Last Wednesday at 3.33am, Moscow time, as the new moon waxed in the sky, the resistance to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine took the form of a mass binding ritual: a spell to frustrate and confound the Russian leader, to be repeated on a rolling basis until he falls from power. In the ritual published by Michael Hughes — one of the few political activists for whom “magical thinking” is a job description rather than an insult — blue and yellow candles are lit, sunflower seeds are dropped onto a photograph of Putin marked with a sigil and the photograph is then burned. All the while, one must chant (“loudly and with power”) Иди нахуй, Путин: Putin, Go fuck yourself.
Within 24 hours, Ukrainian soldiers were reporting bullets missing them and a housewife in Kyiv brought down a drone with a tin of tomatoes (not, as some sensationalist early accounts reported, a jar of pickles). Coincidence?
Michael Hughes has form: five years ago, he was behind the binding ritual against Donald Trump, which involved the burning of an unflattering photograph of the President (a visually appealing photograph, it was made clear, would not be suitable materium). This ceremony had the option, as the President turned to ash, to chant either “So mote it be” — a ritual phrase in Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism or Wicca — or, if preferred, “You’re fired”.
And even this hocus-POTUS was not unprecedented: magic regularly plays a part in resistance. The English occultist Aleister Crowley, for example, claimed to have invented Churchill’s V-sign as a magical foil to the Nazis — in his Lesser Ritual of the Hexagram, V represents Apophis, the destroyer, whose slaying of Osiris is symbolised by the swastika — although the general consensus among historians is that the V stands for Victory.
Crowley repeatedly tried to offer his esoteric services for King and Country, but each time was told that “the Director of Naval Intelligence presents his compliments to Mr Aleister Crowley and regrets he is unable to avail himself of his offer”. It seems that the only person, apart from Crowley himself, who suggested that he should play an official role in the war effort was Lord Haw-Haw, who said that his celebrating a Black Mass in Westminster Abbey would be as effective as Britain’s National Day of Prayer. Crowley, of course, took this as a compliment.
Francis Young’s new book, Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, sees Crowley as the last person to make a serious attempt to fill a role which has been a surprising constant in British history — magical advisor to the rulers of Britain. Merlin may have been a myth, but figures like John Dee, Elizabeth I’s astronomer, self-consciously placed themselves in his tradition. And even when belief in magic has disappeared from the body politic, the role has not: Dominic Cummings, that “wizard” known for practising the “dark arts”, is accused of bending people to his will through powers that no one really understands, or even can prove exist.
Cummings himself said he wanted to fill government with “weirdos” — “wyrd” means, of course, having the power to control the fates — and super-forecasters, albeit ones with a background in statistics rather than traditional methods of seeing the future. An adept told me that he knew Cummings had no interest in astrology when he didn’t capitalise on the fact that, when we left the European Union, Saturn and Pluto were conjoined in the sign of Capricorn. This was happening for the first time since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, making Brexit not just an echo of the Reformation but a rerun ordained by fate.
I’m not, of course, saying that Dominic Cummings is Merlin, only that people talk about him as if he were. To be fair, as Arthur C Clarke used to observe, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — which goes for the manipulation of big data as much as it does for “experiments” in previous reigns. Gunpowder, for example, was developed by alchemists, who had experience of sulphur and saltpetre; and the word for poisoning (veneficium) also meant witchcraft until the seventeenth century, when the ability of plants to kill was no longer believed to be an occult power.
And there has always been a political dimension to magic — especially in Scotland, where witch-hunting was one of the few ways in which the Scottish government could impose its authority on local magnates. Nicola Sturgeon’s apology for the witch trials last week omitted to mention their political role in legitimising the Scottish state. In England, it was much easier to prosecute someone for “compassing and imagining” the death of the king under the Statute of Treason than for actually committing treason.
But political magic was never just propaganda. Even in the twentieth century, the Anglican exorcist Gilbert Shaw was convinced that the General Strike was the result of Russian adepts projecting psychic forces at Britain to foment unrest and lead to Socialist revolution. Luckily, he was conveniently close to the ley line along which this psychic pressure travelled, and, by exorcising an ancient tumulus next to his church, was able to cut off this occult communication. A week later, the General Strike was over.
Father Shaw — like most Anglicans with an interest in the Occult, he was an Anglo-Catholic — quickly became the Church of England’s leading expert on combating black magic, and claimed, like Crowley and many others, that his preternatural assistance played its part in defeating Hitler. There was no officially approved magic resistance during the Second World War — and there hardly could be, the argument runs, since the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was not repealed until 1951 — but many modern Wiccans believe that there were unofficial rituals.
Gerald Gardner, the grandfather of modern Wicca, reports that he was initiated into a coven in the New Forest who performed a ritual on 1 August 1940 — Lammas Day — to prevent the Nazi high command invading. Or, rather, to prevent them wanting to invade: as he wrote, “The witches met, raised the great cone of power and directed the thought at Hitler’s brain: ‘You cannot come across the sea, You cannot cross the sea, Not able to come, Not Able To Come’… I am not saying that they stopped Hitler. All I say is that I saw a very interesting ceremony performed with the intention of putting a certain idea in his mind, and this was repeated several times afterwards; and the fact was that Hitler never even tried to come”.
The account is corroborated by the occultist Louis Wilkinson, who claimed that some of the more elderly participants died as a result of the psychic energy they expended — while conducting the ritual naked, in the middle of the night, in England. Whatever the truth of the story, the New Forest coven is an important part of the founding myth of modern Wicca, and I have heard contemporary Wiccans vigorously maintain that it was this ceremony that foiled Operation Sealion.
The hex against Putin, then, like the binding of Trump, is part of a long but hidden tradition. But there are differences. The Cone of Power has, according to Gardner’s account, been raised on three occasions: to prevent the Armada invading in 1588, Bonaparte in 1800 and Hitler in 1940. These rituals, as recounted by Gardner, concentrated on changing Hitler’s mind, or telling Bonaparte to think again. Even the spell against the Armada was about persuading the Spanish (“Go On, Go On, Not Able to Land”), although, since they had already embarked by the time the ritual was carried out (by Sir Francis Drake himself, according to Devonian folklore), it appeared to take effect by creating the storm that scattered the fleet.
Modern magic has given up on the idea of changing anyone’s mind. Like modern politics, the aim is not to persuade your opponent, not to influence his thoughts, but to bring ruin and destruction upon him, breaking his bones and casting him down into dust and ashes.
Some magical practitioners question the wisdom of this, and not just because of the Law of Threefold Return, the Wiccan principle that the energy you put out into the world will be thrice returned to you. More worrisome is the idea that Putin has his own protections in place. Aleksandr Dugin, the nationalist philosopher known as “Putin’s Brain”, is known to have an interest in the occult, dating back to his days editing Elementy. On its second issue, the magazine’s cover star was the goat-god Baphomet, who has an important role in Aleister Crowley’s cosmology. The fact that Russian troops entered Donetsk and Luhansk on 22.02.2022 does suggest that Putin is receiving a certain kind of advice.
Perhaps the most profitable line of attack is not against Putin himself, but against his soldiers. When young Russian soldiers entered Konotop — known from stories as a place where old women have occult powers — they were told by an elderly Ukrainian woman: “Here every second woman is a witch. Tomorrow you’ll no longer be able to get your dick to stand”. As Nicola Sturgeon did point out, a fear of witches is often a fear of women; and their words were enough to terrify any Russian man.