Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Review of EPOCH by Peter J. Carroll and Matt Kaybrin

EPOCH - Esotericon and Portals of Chaos, by Peter J. Carroll and Matt Kaybrin, pub. Arcanorium College.

This book has taken me some months to review. Partly because of its sheer size and scale, but also because it represents in some ways a summation of Peter Carroll's total contribution to magical practice and history. So it really made me think about what was important and what wasn't about this man's extraordinary work.

I've known Pete Carroll since 1979, from meetings in the Sorcerer's Apprentice coffee mornings in Leeds. I was one of the founder members of the first IOT group in West Yorkshire, begun in 1980 and centred on the village of East Morton, where Ray Sherwin had a house, and where Pete Carroll lived for a while. So we go back a long way, and his work, particularly Liber Null, has often inspired me. Not only that, but nothing has yet come along to replace Chaos Magic as the forefront magical current; its history is the history of contemporary magic.

EPOCH consists of a large, beautifully-produced book and a deck of large cards. The latter are stunning. They are not just as a divination pack - Matt Kaybrin described their unusual lamination as 'Chaos Magician proof' - in other words, these are wipe-clean tools for use in the, ahem, liveliest temple.

The book lays out a sophisticated psychocosm, with three levels to it, quite like Qabalah, especially the ideas behind the first two sections - Elemental Knowledge and Knowledge of the Self. The Pentagram of the elements forms the equivalent to Malkuth, and the Octa-star, the eight Planetary spheres, replaces the Ruach of the Tree of Life. With the third section, instead of the Supernals (Carroll rejects completely the traditional notions of Awakening) we have Forbidden Knowledge. This has to be the most anti-traditional psychocosm ever, a triumph of radical materialism.

The Elements section is the least original part, and contains much that is rehashed from Carroll's early books. Much of this is good and useful stuff, like the comments about the relative usefulness of unreliable divination and unreliable enchantment, and if you don't possess Carroll's earlier works, then here you are.

The book starts getting into some more original areas with the deities of the Octa-star. These are attributed to pairs of planetary influences. This is a nice idea, for making a very tidy scheme of invocation. There are also some excellent treatments of  previously-little-celebrated deities, including Lucifer, Ma'at, Apophenia and Pareidolia. Another useful feature of sticking gods into your big-scale psychocosm is that it enables you kind of 'stand outside' the gods that permeate your local culture. Like Jahveh still, to some extent, does; I like Carroll's comment that belief in such a monster is massively counter-intuitive and counter rational - this fits in exactly with what C S Lewis said, about being a Christian because it was so irrational.

The problem I have with this scheme though is, of course, that other people's attributions are bound to feel arbitrary, at least in some cases. For instance, I get that Vulcan is Mercury, but also Jupiter? And Osiris, as Saturn-Jupiter? Surely Saturn-Sun?

A quote from p140:
'Elemental Magic deals largely with the natural world here on Earth, and Planetary Magic deals largely with the Human Condition, but Stellar Magic addresses the possibilities of the Trans-Human Condition.'

It is with the Stellar Magic section that Carroll really gets into his stride. Using the cluster of suggestive fictional ideas known as the Cthulhu Mythos, he explores alien gnosis, the deep physics of magical action and the Faustian bargain on which our civilization is built. Basically, Carroll shows us how to frame the Cthulhu Mythos as a magical framework for Faustian-Promethean work: the mastery of consciousness, biology, spacetime, entropy and impermanence, nano- and femto-physics. This is the modern version of the age-old dream of overcoming death and temporo-spatial limitations. Of course, this is not the first time anyone has constructed a menu for Promethean endeavour - remember Timothy Leary's SMI2LE formula - space migration, increased intelligence, life extension? But this is probably the first time anyone has taken these bright-dark dreams and articulated them into a system of magic which revolves around forbidden knowledge.

The visualizations in the Necronomicon pages have the dark, SF glamour that Carroll is sometimes very good at. Here's a sample from the Azathoth evocation. (A pentachoron is a pentagram folded into a 3-D representation of a 4-d object, looking like a tetrahedron with another vertex in the middle):

'To evoke Azathoth the magician repeats the incantation as many times as necessary whilst visualizing the Triconorbis sigil of a vortex swirling within a triangle.
'If possible, the magician should try to expand this vision into that of a vortex within a tetrahedron and then to transform it into an omni-directional vorticitation within a pentachoron...'

I love the idea of the Elder Gods being dangerous powers we have always wanted. This is far and away the best Necronomicon, qua grimoire.

That covers the individual sections; now I'd like to talk about the psychocosm itself.

One of the things I was initially uncomfortable about in this book was the presence of such a massively-inclusive scheme. It looked like a closed system, the open-ended metasystem, of Chaos Magic having been left behind, allowed to set, to congeal into a single subset of all the possible systems subtended by the CM way of thinking. If you have a metaphysical  system that is essentialist, in other words says that essence precedes existence, then you have a top-down system, and closure is inevitable and healthy. If you work with a bottom-up system, like (good) science or Chaos Magic, then any closure is inevitably ad hoc, viewed as temporary in the bigger scheme of life because it is bound to be, and supposed to be superseded by another system all too soon. Also, when an open-ended philosophy such as Chaos Magic starts to congeal into systems, it is generally a sign of fundamental decadence, because it is not the most creative part of the human mind that loves closure and neatness, but the lazy part, and this beautiful pattern, this elegant subset of open-ended enquiry might get mistaken for Chaos Magic.

Then it occurred to me that this book is surely in some way intended as a rounding-out of Carroll's entire corpus of magical writings. In the introductory chapters he makes a good deal of the work of Mathers, in particular the expanded Qabalistic Tree of Life scheme, into which he packed Levi's Tarot attributions, elements and tattvas, angels and even John Dee's Enochian System. The EPOCH psychocosm is intended as a replacement, based on Carroll's Quantum-Neo-Pagan metaphysics, for Mathers's scheme, the latter based on Platonic-Pagan-Monotheist thought. Thus, the book is intended to mark a cornerstone of a new way of thinking about magic and the universe. This is Carroll's Magnum Opus, in terms of Big Thinking.

Looking back over Carroll's published achievements:
- Liber Null gave us the two principles of Chaos Magic;
- Liber Kaos included Chaos Magic Theory, (now presented as part of QNP), the first truly materialistic theory of magic;
- The Psychonomicon gave us the 8 Colours of Magic. This has proven an invaluable simplification of Planetary Magical attributions, making the latter much more usable for off-the-cuff 'emergency' magic.
The CMT stuff may yet be seminal, though of course it is by no means certain that Carroll will be credited with these ideas. Take the case of Lionel Snell and Johnstone's Paradox: in 1974 Snell, writing as Angerford and Lea, wrote SSOTBME, in which he demonstrated that, if VR could ever be sufficiently sophisticated for us to be living in it, then the odds are that we are already doing so. This is now claimed as an original insight by Nick Bostrom and others. Just dig up a paper on this - such as - and you will find no reference to Lionel Snell's work.

Surely the most important of these innovations is the first. Carroll revolutionized magical writing with this single, simple idea. Liber Null is one of the 3 or 4 most important books to be written about magic in the 20th century. It is a blend of joyous anarchic experiment in a genuinely serious, romantic quest for real, demonstrable magical powers. At the other end of Carroll's output to date we have the realisation of a complex, inclusive psychocosm.

A few quibbles.
The first is a reprise of Carroll's tendency to construct straw-man arguments.
An obvious one is a seemingly-deliberate misunderstanding of Crowley's Aeonics in the crudest way possible. Surely Carroll has read Crowley enough to realise that he doesn't say that the Aeon of Isis meant that women ran everything. Not only that, but in shooting down this false-image of Crowley's Aeonic scheme, he is impugning the ancestor of his own.

This isn't the only swipe against Thelema. In the Choronzon chapter he writes: 'The Thelemic HGA hypothesis always leads to a sense of having a driven soul, or a true will ... and to it justifying any means and thence to violence and death.' I'm glad my relationship with what I sometimes call my Angel does not do anything of the sort.

Crowley needs character assassins like a dog needs fleas, but Pete goes on to compare Mathers in glowing terms with AC. This is odd; Mathers contrived a bloodless, cerebral set of attributions, based on Levi's lining-up of the Tree of Life with the Tarot Trumps and on Cornelius Agrippa's massive compilation of occult lore. Mathers and Bennett had done the world a favour by boiling down the endless symbolic tangles into Liber 777, a mere set of tables that reduced the Renaissance qabalah to an empty filing cabinet of ideas.

Crowley took this dry, Masonic intellectualism and streamlined it. He picked it up from Bennett and recognized the centrality of altered states to the success of magic with his 'energized enthusiasm'. In other words, he supplied the fuel for Mathers's elaborate gilded carriage. This insight, the necessity of an altered state, becomes half of Pete Carroll's brilliant summing up of the two irreducible necessities for doing successful magic, an ESC or 'gnosis' and a shift in belief. With the ultimate streamlining of Liber Null, a committed and intelligent beginner can do basic magical training in under a year.
However, having said that, Carroll's adulation of Mathers becomes less puzzling after you've read the book: Carroll is reaching back to the last time anyone made such a vast psychocosm.

Some final points:
You will probably want to take or leave Carroll's historical interpretations; his lex talionis approach to politics does show through.

There's a factual error (of sorts) on p82: in referring to ancient Egypt, we are told that 'animal sacrifice did not occur'. I suggest Mr C read up on Bubastis - - selling cats as stuffed effigies for religious tourists rates below sacrifice in my book.

In conclusion: did it make me want to do magic? Yes it did - the Stellar stuff. Did it make me think? See above. Buy it or not? Definitely buy it; this is an extraordinary work by any standards.

It is in fact fair to say that it is a great book. In the future, when people talk about Peter Carroll, if his present books are what we have to go on, two books will stand out: Liber Null, because of the daring simplicity of its central ideas. Nothing can be greater than such simplicity. But in second place, this book. So if you only ever buy two books by Peter Carroll, make it those two.

By the way, I love the title - lots of Clever Points for that! Acronyms have always been close to the Chaoist heart - I remember a certain Fra Corvus coming up with a servitor instruction system called BASIC - Basic Servitor Instruction Code. Then we had CHAOS - Constantly Hagiographizing Austin Osman Spare, and finally CARROLL - Cusp-Aeon Retroactively Reifying Octarine Logic Language.


  1. Hi! Thanks for the great information you havr provided! You have touched on crucuial points!
    product reviews

    1. Thank you Rami, glad you enjoyed it.