Kenneth Grant: Writer and occultist who championed Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare
Friday 04 March 2011
When Aleister Crowley died in 1947 Kenneth Grant became heir apparent of the esoteric magical order Ordo Templis Orientis (OTO). Alongside his artist wife Steffi, Grant was one of few to attend Crowley's funeral service, becoming the last living link with "the Beast", whose work he championed, nurtured and refined for over six decades. From his New Isis Lodge, established in London in 1955, through to his final organisational vehicle, the Typhonian Order, Grant's occult credentials are without parallel.
Typhon, the Greek god of chaos and destruction, was Grant's chosen deity, and he wrote a series of trilogies in the 1970s including The Magical Revival, Cults of the Shadow and Nightside of Eden, that fashioned his own brand of occultism. With a fusion of science, fantasy and metaphysics he offered a radical decoding of Crowley, the artist Austin Osman Spare and the author HP Lovecraft, alongside healthy doses of astral projection. An integral part of the emergent occulture, his work was consumed by a new generation of cultural provocateurs and occultniks searching for a more esoteric identity. For the artist Alan Moore, in his essay "Our Ken", he was a "paranormal pit-canary and point-man" who was "prepared to roll his sleeves up and plunge elbow deep in the 'Qlipothic slime' of his imagination."
In fact Crowley chastised Grant for this trait. "You cannot be content with the simplicity of reality and fact," the cantankeous master wrote to his pupil in 1945. "You have to go off into a pipedream." Grant continued to map this spiritual topography, however, penning Typhonian travelogues Moore describes as "an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy."
He nurtured a deep appreciation for occult art and with Steffi was the first to introduce the work of Austin Spare to modern occultists. As a contributor to the best-selling Man, Myth and Magic magazine series Grant championed and popularised the work of Crowley and Spare for a new generation, making them key cultural figures in the magical revival of the 1970s. "The key to the principal occult mysteries of the present age," wrote Grant, lay in Crowley's philosophy of Thelema – a synthesis of Nietzschean and Buddhist ideas that sought to harnass willpower for magical ends – in particular his The Book of the Law written in 1904.
Grant was born in Ilford, Essex, the son of a Welsh clergyman. He first encountered Crowley at the age of 15 in a Charing Cross Road bookshop via a copy of his book Magick in Theory and Practice. Grant craved more Crowley and devoted himself to the pursuit of oriental mysticism.
Hoping to be posted to India, where he could find a guru, Grant volunteered for the army aged 18. A health breakdown 18 months later, though, saw him discharged and the convalescent sought enlightenment closer to home, entering into correspondence with the 68-year-old Crowley, who was then living in Buckinghamshire lodgings. A short stint as personal secretary to the demanding master saw Grant running errands between London and Hastings, fetching Turkish cigarettes and whiskey and in return snatching pearls of wisdom from a Crowley who was, he said, "almost, but not quite, at the end of the road".
In 1944-45, by his own account, Grant wrote many magical papers at Crowley's suggestion. Apparently the acolyte sufficiently impressed the master, who initiated him into his magical fraternity Argentum Astrum in 1946 and confirmed him as an IX° in the OTO.
Crowley died in 1947 without nominating a clear heir or successor but in 1946 had written a memo: "Value of Grant: if I die or go to USA, there must be a trained man to take care of the English OTO." This memo became the key building block supporting Grant's succession to the leadership, and thus began his rise to prominence.
In 1951 Grant was authorised by Crowley's successor Karl Germer and received permission to form an English branch of the OTO, which he called the New Isis Lodge, formed as a conduit and magical cell in 1954 "for the influx of cosmic energy from a transplutonic power-zone known to Initiates as Nu-Isis". The lodge aligned the sexual magic of the OTO with Indian Tantric principles and aimed to reorganise the entire system of the old order.
A displeased Germer grew more infuriated when a German Thelemite group published an excerpt of the Lodge's manifesto announcing Grant's discovery and promotion of a new "Sirius/Set current" in Crowley's work. Grant's obsession with this extra-terrestrial dimension was heresy to Germer, who excommunicated him from the OTO. Despite his expulsion Grant assumed leadership of the Order, and the New Isis Lodge operated until 1962 on the basis of what Grant claimed were "inner Plane" powers.
A key figure in Grant's development was David Curwen, a member of the OTO Sovereign Sanctuary. Grant met Curwen shortly after Crowley's death and his influence left a deep impression on Grant, who proceeded to immerse himself in eastern mysticism. His work with the Advaita Vedanta, the most influential sub-school of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy is detailed in a number of essays for Indian journals in the 1950s and 1960s.
Accounts of temple meetings suggest salons of sorts taking place in Curwen's fur shop in London, with Kenneth, Steffi and one or two others. Other meetings were essentially tantric rituals performed by the Grants, but an oath of silence lends an air of mystery to the meetings.
In 1969 Germer died without naming a successor and Grant declared himself Outer Head of the order inside the book jacket of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. In the same year an American, Grady McMurty, initiated a claim to the deeds and title of the OTO, declaring himself Frater Superior. The self-styled "Caliphate" branch of the organisation attained tax emeption as a religious entity under Californian State Law in 1982.
Grant's scene revolved around his suburban semi in Golder's Green, where the reclusive wizard avoided litigation and the legal registration of his Order, confident that he represented the real OTO. Using Crowley's basic system, the Typhonians discarded rituals of initiation, instead conferring degrees on members on the basis of personal development. Perceived to be more occult and autonomous, Grant's group exerts a tremendous influence that far outweighs that of other OTO groups.
In his later years Grant produced more works of fiction and poetry such as Beyond the Mauve Zone and Snakewand. The closest we have to an autobiography is the beautifully crafted Zos Speaks!, which provides a rare glimpse of the Grants' more earthly correspondence through their eight-year friendship with Austin Spare. Sumptuously illustrated with many of the artist's most significant work, from the Grant's personal collection, Zos Speaks! re-introduces the London artist for contemporary appreciation.
No matter the changes of nomenclature, Grant served his time as sorcerers' apprentice to both Crowley and Spare, and as editor and interpreter of their work his magical provenance, authority and pedigree is without equal. Grant's take on Thelema transformed him into a guru of sorts, and to his countless followers and friends he will be best remembered as a man of much warmth and wit, a life summed up in the words of the occult historian PR Koenig as "a metaphor for the continuity of the strategies of illumination."
Kenneth Grant, writer and occultist: born Ilford, Essex 23 May 1924, married 1946 (one son); died 15 January 2011.
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