Occult Connections: The Strange Case of Ian Fleming, World War II, and Aleister Crowley

Words by Benjamin Welton

Aleister-Crowley

Aleister Crowley

Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?

From the pseudo-science of ancient astronauts to Alex Jones’s favorite hobby horse the Illuminati, conspiracy theories surround us, especially within the cold confines of the internet. Just last year, Jesse Walker, an editor at the libertarian Reason magazine, released The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, a fairly comprehensive study of popular conspiracy theories from the American past and present.

During a 2013 interview with John J. Miller of National Review Online, Walker bluntly responded to Miller’s question (“How rampant are conspiracy theories in the United States today?”) by asserting that: “They [conspiracy theories] are as rampant as they have always been, and they have always been rampant.” While Walker keeps his book’s focus firmly planted on the United States, he did admit to Miller that there’s nothing special about the U.S. in terms of conspiracy theories. Americans are no more prone to secret rumblings than Belgians or Algerians, and the conspiracy theory is by no means an American gift to the world.

Case in point: the theory that Ian Fleming, a wartime intelligence officer with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, wrote his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, as a veiled paean to his interest not only in occultism, but also his former working relationship with Aleister Crowley. While nowhere near as grave as say David Icke’s notion that extraterrestrial reptilians from the constellation Draco are currently ruling the Earth as the secretive “Brotherhood,” the theory that Fleming and Crowley were closer than any given biography might assume is not only intriguing, but is backed up by plenty of circumstantial evidence.

Before dipping into the particulars about the occult connection between Fleming and Crowley, it’s best to start off by talking a little bit about the “Great Beast 666” and the “Wickedest Man in the World.” The first and last sobriquet both belong to Crowley, although the first he bestowed upon himself. The latter was given to him in 1923 by John Bull magazine, a publication that enjoyed how much it loathed Crowley. Throughout the early 20th century, Crowley and his devious activities were well chronicled by the English-speaking press. Besides sensational broadsides and glossy exposés, Crowley also saw his likeness in fiction, especially during the brief Edwardian era (1901-1914), which was fascinated with all things ghostly, scientific, and even taboo. Through their shared membership in the occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley came to know (and later sharply dislike) W.B. Yeats, and it’s rumored that Yeats fashioned the Antichrist in his poem “The Second Coming” in Crowley’s image:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Of course Yeats was not the first to use Crowley in his work. In 1908, W. Somerset Maugham, the very same novelist who would later work for the Secret Intelligence Service during World War I, turned Crowley into the diabolical Oliver Haddo in his supernatural potboiler The Magician. A few years later, M.R. James, the king of the antiquarian ghost tale, injected plenty of Crowley into the warlock Karswell in 1911’s “Casting the Runes.” The best-known Crowley-inspired character however is Mocata from Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. Interestingly enough, like Maugham before him, Wheatley would later work for British intelligence during World War II alongside Fleming. During this time, Crowley, who was by then a sick old man, associated with members of British intelligence, along with the American army officer Grady Louis McMurty, who would in turn take Crowley’s teachings back to the States.

Aleister-Crowley-2

Crowley: An Unusual Patriot

This attraction to Crowley is no means mysterious. Throughout his life (1875-1947), Crowley lived like a superhuman decadent, and most of his exploits were recorded either by him or others for posterity. Although an acclaimed mountaineer, chess master, poet, painter, and novelist, Crowley is best known for being a self-proclaimed wizard and the founder of Thelema, his own religion which has as its motto: “Do What Thou Wilt.” Born into a wealthy Warwickshire family, Crowley’s earliest years were spent under the watchful tutelage of the Plymouth Brethren, a strict and nonconformist branch of Evangelical Christianity. Sometime before entering Cambridge, Crowley shed his Christian upbringing in favor of esoteric teachings and Western (or Occidental) occultism. As part of this alteration, Crowley also picked up two habits that would remain with him throughout his life: drug experimentation and licentiousness. Arguably, Crowley’s love for recreational drugs and sex was stronger than any religious feeling. By his later years, these vices had rendered Crowley to near senility, and it was this pitiful state that explains why Richard Chopping, Bond’s greatest illustrator, would recall Crowley as a “silly little man” who had shared a dinner with him once in the south of France.

But in his prime Crowley was the world’s most famous black magician, and his reputation only increased with each new exploit. First came the publication of The Book of the Law in 1904. The Book of the Law, which established Crowley as the prophet for the new “Aeon of Horus,” became the cornerstone for Thelema, a religion based on ceremonial magic as well as Crowley’s libertine life choices. Famously, Crowley gave Thelema a central base – the Abbey of Thelema. Located in Cefalù, Sicily, the Abbey of Thelema would exist as a depraved “anti-monastery” devoted to pleasure at all costs until Crowley was deported by the government of Benito Mussolini in 1923.

After the forced closure of the Abbey of Thelema, Crowley traveled throughout the world, spending a large part of his time between Paris, London, and Berlin. Crowley had always been a keen world traveler no matter the circumstances, and yet author Richard B. Spence claims that Crowley’s travels represented more than just extended jaunts or trips made in order to indulge his more prurient desires. In Secret Agent 666, Spence argues that for a large portion of his life Crowley worked for British intelligence as a secret agent. Undoubtably, Crowley was an unusual patriot, and during the Second World War, he focused a lot of his energies on composing rousing, pro-British poems. While Spence’s book argues that a majority of Crowley’s official activities occurred during World War I and the subsequent interwar years (a small newspaper article from Jackson, Michigan’s Jackson Citizen Patriot from 1919 claims that Crowley was in “the confidential service of the British government” during the war), Spence does draw attention to one World War II event that supposedly ties Crowley together with Fleming – Rudolf Hess’s 1941 flight into Scotland and subsequent capture.

One of the earliest members of the NSDAP, Hess was Hitler’s first second-in-command. By 1941, Hess, although still a very powerful man within the Nazi party, was losing some ground within the administration. So, in a strange attempt to both secure his already vaunted position and bring a struggling Great Britain to the negotiating table, Hess took off in an airplane at 17:45 on May 10, 1941. His intended target was the Duke of Hamilton, whom Hess incorrectly believed was opposed to British involvement in the war.

Rudolph Hess

Rudolph Hess

Captured by a Home Guard unit near Eaglesham, Hess was soon made a prisoner of war and was interrogated for further information about his failed mission. At this point, Lieutenant Commander Fleming and the spymaster Maxwell Knight, who is reportedly the inspiration for M in Fleming’s later novels, supposedly concocted a plan that would involve Crowley as an interrogator. Fleming and Knight believed that Crowley could easily exploit Hess’s interest in the occult for Great Britain’s advantage. The plan is believed to have been scrapped by higher ups, but that doesn’t mean that Crowley and Hess did not cross paths. Rumor has it that Crowley, who was known for cooking his guests spicy curries laced with drugs, was the cook responsible for Hess’s many food complaints while under captivity in Scotland.

For his trouble, Knight had known Crowley for some time before the planned interrogation. Knight, who, according to Joseph Cannon, the proprietor of the Cannonfire blog, had met Crowley through Wheatley while he still worked for a private spy network that had ties to the pre-war Fascist movement in Great Britain. Knight then regarded Crowley as an enemy of Great Britain, and thus spent some time keeping track of Crowley’s movements. It is rumored that a vengeful Crowley blackmailed Knight about the latter’s secret homosexuality. Supposedly, this tug-of-war between two giant personalities led to the suicide of Knight’s first wife.

Before the war, Fleming’s relationship with Crowley had been nil, but Fleming was not unfamiliar with the occult. While a student in Austria, Fleming translated a work on alchemy by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Fleming was also know to dabble in tarot cards as well as astrology, but until later critics recognized certain elements in his James Bond novels, the level of Fleming’s association with esotericism has always been assumed as low.

John Dee

John Dee

The first piece of evidence in favor of Fleming’s deeper interest in the occult is 007 – Bond’s code number. According to Donald McCormick, who was one of Fleming’s many associates in the wartime intelligence world, “007” was John Dee’s own code name. One of history’s most enigmatic figures, Dee, an astrologer, mathematician, occultist, and spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I, chose the sign “007” because the two zeroes represented eyes and the number seven had magical properties. It should be noted that McCormick, who wrote under the name Richard Deacon, wrote many books that have been criticized for misinformation and factual errors, so one must take his speculations with a skeptical eye.

Besides Bond’s supposed connection to Dee, it is widely speculated that two Bond villains – Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and Blofeld – are partially based on Crowley. In the case of Le Chiffre, historian and columnist Ben Macintyre in For Your Eyes Only argues that Fleming based not only Le Chiffre’s corpulent appearance on Crowley, but he also gave Crowley’s penchant for sadomasochism to Bond’s first adversary. In Macintyre’s own words,

when Le Chiffre goes to work on Bond’s testicles with a carpet-beater and a carving knife, the sinister figure of Aleister Crowley is there lurking in the background.”

“Say goodbye to it, Bond”

For Blofeld, the Crowley connection is a little more limited, with the most obvious link being their shared interest in legitimizing their own fake heraldic arms.

Insofar as conspiracy theories and rumors go, this one leans more towards being convincing. Clearly, Fleming and Crowley traveled in similar circles, and without question Fleming used Crowley as an inspiration for some of the more sinister villains in his Bond novels. But the length to which Crowley and his brand of occultism influenced Fleming is still up for debate. Furthermore, if it is true that Crowley came very close to interrogating Rudolf Hess at the behest of Fleming and Knight, then that would only lend credence to the idea that the British government thought of Crowley as someone of value and usefulness.

Whatever the case may be, the connection between Fleming and Crowley occupies one of the more tantalizing regions of history.

Incidental Intelligence

Secret agents 007 and 666 – Aleister Crowley and James Bond (The Examiner)

The Mystical James Bond (Strange Mag)

What links Fleming and Hess, SF and the occult? The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott – A Review 

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