The Magical Revival of the sixties had many strange ingredients and it spawned one distinctive tradition, Chaos Magic. (Readers from the USA should note that in Europe ‘the sixties’ means the cultural period from 1968 to 1978).
A simple list of phenomena from that era probably conveys the occult current of the age better than anything, so here goes. Hashish, LSD, The Pill, Mass Female Promiscuity, Rock Music, Graham Bond, Led Zeppelin, Aleister Crowley Reprinted, Israel Regardie, Golden Dawn Reprinted, Austin Spare Revisited, Enough Slack in the economy for widespread enjoyment of sex and drugs and rock and roll and eastern mysticism and witchcraft Heady days man, you should have been there.
Three options confronted those with esoteric leanings in those days. Neo-ism, Scientism, and Chaos. The neo-ists created neo-shamanism, neo-witchcraft, neo-paganism, neo-crowleyanity and neo-anything else that took their fancy, In doing this they borrowed with breathtaking and shameless eclecticism from any tradition that appealed to them, and then tried very hard to pretend that they hadn’t.
It didn’t take long for most of these neo or pseudo traditions to loose most of their fire and excitement as the whole enterprise collapsed into the new-age sludge under an avalanche of books on whiter than white teenage witchcraft and caring paganism for vegetarians. Scientismic esotericism evaporated even faster. No market now exists for all those hundreds of titles on ‘creative visualization’ and ‘ mind power’ that once crowded the bookshops. The ideas in these books had come from magical traditions but the psychological jargon did not provide an enduring substitute for the romance of sorcery.
Chaos seemed the most probable result of eschewing both neo-ism and scientism during the publishing explosion of the sixties magical revival. The tsunami of republished material from just about every magical tradition from Neolithic shamanism to the Golden Dawn threatened a metaphysical overload. Gradually it became clear to some people that instead of constituting a problem, Chaos actually provided a solution.
The cornucopia of ideas in the collected works of the Golden Dawn represented the fruits of the previous occult revival in the 1880’s. Its publication in the sixties magical revival as a gigantic (and often turgid) single tome had an extraordinary but often unacknowledged effect. It showed that Aleister Crowley had innovated little at all in the way of occult theory. As an alumnus of the Golden Dawn he did not go far beyond their ideas, although he did break new ground in the fields of lifestyle and ritual extremism with considerable aplomb. The Golden Dawn corpus presented the reader with a spectacular cacophony of traditions unified by nothing more than the theme of magic. The implied metaphysics of the Golden Dawn corpus lurch wildly from animism to spiritism to paganism to neo-platonism to monotheism to positivism and even to a species of existentialist post-modernism well before its time, (see the chapter on manufacturing angels for example).
Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers probably wrote most of it in the reading room of the British Museum whilst Karl Marx sat writing Das Kapital. Mathers also probably wrote the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage himself and presented it as a renaissance original because he found medieval goetia and thaumaturgy in need of an upgrade. Occult historians usually fail to credit Mathers with priming the bomb that would, eighty years later, blow magic into another dimension.
Another alumnus of the Golden Dawn, Austin Osman Spare, supplied the core insights that allowed some modern magicians to escape the maze of eclecto-mania into the chaos paradigm. Spare’s ideas remained largely forgotten until Kenneth Grant mentioned them in his books during the sixties revival. Spare effectively deconstructed and rebuilt magical thinking at about the same time as Albert Einstein performed a similar service to physics. Some wit dubbed the ‘CHAOS’ in chaos magic as ‘The Continuing Hagiography of Austin Osman Spare’. As the revival gathered momentum, a cluster of experimental assumptions gradually evolved into a coherent paradigm. (Philosophy always comes after the event)
In no particular order, the items of the manifesto included the following: -.
We can exploit by magic the fact that the universe has a large random component in its behavior. (Imputs from quantum physics and later, the so called ‘chaos mathematics’)
We do not need to treat all the magical symbolism of historical magical and religious systems as sacred. We can treat them as useful if we wish, and we can make up our own, to our own tastes and needs.(Heavily implied by the Golden Dawn corpus)
We do not need to believe in pre-existing gods and spirits and demons. We can manufacture things which have exactly the same effects. (Spare)
We should treat belief as a tool for creating results, not as a goal in itself. (Imput from Spare)
We do need to observe certain technical procedures (sleight of mind
and gnosis) to achieve magical effects, whatever the symbolism used.
(Imputs from Spare and Crowley)
Now manufacturing gods and demons for fun and profit demands a spectrum of attitudes running from the deadly serious to the seriously irreverent. The Pact gained notoriety and charisma for its frenzied rites and its solemn rites, both capped off by uproarious laughter as a banishing. No other order has contemplated mail order poltergeist schemes to my knowledge. I shall not forget the massed hooded and robed figures typing frantically one handed at computer keyboards, whilst crumbling incense into smoking braziers with their free hands, as stroboscopes chopped the darkness with epileptiform lightning.
In The Pact you get practical experimental metaphysics with no gurus and no excuses. In the old aeon, the cannon of (recently invented) sacred procedures constituted the whole of the law. In chaos magic everything becomes a true experiment, in the sense that we would not bother to do it if we knew the result in advance.