Waite and Crowley: BFF


What follows is mental masturbation devoid spiritual value. Proceed at your own risk.

Waite Vs Crowley is the Nintendo Vs Sega rivalry of the magickal world. It’s the most well-known, most participated in debate, and a classic that will never die. Even today, these two men both being dead for over a half-century, one only has to spend a bit of time on the Internet to see Waite fans talking smack about Crowley, and Crowley fans talking smack about Waite. These men have become opposing icons of the magickal world, the wise old school occultist vs the sexy bad boy of magick. Unfortunately its all a lie.

Let’s begin by deconstructing the two reasons why these men would have a rivalry to begin with (and we’ll get to the rest later on). The first reason being, and the least complicated of the two, that they were possessed of two very different views on spirituality and magick. These two western ceremonial magicians who were both greatly influenced by the Golden Dawn and the works of Eliphas Levi, who were both well read literary men, and who both valued tarot enough to create their own decks (with some surprising similarities). I could go on, but all I get are similarities. One of the major differences listed is the fact that Crowley published secret information where as Waite believed in keeping it secret. But Waite published secret information when it pleased him to do so (the strength-justice switch of the Golden Dawn for example), where as Crowley created secret information for the eyes of the highest levels of the OTO only (and the OTO still practices this secrecy today). Furthermore the written works of both men are definitely valuable works created by adepts, and neither one, being at the level they were, could truthfully deny the value of the other’s work. Ultimately one can only surmise that these two men were not possessed of very different views on spirituality and magick, in fact they had strikingly similar views on spirituality and magick.

Secondly there’s the belief that this mutual hatred stems from the fact that Waite was part of one of several factions within the Golden Dawn that wished to change its direction, where as Crowley was a loyalist to Mathers, and that Crowley had played a central role in the ultimate demise of the Golden Dawn, something Waite wouldn’t forgive him for.

Let’s start with the idea that Crowley was a loyalist to Mathers. This is generally gathered from Crowley’s own statements about his history with the Golden Dawn, however this history has been disputed by some, particularly that Crowley achieved the 5=6 adept grade, which Crowley claimed was bestowed upon him personally by Mathers in a secret ceremony. There is evidence that Crowley received the 5=6 material from a friend, and that he never surpassed 4=7. Crowley’s own accounts also show that he felt that Mathers and the Golden Dawn had cheated him out of his money, that the secret information was not what was neither secret nor what he was initially promised, and he had a very bitter and public rivalry with Mathers until the later’s death, both publishing the secret Golden Dawn material developed by Mathers and publicly claiming Mathers had engaged in psionic vampirism against him. Although Waite was definitely opposed to Mathers in the end, Crowley seems to be in the same boat with him. Shortly after the original Golden Dawn resolved both men went on to form their own splinter groups, Crowley forming the A.A. and Waite taking over the Isis-Urania temple. Loyalists to Mathers were men like Edward Berridge and J.W. Innes-Brodie who were part of the reconstructed Alpha et Omega, not Crowley who seems to have jumped ship with most everyone else.

As for Crowley being a central figure in the dissolution of the Golden Dawn, I’m sure Crowley liked what this “fact” did for his rep, but ultimately there isn’t much support for this idea either. The Golden Dawn lasted for fourteen years, a very long time for a group of its type, and in that time it had grown to several hundred members with several different temples, all with their own leaders. The group had become large and bloated, the two remaining of the three founding members were at odds with each other, they had been disowned by their German superiors, and their leader had relocated to Paris while the bulk of the organization was in England and being led by others. Factions were forming against Mathers, and that the group had to change was inevitable prior to Crowley joining (which occurred very late in the Golden Dawn’s life-cycle).

Even if Crowley was responsible for the death of the Golden Dawn though, this isn’t something that should have bothered Waite one bit. He was, after all, one of the folks that wanted to change the current direction of the group. Ultimately the dissolution of the Golden Dawn ended with Waite wrestling complete control over Isis-Urania, the group’s original temple, from Brodie-Innes, which Waite held for over a decade before he ran it into the ground on his own.

So if the two didn’t have a reason to fight, what would they get out of a rivalry. To begin to answer that, one has to look at how traditionally, and to a large part even today, magickal information is gathered. When someone is reading a book concerning ceremonial magick, sometimes other books or magicians are named. For instance when Waite references Papus and the Tarot of the Bohemians in the PKT. The reader is then aware of another author or book to look for, and in this way the author recommends other books to the reader by pointing them out. It isn’t coincidence that nearly every book listed in the bibliography to Waite’s extraordinarily popular PKT are considered important and influential books on tarot, even if he did kind of pan them.

The problem is, there’s no such thing as bad press. Although a book Waite says is devoid any value obviously won’t send as many seekers as one he highly praises, he’ll still send more people towards it than if he outright refuses to mention it. So if you know what you’re doing, as Waite did, you never mention a name or book title of someone you despise. We actually see this with Paul Foster Case, a former Alpha et Omega member and anti-enochian magician that actually did dislike Crowley and his works. When Case goes off on Crowley, which he does, he never mentions him by name. If you’re familiar with Crowley already, you’ll probably get everything Case is trying to say, and maybe be deterred from him. If you’re not familiar with Crowley though, you’ll have no idea what Case is talking about, and so he isn’t leading you to him.

Waite and Crowley, however, were both very willing to specifically name the other. And their insults only go to grow each others reputations in a positive way. Every time Waite talks about Crowley he paints him as the magickal rebel, the guy who will let loose the great secrets without requiring years of dedication and the guy that will give away the powerful and, let’s face it, sexy magick that other people guard. Meanwhile Crowley paints Waite as an old school occultist that won’t give up on antiquated traditions, but this of course makes Waite out to be a wise old man with access to powerful information that he’s guarding.

Notice how both men also refrain from ever delivering a killing blow. Waite could have done tremendous damage to Crowley’s organizations had he simply shouted about the sexual practices, particularly homosexuality, present in Crowley’s system, something that would have been clearly discernible by examining just Crowley’s published works. Waite meanwhile was a notorious plagiarizer, and although Crowley may not have known about more obscure sources like the Sola-Busca tarot or the Book of Days, he definitely knew about some of the sources, like Waite lifting the design of the devil card from Levi. Had Crowley exposed Waite, he would have seriously knocked down Waite’s credibility and perceived value.

Also keep in mind both men were notorious liars. Many of the facts Crowley claims to have happened in his life are easily disproven with historical evidence. Meanwhile Waite outright lies at times, such as his belief that there was no connection between Kabbala and tarot (this when his own tarot deck has definite Kabbalistic influences). Neither man could really be trusted, and both are probably amused to no end that they managed to trick so many people for so long with a made up rivalry that did nothing but benefit both men.

14 Responses to Waite and Crowley: BFF

  1. Informat78 says:

    Great article Rob,

    I am sure that the two of them were very happy keeping the rivalry going, as that kind of thing builds a sort of notoriety that both men would revel in.

    The whole occult world of the early 20th century was as much smoke and mirrors as it was true mystical understanding

  2. David S. says:

    When it comes right down too it, for all the good they did, the both of them acted like spoiled children throwing tantrums.

  3. Rob says:

    David S. –

    I take it you’re completely unfamiliar with the magick community :)

  4. David S. says:

    No, I’m intimately familiar with the magical community. I just wish they would outgrow this childish BS that’s been going on for over a century.

  5. Marya says:

    Hi rob

    This is such an interesting post because i have been looking at the feud between Moina Mathers and Dion Fortune and the tensions between women magicians of the Golden Dawn, howthose oppositional energies are both creative and disruptive in terms of the shaping of traditions and our biographical understanding of such personalities.


  6. Mike says:

    That last paragraph, just makes everything hilarious. Those guys must have been geniuses to think of cross promotion in this way. Just genius. It had to be intentional if neither of them ever went all the way to ruin the other.

  7. Phillip says:

    Waite wrote occult classics including a seminal work on the tarot as well as helping to produce a tarot deck that is considered a standard for others to be measured with.

    Crowley did all this plus ended up being used as a plot point in animated pornography.

    I think that the point goes to Crowley.

  8. Nick Farrell says:

    Crowley did get his 5=6 from Mathers… There are two ways we know this…
    1. Mathers assigned him to get control of the Vault. The Vault was so secret that in the GD paperwork referred to it by the v___ Mathers would have gouged his own eyes out rather than let an uninitiated person see that.
    2. He gave him a rose cross which was a symbol of the second order.
    3. Initiating him really pissed off the rebels who said he could not be. It is not clear if Mathers knew about Crowley’s sexuality or cared. The Rebels did.

    Nick Farrell

  9. Palfrei says:

    To begin with, thank you for this article.

    I’m quite new to the magical world, in fact the only thing I can do is tarot reading, which I’m learning, and astral project involuntarily twice a year if I’m lucky.

    The Crowley-Waite rivalry has always concerned me because of the issue of credibility: which magician as an author is a trustworthy source of knowledge?

    To me this is a very critical issue as I refer to myself as a “freelance Freemason” and trying to learn the esoteric on my own is pretty difficult, extremely actually… and potentially dangerous so I study more than practice.

    As a neophyte and outsider, I got the impression that Waite and Crowley are the current eminences of modern magic… later on I got in touch with Israel Regardie, who was Crowley’s secretary/assistant, which in turn could complicate things even further if his work was influenced by his boss’; were Crowley not be a trustworthy source of knowledge, Regardie’s work would be tainted by that circumstance.

    Who is right and who is wrong?

    I truly don’t know however I can only make a slight judgement on both characters based on the little but very personal work that I know of them: their Tarots.

    When I take Waite’s, I see method and logic.

    When I take Crowley’s, I see unbind emotions and excess, Eros and Tanathos to the extreme.

    This allowed me to realize why they rejected the other’s approach.

    Being a complete ignorant on mostly everything magical, I can say that Waite is academic and accessible but devoid of raw force unfortunately, and Forces are fundamental. Nonetheless, Crowley explodes on your face with the Forces overwhelming you in an ominous way.

    I find myself more familiar and keen to Waite’s approach but I’m beginning to realize the power of emotion and will regarding magic.

    I’m at a crossroads, unsure but, at least, I’m somewhere.

    I got to this entry out of time, 3 years later, but I’d really appreciate a response to my comment if such thing were possible.

    Thanks again.

    • Rob says:

      As far as magical figures go, Waite is well known in some circles, such as among tarot enthusiasts and the Golden Dawn. Crowley is much more popular, but he spent a lot more time promoting himself, he has several big name disciples (Grant, Regardie, Ect.) whereas Waite has none, and he was later promoted by several major musicians (Ozzie Osbourn, Led Zepplin, the Beatles). However Crowley’s reputation is more so as a pop culture figure than as a magician.

      As magicians, both authored several major books dealing with Ceremonial Magic and other spiritual paths. Both designed tarot decks that were hugely influential. Both have made some major contributions to the ritual magic community. However there are hundreds of other authors who have also contributed just as much to the community.

      Waite knew some stuff, and he recorded and compiled a large amount of occult information, much of which was difficult to find during his lifetime. He wasn’t all that great of a group leader though, and as a magician he was somewhat mediocre. Later in life he got bogged down in the tradition and ritual aspects of spirituality. His group eventually became more focused on performing holy rituals than actually performing magic or advancing themselves spiritually, and from there it spiraled downward until it fell apart.

      Crowley was a much more capable magician, and he was much better at adapting and creating rituals, and exploring spirituality. At least as far as what is publicly known, Crowley took a lot more risks with his spiritual practices, and he often times explored spiritual paths that fell outside of his comfort zone of Western Mysticism. However Crowley’s greatest contributions came from his ability to understand basic spiritual information and teach that information to others. Crowley is so well regarded by so many magicians because early in their magical careers they learned a lot from reading Crowley.

      Crowley was far from being a great master though. Most of Crowley’s information is fairly basic, and through much of his life he seemed to have a very limited understanding of some aspects of spirituality. From what we know of his own admissions, he spent much of his life as a drug addict, he was a closeted homosexual that used his spirituality as a way to convince other men to have sex with him, and for the majority of his life he refused to work at a real job which ultimately left him impoverished and without any marketable skills later in life.

      Regardie meanwhile was not strictly a student of Crowley’s. The two had a falling out relatively early on in Regardie’s life, and Regardie went on to join a break-off of the Golden Dawn that split from the group later controlled by Waite. After some time with that organization, Regardie published GD information to help revive the order and found his own branch. After Crowley’s death he forgave him, and worked to help revive the OTO and to get some of Crowley’s remaining unpublished works published.

      Anyways, as for you, the path that you need to follow if you want to be a magician should be obvious. It’s the exact same path that these three men followed. You need to actually practice magic, use that experience to create your own ideas about how things work and what is right, and finally develop your own system of magic and your own individual path.

      Studying is fine, and I don’t discourage it, but at its best its a compliment to actual experience. Experience is the only way you’ll learn a lot of things, it’s going to be the quickest way to learn most things, and it’s the only way you’re ever going to get stronger. Studying without practice is pointless. You won’t understand very much, and you won’t get any stronger.

      As for things being potentially dangerous, that’s something you really need to work on coming to terms with. Of course this stuff is going to be dangerous. The stronger you become, the more dangerous it’s going to get. There’s no way to keep yourself safe, except to not practice magic.

      You need to be okay with that. You need to be okay knowing that on any day you might screw up really bad and seriously hurt yourself, or possibly kill yourself. You have to be willing to take those risks. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be a magician. If you insist of being careful and safe, you’re never going to be any good at it anyways.

      • Palfrei says:

        I’m slowly coming into terms with the dangers of magic, slowly, even though I still can’t do pretty much anything remarkable.

        As far as I know, no magician has ever given me directly any tips nor advice; you words are really welcome.

        Thank you, Rob.

  10. kapoore says:

    I know very little about the magical community or magic, but I have done a lot of research on Waite and Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot. I take Waite seriously at his word. He basically said what he meant. He did have a secret tradition in mind, it was mystical not magical, and he encoded his sources by paraphrasing them into the descriptive paragraphs in the Pictorial Key. I’m doing a presentation in Boston (powerpoint) in April about how he did this. For research purposes I have read Crowley, own his Tarot, and basically know the Golden Dawn decan system. I have concluded that Waite and Crowley diverged between mysticism and magic–essentially different temperaments. Waite was a mystical/occultist and Crowley was a magical /occultist (very vague as I said on the magical meaning). What Waite meant by mysticism is outlined in his book, The Way to Divine Union. He was obsessed with Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagite, and Dionysian spirituality of St. Bonaventure particularly Journey of the Soul to God, and Tree of Life.

  11. Shea Thomas says:

    There are a couple of places where you discuss what Waite said about Crowley. Would it be possible for you to point me towards those references? According to R.A. Gilbert (Waite’s biographer) Waite said nary a word about Crowley one way or the other – which if true would make this somewhat less a feud and perhaps more of a one-sided campaign. If that’s not accurate I’d love to see what Waite actually said/wrote/thought about Crowley. So far I’ve been having trouble finding anything concrete.

  12. tony fuller says:

    It is an interesting and well written article- thank you. However I am inclined to think you have “over-egged” the pudding somewhat. Shea Thomas is absolutely correct. Waite made very little public comment about Crowley, and indeed there is little which appears in his private papers either.At the time Crowley was creating difficulty in the immediate aftermath of the break up of the Golden Dawn, and the few following years Waite was curious about Crowley but no more so than many of the other ex-GD members- Westcott, Felkin, Brodie-Innes etc. In expressing his criticism he was clearly no admirer but nor were the others and there is no evidence Waite had any interest in Crowley’s views. Indeed, Waite was far more interested in what Westcott et al. were up to. But on one thing I agree- excluding Crowley’s always dubious testimony there is no convincing evidence that Mathers “gave’ him the 5=6. Most of the GD Second Order Crowley acquired was through Allan Bennett- regarding Crowley’s mission on Mathers’ behalf to the Isis Urania Vault we are almost entirely reliant on Crowley’s account and this does not prove that Crowley had received the 5=6. We do know that Crowley claimed he demanded the 2nd Order manuscripts he was “entitled” to- why not simply obtain these from Mathers himself if he was 5=6? At this time, incidentally, there was no Vault in Paris.

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