What Is Chaos Magic?

"All great things must first wear a terrifying and monsterous mask, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity."

-- Fredrick Nietzsche

 

The words "Chaos Magic" reverberate with mystery and intrigue. It's rather safe to assume that this was intentional on the part of those who originally coined the term. Of course, when Gerald Gardener came up with his reconstruction of European Paganism in the 1950's and called it "witchcraft," he must have been equally well aware of the effect that that term would have on his contemporaries. There's nothing like a touch of the "forbidden" if you want to intrigue people.

The label of "Chaos Magic" suffers from two inherent drawbacks. First, the "cyberpunk" connotations of the term tend to attract some of those misanthropic types who were previously attracted to the label "Satanist" for similar reasons. They see it as some kind of "Satanism Lite," as it were. This subclass of human used to use the term "witch" or "warlock" to describe themselves before the term "Chaos Magic" came into vogue, and "Chaos Magician" sounds so much cooler. Those who once might have painted upside-down pentagrams on their black leather jackets and called themselves "warlocks" have now switched to eight-rayed stars and are calling themselves "Chaos Magicians" instead. So instead of embarassing the witches or the Satanists anymore, they've taken to embarassing the Chaotes instead.

The second (and more important) drawback is that the very idea of Chaos Magic inherently defies description. It is highly personal and experimental by its nature. Even those who claim to practice it are hard-pressed to define what it is , outside of their own personal version. But neither is it simply "eclectic witchcraft", though it's methods certainly are eclectic. It can only be defined by certain commonalities of thought among those who claim to practice it, and even among some who thought they were just "doing their own thing" and never knew it had a name.

No Holds Barred Magic

Chaos Magic is dangerous, awesome, full of potential and therefore highly compelling. It is "no-holds-barred magic". The rule is that there are no rules, besides learning what works for you and using it to accomplish your will, while avoiding getting stuck in rut of doing everything the same way all of the time.

In the menace and fascination of the very concept of "chaos" lies the power of Chaos Magic. There is no way to accurately describe Chaos Magic, any more than one can accurately describe the Tao. "That which can be described is not the sacred Tao", as the old sage said. In a way, I suppose that the Chaos Magicians are the ultimate "secret society," though it is inherent in Chaos Magic itself, rather than needing to be enforced by oath or decree.

So why is it called Chaos Magic?

It is called "magic" since, like all other forms of Art of the Mages, it seeks to affect the course of events by non-normal means. Action at a distance. Events that defie logical causality. Altered states of consciousness. Arcane knowledge. Power. Ecstacy.

But what makes it Chaos Magic? (Or "magick" -- choose your spelling to taste.) While it may be impossible to describe directly, I can offer a few opinions on drawing the distinction.

One could begin by saying among Chaos Magicians there is the underlying assumption of the "random" and relativistic nature of life, the universe and everything. Reality is stochastic in nature, which is to say that each intelligent entity "creates" reality by their interaction and participation in it. We are adrift in a quantum world of uncertainty. Existance can not be completely described by either religion or it's philosophical successor, science.

Chaos Mathematics shows us that what seems random is in fact chaotic and has a higher "order" that can be perceived only from a great enough perspective. Chaos gives rise to reality itself. It might also give rise to the tendency for matter to accrue form and perhaps even intelligence.

Strange Attractors

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "chaos" is Greek in origin. Its original meaning was: "a vast gulf or chasm; the neither abyss, empty space, infinite darkness, the first state of the universe." In English, this was refined to mean "the formless void of primordial matter, the 'great deep' or 'abyss' out of which the cosmos or structure of the universe was evolved." The popular modern interpretation of the word as being a synonym for "disorder" is a recent and somewhat misleading development. Both order and disorder are themselves manifestations of the Primal Chaos. The original meaning had more in common with what the Eastern mystics call the Tao. I think this is not at all accidental.

So we Chaosists call this primal connectivity "Chaos" instead of "God" or some other traditional name to remove any anthropomorphic ideas from something that is so totally un-human as to defy comprehension -- at least by intellectual means.

Another reason behind the name is that many of the concepts of modern Chaos Theory can be given metaphysical interpretation. For example, it's obvious that various occult systems have many factors in common. In Chaos Theory, there is something called a "strange attractor," a certain type of coherency that arises in any turbulent system. Mathematically speaking, it merely represents certain ranges of numbers that tend to fall into a recycling set of infinitely regressive values when certain formulae are applied. As it is usually visualized, it's a three dimensional graph (two spatial axes representing the complex plane, plus one color axis) of the value of the iterated function fc(z) = z^2+c, where z and c are complex. This yields the now-famous Mandelbrot set of images.

What makes it more than a mere arithmetic game is that when computers are allowed to crank endlessly through the calculations, certain geometric patterns emerge that bear a striking resemblence to our perceptions of various real world phenomena. Zooming in on particular areas of the complex plane, many fascinating visual characteristics are generated, with similarities to the apprearence of such things as swirling water and rugged coastlines. Therefore it can be used as tool to make predictions (in this case, how turbulent systems will behave), which elevates it to the realm of science -- where it is properly referred to as Non-Linear Dynamics.

A good example of a strange attractor in the physical world is a vortex; given the right conditions, it will arise in air currents, running water, dust storms -- anything from the Great Red Spot of Jupiter to the whirlpool in your bathtub drain. But regardless of the medium, a vortex will always assume a similar pattern.

To apply this concept to the occult, assume any given magical "system" is the medium in which certain patterns (practices, concepts, formulae, etc. ) will emerge -- strange attractors -- that will be strikingly similar to each other.

In magical terms, a strange attractor would be, say, astral projection, or energy centers aligned along the spinal column. Or the interaction with non-corpreal intelligences (gods, demons, spirits, etc.) A kind of pattern that always seems to arise regardless of the particular belief-set that goes along with the actual techniques. Within them all lay the "strange attractors" that can be harvested from the morass of archaic symbolism and put to use by the canny magician.

Chaos Magicians look for these commonalties among seemingly different systems as clues to an underlying factor that can be stripped of its unnecessary symbolism if desired and put to directly use with any chosen set of symbols. The intent is to reveal the practical techniques that underly the outer trappings and (one would hope) turn the symbolism into a personal expression of Art. Chaos Magic has applied such artistic concepts as postmodernism and deconstructionism to the study of the occult, and has achieved some remarkable insights, particularly the idea that all traditional magical systems are sociologically derived and culturally biased. This is not an indictment, but simply a recognition of the facts. The gods are dead. Long live the gods.

Belief And Meta-belief

To quote one writer, Peter Carroll: "If you want a one-line definition with which most Chaosists would not disagree, then I offer the following: Chaosists usually accept the meta-belief that belief itself is only a tool for achieving effects; it is not an end in itself."

Meta-belief is an important concept in Chaos Magic. It is the idea that belief is nothing more than a state of mind, and as such, can be manipulated by the will. Belief is a psychological state that can be delberately self-manipulated, although it has the power to shape our own reality, and sometimes other people's reality as well. It is the means, not the end; the vehicle, not the destination.

In The Theatre Of Magick, Ray Sherwin wrote: "The [Chaos] Magician believes nothing in the sense of having faith. He experiments practically to ascertain if there is any value in the postulates he has either originated or borrowed from elsewhere. It is a fact that we all must hold certain organic beliefs for the sake of convenience. You all believe that the chairs you are sitting in are real -- most of the time. This is not however a mental process, but rather an instinctive or organic one without which life would be impossible." This level of belief is not what meta-belief is concerned with. Rather, it concerns the level of belief that is attained by the method actor, sometimes referred to in the inverted sense as "suspension of disbelief".

The practice of meta-belief confers an awful freedom and an awful responsibility. Practicing Chaos Magic involves the temporary adoption of an obsessive belief system that allows for the possibility of magic to accomplish specific effects, and then the abandonment of that belief system upon the completion of the work. Subsequent, and even contradictory belief systems are adopted in turn as need or desire may dictate. To do this (and not go completely insane) it is of paramount importance that no one particular set of beliefs is ever accepted as being ultimately true.

Relativity

This rejection of absolutism, more than anything else, accounts for the sinister reputation of Chaos Magic in modern occultism. Nearly all previous revivals of occult philosophy, regardless of their public reputation, have been maniacal about proclaiming their "truth" and their "high moral standards." Gerald Gardner, in his 'revival' of Witchcraft, formulated nearly 200 moral "laws" to govern the activities of his followers, who to this day fight a never ending battle to convince the world of their benevolence. Aleister Crowley and his successors have churned out reams of prose defending the Thelemic maxim of "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" as being a 'greater' system of morality. Whether it is or not is beside the point. Chaos Magic bypasses the issue entirely; there is no dogma to indoctrinate you into "good" or "positive" moral standards before getting the details of the technique. When you practice Chaos Magic, you must choose what is ultimately "good" or ultimately "evil".

As a result, Chaos Magic is magic without limitations. Chaos magic is not a new system, or a rehash of older systems, or any kind of system at all. It's a new attitude. It's a different way of looking at the Art of Magic -- as an expression of Art above all other considerations. Like so many Artists, Chaos Mages tend toward an attitude of elitism, since a great part of the creation of Art is the pursuit of excellence, and pride in oneself and one's creations when excellence is achieved. An elitist attitude (as long as it's balanced with compassion and doesn't desend into bigotry) is forgivable in the Artist, for without it no great work of Art would ever be realized.

Some will say that a system of magic without an attached system of morality to govern it's use is "dangerous". While it is a fact that certain misanthropic types could seize upon the freedom of magical expression inherent in such an approach and use it to the detriment of their fellow humans, such sociopaths will always find a way to inflict an equal amount of misery on others whether they practice magic or not. They're very clever that way.

Chaos Magic isn't "new", because every ancient adept who ever struck out on his or her own heretical path was, in effect, responding to the call of Chaos. But when a system grows out of any path, when holy books are written, when rituals and manners and moralities are prescribed for "the followers," it has ceased to be Chaos Magic. It is only by pushing our selves out on a limb that we encounter the Chaos Current, and touch the spark that makes magic a reality.

However, it is not as simple as merely grabbing on to whatever happens to strike your fancy. Bits and pieces of various and sundry old rituals and belief structures, kludged together by a given individual and molded into a "system," albeit a personal one, is not Chaos Magic either. Locked-in belief is locked-in belief. It is far more important to be free to push the envelope than it is to be "correct" -- or even consistent. Chaos Magic is not simply a reformulated mishmash of old magical traditions with trendy new labels.

Postmodern Magic

In cultural terms, Chaos Magic can be described as the vanguard of Western esoteric practice. Unlike it's predesesors, it involves more spontaneity and eschews a rigid framework of rituals and procedures. It also explores the techniques of shamanism and sorcery, something most Western magical traditions have always tended to shun as being "beneath" them. It is influenced by many modern cultural trends, such as cyberpunk, postmodernism and deconstructionism. It tries to integrate many of the current theories in science and philosophy like quantum physics, synchronicity and, of course, chaos theory with occult phenomena. There are even influences from occult history, such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, Taoism, Tibetian Buddhism, many forms of native shamanism and even from certain science fiction and fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Terry Pratchett and William Gibson.

Chaos Magic as commonly defined today derives primarily from the work of Austin Osman Spare and Peter J. Carroll. (See the chapter on History for details.) Both rejected most of traditional magical practice as being unnecessarily complicated, culturally bigoted and generally ineffective, and fearful of the powerful but dangerous techniques of sorcery and shamanism. Both also considered traditional occult teaching to be far more concerned with imparting a system of morality than anything else, making them in actual fact religions. Spare was the first one to draw the connection between magic and (in his time) the relatively new field of psychology, freeing occult practice from the necessity of a religious world-view. Carroll, along with Sherwin, founded the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT) and attempted to also integrate the concepts of Chaos Theory and Quantum Mechanics with the occult and paranormal.

Due to these influences, Chaos Magic is perhaps the first kind of ceremonial magic that doesn't approach the subject as an antique art. Magic need not be handed down from ancient adepts to be "real". Instead, Magic is something to be experimented with and improved upon. Virtually all other systems (they don't call them "traditions" for nothing) assume that "The Ancient Masters" already uncovered all of the secrets of magic long ago, and all we poor moderns can hope to do is recapture a glimmer of the glories of the past. This antiquarian attitude has unfortunately hamstrung the development of the Art of Magic since the fall of Rome.

Chaos Magic is further distinguished from the "systems" of the past by its approach. It sees ritual magic as psychodrama, rather than worship. As such, it is quite similar to the Stanislavsky system of Method Acting. One carefully defines the role one will enact during a magical ritual (including as part of the "character" a belief in the existance of magic itself) and, surrounded by a setting condusive to that role, throws oneself in to as inspired of a performance as one can muster. If a sufficient level of meta-belief is achieved, the gates to effective magic are opened.

Like a method actor, a Chaos Magician seeks to circumvent everyday reality and suspend disbelief. To do this he or she uses the tools of the actor: setting, costumes, props, words, sounds, and especially what Stanislavsky called emotional memory. Any powerful, transformative experience can be used to tap into the emotional memory, including sex, pain, confusion, elation, disgust and ecstasy -- especially in paradoxical combinations.

The Gateway To Magic

The techniques of Chaos Magic are applied by the magician to induce and utilize a mental state we call gnosis. This application of the term is similar to the meaning used by the Tantrists, where the discursive mind is short-circuited and the magician's intention can be imprinted onto the quantum flux of the universe. Even the briefest moment of gnosis, attained at a point when "the gates are open" and the will is being channelled through the subconscious mind, can be enough to bring about a magical result.

Chaos Magicians use sigils (magical intentions that have been rendered into symbolic glyphs or mantras), ritual techniques from any source, especially original ones, and artifacts of any chosen culture to form a magical space, a temporary autonomous zone in which the subconscious mind can be directed. Gnosis is the gateway to effective magic. It is the moment of timelessness, the state of magical trance where the mind interfaces directly with the acausal interconnectivity of the universe.

A ritual is basically a map of sub-consciousness, and therefore can be useful as a guide on the trail one would blaze into one's own psyche. However, prescribed rituals, along with such contrivances as "books of shadows", "holy books", "publications in class A" and the like, are precisely devised to protect the operant from Chaos. In short, there is always room for new Chaos Magic methods, but none whatsoever for Chaos Magic systems.

Tao, Zen And Deconstructionism

Philosophically, Chaos Magic bears a resemblance to Taoism, except for the Taoist's attitude of quietism and passivety. Success hinges on ego-annihilation, so there is a lot in common with the Buddhist Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka schools, and perhaps even more so with the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. An examination of the Chod rituals of Tibetan Buddhists will yield valuable clues as to the formulation of effective Chaos rites. The effect of a Zen Buddhist koan on the discursive mind is a small taste of what a Chaos Magician seeks.

The practice of Chaos Magic can be destablizing, because it's designed to deconstruct belief. Like psychedelic drugs, it can drastically alter your reality. So it's not for the squeamish, or for those who fear what lurks in their deepest selves, for it is from those deep selves that the Chaos Mage forges his or her gods and demons.

Such dualistic concepts as "white" or "black" magic are not applicable to Chaos Magic, at least not in the sense of being good or evil. Magic is a force, like electromagnetism, and has no inherent moral qualities. Peter Carroll wrote in Liber Null, "The end results of either path are likely not to be dissimilar, for the paths meet in a way that is impossible to describe. The so-called 'middle way', or path of knowledge, consisting of the mere second hand acquisition of ideas, is an excuse to do neither and leads nowhere." As a result, Chaos Magicians tend toward pushing the extremes, finding balance by swinging from pole to pole, rather than seeking "moderation."

Tragedy And Comedy

Being morally neutral, Chaos Magic is probably not for those who haven't already come up with a well-developed code of personal ethics. In fact, most Chaos Magicians, though not all, would define themselves (if held at gunpoint) as "black" or at least "grey" magicians, but not as defined by those who see the dark side of existence as merely evil. If their magic is "black," it is because it deals with that which is dark and hidden, and drawn from the primal abyss of Chaos. People with no ethical standards of any kind whatsoever tend toward eventual self-annihilation anyway. Chaos magical practice only accelerates the process, usually ending in some form or another of spectacular insanity. But don't look to Chaos Magic to provide moral guidance. If one desires that, it simply must be sought elsewhere.

It is also magic that dare not take itself too seriously. Chaotes are generally known for having a well developed sense of humor, and this is often expressed in their magical work, from mock-serious invocations of Bugs Bunny as a trickster god, to the practice of ending every ceremony with a round of roaring laughter. Though the humor may tend toward the satirical, there is a large measure of genuine amusement at what a collossal joke the universe actually is, and how much fun it can be to laugh along with it.

Politics and Religion

In recent times, occultism has been bound up to a large extent with political preference. Most people require some sort of framework on which to hang their opinions and preferences, which makes a mix of magic and politics in a holistic system much more attractive than politics alone. The emergent magical systems of the present day, such as Thelema and Neo-Paganism, are popular precisely because they combine a socio-political belief with a magical appreciation of reality. It gives their politics a "higher purpose". Politics, the art of manipulating others into conforming to (or at least acknowledging the predominance of) a particular set of cultural values, has nothing whatsoever to do with Chaos Magic. Chaos Magic exposes the folly of politics by showing us that all efforts to bring order to this dimension are ultimately futile. Attempts to organize around fixed belief structures are attempts to increase the certainty of existance. This is antiethical to the concept of Chaos, where belief is spontaneous, as life-force is spontaneous and evolution itself is spontaneous.

And in any case, an over-politicized magical group is invariably stultified and unable to cope with the swift changes in consciousness that can occur within the group, especially when their consciousness develops in response to spiritual and magical considerations. How can we seriously expect a system that combines magic and politics to be anything but drastically unstable? This is why virtually all attempts at "pagan eco-politics", "feminist spirituality" and other such cross-breeds have been such dismal failures, hardly raising a blip on the cultural radar screen before dissolving into scism and infighting.

Similarly, it can be said that religion and Chaos Magic are fundamentally incompatible. The one restricts, the other liberates. The one requires that intellect be twisted to accommodate a prescribed ludicrous belief system and adhere to it perpetually, the other freely adopts ludicrous belief systems of its own choice and for its own purposes -- and then destroys them. Religion -- and most magical systems are and always have been essentially religious in nature -- requires a single mind-set for all people, for all times, in all circumstances. Chaos Magic demands personal, flexible tenets of belief; in other words, meta-belief. Religion requires certain thoughts and actions to be classified as good or evil. Chaos Magic attempts to understand and embrace all aspects of existence, with moral value to be judged only by the individual.

Therefore, Chaos Magic is not concerned with such amorphous mystical goals as attaining Nirvana, finding your True Will or crossing the Abyss, at least not directly. If you wish to worship the Goddess or commune with your Holy Guardian Angel, you would do better to look elsewhere; modern Neo-Paganism offers a vast smorgasbord of various amalgamtions of religion and magic, from Wicca to Thelema, from White Light Brotherhoods to the Church of Satan. The goal of Chaos Magic is developing practical magical techniques, that create real, perceptable changes according to the will of the magician. This is not limited to external physical effects, but also (and perhaps more importantly) includes operations designed to alter the psyche of the magician in profound ways -- but in ways the magician has chosen or wishes to explore, rather than in a predordained manner. The "structure" of Chaos Magic, if it can be said to even have one, is a non -structure. It is vehemently non-hierarchical. Chaos Magic is magical anarchy, but in the true sense of the word -- it is magic without leaders.

Embracing The Void

With Chaos Magic, the principle is that you can experience anything you wish as you wish it; this is the Chaosists take on "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." Therefore it is up to you where and when, and with what you involve yourself.

In short then, Chaos Magic is Chaos Magic. It is not a new religion, nor is it just a new magical system. It is not a "system" at all. Don't ask others to define it for you in sociological, political or religious terms. Although they may be able to construct a dogma that makes sense, it will not have anything to do with Chaos.

Or as Fats Waller put it when asked about the nature of Jazz: "If I have to explain it to you, you'll never know!"

Chaos, being Chaos, has no attributes save itself. This leaves the difficulty of describing it, because it is not an "it". Chaos Magic is a non-dualistic gateway, which has confounded even those who "originated" it by being so multifarious that its development will always advance in unpredictable directions. Chaos Magic will always grow independently of any one source. No one can "teach" you Chaos Magic. To paraphrase Austin Spare, "All a teacher can ever do is show you your own magnificence." So all I can hope to do with this writing is to entice you to follow your own path. I only point my finger at the moon; you must travel there yourself.

Chaos Magic is an extension beyond our reality and beyond the traditionalist systems. To call it a "system" simply underlines the trap humans fall into when needing to conceptualize. If one is unsure how to proceed, and has no experience in magic at all, one is sure to find within the complexity and variety of traditional paths a mix of methods that suits his or her nature. However when he or she has honed his or her talents on these tried and tested systems, the next step must be the Void and the necessary development of original methodologies -- which is the heart of Chaos Magic, and that which will propel the Art of the Mage into the 21st century, free at last from the constraints and superstitions of the past.

This new way of practicing the Art of Magic is as free as possible of all moral dogma, a way solely oriented to personal discovery. Because the practice aims to assimilate and then surpass the limited dualistic approaches to Magic which has hallmarked the traditions and shackles us to the past, it is by its nature beyond our comprehension, and beyond our ability to predict what direction it will take.

But its interface is Chaos, so by popular consensus, "Chaos Magic" is its name. And it can be described most succinctly in the words of Hassan-Il-Sabbah:

"Nothing is true. Everything is permitted."


©1996, 2000 All rights reserved.

Back to Index