Tyrants create their own twisted reality, and force their people to live, as it were, inside the dictator’s skull, and inside his own private drama, endlessly re-enacting it. So complete can this process be that it gives an occult impression: that of a spell cast over an entire country by a master sorcerer. When the tyrant is overthrown or dies, it is as if an entire population is liberated from the spell—there is much relief, but also much surprise—and shame—at being held in thrall for so long.
This image is the stock-in-trade of a great many fairy and folk tales, legends and, in our time, fantasy fiction. It is stock-in-trade because it has a psychological resonance which cannot be denied. But it’s more than just metaphor. Many tyrants have used “real” magical powers and psychic tools not only to control their people, but also to gauge and manipulate their own destinies.
Tyrants aren’t the only ones with an interest in parapsychology and magic applied to government policy, of course; democratic governments have also run projects investigating the possibilities of using psychics in intelligence work, for instance. But tyrants have been particularly keen on the whole idea of using the sorcerer’s talents, as well as the secret policeman’s, the torturer’s and the informer’s. Tyrants are instinctive manipulators, but not necessarily analytical, and often give the impression of not understanding their own rise to, and hold on, power. So they place a great deal of stress on the notion of “providence”, which has ordained their destiny and protects them, but which must also be placated.
The Magic Stone of Saddam Hussein
The pre-eminent modern example of the sorcerer’s realm was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Most people are familiar with the details of the repressive state apparatus and vicious practices by which the dictator of Iraq and his cronies kept their hold over Iraq for decades. But few are aware of the fact that Hussein, his family and his circle not only believed in magic, but used it to promote superstitious fear in Iraqis and try to “second-guess” their opponents and protect their own destinies.
Magic has a strange place in Muslim countries. Its practice, but certainly not its existence, is denied by fundamentalist Muslims—as it’s mentioned several times in the Koran as being a very real force, it cannot be discounted, but is discouraged (in some places suspected magicians are in danger of death). Despite this, many ordinary Muslims frequent magicians, faith-healers, fortune-tellers and other practitioners of magical arts. There is, like anywhere else, a great distinction made between good and bad magic, and most magic is carried out using the intervention of either angels or jinn (genies)—the latter being seen as much less reliable than angels, being habitual liars and mischief-makers. Nevertheless, jinn (who can usefully be compared to both fairies and demons in Western imagery—some are good, some bad, some merely highly unpredictable) are considered to be easier to use by ordinary magicians. The belief in such magic cuts across all social classes: though it’s more common among the less educated, even educated people often hedge their bets.
Saddam Hussein always believed in magic. His mother, Sabha, was a peasant woman who sometimes worked as a fortune-teller. Saddam was supposed to have inherited some of his mother’s psychic gifts, and was reputed to have had modest success in “studying the sands” (a form of fortune-telling) and summoning jinn to do his bidding. Many Iraqis believed that he had seven jinn to protect him, and that he spoke daily with the king and queen of the jinn, who advised him.
He ordered Baghdad University to set up a department of parapsychology, to investigate methods to use in the Iran–Iraq war, and later to “mind-read” UN inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
He also personally patronised magicians of all kinds, and had a rotating circle of favourite magicians—including not only Iraqis, but a French Arab, a Turk, a Chinese, a Japanese and an Indian magician, and—wait for it—a beautiful Jewish witch from Morocco! His personal magician, interviewed by a reporter from the Washington Post in Baghdad in 2003, before Saddam’s capture, said that most of his work for the Hussein family involved “mostly issues of love, faithfulness and sexual prowess”. Saddam’s eldest son Uday—another firm believer in magic—scouted for magicians and other psychics to come and work for the Hussein family, and advertised on his own television station for such practitioners to come forward. It wasn’t a comfortable post to be in, by all accounts—if Uday or other family members took exception to a prediction or a spell, you might well be imprisoned or even executed. (The magician interviewed by the Washington Post was imprisoned for six months because Saddam suspected his own wife, no doubt angry with his womanising, had paid the magician to cast a spell to hurt the dictator’s leg.)
One or more of these sorcerers, it was said, had made Saddam a special talisman, a magic stone which he wore either around his neck, or had had implanted under the skin of his arm, depending on who you listened to. This stone made him invulnerable, and meant he could not be killed. The fact that the dictator survived several assassination attempts (including one by Mossad, which is regarded in almost supernatural terms by many people in the Middle East), countless plots, the Iran–Iraq war, the first Gulf War, and even the second Gulf War, could only add fuel to the image of Saddam the Sorcerer, arch-manipulator and master of all kinds of forces, historical and parapsychological, whose destiny was protected by dark and dangerous forces, and best not meddled with. Many believers in Saddam’s magic powers were shocked by the television images of the Master of Magicians being pulled, haggard and dirty, from his hiding place by US forces, but still feared to the last that he would somehow escape his fate by a call on the supernatural forces that had apparently protected him for so long.
As well as being surrounded by images of traditional magic, Saddam Hussein was also the focus of UFO stories. These stories appeared, however, to have more credence in Western ufologist circles than in Iraq, where the more traditional occult images have more resonance. However, they still had a following in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
These stories suggested that as well as housing magicians in his palaces, Saddam had some extraterrestrial guests as well—aliens rescued from a UFO that had crashed in the desert. These aliens had taught Saddam and his scientists some amazing biotechnology, including the capacity to bio-engineer a race of giant scorpions that Saddam employed as watchdogs outside weapons facilities, and as killing machines! It was claimed in some conspiracy circles that the Iraq war was “really” about the fact that Saddam, because of his magic powers and his contacts with extraterrestrials, had access to “stargates” to the so-called “Planet X”, or “Nibiru”, a planet reputedly beyond Pluto which is supposed to be the home of the “Elohim”, otherwise known as angels.
Kim Jong-Il and the Superheroes
If Saddam Hussein’s court of fortune-tellers, soothsayers and sorcerers was like something out of full-bore Dark Lord-style fantasy fiction, then his fellow tyrant, the mercurial North Korean Kim Jong-Il, has fashioned himself an image and a narrative familiar to fans of Marvel comics and superhero movies.
Superstition, as in traditional magic, is officially decried in communist North Korea; but defectors have painted a picture of a population which in its despair and chaos has turned more and more to jeomjaengi (fortune-tellers) and exorcists. So prevalent has this become that there is no longer quite the campaign against it that there used to be. Indeed, many North Korean officials now consult jeomjaengi frequently themselves. Meanwhile, “Dear Leader” is a firm believer in all kinds of prophecies and signs: learning that it had been said that a triplet would one day replace him, he has had all triplets born in North Korea taken from their parents and put in state orphanages where they can be carefully watched. His fixation with the significance of his own birthday, February 16, has led him to use the numbers 2 and 16 wherever possible, including on his many cars.
Kim Jong-Il has a great love of magic, most specifically of the illusionist kind. He patronises various stage magicians in North Korea, and is said to particularly favour beautiful, leggy girl magicians, who put on private shows for him and his closest cronies. His favourite magician, though, is not North Korean but Japanese: the celebrated Princess Tenko. Once a singer named Marie Akose, the strikingly beautiful, Gothically-clad magician became apprentice to a noted Japanese sorcerer, Tenko Hikida, in 1976, and took on the name Princess Tenko after his death. So famous is she, not only in Asia but all over the world, for her amazing razzmatazz shows, which have been described as “Madame Butterfly meets Star Wars”, that Mattel makes a Princess Tenko doll, and there is a syndicated worldwide television cartoon based on her adventures, Princess Tenko and the Guardians of Magic.
Kim Jong-Il is obsessed with Princess Tenko, and this led to a bizarre international incident. After he managed to entice her and her staff to Pyongyang to perform in a festival some years ago, he invited her back every year. Then came disaster—on such a visit to North Korea a few years ago, Princess Tenko fell ill. The North Koreans then attempted to hold her in the country, using her illness as an excuse, and it was feared they would kidnap her, much as they had kidnapped some prominent South Korean film-makers some years before. Princess Tenko managed to escape, with help from her embassy; but since then, Japanese newspapers have reported, she has been harassed by hundreds of mysterious phone calls, always at 2.16 p.m. (note Kim Jong-Il’s magic numbers) which attempt to entice her back to North Korea and the “Dear Leader” who misses her so.
Kim Jong-Il has the typical tyrant’s pretensions to artistic creativity, and he is the composer of several operas and books on art criticism. But it is films that particularly interest him; he is an avid film-watcher, with tens of thousands of videos and DVDs (an avid interest in film is also not an uncommon trait in dictators). If Saddam Hussein’s favourite films were The Godfather and conspiracy movies such as Enemy of the State, Kim Jong-Il’s tastes run more to the gung-ho superhero style: the modern version of the demi-god with semi-divine powers who overcomes all enemies. He loves the Rambo movies, for example—but his favourites are the James Bond films. Strangely, in the eyes of most Westerners who would more likely see him as a macabre spoof version of a James Bond villain, it appears that the diminutive dictator sees himself more as following in the footsteps of 007. He has expensive James Bond tastes in wine, cigars and lovely girls—though definitely not in the sartorial department. And he projects himself as his country’s 007, battling innumerable enemies with style, grace and amazing powers.
He must have thought the James Bond narratives were tailor-made to his image, which would have made the shock even greater when he saw the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film, Die Another Day. It is even possible that the whimsical tyrant’s dangerous nuclear brinkmanship at the time might have been triggered by his sense of personal betrayal over the portrayal of North Korea in Die Another Day. Raging that the film “clearly showed that the US is the root cause of all disasters and misfortune of the Korean nation and is an empire of evil”, he demonstrated the tyrant’s absolute belief in the complete permeability of fact and fiction. In a hermetically sealed world such as Kim Jong-Il’s, a fictional superhero’s deeds are more real than the fate of his own people.
Waking Nightmare in Africa
Nowhere does the horrible nexus between tyranny, sorcery and violence emerge more clearly in modern times than in the devastated continent of Africa. Two generations after the end of colonialism, and a decade after the defeat of communism ended interest in realpolitik intervention in Africa, the continent is in the grip of what for many of its inhabitants is a nightmare without end. It’s hard to look at much of Africa today without feeling profoundly depressed. The human landscape that presents itself is all too often like something imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Death and bloody tyranny stalk defenceless populations; convulsions of nihilistic hatred slaughter millions, as in Darfur and Rwanda and Congo; corruption at the highest levels entrench grinding misery and poverty; the mass movement of people to the cities empties the countryside and turns towns into fetid, crime-ridden slums. And the ghastly plague of AIDS has cut deeply into the population in a way not seen anywhere in the world since the horror days of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.
Meanwhile, African leaders show little real leadership; in the worst cases, as in Zimbabwe and Sudan, they actually wage war against their own people. In other places, as in Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, they simply fight their rivals, using the ordinary people as their battlefields. In the least worst cases, as in South Africa, they are too weak to show any moral leadership in any forum, except in rhetoric.
It is against this background of anarchy, tyranny, death, despair and inertia that an old evil has been making rapid progress. The rapid and cataclysmic breakdown of society in Africa has meant that, just as in Europe’s calamitous fourteenth century, all kinds of inhibitions and beliefs have broken down. One of these is a belief in the optimism of Christianity; in its capacity for reform, and its possibilities of hope. Though Christianity is still very important to many Africans, it is turning into something very different from what it was in the past. And beliefs and practices thought long gone, or at least repressed, are coming back with a vengeance. As traditional society, with its traditional safeguards, has disappeared, only the most terrifying and ruthless of the ancient beliefs flourish. Chief amongst these is a huge resurrection in belief in witchcraft and sorcery.
People feel entirely at the mercy of malevolent forces, forces which many believe to be orchestrated by demonic entities in league with human witches. This has led to some terrible things; to the phenomenon in Congo, for instance, of thousands of children being named as “witches” by their own families and cast out; to the hunting down and killing of witches as a frequent occurrence in South Africa.
In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe once said that “goblins will be unleashed upon you” if the Opposition won in an election—with the implication being both that the Opposition were witches capable of calling up goblins, and that Mugabe’s government was also capable of doing so: thus playing terror from both ends. In recent times, his government has amended the country’s Witchcraft Act, which made it both illegal to practise witchcraft and to accuse someone of practising witchcraft, or to solicit others to “name witches”. Today, it’s no longer illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft; only the practice of sorcery is banned. Whilst it was always the position of African Christians before to condemn both witches and witch-hunters, today that is no longer the case, and many Christians, as well as many “traditional healers” who practise the more benign forms of magic, strongly supported the changes. It’s a regressive step, in Western eyes; but it is based on hideous developments which terrify many Africans.
For it’s not only the witch-hunters who are returning. Terrifying old forms of sorcery, long thought dead and buried, have come back. Ritual murder is now practised to such an extent that the South African police, for instance, now have an Occult Crimes Unit—the first of its kind in the world, which gave advice to British police when the headless, limbless torso of a young African boy, the victim of sorcerous murder, was discovered in the Thames a few years ago. The cases the Unit are involved in are extremely gruesome—like the spate of mutilation murders of Soweto boys aged between one and six, traced to a ring of sorcerers who were making “prosperity” or “virility” spells for their clients.
The motives for the ghastly tortures and deaths of innocents are often shockingly mundane. In Zimbabwe, would-be businessmen wanting to take advantage of the government’s freeing-up of the transport system, for instance, employed sorcerers to make spells for them so that they would be able to get a minibus and run it successfully. These spells are designed to conjure up a goblin, or demon, who will work for you to make it possible. And the goblin must be fed fresh human blood and organs—preferably that of little children. And so, there was a rash of disappearances of children, particularly poor or orphaned children, for the sorcerers and their clients always prey on the most vulnerable.
In Zimbabwe, too, there was the “vampire sorcerer” case of the farm invaders who killed a farmer, drained his blood and, mixing it with alcohol, drank it as a potent potion. In Malawi, there’s talk of vampires terrorising the countryside. In Mozambique, just as in South Africa and Zimbabwe, dozens of children have disappeared, to be used in hideous rituals, their pitiful remains found in rubbish dumps. And in Nigeria, ghastly discoveries were made recently at a secret forest shrine: mutilated limbs and heads offered at an altar; and these “obeah” murders, as they’re known there, even crossed the seas with expatriate populations, to Britain, and to Ireland, where separate cases of ritual murder have been uncovered. It’s not hard to see why, for many Africans, this is the hand of Lucifer at work.
In the fourteenth century, the nobleman Gilles de Rais, a great warrior and a personal friend and supporter of the martyred Joan of Arc, turned violently against God, the church, and all human decency because of what had happened to Joan. He would, he said, worship the Devil, who he was now convinced was the true ruler of the world. The resulting reign of terror, in which he kidnapped and murdered dozens of local children, ritually offering them to Satan before finally being unmasked and put to death, has never left the folk consciousness of France: he lives on in French children’s nightmares as Bluebeard. Some-thing like that is happening all over Africa, in reality, right now, to thousands of victims.
Exhibit Four: Sunglasses at Night: the Duvaliers and Voodoo Politics
Of all the dictators of recent times, the murderous Duvalier dynasty of Haiti has most blatantly used magic and the occult to extend their reign of terror over their people. The Duvaliers—father Francois, or “Papa Doc”, and son Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc”, who together terrorised Haiti for decades, at the cost of at least 100,000 deaths —not only suggested that they held magical powers, they shouted it from the rooftops. Deeply steeped in the traditional religion of Haiti, known as “voodoo”, they played out its occult themes with insolent and sometimes comedic obviousness. If ever the idea of the devil as a grim joker has resonance, it is in Haiti—something used to great effect by Graham Greene in his novel The Comedians, set in the grotesque, nightmarish parody that was the Duvalier reign.
Haiti has a unique and bloodsoaked history—the first black republic in the world, gaining its independence in 1803, it has suffered 200 coups, revolutions, insurrections and civil wars since then. It has immense social problems, a crippled economy, and an extraordinary, syncretic spiritual culture, a mixture of folk Catholicism, African religion, and island-evolved additions: a system otherwise known as voodoo. Voodoo is a vast and complex compendium of beliefs and ideas and images, blending Christian and pagan iconography—saints such as St Peter, St James, St John the Baptist, and so on, are identified with voodoo spirits. But its huge emotional impact, ecstatic practices and reliance on magic, as the numinous forced into visibility, means it is easily abused by manipulators, especially in times of social turmoil.
As in all such systems, there’s good voodoo and bad voodoo, with the oungans, or magicians, who practise bad voodoo, also known as “zobop”, greatly feared, especially as producers of “zombies”, or the living dead, corpses resurrected into a dreadful kind of half-life and used as slaves by master sorcerers. Voodoo is not something on the fringes of Haitian life: it is the mainstream, whether you hate it or love it. The church, both Catholic and Protestant, has fought against voodoo, but at times, it has also uneasily tolerated it. And how could it not, when it is such a strong part of the emotional make-up of Haitians?
It’s against this background that the former doctor and ethnologist Francois Duvalier made his bid for absolute power in 1957. Though nominally a Catholic, he specifically endorsed voodoo politically as the “soul of the nation and the black race” to which every authentic Haitian leader should cleave as the source of his power. (He was briefly excommunicated for this, though brought back into the church in 1966.) During his reign, from 1957 to 1971, he co-opted many of the networks of oungans throughout the country, using many as informers. He formed the feared presidential militia known as the Tontons Macoutes, sinister thugs who affected white suits, wore sunglasses even at night, wielded sharp machetes, and hung up their mutilated victims in public places. The Tontons Macoutes cultivated the image of being zombies, responsible to their master sorcerer and enslaver, Papa Doc, with great effect. The dictator himself endorsed, and frequently appeared at, voodoo ceremonies of all kinds, and patronised sorcerers and chancers of all sorts.
When he died and his pudgy bon vivant of a son Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, took over, the same practices continued unabated, until February 7, 1986, when a furious mob took bloody revenge on the oungans and Tontons Macoutes who had terrorised them for so long, lynching and burning dozens of them. Baby Doc fled into multi-millionaire’s exile in France—ironically enough, his first home there was a villa next to the one owned previously by Graham Greene. He remains there today, supported by an adoring circle of ex-Tontons Macoutes now turned Parisian taxi-drivers. He spends his time studying solar energy, practising voodoo, and dreaming of a time when he can return to his true destiny as Haiti’s Master Sorcerer.
Alas for Haiti, the poor little island’s troubles were not yet over. Former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who became the President by a huge popular mandate after the fall of the Duvalier dynasty, did not take long to start going the same way, if less spectacularly than his predecessors. His own personal goons were known by the magical name of “chimeres” or “chimeras”: perhaps a more subtle way of tapping into otherworldly menace than the Docs. His own fall recently has not brought the Caribbean island the peace it so desperately needs; and it seems only a matter of time before another voodoo politician will arise.
Exhibit Five: Lucifer’s Unholy Grail: Hitler and the Reign of the Occult
Adolf Hitler is like no other sorcerer-dictator in the metaphysical history of tyranny. In a secular age which rejected the ancient images of Satan, he became, in the modern imagination, not just a master sorcerer, but the source of black magic itself. He became the Devil. Horns and tail were replaced by cold, glittering eyes, a tiny black moustache, and a mesmerising voice. If you think that’s overstated, consider how even now, people are made uncomfortable, even scared, by attempts to portray him as just a man. And it’s not just in Germany where superstitious terror and awe seem still to surround his name and memory. International reaction to such recent films as Max or The Downfall show that clearly.
Hitler was fascinated by the occult and the magical all his life. His personal library, part of which was preserved after the war and which is held in the Library of Congress in Washington, contains many books on myths, magic, esoteric metaphysics, and so on. A voracious, idiosyncratic reader, he was ruthlessly selective in what he took from occult “thinkers”, and was arrogantly convinced of his own superior insights; there was never any question of Hitler’s becoming anybody’s disciple. He was always going to be the Master. And, as a man of action, he was not at all content with sitting in dingy rooms in black robes, long-windedly expounding about Wotan, or chanting silly invocations to demonic spirits: no, he was actually going to do what others only talked about. He was going to impose his version of the metaphysical battle of the universe on the whole world; the occult would no longer be symbol, wish, dream and nightmare, but actual, lived and living reality; a reality he was prepared to murder millions for, to bring hideous damnation down on his supposedly beloved Germany; and to die for himself, in a manner of his own choosing.
That he succeeded beyond measure in his aim of making the occult into reality rather than vision is evident in his image as the Devil of the modern world.
The Nazi leader’s interest in the occult went back a long way. One of his earliest extant writings is a 1915 poem, written while he was still in the trenches, which rambles on about Wotan (the Germanic All-Father god, known to the Norse as Odin), magic spells, runes, and the like. He was very interested in pagan religion, most especially the Germanic, Norse and Celtic ones—and if he knew at all of psychologist C.G. Jung’s identification of him as actually representing Wotan, the dark, cruel force of the German unconscious, he would most likely have been pleased by it.
But though Nazi philosophy and practice was at root anti-Christian, Hitler was not like SS founder Heinrich Himmler, who proposed to completely de-Christianise Germany, and indeed went a long way to making his feared SS into reverse-image pagan Grail Knights. Born to a devout Catholic mother, Hitler was never comfortable with the underlying meaning of the Christian religion, considering it the “faith of slaves”, but he plundered it shamelessly for images, ideas and archetypes. Instinctively, he knew that a combination of folk Christianity and resurrected paganism would best suit his purposes. Instinctively, too, he knew he had an extraordinary kind of occult, or psychic power; a thaumaturgic ability to inspire terror and loyalty in almost equal measure, and he used it to the full.
The occult roots and branches of Nazism are extensive, and would fill many books (and indeed have—one of the most comprehensive being Peter Levenda’s Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi Involvement with the Occult). There is no doubt that Hitler and his cronies were greatly influenced by magicians, fortune-tellers, esoteric mish-mash philosophers, occult leaders, quack anthropologists, and popular mythologists. Some of the stories and themes they were fascinated by have uncomfortably New Age echoes today, such as the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati; or a veneration for trees and forests, and a conviction that Christianity is opposed to the natural world; or that Jesus did not die on the cross but went off with Mary Magdalene; or that the lost treasure of the Cathar heretics in the south of France was actually the Holy Grail of medieval legend.
In a bizarre touch which shows that the Indiana Jones films are not just far-fetched fantasy but based on weird fact, Himmler sent SS troops off to search for secret knowledge and magic objects—to the far north to search for Thor’s Hammer; to Tibet to search for the ultimate source of wisdom; to ruined Cathar strongholds such as Montsegur to search for the Grail—which he was convinced was not a Christian object at all but a magically potent relic of some ancient solar cult, Aryan of course, which had been passed down through ranks of initiates over the centuries.
His boss, in 1944, when Germany was staring down the barrel of total defeat, diverted SS troops in Italy to search for yet another significant occult object—the manuscript of Tacitus’ Germania, which details the exploits of the turncoat Germanic chieftain, Arminius, who inflicted a terrible, gruesome defeat on the Romans in the Teutoburger Forest. Years before, Hitler had tried to cajole Mussolini into giving him this manuscript, which he was obsessed with as a manifestation of the German soul and which he thought would function as a talisman of protection. But Il Duce, mindful of Italian pride in the Romans, had stalled his brother tyrant’s demand; and the family which owned it hid the manuscript well. Tear apart Italy though the SS might, they never found the Germania manuscript, which reappeared shortly after the war.
Exhibit Six: The Dialectics of Sorcery: The Soviets and the Sorcerer’s Dream
At first glance, the creators and perpetuators of Soviet Russian tyranny, the Bolsheviks, would seem to be a long way from the kinds of sorcerer-dictators I’ve been exploring here. Their emphasis on materialism would seem to negate any possibility of interest in the otherworldly. But things, especially in the nexus between magic and tyranny, are often not what they seem.