What is Chaos Magic?
Embracing Belief, Eschewing Tradition
Magick, according to The Free Dictionary, is when someone uses some form of action or effort to alter the world around them (or to alter themselves) through the power of their will. There's probably as many different definitions of the term as there are spiritual paths surrounding it, but this is the one we'll be using as the jumping off point for today. Also, in the spirit of chaos, I'm dropping the "k" from the word from here on out... you know it's there, however, so just remind yourself as you read.
One particular spiritual path that keeps cropping up in discourse is chaos magic. The spiky-haired, steel-studded punk of magical practices, it's eye-catching and disorienting in a way that's simultaneously exciting, and a little bit terrifying... especially to those who are used to a neat, clean, orderly way of doing things.
This is only an introduction to the idea of chaos magic. However, my hope is that I'll hit the high points, and provide enough information that readers can move forward in their journeys and find their own path forward. For more articles on history and theory, such as What is a Witch? or What is a Warlock?, consider taking a moment to check out my full Vocal archive!
Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted
When we think of magical traditions, whether we've absorbed them from reading occult theory and philosophy or from how those topics have been used as fodder for fiction in the mainstream, most of us are in the same ballpark. Rituals and rites and proscribed, there tends to be a lot of memorization and firm structure, and tradition that goes back through older generations. Some magical traditions, like Kabbalah, have been around for centuries, influencing untold generations of practitioners and how they operate.
Chaos magic is basically the opposite of that.
As Ranker points out, chaos magic is basically magic without the bullshit. The idea is that it strips away unnecessary ceremony and proscription, focusing purely on the tools and the effects of the techniques. This means that chaos magicians will draw from a variety of different traditions and sources, using them together, and often in ways that were never intended. As long as these symbols and techniques allow the chaos magician to achieve their goals (pushing their will onto the world to nudge it in the direction they want) it does the job.
As a concrete example, a chaos magician might mix together Norse runes, Icelandic magic staves, a Kabbalistic circle, and an old machete as an athame while invoking Goetic demons. The idea is that the different elements of different magical traditions don't each represent their own, unique truth; they're simply different tools that people have used to reach beyond the boundary to access the proper state of mind one must achieve to make magic work. So by cobbling these different elements together it allows the chaos magician to make their own key, and to unlock the door themselves.
The quote from Nietzsche really breaks it down. Nothing is true, in the sense there is no single, universal truth. Everything is permitted, meaning you can believe and use whatever is necessary in order for you to be able to make your magic work. And there is no requirement that you think, act, or believe the same way the next time; everything is on the table.
You Still Have To Read, Though
Chaos magic, as a rule, is a very "fuck around and find out" way of doing things. The focus is on results, rather than the particular tools you used to achieve those results. So as long as your ritual works, and the techniques you employed got you what you wanted, it's a success.
It's basically an occult version of mixed martial arts.
While there is a lot of emphasis on trial and error, as well as in keeping exhaustive notes on your activities, chaos magic isn't a pass to skip all the reading and philosophy. In fact, you should probably be doing even more reading than someone who is just trying to stick to a singular tradition. Because not only do you need to understand what the techniques and elements are, and what they represent in their original context, you need to understand how they're going to work together and mesh when taken out of that context and woven into a new pattern.
It's a lot like how the creator of the martial art Bartitsu spent his life studying dozens of different fighting styles ranging from European fencing, to boxing, to jujitsu, and it was through that intrinsic understanding that he was able to combine the philosophies into a functional whole. If you lack that understanding, you might end up just flailing around instead of achieving the results you're looking for.
A Note on Practical Magic
The ideas of chaos magic, according to Learn Religions, have quite a history behind them, as well. While Peter J. Carroll is often the face of the more modern incarnation (having risen to popularity in the 1970s and 1980s), another contributor is Austin Osman Spare. Though he died in the 1950s, in his youth Spare crossed paths with the infamous Aleister Crowley, whose influence once can see if they peer between the lines of a lot of chaos magic writing.
And while some love him, and some hate him, I'd like to point out something Crowley wrote in the introduction to The Greater and Lesser Keys of Solomon The King.
In short, Crowley was answering the demand for a rational explanation for the effects of the rites and rituals contained in the book. He suggested that it was not outside the realm of possibility that the Goetic demons listed were not really spirits, but were instead manifestations of one's own mind; avatars of the practitioner's psychological states. It was possible that these rituals, then, would simply allow one to access their own unconsciousness, and to change themselves and their effect on the world through the power of their will, and their belief.
This, in many ways, gets to the heart of the practical nature of chaos magic. Because whether your spells and rituals are creating an effect on the world around you, or they're simply allowing you to alter your own mind and through it your body and attitude, doesn't matter in a practical sense. The point is that change occurred, and you got the results you wanted.