed that secrets revealed equals power lost.

Crowley wrote that “in order to keep the paper within limits,” he had to restrict himself to information that was already quite available to the public at large, “lest the austerity of such a Goddess be profaned by the least vestige of adornment.”

Unable to openly discuss the esoteric history of the herb, Crowley decided to look at other areas of interest. Having spent some years practicing yoga, ceremonial magic and other techniques of exploring the workings of the mind, as well as studying scientific literature on the subject, Crowley felt confident in discussing the effects of cannabis on the psyche of man.

Noting that “Yogis employed hashish? to obtain Samadhi, that oneness with the Universe,” Crowley focussed on cannabis’ ability to invoke different mental states, which he compared to similar states of consciousness associated with meditative and magical practices.

The first of the cannabis-consciousness states is termed by Crowley as the volatile aromatic effect, which he saw as being marked by an “absolutely perfect state of introspection? of an almost if not quite purely impersonal type.”

The next state of consciousness attainable with cannabis, the toxic hallucinative effect, begins with thoughts and images passing “rapidly through the brain, at last vertiginously fast. They are no longer recognized as thoughts, but imagined as exterior? The fear of being swept away in the tide of relentless image is a terrible experience.”

Crowley felt the best combatant against this delusional and paranoid state was a meditatively attuned and magickaly trained mind, as both these techniques “lead the mind to immense power over its own imaginations.”

In the third and final level of consciousness attainable from cannabis, the narcotic effect, “one simply goes off to sleep.”

Crowley noted that certain preparations of cannabis seemed to favourably elicit these different states of consciousness even more than dose size did, and believed that the effects themselves may be due to “three separate substances” in the plant, with differing strains having differing amounts of each.

Impersonal introspection

In relation to his own work and psychological goals, Crowley saw the most desirable of these states of consciousness to lie in the introspective state produced by the volatile aromatic effect.

Crowley, like other occultists of the time, saw this impersonal introspective state as ideal for the act of astral traveling, and offered instruction in his essay for its experimental practice. More importantly, Crowley saw cannabis as having the potential to aid the mind in achieving the ultimate state of consciousness, in which “Ego and non-Ego unite”, and duality, or ego-bound consciousness, is transcended and Samadhi is achieved.

“If hashish-analogy be able to assist us here, it is in that supreme state in which man has built himself up into God,” wrote Crowley. “One may doubt whether the drug alone ever does this. It is perhaps only the destined adept who, momentarily freed by the dissolving action of the drug? obtains this knowledge which is his by right, totally inept as he may be to do so by any ordinary methods.”

Stoned initiations

Modern occult writer Francis King has speculated that Aleister Crowley may have been initiated into the magical use of drugs by chemist and student of pharmacology CG Jones, who also introduced the young Crowley into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Crowley would later find himself in a court battle with the Order after publishing some of their secret writings.)

Other famous members of the Golden Dawn can also be tied to cannabis use. British poet WB Yeats experimented with marijuana as an aid in the development of psychic powers, and the writer Lewis Carroll incorporated a cannabis-puffing caterpillar and a magical mushroom in his famous Alice in Wonderland.

Probably not realizing what a strong influence it would have on a generation, Crowley is reputed to have introduced the young Aldous Huxley to mescal in a pre-Hitler Berlin Hotel room, as well as initiating sci-fi writer HG Wells to the mysteries of hashish.

Higher minds

Utilizing cannabis, mescaline and a variety of other substances, Crowley would create and perform mythologically imbued occult rituals, which were directed at bringing the devotees into closer contact with higher states of consciousness. He had hopes of perfecting a method which would make the mystic frame of mind available to humanity at large. Far from seeing his work as something new and novel, Crowley rightfully saw such drug induced ritualistic initiation as being part of the ancient mystery schools which had been largely suppressed by the Catholic Church at the commencement of the Dark Ages.

Considering the strong role it played in his magical techniques, it is curious to note that after Crowley wrote The Psychology of Hashish there are only a few scattered direct references to cannabis in his writings. But, with a little cross-referencing, it can be shown that cannabis use is at the core of many of this famed magician’s most celebrated occult texts, a fact that many modern Crowley enthusiasts are sadly unaware.

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