From my diary 23rd August 1994.

A Brush with Aleister Crowley

Prompted by reading a newspaper article about Aleister Crowley, and remembering that I had once visited his abandoned cottage in Sicily with my wife Sue who has since sadly passed away, I have found my old diary entry with some surprising results.

The town of Cefalu is draped casually over the mountaintop with curtains of white-painted habitations covering the almost vertical drop to the winding corniche road far below. A narrow artery hacked from the morphic rock zigzags down to the small village below. The stepped pathways are obviously very ancient. The high dry-stone walls were constructed from hard gneiss stones and small boulders. Crickets chirrup between the cracks and crevices and leap about in the hanging fronds of wild flowers that grow there. The pungent aroma of lavender and thyme cloys the nostrils. Clumps of wild marjoram and fragrant oregano fringe the steps. Small black ants scurry about their endless tasks amongst the red soil.

As Sue and I slowly climb the never-ending stairway that stretches above us like some torturous Jacob’s ladder, we are rapidly overtaken by a kerchiefed crone in widow's weeds.

'Why have you come looking for this place?’ she wheezes in heavily accented English through even worse yellow stumps.

‘It's terrible. We hear ghosts at night. He took a local virgin and tortured her to death, a dreadful murder in the woods. At night sometimes we hear her screams.’

The old woman spits on the dust-covered steps and turns abruptly, she soon disappears out of sight above, leaving us panting and labouring below.

As the morning progresses, we continue our slow ascent up the mountainside. The blue sea glitters invitingly below and the sound of goat-bells tinkle in the distance. By noontide the Italian sun is hot. Somnolent bees hum around the rocky walls. Immobile lizards frozen in time, populate the rocks, recharging their solar batteries. Their sideways-blinking eyes yellow with black slits for pupils.

Half way up, close to a wayside religious shrine, we come across a seat for weary travellers. Gratefully we stop for refreshment. Quietly we sit together eating our meal of sandwiches, delicious tomatoes and green olives. We flush it down with dark red country wine. The fragrance of the herbs and wild flowers, which surrounds us, is an overpowering and heady mix.

My wife walks ahead of me. Her breathing is heavy with the exertion of the journey. Periodically she stops and looks around anxiously as I catch up with her, then, reassured she smiles and turn again to continue up the hill.

We come to a whitewashed cottage and there leaning on a rickety gate is the old woman who had overtaken us earlier. She is bent at the waist. We realise that it is permanent posture possibly connected to her life in the fields. Earlier we has assumed it was a temporary ergonomic way of bearing her body which through long practice she she had adopted for climbing the steep and endless steps. She shuffles towards us across the vegetable garden and she asks:

'Why have you come looking for this place? It's terrible. We hear ghosts at night. He took a local virgin and tortured her to death, a dreadful murder in the woods. At night sometimes we hear her screams. He was an evil man.’

Incredulously we realise that she has repeated exactly the same words as she did when she had overtaken us earlier. Maybe she has learnt them parrot-fashion to engage the interest of tourists?

'Why?' I say to Sue.

The old woman thinks my question is addressed to her.

'Because,' continues the crone through her several teeth, 'they went up that path. There's a mad dog up there. Very big.'

Despite all this discouragement, most of it obviously imagined and based upon hearsay, the hag points an accusing finger at the Abbey of Thelema, which turns out to be a small traditional Sicilian cottage not far away in a large overgrown garden.

Only its reddish roof tiles can be seen above the leaves. We turn back to thank her but she is already retreating. I smile, flushed and enthralled, and throw a loud British 'thank you' after her. The old woman pauses, half turns as if she might've heard something, then vanishes indoors.

The gate into Aleister Crowley's erstwhile garden is locked but the cottage nestles against a low ridge and perimeter wall by which access may be had. I find myself in a thorny thicket, which breaks into long grass, rampant vines and gnarled olive trees.

Below the sea glitters and the old town dozes in the midday heat with the duomo sheltering beneath the great rock. It was on that rock that there is said to be a prehistoric house that the wandering Ulysses would've seen with his own eyes. And then of course the unsightly postwar accretions, if you can subtract these in your mind's eye, you will be able to grasp how sublime it must have looked in 1919 when Crowley pranced naked in the warm air.

The cottage is one storey with closed green shutters along the garden side, whitewashed walls, a terrace with no porch, three steps down from a double front door, pink and red geraniums running wild. In a copse there is a tilted plinth of maroon, blue and white diamond tiles. Nothing stands on it. The garden is like a rubbish heap and littered with sun-dried coprolites, which look to be human, and bits of crumpled and torn paper. A battered suitcase and broken-down gas oven are sunk in grass. By the back entrance is an old door painted with a ghoulish grimace.

I stand and in a desultory way kick open the pages of a torn book that lies among the whitened, crumbling excreta. A yellow page is caught in the sudden hot breeze. I see the German page title, ‘Sein und Zeit.’ lying amongst the copralites.   Later, in a corner of the overgrown garden  I see a blue cover and recognize it as the end-boards of a volume.  It has a few yellowing pages left attached to its spine. Whover used it must have detached the pages starting from the back of the book for the first few pages have remained.  The reason for destruction is hardly difficult to work out.  Was Crowley a Heideggerian I muse to myself?

Though there was little difference betwixt the magical practices of Aleister Crowley and the bizarre occult woolgatherings of the little fantasist from Marburg, it seems unlikely. Crowley died in 1947 aged 72 and the notorious Philosopher of Nazism was not much known in Britain during or immediately after the war. The de-nazification authority had banned the Hitler-lover from teaching and his crackpot ideas did not become popular among the British "illuminati" until a few years later.The Heidegger cult which has infested academia  continues to this day - though in attenuated form.  Maybe one of Heidegger's  angst-ridden  groupies on holiday from the North European corridors of shame had made a pilgrimage to The Abbey of Thelema?    Perhaps, having consumed too much Sicilian couscous al pesce he been taken short and lacking the astrology page of the local Giornale Telematico Cefaludese  (if in fact it has one) had made the supreme scriptural sacrifice of the Holy Book?  Alas - we we never know - though it is probably for the best,  for even a newspaper astrology section is better the Being and Time drivel.

There is a sudden cacophony of church bells from the town below. We turn and walk away.

Jud Evans © Aug 1994


Recently I came across this interesting excerpt from Colin Wilson's excellent volume

The Occult 1971. New York: Vintage Books. pp 374-375)

Aleister Crowley

Colin Wilson

But there was, equally, a positive side to Crowley. This emerges in Seabrook's account of Elizabeth Fox's experience at Thelema. She was the "film star" who somehow avoided becoming Crowley's mistress. Seabrook says that before she came to Cefalu she was in a depressed condition due to too much night life and bath-tub gin. Crowley dismayed her by telling her that she must begin with a month's solitary meditation in a lean-to shelter on the cliff-top. When she objected, he pointed out that there was a boat leaving the next day. To comply, she had to meditate naked, except for a woolly burnoose that could be utilized on chilly days. The shelter was completely empty; the latrine was a lime pit outside the "tent." "She would have, said Master Therion, the sun, moon, stars, sky, sea, the universe to read and play with." At night, a child would quietly deposit a loaf of bread, bunch of grapes and a pitcher of water beside her.

She decided to give it a try. The first days confirmed her fears. Sun, moon and sea are all very well, but if you feel bored, they are boring. For the first days she felt nervous and resentful. By the nineteenth day, her chief sensation was boredom. And then, quite suddenly, she began to feel "perfect calm, deep joy, renewal of strength and courage."

There is nothing strange in all this, although few people know it. The mind must be made to stop running like a wristwatch. It must be persuaded to relax and sit still. Its hidden fountain of strength must be persuaded to flow. This is the secret of the Hindu ascetics who sit still for years. It is not penance, but a continuous trickle of deep delight. What is more, this is an automatic process. Our subconscious robot will adjust to any conditions if it is given long enough. It adjusts to stillness, so that the stillness ceases to cause boredom. For you have boredom when nothing is happening inside you. And nothing is happening inside you when the outside world keeps the mind distracted. If the outside world is distracted for long enough, the inner power-house begins to work.

Jud Evans