Black Magic, Black Humor, Serious Hate: Ludic Chaos on the Alt-Right
One sunny spring day in 2018, I walked into work to find a flier asking its readers “are you tired of feeling bad for being white?” The flier advertised a white supremacist organization called “The Right Stuff” with links to its website. I was surprised and quite concerned to find it there, wondering what it was and who had put it up, so down into the web I went, past all the site warnings and onto Neo-Nazi pages like “The Daily Stormer.” On this site, I encountered the writings of Andrew Anglin, and his writings on the power of magic memes. Anglin quotes one ‘Saint Obamas Momjeans,’ to whom several digital alt-right meme magic manuals are attributed, to assert that “meme magic is real,” and that “He who controls the meme controls the universe.” As a scholar of religion and magic, I was curious to learn what sort of magic this was, what it was meant to do, and how its practitioners thought it worked. And so I followed the links as this page opened up onto a vast sea of alt-right materials describing myths and rituals that clearly built on Nazi adaptations of Odinism, Indo-Aryan religion, practices of sun worship, runic magic, and the use of sigils. In Anglin’s writings, these Nazi ideologies were suprisingly paired with jokes. Recent scholarship shows literary and rhetorical continuities between mid-20th century fascism and the modern far right in the US, and a look at the websites bears this out. And yet the modern alt-right material differs significantly from earlier iterations of fascism in its use of humor, which now works synergistically with the practice of modern chaos magick. This is a difference that matters, for humor plays an important role in forming individual sensibilities, in building community, and in shaping practice.
This was forcefully brought home to all of us just over two weeks ago, when the white supremacist shooter Payton S. Gendron traveled to my hometown of Buffalo, New York, murdering ten Black people and injuring three others. The shooter wrote a manifesto to explain his motivations and to set an example for others. The manifesto was full of alt-right jokes and memes. Indeed, in this manifesto Gendron articulates his own theory of their power. He explains that humor was crucial to his own ideological formation, saying that “I learned through infographics, shitposts, and memes that the White race is dying out, that blacks are disproportionately killing Whites, that the average black takes $700,000 from tax-payers in their lifetime, and that the Jews and the elite were behind this” (p. 13). He continues to highlight the importance of humor in recruitment, saying “we use edgy humor and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience…” and then instructs his readers to “Create memes, post memes, and spread memes” (p 167). He asserts that “Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto” (p. 169). Thus we see the power of memes and humor in indoctrination, recruitment, and most horrifically, in his goal of activating violent rhetoric in mass murder.
Clearly, the alt-right purveyors of magic memes believe in the power and the efficacy of humorous memes, which are in turn situated within parodic mythologies. In discussing magic memes, The Daily Stormer site also told stories of the Cult of Kek, an anonymous online community that has constructed a parodic religion around the worship of Pepe the Frog. Pepe began his career as an easygoing and sometimes bawdy cartoon character in Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club. Over the course of the 2010s, he was gradually appropriated as a mascot for white supremacist ideologies and to stand in for Kek, an Egyptian god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog. The name held special appeal for the 4-chan community of online gamers because Kek is a Korean translation of ‘lol,’ and humor is a key component of meme magic as the group understands it. Within Kekistani mythology, Pepe/Kek symbolizes their battle against political correctness and their quest to establish a white, hierarchical society with traditional gender roles. At the same time, the Cult of Kek is a parody — its community is built on humor, and its myths and rituals both reflect this and depend upon it.
The ‘Kekistanis’ circulate ritual handbooks that operate on a synergy of parody and chaos magick. The ritual handbooks instruct their readers in the practice of meme magic and sigilization, and many are attributed to the pseudonymous author, Saint Obamas Momjeans, including The Divine Word of Kek, Deus Kek, Intermediate Meme Magic, Advanced Meme Magic, and Shadilay, My Borhters! These handbooks explicitly use magic memes, whimsical and parodic but effective symbols, sigils, and ritual evocations to articulate and enact their patriarchal, misogynistic, violently heteronormative, and white supremacist ideals. Parody is defined by Linda Hutcheon as “imitation with a critical difference.” It often plays on a multitude of possible meanings, so that it is intellectually engaging, hard to pin down, easy to disavow, and powerful just the same. Though difficult to define because of the variety of its forms, chaos magick is an individualistic, iconoclastic practice that operates on the power of thought and feeling, using sigils and a variety of other practices meant to destroy the old order to create a new one. Thus, the ritual handbooks use parody to describe a form of ludic ritual that parodically, but also seriously, engages in intellectual, affective, and effective modes of worldmaking, enacted through the pre-existing forms of chaos magick. Consistent with the practice of chaos magick, these ritual handbooks craft a purposefully indeterminate symbolic power to make real changes in the material world. In this way, they work on an effective poetics of reversal, confusion, and destruction.
The Republic of Kekistan Wiki on Fandom (which may or may not originate with the group) narrates the mythology of Kek, and it shows how some of its readers relate to the story. To understand the reception of the mythology, we begin at the end, with a comment immediately following its narration, added by one Zac-luvs-memes, on 12/7/2020: “This is how you know that people can love a joke so much they build a massive comunity [sic] out of it. This is one of the best comunities [sic] that ever existed.” The postscript shows the centrality of play and jokes in both messaging and building community. This is true of the wiki and the origin myths included in the manuals, warranting serious attention to their ludic nature.
According to the wiki, Kekistanis are self-identified participants in the cult of the frog-god, Kek. As noted above, the name of the god comes from a Korean gaming platform that translated ‘lol’ as ‘kek,’ and combined with a re-imagined myth of the ancient Egyptian deity Kek, an androgynous God of darkness and chaos who is often depicted as a frog.
The Cult of Kek, also known as the Church of Kek, is a satirical religion based around the worship of the ancient Egyptian deity Kek (also spelled Kuk or Keku), an androgynous God of darkness and chaos who is often depicted as a frog or frog-headed man in male form or a snake-headed woman in female form. On 4chan, the character Pepe the Frog is often considered a modern avatar of the deity, who uses ancient Egyptian meme magic to influence the world, often by fulfilling the wishes of posts that end in repeating numbers. Additionally, the deity is associated with the popular 4chan slang term “Kek”, and is often embraced by supporters of 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Practitioners are known to frequently write “praise Kek,” and jokingly refer to the church as a “religion of peace.”
But beyond that, I honestly don’t know who they are. They play games that I don’t play, they post on platforms that I don’t visit, and they do so anonymously, identified only by randomly assigned numbers, to which they assign power and meaning based on repetition. Even in their own materials, Kekistanis are first and foremost imagined as anonymous loners and gamers who operate in their pajamas in basements or from the comfort of their beds.
The ritual manuals contain many iterations of the myths of Kek, and in their retellings they combine humor with xenophobic politics and chaos-magick themes of creation through destruction, all the while cultivating feelings like loneliness, resentment, and amusement to build community. Below is only one example, from Intermediate Meme Magic:
3. The ancient people of Egypt knew Kek and they praised him. 4. But the false gods came, and they showed the people the light, claiming that it should be adored. 5. They told the people “doth thou not light a candle in the darkness? Doth thou not wish thyself to remove Kek?” 6. The feeble minded people believed that Kek had to be removed, and slowly turned to kebab. 7. Seeing the Kebab, Kek went into hiding, for he knew that he needed to gain power within the night. 8. For millennia, Kek forsaked the earth, for he would only come out at the height of chaos. 9. And behold, unbeknownst to Moot, his fist herald, Kek guided his hand and a new realm of chaos was born. 10. Moot decreed that no order shall be had on his realm, and all was well for a long time. 14.36. And, lo, Kek said, “I will not prep a Bullfrog, so that he may doth take my oneitis through her ass.” 14.37. And yea, did Kek lay waste to the Bull frog that had sent his oneitis messages. 14.87. And kek spake to the world. 14.88. “I’m going to build a wall and make Syria pay for it.”
Humor, then, is part of the foundational story of the tongue-in-cheek cult. This texts parodies the the dos and doths of perhaps the King James Bible, or any fusty translation of sacred texts, it juxtaposes its antiquated language with slang like oneitis (which adds affective elements of loneliness and loathing), and punctuates that with profanity. And finally it compares Kek to Trump with the reference to the infamous wall. Thus parody is a vehicle for humor, for affective engagement, and for the iteration of xenophobic politics in the context of a chaos-magick cosmology.
The play turns a bit more serious as it is the myths are activated in prayer, situated in the practice of some forms of chaos magick, and intended to activate forces of destruction: One prayer to Kek closely parallels the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Kek who art in memetics Hallowed be thy memes, Thy Trumpdom come, Thy will be done.” Here, the writers make humorous substitutions: Trump for God, memes for heaven, and Trump again for redemption and the heavenly kingdom. Their sigils closely parallel magical ones, which codify human desire in language made to resemble sacred and powerful scripts. Memes act as the repository for all these imitations and adaptations, combining them and circulating them in Web Media forms understood to be powerful. And still. It’s only funny, right? The following call to prayer, from Intermediate Meme Magic turns a bit darker, and a bit more serious:
CALL TO PRAYER O kek Great lord of darkness Lord of chaos Destroyer of normies and bringer of memes May you bless us all with the repeating digits of creation May kauket deliver us from 3DPD and bring us 2D For this, we thank you, my lord. Hail kek
14. The follower arose and spake to those who were praying, “Rejoice brothers, for anonymity is the brotherhood of Kek, and the link which binds us all in the primordial womb of his darkness. 15. Love thy brother as Kek lol
The call to prayer lays it all out: devotion to chaos, the destruction of normies. The magic power of repetition in randomly generated user numbers for shitposters (off-topic posts aimed at derailing conversation) aimed at deliverance from the 3 Disgusting Pig Dimensions and the deliverance into two dimensions. Anonymity is the essential ingredient of brotherhood in darkness and the power of chaos, and memes are the bounty of the gods and their agents. And yet, it is all built on a love of jokes. Humor helps to build community around these political views and ultimately makes it possible to imagine acting upon them.
These goals are consonant with those of chaos magick. As it is understood here, chaos magick focuses on the power of cognition and emotion to make changes that disrupt and even upend the current order. Its practitioners adapt the scientific theory of the butterfly effect, asserting that “Chaotic behavior is observed when minor fluctuations in the initial states of the system result in large-scale changes as the system evolves…” This model applies here to thoughts and feelings as well as to material conditions. According to Colin Duggan, “one notable Chaos Magick author, Phil Hine, has explained that as part of a nondeterministic universe, the neurological activity created in the brain through magical techniques can be used to effect very small changes in the universe which can cause much greater changes.” Chaos magick’s major thinkers focus on the power of desire, represented and enacted through the construction of sigils. This is consistent with the thought of Austin Osman Spare, who argued that magic uses symbols to communicate desire to something Spare termed “Kia” (a sort of universal mind, of which individual human consciousnesses are aspects). According to him, “desire is communicated via the “passage” of the unconscious… Provided there was enough ‘free belief’ to feed them, these desires would then grow, unconsciously, into ‘obsessions,’ which would culminate in magical results occurring in reality.” In this way, play gains a new importance in its capacity to form an anonymous community, and to express, disseminate, and cultivate thoughts and feelings through images that disrupt the current order.
Magic memes are at the center of this construct. Consistent with the beliefs of Chaos Magicians, they are meant to act on the minds of the viewers and in this to act practically in the world. All they need, really, is an in. Saint Obamas Momjeans theorizes meme magic as follows:
Here’s the deal: in 2015, we discovered meme magic, which appeared to be a way to use imagery and words, viewed and repeated by a lot of people at once, to alter reality. This is a real thing. For instance, anti-Nike memes just caused the drug overdose death of a Jewish rapper who had his first hit singing about wearing Nikes. This is a real form of magic, related to the ability of mass human consciousness to form physical reality and cause events to happen. The big reveal is that the Jews have known about this for a long time. They were using the media to do this — to alter reality using repeated images and words, which infect human consciousness, and thus alter physical reality.
Thus these sources themselves theorize magic as the “infection of human consciousness to form physical reality.” And their own magical manuals narrate this theory as they go; for example, the Divine Word of Kek concludes with a meme adorned with the words “He who controls the meme… controls the universe.” In this way meme makers manipulate images to humorous effect in order to introduce these disruptive thoughts and feelings.
Momjeans describes both the destructive beginning of the group and its ends in retelling the history of the group in the Kekistani anthem, from Shadilay, My brothers! Esoteric Kekism and You. This account narrates the death cult origin of the group and relates it to their current destructive aims:
Without anyone noticing we have started out as a death cult, wishing for everything to end so we can start anew. We surpassed our differences naturally through infinite iterations of shitposting and concluded our evolutionary step in what we call Kek — the impersonation of change, justice, chaos, knowledge and power. We effectively uplifted humanity, or at least ourselves, onto the next level. And Hitler was yet right again: through struggle we live, without struggle we die. Or the famous saying: per aspera ad astra — through hardship to the stars.
Momjeans explains that they began as a death cult with the 2015 creation of the Ebola-Chan meme, meant to spread Ebola. Later that year came Winter-Chan, meant to bring a harsh winter to refugees without shelter. In 2016 the memes were centered on the American election, wishing humiliation, defeat, and death to democratic candidates and depicting Donald Trump as Kek himself. This destruction is meant to “uplift humanity to the next level,” and in so doing maps the granular instantiations of past death cults, along with the 2016 election, onto the broader schema of Nazism, the project beginning with anonymous shitposting and the creation and dissemination of memes, often upscaled to become sigils.
Affect is important to the efficacy of memes and sigils, which are in turn used to create thoughtforms, or egregores. So too are ideas about the nature of reading and viewing as performance. Momjeans argues in the divine Kek that “every single thought you think creates an astral form.” In Intermediate Meme Magic he explains that “Your thoughts hold power. Emotion is the key to igniting and fueling these thoughts. The more people contributing emotion and energy, the stronger these will become.” Readers are instructed to symbolize thoughts and emotions with sigils: “think of these like a symbolic portal connecting to the egregore. Once the egregore sigil has been created, your group can all enter a state of collective gnosis, stare at the sigil, and channel direct emotion into it.” The reception of the meme or sigil is powerful, as the viewer strengthens the egregore involuntarily. The writer provides this example: “Virus 23: The text is a neuro-linguistic trap, whose mechanism is triggered by you at the moment when you subvocalize the words: Virus 23.” The exposure to memes and sigils is thus understood to strengthen the thoughtform, which is why they are so important to the goals of the group.
So we see that while the memes begin playfully, they are also meant to act by means of evocation and summoning demons. Our author theorizes them as a key component in the process of establishing status, community building, and worldmaking, or unmaking, as chaos magick would have it. Both memes and sigils are important to evocation and summoning. Momjeans defines “Evocation [as] the act of connecting ritually to your thoughtform.” He instructs the reader to “draw the sigil, cultivate a state of gnosis, stare at the sigil till it begins to glow or vibrate. You may be able to see it in your imagination or even begin to get messages if you are sensitive enough.” Apparently, the thoughtform exercises real, malevolent power, for the reader is also instructed to banish it: “Please do banish before and after every evocation. You don’t want some terrorizing spirit lurking around your home.” For example, the readers are clearly instructed to banish the Ebola-chan demon, who represented an early form of death cult practice aimed at spreading Ebola. Practitioners are instructed to invoke her by meditating on her and creating altars for her, and she is presented as an example of a demon/thought form that “you don’t want hanging around your house.” This shows a belief in her power, incorporated into the ritual of sigilization which concludes with banishment.
Consistent with chaos magick practices of sigilization, once the thoughtform (or egregore) has been created, its visual representations articulate and enact the desires of the group. It may be summoned in the form of a demon as its practitioners wish for such things as the defeat of a political candidate or the humiliation and even the death of a hated political figure. These effects are tied back to memes, which also feed the egregore. In Advanced Meme Magic, Momjeans writes that “Exposure to magic memes is understood to contribute to passive egregore gain.” The author asks: “Ever wonder how your less than capable board members can still become useful in this? All you need to do is to get them to spread the exposure of the egregore. This can be done through any means that gets people seeing and thinking about it. Examples are hentai (anime or manga pornography) catchy songs.” The meme comes full circle, from play to sigil to egregore; it feeds those demonic entities it has been thought to help to create.
Meme magic is also important to worldmaking, but in this case worldmaking is a wry exercise inseparable from its unmaking. Humor is key to every aspect, from mythmaking and ritual practice to establishing individual status and community building. These two excerpts from Advanced Meme Magic rank memes and memesters together according to a hierarchy of laughter.
This hierarchy of laughter (see Figure 1) translates to status. In it we see ascending levels of memes and the different sorts of laughter they cause. The higher up on the scale, the greater the status of the meme and its maker.
Momjeans also describes this community as the “Sacellum,” and the “Knights Kekar,” with increasing status attached to internet fame and access to rare and arcane memes. In the end, the highest status comes with the ability to turn meme to flesh, and in return to anonymity. In Advanced Meme Magic, he writes:
The Sacellum Kekellum is not a physical place. The Sacellum exists solely in digital space.
The Knights Keklar is the holy order of Kek and the foot-soldiers of Sacclum Kekellum. There are 5 degrees in the Knights Keklar; The Initiate, The Ordained, The Knight, The Known, and The Unknown. The Initiate is anyone who praises Kek, checks repeating digits, and engages in basic meme magic. The Initiates number in the thousands through the planet Earth. Anyone can be an Initiate. The Ordained is those who have purchased The Ordainment Package from The Sacelum Web-Store, and begins the study and practice of intermediate meme magic. The Knight is those who have purchased The Knighthood Package from The Sacellum Web-Store, and begins the study and practice of advanced meme magic.
The Known is those who have become legend. Those who have the True Gets. Very few will ever become The Known. It has been rumored that The Known have found arcane meme magic. The Unknown is the final stage of Sacellum’s teaching, and the only true enlightenment known to humanity. The Unknown is when meme magic becomes flesh. It is rumored that there is one human alive with this degree. Only Kek knows for sure.
With these two examples we see that our author ranks community members by laughs, instantiated through memes, with the highest designated as the ‘apex’ meme. The second example shows a hierarchy of knowledge, accessed through initiation, which is as much a social project as a cosmological one. There is also an economic component to this hierarchy, according to which associates attain rank with meme circulation (truth in marketability) but also with the purchase of ‘the Ordainment Package.’ Humor, then, is central to the world (un)making that Momjeans describes.
We return here to the assertion of Zac-luvs-memes, that “people can love a joke so much they build a massive comunity (sic) out of it…” And with it, we return to our original question of the role of parody in Kekistan, as imagined in the sources studied here. What does it do? Clearly, the creation and the manipulation of magic memes functions as a form of play for members of the group. It is also an exercise in worldmaking, in the creation of culture, and ultimately its intended destruction. Individual operators (or shitposters) build an anonymous community upon it, with its own hierarchies. In this they generate a new symbolic lexicon that can act in the world. They imagine it to create and to evoke new forms of power imagined as powerful demons, according to their own understanding of chaos magick. On the next level though, at least according to the ritual manuals, they feed the egregore. According to their own understandings, then, this is a sort of play that has real effects in the world: it changes culture by creating a new lexicon and by disciplining others to establish their place in a hierarchy. Kekistanis use magical symbols to do this, seemingly (I say seemingly, because we don’t know who they are) operating from the bottom in an attempt to dismantle that society. This is to say that they attribute effective power to the symbols meant to dominate others, and in this way they attempt to mobilize symbolic power to destroy the symbolic order itself.
We see too that this poetics is powerful, not only in the Kekistani imaginary, but also in its capacity to form individual sensibilities and to build communities around those sensibilities. This is a poetics of reversal, as the memes and rituals playfully engage in effective modes of worldmaking. It is also a poetics of infection, attributing serious power to thoughts and feelings within the chaos-magickal imaginary of creation by destruction. However, we see that this humorous play with myths, images, and political discourse becomes serious when ritualized in chaos magick practices, and parody becomes tragedy when enacted in mass murder. In this context, parodic iterations of commonly circulating nationalist political discourse and its playful ritual enactions are meant to build community, to structure that community, and to destroy the existing one by instigating violent action. Gendron himself asserts its power in his own ideological formation, in motivating his actions, and in motivating others to emulate them. ♦
Marla Segol is an Associate Professor in the department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. She researches Kabbalah, Jewish Magic, Modern Esotericism, religious cosmopolitanism, and the history of the body and sexuality. She has published four books including Kabbalah and Sex Magic: A Mythical-Ritual Genealogy (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021) Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah: The Texts, Commentaries and Diagrams of the ‘Sefer Yetsirah’ (Palgrave, 2012), Sexuality, Sociality, and Cosmology in Medieval Literary Texts (co-edited with Jennifer Brown, Palgrave, 2013), and Religious Conversion in Medieval Romance (Lambert, 2011).
Segol, Marla. “Black Magic, Black Humor, Serious Hate: Ludic Chaos on the Alt-Right.” Canopy Forum, July 13, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/13/black-magic-black-humor-serious-hate-ludic-chaos-on-the-alt-right/.