Magical Groups

"It's time for Animaniacs, and we're zany to the max..."

It is human nature for individuals to feel the urge to form groups. It would be logical to assume that this trait was chosen by natural selection, for tribal groups held a far better chance of survival and rearing healthy offspring than lone male-female pairs.

We've also been socialized from birth (most of us anyway) to desire to associate with others and work cooperatively. Groups have been formed to expedite every form of human enterprise, so there's no reason to expect magic to be any different.

However, like certain other kinds of groups (such as political parties and rock-and-roll bands), the individuals involved in a magical group must possess healthy egos and a great amount of hubris to become proficient and effective in their chosen field. Any aggregation of such strong-willed individuals is fertile ground for personality clashes.

The history of occult groups is replete with spectacular blow-ups, heretical schisms, despotism, betrayal, curses, lawsuits, slander, magical wars and a lot of amusingly idiotic posturing and mudslinging. It would serve no purpose to drag any sordid stories out here, but the literature of the occult is chock-full of as much of it as you can stomach -- have at.

A few enterprises, such as the Ordo Templi Orentis (OTO), Rosecrucians (AMORC), various Golden dawn offshoots and several Wiccan groups have been able to sustain some stability, but all of them seem to be endlessly sniping at each other as to who are the "true" representatives of a particular tradition.

There is a strong tendency for those exploring in the Chaos Current to avoid such strum and drang by steering clear of working with groups entirely. But this is itself a form of restriction, for there are obviously some things that can be done by groups of people that can't be done by an individual alone. Group settings have certain uses and advantages.

At first glance, a Chaos Magician is the ultimate lone maverick, forging a trail into the vast inner wilderness of their own psyche. One of the distinguishing traits of the Art is that it is highly personal and experimental. How can something so seemingly individualistic be practiced in a group setting?

Traditional Magical Orders

First, it might be useful to examine the "traditional" forms of magical groups as an object lesson in "don't let this happen to you".

I want to make it clear from the start that the following descriptions lean toward the clearly "negative" aspects of the groups represented. Of course, only a very few such groups take everything to the extremes detailed below. Nor are they meant to be insulting or denigrating to ALL magical Covens or Orders. However, these sytems contain the seeds of abuse as described, even when operating at a much more benign level. Those who have taken it to the diabolical degree described here know who they are...

As operating today, magical groups can be generally subdivided into two basic forms. The first is the form of "coven", which follows the basic template of a small religious group or cult. There is generally a leader whose word is all but indisputable and all other members are subordinate to this person (occasional variants allow for a male/female pair to have nominal leadership, but usually one can look closely and determine who the real power holder is in the relationship.) Membership is usually somewhat restrictive, i.e. by invitation only.

Leaders generally employ the "I-am-only-a-vessel" style of leadership, by which the God/dess, Secret Masters, Extra-terrestrials, what-have-you choose to communicate their will to the followers "through" the leaders. For the leaders, this convieniently sidesteps issues of responsibility; if it's "the will of the God(dess)" then they can't very well be blamed if things go badly, but can reap the credit when things go well. There may be some sort of lip service given to democratic process within the group, but in general it's pretty easy to see who holds the power and that whatever they want is ultimately what the group gets. But for the most part, people who are attracted to such a group in the first place want someone to tell them what to do anyway.

The "magic" practiced by groups such as this tend to serve the agendas of their particular leaders. This can range from sheer self-aggrandizment to vague socio-political objectives such as world peace or promotion of ecological issues.

Most Wiccan covens, small Neo-pagan groups and even some ceremonial magic assemblages follow this style of organisation, as well as any number of "New Age" cult groups. Taken to the extreme, this type of group is a classic example of the cult of personality, of the kind that worship their leader, wear matching Nikes and like cyanide on their applesauce.

A cult of personality such as this is not so hard to pull together, provided one's personal ethics (or lack thereof) allows one to get away with it. The typical form consists of a charasmatic leader that induces followers to subordinate themselves into a group identity. This appeals strongly to those who have submissive personalites by nature or who have a psychological problem that cause them to seek someone to "help" them overcome it.

The leader indoctrinates the potential convert into the fold by use of various techniques of brainwashing and neuro-linguistic programming. The general form is to first praise and build up the confidence of the convert, then alternately devestate them with the kind of remarks and observations that even your worst enemy wouldn't normally say to your face. Next they are "allowed" to redeem themselves by some small act of obedience or contrition. Once this is accomplished, the door is open, and the demands for obedience become more complex and encompassing. In extreme cases they are ultimately induced into performing some act of obedience that will cause a break with their previous life (for example denouncing their families, breaking a sexual taboo, or committing some petty criminal act) which seals them into the cult community.

Not all coven-style groups are so extreme, but the general pattern holds, though to a lesser degree.

The second form, the "Order", follows closely the structure of Freemasonry, with it's hierarchical degree system. There is a tendency toward rigidly prescribed rituals, and a series of initiations by which the individual advances in the social structure of the order. Although there may be some charismatic leaders, a magical order tends to be an oligarchy, where a small group or "inner circle" holds the power. Each level of initiation has certain "secret knowledge" imparted to the initiate, and this serves as a way to enforce the pecking order. It also provides an impetus to the members of the lower levels to remain loyal to the system so as to be eventually granted this knowledge. Furthermore, once an individual has been granted access to the upper echelons, they then have a personal stake in perpetuating the mythology that surrounds the order -- and the cycle continues.

Orders typically insist that the neophytes be indoctrinated into the order's particular world-view, which is generally religious in nature, before any practical techniques are taught to them. The usual excuse is that the fledglings must be prevented from "hurting somebody" with their magic before the have gained the "wisdom" to handle it safely. For the most part, the only "somebody" that the neophytes might hurt is the entrenched leadership -- if the neophytes ever found out how little the higher-ups actually can teach them that they couldn't learn for themselves. In my experience, anytime I've obtained the "secrets" of various orders (which anyone can do -- without joining -- with some dilligent searching) my reaction has been, "Is that IT?"

For the most part, the secrets of these orders (such as the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis) have long ago been published in book form, or can be obtained from computer networks. The philosophical insights to be gained from this "secret knowledge" is not anything that the dedicated seeker can't discover on their own, and there are far simpler and more effective magical techniques than what traditional orders generally impart to their followers.

This is not to say that the heirachical gambit is totally without merit, as it tends to allocate the work of keeping the group going among the members, and the competative atmosphere can serve as an impetus to those who need such encouragement. In it's most benign form, the magical order resembles a college fratenity with a measure of respect afforded to the upperclassmen. But the potential for abuse of the system is so great that I question it's ultimate value, at least for the kind of person who would be attracted to Chaos Magic.

"Chaos Orders"

Though the idea of a "Chaos Order" seems like a contradiction in terms, a few organizations have been founded with such a thing in mind. The most prominent is Peter Carroll's "Pact of the Illuminates of Thananteros" (AKA The IOT or The Pact), due to the wide distribution of Carroll's books Liber Null & Psychonaut and Liber Kaos (Weiser) in which the group figures prominently. The IOT makes no bones about playing the "secret occult order" game, though their experiments have blown up in a few faces over the years. Originally founded by Carroll and partner Ray Sherwin, The Pact has undergone some extreme schisms since it's inception, resulting in spin-offs such as the "Revolutionary IOT" (RIOT) in Germany and The AutonomatriX (AX) in California. The AX is less of an "order" and more of an information network, which has shown to be more useful to someone exploring Chaos Magic than the more traditional forms. (See the appendix for contact information about these groups, should you have an interest in such things.)

It's not neccessary to join an established organized group (and many Chaotes get twitchy at the very idea) to work with other magicians. Probably the best alternative is to gather some like minded friends together and form your own "working group".

Such a group can be formed around any given concept, even that of the cult or order. The siginifying difference is that whatever belief-set is used during the group's meetings, rituals, etc. is only in operation during that time. Like any other work of Chaos Magic, the belief-set is destroyed upon completion of the work -- until next time.

In my experience, the most effective and enjoyable magical working groups for Chaos Magic are modeled after the idea of a literary salon or a gourmet dinner party. Gourmet groups take turns hosting the dinner, sharing favorite dishes they've prepared with their fellows. Literary salons have each participant take a turn reading from their works.

Using this model, each member of a working group will take a turn preparing and directing a working assisted by the rest of the members. In one such group I participate in, the guidelines are simple:

* "Leadership" rotates to each member in turn every meeting. (We fill in names on a calendar so everyone knows in advance whose turn it is.)

* The leader is responsible for preparing what ritual work is to be done, including whatever materials will be needed and informing the others in advance. Generally this was done at the previous meeting -- handouts of texts, requests for supplies (i.e. "Next week, everyone needs to bring some modeling clay and a feather..."), etc.

* Anyone who does not wish to participate in a particular ritual for any reason has simply to say so and excuse themselves from the templespace -- they can not be asked for, nor can they offer, any explanation whatsoever. They are appointed as "Acting Sargent-At-Arms" and "stationed" outside the room. Upon completion of the actual work, they are immediately called back in.

The reasoning for this is as follows: there are many possible reasons for someone to be uncomfortable performing a particular working. Sometimes it's a personal problem with the leader, sometimes it's a psychological hang-up about some element of the rite (like a dislike of nudity, or a fear of the sight of blood), or perhaps the person doesn't even know for sure what the problem is. In any case, a person's reluctance can be misinterpreted or even used as a "weapon" against them if details about it become generally known. On the other hand, a reluctant person's reasons can be taken as personally denigrating or insulting by the leader of the rite if they are spelled out in detail. It's far better to "draw the veil" over the whole thing and keep private matters private.

Expect that a group working Chaos Magic together is going to undergo some extreme rearrangements, with people leaving, coming in, leaving again and so on. If you can get a core of four or more individuals that trust each other and show up consistantly for gatherings, you're doing well.

It's probably wise to have some definite goals or a "theme" that your magical group wishes to realize. This is not to say that there must be only one such goal, or some overriding grand scheme to justify the groups existence. Such ideas are the kind of thing that "eco-conscious" Pagan groups like Mimi "Starhawk" Cimos' "Reclaiming Collective" engage in, and seem to be (without questioning the participant's sincerity), more useful as a marketing tool than a means by which any tangible change has been brought about.

The group's goal can simply be to experiment with various types of magical work, but whatever it is it should be made clear from the inception and agreed to by all who participate.

And above all, know when to quit. There is nothing more pathetic and unenjoyable than a magical group that has outlived it's usefulness. Don't continue out of sheer inertia when it comes to pass that there is more time and energy being spent on negotiating personal squabbles and power trips between the participants than on the work itself. To all things come the time to dissovle into back into the primal Chaos.

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