Egregoric Imagery in a Story by Thomas Ligotti

Among contemporary horror writers, one of the most interesting is Thomas Ligotti, whose oneiric style seamlessly melds nightmarish imagery with unsettling social commentary.  He has authored several discomforting collections of short stories, among them Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986), Grimscribe (1991), Noctuary (1994) and Teatro Grottesco (2006). 

Egregoric horrors occur in several of his stories—as they do in horror fiction generally.  Often these nightmares are of a collective nature and socially mediated—the fever dreams of an entire community.  His 1991 story “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World”1 is a good example.

As in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep”, the discovery of a subterranean entity in Ligotti’s tale is announced by a seasonal anomaly.  In Lovecraft’s prose poem, “there was a demonic alteration in the sequence of the seasons, the autumn heat lingered fearsomely…”  In “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” it is the unwholesome delay of winter, autumn leaves that will not fall, and “ground that had long been cleared yet would not turn cold.” 

A scrubby cornfield at the town’s edge draws the attention of its citizens, especially its singular tenant, a scarecrow that suspiciously resembles Christ on the cross.  In the eerie moonlight, the figure moves vigorously and impotently in the absence of wind.  The image fixes itself in the minds of the townspeople day and night, entering everyone’s dreams.  People’s reactions to an emerging egregoric entity become strangely worshipful and ritualistic:  “As pilgrims we wandered into that field, scrutinizing the debris of its harvest for augural signs, circling that scarecrow as if it were a great idol in shabby disguise…”

Science and technology are briefly and ineffectually invoked; the narrator and some of the other men attempt to deconstruct the animated scarecrow by removing its straw.  What is underneath the familiar surface?  Instead of a simple wooden frame they uncover a ghastly simulacrum of a man, formed from a strange black vine that has grown up inside the scarecrow and assumed a cadaverous form.  The men use axes, picks and shovels to dig it out of the ground, but the narrator knows intuitively that this weird vine cannot be removed—its roots descend into the bottomless depths of the earth, of existence.

Though the horrible image disappears by the next day, the hole does not, and the influence of the dark entity pervades everything—homes, landscape, bodies, minds, dreams.  People begin to experience pareidolia2, seeing the shapes of human faces in tortured wood and decaying vegetation.  (The spreading manifestation may remind readers of a similar inescapable luminosity in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.) 

What does this encroaching darkness want of the townspeople?  It seems to be given organic shape and strength by their collective imagination and fearful attention.  Ligotti provides some hints throughout the story:  a blasphemous image of Christ’s suffering, a season primordially associated with agriculture that is stuck in time, an amorphous vegetative substance that invites attention, ritual, and perhaps a sacrifice in order to move the season along.  

Attention returns to Mr. Marble, the only character who leaves the town and returns from other locations, a kind of prophet. He arrives at just the right time.  Marble is the town’s expert on strange phenomena, and is intensely affected by the egregore’s calling.  He is also the town’s itinerant knife and blade sharpener…

As with nightmares, Ligotti’s stories have multiple interpretations, and affect readers on different levels.  Events in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” appear to coincide with the great Pagan festival of Samhain, which may or may not have been intentional by the author.  Samhain celebrates the end of harvest and the beginning of the Celtic New Year; in some traditions the ancient festival reportedly involved human sacrifice.  The emphasis on time of year in Ligotti’s story suggests that the relative strength or force of an egregore may be related to seasonal changes, at least in some cases. Who thinks about little baby Jesus in June?

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1In a collection of the same name published in 2005.

2A variety of apophenia—seeing patterns where none may actually exist.  See earlier post “A Child’s First Egregore”.

“I Will Tell the Audient Void…”

One of H.P Lovecraft’s most memorable short pieces is the 1920 prose poem, “Nyarlathotep”.  An early work, it contains possibly the first appearance of the eponymous entity.  Nyarlathotep abandons his humanoid form at the end of the tale, and loses a recognizable form altogether in the author’s later fiction.  Some have described him as a messenger god or intermediary between humankind and the beings that comprise the Cthulhu Mythos.  This may be debateable.1 At the end of the piece Nyarlathotep transforms into the soul of “the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods”, a kind of chaos or undifferentiated being.  Perhaps he becomes “pre-egregoric”.  

The prose poem differs in some interesting ways from much of Lovecraft’s fiction.  The typical Lovecraft protagonist is a lone scholar who single-handedly—or sometimes with the aid of a colleague or two—uncovers a cosmic, soul shattering peril.  This happens after a period of increasingly disturbing research.  Lovecraft’s heroes “connect the dots”, risking sanity and peace of mind in a futile struggle against an overwhelming horror.  However, in “Nyarlathotep”, the narrator is part of a collective response to what eventually becomes the end of the world—he is reporting on an apocalyptic event that everyone is experiencing at the same time.

S.T. Joshi describes how the idea for this short piece originated in a dream2, which was also the case for Lovecraft’s well known “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920), another early work.  A line in the text—“My friend had told me of him, and of the impelling fascination and allurement of his revelations…”—is a direct reference to a note that one of Lovecraft’s associates wrote to him before he had the dream.  

Joshi, citing Will Murray, suggests that the model for the humanoid version of Nyarlathotep may be Nicola Tesla.  Nyarlathotep at one point astounds an audience with prophetic images “…thrown on a screen in a darkened room” amidst a “sputter of sparks” and other electrical phenomena. Tesla was also a bit of a showman and celebrity, qualities that this version of Nyarlathotep seems to exhibit, at least initially.  Celebrity, in my view, is a form that egregoric phenomena can take.

The events in “Nyarlathotep” strongly suggest the influence of a malign egregore, though it is doubtful Lovecraft intended to depict his creation as such an entity—any more than he intended his fictional pantheon of Old Ones to be worshipped, as some of his more devout fans have done.3 

Nyarlathotep arrives in “…a season of political and social upheaval…” at the opening of the story.  The narrator recalls that “…people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard.”  

Lovecraft goes on to describe how “…a sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land…” and  “…everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.”  These seem like ideal social conditions for an egregore to form, a new idolatry to emerge.

Nyarlathotep’s growing strength and presence disrupts the world at every level: psychologically, materially, spiritually, even geologically as clefts open in the earth.  The narrator and his fellow citizens “drifted into curious involuntary marching formations” which lead them to their doom.  Near the end, the narrator hesitates at the precipice, but then is also drawn inexorably “into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable.”

The social, psychological and geophysical chaos that Nyarlathotep brings about leads to the end of the world, or at least the end of a world.  The narrator—a typical Lovecraftian protagonist—passively reports this from the street as his own sense of self is extinguished.  On a personal level, this can certainly be the impact of a powerful egregore. 

Other non-egregoric interpretations of “Nyarlathotep” are possible, especially in the context of Lovecraft’s later writings.  Readers will notice one of the author’s familiar xenophobic comments in the middle of the text—“…hooded forms amidst ruins, and yellow evil faces peering from behind fallen monuments…”  Nyarlathotep’s human form is described as “…of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh.”  He comes “…into the lands of civilization…swarthy, slender and sinister.”4   

It may be that “Nyarlathotep” is a metaphor for the decline of Western—or perhaps White Anglo Saxon Protestant—civilization.  This was certainly a preoccupation of Lovecraft’s.  But it may be limiting to judge a work solely by the social mores of a later century.  H.P. Lovecraft and his colleagues at Weird Tales created enduring and influential work during a period of great social and technological change—not unlike our times.  While Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia may discomfort today’s readers, he was documenting what was fearful in the minds of his contemporaries, channeling this anxiety—often racial or ethnic—into his nightmarish stories. 

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1H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition, by John L. Steadman (2015)

2I Am Providence, the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, by S.T. Joshi (2013)

3Steadman.

4Compare to Lovecraft’s “He” (1926), in which the narrator has an apocalyptic vision of a future New York City:  “And swarming loathsomely on aëriel galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums…”

A Child’s First Egregore

When I was very young, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, I slept in a room down a short hallway from my sister’s bedroom.  The door of her room was always shut; mine, always open.  In the hallway was a pale green night light, pathetically dim, the color and intensity of bioluminescent bugs.

This was not a cheery nightlight with a bright, warm incandescent bulb that you could burn your fingers on.  It was a faintly glowing little rectangle that gave off no heat at all.  Once in a while you could hear it emit a faint buzz, like the sound of a distant housefly. This feeble light cast a tall thin glimmer on the surface of my sister’s bedroom door.  I could see this from my bed. 

Often I would wake in the middle of the night, with nothing to do, and stare at that greenlit door, pondering the shapes that took form there, watching them as they assembled themselves into something I could recognize or name.  Most of all, I was vigilant as I watched it for signs of movement.  I did this night after night.

A week or so later I came up with a name for the apparition that I watched congeal on the face of the door.  In my mind—I told no one else—I called it the Greenstick Man.  Not the Green Stickman, because it was a man, but one that was made out of green sticks. 

As readers know, the act of naming something has great significance in religious and magical contexts, and in a child’s imagination.  Names allow us to summon people and animals, help us conjure memories, let us call up things from other places that seem to linger for a while.  I began to see the Greenstick Man around the time of my First Holy Communion.  I knew at that young age that certain words and names could be used for special purposes.  I had named the Greenstick Man, made it real, brought it forth.

One night I gathered up the courage to get out of bed and walk toward the hallway, at the end of which was the shiny door, and on it that troublesome pattern lit by the wan green nightlight.  I was curious about this thing on the door, had to get a closer look.  I padded to the door of my room, my fingertips icy, my breathing as shallow as a feather. 

Sure enough, Greenstick Man lifted himself off of the door—or did he climb out of it? He walked toward me, slowly, resolutely.  He made no sound.  I don’t remember if he had a mouth, or even eyes. And when I thought we were about to collide, he walked right through me.  I screamed and dashed down the stairs.  The next thing I knew I did in fact collide—with my father.  My dad uttered the 1960s equivalent of WTF!

To calm me down—my dad assumed I’d had a nightmare—we sat on the couch and watched “The Crawling Hand” (1963), the late night movie he was watching while I was confronting the horror upstairs. This was one of a number of films of that era featuring dismembered limbs running amok.  (The 1947 film “The Beast With Five Fingers”, starring Peter Lorre, was the best of these.)  Since then I’ve found horror movies featuring severed limbs oddly comforting.

I had been a youthful victim of apophenia, a quasi-diagnostic term defined as a tendency to see shapes, patterns, and connections where none actually exist.  On a perceptual level, apophenia can involve seeing or hearing things in amorphous, unorganized stimuli—seeing faces in trees or clouds, or hearing a familiar melody in the whistling of wind or the random tones of dripping water. 

Cognitively or socially, apophenia supports such phenomena as conspiracy theories, superstitions, and other “fringe” beliefs.  It also seems involved in the formation of egregores.

To be fair to apophenics around the world, of which I am one, it should be asked:  is it really accurate to say that no pattern exists in some mass of random events or stimuli, if one or more people perceive one anyway?  The concept involves a paradox.  Who ultimately decides whether a pattern–perceived by some, but not by all—actually exists? 

Apophenia must be a universal human trait, a natural capacity to perceive—or at least project—order on disparate phenomena, and so achieve understanding, and perhaps control of a chaotic world.  This is where the egregore steps out of a “fabulous, formless darkness”1, or perhaps off of a faintly lit bedroom door. 

After my collision with the Greenstick Man, I began to unplug the nightlight when I went to bed, leaving it dead on the floor like an expired firefly.  This effectively vanquished the Greenstick man by depriving him of his energy and my attention.  Only I knew of his existence, and later demise.  But what if I had told my brother or sister or cousins about him, even invited them to stare at the door with me?  Would he have enjoyed a longer life, a bigger life? However that may be, my faith in nightlights was badly shaken.  Sometimes it’s better to sleep without one.

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1William Butler Yeats, “Two Songs from a Play”, (1928).

The Rise and Fall of Political Egregores

A challenge for the emerging field of “egregorology” is developing a common definition of the phenomena.  This is due in part to the historical origins of the term egregore—an ancient Greek word referring to angelic beings—and to differing perspectives on the nature and utility of egregores.  Some see them as benevolent entities that “watch” over the affairs of humankind like specialized guardian angels.  Others classify them as malevolent, demonic forces, avatars of pre-biblical fallen angels who accompanied the Adversary when he was hurled to earth.    

If not angels, perhaps egregores are social or collective manifestations of ritualized group-think, more akin to hive-minds and memes.  Or, they are the prima materia that is transmuted into various idolatries, past and present. 

Regardless of viewpoint, what does one do with an egregore once conjured or stumbled upon?  Can the entity be persuaded to act on behalf of its devotees, for good or ill?  When detected, should it be supported or combatted—depending on its nature—by titrating the level of attention it receives?   

Without discounting subjective accounts—since all experience is subjectively mediated—it is assumed here that egregoric phenomena reveal themselves ultimately through material diversions of time, money, labor, resources and other quantifiable factors.  Thus the emergence and decline of egregores has sociological, political and economic consequences for the societies they inhabit.

(An example from current events this week:  count the votes, measure the space devoted in print media, note the frequency with which her name is used, examine the flow of financial support, and observe patterns of media response to Marjorie Taylor Greene, a representative from Georgia and allegedly a devotee of QAnon—itself an egregoric entity that influences elections, is implicated in civil unrest, and currently generates significant anxiety in state and national politics.)

In his fascinating book about esoteric traditions1, Joscelyn Godwin offers an historical view of the origins of egregoric phenomena, which he traces to the “ensoulment” or “sacralization” of the world in ancient Greece and Rome.  Godwin writes:  “To ensoul the earth is one thing, leading to comforting ideas of Gaia and Mother Nature.  But to ensoul a nation, a race, or a dynasty takes one into disturbing realms of speculation.”  The ancients developed rituals, both civic and religious, to influence the nonmaterial aspects of their existence—deities and forces of nature—which later became the patron deities of ancient city-states. 

These were egregores that watched over the economic and military interests of their citizens, providing social cohesion and group identity.  Early in the development of Western Civilization, (and surely not limited to this cultural sphere), the connection between egregoric entities and their host societies was forged in political and economic terms.  Our present day “civil religion” is an echo of this ancient understanding.   

City states–later nations and empires—thrived as long as competition with rival egregores was minimal.  Godwin suggests, (referring to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), that the demise of Rome was due in part to the distraction of Christianity and other rival mystery religions, which siphoned away the devotional energy of citizens and left its foundational egregores weakened and ineffectual.  It appears that the proliferation of rival egregores in a society is a sign of decadence, even apocalypse2—or monumental change.   

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1The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions, by Joscelyn Godwin, (2014).

2See previous post, “Vaccination, Social Class, and the Mark of the Beast”.

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Fans of H.P Lovecraft know that many of his amorphous, tentacular monsters have egregoric tendancies. Here’s a link to information about a new film in the works, a production of Lovecraft’s well known “The Statement of Randolph Carter”:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-statement-a-lovecraft-horror-short-film/x/22650394#/

Vaccination, Social Class, and the Mark of the Beast

The last post mentioned a recent news article1 describing the impact of Covid vaccination status on certain social and economic activities.  Disorganization and distribution problems have delayed the vaccine getting to medically vulnerable people and those who serve them.  Some of the vaccine supplies have been diverted to several occupational groups—teachers, celebrities, administrators, and others—as well as to the wealthy, who have been able to jump ahead in line and secure their relative immunity before everyone else.

The author of the article worried that unequal and delayed distribution of the vaccine may create a new “temporary” social class, with membership signaled by special phone apps, CDC2 cards, and vaccination passports that verify lack of contagion.3 For these fortunate few, marks of immuno-status will allow travel and permission to gather in certain social and economic venues—while denying this access to others. 

The fear of contagion combined with use of technologies to establish rank, exclusivity and social control could very well infuse the struggle against the pandemic with a lingering totalitarian spirit.  How temporary would this new social class be?  Why would these measures cease after only one coronavirus?  What if Covid-19 offers us additional mutations, variations on a theme of apocalypse? 

In the near future, will the ideal citizen wear a mask, refrain from handshakes or embraces, avoid churches, mosques and synagogues, maintain social distance, and have their CDC card always ready to display?  Will they worship the expertise that created these new rituals because “We believe in Science”?  Unlike the benighted unfortunates who lack the requisite marks, will these contagion-free citizens enjoy untrammeled freedom to buy and sell in the Empire’s marketplaces?  Readers can probably guess where I am going with this.  In times of rapid social, economic and technological change—Covid-19 has accelerated all of these—a few may turn to that troublesome last book of the Christian Bible, Revelation.

Although this frequently misunderstood scripture clearly describes a vision of Christ’s return after a period of great turmoil and violence, much of the bizarre imagery may not be prophetic at all.  It is doubtful the compiler of this book was much concerned with current events in this century—his own were troublesome enough.  This is especially the case for the oft-pondered 13th chapter, verses 11 through 18, which contains the iconic reference to the number 666.

According to some biblical scholars4, the images of beasts, wounds and special marks do not refer to events in the far future, though they are often misinterpreted as such.  Rather, the intensely metaphorical language of the passage may be code for strong criticism of the Roman Empire, a contemporary threat to the occupied peoples of the time. 

Resistance to Rome would have been politically incorrect, even politically fatal, for Christians during the time that Revelation was compiled.  Thus the “Whore of Babylon” may be a stand-in for Imperial Rome, and the familiar lines about the beast and its number, which “…forced everyone…to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that no one could buy or sell unless they had the mark”, may describe oppressive economic restrictions imposed on subjugated populations. 

These images may also reference the interweaving of Roman state religion and emperor worship with coinage and other economic activity, an echo of which we see in the familiar “In God we Trust” printed on our money. 

What is this beast “coming out of the earth”?  Is it imperial, with agency, duration and personhood, able to exert its influence even when far away from its devotees because “We believe in the Emperor”?   The image of an emperor, of coins, cards, masks, social distancing, a beast “with two horns like a lamb but he spoke like a dragon”—paraphernalia that determine economic interaction and social access—however you envision this entity, are we not seeing the quantifiable stigmata of an egregore, then as now?

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1“A Shot Above the Rest”, by Jonah Engel Bromwich in NYT, 1/23/21.

2In the U.S.A., the “CDC” is the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

3 A far, far right associate of mine believes immuno-status will be appended to the growing number of icons embossed on drivers’ licenses.

4See for example, Breaking the Code, Understanding the Book of Revelation, by Bruce M. Metzger (1993).

Back At It

Glad to be back after a difficult three months, a time filled with catastrophes both personal and societal.  For now I will remain silent on the former, but am always willing to commiserate on the latter. 

Time away from The Egregoric Times allowed for some reflection on the nature of egregoric phenomena.  An Egregor was defined earlier as an entity that is socially conjured, empowered and sustained—brought into being through a collective process involving continuous, focused, ritualistic attention. 

Egregores differ from memes, which they resemble is some ways.  Both appear to exhibit several characteristics of life forms:  self-replication, mutation, competition, heredity, and evolution, insofar as they respond to a kind of “natural selection”.  However, egregores differ from memes in having agency and duration.  They seem to take on a life of their own, and endure as long as they have a stable base of believers.  Chanted into being, energized by the devotion of their followers, they exert a powerful impact on society, for good or ill.  

A reader recently wondered:  

“Why should this concept be confined to magic & occultism? Why should it be associated only with the shadow doctrines?  Especially, political egregores are running rampant these days & they result from the same sources as the magical egregores are spawned from—mass-mind-energy, and perhaps, mass group-think (which is rarely a good thing).”

In a previous post I suggested that emerging or declining egregores could be quantified for objective study—a sociology of Egregores.  The “energy” that sustains an egregore can be understood as the attention its followers give it.  This attention can be measured, at least indirectly, in terms of the number of adherents, amount of money and material resources devoted to worship, amount of time spent invoking the entity, and even the labor and cost of creating sacred space and implements for ritual practice.

With these preliminary ideas in place, it will be interesting to see what, egregorically speaking, emerges, or manifests in 2021.  If we focus the meager light of our social consciousness on the dark water around us, what will take form there?

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You may have seen the recent article in the New York Times about proof of Covid-19 vaccination status and its impact on the leisure class, the job market, travel, and dating apps.1 It’s an interesting read and an excellent example, if one were needed, of our obsession with naming and categorizing each other in order to establish rank, exclusivity and social control.  In the near future, will people need to produce “CDC cards” to get on an airplane, eat in a restaurant, attend school, go to work?   

The idea of “vaccination passports” and other officially imposed markers of social acceptability—or lack thereof—dovetails nicely with the often misinterpreted and misapplied line from the 13th chapter of Revelation: “It [that is, the beast out of the earth] also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that no one could buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast and the number of its name.” 2

This ancient metaphor has been used and misused repeatedly over time, often in response to social, economic and technological changes that some have perceived as apocalyptic.  Whatever its original meaning, the image of the beast and its special number has never lost its utility.  What is this beast?  Is it coming out of the earth again?  This will be the focus of upcoming posts.

 

1“A Shot Above the Rest”, by Jonah Engel Bromwich in NYT, 1/23/21

2Revelation, 13: 16-17.

Getting Rid of Egregores–Some Options

Dealing with troublesome or competitive egregores, on both a personal and societal level, has been challenging for millennia.  Ancient examples of this struggle can be found in the Bible and in many other sources, since the problem is universal.  Strategies used by individuals and groups eager to preserve their preferred thought forms are frequently violent.  Here is an example from the Book of Deuteronomy:  

“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying ‘Let us go and worship other gods, (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far…), do not yield to him or listen to him.  Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, then the hands of all the people.”1  

This approach is frowned upon in multicultural societies like our own.  

However it’s not hard to find examples of similar sentiment, even today.  Those defending their favorite egregores are often willing to vent their wrath on close friends and family—a measure of the intensity of devotion, the power of the egregoric force.2 Even less restraint is shown towards those clearly identified as “the other”, who follow different or contrary thought forms.  Readers can readily identify numerous examples from current events, and from around the world.    

Occult scholars offer more humane approaches, which may not always be effective, given the tenacity of egregoric phenomena.  Mark Stavish3 offers a number of tips for reducing or eliminating the influence of unwanted egregores.  These include developing a strong sense of one’s personal goals, (in contradistinction to those of the negative egregore), reducing or eliminating contact with devotees, rituals, symbols and activities of a negative egregore, and replacing the original need for the egregore with an alternative and more positive focus.  These strategies are similar to those used in cult deprogramming.

For Stavish, the emphasis is on helping the individual seeker to become free of encumbering and distracting egregores, in order to follow a more legitimate spiritual path.  This is not easy to do, and requires considerable self-awareness, concentration and discipline.  He notes that various media are often a source of unwanted egregores.  Those who desire greater spiritual freedom may wish to curtail their consumption of news and advertising.  Because egregores are unavoidable in human organizations, one antidote to their effects may be some kind of monastic or ascetic practice, a way to “detox” in silence or in solitary contemplation of nature.

The issue becomes more problematic at a societal level, when there are two or more egregores in competition and conflict with each other, and attract the allegiance of large numbers of followers. Here more “Deuteronomist” strategies may prevail, with mixed results.  Cancel culture can be seen as a means of combatting unwanted, competing egregores—starving them of “energy” by limiting access to advertising, media, and expression of heretical thought forms.  Advocates of cancel culture appear untroubled by restricting freedom of speech or a vibrant “marketplace of ideas” in their quest for purity.

Historically, the default approach to managing troublesome or competitive egregores has been to put their followers to the sword and their property and paraphernalia to the flame.  “You must purge the evil from among you” as it says repeatedly in Deuteronomy.   Aren’t many of our cities on fire, even now?

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1Deuteronomy 13: 6-9, New International Version.

2I am grateful to one reader who suggested that an egregoric manifestation be considered a quantifiable force with magnitude and direction, that is, a vector—insofar as physics is “super-natural”.   

3Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny (2018), by Mark Stavish.

Pragmatically Speaking

In the last post I consolidated material from two Facebook debates I participated in, one in 2016, and the other this year.  Both occurred on the eve of a presidential election, and so were spirited—sometimes mean-spirited—and partisan.  My intent was to sift the material for useful ideas about reality and “truthiness”.  It may be possible to apply these ideas to egregoric phenomena.

Because I lean strongly towards pragmatism and skepticism—“the truth is only what is useful to believe”—I am cynical about claims to accuracy or objectivity, especially in the media, but elsewhere, too.  It seems that such claims underlie a desire for authority, and hence power, in social, political and economic interactions.  Is it too much to hope that a wooden stake might be driven into the heart of “expert opinion”, of the notion that someone might presume to have the authoritative last word on any question?  The People should think for themselves, and come up with their own answers.

Readers may or may not agree.  But I think I am not alone in being critical of institutions, “expertise”, or news reports.

A pragmatic view of knowledge and experience, combined with our growing loss of shared reality, may create ideal conditions for the development of various types of egregores:  new religions, conspiracy theories, celebrity cults, political movements, idolatries.  (Hence, “Egricgoric Times”.)  In the absence of an acknowledged and revered orthodoxy, all kinds of heresies can germinate.  “Do what thou wilt,” as Aleister Crowley once exhorted his followers, back in the early 1900s.1 “You are the news now!” Q has exclaimed more recently. 

Colin Dickey, in his fascinating survey of fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories2, notes that there has been a significant uptick in the number of people who believe in aliens, cryptids, lost civilizations and other fantastic notions.  The percentage of people who ascribe to the first three has increased approximately 10 to 20 percent since 2015. 

This resurgence is part of an historical pattern that Dickey believes has two 19th century causes.  One of these is “the divorce of science and religion”.  The other was the increasing industrialization and rationalization of society, which led to the “disenchantment” of the world described in Max Weber’s work.  During rapid social and cultural change, when traditional orthodoxies falter, people may seek to order and harmonize their experience through idiosyncratic and pseudoscientific belief systems.  Depending on the fervency of their devotion, these ideas may take on a life of their own, becoming egregores.

The internet serves as an effective cultivator of new thought forms like these that clamor for our attention, worship and emulation.  The web’s decentralization and ease of access creates a fertile soil.  But there is a dark side to this development, a garden of horrors depending on your point of view.  Readers can probably cite numerous examples of how this wondrous communications technology has allowed the dissemination of hateful and violent content, or sown seeds of harmful disinformation, or been used to “cancel” or suppress free speech.  The last line of Psalm 12 seems to apply:  “The wicked freely strut about [online] when what is vile is honored by the human race.”   

It may be that this chaotic, anarchic state—a churn of competing egregores—must occur before a new consensus, a new homeostasis can be formed in society. A catalyst for this may be, as Dickey suggests, the unfortunate separation of science and religion, and the steady “disenchantment” of our world.

1The Book of the Law, (1909) by Aleister Crowley

2See The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained (2020) by Colin Dickey

The Truth About Truth

So far we’ve looked at several examples of egregores in culture and society.  They can be found in religious experience, social deviancy, conspiracy theories, literature, and politics—among other places.  Egregoric phenomena bring to mind philosophical questions about the nature of reality, belief, knowledge, and what constitutes “truth”.  

Last week, the election gave me an opportunity to reprise a Facebook debate I had with some old high school friends back in 2016.  Then, as now, we echoed the political talking points of our preferred media sources.  This time our comments seemed less snarky and overtly partisan, but nothing about them suggested much accrued wisdom after four years—if anything, a growing mental and emotional fatigue.  I was struck with the stability of our respective world views.  Nothing much has changed, though everything around us has.

A focus of both discussions was the nature of reality and truth—unavoidable in the context of a presidential election.  Who is really telling the truth?  Is anybody?  Both the 2016 and 2020 debates were similar in content, so I culled and consolidated key points.  Some of the ideas have broader application than politics, and are relevant to the study of egregoric phenomena.  After clarifying some thoughts on the nature of reality and truth, I will try to apply these notions to egregores in later posts.   

What follows is a summary of this dialogue. I will only present my responses. Readers can use their imagination to reconstruct the comments of my opponents—what provoked my reactions.

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●Thank you KG!  All of us need reminders that we are still good people and fellow citizens, despite our differences of opinion, perspective and news media brand. Whatever the election result in November, the challenge for leadership (and the rest of us) will be to develop unity and a shared sense of reality and purpose, sadly lacking right now.

●Many of us—millions—will likely vote for candidates and policies that differ from the ones others might recommend. For me, it’s not an issue of good vs. evil so much as competing versions of reality, along with different political, social and economic goals. I agree with BN that “this election is fraught with fear”, and with GV that understanding of the other side is in short supply. What makes the whole business fearful is that, absent compromise, a shared reality seems less and less possible.

●BN feels that “compromise is impossible’ and this pretty much sums up the situation, leaving only a binary choice: win or lose. Very limiting, very sad, not likely to end well.

●Not sure that any political party, big or small, would put the needs of the country before its need to seek power for itself. There has to be a common interest, or at least a common threat. What I think could unite the country would be some grand goal that looks to our glorious future. What I would propose: get us off this planet! (The president gets my vote simply for establishing the U.S. Space Force.) Our nation has the means to become the first interplanetary empire, with economically prosperous colonies on the moon, Mars and perhaps further out. Let’s make the Red Planet the Red, White and Blue planet!

●Any unity we can achieve at this point would depend on a shared reality and good old fashioned trust. All of the issues you list above are hopelessly politicized, and with virtually no objective sources of information, no one “expert” is credible outside their particular partisan group. (That magazine story is suspicious given its reliance on unnamed sources, and the fact that the owner is a major contributor to the other campaign.)

●It would take at least two people to politicize anything—by having different perspectives on the same issue. Partisans on both sides have politicized the virus and many other issues in an effort to “control the narrative”, and this will likely intensify as the election gets nearer. But I can appreciate the cleverness and creativity that goes into these efforts—on both sides!

●But who needs facts? History is all about interpretation anyway, a job best left to the victorious.  If morality, ethics and entire cultures can be “relative”, why not the facts as well? “What is truth?” as Pilate asks.  For your sake you had better hope that our party does not win, as we will need a steady supply of your kind to throw into the gaping maw of Him Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, (HWNMNBS).  And by the way, those of us on this side do take our country seriously, indeed that’s why we want to “take it back”.

●Facts and data serve political beliefs, but aren’t inherently true or useful. It depends on who is collecting them and for what purpose. I don’t expect a politician to be truthful, nor would I fault them for only mentioning the “truths” that support their election. In my view, the obsession with facts and accuracy is preposterous. As pragmatists might say, what is true is only what is useful to believe—or to have others believe, (a little Machiavelli here).  And to be fair I would not expect Breitbart or Fox or MSNBC or CNN to be absolutely honest, only effective at what they do.

●As for reality, well exactly what is that? We create it by what we attend to and how we interpret what we observe—facts certainly don’t determine reality by themselves. We pick the facts that are useful and discard the rest. Both political parties know this and are very skillful at it. My hunch is that reality, like history, is determined by the victors—political, economic, military, religious. I’m excited about the possibility of changing reality in this election, aren’t you?

●Do we believe in anything at all? Are we as fervent and willing as our enemies are to defend our way of life, our core beliefs—with our own lives and treasure? Or better, do we have the will—in a Nietzschean sense—to increase our power and extend the reach of our world view, our nationhood, our culture? This has nothing to do with reason, curiosity or a desire to understand. Combatants perceive the world in very different ways—as do political conservatives and progressives on a smaller, and for the moment, less violent scale. Mutual understanding is unlikely. It may not be possible or even desirable. Three options remain: victory, defeat, and relentless, unending struggle. The victorious get to determine “the facts” and what they might mean—get to say what reality is. (Plan B of course is “relentless and unending struggle”, and is the more likely outcome.)

●Not sure that I am easily conned. Being a Calvinist-sympathizer, I tend to view the entire human race as totally depraved and deserving of damnation, were it not for the occasional and unpredictable grace of God. Certainly we are incapable of saving ourselves through science, technology, socialism, positive thinking or whatever. (I’ll leave art alone—you may be on to something there.)

●Your memory is still sound; I was indeed raised a Catholic, but later defected to a denomination in the Calvinist tradition. Honestly, I miss the idolatry, mysticism and sacramental traditions for which horror and fantasy are only a partial substitute. On the other hand, absolute truth, omnipotence and predestination are attractive concepts. But they aren’t for everybody. (In fact, they are only for The Elect.)

●Aren’t all political parties based on “greed, lies, evil, oppression, racism, and so much that is dark”? Without fear and deceit, who would encourage any of these jokers by voting for them or paying attention to them or supporting them with money?

●I definitely support “acts of love and kindness, empathy and compassion”, since these are evidence of our connection to the divine, but they don’t come naturally in a fallen world. I also agree that “people can do great things and great things indeed happen that make the world a better place.” But it doesn’t take much—a few invocations, a few blood sacrifices—to bring the Old Ones back, whether you conceive of them as monstrous entities from another dimension or perennial social evils like political oppression, racism, or war.

●I agree with you that cynicism may be incapable of creating a better world, but it certainly prevents the creation of a worse one. Brick by brick, cynicism undoes that road to hell that the good intentions of others are hell-bent on paving. Certainly “there are truths, there is reality…”, but yours are not the same as mine, and those of our enemies are even more different. You labor under the delusion that humanity can perfect itself with just the right amount of social engineering and thought control. But we have already had aeons to accomplish this!

●Certainly I appreciate irony—driven by how far short our actions fall before our ideals, a function of our original sin, our depravity. “Horrid, evil people and ideas” inhabit both parties and all human endeavor to some degree—how could it be otherwise? I don’t expect a candidate to be perfect, only effective. As for good and evil, don’t they seem almost inextricably mixed together in this election?

●The skeptic in me questions all authority and any media or so-called experts—scientific or otherwise—who would presume to have the last word on any subject. The post-fact world is the real world, (it always has been). Pragmatically, it makes more sense to evaluate the intent, rather than the factuality of some group’s message, especially if politically or economically motivated. Consider the source. Follow the money. Science and perceptions of reality are inextricably linked to politics. (The decision to fund or promulgate scientific research is ultimately a political decision.) What then is truth in a post-fact world? Truth is only what is useful to believe.

●I can see that you believe sincerely and passionately in your particular world view, and in the implications that flow from that world view. Beliefs, values, ethics, and a sense of reality—what little we can actually perceive of it—are connected to this world view. But my perspective is different from yours, and understanding is limited without a shared reality. Trying to explain, much less debate, will likely not be fruitful. But understanding and agreement are not necessary to move forward. Eventually deals will be made all over to heal our fractured society, so that our country can get back to business. I’m optimistic.

Egregoric Monsters in Early 20th Century Horror Fiction

But enough about politics, at least for the moment.  Suffice it to say that an egregoric process may be present in the emergence of game-changing political, religious and social movements.  Indeed, such movements appear guided and empowered by an egregore with a life and agency of its own, sustained by the devotion of its followers, able to effect change.  That an egregore can become monstrous under certain conditions, (e.g. socially constructed serial killers) is easy to demonstrate in reality and in literature.

Some examples of early twentieth century horror fiction1 that illustrate the concept of the egregore include Clark Ashton Smith’s Genius Loci (1933), Manly Wade Wellman’s Up Under the Roof (1938), Theodore Sturgeon’s Shadow, Shadow On the Wall, (1950) and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  (All of these should be considered required reading for horror aficionados.) 

In Genius Loci, an artist and two of his friends are drawn inexorably to their doom in a desolate marsh by an entity they have brought into being through the obsessive attention they give it.  Smith implies that the manifestation and activation of this malign presence is an artistic process. That is, it requires an artist or someone of artistic temperament. In Wellman’s story, a young boy must face an amorphous, amoeba like creature that his imagination has conjured in the attic above his bedroom.  In Sturgeon’s story, an abused child embodies his rage in a shadow on the wall, which grows large and aggressive enough over time to devour his awful stepmother. 

Though not a precise fit, H.P. Lovecraft’s story arguably falls into this category.  The doomed Robert Blake accidentally invokes a manifestation of Nyarlathotep by focusing his attention using the Shining Trapezohedron.  He eventually becomes psychically possessed and later destroyed by the entity.  It seems a commonplace among those who would conjure an egregore—either willfully or inadvertently—that they may lose control of the monstrosity and are overpowered by it.

Lovecraft has several stories that describe egregoric horrors.  His protagonists tend to be lonely, scholarly dabblers who blunder into some nebulous, undifferentiated evil.  His heroes, if they can be called that, struggle ineffectively against some entity, growing weaker and overwhelmed as the other comes into focus.

Lovecraft’s early story, “The Tomb” (1922), depicts the gradual, relentless possession of a young man who makes ritual-like visits to an ancient family crypt.  In “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), the descendant of a notorious clan succumbs to the manifestation of a cannibalistic ancestor.  Delapore, the narrator, naively rebuilds the family homestead—a shrine to a dark, eldritch history.  In “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), the mere proximity of Walter Gilman to the desiccated remains of Keziah Mason and her familiar, Brown Jenkin—tucked into the hidden attic above his bedroom—is sufficient to alter his dreams and understanding of reality, and draw him against his will into unspeakable ritual acts.  Here is an egregoric explanation of “Brown Jenkin” from that story:

“That object—no larger than a good-sized rat and quaintly called by the townspeople ‘Brown Jenkin’—seemed to have been the fruit of a remarkable case of sympathetic herd-delusion, for in 1692 no less than eleven persons had testified to glimpsing it.”

“Sympathetic herd-delusion” seems an apt descriptor of what we are calling an egregore.

Probably the most elaborate depiction of a malevolent egregor in Lovecraft’s fiction is found in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1941).  The evil necromancer Joseph Curwin is able to reconstitute himself through the naïve scholarship and occult dabbling of his doomed descendent, Charles Ward.

In all of these examples, the Lovecraftian protagonist does not actively summon the horror, but is a passive victim, swayed by supernatural forces he barely understands, terrified of them, and subject to their will.  Conjuration involves antiquarian scholarship, obsession, and relentless, irresistible attention, which brings the dreaded entity into focus and gives it power.

Readers can probably think of additional examples of egregores in horror fiction, both past and present. It is a very powerful idea, probably ancient and archetypal.  But the idea of the egregore is interesting for reasons other than its frequent appearance, or perhaps materialization, in horror and fantasy.  It may also serve as the base material for the creation—through imagination, visualization, dream imagery and worshipful attention—of gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural phenomena.  It also seems to be the prima materia for all kinds of idolatry.  The process that engenders the egregore may be the troublesome link between nightmare, religion and culture, an underlying theme of this blog.

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1This was the focus of an earlier blog of mine, The R’lyeh Tribune, at blog-sothoth.blogspot.com. 

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