Even without knowing what it is, chaos magic—alternately spelled “chaos magick” for reasons we’ll get into later—just sounds cool in a punk rock kind of way. But what is chaos magick really? To start, it’s not what Wanda is doing in WandaVision. If we’re getting technical about this fictional character, Wanda isn’t even a witch. She’s an “enhanced human” (or a mutant, if you go by the comics). So, what she does isn’t magic. It’s just a special, innate ability.
Originating in the mid-20th century, chaos magick is, effectively, whatever the hell you need it to be. Like punk rock, it is defined by its lack of definition and its emphasis on experimentation, self-actualization, and general disregard for the rules. It’s eclectic, contradictory, and fueled by individuality.
Chaos Magic Is the Punk Rock of Witchcraft
This is really the best way to understand the inherently undefinable practice. Punk was originally conceived as an anti-genre. It was all about disregarding the rules (of society and of musical convention) in order to create something new, raw, and 100% your own. The result was a varied landscape of bands with self-produced recordings, self-printed band shirts, and an eclectic sound that thrived on the wild energy that came out of dissonance.
Chaos magic bears a lot of similar hallmarks:
- Chaos magic is anti-tradition, anti-cohesion. Practitioners borrow from a wide array of sources and religions, but they don’t codify them into a new unified system of their own. They just keep experimenting and adapting. Every ritual is brand new. Every ceremony is filled with improvisation. Every iteration of a spell is unique.
- Chaos magic is contradictory. Sometimes, they’ll pull from conflicting religions, mash contradictory components together to construct magic that works for them but makes little sense to anyone else. Their magic is as dissonant as punk rock sounds.
- Chaos magic is self-produced, self-defined. The only criteria for your ritual or spell to work is that you believe in it, with full conviction—even if you’re the only one who does believe it.
The Philosophy of Chaos Magick
Peter J. Carroll is often credited with “inventing” chaos magick. Given how undefined and highly individual it is, though, it’s hard to credit anybody with inventing it. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that he probably coined the phrase. He also wrote some helpful books about this experimental and ever-evolving kind of magick. Austin Osman Spare’s and Aleister Crowley’s books are also often referenced when talking about the underlying theory. Here are the core principles that drive a chaos magick practitioner:
Power and Meaning Comes From Belief
A somewhat absurdist philosophy, chaos magick takes the view that there is no inherent meaning in anything. For witchcraft, that means the specific words you chant or symbols you use in a ritual are not the source of the ritual’s power. They’re meaningless on their own. The meaning (and power) come from your firm belief that this ritual, done this way, will work.
On the surface, this sounds a little ridiculous. However, there is some rationale behind this. Lots of things humans do require belief in order to work. Typically, these are tasks that require will power or active engagement. You’re less likely to quit smoking or pick up a new exercise habit unless, somewhere deep down, you actually believe it’s possible. Likewise, most therapy only works if the patient believes there is something to be gained from it. In all of these cases, your lack of belief is holding you back from giving it your full effort.
The actual action or word or tool you use is less important. What matters is that you’re doing something you believe you can do and that this action, word, or tool is what you believe you need to do it.
Simplicity & Improvisation
Many of chaos magick’s first practitioners came to it out of a distaste for the elaborate ceremonies and complicated symbolisms of other traditions like Qabalah or Astrology. The symbol systems themselves and some of the philosophy behind them were compelling, but there were just so many rules, so many intricate and rigid systems.
Most chaos magick rituals tend to be stripped down and simplistic in comparison to these more codified strains of magick. The framework of a spell or ceremony is usually pretty rudimentary, and the individual adds on layers, improvising the process as they go to give it its meaning and shape.
As a result, chaos magick is very in the moment and not meant to be repeatable. It’s about creating the magic you need for the moment in the very moment you need it. There might be certain components they return to or reuse, but it’s never stagnant.
Chaos Is the Life Force
As you might guess from the name, chaos magick has a lot of respect for chaos. It’s not just a frenzied, scary “disorder” like many other religions characterize it. Instead, in the words of Peter J. Carroll, “Chaos… is the force which has caused life to evolve itself out of dust.”
Chaos is the force that drives everything in the universe. With chaos magick, an individual is trying to connect their consciousness with that chaos, to spill their little drop of will power into the raging river of everyone and everything’s will. For agnostic, non-spiritual practitioners, chaos magick is about trying to connect with your own unconscious, to train it to work toward the goal you have in mind.
Cool, but Is It Magic or Magick?
Honestly, it’s whatever. Choose your own adventure. Use magic or magick or something else entirely. Call it chaos bananas. Make it your own.
With that said, the “magick” spelling is not completely arbitrary. In the early 20th century, Aleister Crowley intentionally adopted the “magick” spelling when founding Thelema, a religious movement rooted heavily in ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek religions. Primarily, this was a pragmatic move. Crowley wanted to draw a clear line between Thelema magick and the rabbits-in-hats kind of magic that magicians did on stage.
Beyond this practical distinction, Crowley also had a more philosophical motive for adding the K. Unlike plain old K-less magic, Crowley argued, “magick” was not just classically occult activities like communing with spirits or casting curses or making pacts with deities.
It was much broader. It included any practice, whether occult or not, that moved a person closer to their ultimate destiny or aligned with their “True Will.” Whether a witch used mundane or supernatural means to fulfill their true will, they were always doing magick.
This expanded definition definitely fits with the underlying philosophy of chaos magic(k). As long as the steps you’re taking are leading you toward something you truly want, that’s magic(k), baby. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t following a traditional spell to the letter. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t using the exact crystals or herbs or bones that other witches are using.
In that sense, magick does feel like an appropriate spelling to choose for chaos magick. But again, spell it however you want—whichever spelling you believe looks right, that’s the magical spelling.
How to Borrow Respectfully
The DIY, make-it-your-own nature of chaos magick means practitioners are likely to draw from a wide pool of sources. Sometimes, you’ll find inspiration in a tradition that originates in a marginalized culture. When that happens, it’s important to be culturally sensitive and fully aware of the historical context in which you’re borrowing that component.
To start, always bear in mind that some of the rituals developed by marginalized groups used to be banned—and those individuals caught practicing them were punished harshly. The recent resurgence of interest in white sage is a prime example of this. Using white sage—specifically using it for something called “smudging”—originated in a handful of different tribes across the United States. During the United States’s campaign to eradicate native culture and assimilate Native Americans into “civilized” society, smudging and most other native ceremonies were made illegal. Those who continued to practice them were sentenced to jail or subject to other severe punishments.
Now that white sage is legal again, using it—especially when you buy your sage kits from a major company like Sephora—can be disrespectful if you do so without regard to that painful history and without honoring the original cultural significance of the herb.
To the best of your ability, try to buy supplies that come from marginalized traditions from the people who belong to that community. For sage or other herbs and supplies from Native American traditions, for example, here are a couple native-owned sources:
Other ways to avoid outright appropriation in your chaos magick craft include the following steps:
- Learn the history and cultural context of a ritual or item. How is it used by the original culture? What is the significance of it? What kind of rules do they have surrounding when you can use it and who can use it? Is there any racial or colonial trauma associated with it (such as with ceremonial herbs used by Native American tribes)?
- Don’t profit off of a tradition that isn’t your own. That is, don’t start a side hustle selling sage kits if you don’t belong to a tribe that uses sage. Don’t sell books on smudging rituals if you don’t belong to a tribe that practices smudging. Borrowing from another culture for your own personal craft can be rewarding and healthy—but profiting off of it, particularly in cases where people faced punishment for doing the very same thing that you’re now making money on—that’s problematic.
- Actively honor and respect the people. Don’t be a hypocrite in your relationship with that culture. Don’t be like those xenophobic folks who are “OMG OBSESSED WITH TACOS” but also think detaining asylum-seekers and children in camps “serves them right.” If a ritual or tradition was so impactful for you that you chose to incorporate it into your craft, express your appreciation and gratitude by actively promoting the rights and well-being of the community that contributed so much to your spiritual journey.
- Listen when someone from that community expresses concern or criticism. Sometimes, you might be doing something unintentionally offensive, in which case, it’s helpful to hear that criticism so you learn to do better. Sometimes, you’re doing everything you possibly could, but a person just still doesn’t feel good about you borrowing from their culture. That’s alright. They have every right to feel that discomfort. Try your best to respect their personal boundaries while maintaining your own craft.