1932 Robert Anton Wilson was born.
1938 Kerry Wendell Thornley was born.
1941 Gregory Hill was born.
1957 Thornley and Hill had a revelation of Eris, Greek Goddess of Chaos (Latin Discordia), in a bowling alley in East Whittier, California.
1959 Thornley joined the U.S. Marines and met Lee Harvey Oswald at El Toro Marine Base near Santa Ana, California.
1963 Assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas Texas, and murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later.
1965 Hill produced the first edition of Principia Discordia. Kerry Thornley published a novel, Oswald, and married Cara Leach.
1967 Thornley and Hill met Robert Anton (‘Bob’) Wilson.
1969 Hill founded the Joshua Norton Cabal.
1975 The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson was published. Discordianism became part of Western popular culture.
1995 Discordianism established a prominent Internet presence via the World Wide Web.
1998 Kerry Thornley died.
2000 Greg Hill died.
2007 Robert Anton Wilson died.
Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill met at high school in East Whittier, California in 1956. They, and their friends Bob Newport and Bill Stephens, were enthusiastic fans of Mad magazine, science fiction, radical politics, and philosophy. In 1957, the friends were drinking in a twenty-four hour bowling alley where they allegedly had a vision of a chimpanzee that showed them the Sacred Chao, a symbol similar to the yin-yang, with pentagon in one half, and an apple captioned Kallisti (“most beautiful”) in the other half. The Sacred Chao is a symbol of Eris, the Goddess of Chaos (Discordia in Latin). Five nights later Eris herself appeared to Thornley and Hill. She told them:
I have come to tell you that you are free. Many ages ago, My consciousness left man, that he might develop himself. I return to find this development approaching completion, but hindered by fear and by misunderstanding. You have built for yourselves psychic suits of armor and clad in them, your vision is restricted, your movements are clumsy and painful, your skin is bruised, and your spirit is broiled in the sun. I am chaos. I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms. I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh in happy anarchy. I am chaos. I am alive and I tell you that you are free (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:2-3).
It is clear from later writings and interviews with Thornley, Hill and others that at this initial stage, Discordianism was intended as a joke, a parody of religion that exposed the deficiencies of mainstream Christianity, and the materialist and conformist culture of post-war America.
The origin and teachings of Discordianism were recorded in Principia Discordia, the first edition of which was written by Greg Hill and published (as five xeroxed copies) in 1965. Principia Discordia (also known as ‘The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger’, subtitled How I Found Goddess and What I Did to Her When I Found Her) was an anarchic ’zine, which contained hand-drawn pictures, a jumble of typefaces, selected reproductions of “found’ documents, and instances of absurdist humor. Despite the fact that it lacked a coherent narrative or formal doctrines, the philosophy expounded in Principia Discordia was broadly consistent: Chaos is the only reality, and apparent order (the Aneristic Principle) and apparent disorder (the Eristic Principle) are merely mental constructs, created by humans to assist them to cope with reality. Humanity’s miserable existence, oppressed by convention, wage-slavery, sexual repression and a myriad other ills, results from the Curse of Greyface, discussed in the next section. Principia Discordia became a subcultural classic: it is freely available to all under what Hill and Thornley called “Kopyleft,” it is original, sharply clever, and funny (Cusack 2010:28-30).
Thornley joined the Marines in 1959, and met Lee Harvey Oswald while stationed at El Toro Marine Base near Santa Ana, California. The two men were acquainted for three months and shared many interests; Oswald influenced Thornley briefly to adopt left-wing politics (this was short-lived, and he later embraced Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, before becoming an anarchist). When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the crime, but was killed by Jack Ruby shortly after. Thornley testified about his acquaintance with Oswald to the Warren Commission in 1964, and returned to California with his girlfriend Cara Leach to edit a libertarian publication, The Innovator. Thornley and Leach married in 1965, the year his book Oswald and the first edition of Principia Discordia both appeared (Gorightly 2003:64-69).
In the 1960s, Hill and Thornley developed their religious personae, Malaclypse the Younger (Mal-2) and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst (Lord Omar). Bob Newport was Dr. Hypocrates Magoun and Robert Anton (“Bob”) Wilson, whom Hill and Thornley met in 1967, became Mordecai the Foul. This fortuitous meeting happened a decade after the founding of Discordianism. Both Mal-2 and Omar had changed radically during that time, in part due Omar’s experience of being pursued by District Attorney Jim Garrison as a suspect in the Kennedy assassination (Gorightly 2003:57-62). In 1969, Mal-2 founded the Joshua Norton Cabal, named for homeless San Franciscan who had declared himself Emperor of the United States. This group inspired the formation of other Discordian cabals. Discordianism, already a religion of the goddess, moved in the direction of modern Paganism in 1966 when Thornley joined Kerista, a sexually experimental commune founded in the early 1960s by John “Brother Jud” Presmont. Margot Adler claimed the first use of “pagan” to describe modern nature religions was by Thornley in 1966, when he wrote, “Kerista is a religion and the mood of Kerista is one of holiness, Do not, however, look for a profusion of rituals, dogmas, doctrines and scriptures. Kerista is too sacred for that. It is more akin to the religions of the East and, also, the so-called pagan religions of the pre-Christian West. Its fount of being is the religious experience …” (Adler 1986:294).
The important Discordian theme of the conspiracy was also intensified in the late 1960s. Thornley changed his view that Oswald alone had assassinated Kennedy after meeting David Lifton, an outspoken critic of the Warren Commission. The Kennedy assassination cast a long shadow over Thornley, as Jim Garrison pursued him in an attempt to prove he was involved in Oswald’s plotting. On February 8, 1968, Thornley made a statement regarding these matters at the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office. He wrote to Hill on February 17, “I’m up to my ass in a cheap spy novel. And right now that means I am over my head” (Gorightly 2003:97). His growing paranoia manifested in Discordian activities such as “Operation Mindfuck” which he and Bob Wilson initiated in 1968. This was a “Marx Brothers version of Zen,” designed to mess with mainstream views of reality, and involved civil disobedience, culture jamming, vandalism and performance art, and other strategies (Gorightly 2003:137). The goal was the realization of guerrilla enlightenment.
Robert Anton Wilson intensified the tendency of Discordianism toward Paganisation. Wilson, a lifelong agnostic and skeptic, was nevertheless profoundly attracted to all sorts of “strange” phenomena. He was a friend of Timothy Leary, the controversial advocate of psychedelic drugs, and had interviewed the popularist Zen author Alan Watts, for The Realist, a freethought magazine. In 1975, he and speculative fiction author Robert Shea, published the vast, sprawling, epic novel, Illuminatus! Trilogy, which ushered in the next phase of the Discordian penetration of popular culture. The first twenty years had been dominated by founders Thornley and Hill, and the religion had spread primarily by word of mouth, personal contact, and ’zines, the circulation of which was limited. By 1988, Illuminatus! was the highest selling science fiction paperback in the United States; it had been made into a rock opera and won awards (LiBrizzi 2003:339). The novel has a complicated, conspiratorial plot that will be discussed below. Most importantly, Shea and Wilson reproduced much of the text of Principia Discordia throughout it, winning a huge, mainstream audience for the subcultural scripture. Knowledge of Discordianism thus ceased to be truly esoteric and rare, and entered Western popular culture.
In the late 1970s, Hill withdrew from the religion, becoming a bank employee after a painful divorce. Thornley, in collaboration with Vietnam veteran Camden Benares (born John Overton), developed Zenarchy, which he deemed “the social order arising from meditation” (Thornley 1991). He took the name Ho Chi Zen during this period. 1989 marked the commencement of the third phase of the history of Discordianism. While the Internet had existed since the late 1950s, particularly within the military, in 1989 the World Wide Web was established. Due to crossover between anarchists, gamers, musicians, artists, computer “nerds” and occultists, Discordianism made a seamless transition to the Web (Cusack 2010:44-45). In the twenty-first century the religion boasts online cabals, websites dedicated to Thornley, Hill, Wilson and other prominent Discordians, and a multitude of other related sites and information. During the fifth decade of Discordianism, from 1997 to 2007, Kerry Thornley died in 1998, Greg Hill died in 2000, and Robert Anton Wilson died in 2007.
In the Discordian universe, Eris and her twin sister Aneris are the daughters of Void. Eris is fertile and creative, whereas Aneris is sterile and destructive. Eris ordained order, which caused the emergence of disorder (which till then escaped notice as all was chaos). Void also generated a son, Spirituality, and mandated that if Aneris tried to destroy Spirituality he would be reabsorbed into Void. This became the Discordian doctrine concerning the fate of humans; “so it shall be that non-existence shall take us back from existence and that nameless spirituality shall return to Void, like a tired child home from a very wild circus” (Malaclypse the Younger 194:58). Discordian understandings of reality are monistic, a view that is usually understood to be Eastern in origin. Discordianism asserts that binary oppositions are illusory (male/female, order/disorder, serious/humorous) and affirms the oneness of all. Discordians follow Mal-2’s position, dismissing the “truth question” and stating that everything is true, including false things. He is asked how that works, and replied, “I don’t know, man. I didn’t do it” ( Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst 2006:34).
Thus it is irrelevant to Discordians whether they believe in the religion, or adopt a Discordian identity as a joke. For Discordians to be is to participate in the eternal, undifferentiated Chaos that is Eris (Cusack 2011:142).
Two other important myths are explained in Principia Discordia. First is the “Original Snub,” which focuses on Eris’ golden apple of discord, a gift to the “most beautiful.” In this myth, Eris arrived at the wedding of the sea-nymph Thetis and the hero Peleus furious as the couple had not invited her. She threw the apple and the guests rioted, as the goddesses argued over who should possess it. The apple was awarded by the Trojan prince Paris to Aphrodite the goddess of love, which was resented by her rivals Athena and Hera (Littlewood 1968:149-51). She promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, which led to the Trojan War when her husband Menelaus and Agamemnon of Mycenae invaded Troy. The Discordian version of the myth has Eris “joyously partake of a hot dog” after she departs, and concludes “and so we suffer because of the Original Snub. And so a Discordian is to partake of No Hot Dog Buns. Do you believe that?” (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:17-18). The second myth is the “Curse of Greyface,” which explains humanity’s predicament, which is due a “malcontented hunchbrain,” Greyface, who in 1166 BCE taught that humor and play violated Serious Order, the true state of reality. Greyface and his followers “were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own,” which resulted in humanity “suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance” called the Curse of Greyface (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:42). These myths teach that humanity needs liberation.
The creed of Discordianism is the Law of Fives, which states that “all things happen in fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of five … [and] the Law of Fives is never wrong” (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:16). The pentagon in the Sacred Chao is a five-sided figure, and the Law of Fives results in 23 being a number of significance for Discordians, as 2 + 3 = 5. The Pentabarf, the Discordian profession of faith (“catma,” which is flexible and provisional, as opposed to “dogma,” which is rigid and unchanging), has five principles (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:4):
I – There is no Goddess but Goddess and She is Your Goddess. There is no Erisian Movement but The Erisian Movement and it is The Erisian Movement. And every Golden Apple Corps is the beloved home of a Golden Worm.
II – A Discordian Shall Always use the Official Discordian Document Numbering System.
III – A Discordian is required to, the first Friday after his illumination, Go Off Alone & Partake Joyously of a Hot Dog; this Devotive Ceremony to Remonstrate against the popular Paganisms of the Day: of Roman Catholic Christendom (no meat on Friday), of Judaism (no meat of Pork), of Hindic Peoples (no meat of Beef), of Buddhists (no meat of animal), and of Discordians (no Hot Dog Buns).
IV – A Discordian shall Partake of No Hot Dog Buns, for Such was the Solace of Our Goddess when She was Confronted with The Original Snub.
V – A Discordian is Prohibited of Believing What he reads.
This statement of faith is playful: the first point recalls the Islamic profession of faith (shahada); the third point mocks dietary restriction; and the fifth point mandates skepticism in place of blind faith. In the case of instinct, Discordians are told to consult the pineal gland as a more reliable source of knowledge than either the brain or the heart.
One other major teaching that requires discussion is the conspiracist nature of the Discordian worldview. Principia Discordia contained references to the Illuminati, and this theme took a much greater prominence after the publication of Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975). The historical Bavarian Illuminati was an order founded by the scholar Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830). He, with four others, initiated the order in 1776, and numbers grew after Baron Adolf Franz Friederich Knigge, a Freemason, joined in 1780. The order was suppressed in 1784, but lives on in conspiracist circles to the present (Cusack 2010:34-35). The Illuminatus! Trilogy is described as follows by David Robertson: “[i]ts central motif is to treat all conspiracy theories as though true, and it mixes Discordianism with the John F. Kennedy assassination, the occult interests of Nazism, rock and roll music and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, into an eight hundred-page psychedelic gumbo” (Robertson 2012:429). The Illuminati, who intend to bring about the end of the world at Woodstock Europa, a rock festival to be held at Ingolstadt, are at war with the Justified Ancients of Mummu (JAMS), led by the enigmatic Hagbard Celine, head of the Legion of Dynamic Discord. The “everyman” characters, journalists George Dorn and Joe Malik, and investigators Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon, all become part of the conflict between the Illuminati and the JAMS. At the novel’s close, Hagbard Celine is revealed to be one of the five heads of the Illuminati (along with Wolfgang, Winifred, Werner and Wilhelm Saure, members of a rock band called the American Medical Association). These four die at Woodstock Europa, when Eris appears and foils the Illuminati plot to awaken undead Nazi troops hidden in Lake Totenkopf (Shea and Wilson 1998). Celine reveals that true members of the Illuminati seek only to liberate all.
The conspiracy is crucial to Discordianism, both in due to the importance of the Illuminati and other shadowy fraternities, such as
the Assassins, but also as part of Kerry Thornley’s life in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. In the late 1970s, he descended into paranoia, believing his friends had been replaced by look-alikes and that he was living in the reality of Operation Mindfuck. A key Discordian term, fnord, which is disinformation spread by a worldwide conspiracy appears in Principia, but is amplified in meaning by Shea and Wilson, for whom the ability to “see the fnords” is a quality of the enlightened characters (Wagner 2004:68-69). Thornley’s later years were chronicled in interviews with the journalist Sondra London. These are available on YouTube, and the full text of the interviews, titled The Dreadlock Recollections, was released in 2000 (Thornley 2007). Thornley by then regarded Discordianism as essentially Zen Buddhist in nature, and it is true that its worldview is non-dualist, a monistic view of reality in which all is underscored by chaos. This view fits with many Eastern religions that are pantheist and mystical in orientation; as Principia Discordia stated, “all affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense” (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:39-40).
With regard to ritual, there are only hints in Principia Discordia. To counteract the Curse of Greyface, Discordians are told to perform the ritual Turkey Curse, which summons eristic power to interrupt the Curse of Greyface, which is aneristic (anti-life). Doing the Turkey Curse involves waving your arms and chanting “GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE. The results will be instantly apparent” (Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst 2006:175). It seems probable that dancing while making turkey noises would raise the spirits of any person who is overly serious or otherwise alienated from play (Cusack 2010:30). Other rituals in Principia Discordia include the “POEE Baptismal Rite,” which involves nudity, dancing and wine, and the “Sacred Erisian High Mass of the Krispy Kreme Kabal,” which involves doughnuts (Cusack 2011:134).
There is also one possible example of Discordian magical thinking; the “Tests by Doctors Prove it Possible to Shrink” entry, subtitled “On Occultism.” This argues that Western magicians have been too concerned with binary opposites (good/evil and male/female), while ignoring the most important polarities, order/disorder and serious/humorous, the specific area of the goddess Eris. It is then claimed:
… when magicians learn to approach philosophy as a malleable art instead of an immutable truth, and learn to appreciate the absurdity of man’s endeavours, then they will be able to persue [sic] their art with a lighter heart, and perhaps gain a clearer understanding of it, and therefore gain more effective magic. CHAOS IS ENERGY. This is an essential challenge [sic] to all basic concepts of western occult thought, and POEE is humbly pleased to offer the first major breakthrough in occultism since Solomon (Malaclypse the Younger 1994:61).
The statement that Chaos is energy relates Discordianism closely to the position of Chaos magick, an unpredictable occult paradigm developed in opposition to Western ceremonial magic by Peter Carroll, Ray Sherwin, and others in the late 1970s (Sutcliffe 1996: 127-128).
As noted above, Kerry Thornley came to the view that Discordianism was “an American form of Zen Buddhism” ( Wilson 2003:11). Therefore, Discordian humour and absurdism are ways to realize satori, the momentary enlightenment of Zen (“seeing the fnords”). Arguably, Operation Mindfuck’s handing out of cards with “There is no Friend Anywhere” and “There is no Enemy Anywhere” on either side may be interpreted as a ritual designed to bring about enlightenment, as it has similarities to the koan riddle system of monastic training found in the Rinzai school of Zen (Cusack 2010:50). As Discordianism is broadly located within Paganism, and Pagans worship deities that are personally meaningful to them, eclectic Discordian rituals are commonplace. It is worth mentioning that the Illuminatus! Trilogy draws other fiction-based religions into the mix, as Shea and Wilson employ the Cthulhu Mythos (invented by H. P. Lovecraft and expanded, through the introduction of the lloigor, by Colin Wilson), which features such “dark gods” as Yog-Sosoth, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep (Hanegraaff 2007:85-109).
In a study of Finnish Discordians, Essi Mäkelä and Johanna Petsche record instances of new Discordian rituals, which include “worshipp[ing] a cabbage,” making “a pilgrimage to a rubbery gorilla statue in Helsinki,” and meditating “around a plastic golden apple” to receive illumination regarding Discordian power animals, a concept familiar from shamanism (Mäkelä and Petsche forthcoming). This contemporary field research suggests that Discordians engage in an ongoing process of innovation and development in terms of their ritual life.
Principia Discordia ordained a chaotic organizational structure for Discordianism. Members began by joining the Discordian Society, of which Principia stated, “the Discordian Society has no definition.” (Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst 2006:93). Discordianism was divided into two sects; the Paratheo-Anametamystikhood of Eris Esoteric (POEE), which was founded by Mal-2, and the Erisian Liberation Front (ELF), which was founded by Omar. This oppositional structure reflected the popular motto “We Discordians Shall Stick Apart” (Adler 1986:332). Members are encouraged to become an Episkopos (Greek “overseer,” cognate with the English word “bishop”) by founding their own splinter sects. Later, all menbers were given the status of pope, and to become a member of the Discordian society was a simple process of self-identification.
However, even without self-identification Discordians assert that every human being is a member and a pope, which means that
Discordianism is “the fastest growing religion in all creation (Discordians grow at the exact same rate as the population)” (Chidester 2005: 199). Despite POEE being deemed a “non-prophet irreligious disorganization” and Discordianism “an anarchist’s paradise” (Adler 1986:332), as noted above members do get together to practice the religion. Discordian groups are called “cabals” (from kabbalah, the Jewish mystical system). Discordians do not have to join a cabal, but members often do. In the early twenty-first century many cabals are online (Narizny 2009).
There is evidence that Hill and Thornley came to accept the reality of Eris. Margot Adler interviewed Hill in Drawing Down the Moon (1979), where he admitted that he identified as an atheist in the 1950s and Discordianism began as a parody of religion. By the1970s, his worldview had shifted, and he admitted that:
Eris is an authentic goddess … In the beginning I saw myself as a cosmic clown. I characterized myself as Malaclypse the Younger. But if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work. In due time the polarities between atheism and theism become absurd. The engagement was transcendent. And when you transcend one, you transcend the other. 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 trip will be different, but they will both be transcendental (Adler 1986:335).
Adler was unable to interview Thornley, who was increasingly paranoid and reclusive by the mid-1970s, but Hill assured her that a similar transformation of Discordianism had also happened for Omar. In what is now possibly his most famous observation, Thornley had told Hill, “You know, if I had realized that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986:336).
Although Malaclypse the Younger occupied the position of Polyfather of the religion until the mid-1970s, contemporary Discordianism is a religion in which leadership and formal organizational structures are largely irrelevant. There are many Discordian groups, a plethora of websites, and individuals give their religion as ‘Discordianism’ in those countries where the Census data collection involves a question about religion. Yet, in practice and despite the assertions of the very real power of Eris made by Hill and Thornley cited above, contemporary Discordians (like those who self-identify as Pagans, as Discordianism has found a niche as a form of revived Paganism) do not have to believe in the ontological reality of Eris as the goddess, and may regard the religion’s theology as a myth, a metaphor, or a joke (or all three simultaneously). Discordians regularly combine their religion with elements of other spiritual paths, or even atheism or agnosticism (Cusack 2010:47).
Cultural commentators and the academy alike have derided Discordianiam as a “fake religion,” and to date study of it as a new religion has been minimal (Cusack 2010:27-52). The reasons for lack of serious research on Discordianism, and for suspicion of its bona fides, are threefold. First, religion is serious, thus Discordian parody and jokes are inappropriate. Second, its founders admitted that it was a fiction (and their later professions of faith are not to be trusted or believed). Finally, members tend to congregate online and do not have church buildings, schools and hospitals like “real” religions. However, it may be that the scholarly lack of interest will soon dissipate, as although Discordianism looked very unorthodox in the late 1950s, it has become less “odd” over time, as a vast array of new religions have emerged since the 1960s. If the model of Zen Buddhism that Kerry Thornley developed with Camden Benares is used as a prism through which to examine the religion, it is found to be appropriate. For the Beats in the 1950s, Zen represented the rejection of wage-slavery and convention, and the pursuit of the spiritual path of a hobo, uncomfortable in this world and seeking enlightenment (Prothero 1991).
Discordians concur that the sacred is secular, and the secular is sacred. Greg Hill asserted to Margot Adler that, “in due time the polarities between atheism and theism become absurd. The engagement was transcendent. And when you transcend one, you transcend the other” (Adler 1986:335). Adam Gorightly’s portrayal of Thornley’s last years shows him living on the margins, selling libertarian newsletters and practicing what he termed “Zen and the art of dishwashing” (Gorightly 2003:233-34). The spiritual journey of both founders are powerful and real narratives of transformation; scholars presently have no way of estimating the impact of Hill and Thornley’s lives on their followers, but it is not improbable that that impact is considerable. Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s literary output has reached millions and continues to attract new readers; spiritual seekers and jokers alike find Discordian websites every day. Discordianism as a religion is attracting a higher degree of serious academic interest in the twenty-first century, and although it will probably never be numerically significant, it is broadly recognized by those interested in fiction-based religions, the invention of modern Pagan religions, and a range of esoteric topics, as the earliest and most important of the small family of invented religions (Cusack 2010).
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May 20, 2013