Barbara Bush died today at the age of 92, of undisclosed causes, after an alleged battle with pumonary heart disease and congestive heart failure. Wherever one falls on the political spectrum, this is a sad moment for the Bush family, and a moment in which America loses part of its living history.
Over the next few days, I suspect that an old meme is about to show up back in the media spin cycle: That Barbara Bush was the daughter of the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley (and that therefore George Bush, Jr. was Crowley's grandson).
Let's take a look at this one clearly, before people start recycling this old rumor all over social media. The truth actually turns out to be a lot stranger than most people suspect, by the way.
Aleister Crowley was a mountain climber, author, occultist, intelligence agent, sexual libertine, drug addict and sometimes cult leader who spent a good deal of time terrorizing respectable British society in the first half of the twentieth century. Born into wealth, he burnt through his inheritance by self-publishing a tremendous number of books, ranging from pornographic poetry to manuals on consciousness raising through drugs, sex, and occult rituals. He started the religion of Thelema, which took sexuality as its central sacrament and urged its adherents to strive to discover their True Wills, their reason for being, by delving into black magic. It's all a bit like Ayn Rand for goths.
Crowley was not a particularly nice man. Despite being a genius, he was also kind of a sociopath, and treated the people in his life quite poorly in-between bouts of obsessive sex and cocaine, heroin and ether abuse. He was always broke, and constantly sponging off his students for heroin money. He once tried to get one of his followers to have sex with a goat. He wasn't, you know, the kind of guy that would be a promising candidate in a job interview.
One thing he was great at, however, was manipulating the tabloid press of his day, who declared him the "Wickedest Man in the World" and loved to play him up as the Devil Incarnate. Crowley decided this was great fun, and realized that playing in to this image would probably be a great way to get people to pay attention to him and maybe sell some books. Which is exactly what he did, and as a consequence, you've probably heard of him and his antics, and the fact that he is somehow associated with the Dark One himself (that's Satan, not Jimmy Page). Meanwhile, how many other early 20th century poets can you name, at least ones that were as bad at poetry as Crowley? Probably none.
Ever since Crowley's PR trickery in the 1920s, he's become associated with the Devil in people's minds. That means that people have been hanging all kinds of conspiracy theories on him ever since. One of these—the most famous one, actually—is that he was Barbara Bush's father. (Because George Bush, Jr. is therefore eeeevil, get it?)
This rumor comes from an April Fool's Day post on a Blogspot blog called "Cannonfire." The post is built up around the (true) information that Crowley was at least acquainted with Pauline Pierce, Barbara Bush's wealthy socialite mother, during the 1920s, when he was spending a lot of time practicing sex magick with anybody who was game to assist. ("Sex magick" means using orgasm as a way to focus your mind on achieving your goals in life, which is a lot more, you know, sexy than meditation.) According to this (again, April Fool's Day) post, Pauline Pierce ended up participating in one of these rituals with Crowley—specifically, an exercise in "eroto comatose lucidity," which is Crowley-speak for having a foursome until you stimulate and then exhaust yourself so completely that you start having visions. This was meant to be undertaken so that Crowley could attain to the highest states of magical consciousness.
While this ritual certainly did take place, there is no existing record whatsoever that Pauline Pierce participated—all we know for sure is that she was in Crowley's social circle at this time. To make the logical leap that she participated in a sex ritual with Crowley, and that she then conceived as a result, and that the child was Barbara Bush—which, yes, is what the blog post claims—is a bit of a leap. Like, a huge one.
So no, Barbara Bush was in all likelihood not Aleister Crowley's daughter. Which hasn't stopped people from circulating this rumor as if it were indisputable fact for the last twelve years.
However, just like with most urban legends that take off, there is a deeper mythological resonance to this story—one that nobody has picked up on before.
As I discuss extensively in my new (and now bestselling!) book John Dee and the Empire of Angels, which is about the (hidden) influence of the occult on the last 500 years of Western history, Aleister Crowley was raised in an English extremist religious group called the Exclusive Brethren, lead by a preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby is the person that invented the concept of the "Rapture," the idea that people will be literally teleported into heaven during the Second Coming. He made a huge mark on history by claiming that the book of Revelation was literally real, and definitely not, you know, just a metaphor—and even that human beings had to help God's plan by bringing about the end of the world so that Jesus would come back sooner.
The British, not being particularly impressed by anything this sincere, let alone religious literalism, didn't take to Darby's ideas. Aleister Crowley sure did, however, because he spent the rest of his life rebelling against his early cult brainwashing by trying to create his own, "Satanic" version of Darby's teachings. While Darby declared that a new "aion" was coming, meaning the Second Coming of Christ, the adult Crowley declared himself the prophet of his own "New Aeon," one that was to be focused on enacting the reign of the Antichrist (meaning Crowley himself, of course), rather than Christ. Somewhere in the back of Crowley's mind, he probably believed that he was just helping Jesus' plan along by playing the bad guy in the story.
Another group that took Darby's ideas quite seriously was, well, American evangelicals. The idea that the Apocalypse is not only literal, and just around the corner, but that Christians actually have to help it happen—what I call Turbo-Christianity—circulated throughout the American religious right during the early part of the century, until it became the dominant religious form in America. You can tell because the Left Behind books—the most read books in America—are directly based on Darby's ideas; and because 1 in 3 Americans now believe that we live in the Apocalypse and that Jesus is coming back in our lifetime (according to a 2006 Pew Forum study). You can also tell because Ronald Reagan took this idea so seriously that he regularly told his aides that he was shepherding the world through the end times, and that his role was to overcome Russia (which he likened to "Gog and Magog" from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel) in preparation for the Second Coming.
George Bush, Jr.—Barbara's son, of course—believed this too, infamously telling the French President Jacques Chirac that he saw "Gog and Magog at work" in the Middle East when trying to enlist his support for the War on Terror, which (as you can imagine, Jacques being French and all), didn't go over particularly well. You can also see this dispensationalist theology clearly guiding the hand of Mike Pence, and now John Bolton, who also played a starring role in the invasion of Iraq, and is now working to level Syria (which is also a fulfillment of pre-apocalyptic Biblical prophecy, by the way, from Isaiah 17:1). This is all because evangelical Christians believe that Islam has to be removed from the Holy Land in preparation for Jesus coming back, more or less—and the fact that the evangelical Republicans have been quite regularly trying to force that to happen at the tip of a nuclear warhead should be a lot scarier to you than whatever weird heroin fetish rituals Crowley got up to in his basement.
But the kicker, of course, is that both of these things come from the same place—Crowley's satanic occultism, and the Republican right's thermonuclear Middle East interventionism.
So in that case, even if Barbara Bush wasn't literally Crowley's daughter, they were both drawing their inspiration from the same place—Darby's dispensational Christianity. Which at the very least makes them ideological relatives.
Where there's smoke, they say, there's fire—whether it's from an occult ritual or a drone strike.
For more on the connection of the American right to occultism, check out my new, bestselling book John Dee and the Empire of Angels—I've spent the last three years exhaustively researching the connections between the occult and British and American politics. I'm an author and journalist that has regularly covered trade policy, energy, surveillance and religion for VICE News, Boing Boing, Motherboard and lots more. (More about me here.) If you're a journalist working on a related story, you are welcome to contact me on Twitter @jasonlouv for a quote for your piece.