Retrace steps of mystic Aleister Crowley on Esopus Island

Esopus Island is one of those relatively undiscovered natural resources in our region, because most people don’t yet realize that it’s now part of the state park system. Camping on it used to be illegal. That didn’t deter powerboaters from the nearby marinas at Norrie Point and the Poughkeepsie Yacht Club from using it as a spot for rowdy parties and leaving their mess behind. But the creation of the Watertrail — which aims to provide kayak/canoe access points less than 10 miles apart, and overnight accommodations less than 15 miles apart, all along the Hudson — has changed matters. The beer cans have been cleaned up and there are now designated camping and picnicking areas on Esopus Island, as well as trails and fishing access spots. There is reportedly at least one geocache hidden on the island.

The Greenway folks offer this description for boaters: “There is a small beach on the southeast side of the island and a few sheltered spots on the west side. A small cove at the north end can shelter a few boats. Watch for the shoals at the extreme north end of the island, which are marked by a nun buoy.” At the Hudson River Watertrail Association website you can view a map of all 94 Watertrail launch and campsites, including this one: https://www.hrwa.org/pages/trail_map.shtml. Just south of Esopus Island lies tiny Bolles Island, which is privately owned; you can’t land on it, but you can paddle around it.

In an 1894 book titled The Hudson, Wallace Bruce described Esopus Island as resembling “a great stranded and petrified whale,” and noted that even in those days it was a popular destination for canoeists. Other 19th century documents aver that “Indian councils” were held on the island — presumably by members of the Esopus band of the Lenape/Delaware tribe.

But in August 1918, the island also attracted a most improbable visitor from across the Pond, making it an especially appropriate destination in this Samhain season — or at any of the quarter or cross-quarter days, really, or during a full moon. His name was Aleister Crowley.

Yes, that Aleister Crowley: the British world traveler, student of yoga and many other spiritual disciplines, painter, semi-pro mountaineer, lousy poet, notorious libertine, possible spy, experimenter with psychedelic drugs, inventor of an Egyptian-derived religion called Thelema and probably the 20th century’s most famous theoretician and practitioner of Magick (his spelling, to differentiate it from stage magic). In his time the media dubbed Crowley “the wickedest man in the world,” and to this day most people, if they know about him at all, think of him as a Satanist (he wasn’t), an apologist for blood sacrifice, or that guy in the Ozzy Osbourne song.

The blood-sacrifice label stems from Crowley’s proclivity for couching his mystical writings in dense code understandable only to his followers. Having a special interest in the use of sex as a way of accessing elemental energies, he discovered early on that the Victorian censors wouldn’t let him publish anything using explicitly sexual terminology, but were fine with references to blood and killing — rather like the way movies get rated today. So Crowley took to substituting the one for the other, knowing that his acolytes would interpret correctly. Nowadays these alarming coded messages get quoted frequently on fundamentalist websites, taken at face value.

Crowley’s legacy is still a matter of great controversy even among the neo-Pagan community. Some regard him as a gifted seeker of knowledge and brilliant magical adept who contributed a great deal to the body of lore and ritual used in the Craft; others as a spoiled, self-indulgent rich kid with too much time on his hands who gave Paganism a bad name by using his spiritual quest as a way to feed his own appetites. His maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” makes some uncomfortable because it leaves out the “An it harm none” bit of the Great Rede, the Pagan version of the Golden Rule.

Few who have studied his life and works question that Crowley was an extremely bright man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had a highly ironic sense of humor and delighted in twitting his critics, deliberately feeding the Satanism accusations by calling himself the “Great Beast” and his girlfriend du jour the “Scarlet Woman.” Pagans have no religious mandate to proselytize, so Crowley really didn’t care what the benighted masses thought of him.

 

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