A Fondness for Snakes – the Art of Marchesa Casati

Imagine that you are invited to an astonishing, opulent house. In the property’s winter garden, near the west wing, dwell fabulous beasts; scaled and feathered marvels. On entering the building you are greeted by a mechanical stuffed panther, moving and growling, its eyes flashing feline fire. You are escorted by exquisitely liveried footmen into the bedchamber of the lady of the house. A woman with kohl ringed eyes dilated with belladonna extract, and wild flame-red hair. She is one of the richest woman in Europe (you have been transported back to France in the 1920s ).

Admitted to the bedchamber you discover your hostess; “…enveloped in white tulle and crowned by an upside-down silver flower pot, adorned by a single white ostrich plume…sat on a vast green carpet made to resemble a grassy lawn.” However the lady is not pleased by the inclusion of felt daisies in the weave of her indoor sward and asks you to join her in snipping off these disagreeable blooms. There are gilded scissors to do the job along with, “…foie gras and champagne served from a picnic basket presented by a black youth in fancy dress”.

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Images of the Marchesa Casati courtesy of Ryersson & Yaccarino and The Casati Archives

This isn’t some baroque hallucinatory event but one of the many real, utterly fabulous, moments in the life of the Marchesa Luisa Casati who, in the early 20th century, was one of the most outlandish, shocking and remarkable figures of the age.

I’d only briefly encountered the Casati story so it wasn’t until reading two wonderful books that I came to appreciate both the significance and astonishing flamboyance of this woman. Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of The Marchesa Casati by Scot.D.Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino is a wonderful biography, meticulously researched and a real page-turner of a read (the quotes above are from that volume), and The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, a lavishly produced, image rich, large format book by the same authors.

There is a tale of a brief meeting between Casati and Aleister Crowley and it appears they didn’t get along too well. Were history to have unfolded differently in that respect we might already have Thelema as mass global religion (which may or may not be a good thing…) since the Marchesa was easily as much an incarnation of Babalon as Crowley was of the Beast. Like Crowley, Casati shocked the high society of la Belle Époque and the fin de siècle decadence, as nations cranked themselves up for the first century of industrialised warfare. Naked beneath furs, great strings of pearls dragging on the floor, leading her cheetahs on diamond studded leashes, Casati adorned and scandalised the age. She had the money to do so, a vast fortune which, like all interesting people, she blew on sex, drugs, art, parties, and magic.

Though details are obscure Casati was an occultist, with magnificent rooms dedicated to magical pursuits in her various houses. These were spaces of rare esoteric tomes, divinatory equipment, heavy incense and yet more exotic pets; ritual spaces that would undoubtedly have made Crowley as green as the Marchesa’s large eyes, with envy.

The stated (magical) intention of the Marchesa Casati was “I want to be a living work of art”, and this she did. Reading the list of artists that chose her as their subject is like reading a Who’s Who of 20th century European Art: Picasso, Man Ray, Epstein, Augustus John, Alberto Martini, Romaine Brooks… the list goes on. Costume (often outlandish, frequently revealing or otherwise transgressive, sometimes genuinely dangerous), sculpture, photography, painting and  more were enriched by the Marchesa as muse and by her financial support of numerous avant-garde artists.

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

Of course like any magical figure Casati managed, in a sense, to disappear. That is, while her money and eventually her body gave out (she died in 1957 and was buried in London, ironically beneath a monument that records her name incorrectly), she was reborn (much as Crowley has been) as an cultural icon. She is ground zero for many of the experiments with identity and style of the late 20th and early 21st century. Madonna, Lady Gaga, even Robert Smith of The Cure and Tim Minchin are (knowingly or not) the aesthetic children of the Marchesa. To quote one online article that explores her legacy; “the Marchesa is possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra– her influence is all around us.”

Perhaps it is fitting, as we head towards Halloween, that I’ll soon have the opportunity to visit Luisa’s final resting place. Beneath the London earth, wearing her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes, Casati is interred with one of her beloved stuffed pekinese dogs. Halloween is of course the season where we celebrate the sign of the Scorpion (emblem of magic, money, sex and death) and seek to commune with our ancestors. Money was undoubtedly a vital ingredient in the story of the Marchesa Luisa Casati and my visit to her grave will coincide with  a spot of collaborative ‘Money Magic’. In the words of one of our conspirators “…a group of independent artists, magicians, pagans, druids, and media workers…plan to hold a series of ritual events in the City of London…Our aim is to bring the subject of money creation to public attention using ritual as our symbolic tool. We say that money is a sigil, a magical symbol which enters our lives on the most fundamental level, as desire. Money represents the fulfillment (or lack) of all desire in the current world and we carry it about on our persons, in our wallets and our purses, in our pockets and handbags, allowing it to control us on the most intimate and secret of levels.”

The Machesa Luisa Casati, like Crowley, displayed a fascinating relationship with money; she went from being one of the richest women of her age to having debts of over $25 million, and ended her days in a one room apartment. Yet according to many commentators she retained an irrepressible joie de vivre even in her most impecunious periods. Casati managed to dispose of her fortune in pursuit of her desire to become ‘a living work of art’ much as Crowley broke the bank with his Will to become ‘the Prophet of the New Aeon’. In both cases their money was used in the service of their ‘highest ideal’, their self-absorbed and yet self-transcending intention. This is an approach to life, to money and wealth, that goes beyond ideas of individual ownership, that spurns the hoarding up of capital for its own sake, and even now, still manages to shock the bourgeoisie.

JV

Chaos Craft Reviewed

Reviewed by Charles Barrie

Before reading Chaos Craft, my general perception of contemporary Chaos Magic was as a highly creative and practical, often amusing, yet more or less shallow philosophy; largely lacking a living relationship with the evolving world, biological and spiritual.

Chaos Craft, however, through a collection of essays on life, spiritual practice and ritual craft, conveys a far different sense of the chaos approach to magic. The perspective offered – which is presented as a journey around the wheel of seasons and colours of magic (after Peter Carroll) – is rooted in traditional magic, practice and craft; and is both politically and ecologically aware.

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Wheel of Chaos

Key to the inclusiveness of this perspective is the eclectic magical and philosophical pedigree of its two authors, Julian Vayne and Steve Dee. Both are active practitioners and researchers, and have many years of experience in a number of initiatory traditions, including AMOOKOS, the IOT and Wicca. Together with Nikki Wyrd, the pair also run the excellent Blog of Baphomet. Furthermore, Dee, for whom Chaos Craft is his first book, brings the unique approach of being both a working psychotherapist and a former Anglican priest in training.

From this position of research, initiated practice, and hard won experience, Vayne and Dee discuss a wide range of vital magical topics through a broad range of disciplines: witchcraft, Lovecraft’s mythos, shamanism, Buddhist praxis, western mysticism, alchemy, tantra, Gnosticism, pop-magic (love the Nina Simone working), ecstatic practice and psychotherapy (Israel Regardie would be pleased). The content explores, among other things: meditation and mindfulness, cognitive liberty, initiation, ritual practice, group work, applied animism, sexuality, and the family life of a magician.

The essays draw from Blog of Baphomet highlights, with new pieces and contributions from the work of Vayne and Dee’s magical group ‘The Western Watchtower’. They are presented as a revolution around the axis of the neo-pagan Sabbat festivals, each interval of the year viewed through the lens of one of Peter Carroll’s eight colours of magic. I found this musing on how the quality of magic changes as the earth turns the book’s greatest gift, as it encouraged me to find my own magical calendar, lift my head from books and pay attention to the outside world again.

Rather than a listing of techniques and ‘how to’s’ (though it is certainly full of interesting tips), Chaos Craft instead elucidates a living magical worldview; traditional yet totally dynamic, reflective and on the edge of one’s own experience. Through the approach of this ‘mongrel’ (their term) Book of Shadows, the need to integrate one’s spiritual path into daily life is made clear, and the discussion on ‘Slow Chaos’ encourages us to relax into the spheres of the seasons and days and experience life more deeply.

Chaos Craft, through its presentation of the group work of The Western Watchtower and their egalitarian, anarchistic approach to leadership, also reinforces the importance of sangha, community and sharing on the magical path, even as an otherwise lone practitioner. Living a magical life in the modern world involves knowing how to follow your own directive, whilst also being able to interact, navigate, and collaborate with those around you. Further to this, in presenting the magic of Chaos Craft, the Authors feel no need to attack muggles, or overly focus on the distinction between their approach and that of any other, allowing the content a wide relevance.

The responsiveness and creativity of the Chaos Craft perspective on magic gave me a timely prompt to take the next step in my own practice, and begin to freely design rituals that worked for me within the context of the landscape and seasons, and my reactions to them. I view the book as a muse rather than a manual and it strengthened my confidence in the fact that I had the capacity to generate my own ritual, and draw from my experiences a personal symbolic reference palette, a language that I know the spirits hear and understand, due to the deep feeling that it just makes sense.

Crafty chaos star

Crafty chaos star

Chaos craft is a context, a worldview which allows us to be fully present to the world around us, gaze us into the future to manifest our chosen reality, while having the full force of our collective ancestry and the powers of all spheres of existence as our allies. It speaks of the rebirth of a natural magical culture.

Through taking a very personal approach, Vayne and Dee create an intimacy that seems a more apt vehicle for conveying magical knowledge than a dry tome full of tables and charts. Personal secrets are perhaps more valuable, more useful than increasingly abstracted secrets held in tradition.

In contrast to politics and posturing, Chaos Craft brings a sense of service back to magic, which is a key aspect of what inspired me to the path in the first place; service to the unfolding, living, deep Earth.

Demonstrating the living vibrant nature of chaos magic, witchcraft and tantra, the book rests in balance between a traditionalist approach, an honoring of initiation and empowerment and the postmodern chaos understanding of magical technology and the power of paradigms. Bringing a chaos approach to traditional crafts supports an understanding of their underlying tech, allowing for colloquialisms; individual and shared dialects of practice stemming from timeless roots.

The book invites us to create our own magical form, one that is contingent with our traditions (of which it is but the latest iteration), and with the living magical landscape. A form that is thus able to draw power from the deep evolutionary process that has brought it into being. Such living traditions are able to evolve with time, connecting past and future; distinct and independent, yet forming a continuity with the living powers from which they spring.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking to find a more natural approach to magic, and those who are wishing to deepen their understanding of the connection between their practice and the greater cosmos of which they are a vital part.

Chaos Craft is now available on Amazon as well as direct from us.

Charles Barrie has explored his own magical context through a number of Western magic, masonic and yogic traditions. He currently works in conservation, community development and environmental education, and tries to live his magic in daily life through an active relationship with the Pandaemonic All and service to both earth and community. He also plays bass guitar for New Zealand band Bella Cajon, who can be found at www.bellacajon.com

Golden magick

Chaos gold

(Meanwhile more shameless self promotion proudly presents…)

Nikki Wyrd will be leading a workshop entitled Baphomet 101 at The Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness Salon‘s event Neuro-Magica: Weaving Ecology, Cosmos & Consciousness: A three-day retreat exploring the liminal space bridging science and magic, from Thursday (evening) 8th – Sunday (evening) 11th September. This retreat has sold out! Keep an eye open for future exciting events on the ECC facebook page HERE.

On the 5th of November Julian Vayne will be leading a workshop at Treadwells, London on Altered States of Magic, details HERE and then a few days later on November 8th will be addressing the University of Kent Psychedelic Society on Psychedelics and Magic see Facebook and HERE.