Introduction to Chaos Magic

Chaos Magic: A brief introduction by Jez

Note: I have been an on and off practitioner of chaos magic since around 1987, but this intro is one persons perspective on a magical approach which has grown from a meeting of minds to a truly world-wide phenomenon.

To understand why chaos magic is often claimed as a revolution in magical thinking and technique, you have to understand the English occult scene in the late sixties and early seventies. Most importantly, there wasn't much to be found! The great days of magical orders like the Golden Dawn and OTO had largely petered out after the second world war (1939-45), and more particularly the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947. In the fifties the occult world was pretty much limited to a small secretive few. Key individuals would be Kenneth & Steffi Grant of the OTO, the ageing artist and sorcerer Austin Osman Spare, the magical scholar WB Crow and the father of Wicca, Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Of these, only Wicca developed into the public eye in the sixties, partly through a handful of sincere practitioners, and mostly through tabloid journalism.

Towards the latter end of the sixties there was a popular interest in Eastern philosophies and meditation, typified by the Beatles and their flirting with the transcendental meditation of Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi. This was more an interest in consciousness and the mind than magic per se, but it did provoke thought in various directions and inspire many people to look at the broader range of religious and magical expression in the East.

So, come the early seventies and where can the aspiring magician and sorcerer look to learn her art? She can look into post Golden Dawn magic, which was largely languishing in the psychological approach inspired by Dion Fortune (who also died in '47) and W.E. Butler. Working in this tradition Christine Hartley and Charles Seymour had received some wonderful visions in their astral journeying back in the forties, but contact with inner planes guides and guardians was the sole focus of such schools. [Nevertheless there are still descendants of this style. Writers such as Gareth Knight (Basil Wilby) connect down to R.J. Stewart and eventually form a morass of 'Celtic' romanticism, mixed with a rather woolly version of the original Golden Dawn concepts]. There were a handful of active Thelemic mages, but no organised or visible OTO, although Crowley's books were often available if you looked hard enough. There was Wicca, of course, but it could not cater for all. Some were put off by the media images (just as others were intrigued!) and others simply did not resonate with the implicit anti-intellectual approach.

A meeting between post-thelemic magician Peter J Carroll and Ray Sherwin at The Sorcerer's Apprentice in 1976 has been claimed as the birthplace of chaos magic. Of course the word chaos didn't enter the scene for some years, back then they were concerned with results magic, doing magic to achieve definite results in the day-to-day world. Carroll presented his researches in Sherwin's journal, The New Equinox. Eventually it was also to see the first adverts for their fledgling order, The Illuminates Of Thanateros, or IOT. Inspired by the straightforward urge to actually do spells and get results Carroll tried many techniques and read, and travelled, widely. He synthesised the works of Crowley & Spare, along with the new works of comparative religion dealing with Taoism, Tantra and shamanism. His first two works, published in small press limited editions to start with, and eventually together as Liber Null & Psychonaut, present magic cut down to the basic techniques and concepts. In this schema the dogmatic beliefs are irrelevant, it is the techniques which are important, such as meditation, trance induction, chanting, drumming, dance, etc. With 21st century hindsight contemporary pundits have wittily noted that this new magical approach was no different from what voodoo or traditional witchcraft had been doing for centuries - testing techniques, and keeping the ones that worked. In many ways this is true, but the idea of using magic in a practical way (as well as for that nebulous term 'spiritual growth') was pretty much non-existent within post-war Britain, and once the cat was out of the bag, everybody wanted to pull some of it's fur out!

The wedding of the word chaos to this results magic has always been intriguing. At bottom line perhaps it represents both the break with any other magical tradition, and the chaotic diversity of individualism which it championed. Of course, many people who knew little or nothing about it would confuse it with the mythological symbolism of primal chaos, or with some sort of imagined tendency for chaos magicians to have disorganised lives. Most failed to grasp that chaos magic was hard work and in its fullness a great challenge. In the early days of its wider popularity chaos magic attracted many folk from the black clad doom and gloom brigade. It is easy to be a nihilistic arsehole and claim you are a chaos magician. This is a bit of a common trap in fact. To accept that there are no ultimate Truths, and that belief can be used as a tool for magical results - that in essence the universe is an open-ended game playing with itself - can give dizzying freedom, or a crippling cynicism.

In the words of Pete Carroll, "It takes only the acceptance of a single belief to make someone a magician. It is the meta-belief that belief is a tool for achieving effects." That's it. A little hubris, an urge to experiment and the courage to analyse your experiences will take you a long way. A phrase much associated with chaos magic, and attributed to Hassan i Sabbah in 1098 is, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." It would be wrong for me to comment much on this, it has multiple interpretations. I will say that if you feel it gives you license to act like a twat, then you would be right. Of course, you will soon realise that your freedom to act like a twat is often bound up with having no friends you can rely on, but, heck, there you go.

Here in 2002 it seems pretty clear that there are two main strands of chaos magic. The anarcho-romantic end of things, exemplified by the writings of Phil Hine, which are concerned with personal growth and individual meaning in the chaos of the normal, and the techno-rationalist, exemplified by the later writings of Pete Carroll, which are concerned with finding the genuine stripped down mechanics of the universe and magic. Many a would-be wag these days will throw the odd quantum into their mage speak, but Mr Carroll is the only person who seems to have the ability, persistence and determination to actually put forward a halfway workable thesis in scientific terms. If you are of that inclination check out his Specularium website...but I wouldn't unless you have a degree in hard science or mathematics.

There is, of course, a hidden third strand. You may notice in many parts of the pagan scene, be you Wiccan or Druid, that many of the how-to books stress that technical details are irrelevant, that magic is within you. In my opinion much of this is due to the spread of ideas from chaos magic. This is a two-way process of course, many chaos magicians happily make use of the classical tools of magic, the Greek alchemical elements, etc. In fact, some chaos magicians may choose to experiment within a specific paradigm or worldview and spend months or years working with, say, ancient Egyptian magic, in order to fully analyse it. Yes, most of them wear black, but not as many as the old days.

Will chaos magic continue to develop and mutate at the frontiers of magic? Will it solidify into a 'tradition' in some sort of twisted self-parody? Will it fizzle out as a label and instead become the main model of magic for most practitioners? Who can say? It doesn't matter of course. The thing to remember, or so it seems to me, is don't live for the magic, but use the magic to live!
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