Origins and influences (1974-1982)
Chaos magic was first developed in England in the mid-1970s, at a time when British occultism was dominated by Wicca and Thelema. Although both of these traditions incorporate magical elements, they are both religions, and as such contain devotional elements, liturgy and dogma. Chaos magic grew out of the desire of some occultists to strip away these extrinsic details and distill magic down to a set of tried-and-tested techniques for causing effects to occur in reality.
Peter J. Carroll and Ray Sherwin are considered to be the founders of chaos magic, although Phil Hine points out that there were others "lurking in the background, such as the Stoke Newington Sorcerors" – a group which included Charles Brewster (Frater Choronzon). Carroll was a regular contributor to The New Equinox, a magazine edited by Sherwin, and thus the two became acquainted.
1978 was perhaps the seminal year in the origin of chaos magic, seeing the publication of both Liber Null by Carroll and The Book of Results by Sherwin – the first published books on chaos magic – and the establishment of The Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), the first chaos magic organization.
Austin Osman Spare is largely the source of chaos magical theory and practice. Specifically, Spare developed the use of sigils and the use of gnosis to empower these. Most basic sigil work recapitulates Spare's technique, including the construction of a phrase detailing the magical intent, the elimination of duplicate letters, and the artistic recombination of the remaining letters to form the sigil. Although Spare died before chaos magic emerged, many consider him to be the grandfather of chaos magic because of his repudiation of traditional magical systems in favor of a technique based on gnosis.
Aleister Crowley was a marginal yet early and ongoing influence, particularly for his syncretic approach to magic, and his emphasis on experimentation and deconditioning. Other early influences include Discordianism, the punk movement, postmodernism and the writings of Robert Anton Wilson. Lionel Snell was also publishing writing on Spare in the mid-1970s, and became drawn into the burgeoning chaoist movement. Snell's book SSOTBME (1974) also came to influence the early chaos magicians.
However, despite these influences, it's clear from their early writings that the first chaos magicians were attempting to recover a sort of universal shamanism by stripping away any accumulated cultural gloss. Carroll makes this clear in Liber Null:
When stripped of local symbolism and terminology, all systems show a remarkable uniformity of method. This is because all systems ultimately derive from the tradition of Shamanism. It is toward an elucidation of this tradition that the following chapters are devoted.
This is echoed in Snell's description of Spare as a "master shaman" who brought into the world a new form of "shamanistic sorcery".
Early development and spread (1982-1994)
New chaos magic groups emerged in the early 1980s – at first, located in Yorkshire, where both Sherwin and Carroll were living. The early scene was focused on a shop in Leeds called The Sorceror's Apprentice, owned by Chris Bray. Bray also published a magazine called The Lamp of Thoth, which published articles on chaos magic, and his Sorceror's Apprentice Press re-released both Liber Null and The Book of Results, as well as Psychonaut and The Theatre of Magic. The Circle of Chaos, which included Dave Lee, was formed in Yorkshire in 1982. The rituals of this group were published by Paula Pagani as The Cardinal Rites of Chaos in 1985.
Ralph Tegtmeier (Frater U.D.), who ran a bookshop in Germany and was already practicing his own brand of "ice magick", translated Liber Null into German. Tegtmeier was inducted into the IOT in the mid-1980s, and later established the German section of the order. He was excommunicated in 1990 over the "Ice Magic Wars". Lola Babalon established the first American IOT temple in 1988.
As chaos magic spread, people from outside Carroll and Sherwin's circle began publishing on the topic. Phil Hine, who practiced chaos magic alongside Tantra and Wicca, published a number of books on the subject that were particularly influential in spreading chaos magic techniques via the internet. Jaq D. Hawkins, from California, wrote an article on chaos magic for Mezlim magazine, coming into contact with Sherwin and other IOT members in the process. Hawkins later wrote the first chaos magic book intended for a general readership. In 1992, Jan Fries published Visual Magick, introducing his own blend of "freestyle shamanism", which has had influence on chaos magic.
In 1981, Genesis P-Orridge established Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), an art collective and magical order. P-Orridge had studied magic under William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the 1970s, and was also influenced by Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, as well as the psychedelic movement. TOPY practiced chaos magic alongside their other activities, and helped raise awareness of chaos magic in subcultures like the Acid House and Industrial music scenes. They were also partially responsible for introducing the techniques of Burroughs and Gysin to the chaos magic stream – but this influence also ran the other way, with Burroughs (who already practiced magic and was experimenting with Spare's sigil technique) being inducted into the IOT in the early 1990s.
Pop culture: (1994-early 2000s)
From the beginning, chaos magic has had a tendency to draw on the symbolism of pop culture in addition to that of "authentic" magical systems; the rationale being that all symbol systems are equally arbitrary, and thus equally valid – the belief invested in them being the thing that matters. The symbol of chaos, for example, was lifted from the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock.
Preluded by Kenneth Grant – who had studied with both Crowley and Spare, and who had introduced elements of H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Cthulhu mythos into his own magical writings – there was a trend for chaos magicians to perform rituals invoking or otherwise dealing with entities from Lovecraft's work, such as the Great Old Ones. Hine, for example, published The Pseudonomicon (1994), a book of Lovecraftian rites.
In turn, by the mid-1990s, chaos magic itself was beginning to leak into pop culture. Many of the writers and artists who produced strips for British sci-fi comic 2000ad also practiced chaos magic – among them Pat Mills, Bryan Talbot, Tony Skinner, and Dave Thorpe – and many included frequent references to chaos magic in their work. Mills, for example, created the characters of Nemesis the Warlock and Deadlock, both of whom practiced "khaos magick".
Grant Morrison, who began practicing chaos magic at 19, wrote the series Zenith for 2000ad. Zenith frequently featured chaos magic themes, as well as a distinct Lovecraftian influence, and the Cthulhu mythos-inspired monsters of the story were copied straight from the illustrations of Liber Null – leading to the threat of a lawsuit from Peter Carroll.
From 1994 to 2000, Morrison wrote The Invisibles for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, which has been described by Morrison as a "hypersigil": "a dynamic miniature model of the magician's universe, a hologram, microcosm or 'voodoo doll' which can be manipulated in real time to produce changes in the macrocosmic environment of 'real' life." Both The Invisibles and the activities of Morrison himself were responsible for bringing chaos magic to a much wider audience in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the writer outlining his views on chaos magic in the "Pop Magic!" chapter of A Book of Lies (2003) a Disinfo Convention talk, and the documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods.
Morrison's particular take on chaos magic exemplified the irreverent, pop cultural elements of the tradition, with Morrison arguing that the deities of different religions (Hermes, Mercury, Thoth, Ganesh, etc.) are nothing more than different cultural "glosses" for more universal "big ideas" – and are therefore interchangeable: both with each other, and with other pop culture icons like The Flash, or Metron, or Madonna.
Post-chaos magic: 2010s
Over the course of the past decade, chaos magic has experienced a shift away from the pop cultural interpretation that typified the Lovecraft/Morrison era. Jason Miller has argued that contemporary occultism has entered a "post-chaos" phase, in which chaos magicians are increasingly initiating into "very old lineage traditions", partially triggered by the realisation that "imaginary gods and spirits or fictional characters do not seem to have the same effect as traditional ones". Hine has spoken of his disillusionment with the idea that all magic "can be formulated in terms of 'techniques' and that the theoretical underpinnings or cultural-historical context" do not matter:
...something you’ll sometimes see advocates of CM asserting is that singing rune charms and repeating Hindu mantras are essentially the same procedure – the focus being on the repetition of a word or phrase – in order to enter an altered state of consciousness. So mantras are something that gets chanted – and the chanting (i.e. the iteration) is what’s important – not the content or the context. This, to me, is a kind of reductionism. It predicates a universal explanation – that the ‘technique’ of iterative speech is enacted in order to establish an altered state of consciousness in the practitioner – and subordinates all instances which apparently look as though that’s what’s going on – to it. So for an advocate of CM, there would be little practical difference between, say, chanting a rune poem, repeating the Gayatri mantra, or singing a sea shanty.
Alan Chapman – whilst praising chaos magic for "breathing new life" into Western occultism, thereby saving it from "being lost behind a wall of overly complex symbolism and antiquated morality" – has also criticised chaos magic for its lack of "initiatory knowledge": i.e., "teachings that cannot be learned from books, but must be transmitted orally, or demonstrated", present in all traditional schools of magic. Chapman has gone on to develop his own system, using the techniques of chaos magic to achieve the aims of Thelema, such as attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, or the Crossing of the Abyss.
Gordon White, meanwhile, has developed a distinctive blend of chaos magic technique and animism:
If the western esoteric tradition can be said to have an underlying belief system it is a form of Animism; that the world or the universe is in some sense a living thing... However you conceive of their 'true' nature, magic requires full engagement with fetishes and sacred ground and window areas such as crossroads. It also works best when you grant agency to objects or entities beyond human consciousness, and particularly so with living systems... It is more useful for the magician to consider living systems not as some unaware little eddies in a universal consciousness field, but as 'outposts' of the spirit world.