The Great Beast and the Occult Origins of the Great War

from On Tuesday, May 9th, 1910, a curious group of seekers gathered on a secluded Dorsetshire estate to evoke Bartzabel, the spirit of Mars. They included Aleister Crowley, newly infamous after the “Rosicrucian” lawsuit with Mathers, his magickal apprentice Victor Neuburg and his new love interest Leila Waddell, and the person apparently requesting the evocation, Commander Guy Montagu Marston, of the Royal Navy, the lord of the manor. The purpose of the ritual event was simply and straightforwardly that of espionage: they wanted to know from the spirit of all things Martial itself if “nation would rise up against nation,” presumably in Europe and soon.

Crowley described Marston as “one of the highest officials in the Admiralty,” which was not exactly correct, but close enough. Marston was some sort of intelligence asset for the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty with connections to Russia and earlier in Africa. Not your ordinary naval Commander, on many levels. His involvement confirms that this was no casual experiment in spirit communication.

In retrospect, the results were spectacular. The spirit, communicating through Neuburg, announced that war would come within five years, and that it would contain two conflicts, one with Germany and one with Turkey, and that both nations would be destroyed. War with Germany began in 1914, the somewhat separate war with Turkey began a few months later, and did indeed result in the destruction of both enemy nations. As predictions go, not bad at all.

This strange and somewhat unlikely conjunction of spirit communication and national security had, of course, its historical precedents. Dee and Kelley’s angelic informants predicted both the death of Mary Queen of Scots and the Armada in the 1580s, and Elizabeth I’s intelligence agencies were deeply interested in alchemy and obscure angelic codes. The turmoil in 17th century England forced a political split among spies and magicians that produced, in the early 18th century, the mass movement secret societies of the various branches of Freemasonry. This split, Royalists versus Roundheads, democratized the nature of occult organizations while moving the more esoteric “grades” of those orders deeper into monarchist intrigues. The end result would be the American Revolution and the emergence of the Illuminati on one side and the growth of the various Jacobean lodges on the other.

By the 1890s, Freemasonry, in the form of the United Grand Lodges of England and Wales, had become a virtual prerequisite for higher service in certain sections of the British government. This atmosphere helped the intelligence and political sections of the Foreign Office to maintain the feeling of a closed, secret brotherhood. Serving the Queen and Crown became its own kind of secret society. The Great Game of Victorian Imperial policy reached its conclusion in the early years of the 20th century, even as events in Europe pulled the great eye of the Foreign Office away from the colonies and the edges of the Empire.

One of these events was the death of Edward VII, just a few days before the Bartzabel working. As his brother George VI prepared to take the throne, amidst a constitutional crisis that would destroy the Conservative Party within the year, official awareness shifted uneasily, and any sort of long range “intelligence” about what lay ahead seemed worth a shot.

And so, our motley group gathered for a successful interrogation of the spirit of Mars. We have no record of how Commander Marston felt about it, or what he did with the information. But the event does mark a watershed moment in the tangled history of espionage and occultism. Within a few months, the reorganized intelligence forces of the British Empire began, perhaps coincidentally, to change focus from its traditional enemies and threats, France and the Tsarist Imperial expansion, to a new enemy, Germany.[4] In an odd way, the Great War began with its prediction.

For Aleister Crowley, the event marked a sort of personal watershed. For the next ten years, his adventures and travels would all be a part of a larger plan, directed by the inner circles at the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. But first, the new type of magical protocol involved in the Bartzabel evocation demanded exploration.

By August of 1910, Crowley had created a sort of ritual theatre, or magical performance art, in which Leila Wadell was possessed by the spirit of the moon goddess and then expressed or communicated the goddess’ message through her violin playing. An anonymous critic in the Sketch of August 24th called it “a really beautiful ceremony,” and went on to imply that it was a higher form of artistic expression. This success gave Crowley and his followers some very ambitious ideas. They rented Caxton Hall in London and set about organizing something called The Rites of Eleusis.

This was actually a seven-act play, threaded together with only the slightest hint of a narrative, and performed over successive nights. The climax would be the same invocation of the moon goddess that was so successful in August, with the added twist of Pan and Horus, the Crowned Child of the Future. In performance, the elaborate magical intensity was lost. The audience at the first private experiment in August received a little extra help from a mescaline punch, making it the first “acid test” of its kind, but the public performances fell flat. Even the addition of a little scandal mongering by the Fleet Street press failed to make The Rites a hit.

The resulting scandal added another layer to Crowley’s growing patina of infamy. However, this too, may have been all a part of the larger plan. When The Rites of Eleusis were published in The Equinox VI, September 1911, they contained: “TO MY FRIEND COMMANDER G. M. MARSTON, R.N. to whose suggestion these rites are due” as their dedication. So, the same NID Commander at whose behest the spirit of Mars was summoned and questioned was also the inspiration for the first public attempt at theatrical initiation since Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Curiously, it almost seems that for Crowley the intelligence asset needed to be thoroughly and publicly discredited before he could be used properly.

Indeed, while the Looking Glass was printing daily attacks on Crowley and his friends, the Beast himself slipped off to Paris to perpetrate one of his finest jokes. Jacob Epstein’s monument to Oscar Wilde in the Père-Lachaise cemetery had been censored with a tarpaulin by the local authorities and Crowley devised a plot to publicly unveil it. This proceeded as planned, and although the Paris authorities ignored it, the London press added it to the growing list of Crowley’s beastliness. The point of the joke came a few weeks later, when Crowley returned to England.

Rather than re-tarp the monument, the Parisian authorities hired another sculptor to cover the offending section with a bronze butterfly. According to Crowley, he detached the butterfly and took it with him, only to appear at the Café Royal in London with it attached to the fly of his tuxedo. “To the delight,” as Crowley put it, “of the assembled multitude.”[6]

By December, Crowley and Neuburg were off again to Algeria, apparently to wrap up old business left over from their 1909 visit. Just what this business was is unclear. The French authorities at least thought they were spying.[7] Biskra was a known hangout of intelligence types and curious tourists, eventually to be immortalized in Valentino’s The Sheik, and even so Crowley and Neuburg attracted attention.

In January, Crowley left Neuburg behind and headed back to London by way of Paris. In England he found that the dust had yet to settle from the fall’s problems. The lawsuits were still flying, although Crowley wisely took the advice of another curiously well-placed friend, one Everard Fielding, brother of the Earl of Denbigh and late of the Royal Navy, and stayed out of the fracas. This cost Crowley several friends and supporters, but it also suggests, as Crowley was not one to walk away from a fight, that the NID did not want its role, through Commander Marston, to become part of the public trial record. Discredited, yes, exposed as an operative, no, of course not…

Crowley spent much of 1911 in Paris, with excursions as needed back to London. Paris in the spring and summer of 1911 was the center point of the rapidly shifting chessboard of European politics and espionage. The Agadir crisis blew up in July as the Kaiser sent a German gunboat to posture off the Moroccan Coast, and in September Italy invaded Turkey, leading to three years of turmoil in the Balkans as a prelude to the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in June 1914. All of these political currents flowed through Paris, either officially or unofficially. Crowley divided his time between Montigny-sur-Loing on the southern end of the Forest of Fountainebleau and an apartment at 50 rue Vavin in Montparnasse.

The Montparnasse district had yet to become the artistic haven it would be during and after the war. Picasso was just moving that summer from Montmartre to the Boulevard de Clichy, and the artistic hangout spots were still on the Rue Rochechouart and the Place Blanche. Crowley established himself at the Café du Dome de Montparnasse, the main intellectual watering hole at the Vavin crossroads. At the Dome, the crowd was more cosmopolitan and conversation was more likely to be about poetry and radical politics, of both left and right, than it was about art. It retained its international flavor right up to the outbreak of war.[8]

Crowley liked to write at the Dome, to advertise his literary prominence and to make the acquaintance of other intellectuals from all over Europe. He was writing at a great pace that summer, plays and poetry and short stories along with organizing the teaching papers of his magical group, but he never mentions the sensation of the summer: the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. This is somewhat odd, as Crowley had at least a passing acquaintance with one of the key players in the subsequent flap over security at the Louvre. Gery-Pieret was a Belgian of uncertain means who drifted through the background of the Montparnasse scene, and who would have met Crowley at the Dome. In August, he confessed to the Paris Journal that he himself had stolen three statues from the Louvre and had sold two of them. The resulting furor threatened to involve both Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso, who had actually purchased the two stolen statues.[9]

However, Crowley fails to mention any of this, passing in his Confessions from a birthday poem to Leila Waddell, written a few days before the theft, through his various short stories and on to The Ghouls, a story that grew out of an encounter at the Café du Dome. This is quite curious, as Crowley not only read the newspapers daily but must also have been aware of the café gossip concerning Picasso and Apollinaire. Yet not a word from the Beast…

The encounter that produced The Ghouls had a follow up a few weeks later when Crowley, back in London, ran into one of the participants. By chance, he happened to be on his way to a party for Isadora Duncan, and invited Crowley along. He went and ran headlong into the love of his life, Isadora’s long time friend Mary d’Este Sturgis, the one Scarlet Woman whom he could not dominate. Their tempestuous affair took them across Europe, from London to Paris to Switzerland and on to Rome and Naples, where they found a villa and began work on Crowley’s magnum opus, Book Four.
Even with a new lover and a new project to entertain them, Crowley and Soror Virakam found time to examine a noted medium for an old friend, Everard Fielding. Fielding, in addition to being a well-known attorney in the financial district of the City of London, was also a Freemason and a leading figure in the Society for Psychical Research. At the outbreak of war in 1914, he was given a reserve commission in the Royal Navy and joined the Press Bureau as propaganda liaison. It was to Fielding that Crowley appealed for a job after the war began, and it was in all likelihood Fielding who served as Crowley’s intelligence handler from at least 1910 onward. In fact, it is just possible that Fielding, who was eight years Crowley’s senior and an alumnus of Trinity College at Cambridge, recruited him directly from the university.[10]

Whatever their long term connection, it was at Fielding’s urging that Crowley had a sitting with the famous medium Eusapia Palladino in Naples. Crowley found her act to be unconvincing, as he did that of Caracini, whom he examined in Rome that winter along with Fielding. Crowley also had a look at another famous medium, Bert Reese, in London just before the war, possibly also at Fielding’s urging. Reese would turn up again in New York in early 1915, and Crowley apparently involved him in some sort of confidence game, ostensibly to prove Reese’s dishonesty. But by 1915, Crowley was deep into intelligence and propaganda work, and his con game with Reese has several possible interpretations.

Crowley spent the spring of 1912 shuttling back and forth between London and Paris. The seventh volume of the Equinox was published that March, and Crowley was at work on The Book of Lies. He was also in contact with Theodore Reuss, a man who would have an enormous influence on the Beast’s subsequent career in both occultism and espionage. To understand this, we have to jump back, briefly, to the spring of 1910.

In the aftermath of the Rosicrucian Scandal and subsequent lawsuit from Mathers, Crowley was approached by Reuss, who claimed to be a friend of one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, W. W. Westcott, and claimed to hold just about every fringe and esoteric grade available to the occult minded Freemason. At first, Crowley was not that interested; even though he accepted the VIIth degree of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), he kept Reuss at a distance. Things changed however in the spring of 1912, after Crowley’s visits in Italy with Fielding. Suddenly a trip to Berlin was arranged, where, in June, Reuss conferred upon him the IX° and appointed him National Grand Master General X° for the O.T.O. in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.[11]

The new Secret Service Bureau had replaced the old War Office Intelligence Division in late 1909 and as the new organization took hold, and as assets and analysis shifted toward Germany, new priorities arose. One of these was the establishment of some kind of espionage network inside Germany. The old-boy network of Masonry and occult secret societies seemed like an excellent base with which to start. Theodore Reuss was well known to British intelligence, going as far back as the mid 1880s when he was spying on Karl Marx’s daughter for the Prussian secret service, and the reach of his Masonic compendium was irresistible. Among his followers at that time were Gerard Encausse (Papus) who had a certain amount of influence at the Russian court and Rudolph Steiner, spiritual advisor to no less than Helmut von Moltke, chief of staff of the Germany Army.
Crowley’s connection to Reuss raised his standing from a causal asset on the cultural front to a major player in the larger game. He spent the rest of 1912 reorganizing the various rites and structures of the O.T.O. to make it a better instrument for influence and information gathering. Crowley was also planning a cover story for his first big intelligence operation, contacting the Russian Masonic and occultist underground. How much use Crowley made of his new OTO contacts is uncertain. Crowley, in Confessions, goes out of his way to confuse even the basic chronology of his contact with Reuss, and he says very little at all about his Russian adventure.

There may in fact be a compelling reason for that reticence. In 1911 as part of the reorganization of the intelligence services, Parliament passed the Official Secrets Act, which made it a crime for anyone involved in government service to say anything about their work without official approval. In the mid 1920s, when Crowley was dictating his Confessions, the OSA was very much in force and could have been used against him if he revealed too much in his so-called “autohagiography.” So the gaps and circumlocutions in Confessions can be seen as Crowley struggling with how much to reveal and what cover story to use.

By March 1913, Crowley’s next cover story was in place. He convinced Leila Waddell, who had some success in 1912 as a soloist – she played New York that summer with a production of Two Little Brides – to form a Ragtime dance band, Ragtime being an international musical sensation that year. So, the “Ragged Ragtime Girls” were formed, based mostly on Waddell’s violin playing and the selection of very skimpy and tastefully ragged costumes for the rest of the girls, whom Crowley described as “three… dipsomaniacs, four nymphomaniacs, two hysterically prudish” among six young ladies.[12]

Their opening shows at the Old Tivoli in London were an immediate success. However, Crowley chose not to follow up such musical success with the usual tour of the vaudeville circuit in Great Britain. Crowley, curiously enough, signed the girls up for six weeks in Moscow, at the Aquarium theatre, in the summer of 1913. Needless to say, this was not exactly the way to become famous as a music hall act. It was playing the backwoods with a vengeance.

Just a few weeks before departing for Russia with the girls, Crowley attended a secret Masonic conclave in Manchester where he helped the Reuss faction to wrest control of the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Masonry, one of England’s oldest esoteric Masonic organizations. In a direct sense, this firmed up Crowley’s connection to and control over the Masonic underworld of both England and the Continent.[13] So, why head off to Russia when things were beginning to look up in England?
The simplest explanation is that he was sent, by his intelligence handlers and not by the occult secret chiefs. Russia at that point was the key figure in the emerging allied counterweight to Germany, however all was not well with the Romanov Empire and its dynasty. The assassination in September 1911 of Russian Premier Pytor Arkadyevich Stolypin in front of Tsar Nicholas II at the Kiev Opera house by a former secret police agent sent shock waves through the empire. Along with a sense of deep insecurity ran an undercurrent of hatred for the Tsarina due to her dependence on a peasant “holy man,” Grigori Rasputin, to heal her young hemophiliac son, the Tsarevich Alexis.[14]

All of this unrest played out that spring and summer against the backdrop of the Romanov Dynasty’s three hundredth anniversary. The climax came in June in Moscow as the Tsar himself rode into Red Square and ceremonially entered the Kremlin. However, this piece of political theatre did little to shore up an already shaky imperial structure. Crowley’s mission seems to have been that of assessing just how bad the internal rot really was. This part of his mission appears to have been accomplished successfully.

In a brief section of his Confessions, Crowley gives us a glimpse of what his official report may have contained. “From my brief description of the conditions of travel in Russia, the intelligent should be able to deduce what I thought of the immediate political future of the country. I returned to England with the settled conviction that in the event of a serious war (the scrap with Japan was really an affair of outposts, like our own Boer War) the ataxic giant would collapse within a few months. England’s traditional fear of Slav aggression seemed to me ridiculous; and France’s faith in her ally, pathetic. The event has more than justified my vision.”[15]

Crowley seems to have gained these insights from his conversations with the “excellent British consul Mr. Groves.” For someone who claimed to have spent his time in the garden at the Hermitage writing poetry, Crowley reports a few too many of the excellent Mr. Groves’ anecdotes. One of them, concerning a phantom battleship, could be considered of direct interest to an intelligence agency such as the British Admiralty.

How well Crowley did succeed at his probable second objective, gathering information and contacts within the Russian esoteric and Masonic underground is hard to fathom. Because of his connections through Reuss to Dr. Encausse, Crowley would have had entry to the whole array of occult Moscow. It is likely that he met P. D. Ouspensky. His Tertium Organum had just been published the year before and he was the current darling of the esoteric circles. It is also possible that Crowley met G. I. Gurdjieff at this point. Gurdjieff’s Moscow flat, scene of many mysterious late night meetings that summer, was just a few blocks from the Aquarium theatre where the ragged girls performed. If so, we have little or nothing in the way of proof.

But there is one oddly revealing clue in Crowley’s Confessions. The Ragged Ragtime Girls broke up seemingly on the completion of their run at the Aquarium. The Girls headed directly back to England, but Crowley and Leila Waddell took a side trip to St. Petersburg. Crowley records that, three days before the end of the Girls’ run, his literary steam ran out. It might also have been the moment at which he was forced to compose his gloomy assessment of the Russian situation. Given his dark mood, it is odd that he would detour through St. Petersburg just for the chance to sail home through the Baltic Sea. Unless of course, he had to complete one final part of his mission…

No assessment of Russia in the summer of 1913, particularly one along Crowley’s lines of expertise, could avoid Rasputin. He was a power at court, the Tsarina’s main support and in her mind the only person on earth who could help the young Tsarevich. It may have seemed imperative that Crowley at least get a glimpse of him. That would easily have been accomplished that summer by visiting a few gypsy nightclubs, such as the Villa Rhode or anything in the Novaya Derevnya district of The Islands.[16] Whatever Crowley’s mission in St. Petersburg, it took only a few weeks and by fall he and Waddell were back in England after a relaxing trip through the Baltic.

The last issue of the Equinox was published in September 1913 and Crowley resumed his travels back and forth between London and Paris, with his focus now on magically developing the secrets he had learned from the OTO. In the early spring of 1914, he made a brief visit to Stockholm, the gateway to Russia, for undisclosed reasons. By the summer however, the Beast had returned to Switzerland and mountain climbing.

Or so at least went his cover story. He was in Switzerland when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, and in Paris when war was declared on August 2nd. In his Confessions there are hints that he was ill with a leg injury, and he would later tell an American reporter that he had been shot in the leg during confidential services for the British government at the start of the war.[17] Just what this operation may have been is impossible to determine, except that Switzerland was full of radical exiles from all over Europe, including Russian revolutionaries and German mystics.

Crowley was back in London by early September, and offered his services to the government in any capacity it cared to use him. Unlike his friend Fielding, who was given a commission and moved directly into propaganda and liaison work for the Admiralty, Crowley was assigned a whole different kind of job. On October 24th, 1914, Crowley sailed on the Lusitania for New York and his new assignment. For the next five years, Crowley would spy on and play the agent provocateur to Germany’s intelligence apparatus in America.

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