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The Lifecycle of the Principia Discordia: The dissemination of the religion disguised as a joke and joke disguised as a religion

Page from the Principia Discordia

Page from the Principia Discordia

In 1993 I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois. With the home of NCSA Mosaic on campus, my introduction to the web came very early. Back then little content existed though, so I didn’t really see the point of the hype about Mosaic.

That attitude changed when I found the first online version of the Principia Discordia. Jane Patterson and Eric Tilton at Willamette University had turned this hard-to-find cult book into HTML and allowed the world access to it.

I had recently read The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, which heavily references the Principia Discordia, but hadn’t imagined I’d find a copy.

The Principia Discordia is a collage in book form of drawings, pictures, stories, poems, and cartoons that describe and exemplify the joke religion of Discordianism.

If you can master nonsense as well as you have already learned to master sense, then each will expose the other for what it is: absurdity. From that moment of illumination, a man begins to be free regardless of his surrounding.

Malaclypse, 1980, page 74

It wasn’t the sort of book you found at the local bookstore, or the town library. I did eventually find a copy of one of the manifestations at Powell’s in Portland, and ordered two others through, but that was years later.

Malaclypse the Younger (Gregory Hill) originally wrote the Principia Discordia of How the West Was Lost (with some material from Kerry Thornley and others) in the mid-60s and published five copies using a borrowed Xerox machine.

According to Robert Anton Wilson:

Between the first edition of the Principia Discordia, run off on Jim Garrison’s Xerox machine in 1963, and the fourth edition, published by Rip-Off Press in Berkeley in 1969, only 3,125 copies of that basic Discordian text were ever distributed.

Wilson, 1992, page 65

In 1975 Shea and Wilson published their cult science fiction conspiracy theory novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Many people believed the Principia Discordia quoted within it to be fictional due to its limited distribution.

The Principia Discordia lacks one normal piece of metadata, a copyright. Instead of a standard copyright notice, in the various expressions of the Principia Discordia some combination of the word KopyLeft, a circle with a “K” in it, or the phrases “All Rights Reversed” and “Reprint what you like” indicate its lack of copyright. In the afterword to the Loompanics edition Hill explains:

That is why my name does not appear anywhere on the Principia and why it was published with a broken copyright - Reprint What You Like. I knew I was taking liberties and didn’t want my intentions to be misunderstood. It was an experiment and was intended to be an underground work and that involves a different set of ethics than commercial work.

Malaclypse, 1980, page 83

Principia Discordia collage series by Paul Watson

Principia Discordia collage series by Paul Watson

This lack of copyright has led to the many expressions, both in print and online that have appeared throughout the years. I have three bound copies, from Loompanics, IllumiNet Press, and Steve Jackson Games. Books in Print lists another from Revisionist Press. Each has the same core, but with differences: additional introductions or afterwords and in the case of the Steve Jackson Games version quite a bit of additional material at the end.

Online, there are manifestations that are scanned images of the Loompanics edition and various straight text and HTML versions as well as a translation into German. More recently the Principia Discordia has spawned other stuff from a collage series by Paul Watson, an artist in the UK, to t-shirts, coffee mugs, and a coloring book via Café, to a Principia Discordia card in the game Illuminati New World Order.

From that initial publication of five items, the Principia Discordia has spread further than its author probably could have imagined. While still hard to find in libraries and neighborhood bookstores - the Library of Congress lists the Loompanics edition in its collection, and searching OCLC’s WorldCat turns up about 35 libraries with various print copies in their holdings, and one with a reference to Eric Tilton’s electronic version - the spread of the web has allowed for much exposure to the online editions, and also, through online bookstores, the print editions as well.

Interestingly, the libraries disagree on which Dewey or LC classification number it should be shelved under. Libraries put it in American Literature 1961-2000, Wit and Humor, Satire and Humor, Philosophy of Religion, or Parapsychology and Occultism. Searching Google for “principia discordia” retrieves 128,000 results from a broad range of pages.

The Principia Discordia has crept its way into the private collections of many a Science Fiction reader, as it did mine. The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction mentions the book in their entry on Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson discusses it in his encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, Everything is Under Control, and in quite a few of his other nonfiction books. The Wikipedia entry on it sits in its “Religious texts” category. Camden Benares references it in Zen Without Zen Masters.

It has also infiltrated the collections of those with an interest in conspiracy theories and alternative religions. Via’s “Look Inside this Book” feature and Google Print, I found references to the Principia Discordia in books as diverse as The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions by James R. Lewis, Rebels & Devils: The Psychology of Liberation, by Christopher S. Hyatt, Hack Attacks Encyclopedia: A Complete History of Hacks, Phreaks, and Spies over Time by John Chirillo, and Drawing Blood by Poppy Brite.

The Principia Discordia has mostly spread by word-of-mouth. It was never reviewed by the New York Times Review of Books or Publishers Weekly. The dozens of reviews by customers on highlight this aspect of the spread of the Principia Discordia. One customer writes:

My Discordian friend from England gave me this book so I would see what the joke was about. There is an online edition, which can be found all over the Internet, but there’s nothing like compressed plant fibre when you’re looking for holy scripture.

Another writes:

This was a silly little book. Does it contain profound truths which will forever alter the way you perceive the world? Didn’t seem to. A lot of clip art and ditties pasted together by a couple of very stoned hippies with a unique sense of humor… When this book was first circulated, it was a true revolutionary act, and it remains an interesting Historical document—immature as the contents may well be.

Quite a few customers have included the Principia Discordia in their Listmania! Lists as well: “Discordian trip”, “Books for Free Thinkers”, “New American Testaments: Sacred/Spiritual Books of the U.S.”

The Principia Discordia spread because of the Internet. In the early 1990s the Usenet group alt.discordia was active, and later the Principia Discordia spread rapidly across the web due to the many links to it.

The people who adopted the web early were exactly those folks who were most likely to resonate with the “religion disguised as a joke and joke disguised as a religion” (Simpson, Bushell, Radiss, 2005, page 251) contained in the Principia Discordia. According to the New Hacker’s Dictionary:

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy parody religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Eric Tilton, in the Hypertext Edition Introduction, writes:

This project—this transubstantiation of what was once a print media barrage into the divine HTML—is the brainchild of [Jane Patterson]. It’s since become a group effort, in an attempt to expand the confines of the document to stretch throughout the erisian hyperspace that is the Internet. Or maybe we’re just bored.

Eric Tilton, Principia Discordia, 1997

The lack of copyright lead Patterson and Tilton, and those who have followed, to put the Principia Discordia online and to expand it.

Discordianism and the concept of KopyLeft go hand in hand. Although just a small part of the counter-culture gestalt, I believe that the Principia Discordia was probably one of the earliest expressions and strongest champions of this idea, which has since seen such concepts as the Open Source Software initiative, with endeavours such as the Linux Operating System.

Swabey, 2002

The piecemeal nature of the text allowed it to be read comfortably online, since it definitely didn’t need to be read straight through. The Internet had not yet been adopted by businesses and we were all still seeing what this new medium could do.

Before this class, while I had collected the different published copies of the Principia Discordia, I hadn’t thought much about the differences between them or what it meant to say I’d read the Principia Discordia. I collected mostly due to a vague sense of wanting completeness and due to available shelf space on my bookcases.

I now have a new perspective with which to view even works, such as the Principia Discordia, which, before, I read only for entertainment.

© Kristin Buxton, 2005