“Sometimes we must lose our way in order to truly orient ourselves to our surroundings and find ourselves.” –Laura Tempest Zakroff
“Magic is fun — otherwise, why do it?” –Phil Hine
My first encounter with someone who identified as a “Chaos Witch” left me kind of scratching my head, as did my second and third. I’ve met a handful of people on the Internet who called themselves Chaos Witches, but the only defining characteristic they seemed to share was being not Wiccan, which left a lot to be desired in the “What Exactly Is It You’re Doing” department.
And then one of them said something about “taking from everyone else,” and another was like, “Ah, the freedom in which I revel now that I’m not tied to any Tradition,” and I was like, “Oh. Okay. This is what we’re calling eclectic now.”
The big issue here is that eclectic Witchcraft doesn’t need to be relabeled. Eclectic Witches have been around for… well, pretty much always, and Witchcraft itself is syncretic, because magic tends to find a way to survive. But if people who don’t have any kind of background in Chaos Magic are slapping the name “Chaos” onto their practices just because they don’t want to identify as eclectic — and because the idea of Chaos is trendy at the moment — we’re going to start seeing a lot more confusion and butthurt than is really necessary.
Kelly-Ann Maddox (who’s also nominated for scads of Witchies, btw) has an excellent video on the differences between Eclectic Witches and Chaos Witches, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to watch it. But in the meantime, let’s play around with the concept of the Chaos Witch, and see if we can’t tack down what it actually is.
Magician v. Witch in the Trial of the Century
Back in my day [waves cudgel], it was understood that Magicians practiced “high magic,” or theurgy (invoking spirits with the goal of achieving union with the Divine), and Witches practiced “low magic,” or thaumaturgy (the working of “natural” magic to produce real-world effects). These definitions were in place for a long time, but honestly, they’ve worn thin. They’re sexist AF, for one thing — in the olden days, men who practiced magic were respectable Magicians, whereas women who practiced magic were untameable Witches consorting with the Devil, so yeah, kind of a gender bias there.
The distinction between “high” and “low” magic is problematic as well, since it’s classist at best, and racist at worst. Theurgy and thaumaturgy are two separate things, but Witchcraft, especially in a religious context, is going to employ both of them, so we can’t really hand one of them off to the Magician and the other to the Witch and call it a binary.
Coby over at Poisoner’s Apothecary has an amazing breakdown of this, but here’s my take: Both “Magician” and “Witch” are gender-neutral, but in a greater context, the Magician works within a given social structure to effect change primarily in the self, whereas the Witch works on the outskirts of that structure to effect change both in themself and the world around them.
At least, that’s how I see it. Your definitions may be different, and that’s legit. But I think having a concept of what a Witch is and does will help as we try to wrap our brains around the existence of Chaos Witchcraft.
In my mind, the phrase “Chaos Witch” can be taken pretty literally: It’s someone who approaches Witchcraft from a Chaos Magic perspective. But what does that really mean? I would submit that a true Chaos Witch attempts to adhere to the principles of Chaos Magical Theory while practicing their Craft — and I have a couple of wishlist items to include with that.
It’s understandable that people would get the principle of diverse approaches confused with eclecticism, since both suggest finding whatever works and plugging it into what we’re already doing. But Chaos Magic is also fueled by the avoidance of dogma, so the Chaos Witch isn’t just going to pick up techniques and jam them into an already existent belief system — they’re going to step out of their current belief system and immerse themselves in another to see what makes those techniques tick, and to determine how best to utilize them.
Let’s look at it this way: Say I want to create my own Witchcraft tradition. I work out the basics, do some research and figure out how to cast a Circle, assemble some tools, pull some rituals out of various books, dedicate myself to a Goddess, and cobble it all together into a regular practice that works well for me. This is an eclectic approach.
If I do all of the above, then convert to Tibetan Buddhism for six months so that I can get a better grip on meditation, then bring that experience back to my personal Witchcraft practice, that’s a Chaos Magic approach.
For me, immersion is like the occult version of a juice cleanse. Like, you know how I recently started working with the Liminal Spirits Oracle deck? I’ve been doing readings with it, and I appreciate what the cards are telling me, but I also want to develop a stronger bond with them, so that my readings can get deeper and more specific. And so I’ve started constructing a belief system around them.
The front of the box the deck came in says “Witch’s Spirit Cards,” so I’ve decided that the spirits in question hold all the keys to Witchcraft, and if I want to be a Witch, I need to establish a unique relationship with each of them. So that’s going to be my entire practice for the next month or so. When I need to pray, I’ll be praying to one or more of the 42 spirits represented by the cards; if I need to cast a spell, I’ll have to figure out how to use the cards to do that.
I started with the Gateway card; today I’m exploring Roots, and at some point over the weekend, I’ll move on to Inspiration. Some of the spirits are proving easy to interact with, and others are going to present challenges; frankly, I’m not thrilled about delving into the Fish card, since fish don’t actually exist. But that in itself is the epitome of liminal, so one way or another, I’m going to get schooled (so to speak), despite — or maybe by dint of — any preconceptions on my part.
It may sound like I’m putting extraneous restrictions on myself, or uselessly capping my own abilities. And in a way, I am. But I’m also building from the ground up within an alien paradigm and figuring out how to orient myself — my theory is that the longer I work with the cards and their spirits, the more room I’ll have to grow and experiment. Eventually, I’ll come back to my original practice adept at a new form of divination.
I’ll tell you, though: It’s uncomfortable. It’s one thing to move back and forth between Gardnerian and Minoan — they’re similar enough in praxis that I don’t get carsick jumping from one to the other. But in this new belief system, there aren’t (yet) any familiar touchstones. Want to check in with Eris? Oop, sorry. She doesn’t exist here. Longing for a ritual knife? Here’s some Metal. Hope you know a good blacksmith.
But I am excited about the process, even if it is a little scary. It’s like going on safari, or wandering into an old building full of ghosts and weird antiques. Belief is a tool, after all, and once I’ve made it through the deck, I’ll have a nifty, finely-tuned implement to incorporate into my Witchcraft, and I’ll have a lot more appreciation for the tools already in my possession. And, having survived the experience, I’ll be good and seasoned and ready to throw myself into another one.
Disciples of Discipline
I think people sometimes hear “Chaos Magic” and assume that it’s sloppy, or all over the place, when in fact it’s the opposite: The Chaos Magic approach takes discipline, and therefore a Chaos Witch must be disciplined in their practice, whatever it happens to be.
Right now, discipline for me means working my way through the Liminal Spirits in order, giving each the same amount of my attention, and not skipping ahead to the cards I think will be more useful or interesting. If I were trying to come up with a new method of spellcasting, the discipline would involve working at the technique until I’ve gotten results, then starting over and repeating the process to confirm that those results are verifiable.
But discipline also means keeping a healthy balance between mirth and reverence; getting a kick out of what I’m doing while taking it seriously; finding sacredness in the impertinent and using that as a source of power; reminding myself that nothing is true and everything is permitted, especially in moments when my rational mind is stamping its feet and shrieking, “NO. ONLY ONE WAY. MUST DO THINGS THAT WAY.”
There is no one way, especially when it comes to Chaos Magic. But Chaos Magic is still a specific thing, with its own parameters. If we want to be Chaos Witches, we need to learn how to operate effectively within those parameters and understand that lumping Chaos Magic and eclecticism together as interchangeable minimizes both.
But once we’re able to do that, once we’re able to perceive those differences and work with them efficiently, we can Molotov cocktail the parameters and build something abominable and transcendent out of the ashes. And then do it all over again to prove that it works. And that, I think, is when no one will be able to argue that we’re not practicing Chaos Witchcraft.
Not even yours truly. And I’m pretty excited about that too.
My friend Chester made a meme. Apparently, there’s been a coup d’état.