Aleister Crowley, modern magic’s most infamous character, studied occultism, wrote bad poetry and pornography, took drugs, and indulged in all kinds of sexual depravity and antisocial behavior. Born in England in 1875 to deeply religious parents, Crowley attributed his diabolical nature to his revolt against Christianity. He called himself “the Beast whose number is 666” after the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Crowley believed that in one of his past lives he had been Eliphas Levi, a failed priest, turned left-wing journalist turned magician, who died on the day Crowley was born. The young man seemed to have a knack for magic, which he thought was intricately connected to human will. Things did not always turn out as expected, however. When he was living near Loch Ness in Scotland, Crowley tried to contact his guardian angel, but instead he apparently attracted a room full of demons.

Once, when attacked by pickpockets in Calcutta, India, Crowley fired his revolver and then “made himself invisible” – not literally, he explained, but by causing a blank spot in the minds of those who looked at him. Several people described how he could force people to beg, bark and scratch like dogs. American writer William Seabrook once saw Crowley walk behind a man on Fifth Avenue, New York, imitating his movements. When Crowley deliberately buckled at the knees the man mysteriously collapsed.

According to Crowley, his guardian angel, named Aiwass, appeared to him in 1904 and dictated a message for mankind. This formed three chapters of The Book of the Law in which his basic philosophy and ideas about magic are summarized in one phrase, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

In 1912 Crowley set about performing sexual magic – blending Tantric Hinduism with Western magic – and in 1920 he moved to Sicily, into a farmhouse which he called the Abbey of Thelema. Here he spent long hours immersed in prayers, sexual rituals, magic rites, and orgies of drug-taking.

When Crowley’s finances plummeted he wrote a novel, The Diary of a Drug Fiend, which was violently attacked by the press. After further revelations of the magician’s immorality, Italian dictator Mussolini evicted him from Italy in May 1923. When Aleister Crowley died in England on 1 December 1947, newspapers said that he was “the wickedest man in the world.” He would have found this description flattering.