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Chaos Ritual

by Steve Wilson, Neptune Press, revised edn, 2004

To anyone involved in the London occult scene over the past fifteen years or so, the statement "Steve Wilson could really do with more exposure" might seem an absurd proposition. However, in terms of his written output and contributions to the theory and practice of contemporary magic, it's perhaps a fair comment. So it's timely that Neptune Press, the publishing arm of Atlantis Bookshop, should publish a second edition of his book 'Chaos Ritual'.

Ten years on from its first printing and the occult landscape seems a very different place. The ideas of chaos magic, once the radical and revolutionary upstart of modern occultism, have slowly seeped into the mainstream to such an extent that they have essentially become the new establishment. Concepts such as sigils, servitors, paradigm shifting, pop culture deities, and the theory that belief structures reality, now find their way into even the fluffiest of popular off-the-shelf spell books. Far from being an edgy, outsider approach to magic, confined to the murkier, dangerous edges of the occult world, its ideas are now so ubiquitous that I'd probably have to raise an eyebrow, Roger Moore style, at any serious practitioner who claims they haven't been exposed to or influenced by chaos magic to some extent.

The internet has been one of the main drivers of this process, and in the face of the relentless onslaught of chaos magic websites and discussion forums regurgitating the same overplayed material in increasingly inane and dumbed down permutations, you might wonder why you should bother forking out 15 quid for a hardcopy book on the subject. There's a limit to how many times you can be expected to listen to someone rehashing and expounding on Austin Spare without wanting to urgently grab their chaosphere pendant off their neck and do terrifying, unnatural things to them with it.

Thankfully, Chaos Ritual deftly sidesteps all of the accrued dogmas and received knowledge that characterises much writing on the subject, and gets directly to business. The book is essentially a step-by-step manual for cultivating spontaneity in magic. There is one cohesive theme running through the text, which is that magic is not learned or internalised by reading books or parroting other people's way of doing things, but evolves directly out of your own practical involvement with its mysteries. The only way to truly learn magic is by doing it, by engaging with it fully, bringing it into your life and making it your own. In Chaos Ritual, Wilson presents a series of exercises geared towards setting that process in motion.

The first section, Sahaja Sutra, gives a set of building blocks for spontaneous practice. By following the exercises, you are led to construct your own personalised asanas, mudras, mantras, yantras, and so on, for each of the eight powers represented by the Earth, Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. In a nutshell, the methods in the book provide your subconscious mind with the space and freedom it needs to suggest unique sounds and gestures that express your own bespoke interpretation of the planetary forces.

I personally found some of the earlier exercises in this section quite confusing and difficult to follow, and there are moments when it reads like someone giving a detailed account of their own idiosyncratic internal processes and expecting the reader to reproduce the same results. I've never been able to get into the various concentration exercises given in the first chapter, and whilst this is actually supposed to be the backbone of everything else that follows in the book, I think it's also the weakest section. This may, of course, have more to do with my own irrational aversion to meditation exercises more than anything else, so I'm arguably not the best person to comment too much on this area of practice.

However, as is repeatedly stated throughout the book, the system is not really supposed to be about following every single exercise to the letter, but about providing sufficient signposts for the reader to make their own personal system take on a life of its own - and this it does rather well. I may have been unable to have much success in accessing the state of conscious that Wilson calls "Sahaja Dhyana" using the exercises in the book, but that didn't prevent me from diving straight into the sections that spoke to me more directly and filling in the blanks as I went along with whatever felt right.

In many ways, I think that more can be gained from books on magic by simply reading between the lines of the material and adapting what you find there into something that clicks for you personally, as opposed to actually trying to recreate another magician's experiences in your own life. And ultimately, I find texts such as Chaos Ritual interesting, not just as manuals of practical technique, but for the quick glimpse they give you into how another magician has come to think about and relate to the subject of magic.

The second section of the book, Medicine Wyrd, contains my favourite chapters. It provides guidelines and ideas for developing the bare bones of your personal magical system, created in the first section, into a complete system of creative shamanism. The emphasis remains on spontaneity, and you are instructed in methods of 'receiving' shamanic dances and drum rhythms directly from your subconscious that can then be utilised in healing, divination, and the various other duties that make up the shamanic role. There's also some great material on the vision quest and journeying into spirit to steal medicine, which involves dancing to exhaustion to the point where you need to sleep, and then allowing the shamanic vision to play out within your dreams.

The third section, the Chaotia, follows a similar pattern but develops the same spontaneously derived chants and gestures into a personalised system of ceremonial magic. Suggestions are given for constructing your own living grimoire of methods for the evocation and invocation of Gods and Spirits, substituting the barbarous names and symbols from historical grimoires such as the Key of Solomon, with words and seals that have emerged directly out of own practices.

I'd say that the main strength of the book is its constant emphasis on getting the reader to try things out, experiment with technique, and then feed the results of those experiments directly back into the next stage of practice. It starts very simply - encouraging you to work out a few basic noises and postures for yourself - and can then develop into as simple or elaborate a system of practical magic as your imagination desires. The key point is that the system emerges from the practice, not the other way around, which makes it fairly unique as a textbook of instruction.

There is not a great deal of new material in this new edition, certain chapters seem to have been tightened and revised, but other than that it's more or less the same book. The one new addition is a short section at the end called The Book of Light upon Shadows, which looks at the growing popularity of Wicca and suggests several approaches for applying the spirit of spontaneity to the sometimes staid and conventional rites and practices of the craft. Some interesting and amusing points are made in this section, but it feels very tacked on and sits a bit uncomfortably with the rest of the book. Almost as if there is a new book on creative and spontaneous witchcraft itching to get out, and the preliminary notes for it have been hastily and incongruously scribbled down in the back pages of this one.

Certainly, modern witchcraft could benefit from the treatment that shamanism and ceremonial magic receive in Chaos Ritual, and murmurings on the witchy grapevine suggest that this is the direction in which Wilson's magical work is currently leaning. For the moment though, it's good to see Chaos Ritual back in print again, as to my mind, any book that pitches magic as a vibrant, living, creative process, deserves its place on the shelves. - Stephen Grasso