These weren't the "double, double toil and trouble" kind of witches Shakespeare wrote about in "Macbeth." They were Wiccans, led by Gerald Gardner, the man whose writings would revive the pagan belief system to the modern era. In 1940s Britain, his beliefs were far from the mainstream, but like the rest of the country, he knew he might soon find himself under Nazi domination.
Gardner may have been 55 years old and leading a coven of witches, but he was still a patriotic Briton with a stiff upper lip. So the man who would be remembered as "The Father of Witchcraft" and his followers were going to do their part to defend the island, casting a spell that would target Adolf Hitler personally and end the threat of a Nazi invasion.
Gardner grew up in a wealthy English family that ran a timber company for the British Empire. He was a sickly boy who spent more time with his nursemaid than his parents. He spent much of his young life traveling and educating himself, eventually gaining a keen interest in spirituality, religious rituals and the occult. He would return to Britain as an older man, still sickly, but took up a career as a civil servant and amateur archeologist. Meanwhile, his interest in the occult only grew.
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Garder settled in Highcliffe-on-Sea and joined the New Forest Coven, a group of pagan witches in southern England that he believed were continuing a pre-Christian religious order that had been kept secret for centuries. As 1939 turned to 1940, Gardner's affection for his coven grew, as did the coven itself. They practiced folk magic in tune with their beliefs and he began writing books that would later form the foundation for the brand of Wicca that still bears Gardner's name.
Meanwhile, in Europe, things weren't going quite as well for the British Expeditionary Force. Nazi Germany had captured its objectives in Poland, and had already conquered Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. As the German Army pushed farther into France in May 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers had to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Paris was captured in June 1940, and France was forced to capitulate.
The Battle of Britain was about to begin. And when Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered Britons to "therefore brace ourselves to our duties," the aged Gardner and his band of witches dutifully complied. Gardner himself became an air raid warden and his home a headquarters for Air Raid Precautions, a civil defense organization. He also joined the local Home Guard as an armorer, providing locals with weapons from his own collection of firearms and preparing molotov cocktails for use in combat.
But Gardner wanted to do more, and believed he had the magical ability to take the fight to the Nazis. The lore of the New Forest Coven included a ritual that had been used twice to defend the British Isles from the threat of an invasion. By creating a "Cone of Power," he and his coven could affect real-world events from the security of the New Forest. British witches had purportedly used the Cone of Power in 1588 to help fight off the Spanish Armada and in 1805 to end Napoleon's threat to England. They were going to use it once more in 1940.
The Cone of Power would be directed toward Hitler's brain to cloud his judgment, weaken his resolve and hasten his downfall. It was Aug. 1, 1940, and Lammas Eve, an important harvest festival in the Wicca religion, when Gardner and his coven met in New Forest. Just north of Highcliffe, they met around an ancient hangman's tree called The Naked Man. From there, the coven walked to Ferny Knapp Inclosure, a wooded area where the ritual would take place.
Instead of the traditional bonfire, the witches used a shuttered lantern (Gardner was still an air raid warden, after all) and danced in a spiral around it while naked (or "skyclad," in the Wiccan vernacular) to generate the magical energy needed to form the cone. As the coven chanted and danced, Gardner invoked the words of the spell and the assault on Hitler's brain began.
We only know the Cone of Power ritual actually happened because Gardner would write about it himself in one of the three books he wrote on witchcraft in the 1950s. J.L. Bracelin, a high priest of Gardnerian Wicca and a contemporary of Gardner's, also wrote about it in his book, "Gerald Gardner, Witch." But did the Cone of Power affect Hitler's brain?
Before August 1940, the Nazi war machine was virtually unstoppable, making few mistakes along the way. Hitler controlled or otherwise dominated most of Western Europe, and those not under Berlin's direct control (aside from Britain) were either too weak or too fearful to make any meaningful resistance. Roughly six weeks after the Cone of Power, Hitler abruptly canceled Operation Sea Lion, the proposed invasion of Britain, in favor of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Less than a year later, Hitler would invade the USSR and declare war on the United States, neither of which he was bound to do. These were two critical miscalculations on the German leader's part that would have disastrous consequences for his regime. To Gerald Gardner and the New Forest Coven, it was proof positive that the Cone of Power had once again saved Britain.
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