The English occultist Aleister Crowley was notorious for his penned practical pranks. From discussing sex magick in terms of diabolical child sacrifice to potentially discussing psychedelic drug use under the cloak of sex magick, Crowley was a master of the art of obscurum per obscurius; of “explaining the obscure by means of the more obscure.”(1) While we know from his diaries that he certainly was wont to engage in magick of the sexual variety, it is our suspicion that, in at least some instances, when Crowley was outwardly explaining sex magick in his books, he may well have actually been discussing the occult use of Amanita muscaria mushrooms.(2) The same would be in perfect keeping with his modus operandi, i.e., obscurum per obscurius.
Sex magick is a sort of Western Tantra whereby practitioners believe they enter into heightened states of consciousness or acquire powers via various sexual acts, including but not limited to the ritual consumption of semen and menstrual blood. This latter method takes center stage in Liber XV, better known as the Gnostic Mass, the “only truly Official Ritual”(3) of Ecclesiae Gnosticae Catholicae, the ecclesiastical branch of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis. Crowley was not the first self-proclaimed Gnostic to engage in said behavior. Saint Augustine accused even Mani and the Manicheans of consuming communion wafers that were covered in menses and splattered with semen. However, this imagery is not unique to various of the Gnostic sects. Indeed, according to Kagyu Lama Mike Crowley,(4) the Tantric system known as Vajrayana Buddhism has been employing this symbolism for centuries, and that to secretly indicate to initiates the A. muscaria mushroom. The menses allegedly alludes to the brilliant red pileus, the splattered semen to the white remnants of the universal veil that mottle the top. And, as Ruck, Hoffman, and Celdran point out in their book Mushrooms, Myth, and Mithras, Mani and the Manicheans were also accused of venerating a certain “red mushroom.”
In addition to sex, Crowley was known to incorporate a number of methods into his magick, chief among them being the use of drugs. For example, Liber CMXXXIV vel The Cactus records a number of magical experiments conducted by Crowley using the mescaline-rich Lophophora williamsii cactus, aka peyote. However, aside from depicting a specimen in his painting May Morn, we have been unable to locate any reference he himself directly made to the A. muscaria mushroom. This is itself an oddity. For, like Lewis Carroll before him, Crowley would have no doubt been familiar with Mordecai Cooke’s 1860 book The Seven Sisters of Sleep. Cooke’s book details the seven most popular narcotic plants of the Victorian era. As one would expect from a perfectionist such as Crowley, all of the drugs named by Cooke have been carefully allotted to the Vegetable Drugs column of Crowley’s Liber 777 — all save one: the Amanita muscaria mushroom.(5) Another oddity is the curious attribution of Elixir Vitae to path one in the Vegetable Drugs column. Most of Crowley’s acolytes are prone to interpret Elixir Vitae as being a veiled allusion to sexual fluids. But sexual fluids are anything but vegetable in nature. For all of its tidiness, the careless attribution of sexual fluids to a column titled Vegetable Drugs would seem to this author wholly inconsistent for a text as symmetrical and rounded as is Liber 777.(6)
Furthermore, A. muscaria is mentioned at least twice by Rebelais as “the good Fly Agaric,”(7) Rebelais being the ultimate source for Aleister Crowley’s Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt.”(8) It is therefore exceedingly unlikely that the mushroom could have escaped Crowley’s attention. Also of interest is the account of Anthony Stansfeld Jones, the adopted son of Charles Stansfeld Jones, aka Frater Achad, the “magical son” of Aleister Crowley, regarding Frater Achad’s obsessive preoccupation with a “poisonous” mushroom, for which he spent untold hours searching in the wooded area behind his home.9 Was Achad in search of A. muscaria?
In 1995, in his book Strange Fruit, Clark Heinrich speculated that the famed Elixir Vitae of the Alchemists was the Soma-like psychoactive juice pressed from mature, dried and reconstituted A. muscaria mushroom caps. If Heinrich is correct, then it stands to reason that knowledge of the entheogenic properties of A. muscaria mushrooms could have survived well into Crowley’s day. Might he have been aware of them? Is the Elixir Vitae entry in Liber 777 an allusion to A. muscaria? Were any other of Crowley’s references to sexual fluids fungal suggestions? It is at present nearly impossible to say. But, until we read in Mike Crowley’s work that references to semen and menstrual blood are commonly employed in Tantric Buddhist empowerments as allusions to the A. muscaria mushroom, we had never questioned Aleister Crowley’s use of that same imagery within the context of his own Western Tantra.
Why Crowley should keep secret a powerful and well-known psychoactive drug, especially after speaking so open and plainly about so many others, e.g., hashish, peyote, belladonna, cocaine, opium, etc. etc., is the next question. Perhaps it was due to an oath of secrecy. Perhaps we’re completely off the mark (as well as off our rocker). The only safe thing we can say at this point is that obligations of secrecy never stopped Aleister Crowley from writing before.
1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary
2. See our paper Masonic Templary III: the Contents of the Cup, which relates the A. muscaria mushroom to the Holy Grail of Arthurian lore.
3. Sabazius (lib.oto-usa.org/wp/essays/sabazius-x/)
4. See his book Secret Drugs of Buddhism.
5.Granted there is no mention by name of betel nut in 777. However, betel nut may well have been relegated to the “All cerebral excitants” entry allotted to path twelve.
6. Crowley allotted the Vedic Soma to path three. But, as Soma was not identified as A. muscaria until a decade after Crowley’s death, when amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson published his famous article in the May, 1957 issue of LIFE Magazine, we are reluctant to interpret Crowley’s use of the word Soma as a potential indication of A. muscaria. However, it should not be ruled out.
8. “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” — Liber AL vel Legis, 3:60
9. Thelema Coast to Coast #4: May 14, 2005
Bennett, Chris Cannabis: the Philosopher’s Stone
Crowley, Aleister 777
Crowley, Aleister Liber AL vel Legis
Crowley, Aleister The Equinox III:1<
Crowley, Mike Secret Drugs of Buddhism
Heinrich, Clark Strange Fruit
LIFE Magazine, May 1957
Newman, Phillip D. Masonic Templary III: the Contents of the Cup
Ruck, Carl A.P. Mushrooms, Myth, and Mithras
Wasson, R. Gordon Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality