What is Chaos Magick?
Ask a dozen chaos magicians to define what it is and you’ll get 23 answers. This is what we mean when we use the term. Chaos Magick is a paradigmatic approach to occult practices that emphasizes results over theory. The term is credited to Peter J. Carroll. Writing in Liber Null, he states:
The “thing” responsible for the origin and continued action of events is called Chaos by magicians. It could as well be called God or Tao, but the name Chaos is virtually meaningless, and free from the childish, anthropomorphic ideas of religion.
While he is not the sole voice on the matter, we can see in his coinage of the term an attempt to unburden the occult tradition from the religious beliefs in which it had developed. Many witches, occultists, magicians, priests(esses), shamans and exorcists will tell you that magic works, but ask them to explain the mechanisms and most will fall back on mutually exclusive models of reality. To the Christian exorcist, it is the all-powerful name of Jesus that commands demons. To the pagan priestess, it might be the blessings of the Goddess that helped her make the right decision. To the witch, it might be the power of Nature that healed the illness. To the Shaman, the potency of the spirits brought the rain that was so desperately needed.
Paradigms versus Dogma
All of these proposed models are paradigms. Merriam-Webster’s third entry for “paradigm” concludes with, “broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.” The entire definition is worthwhile, but this summary is good enough for our purposes. There is no singular paradigm that can account for the alleged reality of magick in all situations. We lack a “unified theory of magick.” Chaos Magick attempts, by removing unnecessary assumptions and beliefs, to be that theory.
What it proposes is that belief in itself is a tool of magick. The power of a belief doesn’t come from the truth of the belief, in any capital “T” Truth sense; rather it comes from the believer. So, to get the results he wants, a magician can choose to adopt a paradigm that has the belief he needs. Need to get rid of a demon? Get right with the Lord and cast that demon out. Need to bring on the rains? Work with the spirits around you. If it worked, Success! If it didn’t, try another paradigm.
In this sense, Chaos Magick is a meta-paradigm. It is a paradigm to encompass mutually exclusive ideas. The Christian exorcist might look at the work of the shaman and call it demonic. This is his dogma. His paradigm states that Christians can command spirits through the power of Jesus, but that non-Christians can be possessed (at the very least) by demons and work wonders. Look at Saul and the (so-called) Witch of Endor. Look at Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians. In the exorcist’s paradigm, magic is real, but only his magic is acceptable. The chaos magician can agree and disagree from moment to moment. She can slip into and out of paradigms as easily as changing socks. This gives rise to the popularity of an old saying:
Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted.
(Definitely not originating in a video game.)
What about Cultural Appropriation?
This is a recently exposed problem and many people will disagree about what it is and whether or not it is a problem. From a European perspective, we have often been evangelical about our culture. Historically, it has been considered superior and our values have been imposed on cultures around the world, usually without their consent. In the case of our dominant religion, it has been very abusive in its outreach.
When, as a culture, we awakened to this fact, many of us went out of our way to learn other cultures and religions. Naturally, we started adopting and customizing the things that we liked. The New Age culture is a prime example, but it is far from alone. Karma has entered everyday usage in the English language and is rarely used in the context of samsara, or the other cultural ideas to which it relates.
What we have now heard from these cultures is a request: please, stop. Stop misrepresenting our ideas and claiming them as your own. This is what you did with our land and our people, now you are doing it to our language and our culture. It is imperialist and harmful. This requests seems strange to many, who actively encourage these people to adopt our religion and culture. Why wouldn’t they want the same for us? This is hubris, and we should listen to this request.
However, this is a special challenge to the chaos magician. In this meta-paradigm, those cultural ideas are useful resources. They may be the only belief structure available for dealing with a particular challenge. How can we be respectful of their beliefs and use them out of context?
There is no easy answer. We offer only these guides to try and mitigate the potential for damage.
- Reach out to the people of the culture you would like to use. Learn from them. Try to understand the meaning behind their beliefs, the architecture for how these ideas fit together.
- Be honest about what you are. If your intention is to become a mambo and practice Vodou, say so. If you want to get more information to work one-on-one with the Loa, say so. But don’t claim to be a mambo after watching American Horror Story: Coven. When at all possible, a chaos magician who uses another culture’s beliefs, should keep that private. If you work predominantly with a paradigm that is not from your culture and you do so publicly, be prepared to answer to the original culture’s representatives.
- Do not take away from their culture, support it. If you want something from someone, be prepared to offer an exchange. Whether this is financial or service, giving back is a way to assist other cultures.
- Consider “dead” cultures. Many ancient pagan belief systems have been functionally dead for centuries. Therefore, there is no one to steal from. For many of us who are of European decent, it is our birthright to revive these beliefs. Hellenism, Germanic and Celtic paganism are just a few options worth exploring. And explore them deeply. It’s fascinating to discover that our ancient cultural ancestors had words for concepts we believe we have lost.