The Forgotten Teachings of Chaos Magic

It might seem a rather bombastic claim to speak of the “forgotten teachings of Chaos Magic.” Take a look on Youtube or surf the net for anything related to that modern occult movement and you will find a lot of people either making insider jokes about magic (perhaps referencing Harry Potter) or talking about how to create sigils (by writing out a statement of desire (i.e., what you want to happen) deleting the repeated letters, and then abstracting the remaining letters into a kind of symbol or sign). It all looks quite trivial and, frankly, a bit silly. But this popular form of Chaos Magic doesn’t, in my opinion, really represent what was important about the earlier movement.

Leaving aside the odd obscure classic, such as Ramsey Duke’s SSOTBME: An Essay On Magic, the books that both defined and launched Chaos Magic were Peter J. Carroll’s Liber Null and Psychonaut (later repackaged as one book by Weiser). And in them are brief instructions on how to make sigils, as well as chapters on meditation, banishing, the evocation of spirits, invocation, and so on. (If you are specifically interested in sigil magic, and are looking for a more in-depth and advanced work on the subject, also check out Frater U.:D.:’s classic Practical Sigil Magic.)

Chaos Magic:

As radical as Liber Null and Psychonaut still are in some respects, their format is similar to Magick In Theory And Practice, one of the classic works of the often publicity-seeking and notorious, if generally misunderstood, English magician Aleister Crowley — who influenced early Chaos Magic practitioners during its embryonic stage in the 1970s. 

Yet, while sigil magic has become synonymous with Chaos Magic, the method found in  Liber Null was invented some decades earlier by the modern English sorcerer and illustrator Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956), who, we might note, was briefly acquainted with Crowley. And Liber Null and Psychonaut are both influenced, in different ways, by Crowley and Spare (which Carroll would undoubtedly acknowledge). Leaving aside sigils, for example, the illustrations in Liber Null — and, often, the aesthetics of early Chaos Magic more broadly — are an homage to Spare’s occult drawings. 

Although it has come to characterize Chaos Magic, experimental magic is only one of two narratives that run through Liber Null and Psychonaut. And, I would suggest, it is the least interesting of the two. We might even say that it is the more obvious (and, twisting the meaning of the word slightly, the more exoteric or outward ) of the two. 

Despite the stripping away of the Kabbalah in particular (important to Crowley and the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), and of tradition in general, popular, contemporary Chaos Magic practice nevertheless fits into the standard, modern occult format: learning meditation before practicing invocations, banishing before and after rituals of invocation, and so on.

It would also be easy (and probably accurate) to say that ideologically, popular Chaos Magic reflects the worst aspects of modernity: e.g., a desire for the “quick and easy,” cultural relativism, the convenient denial of truth, the mixing of different systems without much understanding of any, and a lack of enthusiasm for studying anything philosophically deep. Popular Chaos Magic is, in some respects, a mere dark-ish inversion of the unicorns and rainbows of mainstream, popular, post-New Age, “pick ‘n’ mix” spirituality. 

Art by Hagen von Tulien (check out his work here).

The Forgotten Teachings:

But a degree of popularity often results in, or from, a significant degree of dumbing down, of course. And Chaos Magic is no exception. But, as a result, the more challenging, interesting, imaginative, and thought-provoking aspects of Chaos Magic (especially of Liber Null and Psychonaut) have been largely forgotten. And they are often more complex than, and contrary to, its popular forms. Among these aspects are Carroll’s writings on the Chaosphere, New Aeon Magic, Random Belief, and the Millennium in Liber Null

Here, an entirely different, more mature, and more intellectually and spiritually substantial picture of Chaos Magic emerges. There are none of the contemporary cliches of magic, spirituality, or — worse — politics. Instead, Carroll illuminates the dark and barren landscape of our aeon: We are alone in an age when all of our most sacred beliefs are collapsing before our eyes. Little is left. We stand on the precipice of a new aeon (or a new Yuga, to use the Hindu term). We cannot know what will characterize it. But what we do now may provide the seed of new beliefs and a new culture later on. As such, we need to look within ourselves, back to ancient tradition, and to cutting-edge science. This is the context of Chaos Magic.

We’ll look at Carroll’s ideas of the aeons at another time. But here, briefly, is what he thinks about the coming millennium:

Fixed ideas about the essential spirit or nature of man will be completely abandoned… Drugs, obscure sexualities, faddism, strange entertainments, and material sensationalism are a preliminary groping toward this end. 

Liber Null & Psychonaut, p. 90.

In time, there will be a death of superstition, but also a death of spirituality, identity, belief, and ideology. Nevertheless, as we find ourselves in a world of nihilism, in which there will remain no “fixed ideas” (and no belief in truth), we must face it head on:

The magical life demands the abandonment of comfort, conventionality, security and safety — for competition, combat, extremes, and adversity are needed to produce higher resolutions and personal evolution.

Liber Null & Psychonaut, p. 66.

This is very much the situation that we find ourselves in the West (and, increasingly, in every part of the globe). Our spiritual and religious traditions have collapsed or have been hollowed out from inside and we cannot believe in them any more. And, if we cannot, we face a choice of either converting to another religion, throwing ourselves into a substitute religion such as a political ideology, becoming an atheist or materialist, or stoically facing the Chaos and trying to find — or rediscover — a spiritual approach to living through it. Chaos Magic suggests the latter. And the type of individual it imagines, in this regard, is, surely, the Psychonaut — one who is prepared to go out into the darkness, and within his or her own shadow, to discover the creative fire.

Chaos Magic may have been — or may be — experimental, sometimes profound, sometimes juvenile but, unlike so many other forms of spirituality, it never attempted cover over the problems of modernity. Rather, it asked us to go forward into the abyss, and to contribute to the birth of a new aeon.

Angel Millar is the author of The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician.

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