Aleister Crowley’s Mysterious Abbey of Thelema

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Aleister Crowley’s Experiment in Communal Living and Occult Practices

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will. [Law of Thelema, Aleister Crowley]


In April 1920, Aleister Crowley moved to Cefalù, Sicily, to run a commune known as the Abbey of Thelema, a small house used as a temple and spiritual center. Three years later, Raoul Loveday died at the Abbey. His wife, Betty May, claimed that Crowley’s ritual caused Loveday’s death.

Following a story about Crowley’s activities at the Abbey, published in The Sunday Express, the Italian fascist government deported Crowley. Currently, the house is abandoned and in poor condition. In 1955, Kenneth Anger filmed some of its murals in his lost film, “Thelema Abbey.”

video by Steve Young & Maxine Waugh

The Abbey of Thélema is the name given by the English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) to Villa Santa Barbara in Cefalù, Sicily. He selected this building, following consultations with the I Ching, to serve as a temple. Its name was inspired by the Abbey of Thélème from the satirical work “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by François Rabelais. Crowley intended this location to become the central hub for the dissemination of the beliefs of his community of followers.

Aleister Crowley, also known as “Master Therion” or “Frater Perdurabo,” aimed to establish an abbey where a community of disciples could practice the doctrines of Thélema. This endeavor is among the modern attempts to create a libertarian community based on utopian principles, encompassing various rituals such as the study of Yoga, Tantra, Buddhism, and the sacred use of entheogens, while eschewing all forms of internal law or statutes.

The chosen site for this experiment, aimed at living out the principles of The Book of the Law (a prophetic text Crowley claimed to have received in Cairo in 1904 from his Holy Guardian Angel, forming the basis of the Thelema religion-non-religion), was a farm rented from Baron Carlo La Calce.

Thus, the Abbey of Thélema became a pivotal site for spreading the practical philosophy of Thélema worldwide, its core tenet immortalized in phrases painted on the temple walls.

In Cefalù, Crowley spent the most significant years of his life, completing various works and engaging in both erotic and masonic arts. Here, he lived a simple, bucolic existence surrounded by an international group of sympathizers practicing what was then known as free love (polyamory) and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, experimenting with various drugs (marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, opium, laudanum, absinthe, peyote) to enhance magical consciousness.

This period marked Crowley’s most intense practice of the sexual magic of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), which he advocated. Alongside American teacher and occultist Leah Hirsig, he dedicated himself to celebrating ancient rituals. During his time in Sicily, Crowley also explored homosexual practices and pedophilia, embodying the feminine aspects of his character and regarding them as an autonomous entity named Alys Cusack.

The End of Aleister Crowley’s Stay in Sicily

With the rise of Fascism and following the death of Raoul Loveday at the Abbey, Crowley was quickly expelled from Italy by the Prefect of Palermo, labeled an undesirable subject (and suspected of being an English spy).

Raoul Loveday’s death from dysentery at the Abbey, an Oxford student who had arrived in Cefalù with his wife Betty May, led to the Abbey’s closure. Distraught by the degenerate practices and squalor she witnessed, in addition to her husband’s death, Mrs. May returned to England.

After Crowley’s expulsion from Italy, the women in the group sold all the furnishings and items from the house to local residents to settle his debts and fund their return journey.

Rediscovery and Revival of the Abbey of Thélema

The Abbey fell into obscurity until the 1950s when Kenneth Anger, a Californian journalist and filmmaker with an interest in magic and a member of Jack Parsons’ group studying Aleister Crowley, sought to rediscover what remained of the Abbey in Sicily. Anger, alongside sexologist Alfred Kinsey and photographer-writer Fosco Maraini, made a documentary and photographed the murals (Crowley’s erotic wall paintings had been covered by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time and are fully visible only in Maraini’s rare shots). He spent three summer months there, restoring and uncovering writings and symbols left by Crowley.

The Abbey of Thélema and Sicilian Literature

Several Sicilian writers have explored the story of the Abbey, including Giuseppe Quatriglio in “Il diavolo a Cefalù” and “L’uomo orologio e altre storie,” Leonardo Sciascia in “Apocrifi sul caso Crowley” (which inspired a film by Italian director Ferdinando Vicentini Orgnani) in “Il mare color del vino,” and Vincenzo Consolo in “Nottetempo, casa per casa” (winner of the Strega Prize 1992).

From the 1990s Onwards: Museum Prospects and Failed Sale Attempts

In December 1990, the Regional Assessor for Cultural Heritage, Turi Lombardo, at the request of the Municipality of Cefalù and based on extensive documentation provided by Prof. Pietro Saja, signed a decree for the building’s preservation due to its significant artistic interest. In February 1997, Cefalù hosted an international conference titled “A Wizard in Cefalù. Aleister Crowley and His Stay in Sicily,” inaugurated by then-mayor Alfredo La Grua. The City Council had deliberated on purchasing and restoring the property to turn it into a Crowleyan museum, with notable interest in Crowley’s former home’s recovery shown by Roberto Negrini, who promoted the creation of a “Crowley Foundation” for this purpose, Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), J. Gordon Melton from the University of Santa Barbara in California, and Eileen Barker from the London School of Economics.

On July 5, 2008, Pietro Saja, Vincenzo Crivello, Nicola Cinalli, Paolo De Carlo, Alessandro Tozzi, and Marco Giacalone held the event “Crowley and the Mystery of Cefalù,” followed by a national conference titled “Crowleyana” on February 25, 2011, organized by Antonino Napoli in Palermo, focusing on the Abbey’s historical, cultural, and artistic valorization and recovery.

The property, abandoned in the 2000s, was unsuccessfully put up for sale for a short period in 2010.

Here you will found an excellent report in English on the Abbey of Thelema.


Other sources: 1 , 2

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