The Call To Chaos
If you are interested in the history of occultism, then you can’t tell the story of the modern scene without taking into account chaos magic. This is especially the case if, like me, your interest is less from the perspective of actual belief and more from the perspective of aesthetic appreciation. If you’re interested in the occult less for the power it claims to offer and more for the ways in which occult ideas have seeped into the wider culture, chaos magic is something you should absolutely take a look at, it is a tradition which has both informed pop culture and has been informed by it.
Take, for instance, the example of Grant Morrison, whose The Invisibles comic series was both informed by chaos magic ideas, was claimed by Morrison to be a chaos magic operation in and of itself (the entire series forming a “hypersigil”) – whether or not you believe this was what they planned from the start, that claim is certainly consistent with how this stuff is supposed to work – and in and of itself provided readers with a crash course in a chaos magic-infused worldview. Morrison is not even the only chaos magician working in comics who was part of the 1990s 2000 AD stable, at that.
The elevator pitch for chaos magic is “do what works and is meaningful to you”. Much writing on chaos magic is quite big on the idea that you can strip a lot of the cultural baggage and personal biases away from the general techniques espoused by previous generations of occultists to get a raw, fundamental set of techniques which you can then bake your personal aesthetic and mythology onto, should you wish.
This “anything goes” sort of approach was particularly espoused by Morrison and others in the 1990s and 2000s, who promoted the idea that if a figure from modern pop culture genuinely resonates more with you and provides you with a better link to the primal archetype you want than the usual stable of demons or angels or classical gods used by more fuddy-duddy traditionalist occultists, then you should go ahead and base your practice around those figures and see where it takes you.
(Whilst some – even within the field of chaos magic – would argue that this takes the idea too far and suggest that ancient deities still have an air of mystique around them which modern pop culture icons don’t quite have, at the same time this is arguably just the culmination of a tendency which was there from beginning; the earliest chaos magic practitioners to describe themselves as such adopted the eight-pointed Chaos symbol from Michael Moorcock more or less as soon as they started using the phrase “chaos magic”, grabbing shit from pop culture has been part of the game from the start.)
Precisely because of this eclectic approach, it’s quite hard to pinpoint a definitive origin for it, because on the one hand, the early movement drew on the work of many previous practitioners, and on the other hand the distinction between an idiosyncratic lone practitioner putting together their own homebrewed occult system and a chaos magician who’s fully exercising the freedom the concept espouses is near-impossible to discern from the outside.
For instance, Aleister Crowley is not generally considered a chaos magician so much as he is seen as the founder of his own magical tradition of Thelema, but take a look at how he actually cobbled that together: first he took the Golden Dawn’s material and switched out a great swathe of its symbolism based on his aesthetic preference, then he grafted on some more things – some of them of his own devising, some coming out of other traditions like the OTO (which had gotten into sex magic before Crowley had even been made a member, and then demanded that he join and accept high rank because he’d guessed their secrets).
It’s not to look at that as Crowley taking the view that the techniques are more important than the cultural trappings hung on them, giving himself permission to colour outside the lines and come up with his own stuff, and being open to graft ideas developed by others onto the body of Thelema if it seemed like they’d work there. If he’d been doing all that in an era when chaos magic was the flavour of the month, it feels like there’s little doubt that he’d be seen as a chaos magician. However, because he did it a few decades before chaos magic (or Thelema) became fashionable, he’s seen more as the founder of his own tradition.
Crowley’s contemporary, the artist Austin Osman Spare, had gone even further in devising his own personal set of techniques and their underlying mythology (the Zos Kia Cultus) which seemed to have little precedent in existing traditions; he and Crowley would become significant influences on the organised chaos magic movement, with Spare’s influence predominating. In fact, some of Spare’s ideas would become so extremely central to what was later presented as “chaos magic” that he is often considered the grandfather of the field, though he didn’t use the term himself.
William S. Burroughs espoused a magical worldview which, again, seemed to have involved a range of eclectic techniques of his own, and would both be an influence on the movement and influenced by it. The upswing of interest in esoterica that was associated with the 1960s youth movements continued into the 1970s, with Discordianism and the writing of Robert Anton Wilson influencing chaos magic. (The Venn diagram of people who and seriously into chaos magic and people who are seriously into Discordianism is not actually a circle, but you might need to look closely to see the bits that don’t overlap.)
If you can’t point to a definitive beginning of the underlying ideas of chaos magic, however, you absolutely can point to the first groups and individuals who actually called themselves chaos magicians. In 1978 two practitioners – Peter J. Carroll and Ray Sherwin – published books on the subject, Carroll’s Liber Null and Sherwin’s The Book of Results – and founded the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), the first magical order explicitly dedicated to the pursuit of chaos magic.
Liber Null was presented as IOT training material, providing the solo practitioner with all they needed to start using chaos magic (ultimately, not much) and some more advanced notions besides, whilst The Book of Results was a short tract presenting a deep dive into one particular technique used by the IOT. The Book of Results is less widely-read and widely-republished, probably by virtue of being fairly niche, but Liber Null was the original introduction to the subject, and that had legs.
In 1982 Carroll and the IOT released Psychonaut, a collection of essays delving further into Carroll’s philosophy, with some particular fleshing out on how chaos magic ideas could be applied to group work and to community roles. In 1987, the two books saw a wider release compiled as Liber Null & Psychonaut, and it’s that volume which will show up on more or less every chaos magic reading list you care to look at.
Any more recent introduction or guide to chaos magic you run into – Phil Hine’s Condensed Chaos, Grant Morrison’s writing on the subject, whatever – will likely be repackaging and restating the material Carroll collected in the book – mostly the more direct and straightforward Liber Null part – and the ideas and philosophies in the book constitute most of what you could uncontroversially call chaos magic. The line between chaos magic and eclectic homebrew is thin and might not even exist, but if someone’s magical practice is primarily focused on stuff you can find in Liber Null then you can probably safely call them a chaos magician without offending them.
Or, at least, if they are offended, they’re going to need to do some mental gymnastics to explain why they aren’t technically chaos magicians despite their work fitting into the framework of the generally acknowledged original manual of chaos magic. And they might do it, because cultivating mental gymnastics is very much the name of the game here. Carroll makes it quite clear that a big part of his philosophy involves the mutability of beliefs, worldviews, and personality traits, since in his view magic is all about leveraging belief and the more you can get away from your preconceptions of yourself as a person with particular likes and dislikes and traits and the more you can embrace the idea that the only real part of you is a dimly-defined centre of perception and will, the better you’ll be at this.
This makes it rather difficult to approach Carroll’s writing not as a believer in chaos magic, but as someone interested in unpacking the philosophy and worldview it espouses, because Carroll is all about adopting worldviews and philosophies temporarily. Nonetheless, he’s clearly writing these books trying to explain a particular set of ideas and persuade the reader to go along with them, so if I say in this article that Carroll “believes” something, please take it as shorthand for “for the purposes of proselytising his particular vision of chaos magic, Carroll purports to believe…”
Throughout the book, Carroll presents his version of “Aeonics”, inspired perhaps by Crowley’s hyping of the Aeon of Horus. Carroll sees history as being a successive series of philosophical waves. First there was the “Shamanistic aeon”, which Carroll considers to be when the mastery of magic was at its most widespread. Then you had a Pagan aeon when polytheistic organised religion with officially-sanctioned priests and mystery rites and whatnot commenced gatekeeping of magical secrets, a Monotheistic aeon in which people abandoned the belief of many Gods for a single one which was an idealised version of humanity itself (according to Carroll), and an Atheistic aeon which saw the rise of materialism and modern science.
Old aeons do not neatly go away once a new aeon arises – hence varieties of shamanism still being found in numerous locations in the world, hence monotheism still having a strong presence, and so on. The important thing here is that Carroll believed that a new aeon was arising – the aeon of Chaos – and come the immanentisation of the eschaton, the human race faced a future of either unprecedented freedom or unparalleled despotism. (Here’s where some Robert Anton Wilson ideas come in; Wilson, it would transpire, was accepted as a member of the IOT, as was Timothy Leary.) His declared purpose with chaos magic is to steer the construction of the new aeon, and it’s this he declares as the ultimate purpose of the IOT at the start of Liber Null.
Also right at the start of Liber Null is the first instance where you have to ask yourself whether Carroll genuinely believes something or whether he’s just having you on, because he explains this idea next to a diagram of “the survival of the magical tradition” which is a) incredibly Western-centric, aside from mentions of Tantra, Sufiism and Taoism, and b) kind of a conspiracy diagram, since it seems to posit an unbroken chain of transmission of esoteric knowledge which includes the Knights Templar and the (adamantly materialistic and anti-superstition) Bavarian Illuminati.
One may well ascribe this to the Crowley influence, since much of this version of occult history is Carroll regurgitating Crowley regurgitating the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn regurgitating the mythology of the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians claimed to be the recipients of a secret knowledge. Various Freemasonic orders claimed to follow the ethos of the Rosicrucians, or the Knights Templar, or both. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn claimed to be a revival of the true Rosicrucianism. Crowley claimed to be acting as an agent of the secret masters, and called on Rosicrucian, Masonic, Templar, and Golden Dawn ideas in a bid to create a historical myth backing this claim, itself an elaboration of the historical myths underpinning those preceding organisations (aside from the original Templars, who’d probably be pretty damn surprised to be included in all this).
Carroll here is just following Crowley’s myth and then tacked on a few other groups, throwing in the Illuminati probably as a Discordian in-joke. For a group whose ethos is so very strongly based on stripping away the cultural baggage that they believed had accreted around magical working and focus way more on technique and way less on the trappings you dress that technique in, it’s weird that they’d start out more or less following Thelemic orthodoxy when it comes to the purported secret transmission of occult secrets over the years.
There is ample reason to take issue with Carroll’s view of history – both in the broad-brushstrokes version he espouses and in terms of the specific claims he makes, such as with this diagram. In terms of quibbles with specifics, the diagram feels like it’s a) not incorporating a whole swathe of mystic beliefs and b) doesn’t quite accurately present the lines of influence which it does present. (For instance, Carroll has a line going direct from John Dee to Aleister Crowley though. despite the fact that really it should be going to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn box because it was via the Golden Dawn that Crowley got his start on Dee’s Enochian ideas.)
More broadly, to make his “Aeonic” theory of history work, Carroll needs to make some incredibly sweeping generalisations. For instance, Carroll outright claims that Buddhism is the “Eastern” version of monotheism, the counterpart to the “Western” version, Christianity – both comprehensively misrepresenting Buddhism and Christianity, particularly those parts of Christianity which have had long histories in the cultures lumped under “Eastern”.
There’s a much bigger howler towards the start of his essay on shamanism in Psychonaut, in which he confidently proclaims that shamanism has “almost been destroyed in North America, Oceania, Northern Asia, and within the Arctic Circle”, immediately after he declares that South America, Africa, and Australia are significant places where shamanic traditions are still practiced. There’s a bunch of problems here:
- Australia is Oceania.
- If aboriginal practices in Australia count as a surviving centre of shamanism, why wouldn’t First Nations/Native American practices in North America qualify? Sure, those cultures got hit hard by colonialism, but aboriginal Australians haven’t exactly had an easy ride, you know?
- Last I checked, Siberia was located in the Northern Asia and the Arctic Circle. In fact, depending on where you draw the lines Siberia either is Northern Asia, or at the very least a substantial majority of Northern Asia by land mass. And indigenous cultures in Siberia absolutely practice shamanism. Linguistically, that’s where the term comes from!
- Asserting that, because people in Australia, South America, and Africa have religious practices which have all been categorised under the broad hat on “shamanism”, they are all doing essentially the same basic sort of thing is a hell of a claim.
As well as individually being pretty significant mistakes or oversights, these issues collectively all form a great example of one of Carroll’s more alarming tendencies, which is to issue authoritative pronouncements on subjects which it’s pretty clear he actually doesn’t have his facts straight on, and to ignore cultural context and differences in favour of hyping up similarities and asserting that he has found a culturally neutral underlying technique underpinning all magic.
In the context of the shamanism stuff, this makes it hard to take Carroll especially seriously. He’s very keen to claim that shamanism was the root source of all occult practices and that chaos magic is a new refinement of it for the modern day with all the intervening dross burned out, but it’s kind of clear that either he has not done that much in the way of studying the actual shamanic practices of the peoples he cites here, or he simply doesn’t care about them.
Asserting that you are essentially doing a modern variety of shamanism aimed at people in a primarily Western culture (Carroll and the early IOT were largely based in Yorkshire) would be one thing if some form of deep research on the subject were in evidence, but Carroll seems to be more interested in making grand sweeping statements about what shamanism is and expecting everyone to nod along and follow his argument than he is in actually citing source material to allow the reader to actually check the IOT’s practices against shamanic ones.
This would be disappointing and irritating if these blanket statements were restricted to magical topics, but Carroll is rather quick to put about the idea that conventional medicine and psychiatry are for chumps and any magician worth their salt would just fix their physical and mental health issues with magic. This is the sort of rhetoric which persuades people not to get vaccinated, not to follow doctor’s advice when managing their diabetes or treating cancers (both terminal and treatable), and not to seek help when they are struggling, and it’s hard not to see it as being anything other than deeply irresponsible.
Squirrels of Chaos
Carroll’s hostility to psychiatry is particularly acute, and he makes no bones about the fact that he considers it to be near-useless. This smells slightly like the influence of Scientology, and this isn’t even the only respect in which L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas appear in early IOT materials; elsewhere in Liber Null & Psychonaut Carroll develops the idea of the Kia, your centre of selfhood which is all about perceiving and enacting its will and nothing else, along lines which sound an awful lot like Scientology-esque Thetans, and he even uses the term “exteriorise”, which is used in Scientology to refer to being outside one’s own body.
The parallels are even more blatant in Sherwin’s Book of Results, which includes an explanation of the idea of an engram which is along strikingly similar lines to Hubbard’s writing on Dianetics, right down to the discussion of the “reactive mind” which supposedly stores all the engrams. Sherwin, in fact, had some contact with Scientology in the past – by his account he’d taken some courses and tried some processes and had done some editing of their Change magazine, published by the Saint Hill organisation.
In previous statements on his Scientology connection, Sherwin tries to play down his involvement in Scientology. He claims to have never been a Scientologist, merely someone who tried some of their processes and did a bit of work for them, but I’m not sure that washes. Saint Hill was the UK headquarters of the organisation and a major fulcrum of the movement, having been Hubbard’s base of operations until he took to the oceans with the Sea Org; based near the small town of East Grinstead, it’s not exactly the place where you’d get many people showing up solely out of casual interest in Scientology. In addition, Scientology has always tried to keep as much of its publication process in-house as possible and maintain tight control of what’s issued in its name. The idea of a non-Scientologist editing a Scientology publication issued from Saint Hill feels somewhat unlikely; I’m not sure Ron would approve.
Sherwin would not be the last person to move on to chaos magic and the IOT after a stint in Scientology; William Burroughs had an infamous stint in the organisation, after which he became a vociferous critic of it. Burroughs even applied his “playback” magical technique to perform an occult attack on Scientology’s London headquarters. (As Burroughs explained it, “playback” entailed “recording the target’s own base shittiness, and then playing it back to him at subliminal levels”; if such a technique works, Scientology is surely the perfect target, with ample shittiness to record.)
This would become one of the techniques that was later adopted by the wider chaos magic community and lead to Burroughs being welcomed by the IOT as a member. However, Burroughs would not be formally a member until the 1990s, whilst Sherwin was a co-founder of the organisation and a formative influence on it from the start. It’s pretty evident that Sherwin brought some Scientology ideas (and maybe others did too) – which would surely greatly upset the Church of Scientology, as does more or less any other esoteric activity which isn’t directed by them, so if Sherwin was ever a Scientologist in good standing, he certainly isn’t now.
In Liber Null & Psychonaut, however, Carroll is coy about the Hubbard influence. Given Scientology’s penchant for going “Fair Game” on people they perceive to have been “squirrelling tech” – or to translate into English from Hubbardese, embark on dirty tricks campaigns against people or groups they have identified as using Hubbard-derived ideas outside of their control – perhaps this was prudent. Nonetheless, and to get back to the point, Carroll has either inherited from Hubbard (either via Sherwin or through undisclosed dabbling on Carroll’s own part) a distinct anti-psychiatry agenda, or seems to have independently come up with one which the Scientology-derived ideas in the texts only heighten.
Whilst abuses in the name of psychiatry have undeniably occurred, access to mental health therapy is of acute importance and is difficult enough already between chronic under-provisioning and lingering social stigma; adding to that and making it even more unlikely people who need help and would benefit from help try to seek help is kind of appalling, even if you do think they will be better wizards if they tried to sort things out for themselves. This is particularly true when you are advocating the deliberate induction of extreme, potentially even traumatic psychological states; I will revisit this point later.
When You Wish Upon a Sigil…
When it comes to influences that Carroll wears on his sleeve in these texts, aside from the Discordianism/Robert Anton Wilson nods, the major figures here are Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. Neither of them get explicitly credited in the texts – even when some of Andrew David’s illustrations for Liber Null start to resemble some of Spare’s material – but one side effect of the rise of chaos magic was a rekindling of wider interest in Spare himself.
Spare had rather fallen into obscurity by the 1970s (and, indeed, for the last few decades of his life), and more or less nobody was talking very much about him except Kenneth Grant – and lots of people were looking at Grant’s stuff and thinking “huh, you’re really keen on all that Cthulhu stuff” and were sort of backing away slowly. This changed thanks to Carroll and Sherwin, in part because of Liber Null & Psychonaut putting its own spin on Spare’s “Kia” concept (in comparison to Spare’s version of it, Kia in Carroll’s writing is a bit less like the Dao and a bit more like Hubbard’s Thetans), in part because of the one big idea that Liber Null took from Spare and really repopularised: sigilisation.
The use of sigils is a big deal in chaos magic. Sherwin’s Book of Results is largely focused on it, and whilst most chaos magicians – true to the ethos of the tradition – select a subset of things from Liber Null & Psychonaut rather than swallowing the whole package, sigils are almost always part of that subset. This is probably because sigilisation is fairly clearly and concisely explained, is unabashedly directed to achieving magical results, and requires extremely little in the way of both materials and preparation. It takes time and discipline to attempt any of the other techniques espoused in the book such as attempting lucid dreaming or performing the various mind-stilling and visualisation exercises (said exercises being largely lifted from Crowley’s writings on the subject), but you can have a go at sigilisation in 15 minutes or so.
It works like this: you decide what you want to accomplish. You construct a sigil – an abstract drawing or word or phrase which is meant to be a stand-in for your desire without explicitly depicting your desire. You charge the sigil by focusing upon it when in a “gnostic” state of mind – a sort of altered state of intense magical concentration where your mind is fully directed at a subject, in this case the sigil. You then, as much as possible, forget all about it – forget the desire, because striving towards desire makes it harder for the subconscious to actually manifest that desire, and put the sigil out of your consciousness as much as you feasibly can.
Strictly speaking, the order of operations given in Liber Null is to construct the sigil, forget the sigil, then charge the sigil. It is possible that this is simply Carroll being a little imprecise. After all, if you have truly succeeded at the second stage, you might think that it’s impossible to charge the sigil because you won’t remember it – and Sherwin’s contemporaneous explanation of the process definitely asserts that you are meant to charge the sigil first and then toss it hard into your subconscious. Carroll (and Spare before him) put forth the idea that under the gnostic state of mind, you might recall and charge the sigil, but you’re definitely meant to completely purge it from your consciousness.
In general, a good swathe of later Chaos magic writers have worked on the basis that you charge the sigil before you forget the sigil; either way, charging it at some point is considered important and charging it immediately after construction means you guarantee you’ll get around to charging it at least once and not outright forget to do it later. As for how to attain the gnostic state in the first place – well, you’ve got options there. Extreme emotional states can apparently provoke it, according to Carroll, as can the calm meditative techniques of control outlined earlier in Liber Null.
Another method is sexual stimulation, which kind of became one of the more popular methods over time, though Carroll urges you to keep your mind on the magical task at hand once you’ve become sufficiently sexually excited to get going. If one thing illustrates the difference of approach between Crowley’s OTO and Carroll’s IOT, it’s that the OTO was kind of coy about all the sex magic until you got to a high grade, whilst the IOT was discussing the magical potential of edging right in its foundational teaching documents.
One can see the popularity of a magical technique that involves drawing a little picture, having a wank, and then forgetting about it. If nothing else comes of it, at least you had fun. At the same time, it feels like a lot of the setup around sigil stuff lends itself to “sleight of mind” (to borrow a term from Carroll). Sigil magic may or may not be an effective form to attain actual magical effects – if you believe actual magical effects are even attainable in the first place – but it seems like a great way to persuade yourself that you’ve achieved something when you really haven’t.
See, it comes back to the fact that you’re supposed to be forgetting your desire as well as the sigil itself. This is important! Carroll goes so far as to say that when you record that you’ve done some sigil work in your magical diary, you shouldn’t record it in sufficient detail to remind yourself what the desire was.
This inevitably means that the criteria for success in sigilisation become substantially fuzzier than they’d be in more traditional magical processes. Inevitably, the more you successfully forget the specifics of your desire, the broader and fuzzier your handle on what that desire was will be – and so as long as something that’s broadly, approximately able to be interpretable as representing the accomplishment of (or progress towards) some general aim in the same sort of general area as your original desire ends up happening, you’re going to think “Wow, the sigil worked!”, even if you haven’t actually achieved the thing you were planning on doing in the first place.
Let’s imagine an example:
- You can’t make the rent this month and your landlord will begin the process of turfing you out if you miss this payment.
- Among more conventional efforts to try and sort things out, you perform a sigilisation ritual with the aim of getting the money to pay the rent, in order to stay in the place you are accustomed to live.
- Because you are a practiced chaos magician, you forget the purpose of the sigil.
- You don’t get the money and have to find alternate accommodation. It’s a huge pain and is 100% the thing you wanted to avoid. At this point, by any objective assessment your initial desire has failed to come to pass; the sigil didn’t work, any more mundane methods you attempted didn’t work, you just didn’t win this time. It happens.
- Something happens later on in relation to money, or rent, or accommodation. Maybe you find a new flat with a lower rent. Maybe you find a £10 note in the street. Maybe you found your feet by entering a house share with some friends and it’s great. Maybe you get a new job which pays better. Whatever.
- You’ve forgotten the specific desire – to get the money to pay the rent and not get evicted – but you vaguely remember doing a sigilisation ritual related to money or rent or accommodation or something.
- Since something desirable has happened to you involving money or accommodation, you decide that the sigil worked – despite the fact that you singularly failed at the actual thing you were attempting to do.
This feels like a sure bet when it comes to persuading people they are effective magicians: unless they have truly miserable luck, sooner or later something positive is going to happen in their life, and if that positive thing is at all vaguely related to the general area their sigilised desire was formulated in, they can attribute it to that.
In fact, the way Carroll sets it up here, the house always wins. If you are able to persuade yourself a sigilisation ritual has worked – even if it didn’t actually accomplish what you originally set out to achieve – then Carroll can claim to have taught you an effective magical technique which you then competently applied. Hooray for everyone! If you feel like a sigil’s failed, presumably that’s because you remember enough of what it was supposed to do to think “Hey, that didn’t work” – in which case there’s an easy “out” for Carroll because he can just point out that by retaining that recollection of your desire, you didn’t perform the process properly.
(This is not the only instance where Carroll gives himself a cast-iron get-out clause. In Psychonaut, Carroll discusses various “magical paradigms” – ways of viewing magical activity which you can adopt if that helps you achieve your ends. Under the “Observer Created Universe” one, he states “Anything we will that does not come into our perception was not will but merely a failed wish.” In the context of texts which encourage the practitioner to cultivate a distance from their desire and dissociate themselves from the idea that they have particular personality traits or beliefs or worldviews which are not mutable, this is a fantastic get-out clause: someone who adopts this worldview will then, on the failure of a magical operation, decide they didn’t really want it to succeed anyway, not on the fundamental level of their true self.)
I realise I am writing from a somewhat sceptical perspective, but all of the reservations about sigilisation as presented in Liber Null I’ve outlined above apply regardless of whether or not you think that magic is real, or even whether or not you think the use of sigils is a valid magical method. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think it’s possible to really cast a magic spell: either way, I think we can all agree that it’s possible to kid yourself that you have cast an effective spell when you actually haven’t (Dunning-Kruger applies to all fields, after all), and I think I’ve outlined how the Liber Null version of sigilisation is a method which makes it very, very possible to kid yourself in this fashion.
One could argue that all occult systems are like this – but those arguments would be wrong. Crowley advocated being very precise in your magical diary – he was all about “the method of science, the aim of religion”, after all. More antique magical grimoires promise extremely specific results arising from their methods; you might or might not achieve those effects, but it’s going to be pretty goddamn obvious whether or not the effect you were aiming for was achieved.
Possibly this was the point. Carroll is all about leveraging belief: if you take that sort of approach, maybe making someone believe they are a magician is sufficient to make them a magician. At the same time, it feels like sigilisation is a method which has a troubling capacity to be used in a manipulative manner, as does the rest of the techniques Carroll advocates here.
By Carroll’s own admission, in the gnostic mental state he tries to advocate people reach, people are more suggestible; by his own admission, the point of magical training as he sees it is to shunt people’s thinking so that they mostly inhabit very different states from the types of thinking exhibited by non-magicians. If you want to use this as part of putting together a cult, it’s a great tool – and if you teach people sigilisation and encourage them to seek that suggestible gnostic mental state, then you can offer a delicious carrot alongside the stick.
You can imagine the sales pitch: “Spend more time on your mental exercises and the other aspects of the cult’s ethos and training, and you will be better and magical focus. The better you’ll be at that, the better the results you’ll get from sigilisation. You’ve had great results so far already, haven’t you?” It might seem strange to think that a magical philosophy which puts so much emphasis on personal freedom as Carroll’s might also lend itself to being exploited in an abusive cult context, but I think it’s a possibility worth considering.
After all, it’s happened before.
TOPY the Mornin’ To Ya!
The story of chaos magic – and, in particular, its intersection with pop culture – cannot be fully told without discussing Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, or TOPY. No, those are not typos – TOPY embraced deliberately idiosyncratic misspellings for artistic effect and to push against the constraints of conventional language.
TOPY was founded alongside Psychic TV, which was the main musical project of industrial music pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge after the termination of Throbbing Gristle. As chronicled in England’s Hidden Reverse, early members of Psychic TV included David Tibet – later to become the guiding mind behind industrial/ambient/apocalyptic folk assembly Current 93 with a side career as an anthologist and researcher of overlooked horror fiction – and John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, the duo who’d go on to create Coil.
Tibet, Balance, and Christopherson were all involved in the TOPY side of things to an extent as well, but by all reports it was very much Genesis’ project from the get-go, as was Psychic TV itself. Mashing up serious occult interests and a major emphasis on sigilisation with aesthetic borrowings from the likes of the Process Church, Manson Family, People’s Temple, and other infamous cults of the psychedelic age, it was presented as an “anti-cult”, supposedly a spoof of authoritarian cults but with a message of personal liberation.
Of course… most of those cults claimed to offer personal liberation too.
The psychedelic throwback style of TOPY sat nicely next to the “hyperdelic” attitude of Psychic TV, which would regularly dip into psychedelia; Just Drifting, the first track from the debut album Force the Hand of Chance, feels like the sort of slightly syrupy offering that could have appeared on any baroque pop release of the 1960s, and arguably the group’s biggest hit was Godstar, a neo-psychedelic track inspired by the late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Psychic TV’s musical endeavours were broad, however, and they ended up becoming a touchstone and influence in musical genres ranging from industrial to house music. And where Psychic TV went, so did TOPY, propagating their particular take on chaos magic throughout those scenes.
However, as time went by more and more people felt that the “anti-cult” ethos of TOPY was losing its “anti-” part. In the early 1990s, Genesis ostentatiously left the group and declared it over – asserting that s/he was doing so to stop this backslide into authoritarianism. (For reference, s/he and h/er were Genesis’ preferred pronouns.) Later, in 2010, s/he attempted to reactivate it as the One True Topi Tribe, but by that point various splinter groups and factions had proliferated and the OTTT does not seem to have had the same impact.
Others do not buy Genesis’ attempts to play down the extent to which TOPY flipped from anti-cult to full-on cult. We can readily discount the Satanic Panic backlash against TOPY and Psychic TV prompted by conservative, reactionary forces in the UK; in that situation, TOPY in general and Genesis and other figures specifically were unquestionably the victims of a media witch hunt and the accusations didn’t really hold water, based as they were on a provocative video produced by Psychic TV/TOPY being presented as actual Satanic ritual abuse when it was nothing of the sort.
More difficult to dismiss are the criticisms from former members. In England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan chronicles the disillusionment of David Tibet, John Balance, and Sleazy as they each became profoundly uncomfortable with the direction that TOPY was taking, with the trio exiting the group after the completion of Dreams Less Sweet, the second Psychic TV album. The way the three of them tell it, Tibet dropped out first; Balance was unhappy but stuck around somewhat longer because he knew that Sleazy, his partner (as he would be for the rest of Balance’s life), was reluctant to sever his professional relationship and personal friendship with Genesis, but in the end Sleazy also came to the conclusion that what he and Genesis had intended as a spoof of cult dynamics had slid into becoming an example of precisely that, with Genesis in the role of authoritarian cult leader.
Though among the first dissenters in the ranks, they were not the last. Dan Siepmann offered an excellent four-part article on popmatters which really lays out the cultish tactics used inside TOPY – attested to both by the accounts of dropouts and by P-Orridge’s own words from TOPY materials – along with the acrimony that arose in the wake of its dissolution and the tactics used to attempt to rehabilitate its reputation in recent years. Tactics included tithing, depersonalising tactics like the removal of names, and even Scientology-style disconnection, referred to by that term. This was not the only lift from Hubbard; in trying to assert the right to unilaterally shut down an organisation they’d previously claimed not to be the absolute leader of, Genesis would argue that s/he could do that because s/he was the “SOURCE” of it; “Source” in Scientology terminology refers to L. Ron Hubbard, as the originator of the organisation’s ideas who cannot be questioned.
If you want further evidence of the direction things went, the Hermetic Library has archived an alarming 1990 TOPY position paper co-signed by Genesis entitled Thee Gravy Train Is Over, with a tone which – despite its token claims that to have an official “party line” is not the TOPY way and TOPY involvement is purely voluntary – is ultimately exactly the sort of authoritarian document you’d expect to see issued by a cult whose leader is instituting a crackdown. (Hubbard would put out a ton of this sort of thing within Scientology, perhaps the most infamous and widely-discussed one being Keeping Scientology Working.)
What did this mean for chaos magic? Firstly, whilst the use of sigilisation and its very high prominence in TOPY materials is not widely cited as a cult tactic used by the organisation, and it’s certainly less alarming than any of the abuses reported by ex-members, one can see how it could be leveraged in that way. Like I’ve argued, you can have your own opinion on whether sigil-based practices can actually produce magical effects, but I think the technique is very good at persuading you that you have produced a magical effect, and if people drawn into TOPY felt that they’d accomplished this via their involvement with the group, that would tend to draw them closer to the group.
Secondly, during its effective lifespan TOPY played a significant role in propagating chaos magic ideas through various subcultures, as did Psychic TV. Some prominent ex-members like David Tibet steered away from chaos magic after their involvement in the group. (According to Tibet’s ex-partner Kat, his opinion on the subject was “if all these magicians are so great and powerful why are they all so broke and don’t have girlfriends?”) Others kept at it; John Balance, in particular, had some involvement with IOT, and seems to have been partially responsible through his interest in Austin Osman Spare for bringing sigils into the TOPY framework to begin with, and so Coil’s subsequent activities helped promote such ideas.
Thirdly, and perhaps crucially, TOPY’s detonation in 1991 happened to coincide with the rise of the Internet. Whilst a certain amount of discussion of chaos magic on the early Internet was probably going to happen anyway, Genesis’ attempt to shut down TOPY and compel its various nodes to disband and the in retrospect inevitable backlash that caused meant that text files of TOPY materials were widely propagated online. Anyone who got into chaos magic through trawling the BBS scene, gopher sites, Usenet newsgroups or rudimentary web 1.0 websites most likely either got their start from either TOPY texts or from some “basic rundown of chaos magic” article which pointed interested readers to Liber Null & Psychonaut as their next port of call.
Sacrificing For Chaos
Whilst TOPY’s more alarming aspects – the surrender of income, identity, and independence to the group in particular – are in keeping with cults of the past, were these seeds already present in Peter Carroll’s presentation of chaos magic? In an essay on the Process Church for Timothy Wyllie’s the Love Sex Fear Death memoir, posted online by Reality Sandwich, Genesis had openly acknowledged that, in designing TOPY as “a template for a way of life”, s/he was working on the idea that “to expose flaws in behavior and personality, and to have any chance of revelatory and revolutionary breakthroughs, the group must immerse themselves 100% in devotion to the group and fearless surrender to any potential challenges and innovations, even at the risk of personal disintegration and mental collapse.” Are there parallels to this in Liber Null & Psychonaut?
Why, yes, there are.
In discussing the theme of personal liberation, Liber Null argues that “you cannot be said to possess a personality until you are able to manipulate or discard it at will”, and advocates a technique of “Anathemism”, which is explicitly designated as a path of self-destruction: “Eat all loathesome things until they no longer revolt. Seek union with all that you normally reject. Scheme against your most sacred principles in thought, word and deed.”
Elsewhere, in discussing the “metamorphosis to black magical consciousness” – also part of the ultimate goal of dissolving the ego and sense of self – Carroll declares that an effective wizard “performs monstrous and arbitrary acts to loosen the hold of human limitations upon himself”. He continues:
The magical life demands the abandonment of comfort, conventionality, security and safety – for competition, combat, extremes, and adversity are needed to produce higher resolution and personal evolution. An air of desperation is required in a life lived close to the edge. One must be living by one’s wits. […] Therefore abandon all fixed patterns of residence, employment, relationship and taste.
These are two striking examples of Liber Null promoting the idea that chaos magicians should expect to make extraordinary sacrifices in the pursuit of their craft, and encouraging readers to a launch an all-out assault on their own personal taboos, their conscience, their sense of restraint and social convention. (“Put a brick through your televisions, explore sexualities which are unusual to you”, Carroll states elsewhere.)
Though I do not think Carroll was at all intending for this to be applied in the fashion of an authoritarian cult, I think it’s absolutely clear that this sort of statement can absolutely be spun as a justification for cultish personality breakdown strategies. And, after all, if personal liberty is held as an important virtue by many chaos magicians, and authoritarianism and submission to a restrictive cult hierarchy is anathema to the cause of personal liberty… isn’t that exactly the sort of engagement with that which one would normally reject that Carroll is advocating here?
Carroll tries to qualify things by stating that the stuff you engage with should not limit your freedom or that of others, but nonetheless the idea of personal freedom is just that – an ideal – and the overall thrust of the text is all about challenging your own ideals. If seeking spiritual liberation is all about liberating yourself from the confines of ideals, it’s rather hard to justify leaving any ideals off the table when it comes to which you challenge and subvert, especially when Carroll is urging you to embrace extremes.
Carroll urged chaos magicians to give up conventional patterns of residence; TOPY strongly encouraged its members to give up their old homes to reside in group houses. Whilst the latter may well be inspired by other cultish group living situations, Liber Null certainly didn’t set up any roadblocks there and one can’t rule out the possibility of someone who, already falling into the TOPY gravity well, reading Liber Null and interpreting this stuff as suggesting that TOPY was on the right sort of track with this group living and tithing business.
That said, this “edgy outsider who’s broken the shackles of conventional behaviour” angle has an undeniable allure to it, and may go some way to explaining why chaos magic gained so much subcultural and counter-cultural traction. In establishing this rather romanticised idea of the chaos magician as the badass rebel figure who exists on the fringes of society and has given up all the trappings of conventional prosperity and personal security in pursuit of their magic, Liber Null comes up with a very punk rock image of the modern-day occultist which stands in stark contrast to the more placid visions offered by the neopagan scene of the time. Between this and the emphasis on a DIY ethos allowing anyone to have a go without the need for expensive magical supplies, it certainly hit the zeitgeist of 1978.
However, Liber Null also falls into a pitfall paralleled by less esoteric forms of libertarianism. In espousing a vision of personal freedom and liberation which views the individual as an atomistic entity that owes nothing to nobody and has transcended their social bonds, it might set its face against conventional authoritarian power structures, but it also doesn’t do much in the way of considering that if we have a culture where nobody owes anything to anyone else, that’s going to disproportionately benefit wealthy people who quite like not having to pay tax and disproportionately hurt people and communities who exist in a more precarious state.
Psychonaut seemed to attempt to redress this balance a little; in addition to some essays on group magical workings, Carroll also seems to have attempted to consider how chaos magicians can have a role in society – if not in the wider mainstream community, then within the subcultural community of a magical order and the social penumbra around it. Here tensions in Carroll’s philosophy make themselves apparent.
For instance, he clearly distrusts the idea of an officially structured hierarchy and the asymmetric relationships involved in such; on the other hand, he also espouses a sort of meritocratic elitism, apparently taking the view that an informal but nonetheless real hierarchy based on personal ability will become apparent in the context of a magical order. Carroll here either doesn’t realise – or does realise but doesn’t mention – that in a supposed “meritocracy” the power lies in the hands not of the people who have “merit”, but those who define what merit is in the first place, and since through these texts Carroll was setting the criteria for success or failure in an IOT context… well, you can finish that thought yourself.
Likewise, whilst Carroll seems to be generally down on organised religion, but despite supposedly boiling down all the world’s magical traditions into the culture-neutral framework underpinning shamanism, his idea of what organised religion is more or less boils down to “generic Western Christianity”, to the point where he often sounds like the sort of obnoxious loudmouth atheist who, having decided that Church isn’t for them, also tends to view non-Christian religious or spiritual groupings as just the exact same deal with different trappings (much as Carroll sees all occult traditions as being essentially the same deal with different trappings). You know the type: the sort of people who give sceptics a bad name and make themselves an annoyance in discussions by acting like that because they can logically demolish a fairly simplistic misrepresentation of the Christian god, they’ve disproved all varieties of religion everywhere.
(This is not the only thing Carroll has in common with atheists. Atheists – both the obnoxious militant sort and the more placid “I’m not convinced by religious/spiritual claims but I respect your right to believe in them” type – are likely to believe that supposed occult experiences are purely psychological in nature, and magic is all in your mind, a psychological trick you play on yourself. Carroll essentially thinks the same thing – he just also believes that by playing this trick on yourself you can manifest effects in the real world, rather than just inside your head.)
Strangely, though, whilst Carroll seems pretty dismissive of Christianity, his model for the capabilities of an “occult priest” is pretty much lifted directly from Christianity. The Rites of Chaos, covering the abilities expected to be exhibited by a “priest of Chaos”, cover ordination (recognition as a priest of Chaos by one’s peers), a “Mass of Chaos” for use in group magical workings, an initiation into the priest’s particular occult sect, exorcism, and the last rites. This is basically your local vicar’s job description with all the Christianity crossed out and chaos magic stuff scribbled in its place.
The exorcism process is another particularly troubling part of the texts when you set it against Carroll’s avowed distaste for psychiatry (a field he makes the time to completely mischaracterise in the exorcism discussion), since Carroll is here advocating treating people undergoing severe mental health issues using some rudimentary and potentially badly misguided methods.
Though he says that exorcism “as a cure for madness” should only be attempted with individuals who truly believe they are possessed by an outside entity, and only where this has come on fairly recently, what this means in practice is that the individuals it is most likely to be practiced on are people who are undergoing a very severe, acute mental health crisis. His “freestyle shamanism” method of exorcism works as follows:
After observing the candidate for some time, the exorcist will take him to some secure place and ensure that he is at his complete mercy. Then the exorcist takes the candidate through a tour of his private hell. Foul and acrid incenses may be burned; weird flashing illumination and smoke can be employed. The exorcist behaves in a weird and threatening manner, throwing back at the candidate all the peculiarities he has exhibited himself. Effectively, the exorcist terrorizes the candidate back to normality by showing him how far down the slope he has slipped and how much further he might eventually go.
This, I remind you, is from a writer who in this same section brushes off conventional therapy as being either useless or abusive.
Carroll is supposedly writing from experience here – in his Anecdotes section discussing some (kind of underwhelming) chaos magic accomplishments of his, he discusses an attempt he made to exorcise a neighbour of his who seems to have been suffering from long-term mental health issues. He claimed it worked for a bit, but that the individual soon lapsed back within a few minutes into disorganised speech, and attributes this to them having long-term issues which were effectively incurable.
If Carroll’s account of the incident is accurate, this means that he isn’t just talking a talk here – he’s genuinely putting into effect some of the principles and techniques he espouses. Unfortunately, this seems to have entailed him thinking that he is a good and qualified person to take charge of someone having a severe mental health crisis – and encouraging wannabe priests of Chaos to do the same. Taking charge of people in their most vulnerable moments and doing one’s utmost to terrify the shit out of them is not an aspect of chaos magic which has had much discussion – a lot of chaos magicians ignore a lot of the stuff in Psychonaut – but it’s still an alarming aspect to the text.
In addition, Carroll’s willingness to write people with long-standing mental health issues as lost causes – largely incapable of being helped via chaos magic, and of course beyond the ability of psychiatry to health because in his worldview they’re useless – feels like another instance of that streak of elitism which Carroll occasionally expresses and defends in these pages. Though libertarian in his declared views, Carroll’s willingness to admit elitism and apparent belief in natural hierarchy might be something which contributed to fostering another disturbing trend in chaos magic.
Namely, all the fucking Nazis on the scene.
Crooked Crosses For the Chaos Gods
In the early 1990s a heap of drama played out in the IOT due to what was referred to as the “ice magick war”, which saw a chunk of the European membership schism off from the group. It was suggested by Carroll and allies of his that IOT members Ralph Tegtmeier and Helmut Barthel had been pushing their own particular concept of “ice magick”, playing into the supposed “Thulean” origin of the Germanic peoples so beloved by Nazi propagandists and supposedly putting a lot of emphasis on occult martial arts training – a concept Carroll had mentioned a few times as early as Liber Null but which little headway had otherwise been made on.
The natural implication of all this is that the IOT had seen off a fascist takeover, and it’s wholly possible that this was the case, though clear facts on what went down is thin on the ground untainted by acrimony and accusations are hard to find.
However, shortly after this Carroll stepped down as the head of the IOT, and the English branch was henceforth led by Ian Read. Read is the mind behind a neofolk musical project called Fire + Ice and a regular musical collaborator with far-right figures like Boyd Rice and Michael Moynihan, is very big on runes and framing Germanic mythology as the way of his “ancestors” and is the sort of Odin dude who’s happy to make declarations like “God and Lucifer are part of an alien creed and have no bearing on a superior tradition”, and has been identified by antifascist researchers (including the Searchlight) newspaper as having organised security for far-right speaking tours.
Closely connected to Read – especially in the late 1980s to early 1990s – was Tony Wakeford, who also was involved in the IOT. A founder member of Death In June, Wakeford holds the distinction of being the only guy to get kicked out of an early neofolk group for actually opening joining the National Front, though this may be an example of fascist factionalism because Death In June made something of a career out of flirting with fascist aesthetics to the point of becoming an advertisement for them even in that early phase of their work.
In the wake of his exit from Death In June, Wakeford helmed Above the Ruins (a project Read was also rumoured to be involved in, though definitive information on the lineup is hard to track down), a National Front-aligned band, before he drifted away from the National Front and founded Sol Invictus. The names of both Above the Ruins and Sol Invictus reflected Wakeford’s interests in the variety of esoteric traditionalism espoused by Julius Evola, a philosopher popular in neo-fascist circles and who Wakeford still gives the occasional winking nod to.
Read and Wakeford, along with Death In June’s Douglas Pearce and Boyd Rice of NON infamy (who both have their own occult interests and fascinations with far-right ideologies), would drift into the Current 93 lineup in the late 1980s, during a time period captured on the album Swastikas For Noddy (and on a few other releases made up of recordings from around the same general time), which was around the closest that Current 93 would come to shifting into the same sort of use of fascist symbolism and traditionalist concepts in their music that Death In June, Sol Invictus, and Fire + Ice made their stock in trade. (To my ears, at least, the remixed version of the album – Crooked Crosses For the Nodding God – comes across as an attempted course correction, treating some of the dodgier contributions from the likes of Boyd Rice in a way which suggests that Tibet was waking up to the issue and wanted to distance himself from Rice’s ideology.)
Rice, Read, and Wakeford would unceremoniously drop out of the Current 93 universe shortly after this; Pearce lingered somewhat longer, likely due to his longstanding friendship with Tibet making Tibet less keen to write him off. Pearce claims he severed the connection due to Tibet working with Tiny Tim (yes, the Tiptoe Through the Tulips guy) in light of Tim’s homophobia, but Boyd Rice also cultivated a friendship with Tim and promoted his work and Pearce kept working with Rice for years after parting ways from Tibet.
Read himself reported in interviews that he, Wakeford, and Pearce remained on friendly terms, but that he and Tibet had parted ways more completely and Pearce has been similarly scathing about Tibet, the All Pigs Must Die album carrying numerous thinly-veiled attacks on him. Both Read and Pearce believe that they had been cheated over the collapse of World Serpent Distribution and have insinuated that Tibet got a better deal out of it than them. So the personal and professional split may just be down to money and ego-clashes.
However… it’s really hard to avoid the sense that Current 93 and David Tibet were almost dragged down a dark path, which Tibet has course-corrected on, as a result of the confluence of Read, Rice, Wakeford, and Pearce coming into Current 93 and shifting it into a similar path to their own musical projects, and that at least part of the split involved Tibet pulling out before he fell into the abyss altogether.
The question is this: why would Tibet bring these people into the fold to begin with, and work on their own projects to boot? How would Ian Read and Wakeford reconcile their involvement with the starkly individualist and anti-traditionalist IOT and more authoritarian ideologies that romanticise tradition? Was there something in the early chaos magic scene in general (which Tibet, despite his later dismissals, had at least one foot in thanks to his TOPY work and his closeness to John Balance) – or the ideas promoted by Carroll and the IOT specifically – which could promote the idea that there was some value in engaging in these fascistic aesthetics?
Unfortunately, I think there is.
Right back there in Liber Null, there’s a section discussing “heresy” as a technique for attaining personal liberation and overcoming the self – closely associated with the section on anathemism I mentioned above. It goes a little something like this:
By seeking out ideas which seem bizarre, crazy, extreme, arbitrary, contradictory, and nonsensical you will find that the ideas you previously clung to as reasonable, sensible and humanitarian are actually just as bizarre, crazy, and so on. Whatever is suppressed, restricted, ridiculed, or despised, almost always contains a telling counterpoint to mainstream ideas. In argument always disagree, especially if your opponent begins to voice your own opinions.
What ideas are considered more “bizarre, crazy, extreme, arbitrary, contradictory, and nonsensical” than the most totalitarian extremes of the political compass? What is more ridiculed or despised (and, depending on where you live, suppressed and restricted) than actual neo-Naziism? Carroll admittedly does not point his readership in the direction of fascism (though his comfort with the idea of elites and a naturally-established hierarchy isn’t incompatible with such), but he specifically sends his readers off to seek out extreme ideas rejected by mainstream society. That a non-zero number of chaos magicians may have ended up flirting with fascist ideas in the service of this – and a non-zero number of those either committed to the bit so hard that it was impossible to tell them apart from actual fascists, or became genuinely radicalised through this process is a foreseeable outcome of this.
In addition, the general chaos magic ethos of throwing on the aesthetics and trappings which match the thing you want to evoke, invoke, or achieve very much applies here. If you have a scene which accepts the idea of people throwing on aesthetics in this sort of temporary way for the sake of leveraging it but not necessarily having a sincere long-term commitment for them, this is an absolute gift for fascists entryists, because so long as they can claim to be dressing in an SS uniform “ironically” or as part of an artistic, creative, or magical project, they can get away with it so long as they can move on the conversation before you ask “But wait, what are you actually trying to achieve by all this?”
Chaos magic is, of course, not the only subculture to have been colonised by fascists. But it was part of a cluster of overlapping subcultures of the era which put a very high value on challenging the status quo, and was sometimes guilty of not giving enough thought to the basis of that challenge. A pre-Banshees Siouxsie Sioux wore a swastika armband when she appeared on a TV talk show as part of the Bromley Contingent of Sex Pistols fans, after all.
In this vein, it is worth noting that prior to forming Death In June, Pearce and Wakeford were members of Crisis, a radical left punk band who had performed at Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League rallies – Wakeford has recently revived the Crisis name in order to perform songs from this period. Whilst this ping-ponging from the Anti-Nazi League to the Strasserist fascination of early Death In June to Wakeford’s joining the National Front has not been explicitly said to be motivated by chaos magic, it is still indicative of a willingness to engage with extremes simply because they are extremes and because they shock the mainstream.
However, it doesn’t really matter where the Nazis showed up first – whether they came into the music scene and then started infiltrating chaos magic groups, or vice versa. The fact is that they arrived, and whilst I don’t think there’s really a basis to say that Peter Carroll invited them in, there are ways in which the IOT philosophy and ideology as expressed in Liber Null baked in vulnerabilities to them, and in stepping down in favour of Ian Read, Carroll left the keys to the kingdom in somewhat dubious hands.
The last major chaos magic text issued by Carroll in his capacity as IOT head before stepping down was 1992’s Liber Kaos. Whilst Liber Null is widely propagated, summarised, repackaged, and mimiced, and Psychonaut gets recommended a fair bit (though largely on the strength of it being most easily available in a single volume with Liber Null), Liber Kaos seems to have had substantially less traction. Those who recommend it usually do so with caveats; others skip it altogether and feel none the poorer for it.
Though it dials back the edgelordy “ooh, we are fearsome and black-hearted chaos wizards!” stuff that Liber Null and various other early chaos magic texts partook of and dials up the comedy and whimsy – as well as Robert Anton Wilson, Carroll’s taken to referencing Pratchett here – the overall thrust of Liber Kaos seems to be an attempt to provide a serious-minded, “advanced” take on the topic.
The first part of the book – also called Liber Kaos – is largely theoretical waffle. The chapter Principia Magica sees Carroll trying to lean hard into major subjects in theoretical physics in a bid to try and come up with a theoretical framework for why magic works; Aeonics continues to try and justify his view of history, with an incredibly vestigal little addendum at the end to try and explain how Buddhism and Taoism fit into his model of history (and repeating his patronising claims of them just being other forms of monotheism), and the concluding chapter of this part, Principia Chaotica, is a brief statement of what he thinks chaos magic is and where it’s going.
Much of this is largely useless. The Principia Magica section was what I mostly had a beef with, but I suspect that’s because I’ve had more scientific training than historical and a well-learned historian could dismantle the Aeonics section with similar ease. On the physics side of things, Carroll tends to use lots of flashy words to sound like he knows what he’s doing, but he conflates a lot of concept and uses some terms interchangeably in ways that he really shouldn’t, and then uses this as a springboard for a bunch of untestable assertions. Like I say, I’m not a trained historian, but in Aeonics it really seems like he’s guilty of a similar lack of rigour. There is a difference between theoretical analysis and a priori speculation, and Carroll is 100% doing the latter.
Carroll’s approach to history and science feel like they have a lot in common with his approach to magic, which suggests a certain consistency of his underlying philosophy and approach: in all three areas Carroll simplifies things down into sweeping statements and tries to construct a framework which is broadly consistent within itself in isolation, but which is most persuasive if and only if you take it in isolation. The more detailed knowledge you have of science or history, the more his treatments of the subject fail to hold water and make sense, and the same may be true if you have detailed knowledge of the practices he claims to have streamlined.
In short, Carroll as a thinker just plain isn’t very interested in the specifics of a subject, just the big-picture overview, but then he tries to make a bunch of very specific theories off the back of broad generalisations which gloss over a hell of a lot that’s actually of crucial importance. The details of these things are often important, and it feels like with Liber Kaos Carroll is trying to weave in some new details into the structure of his take on chaos magic but not persuading the reader.
Persuading the reader may not be the point, however; it may be an exercise in persuading himself. There isn’t much in the in the “practical magic” section of the book which is actually practically actionable, but the thing it leads off with – a discussion of “sleight of mind” techniques to trick yourself into not thinking too much about what are you doing – is quite revealing. Carroll has always been adamant that belief is a tool to be manipulated, but this is about as direct a statement as you can get.
To Carroll, the important thing is to get the subconscious working on accomplishing your intended magical goal whilst your conscious mind isn’t thinking too much about it, lest that conscious thought derail things, so sleight of mind is essentially an elaboration of the idea of forgetting your sigil and the details of why you wanted to do it in the first place after you’ve constructed it. Again, I am prompted to question whether all this is intended to actually accomplish magic, or merely to convince you that you have accomplished magic – and whether Carroll considers those things to be meaningfully different.
Much of the rest of the practical magic section is dedicated to a very broad-brushstrokes take on magic as coming in eight colours (yes, one of them is octarine – told you he was lifting from Pratchett), which some general ideas of what sort of activity is related to each colour and how you might try to incorporate that, but even this is light on worked examples and seems to be very idiosyncratic stuff that only Carroll and a few intense fans of his particularly care about. To be fair, Liber Null had stuff like the “alphabet of desire” which doesn’t seem to have had much traction either, but it at least had the sigilisation stuff and mental exercises which were immediately actionable.
Towards the end of the section Carroll tosses off a few rituals, including one to conjure Azathoth, though it feels a little half-hearted. An appendix at the back of the book includes Liber KKK, which is supposedly a framework for performing a chaos magic equivalent of the Abramelin ritual but feels kind of half-finished (not least because for the last few sections of rituals Carroll’s advice is “eh, sort it out for yourself”), and the Gnostic Pentagram Ritual, a genericised version of the Golden Dawn’s Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram but with the English vowels taking the place of the archangels; that’s it as far as practical magical procedures in the book go.
The more interesting appendices, however, are the sections on “chaos monasticism” and Liber Pactonis, the latter being a sort of the constitution, institutional framework and body of ritual procedure for the IOT and for use by magical orders modelling themselves on the IOT. Considering the highly individual focus of Liber Null and the emphasis on informal organisational structures in Psychonaut, this is something of a shift, and it’s hard not to ponder this in the context of the internal power struggles in the IOT at around this time.
It also feels like Carroll retreading old territory – far from crafting the IOT into a new sort of magical order for a new aeon, Carroll is thinking in terms of degree grades, official positions, structured ceremonies and internal procedure. It comes across as a simplistic pastiche of the quasi-Masonic structure of the Golden Dawn or Crowley’s A.’.A.’., rather than anything fresh.
Carroll is very invested in trying to present “Chaoism” (his term) as this radical new worldview which will reshape the world, and a return to a more purely magical paradigm than has ever been seen before. In the Aeonics essay here, he puts forward that the idea that there are essentially three different worldviews out there – the materialist one of atheism and nihilism, the magical worldview, and the “transcendental” worldview; the distinction between the latter is that the transcendental worldview corresponds to religion and the idea that a higher spiritual entity or force guides the world.
In Carroll’s view, most magical traditions and discussions have been extensively contaminated by transcendentalism, with only the earliest phases of prehistoric animism being free of it, and the chaos magic worldview is an emergent new approach to magic which rejects transcendentalism entirely. This is despite the fact that in Liber Null he encourages practitioners to adopt a religious worldview from time to time as part of their practice. It also involves, perhaps, an extreme example of the central hubris that runs through all of Carroll’s work – that being his prideful assumption that he can present a culturally “neutral” form of magic, when in fact he is as much a product of his culture as anyone is.
In both his scaffolding of theory constructed on a shaky foundation, and in his advocacy of a more structured constitution for the IOT and similar chaos magic organisations, Carroll in 1992 seems to have come back to seeing the value of structure, after trimming structure back to its absolute minimum in Liber Null. However, any structure built on the foundations of Liber Null (or on similar introductory chaos magic texts riffing on its major contributions) was only ever going to be adopted by a subset of the growing chaos magic community at the time. Given the intensely eclectic and individualistic ethos baked into the scene from the early days, the sort of people attracted to chaos magic are not going to be too excited about going along with a bunch of additional structure and theory bolted onto it in retrospect, because that undermines the very features of the field that attracted their attention in the first place.
Cthulhu, Comics, and Pop Culture Chaos
Carroll stepping down as head of the IOT may have been significant to the IOT, but it did little to derail the propagation of chaos magic. A trickle of authors other than Sherwin and Carroll had put out their own takes on the subject in the intervening time since the emergence of The Book of Results and Liber Null, and Robert Anton Wilson himself maintained a steady stream of output rooted in his “quantum psychology” ideas which amounted to something broadly similar.
Then the early days of the Internet helped things accelerate. The combination of rapid expansion of online services, Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff and its associated penumbra of in-jokes having a strong following in geek culture, and motivated chaos magicians writing FAQs provided fertile ground. As I’ve outlined above, the institutional trauma suffered by both the IOT and TOPY in the early 1990s may have exacerbated this, since you’d then have a bunch of annoyed ex-members of those groups intent on either starting their own group or just propagating the ideas out of the control of the outfit they’d fallen out with.
Famously, 1994 saw the debut of The Invisibles, allowing Grant Morrison the resources of DC’s Vertigo imprint to propagate chaos magic ideas still further, but this wasn’t the only way pop culture was picking up on the idea. Chaos magic ideas are rife in Mage: the Ascension, White Wolf’s tabletop RPG in their World of Darkness series, which from right in its earliest incarnation onwards incorporated ideas about belief as the foundation of magical practice, mutually incompatible magical paradigms or worldviews still both working, and the concept of magicians who reach a certain level of mastery no longer needing to rely on a particular magical paradigm and just messing with reality directly, all of which comes directly from Liber Null and Psychonaut.
(Cheekily, Mage doesn’t mention those books in its bibliography, though it mentions enough other late 1980s-early 1990s occult overviews that it may well have arrived at the ideas filtered through there.)
Though Vampire: the Masquerade was the biggest hit of the World of Darkness games, Mage was certainly one of the “big three” of the line (the third being Werewolf: the Apocalypse), and since they were the hot new thing in tabletop RPGs at the time (at points threatening to unseat Dungeons & Dragons in the sales rankings) this meant chaos magic ideas were being played with for entertainment value by a reasonably-sized audience, a good chunk of whom had no magical beliefs whatsoever but at least some of whom presumably went on to develop a further interest in the subject.
Even whilst the practice was influencing pop culture, it was also picking up on influences from pop culture; the 1990s and 2000s would be the era of chaos magicians hyping up the idea of invoking Superman potentially being more effective than invoking Hercules. Again, though, this is following through on seeds which were very much present at the origin of the field. As well as directly giving the means to contact Azathoth in Liber Kaos, Carroll also presents an argument that Lovecraft was basing his stories on real psychic contact with the Old Ones; this is pretty much the same story that Kenneth Grant would push in insisting on some deeper occult reality to the Cthulhu Mythos.
When it comes to Cthulhu connections, an argument can be made for the IOT eventually attaining apostolic succession from Lovecraft by the 1990s: Lovecraft mentored R.H. Barlow, Barlow studied the Mayan Codices with a young padawan by the name of William S. Burroughs, Burroughs joined the IOT. Pushing further back, the illustrations in Psychonaut have a strong Cthulhu Mythos aesthetic to them, so it seems likely that they’d been keen on putting a little Cthulhu in their chaos for quite a while.
This makes sense when you consider Carroll and Sherwn’s likely influences. Kenneth Grant’s writing on the subject almost certainly was on their radar, particularly since that it was Grant who was largely responsible for keeping Austin Osman Spare’s memory alive; anyone reading Grant would be introduced to Spare, and conversely anyone seriously looking into Spare at the time would have come to Grant.
The question of why people would put a lot of effort into invoking pop cultural figures of ultimate evil that tend to screw over any humans who get deeply involved in them when they could just call up, well, anything they can imagine is a more difficult one, but I suppose the answer can be summarised as “edgelords gonna edge”. Chaos magic, especially in its early years, liked to cultivate a somewhat spooky, dangerous reputation, which I suppose ties into it being the punk rock of magical traditions.
In checking in on chaos magic discussion fora when researching this article, one thing I noticed was that the “invoke Superman” business – the wholesale use of pop culture elements in magical practice – has either actually receded, or at least the accepted wisdom is that it’s receded. Figures like Phil Hine, whose Condensed Chaos was one of the more widely-recommended and well-presented accessible introductions to the field, seemed to back away from it, commenting in interviews that it seemed to risk becoming excessively reductionist.
Perhaps there’s also the factor that bringing back more traditional deities and entities and mythological elements into people’s magical practice felt more fulfilling to many people. Chaos magic as presented in texts like Liber Null risks becoming bland and genericised; whilst you might question the practical efficacy of magical traditions, they can also serve as sort of quasi-religious function in someone’s life, the personal and therapeutic effects of which shouldn’t be overlooked, and I can see how some practitioners would feel that taking all of the cultural context and finer detail out of things and mashing them together into generic techniques makes the final product feel less rich and evocative and interesting than having all that stuff packed back in.
Chaos magic continues to have its advocates, but the associated Carroll-esque rhetoric seems to have been toned down. Carroll seems to have fairly consistently taken the view that the cultural trappings associated with a magical tradition were nothing more than an unnecessary accretion of compromises and irrelevancies which get in the way of the magical techniques in question; whilst some modern chaos magicians doubtless agree, others seem more open to the possibility that you can’t separate these techniques out from the cultural milieu that yielded them without losing something crucial to both.
A Null-Sum Game
One question remains. Why, despite all of this diverse pop cultural dabbling, the shift in Carroll’s status from steering the early scene to being one more esoteric philosopher among many, and the plethora of others involved in chaos magic, have the basic principles of the scene still not moved on that far beyond Liber Null?
It’s probably in the nature of the underlying philosophy that it seems to resist further elaboration – or at least, further elaboration which becomes generally-accepted in the wider scene. Once you’ve done the work of stripping occult practices down to a set of generic techniques and tell people “you can hang whatever aesthetic you like on this”, then anyone who buys into it is going to zoot off and do that – hence Liber Null‘s ideas being propagated much further than Liber Kaos‘s, or even Psychonaut‘s. They aren’t going to stick around to listen to your further elaborations unless those happen to fit their own interests, and they are going to feel free to pick and choose as they wish from those. And anyone who doesn’t buy into those underlying principles isn’t going to go any further.
Precisely because the system of Liber Null is so stripped-back and designed to be open to personal twists, it can be repackaged endlessly and isn’t amenable to being wholly controlled by anyone. The Nazis might have shown up to the party, but they can’t keep anyone else out of this particular beer hall. Though Carroll’s claims to have reached the baseline underlying techniques of all esoterica, a sort of culturally neutral ur-shamanism, feel like an exaggeration at best, massive cultural erasure at worst, he can at the very least claim to have created a package of ideas that can genuinely be adapted by and engaged with by anyone, and Liber Null remains Carroll’s most focused statement of it before his later additions revealed the internal tensions of his worldview.
At the same, the punk-era nihilism and tendency of the text to encourage practitioners to get out there with no safety net beyond some hasty banishing rituals, the elitist mythology around the IOT being the latest incarnation of the Illuminati and the people with the responsibility to shape the new aeon, and most of all the way practitioners are actively discouraged by the text from seeking conventional medical or psychiatric help or maintaining any sort of personal stability and security has all rather worn thin.
It must have seemed very, very rock and roll back in 1978, as did Carroll’s Robert Anton Wilson-esque libertarian ideology of personal freedom. But the pendulum has swung too far, the social safety net has been strained, and aid is denied to those who could truly use it whilst billionaires show an ostentatious lack of social conscience reminiscent of the robber baron era. Creating a variety of magic which is accessible to anyone, regardless of the resources available to them, was an important action of the time and an act of genuine liberation.
Now, however, the world faces a more difficult route of cultivating interconnectedness in a time of austerity and libertarian refusal to acknowledge our responsibilities to each other. The rise of even more flagrant fascist entryists on the occult scene – think 4Chan /pol/ Nazis enthusing about “meme magic”, think obnoxious Odinists – is what you would expect to see on the right in an era when people are trying to figure out new ways of defining community and belonging – the appeal to traditionalist racial and national identities is part of that. One wonders whether a convincing counter-response will come, and from what quarter.