Known for its medieval monuments, ancient cathedrals, and picturesque Sicilian countryside, Cefalú in Italy is a top touristic destination that attracts millions of visitors yearly. While tourists are busy checking out Cefalú’s historic attractions that date back to at least 3rd century B.C., also on hand is a dilapidated villa that in the early 20th century was inhabited by the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley.
The place is known as the “Abbey of Thelema,” and it was both Aleister’s home and the Thelemic spiritual center from 1920 to 1923. His time at the Abbey ceased when Aleister’s demonic practices and rituals were exposed to the press, which led to his eviction from Italy by Benito Mussolini’s government.
Aleister Crowley, a.k.a The Great Beast 666, is a British occultist widely known for his writings, black-magic practices–known as “magick”–and founding the religion of Thelema. While alive, he was one of the most controversial figures of his time. It was not until after his death in 1947 that he would make the most significant impact on paganism and even became a cult figure that inspired some of the most successful bands such as Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.
Aleister Crowley was born in 1875 in Leamington Spa into a wealthy family that operated a successful brewery. Both of his parents were members of “the New Brethren of Plymouth,” a strict evangelical Christian-based religion. Crowley developed a distaste for religion at a young age and began to rebel against the biblical teachings and moral values he learned at both church and school. It was the inheritance he received after his father’s death that funded him in his occult-driven endeavors.
Crowley spent many years after school traveling throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia. In 1918 he was living in Greenwich Village in New York City when he met Leah Hirsig. Leah became his lover, his “Scarlet Woman.” Leah and Aleister left New York and moved to Paris, where she gave birth to their daughter, Anna.
Crowley was highly inspired by a 16th-century writer and physician, François Rabelais, who is considered to be the first Thelemic visionary. Rabelais wrote a series of satires titled Gargantua and Pantagruel that introduced readers to an anti-monastery called “Abbaye de Thélème.” In François’ “Abbaye de Thélème” those who occupied it lived by only one rule which was “Do what thou wilt.”
Crowley received a revelation that fueled his desire for creating an idealistic utopia. His idea was to build a spiritual center as a commune and a school of “magick.” He referred to the Abbey of Thelema as “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum,” which is Latin for “College of the Holy Spirit.” In 1920, Crowley chose the location of Celafú, Sicily, for his new community of Thelemites. He, Leah Hirsig, and their shared lover, Ninette Shumway, left Paris and made their way to the Abbey.
Crowley had brought hundreds of professional and expensive oil paints from France and adorned the walls of the Abbey with frescoes, covering nearly every inch with Thelemic deities and symbols. He was inspired by the post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin who also painted covered the entire inside of his Tahitian home with symbolic murals.
From the front entrance, leading into the Abbey, was the main room. Aleister painted a large magic circle on the floor featuring Thelemic deities. The main room was where all rituals were held, including sacrificial offerings.
Aleister’s bedroom was deemed the “La Chambre des Cauchemars,” meaning “The Chamber of Nightmares.” Murals of dark-faced demons, sacred coil snakes, and other Thelemic symbols adorned the walls of his room. In a far corner of the Chamber of Nightmares is what Aleister named his meditation corner. Along with that corner, he painted a large yellow cyclops he deemed the eternal idol. On occasion, the Chamber of Nightmares was used by members for experimental drugs trips that seemed to bring the room’s painted characters to life. Many people consider Crowley as the pioneer of psychedelic art and hallucinogenic drug-induced paintings.
Daily life at the Abbey of Thelema included yoga, sex “magick,” orgies, the worship of Ra the sun god, mystical writing, and domestic duties around the commune. Leah and Ninette both had a child fathered by Aleister. Unfortunately, Leah’s daughter died not long after they arrived at the Abbey. The children who lived there were free to roam around and even witnessed the sexually explicit and violent rituals. Followers would come and go during Abbey’s three-year lifespan.
During this time, Aleister Crowley would travel into town to indulge in drugs and prostitutes. Well-known celebrities would visit the Abbey of Thelema, including a British model, Betty May, and her husband, Raoul Loveday, who arrived in 1922. Betty May was not necessarily into Thelemic studies but Raoul became heavily involved with Aleister Crowley and his teachings.
Before Betty and Raoul left London for the Abbey, Loveday had spent the previous year recovering from an operation which resulted in his immune system failing. Friends of his tried to talk him out of meeting up with Aleister Crowley in Italy, but he was determined. Betty was intrigued by occultism, however reportedly she only partook in rituals directed by Aleister out of the fear of rejection from the Abbey.
At the beginning of 1923, Crowley warned his followers not to drink from a spring of water near the commune. Unfortunately, Betty and Raoul did not heed his warning and drank the water. Raoul’s immune system was not strong enough to fight the bacteria from the natural spring water, and he died from a bacterial infection on February 16th, 1923.
Betty was both shattered and furious over her husband’s death, ultimately blaming Aleister Crowley. She was convinced Raoul died from an infection caused by consuming the blood of a cat which Aleister had directed him to sacrifice during a ritual. In revenge, Betty moved back to London and exposed Aleister Crowley and his shady ritualistic practices to the press. The Sunday Express interviewed her and her stories were picked up by newspapers in the United States and areas throughout Europe. When the fascist government of Benito Mussolini learned what was happening, Aleister Crowley was forced to leave the country in April 1923.
Aleister and Leah left the Abbey of Thelema and relocated to Northern Africa. Without Aleister, the Abbey was soon abandoned and remains so today. The locals of Cefalú covered the demonic painted walls of the Abbey not long after Aleister Crowley and his disciples left.
In 1955, occult-filmmaker and Crowley-devotee Kenneth Anger brought a crew to the Abbey of Thelema to film a documentary. Although the documentary was never released, Kenneth was able to uncover the majority of Aleister’s murals and symbols the locals of Cefalú had white-washed 30 years prior.
Today the small Italian villa that once housed Aleister Crowley and his dedicated Thelemic followers is barely standing. It has been vacant for nearly 95 years except for tourists and locals either paying their respect or adding to the vandalism. Current images show the Abbey’s roof almost entirely caved in, inches thick of garbage and debris thoroughly masking the floor. Some original furnishings of the home are still there, although marked by rust, weeds, and shrubbery taking over. The walls that are still intact feature modern graffiti, showing little of the originals painted by the infamous Aleister Crowley.
As of 2010, the former Abbey of Thelema is for sale with a hefty asking price of $1.6 million. Even though it may collapse tomorrow, it could make quite the conversation piece.
Kristin Thomas is a freelance journalist currently residing in the port city of A Coruña, Spain. She studied Communications in California and has a keen interest in pre-1970’s pop culture, history of occultism, and the obscure.