Christopher J Stone discovers that the crazy world of discordian philosophy contains some useful and enlightening truths, as long as you don’t take it too seriously
From Kindred Spirit Issue 163 Mar/April 2019
ALL DEITIES RESIDE IN THE HUMAN BREAST: William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The name of the band was Hearing Things. There were about seven of them, one drummer and six guitarists, all playing the same chord, over and over and over again, without variation, for half an hour or more. It was disorientating at first. After that it became weirdly fascinating. It was like a minimalist dirge. The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of the music hacked its way into your brain and opened up a space, like a cavern full of echoes, with soaring complex choral harmonies which grew ever larger and more portentous as the music droned on, as if the angels themselves were riffing on a theme by Mozart, with the devil playing the didgeridoo.
This was typical of the whole festival. These people weren’t musicians. This wasn’t music as such. It wasn’t entertainment. It was music beyond music: music as transcendental technology, as Zenaural meditation, as a psychoactive echo at the gateway to eternity.
This was taking place in one of the rooms of the Yellow Arch Studios, a nightclub, restaurant and bar complex in an industrial area of Sheffield, over the weekend of the 6th July 2018, as part of Catch 23 – “a festival in a club” as it billed itself: “a 14 hour psychedelic endurance test.”
The event was like nothing I have ever experienced before: a heterodox mix of ritual, music, dance, art, theatre, poetry, philosophy and fun, all held together by the spirit of playful seriousness (or serious playfulness) known as Discordianism.
What is Discordianism you ask? Well it’s either “an elaborate joke disguised as a religion” or “a religion disguised as an elaborate joke”, depending on who is answering the question. If you ask me: it is neither and both at the same time.
BIRTH OF A NEW MOVEMENT
2019 marks the 60th anniversary of its inception, in a bowling alley somewhere in the unenlightened heart of the United States, some time in the late ’50s, when two young maladjusted Americans were discussing the World’s problems over an under aged beer. These were: Greg Hill (also known as Malaclypse the Younger) and Kerry Thornley (also known as Omar Ravenhurst).
According to the Discordian Holy Book, the Principia Discordia, the two were assailed by a revelation at this point, as time itself stopped, and a shaggy chimpanzee appeared and handed them a scroll depicting a mysterious sign: like the yin and yang, but with a pentagon on one side, and a golden apple on the other.
The figure is known as The Sacred Chao, and it is the primary symbol of Discordianism.
Of course if you believe that you will believe anything.
As the Principia Discordia itself says: “A Discordian is Prohibited of Believing What he reads.”
But then again the book also suggests the opposite, as this question and answer sequence makes clear:
GP: Is Eris true?
M2: Everything is true.
GP: Even false things?
M2: Even false things are true.
GP: How can that be?
M2: I don’t know man, I didn’t do it.
Principia Discordia: http://principiadiscordia.com/
You can make of that what you will. The book is available, free of charge under Copyleft license on the internet, and is a joyous mix of parody and parable, wisdom and witticism, allegory, anarchy, paradox and pun.
It is based upon the understanding that the real power in this world is not order, but chaos. It is for this reason that Discordians worship Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of discord who, according to the texts, was probably the instigator of the Trojan War.
Well known Discordians in the past have included: Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, co-authors of the seminal 70s conspiracy novel, The Illuminatus Trilogy (which used Discordianism as a plot device); Camden Benares, author of Zen Without Zen Masters; Ken Campbell, actor, producer and playwright (who staged an eight hour play based upon the Illuminatus in the 70s); and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the KLF, the rave band who famously burned a million pounds.
Bill Drummond, in fact, had been the set designer on the original production of Ken Campbell’s play.
If you read the Principia you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all just a grand metaphysical put-on. Except that, for almost everyone who gets involved, it has a habit of becoming real. There are some essential truths hidden away in the craziness.
As Greg Hill explained:
“I started out with the idea that all gods are an illusion. By the end I had learned that it’s up to you to decide whether gods exist, and if you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously. The trips will be different, but they will both be transcendental. Eris is a valid goddess in so far as gods are valid; the gods are valid when we choose them to be.”
In other words, Discordianism supplements religion rather than supplanting it. It is magic for people who are sceptical of magic.
What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that the philosophy continues to thrive, and in fact has been going through a revival recently, despite the fact that its creators have all long since passed away.
Catch 23 is the second Discordian festival to be held in Sheffield since 2016. The first was called Festival 23.
One of the instigators and organisers is Anwen Fryer.
Anwen runs the only magical store in the city. It’s called Airy Fairy and, as well as Kindred Spirit and other Mind Body Spirit literature, she also sells crystals, tarot packs, athames, and other handmade magical tools. Above the shop is a Goddess Temple modelled on the one in Glastonbury.
What drew her to Discordianism, I ask?
She was a Hedge Witch, she tells me. Originally part of the rave scene, she came across the Illuminatus Trilogy and The Principia Discordia in 2002.
“Much as I love Paganism,” she says, “I do understand that much of it is made up. We turn something we perceive and feel into something we can connect with. That’s what we’re doing as human beings.”
Discordianism is her chosen channel, she says, because it acknowledges that. “You can still be magical, but you treat it with humour. It’s not too serious. That way you don’t become entrenched.”
She describes herself as a discowiccanchaosmagician. “All one word, no capitals,” she adds.
It was her and her friend, Tim Holmes – self-styled “Buddhist punk” – who came up with the idea for the festival. John Higgs’ book on the KLF served as the catalyst. Tim read it on Kindle and then passed it on to her. “You’ve got to read this,” he said. Up till then they’d thought they were the only Discordians on the planet. Now it was clear there might be other people out there too. They looked on-line and came across Daisy Campbell (Ken Campbell’s daughter) who was fundraising to put on a play based upon Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, which delves into the early history of Discordianism.
They got involved with fundraising for that, and then, after going to the opening of the play – having met up with Discordian fellow travellers from around the world – on the drive home she turned to her friends: Tim and her partner, Robert.
“We need more Discordian events,” she said.
Thus was the idea for Festival 23 born.
A number of second wave Discordian luminaries attended that first festival, including Daisy Campbell.
Daisy is almost the living embodiment of what it means to be a Discordian. Her middle name is Eris. She was conceived backstage during the first run of the Illuminatus play in Liverpool. Her mother is Prunella Gee, who was playing the goddess at the time. It was the funding efforts for her own play which brought the Discordian community together. Cosmic Trigger opened in Liverpool in 2014, not far from where her Father’s production of Illuminatus took place nearly forty years before.
She says she shares a certain ambivalence towards the philosophy. “Maybe we don’t need any more chaos in the world,” she says. “When I was younger I would invoke Eris for the sheer hell of it, in order to unleash the madness. But you can look at Eris a different way. These days I think of her more as the goddess who can handle the chaos and not react from fear.
“It’s the nature of the world we live in now,” she adds. “There are actually Discordian tactics being used against us. The world is full of fake news, which is a way of keeping the population under control; not letting us know any more what is real and what is not, what is truth and what are lies.”
In fact, she points out, the original conception of Discordianism was that there should be a balance between the opposing forces. You need both, she tells me: the hodge and the podge, order and disorder.
“Robert Anton Wilson said that imposition of order equals escalation of chaos,” she says. “The true meaning of Discordianism is ‘don’t believe your own BS’, which in this case, stands for ‘Belief System’. That goes for Discordianism too.”
“I think of Eris as the goddess who can handle the chaos and not react from fear“. Daisy Campbell
Another key figure in the Discordian scene around Sheffield is Dave Lee. It was Dave who was responsible for one of the most memorable rituals at Catch 23. Called From S.N.A.F.U. to F.U.B.A.R. it featured some runes, some chanting, some music and some dancing. “S.N.A.F.U.” and “F.U.B.A.R.” are both American military terms. I’ll leave it to you to find out what they mean.
We stated our magical intention in the following terms: “it is our Will that weapons of mass destruction are never used.” Dave drew the runes on the floor of the dance club using coloured powder, as we chanted the name of each out loud. The ensuing bind rune was then scattered to eternity by the rhythm of our dancing feet. It must have worked because, as far as I know, no weapons of mass destruction have been used since.
Dave also helped to organise the opening ritual, which, rather than calling in the four quarters, like most pagan rituals I’ve attended, invoked the eight planets. Dave was responsible for calling in Uranus, which he did with a knowing nod towards Terry Pratchett.
It is this that distinguishes Discordianism as a practice from most other spiritual paths. It has its own fail safe mechanism ensuring that it can never take itself too seriously.
As Dave says, “Eris is the most believable deity for a world where chaos is becoming more visible year by year. Discordianism resulted in a lot of people waking up to the malleable nature of consensus reality, how it is shaped by news and illusions. This led to a new subculture of magic, a magic that you can get behind in this era of materialist scientism. You can hold beliefs lightly, as tools to experience life more magically, as opposed to getting trapped in them.”
John Higgs was also at both festivals. It is arguably the link up between Daisy and John which kick started the current revival of interest in Discordian philosophy.
This is what he had to say about the first festival: “My main memory was the collapse of the dividing line between audience and performers, and that everyone you met had their own thing or project that they were working on and showcasing. There was a virtuous circle of people being inspired by people becoming inspired, which served to bring all this out. It felt like a culture growing from the bottom up, and totally natural, as if it was all other situations that were weird.”
He tells me he wouldn’t actually call himself a Discordian: “You can call me a Discordian-influenced writer if you like.”
However, he has written extensively on the subject, which means that, in the eyes of many, he is an expert on the subject.
His novel, The Brandy of the Damned, has a decidedly Discordian tone.
It involves three members of a long past-it pop group travelling around the coast of Britain on an increasingly bizarre and magical journey into their own souls.
On the way they keep finding blue bottles washed up on the shore containing unsequenced fragments from a future Bible.
It is Chapter 17 of this strange and unsettling missive which contains both the key to the book and, I would argue, to the Discordian message.
“Beware of the man with one religion, for he understands nothing but he does not know he understands nothing, and he will get in the way and cause all sorts of trouble,” it says.
For “religion” read “belief system”.
It goes on to suggest that the ideal number of religions people should ascribe to is three:
“I mean roughly three. It’s not an exact science. But between two and five, something like that.
“Consider the man who is a Daoist a Pagan and a Christian. Consider the woman who is a Buddhist, a Sikh and an atheist. These people won’t easily fall for your nonsense. These people will have a wide perspective. These people will be able to get on with life.”
It is this wide perspective that Discordianism encourages.
It is a parody religion that is sceptical about religion but which takes religion seriously, all at the same time.
It does not avoid the contradictions. It embraces the contradictions.
I wonder if it will for you?
FIND OUT MORE:
- Airy Fairy: https://www.airyfairy.org/
- Dave Lee: http://www.chaotopia.com/
- Daisy Campbell: https://cosmictriggerplay.com/
- John Higgs: www.johnhiggs.com