It is generally accepted that the writings of Aleister Crowley were a major influence on the Witchcraft Revival which began soon after his death in 1947. Gerald Gardner, the founding father of that Revival, had four long meetings with Crowley in the last months of his life, and used many extracts from his works in the rituals of what came to be known as Wicca.
There is a certain appropriateness in this, since ancient Witchcraft was essentially Goddess-worship, and Crowley was one of the most enthusiastic Goddess-worshippers of recent times. But was he actually a Witch? That is, did he learn his Goddess-worship from members of a shadowy cult which could trace its lineage back to pre-history? It would be very surprising if this were so, since all the evidence would suggest that the ancient cult of the Goddess became extinct in England in the fourteenth century (although it may have lasted a little longer in Scotland). Nevertheless, there are some stories which suggest that Crowley may have been personally acquainted with at least one Witch in the days of his youth.
The learned historian of the occult, Francis King, records in Chapter 21 of his Ritual Magic in England (1970), a conversation that he had had in 1953 with Louis Umfraville Wilkinson, a close friend of Crowley’s (and one of his literary executors).
“… he said that Crowley had told him that, as a young man, he had been offered initiation into the witch-cult, but had refused it because he didn’t want to be ‘bossed around by women.’”
In a footnote, King tells us that he had heard the same story about Crowley from “two independent sources” (which unfortunately he does not name).
Professor Ronald Hutton has found evidence in unpublished documents that Gerald Yorke heard a similar story in December 1953, from a member of Gerald Gardner’s coven (probably Doreen Valiente); in this version, however, Crowley had actually been initiated, and spent a short time as a member of a coven, but left because he “would not be ruled by women.” [The Triumph of the Moon, Chapter 11.] The ultimate source of this story was almost certainly Gerald Gardner himself, for in his book Witchcraft Today, published in 1954, he tells us:
“The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites was the late Aleister Crowley. When I met him he was most interested to hear that I was a member [of the Witch-cult], and said he had been inside when he was very young…”
(Some of my readers may be familiar with the more elaborate version of the story told by Bill Liddell, in the articles collected as The Pickingill Papers; but as Mr. Liddell’s work is generally recognized to be fanciful, I shall say no more of it here.)
So is there any truth in these stories? The chief objection would appear to be that in Crowley’s very frank autobiography, written in the late 1920’s, he says nothing about such a youthful encounter with Witchcraft. But perhaps he kept silent in order to protect the reputation of someone still alive; or perhaps (if he had been initiated) he considered himself still bound by an oath of secrecy taken thirty or so years earlier. It is noteworthy that he seems to have spoken about the incident only when he was very old, and even then did not specify the names of the people involved, or the place where they had lived.
It is of course entirely possible that if Crowley told this story he was (as Francis King suggests) “indulging in a gentle leg-pull”; yet the tantalizing possibility remains that young Aleister did encounter, somewhere in late-Victorian Britain, people who were coming together to practice the rites of Witchcraft – either as a genuine survival of the ancient cult, or as a modern revival, something like Gardner’s Wicca. When and where might such a meeting have taken place? What form might late-Victorian Witchcraft have taken, and how might it have affected Crowley?
In my novel, A Case of Witchcraft, I supply fictional answers to these questions. I do not assert that the things in my story happened, but that they are the kind of thing that might have happened — which is all that one can ask of fiction!