Chaos Magick for the Clueless (which would be me) – a converstation with Bob Freeman & Freeman Presson
As we prepare to read the Chaos Magick classics Liber Null and Psychonaut for our next 2 Weiser Book Club meetings, it occurs to me that I’m probably not alone in my confusion over what, exactly CM is …or isn’t. Wouldn’t it be great to have a little bit of a primer?
Here is (verbatim) our enlightening email exhange:
I don’t know if you two have e-met yet, but in case you have not let me do the honors:
Bob Freeman (@OccultDetective) – meet Freeman Presson (@LilithsPriest) Freeman – meet Bob!
What I’d like to do today is talk a little about the basics of Chaos Magick before we have our first #WBC7 session on Liber Null next week.
Full disclosure – Chaos Magick is something I have little knowledge of, so if you guys would like to just take off with this, go right ahead. Otherwise I’ll pipe in with the occasional query.
Let me start things off by asking a simple question:
What is Chaos Magick and how does it differ from other magickal traditions?
The artist Austin Osman Spare is frequently cited as a primary inspiration for what became Chaos Magic. Spare was briefly a member of the Golden Dawn, but took off in a radically different direction. He stripped thaumaturgy down to its basics and showed how magic could be done by embodying an intent in something like a sigil (a simple glyph often derived from text) and launching it by entering a trance state. Spare also did novel things like invoking spirits into his paintings.
Spare’s approach bubbled along under the surface for a while, and then became a current in its own right in the 1980′s*. It is not that much of a force now; it has become fashionable to be “post-Chaotic.” But I am getting ahead of myself.
The “Chaos” in the name does not refer to personal wildness or amorality (necessarily), but to a recognition of primal Chaos as the mind-stuff out of which reality is made. Chaos magic breaks out of the Ceremonial mold by using this directly as the First Matter. Chaos Magic uses whatever is handy — sigils, drawing, dancing, sex — to imprint intent on the Chaos and send it out.
Chaos Magicians were typically agnostic, speaking a lot in terms of models, like the spirit model, the energy model, and the information model. They talked about the need to be fluid about beliefs, using them as tools rather than something to cling to.
I don’t want to rattle on about the history of the movement, and so on, as Wikipedia knows more about that than I do. This has just been my offhand ramble about the basics.
*the meetings and beginnings of Chaos-Magic-as-Movement that I referred to the early 80′s were happening in 1978-79, gaining visibility in the 80′s
In essence, Chaos Magic is whatever the Magician wants it to be. Adherents to this current typically construct their own magical system, either from whole-cloth or through the appropriation of outside sources, often from pop and counter culture. I have known practitioners who utilized comic book pantheons in their rituals, such as Jack Kirby’s New Gods or his and Stan Lee’s take on Norse Mythology found in The Mighty Thor. I’ve known chaos magicians who have incorporated dead rock musicians into their personal systems, and those who have developed intricate rites involving characters from the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Works of HP Lovecraft, and more.
Freeman is correct in asserting that the godfather of Chaos Magic is Austin Osman Spare. His techniques in utilizing sigil magic is at the very core of almost every practitioner I’ve conversed with. I also find Robert Anton Wilson and Discordianism to be a common theme among the vast majority. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was probably the most important catalyst in advancing the Chaos Current.
One quick addendum, Freeman wrote that Spare was a brief member of the Golden Dawn, but I believe it was actually Crowley’s A:.A:. that he was initiated into. And I can’t believe I forgot to mention the late-great Kenneth Grant as one of the founding fathers of the Chaos Movement. The Thelemic Current and that of Chaos walk close in hand…
Yes, it looks like Bob was right about which order it was, the A:. A:.
Spare died in 1956, and Carroll met Sherwin in 1976. I can personally attest that that was a very weird 20 years, from the Beats to the end of the Vietnam war (and the publication of Illuminatus!), or from the birth to the death of Rock-n-roll; however you describe it, it was also the incubation period for Chaos Magic.
Another impetus for the current was the uptake into popular consciousness of the revolution in science that happened in the first half of 20th century: relativity, quantum physics (with uncertainty, non-locality, and entanglement), and Goedel’s incompleteness theorem showed that the world was not a nice, simple clockwork of ultimate predictability, and that there were cracks in the foundations of science. People inside and outside the sciences have been dealing with the implications since. Magic is no exception; Peter Carroll has made the best attempt of any of us to explain how magic might fit into a scientific Theory of Everything (I have just enough of a scientific education to be able to call bullshit on most of these attempts, but not enough to make my own).
The DIY aspect of Chaos Magic naturally gave rise to the sort of splintering effect we’ve seen in the last fifteen or so years. Even among the practitioners who still use the term Chaos, innovation is given such pride of place that there’s not much common ground. If you ask why the Wikipedia article on Chaos Magic is so short, one possible answer is that it covers just about all that Chaotes actually agree on.
This may seem like a naive question, but since Chaos Magick seems to be a self-defined “tradition” (for lack of a better word) – how does it differ from Ecclectic Magic? Is it a matter of source, or intent?
In my opinion the only difference between Chaos and Ecclectic Magic is intent. While both mine the paradigm shift model, I see Ecclectics as active magicians and Chaotes as reactive. Also, again, in my opinion, Chaotes are more methodical in their approach, while Ecclectics are more whimsical and freespirited. That’s not meant to disparage either path. It’s just my own limited observations of those few practitioners I’ve met out there in the real world.
I don’t think there actually is any coherent tradition of “Eclectic Magic.” If anyone were intending such, that is completely the wrong name for it. Or maybe I am not in on the joke and the whole point is that it is oxymoronic.
I only use the word “tradition” because I couldn’t think of what else to call it. Practice, maybe?
Bob – you talked a little earlier about inspirational sources for Chaotes coming from pop culture, among other things – I imagine that would be a large part of the appeal – the ability to take images from everyday modern life (which is saturated with pop culture references) and work it into a functioning magickal practice. But could that also be why the movement is already waning? Because the culture changes too rapidly for these symbols to acquire lasting power?
That’s certainly a contributing factor. I think more prevalent is the fact that there is no structure, no hierarchy. It’s hard to keep a movement alive when there’s no one marshaling the troops, so to speak. We, as a society, despite the internet “connecting” us in ways unimaginable, are becoming more and more isolated. In that sense, even though it may appear that the “movement” is waning, the Chaos Current is as strong as ever, even if it’s not called as such.
I don’t think tradition was the wrong word, I was just saying that, AFAIK, Eclectic Magic never had any sort of mindshare or traction compared to the Chaos Current.
First, I think the waning of Chaos Magic as an identifiable movement is perfectly natural. In part, it accomplished its mission: a lot of its core ideas are occult “common knowledge” now, at least among the magically hard-core. Secondly, as Bob said, it is by nature inimical to hierarchy (the IOT, which was widely considered to have too much structure, was still designed as a network instead of a pyramid).
Thirdly, a lot of people, for a variety of reasons, chose to do highly CM-influenced work and call it something else. Taylor Ellwood, the most visible exponent of Pop Culture Magic, didn’t call himself a Chaote, and as far as I remember, David Michael Cunningham, the primary author of Creating Magical Entities (with Taylor Ellwood and Traeonna Wagener) never did either … although CME itself is a great “Chaos Magic” book.
That all makes perfect sense now that you point it out – especially since the nature of Chaos is flux.
Given that Chaos Magick is primarily self-defined, where would you direct someone interested in learning more about it or developing their own practices? (No need to shamelessly plug our books here, that’s my job )
Supernatural by Graham Hancock — Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna — The Book of Pleasure by Austin Osman Spare — Pop Magic! by Grant Morrison from The Book of Lies, edited by Richard Metzger — Condensed Chaos & Prime Chaos by Phil Hine — The Psychedelic Reader, edited by Timothy Leary — Quantum Psychology, Cosmic Trigger, & Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson (and the Illuminatus! Trilogy, of course)
I would still send people to the works of Peter J. Carroll (Liber Null and Psychonaut) and Phil Hine (Condensed Chaos) for an introduction. I have to confess I have not gotten around to reading Carroll’s latest book; I expect it to be amazing. For sigil magic, there’s PRACTICAL SIGIL MAGIC: Creating Personal Symbols for Success, by Frater U:. D:.
I mentioned Creating Magical Entities before (Immanion Press), which is a great text if you can get past the total lack of copy-editing. The works of Spare, esp. The Book of Pleasure still seem wildly original.
There were some influential CM journals; the last I know of was Konton, which published a few issues in 2005-2006. Those are worth a look.
Chaos Magic and other DIY approaches are not an “easy” route to magical success. Direct ways are often the hardest (said he-who-beat-his-head-against-Zen-for-half-his-life). I personally am in a phase of going back and filling in the gaps in my magical education, but this is part of a continuing spiral.
I think this is a good place to wrap it up – what do you guys think?
I’d say all the major points were covered. Thanks to you both. That was quite enjoyable.
I agree with Bob, we covered a lot, and it was delightful.
That was fantastic! I knew you two were the guys to ask Many Many Thanks!
For more information, check out: