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The chamber of nightmares: inside Aleister Crowley's Sicilian abbey


Little remains of the Abbey of Thelema. When Aleister Crowley and the isolated community he’d formed on the small fishing island of Cefalù were sent packing by Mussolini in 1923, the villagers whitewashed the walls and boarded up the doors and windows, leaving the satanic monastery to fade into obscurity. But, in its heydey, Thelema was Crowley’s sanctuary, a place where the famed occultist and his followers attempted to live by The Book of the Law, the esoteric religious text dictated to him by a non-corporeal being known as Aiwass.

Pretty much everything you know about satanism and the occult has some relationship to Aleister Crowley; although he rarely went by that name – preferring the pseudonym, ‘The Beast’. Crowley’s hedonistic brand of neo-paganism centred on the pursuit of finding one’s true will. This, of course, meant throwing off the protective sheath of Christianity and embracing all things forbidden. Crowley frequently used sex and the mind-altering properties of psychoactive drugs to bring himself and his followers closer to the spirits and demons that he believed lived just beyond the realm of the human, and which would occasionally communicate with mortal souls.

The sacramental rituals that characterised his faith were formed into a system of belief known as ‘Magick’, the nature of which is best summed up by the Law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. This central tenant of Crowley’s philosophy saw his followers unstitch themselves from all societal norms and embrace impulse and individualism. While Crowley was labelled as a hypersexual madman by his contemporaries, his philosophy would later be revived in the 1960s, at which time he became something of a countercultural icon. Even Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was a follower of Crowley. Like the hippies of the 1960s, Crowley believed that it was one’s duty to throw off the conventions of the masses and embrace individual pleasure. It was this fundamental principle that saw him leave Britain for a small island off the coast of Sicily, where he planned to build a colony for his followers.

The Abbey of Thelema looks out on the wide Mediterranean. Italy has a long history of occultism and Crowley was likely aware of the various cults and religious sects that flourished on the fringes of Ancient Roman society. It is perhaps this that inspired him and his lover, Leah Hirsig, to rent a one-story house on the island Cefalù. The couple quickly set about transforming this humble bungalow, located some way away from the main town, into a temple worthy of Aiwass. The largest room was dedicated to ceremonial practices. On the floor, Crowley drew a Thelemic ‘magick circle’ in ruby chalk, the intertwined segments of which contained the symbols of each of the Thelemic deities, including the central trio Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Crowley’s bedroom, meanwhile, held the name ‘La Chambre des Cauchemars’, ‘The Room of Nightmares’. On the walls of this shamanic lair, the occultist hand-painted a variety of erotic murals and frescos of the creatures he claimed to commune with on a nightly basis: demons, night-terrors, goblins – all of them clumsily rendered while Crowley was in one of his drug-induced fits of ecstasy. Indeed, this room also served as the setting for the cult’s initiation ceremonies, during which prospective followers were fed psychoactive drugs, often to terrifying effect.

For Crowley, the Abbey of Thelema was to be a place of learning, hence the motto that was once adorned the entrance: “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum”–”A College towards the Holy Spirit.” For a time, Cefalù proved to be everything he had hoped it would be, offering the occultist the necessary seclusion to write and to indulge in his drug habit, which, being a natural businessman, he managed to turn from a crippling addiction into a money-making scheme with his book Diary of a Drug Fiend, the revenue of which he used to bankroll the colony. But in 1922, everything started to unravel. After receiving a letter from Crowley, Raoul Loveday, who had met the occultist while studying at Oxford, travelled to join his old friend on Cefalù. “I hope you will come p.d.q. and bring Betty,” the letter began. “I honestly tell you that the best hope for your married life is to get out of the sordid atmosphere of Bohemian London.” A few weeks later, after contracting typhoid from drinking spring water, Loveday’s body was cremated on a funeral pyre.

600 miles to the north, Mussolini’s March On Rome was getting underway. Soon, he would be declared leader of all of Italy. One of his first acts as the nation’s new dictator was to quash the likes of Crowley, whose rampant individualism stood in stark contrast to the values of his fascist regime. Crowley and his followers were quickly evicted, leaving the Abbey to crumble into the earth. For years, the only people that stepped inside were local children keen for a fright. Then, in 1955, experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger attempted to restore the Chambre des Cauchemars, but his efforts proved unsuccessful. You can still visit what’s left of The Abbey of Thelema today. Inside, you will find that most of the wall paintings have been covered with whitewash. The contorted faces that do remain, however, seem to sing the same incantations that were whispered within the walls of the abbey all those years ago.

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