Yi King – A Beastly Book of Changes

(Red Flame, a Thelemic Research Journal, Issue No. 5, edited by Marlene Cornelius). J Edward & Marlene Cornelius, PO Box 11693, Berkeley, CA 94712-2693, USA. 1998, Limited edition (156 copies), softback, index, vi + 230 pp. No ISBN.


Had this issue of Red Flame presented previously unpublished material by the 3rd century adept Ge Yuan, it might have attracted the attention of Yi scholars. But 'A Beastly Book of Changes' is in fact devoted to the commentaries on the Yi by a man who not only claimed to be Ge Yuan's 20th century incarnation but also the Beast of Revelation and the prophet of a new aeon. The problem with Aleister Crowley is that he gets in the way of any serious appreciation of his work.

Relatively few people are even aware that Crowley produced his own unique version of the Yijing. Yet Crowley himself believed that one of his greatest achievements was the identification of the trigrams with the spheres or sephiroth of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life. There is no doubting his personal faith in the Yi. At one stage, Crowley appears to have consulted the Yi daily for a period of several years. In fact he took a number of crucial decisions in his life based on his interpretation of the Yi's advice, including the siting of his infamous Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu in Sicily. His diaries reveal numerous references to the Yi which are all usefully collated under the various hexagrams in this issue of Red Flame.

Crowley's interest in the Yijing probably dates from a visit to San Francisco's China Town in 1900. In 1905–06, he embarked on his 'walk across China', an odyssey from the Burmese border across Yunnan province that finished in Shanghai. Crowley's 'Chinese' work continued during a retirement on Aesopus Island in the Hudson River in 1918, where he produced rhymed versions of the Daodejing and Ge Yuan's Qingjingjing. But much of the material specifically related to the Yijing reproduced in Red Flame dates from the Cefalu period during the 1920s.

Crowley's rhymed version, or 'mnemonic paraphrase', of the judgments and line texts of the Yi form the core of this Beastly Book of Changes. The editors have supplemented this with a correlation of the various versions of a commentary by Crowley on the significance of each hexagram, which exists in typescript in the Warburg Institute and other collections. But perhaps Red Flame's most important contribution is the publication of notes written in the margins of Crowley's own copy of Legge's translation. This venerable copy still survives, and the notes are often more revealing of Crowley's thoughts than the more formal commentary or the 'mnemonic paraphrase'.

Legge's translation of the Yi was probably the only one available to Crowley in the early years of the 20th century and its limitations occasioned not only Crowley's rhymed version but also notes of exasperation by Crowley in the margins of his copy. On the title page, he has amended James to read 'Wood N' Legge. Parts of Legge's original text are also reproduced alongside the Crowley material.

Some of the material collected in Red Flame was in fact published in 1980 by Marcello Motta, one of a number of people who claimed to be Crowley's successor as head of the OTO, the Ordo Templi Orientis. Unfortunately these old antagonisms surface only to mar the discussion of Crowley's work with the Yi. 'A Beastly Book of Changes' also includes various unfinished and unpublished essays and notes on the Yi by Crowley as well as by his modern followers. They attest to the man's industry and the apparently growing interest in that industry by his heirs.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that the editor is not a Yi specialist, and she relies on Cyrille Javary for historical background material on the Yi. Consequently, some of the broad assumptions against which Crowley's work is set are wrong. But, it does not set out to be, nor indeed is it, definitive. Nevertheless, the book is not as 'beastly' as one might have feared and is a very welcome contribution to the study of Crowley's Yi.

I first came across Crowley's work with the Yijing when researching my book 'Warp & Weft'. Two things struck me then. First, Crowley's approach to the Classic of Change was similar to that of the Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (1656–1730), who also linked the Yijing with the Qabbalah. As far as I am aware, Crowley could not have had any knowledge of Bouvet's figurist beliefs, though he is himself a neo-figurist. And, secondly, when you consider Bouvet and Crowley in the context of Chinese commentarial traditions, both quite unconsciously follow the approach of the School of Image and Number.

Crowley was probably the first modern Westerner to actually regularly divine using the Yi. But he may have a more important place in the history of the Yi here in the West. He was 'rediscovered' by the hippy generation of the 1960s at around the same time as the Yijing began to become popular. The two may not be unconnected. Although Crowley's version of the Yi has only appeared in privately printed or limited editions, his other works contain numerous and often glowing references to the wisdom of the Yijing. Was it these references rather than Jung's dissertation that inspired a new generation of Yi practitioners?

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of Yijing Studies' Vol. 2, No. 10 (January 2000), pp 46–47.]