Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, Italy
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Have you ever wondered where you might find an old, abandoned, haunted abbey that was once the playground for magicians, occultists, free spirits, possibly Satanists, and maybe even the Beast of Revelation? I know it's one of those questions that hits me at night when I'm trying to sleep: Does this type of place exist? And, if so, where might I find it?
Well, the next time you find yourself with abbey-induced insomnia, look no further than the Abbey of Thelema in sunny Sicily, Italy.
Where is the Abbey of Thelema?
Tucked away in Cefalù, a small coastal town in Sicily, you'll find the crumbling remains of the Abbey of Thelema.
An abbey is a type of monastery used by members of a religious order under the governance of an abbot or abbess. Abbeys provide a complex of buildings and land for religious activities, work, and housing of Christian monks and nuns. — Thanks, Wikipedia
If you didn't already know, Sicily isn't just the birthplace of cannoli and the Mafia—it's also an island steeped in myths, ancient history, and a hell of a lot of occult. I'm not precisely sure how old the Mafia or cannoli is, but as far as those other things I mentioned, they spin an interesting web throughout history. For example, Sicily is home to Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and ancient legends claim that the forge of Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalworking, lies beneath it.
What Exactly is Thelema?
Thelema is a religious movement founded by Aleister Crowley, an English chap you might describe as the rebel "bad boy" of 20th-century occultism. Many people believe Thelema is some kind of devil-worshipping cult. Many people are also wrong. Thelema incorporates ritual magick and fancy robes, but instead of worshipping Satan, Thelemites pursue individual spiritual enlightenment and liberty.
What does Thelema mean?
In Classical Greek, the word "Thelema" (Classical Greek: θέλημα) means "divine will." Okay...it's a bit more complex than that, but the definition I just gave you should suffice for the purpose of this article.
The central tenet of Thelema, as stated by its founder, Aleister Crowley, is "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will."
If that sounds like permission and encouragement for rampant hedonism, you may want to slow down for a second because I bet you're already searching on how to become a Thelemite. Followers of Thelema say it's more about finding your ultimate purpose in life, or your "True Will"—and not so much the Unrestrained Pleasure-Palooza.
And for those who think it's all about Satanic sacrifices, sorry to burst your bubble, but you're more likely to find Thelemites meditating or reading from sacred texts like "The Book of the Law" than dancing around bonfires with pitchforks trying to summon up Lucifer and the End Times. (That sounds like a band name...)
What is the Abbey of Thelema?
In 1920, Crowley and his bandmates (of spiritual seekers) set up shop in Cefalù, Sicily, Italy, to create the Abbey of Thelema—a "collegium ad spiritum"—which is fancy occult speak for a spiritual college. The Abbey was meant to be a utopian haven for studying magick, yoga, and whatever else could lead to enlightenment, you know, like lots of sex magick. Anyway, walls were adorned with esoteric murals, including depictions of gods, magical symbols, and even a little abstract art because why not?
Aleister Crowley put a "k" at the end of his "magick" to differentiate it from stage magic or, possibly, for extra potassium.
Crowley (and a woman named Leah Hirsig, often skipped over by the occult history books) envisioned a place where people could live freely and engage in spiritual practices without the prying eyes of the more conservative and judgmental public and the historically violence-prone majority religious organizations. However, the Abbey's rumors of hedonistic practices raised quite a few eyebrows, and eventually, Crowley and the band got the boot from the Italian government in 1923, and the Abbey fell into disrepair.
It sounds like it might have been a beautiful place full of interesting art. Let's see what it looks like now...
Reported Ghostly Activities at the Abbey of Thelema
Given its history of occult practices and bohemian lifestyle, it's no wonder rumors circulate about the Abbey being haunted. Visitors have reported sudden temperature drops; some even claim to have seen full-body apparitions. Other reports say there are disembodied whispers and unintelligible chanting when no one is around.
One theory on ghosts is that they are energetic echoes of the past, replaying events from history—which actually kind of fits some of the ritualistic reports.
Bonus Section: Who Was Aleister Crowley Anyway?
So you've made it this far, and you're probably wondering, "Who was this Aleister Crowley guy, and how many followers did he have on TikTok? Well, sit tight because Crowley's life story could easily fill a dozen soap opera seasons (I'm not sure how many TikToks that is.)
Born Edward Alexander Crowley in 1875, he adopted the name "Aleister" because it sounded more exotic and mystical and that "Edward" was just too pedestrian for a future occultist. He was an English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, and mountaineer. Yes, you read right. He was into mountain climbing. And you should see him in his mountain climbing heyday.
Aleister Crowley was as multifaceted as he was polarizing. He was openly bisexual at a time when that was scandalous (totally not today amirite???😬). Crowley explored various spiritual paths, including Hinduism and Buddhism, before creating his own religion, Thelema. He also used recreational drugs extensively and thought it was perfectly fine to do so as part of his spiritual practice—which, as you might imagine, didn't go over so well with a lot of people.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Crowley was often criticized for his libertine lifestyle, which included sex magick rituals. He also participated in rituals that involved animal sacrifices and reportedly used the blood for magical inscriptions. Actions like these earned him the title "The Wickedest Man in the World" from the British press. Some say he even sacrificed humans, while others claim he sacrificed children—though the whole human sacrifice thing remains unconfirmed.
You can probably see where all this led: many people thought Aleister Crowley was Satanic. In reality, he probably got a good laugh from people thinking he was holding nightly conferences with Lucifer while roasting marshmallows over the fires of Hell. It's true that he used demonic and "Satanic" images and symbols, but the whole idea behind the usage of those was to challenge the rigid Christian norms of his time. They were more a thumbing of the nose at conventional religion than an invitation for Beelzebub to come over for tea. Crowley did incorporate dark symbolism and ritualistic elements into his practices, but they were often borrowed from older magical traditions and were intended to facilitate spiritual experiences rather than worship Satan.
So there you have it: Aleister Crowley, the man, the myth, the provocateur. Whether you think of him as a groundbreaking spiritual seeker or a hedonistic agent of Satan (or both), there's no denying that he left an indelible mark on the world of the occult—and gave us quite an intriguing historical landmarks in Sicily: the Abbey of Thelema. Well, the possibly haunted ruins of it, anyway.
Aleister Crowley: The Self-Proclaimed Beast of Revelations?
Ah, I almost forgot one tidbit about Aleister Crowley. He claimed to be "The Beast 666"—the apocalyptic figure from the Christian Book of Revelations. He wasn't just content with shaking up the status quo; he relished the idea of turning it on its head. By calling himself "The Beast," he was both challenging Christian orthodoxy and indulging in a bit of theatrics. The term itself is heavily loaded, given that in the Book of Revelations, the Beast is an end-times monster symbolizing evil incarnate. For Crowley, this claim was not just a publicity stunt (though it was certainly that too). It was a reclamation and a redefinition of a figure depicted as the epitome of evil.
And the media absolutely ATE IT UP. It was kind of like the celebrity news these days.
In Crowley's worldview, being "The Beast" wasn't about sprouting horns and a forked tail but about representing the uninhibited human will. Crowley used the designation to challenge conventional morality and to promote his spiritual doctrine of Thelema, wherein each individual finds and performs their "True Will," irrespective of societal norms and constraints. And yes, he enjoyed the shock and awe this elicited, basking in the horrified gasps of a society he felt was repressed and hypocritical.
So, was Crowley actually saying he was the end-of-days monster destined to lead a demonic army? Well, even if he was, we're living out the slowest apocalypse I've ever heard of. What he was trying to do was to get people to look at him and listen to what he had to say. Given that he's still remembered, discussed, vilified, and feared today, his whole "I'm am The Beast 666 RAH RAH HAIL SATAN" thing worked the way he wanted.
Double Bonus Section: Wait—Leah Hirsig?
If you think Aleister Crowley was the sole star of the Thelemic universe, think again. Enter Leah Hirsig, sometimes known as "The Scarlet Woman," because one provocative nickname in this story just wasn't enough. But who was this mysterious woman, and why was she such a critical figure in the life of one of the most controversial men in occult history?
Leah Hirsig was born in Switzerland in 1883 and later moved to America. She met Crowley in 1918 in New York. She quickly became not just his lover but also his "Scarlet Woman," a term from the Book of Revelations (and you thought we were done with Revelations!), signifying the embodiment of the divine feminine in Thelemic rituals.
As far as the Abbey of Thelema goes, you can't talk about it without mentioning Leah Hirsig. She was there founding it with Crowley, and she was deeply involved in the daily practices and rituals, serving as the High Priestess to Crowley's High Priest. Her role was more than ornamental; she was engaged in the magickal workings, a co-conspirator in the effort to challenge the spiritual and sexual norms of their time.
Leah was also instrumental in documenting some of Crowley's most critical work. Think of her as the Yoko Ono of the occult world but without the breakup of a beloved band. She was a muse for Crowley, a critic, a collaborator, and a core pillar in establishing and running the Abbey of Thelema.
Leah Hirsig parted ways with Aleister Crowley in the late 1920s, and she moved back to America. She returned to teaching and lived a relatively obscure life until she died in 1975. Despite her withdrawal from the public eye, her impact on Crowley and Thelema was indelible. She remains a figure shrouded in mystery, much like the actual events that took place inside the Abbey of Thelema and the echoes of the past that may still haunt the place.
Relevant & Related
- If you'd like to learn more about Aleister Crowley, check out the book Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman.
- For more about Thelema, check out some of these books.
- If you're more inclined toward video and want to learn more about Thelema, here's a good start: What is Thelema? by Maevius Lynn || Interview With A Thelemite: What is Thelema? from Ivy The Occultist || What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming A Thelemite Occultist by Da'at Darling
- In 2007, there was a film released titled Abbey of Thelema that explores the Thelemic Commune—supposedly based on true events and facts, so set your expectations of Satan to an appropriate level.
- Check out even more creepy photos of the Abbey of Thelema over at Wonders of Sicily.
- Hear the actual "The Beast 666" speak! Aleister Crowley's voice was recorded on glass cylinders in the 1920s. Someone should play this backward and let me know what happens.
- If you enjoyed this article, you might also like these: Benjamin Franklin's Basement | Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England | Santa Compaña of the Iberian Peninsula | Owlman of Mawnan, Cornwall | Hauntings of the Forbidden City in Beijing | Restless Spirits of St. Michan's Church in Dublin, Ireland