The Black Dog: Myth and Magic

Aleister Crowley

There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.
Love is the law, love under will

Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law (1904)
Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was the most famous – and most notorious – occultist of the 20th Century. Born Edward Alexander Crowley to wealthy and devout Plymouth Brethren parents, he would soon reject his family’s Christian beliefs and devote himself to esotericism and the occult, causing his horrified mother to dub him ‘the Great Beast’ of Biblical revelation. Crowley was a central figure in almost all occult organisations of the early 20th Century, notably the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Too anarchic to follow others’ rules, however, Crowley founded his own religion – Thelema – and identified himself as a prophet. He was a prolific writer, publishing widely throughout his life. He renamed magic as ‘magick’ – to distinguish it from the theatrical conjuring of stage magicians; a notorious libertine and proponent of sex magick, he famously declared, ‘Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’.

Crowley’s activities during the Second World War are hard to verify, but some historians believe he was active in the war effort. He may have been recruited as a British intelligence agent, and remained a spy all his life. According to some sources, he carried out a ritual in Ashdown Forest in 1941, designed to lure Hitler’s Deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess, to fly to Britain: Operation Mistletoe.

Operation Mistletoe

Accounts of Operation Mistletoe are based on Crowley’s own claims and those of Amado Crowley, who claimed to be Crowley’s biological son. By Aleister Crowley’s account, he had been recruited into British Intelligence in 1940, and had adopted the code name Special Agent Old Mother Clutterbuck. It was well known by British Intelligence that high-ranking Nazis believed in a variety of occult and supernatural practices, including astrology; while the British officially denied believing in magical forces, they accepted that the Nazis’ beliefs in the esoteric could be used against them.

Crowley was engaged to carry out a ceremony to induce Rudolf Hess to fly to the United Kingdom, believing he was coming to negotiate Britain’s exit from the war. Crowley dubbed the ritual ‘Operation Mistletoe’, as in Norse mythology, mistletoe was the only substance that could kill the powerful god Balder. The proceedings were described by Amado Crowley who, along with notable figures such as the author Ian Fleming, was present in Ashdown Forest in late spring 1941:

I have a very vivid memory of a dummy, dressed in Nazi uniform, being sat on a throne-like chair.  I had to sit with my back to this, and a large mirror was raised in front of me.  The result was I could see my own face quite close, and the dummy’s face over my right shoulder.

Most of the people there wore occult robes of one sort or another.  At Crowley’s orders, even the contingent of soldiers had them over their customary battle-dress.  I say robes, but in most cases they were mere lengths of sheeting.  Each of them had a runic symbol cut out of coloured felt and stitched to their breast. The mass of people moved around the dummy and me in two circles.  The outer one turned deosyl [clockwise] and the inner went widdershins [anticlockwise].  This movement wasn’t just a regular, monotonous rotation either.  At certain moments, or at given signals, they wove in and out of each other… It was all timed with great precision, and each time the dancers stopped, and faced inward, the runes on their robes spelled a different set of messages which were all aimed at the dummy.

Amado Crowley, The Secrets of Aleister Crowley

At the ritual’s climax, wings were attached to the dummy’s back and it was raised to a great height and set on fire. The burning dummy was then launched on a wire in the direction of Berlin.

The Flight of Rudolf Hess

Rudolf Hess

On 11 May 1941, Crowley received a phone call from British Intelligence. ‘The sea is calm,’ he was told. ‘The bird has flown. Balder is back from Hell.’ Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Leader, had flown to Scotland in a one-man Messerschmidt fighter, believing he was to meet with the Duke of Hamilton and negotiate Britain’s surrender. On the same night as the final and worst Blitz raid on London – May 10/11 1941, the ‘Hardest Night’ – the Deputy Führer parachuted to earth in Lanarkshire, Scotland, and was immediately taken into British custody. It was the beginning of his lifelong stay behind bars. After the war he was sent back to Germany, convicted of war crimes and spent the rest of his life in Spandau Prison, where he committed suicide in 1987.

Why exactly Hess chose to make the flight to Scotland has never been absolutely explained. Hess badly wanted to impress Adolf Hitler, whose favour he feared he was losing; securing the withdrawal of Britain from the war would have guaranteed his position at Hitler’s side. It is possible that Hess, a believer in astrology, had been persuaded by German astrologers that he would be able to bring about Britain’s acquiescence only on that particular night, when the alignment of the planets was uniquely favourable; Hess had no idea that the astrologers had in fact been turned into Allied agents by the efforts of British Intelligence. Hess may simply have been tricked by one of Churchill’s ‘deceivers’ into flying straight into Allied captivity.

Crowley and fellow occultists, however, believed that the ritual in Ashdown Forest had brought about Hess’s flight; ‘magick’ had led to the capture of one of Hitler’s closest lieutenants. Hitler himself dismissed his occult advisers shortly afterwards, suggesting at least that the belief in occult forces had led to the Reich’s demoralising loss of its Deputy Führer.

The wreckage of Hess’s Messerschmidt. Hess bailed out over Lanarkshire when he was unable to land. The plane crashed a few miles from the Dungavel House, the Duke of Hamilton’s home.


Original artwork by Peter O’Rourke. Forest image downloaded on license from

To the best of my knowledge, all other images are in the public domain. If I have mistakenly used one that isn’t, please let me know and I’ll remove it immediately.