A NOTE ON CROWLEY & GURDJIEFF
A NOTE ON CROWLEY & GURDJIEFF
By John Robert Colombo
I spent the hectic days between Christmas and New Year’s immersed in an all-engrossing book. That book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if I may compare it to a pot of tea, the comparison is to vintage Earl Grey, the favourite beverage of such discerning characters as Jean-Luc Picard, Sir Leigh Teabing, Ellie Arroway, and Bruce Wayne. The book in question is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: OUP, 1999) and the author, or tea-pourer, is Ronald Hutton, the Bristol historian who has previously written academic studies of “Merry England” and the “ritual year” in Britain.
Hutton’s work is close to five hundred pages in length and it examines in great and scholarly detail the Early Modern Period and in greater details the period between 1800 and 1940 in Britain and to some extent in Europe and America, where there was a revival of the practice of “pagan witchcraft.” That, in turn, requires an analysis of the paganism of Classical Antiquity, which might be termed High Magic, and the paganism of the English countryside, which might be termed Low Magic: priests and maguses on one hand, cunning folk and witches on the other.
The analysis turns into an investigation of what can be known about the past with certainty (perhaps “uncertainty” is a better word here) and whether continuity with the past is at all possible. Are there “pagan survivals”? Do “mysteries” pass from one generation to another? Let me introduce a “spoiler warning” here because Hutton dismisses the notion of transmission, but rather than lament that fact, he finds numerous occasions to celebrate the spirit of revival, recreation, and renewal. He concludes that the flower of “wicca,” the name for contemporary witchcraft, does not grow from the roots of “pagan witchcraft”; it is better to regard it as “the belated offspring of the Romantic Movement.” More generally he categorizes it as a “revived religion.” His analysis covers some 200,000 words, all of them smoothly functional, studded with apt quotations, argued without rhetoric, and above all else informative. All this is in the service of showcasing wicca, the only religion Britain ever produced.
I want to mention two points of personal interest. I am writing this in Canada but the country does not figure in the story of the development of the modern wiccan movement, except in one peculiar way. In the second half of the book, Hutton makes frequent reference to “the Toronto collection,” sometimes “the Toronto Collection,” which is probably the single most significant trove of documents that shed light on how the movement took form in the late 1940s. The manuscripts are those of Gerald Gardner and among them is the original “Ye Bok of ye Art Magical,” which is the precursor of the famed “Book of Shadows,” the collection of spells and liturgies that every ordained or initiated witch is bidden to copy in his or her own handwriting.
Hutton does not tell the story of how these papers ended up in a strongbox in Toronto, but I have it on some authority that it came about in the following way. Upon Gardner’s death in 1964 his belongings, which included the implements of witchery from the witch museum that he operated on the Isle of Man, were purchased by the Jim Pattison Group, a Vancouver-based conglomerate that also owned Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which was then operated out of Toronto, now out of Orlando, Florida. So all the artifacts and manuscripts came to Toronto. The former were put on display as attractions at the dozens of Ripley’s “odditoriums,” but the manuscripts were judged to be of antiquarian and sholarly interest. So they were sold to an interested party, Richard and Tamarra James, founders of the Wiccan Church of Canada. That is how “the Toronto collection” ended up here, so far from the action.
Another point of personal interest is Aleister Crowley, who was known before his death in 1947 as “the great beast” and “the wickedest man in the world.” I happen to own a small cache of Crowley’s unpublished letters, as well as one of his original oil paintings (which is so ugly it might have been painted by Bacon or Kokoshka), so I was intrigued with Hutton’s attempt (in the main successful) to trace Crowley’s influence on Gardner and on rituals like those in “Ye Bok of ye Art magical.” References to Crowley are plentiful, and one of them sheds some light (or at least expels some darkness) on G.I. Gurdjieff.
In Hutton’s book there is but a single reference to Gurdjieff. It appears on page 220 and it occurs in connection with Crowley. I assume most readers of this commentary will have heard that Crowley was Gurdjieff’s guest at the Prieuré in 1925, how the Teacher of Dance extended the Black Magician traditional Caucasian courtesy, and then at the conclusion of the weekend, how Crowley was summarily dismissed with an insult. The incident has been retold three or four times in books and on videos.
It seems the tale is first recorded by James Webb in The Harmonious Circle (1980), a careful and comprehensive work, to say the least. Then it was immediately repeated by Gerald Suster in The Legacy of the Beast (1981). The problem is that Webb offered no source for the incident. Did it take place? Hutton considers that question:
” … none of Crowley’s works mention his humiliation by the famous mystic Georgei Gurdjieff, who berated him and threw him out of Gurdjieff’s community at Fontainbleau in 1925, as related in a well-known book by James Webb. This particular example backfires, however, because Webb never provided a reference for the anecdote and it seems to have been a piece of gossip. Suspicion that it was a false one, inspired by Crowley’s generally bad reputation, is strengthened by the statement of Gerald Yorke to his namesake Gerald Suster, that he was the sole witness of Crowley’s only actual meeting with Gurdjieff and that the latter was a total non-event; the two men just ‘sniffed around one another’.”
So the incident may or may not have taken place. In an earlier commentary I raised the question of a possible relationship between Gurdjieff and Joseph Stalin. Here I am asking questions about a possible interaction between Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley. A lot of peculiar things happened at the Prieuré, despite its short period of operation, including the editing on the premises of The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett (1926), one of the bulwarks of the Theosophical movement. Perhaps a reader of this commentary has further information about any meeting or meetings between Gurdjieff and Crowley.
John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist based in Toronto whose special interests include Canadiana and consciousness studies.
Shortly to appear are two of his new books. The first is Footloose: A Commentary on the Books of Gordon Sinclair. The second is End Notes, a collection of poems.