This is our final entry in the History of Magic series. If you just got here, you may want to read them in order:
Foolish me, originally I thought I could get this written down in post. And it all started because I was thinking about Chaos magic and the comic book artist Grant Morrison. Perhaps it says something about the way my mind works that before jotting down my thoughts on Chaos Magic I first had to start with ancient shamanism and Neolithic cave art!
So where have we been? We began by imagining a college level class that taught the history of magic, we are pretending these are the cliff notes to that class. We took a look at the roots of magic in prehistoric shamanism. And then how the role of the Shaman was sublimated into the role of the priest as civilization evolved and become more complex. Then we saw how beginning in the Age of Reason the study of magic, as well as religion itself, was attacked by science, reason, logic. I posited that this split, and this hostility of science/materialism/reason/etc. is the defining paradigm of the modern age. The essence of the current age is one of reason and science being valued above all that was one considered magic.
Which brings us to now. The pendulum begins to swing back . . .
It’s the beginning of a New Age
We can trace a resurgence in interest to the spirit and to magic to the 60’s and 70’s (thanks in no small part to LSD and Pot) . A lot of different values and ideas are tied together in this swinging pendulum. Set against the banners of progress, of science, of rationalism, there has been a renewed interest in Spirituality, collectively it has been called New Age.
New Age to my ears is a pejorative term. You never hear anybody say “Yeah , I’m getting into lot’s of New Age stuff.” It is sort of like the term hipster — everyone knows what it is, and there is lots of it, but hardly anyone actually identifies as being a hipster. It’s not a friendly label, you might have hipster-y inclinations, you like certain clothes, music etc. but most people don’t think of themselves as hipsters, because there is always someone else out there who is a bigger hipster. New Age is the same way, nobody thinks “I am SUCH a new age-y freak. Far-out.”
However, if there is one catch-all term to identify the new-stew potpourri of beliefs that are now available we can call it New Age. There are three paradigms vying for dominance 1. the scientific, purely mechanistic world view. 2. a religious world view. 3. New Age ( the hodgepodge catch-all of everything else).
New Age has a bad reputation of being kinda flakey, hokey, all fluff and no substance. It encompasses a wide spectrum, and depending on where you stand in that spectrum New Age-y stuff will strike you as really out there and ludicrous . . . or pretty reasonable depending on your leanings. Personally, I like being somewhere in the middle, mixing a wide-open mind and heart with a healthy amount of skepticism, because frankly there are a lot of wackos, nut jobs, and charlatans out there.
Just the other day I was talking with a friend, and I began rhapsodizing about a new understanding I had reached regarding Jungian archetypes, and some self-hypnotism work I had been doing. I know that to a lot of people this would sound way New Agey and hokey, but to me it is stuff that I had been working on not only by intuition but also very logically and analytically. Even scientifically. My friend then told me about his new “guru” that he had been grokking lately. Santos Bonacci, so later I watched a few minutes of the guy’s youtube channel and immediately concluded . . . ‘whoah this dude is a total fucking nutjob!”
In short, there is a balance to be struck between the side of magic and rationality . . . but where to strike that balance?
What are the Options?
New Age itself is a wide assortment of stuff, a lot of which has its roots in the “rediscovery” of the east by the west. In other words us rational American folks got turned on to Yoga and the I-Ching in the 60s and it really got us thinking.
A lot of people would complain that is the main problem with the New Age mode of thinking — it is a just a giant grab bag of beliefs with zero central structure, no stable center. (It does have a set of recurring motifs such as a pro-feminist, pro-nature stance, that seem mainly aligned that way because it is in reaction to the dominant paradigm of a patriarchal capitalist society that sees nature solely as a resource etc.)
So we have Yoga, Meditation, Dream Interpretation, Depth Psychology, hypnosis, breathwork, crystals, UFO’s, cryptozoology, runes, reincarnation, Shamanism, Wiccan, Chaos Magic, play music for your plants, lucid dreaming, acupuncture, numerology, angelology, demonology, ancient astronauts, astrology, indigo children . . . well you get the picture.
Like, I got the above pic. from a site called Yoga Freedom. I know it’s well intentioned but . . . Just that phrase “Yoga Freedom” kinda makes me wince. And I like yoga and I like Freedom. But jeez! I mean, just look at this picture, just look at it!
Ugh . . . where to begin with all of this, it’s quite a tangle. (Of course as the New Age stew becomes a little more commonly accepted, things that were once seen as “out-there” like Yoga are now accepted as no big deal. That is why I say the pendulum seems to be swinging back.)
I just want to draw your attention to two examples. The Neo-shaman and the Chaos Magician, who I see as illustrating the two opposite poles of modern magical thought. I know that anyone who identifies as a modern-day shaman or a chaos magician will bristle at me lumping them together as New Age. Oh well.
The neo-shaman (And to a large extent I would say the exact same thing about Wicca, and so on) embraces the idea that the old ways, original ways of doing magic are the best, and are still accessible. The idea is to basically study all of the old “primitive” ways of doing magic, and learn how to recreate them today. The place to start if your interested in this way of doing things is probably with the works of Carlos Castenada or Patrick Harner.
While I admire the idea behind Neo-Shamanism, I think it is naive to think that we can just go back to the old ways of doing things completely, without taking into account the 5,000 years of human history that have occurred since then. We need our own myths, rituals, and beliefs, not the stolen myths and beliefs of older cultures. That said I think we can still learn a hell of a lot by learning from the old ways.
Chaos Magic came out of Yorkshire in the 70s. I love being able to say that with precision. When I think of Chaos Magic I think of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, two practicing magicians whose brains and erudition I respect a great deal. I find it interesting that the most notable Chaos Magicians both happen to be groundbreaking comic book writers, that’s a pretty specific niche! (I think this says more about comics than anything, because comics are “pulp” and not “literature” as a medium they were ripe for the trippy, out there, mind-bending, magical thinking induced head fuckery that Mr. Morrison and Mr. Moore specialize in.)
If The Neo-shaman is too backwards looking, the Chaos Mage pretends to be too forward looking. The central idea behind chaos magic is that “belief is a tool”. It doesn’t matter so much what you believe, you can change your beliefs like changing your socks, to get the desired effect. The idea is that the Chaos Mage could practice Tibetan Shamanism in the morning and then do a Native American ritual in the evening, that sort of thing. While I agree with that in theory ( in a rational sense) I feel like this misses the point drastically of why beliefs matter. If your beliefs are just something that you can swap out on a whim . . . well, then they are not really beliefs are they?
It feels a bit like say you have invented a style of relationships called “Chaos Love” where you can just fall in love with anybody at whim, and constantly be changing who you are in love with every 24 hours, wouldn’t that be convenient, eh? Uh . . .yeah I guess . . . no, wait that would suck.
The Chaos Magus wants to have his cake and eat it to, to be chameleon like, making use of all beliefs but never truly committing to any, in this way he is secretly in agreement with the dominant paradigm of the scientist, the rationalist, “it is all bull shit anyways, so pick and choose whatever you like” It is too clever for it’s own good.
Alan Moore worships a sock puppet snake god. The idea being gods are the invention of man, so why not invent your own. Too clever by half, if it is a god you invented yourself than it is not a god. Real beliefs are not ones that we CHOOSE, a genuine belief is one that CHOOSES us.
(At least that is what I choose to believe.)
In Conclusion – a 4th way
These extremes map out the choice that we are faced with when looking at the grab bag of “new age” of modern magic. Like Odysseus navigating between Scylla and Charybdis we are caught between twin dangers; that of being too gullible, too naive, a sucker, versus the danger of being too worldly, too decadent, too secretly-still-rational.
Earlier I suggested that there are only 3 available paradigms in the modern age. The scientific, the religious, and the new age. In writing DIY Magic it is my hope to begin to explore a sort of 4th way, one that balances these warring factions of the Mind, the Spirit, and the soul. A paradigm that allows someone to be analytical, to be able to be spiritual, or to seek the enchantment of soul in every day life, without having to turn off the brain, the intellect, or say goodbye to reason and common sense.
What is DIY Magic? It’s simply an attitude of seeking balance. Of saying that relying solely on reason and logic has not solved all of our problems, in fact it has caused a lot of trouble and grief (Capitalism for example). On the other hand we can see that blindly following intuition, and dream, and magic, at the sacrifice of reason leads to a bunch of baloney like Cults and dippity-doo soft core spirituality with no substance. The Practical practice of DIY Magic seeks to move past these old ways and find a new balance. A way of being in the world that takes the best of both the left and right, the yin and the yang, the known and the unknown.