Mystery Deity in Hitler Hex

Chief hexer Ted Caldwell intones an incantation. On the right, in dark shirt and tie, is author William Seabrook. Thomas McAvoy, Time-LIfe.

Today the Internet served me “Putting a Hex on Hitler: LIFE Goes to a ‘Black Magic’ Party.”

For background, you have to know that the pictorial weekly news magazine Life had a regular feature called “Life Goes to a Party” — and many of these parties featured big-name musicians — Time-Life’s music division sold albums of the associated tunes. My parents had a boxed set, divided by decades: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and so on.

“The occult ceremony climaxes as hexers hammer nails into the heart and throat of the image of Hitler,” LIFE reported. “The hexers called on the pagan deity, Istan, to transmit the image’s wounds to the flesh of the living Hitler . . . chanting in unison: ‘We are driving nails and needles into Adolf Hitler’s heart!'”


With reporter and photographer on hand, this ceremony is better attested than the alleged Lammas 1940 ritual by English witches that was supposed to turn back a threatened German invasion.

The south coast of England was a worried place in the summer of 1940. France had fallen, leading to the Dunkirk evacuation (now a major motion picture that I have not seen), and also to France and Britain abandoning their assistance to Norway, which Nazi Germany had invaded in April 1940.

Even Gerald Gardner had joined the Home Guard, a force of lightly armed volunteers prepared to fight and die along the coast when the expected German invasion crossed the Channel.((Conventional military historians suggest that the Germans cancelled their invasion plans because (a) Hitler really wanted to invade the Soviet Union more than the UK and (b) the British Royal Navy was still powerful and capable of disrupting the invasion.))

Gardner himself is the main source for that story. His museum collaborator, Cecil Williamson, wrote a magazine article on British witchcraft in 1952 that also mentions it, but he had been working with Gardner for a couple of years at that point, and Gardner may have been his principal or only source. Doreen Valiente, who was not there either, said the rite was worked on May Eve 1940, at the two following full Moons, and at Lammas.((My source here is Aidan Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic, Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939-1964.)) Or did the story just grow in the telling?

11 thoughts on “Mystery Deity in Hitler Hex

  1. Pitch313

    Also, Nazi Germany did not have much amphibious capacity for crossing the English Channel. The preponderant vessel was a converted European inland river barge.

    I hope that British practitioners did ritually act to counter a Nazi invasion. But what I really wonder about is any more and different rituals they may have conducted during wartime and Britain’s post-war recovery. Themes such as victory, pathfinding, stealth of secret agents, safety of serving military, plenitude of foodstuffs, health, fertility and family, and like that. Doing magic, in my eyes, is not a one off thing.

  2. Robert Mathiesen

    Gardner certainly knew about William Seabrook and his book, “Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today” (1940 in New York, 1941 in London), for he mentions it in a note in his manuscript “Ye Bok of ye Art Magical,” p. 73. The article in Life appeared in the February 10, 1941, issue.

  3. Rombald

    About the Home Guard:

    1. As an American, you might not know “Dads’ Army”?

    2. Orwell joined the Home Guard, and at one stage seemed to envisage it evolving into a sort of revolutionary people’s army. To a modern Englishman, the juxtaposition of “Home Guard”, filtered through “Dads’ Army”, and “revolutionary people’s army” is beyond absurd.

    1. Actually, I have seen an episode or two of “Dad’s Army,” but I think that the portrayal of the LVC or Home Guard in “Foyle’s War” is probably more accurate.

      I have not read Orwell’s thoughts on the matter.

  4. Medeina Ragana

    I never heard of “Istan” as a god or goddess, but whoever is dressed in spotted clothing seems, to me, to be imitating a Meso-American Jaguar diety.

  5. Robert Mathiesen

    The original article can be read online here: deity&f=false

    As for a Deity named Istan, it woudn;t surprise me if that comes from Seabrook’s own love of transgression, and is simply a disguised form of Satan.

    1. I thought of ISTAN as a sort-of-anagram of SATAN, but there is another possibility, and I am hoping that the person who broached it will write a comment here.

      Thanks for the link too.

  6. Kallimach

    The basics of the rite could easily come from a source such as Trachtenberg’s 1939 Jewish Magic and Superstition. The name Istan could have been from Hittite prayers that were available in English around that time (where he appears as ‘Istanu’) or maybe from the older Hattian version of his name (where he is Istan or Estan).

  7. Kallimach

    I withdraw the suggestion that he looked as far as Trachenberg. (I was assuming that he would want a potentially Near Eastern rite for a Near eastern deity.) The rite is very similar to what he describes in his own book Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today as taking place in North America.

    There is a section of the LIFE text that appears to quote directly from the final curse of Báthory Erzsébet (sending 99 cats to claw out the heart of a ruler)and that incident was also mentioned in Seabrook’s book. She was the niece of Báthory István, so that’s another candidate for the mysterious Istan.

    And looking at Seabrook’s book, there’s also a section on leopard and panther people, which might explain the rented skin at the rite.

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