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Thursday 12 September 2013

"Real Magick" in RPGs: Chaos Magick

"Real Magick" in RPGs: Chaos Magick

After Aleister Crowley, probably the most significant shift in 20th century western magick was the development of what can be called "chaos magick" starting in the late 70s.  I've talked a little about this before; they were/are kind of magickal-hipsters who try to incorporate post-modern ideas into magick, show general disdain for scripted ritual, and like to mix "science" with their magick (or more aptly, butcher popular scientific or mathematical theories about everything from quantum mechanics to game theory to try to fit in with or justify their magical world view).

At their worst, these are guys who go around trying to invoke Superman by a free-form ritual of running around in a cape, rather than, say, invoking Horus with a modified version of a 2000 year old invocation.  Many of them tend to believe that all magick is purely a subjective, almost "artistic" thing, where you can make up just anything and if you believe in it strongly enough it will work.  That's "magick as placebo", basically.

But there is one thing that has to be said for them.  Of all the groups of magicians, they're the ones most likely to actually try to perform some kind of magick.  Way more, in fact, than the average Thelemite or old school ceremonial magician, most of whom prefer to spend a lot of time reading about and talking about magick rather than actually trying any.  Unfortunately, the chaos magicians only really have one form of magick that's popular with them that they regularly use, which is "Sigil magick", and they usually do that poorly.  They have a great ratio of practice to bullshit but their practice is a half-assed performance of a one-trick pony.

You see, the reason why they actually do their one-trick magick act so much is because its very easy to do; it doesn't require any great effort to use sigil magick.  And a chaos magician might explain it like this: you pick some kind of intention, you summarize that intention as a phrase (ie. "I will get the job"). Then from that phrase you reduce it to core letters, some chaos magicians just take out repeated letters, others take out vowels and repeated letters.  For simplicity's sake let's remove both; in our example you're thus left with "w l g t h j b".  With those remaining letters, you then try to draw them all together in a kind of jumble, all connected to form one single drawing, and then you can optionally abstract that drawing until the original letters aren't even recognizable anymore.

Then you have to "charge" the sigil somehow; there are several popular methods of doing this, from the very vanilla version of just staring at the sigil intensely while repeating your intention, to the more risque version of masturbating onto the sigil while thinking about your intention.  There are other ways too, of varying degrees of weirdness.

After your sigil is "charged", you put it away, and stop thinking about it.  This is known to be an important step, because you now want to let go of the attachments that keep you worried about the issue and would block your Will's ability to get stuff done, energetically. 

And that's it.  In theory, your desired change should come to pass.

The reason Sigil magick became so popular was threefold:
First, because it takes very little actual work, no memorization, no ancient languages, no kabbalistic correspondences, nothing strenuous.

Second, because some people report a very high success rate with it.  For those people for whom it works, it works very well.  Note that it does not in fact work very well for everyone, or consistently, but when you're looking for cheap low-labour-intensity magick, you go for whatever has even a halfway-decent success rate.

Third, because it was basically invented by Austin Osman Spare, a counterculture artist who lived in the early half of the 20th century, that many chaos magicians latched onto as promoting some kind of easygoing alternative to all the pomp-and-circumstance (and hard work!) of Aleister Crowley's system of magick.  Long after Spare was dead, he was credited (because of sigil magick) with being the "grandfather of chaos magick".

Now, sigil magick does have its downsides.  The chief among them is that in fact it is not nearly as easy as the above explanation implies. You see, most chaos magicians didn't actually read Spare or read about his history; if they had they'd have known that he was in fact a student of Aleister Crowley's, that he was largely concerned with the same issues of personal transformation and transcendence, and that for him sigil magick was a relatively minor part of a much larger body of work that had to be taken on holistically.  In Spare's "Book of Pleasure" (a sanity-loss-inducing ramble of a book that presents a very jumbled explanation of Spare's philosophy) Spare makes it clear that the REAL goal of his magick is the achieving of what he called "Kia", the state of non-duality, and the vast majority of his writing is not about the sigil magick but about how to undertake a discipline of practice to achieve that state.

And the reason why sigil magick doesn't actually work as well as advertised is largely because most people do it in a very half-assed way (drawing a sigil, metaphorically or literally wanking over it, and then dropping the whole thing); when in fact the efficacy of sigil magick depends on whether or not a magician is engaging in a dedicated daily regimen of practice and spiritual exercises to focus his concentration, and to achieve trance states.  Its not surprising that those chaos magicians that reported amazing success with sigil magick were also those who were very serious in their pursuit of magick; they usually failed, however, to report the connection between being disciplined and doing sigils successfully; they tended to say "its easy" either as a selling point to get people into it or because they honestly didn't make the connection that maybe their sigils were working so well because they were doing a bunch of other shit at the same time, a routine of exercises in concentration and trance-work that they took for granted but that 99% of the people reading them did not and would not do, because it feels too much like work.

In game terms, a chaos magician is most likely to be a young hipster of some kind, into all kinds of fashionable theories (lots of chaos magicians are very into psychedelics, counter-culture, cutting edge science or pseudo-science, singularity predictions, AI, virtual reality, UFOs and conspiracy theories, etc. etc.).  They'll talk a lot about science, but almost invariably won't actually have any formal scientific training.  Many of them tend to be artistically, dramatically, or musically inclined, and see that as part of their magick.

The average chaos magician tends to rankle at anything smacking of formal ritual, magical orders, hierarchy, authority, tradition, or at the idea of objective rather than subjective archetypes.  Many of them to the point that (as per my "superman" example above) they try to incorporate pop culture into their magick (usually with less-than-stellar results).  Many of them will have very... let's say "broad" definitions of magick, and of "success" in their magick.  They're the kind of guys that will try to convince you that just thinking really hard is magick, or that playing Xbox for 12 hours straight while high on pot brownies is a transcendent experience.   The problem about half of them have with magick is that they don't really believe in it; the other half's problem is that they DO actually believe in it and suffer from serious doubts about their own lack of seriousness.  In both cases, chaos magicians have a tendency to completely freak out when they get actual REAL results, because they just don't expect that sort of shit to go down.  A Chaos Magician NPC will be able to tell you all about what's hip and new and what's out of style, and may be able to show the PCs some tricks (mainly how to use sigils) but if they end up facing some kind of spiritual entity that the chaos magician realizes is not just explainable as a conversation with himself, or have an experience of an altered state of reality or travel to a dimension that is clearly not just a flight of fantasy, he'll probably go through a serious spiritual meltdown.

They're not all bad, of course; I'm describing the typical suspect above; and there are many more serious people involved in it:  The main proponents of the movement, people like Peter J. Caroll or Jan Fries are very studious and regularly push the frontiers of their own experiences and perspectives, and are often highly critical of their own scene and the lack of seriousness some people show.  Others, like Alan Chapman, have recently begun to come to a kind of revelation which might be the start of yet another new movement in magick: they've decided that post-modernism and pop-culture in magick is a dead end, and have instead tried to take some of the lessons they learned from the best of chaos magick, but go back to the more orthodox models and apply their practices to Thelemic or other ceremonial magick structures.  Chapman described how the initial appeal of going from standard magick to chaos magick amounted to the question "why ponce about in robes when I could be a stoned wanker"?  That was pretty much the sentiment of a large number of chaos magicians; but he continues from there to say, "a few years later, however, and the novelty was wearing off".

In particular, more and more chaos magicians have recently got the feeling that there might be something more to explore in magick than just making sigils to get stuff in the material world, and have begun to think about how there might be something to this whole "experiencing other levels of reality" or even "self-transformation/transcendence" stuff after all.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Rattray's Accountant's Mix

(originally posted January 6, 2012, in the old blog)

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