Egregores, pt. 1
What the hell kind of rabbit hole have I gotten myself into?
In a recent comment thread, one of you guys turned me onto an interesting Substack (Handwaving Freakoutery) that has been exploring a concept that’s been on my mind lately, and has come up several times independently in recent discussions (most recently in my podcast discussion with Astral Flight Simulation) - namely, the concept of the egregore.
The egregore is a concept that gained purchase in magical orders and theosophical organizations like Aleister Crowley’s Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucian Order, and even comes up in Masonic discussions, though the concept is much more ancient than those applications. In simplest terms, an egregore is an autonomous psychic entity generated by the thoughts and emotions of an individual or group, either intentionally or not. In general, individuals and small groups can only conjure an egregore through extraordinary focus or heightened emotion, often achieved by elaborate ritual and/or drugs. An egregore conjured under these circumstances is typically fleeting, perhaps dissolving after accomplishing a single task. Large groups, however, might conjure an egregore without any conscious intention or knowledge that they have done so, and these beings may be quite persistent.
The Irish poet and occultist William Butler Yeats famously conducted group rituals to this end, and claimed that he and his comrades had called into existence beings seen with their own eyes moving through his house. In a pamphlet distributed to his fellow occultists, Yeats made clear his belief that the generation of egregores was central to the activity of any magical order. The group’s rules, rituals, hierarchies, etc were in place to ensure that the entity emerging from the group mind would be benevolent, for egregores conjured by other means, or under different circumstances, could be of a very different character.
Powerful collective emotions generate powerful egregores. We do not typically imagine a house to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of someone who died of pneumonia, surrounded by family, at age 93. Instead we are usually haunted by victims of terrible crimes. It is as if the intensity of their pain and horror was so great that it left behind an echo, an egregore composed of of their insane rage and terror at the moment of murder. Horror, like drugs, provides a shortcut to emotions powerful enough to generate an egregore without the labor of intense focus and elaborate ritual. Torture, human sacrifice, sexual abuse, and desecration of holy things has been a feature of occult ritual practice for as long as we have records. One can guess the character of the entities summoned by such methods.
Two important features of an egregore: 1) Although the entity is generated from the collective mind of a human group, it is not merely a reflection of the group mind. Its character is determined by the group mind, but once conjured it is capable of acting independently, in accordance with its nature, and 2) Although the entity’s nature is a manifestation of the shared focus and will of a human group, the egregore is also capable of influencing and acting upon human beings. What this means is that, when a sufficiently strong and temporally persistent egregore is summoned, its human conjurers become its servants more often than its masters.
What does an egregore want? Well, it wants what ant colonies, bee colonies, and human groups themselves want: to survive and, if possible, to expand. This is so because entities that do not want to survive and expand are swallowed up by those that do, eventually leaving only entities who operate according to this basic evolutionary principle. According to Yeats, a conjured egregore:
(If) it has any continued life at all, is bound to grow stronger, to grow more individual, and to grow more complex, and to grow at the expense of the life about it, for there is but one life. Incarnate life, just insofar as it is incarnate, is an open or veiled struggle of life against life.
An egregore, though autonomous, is dependent for its survival on the continued focus of the collective mind from which it arose. Egregores of truly great power have enslaved entire populations for centuries or even millennia. The people of ancient Sumer, for example, explicitly understood themselves to be the slaves of their gods, whom they nourished and sustained by offering sacrifices and repeating elaborate rituals. The earliest high civilizations to emerge out of the Neolithic were hieratic city states. Hieratic means having to do with priests, rituals, gods, etc., and the term is used in this context to point out that all of the first civilizations were not merely religious, but that their societies were, at the deepest level, structured around a ritual complex. In most cases, they were even physically structured in this manner, with a pyramid, ziggurat, or temple atop an artificial hill at the center of a town which grew outward from it. The temple was dedicated to the city’s patron deity, and the ritual cycle defined the rhythm of life in these societies. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the understood purpose of these societies was to sustain and nourish their gods through repetitive sacrifice and ritual adherence.
Naturally, we insist that these gods were only imaginary, that they did not really exist, by which we mean that they had no material reality. But they had psychic reality, and at least enough autonomy to induce an entire population to devote itself to its service. Even we, who of course don’t believe in any of this, resort to similar metaphors to describe the behavior of organized human groups. We routinely speak of nations as if they are individuals with identifiable emotions, purposes, preferences and tendencies. We describe bureaucracies as having “a life of their own.” Most of us have heard or read President Eisenhower’s farewell address warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex:
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United State corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
Just as Margaret Thatcher famously (or infamously) said that “there is no such thing” as society, only individual men, women and families, one could say that there is no such thing as the military-industrial complex, only individual employees, bureaucrats, and soldiers. And yet within a few years of Eisenhower’s speech, the military-industrial complex had accrued enough reality, and gained enough power, that it mobilized millions of men and vast social resources to fight a war in Vietnam that three successive US presidents did not want to fight. Who did that? It wasn’t any of the millions of employees, bureaucrats or soldiers, although it couldn’t have been done without them. It wasn’t any individual politicians or agency heads, although they made the decisions that carried us each step further into the war. The thing Eisenhower warned about had, by some strange alchemy, come to life and seized control of the very people who’d summoned it. If today someone tried to turn it off, or even scale back its reach or power, the MIC would fight to defend itself even though we face no actual or potential conflict comparable to the Cold War it was built to fight. This is an emergent entity that is not reducible to its constituent parts, and which, in some ways, “has a life of its own.”
Now, I am not asking you to believe in Sumerian gods, or that WB Yeats really summoned a spook, or that some sort of literal Military-Industrial demon has been unleashed in the United States. This is a way of thinking about things that helps us identify deeply-embedded complex systems with emergent qualities and behaviors, and which mobilize human energies to sustain themselves and meet their own requirements. Eisenhower in some sense oversimplified the problem he identified by giving it a name, but only by naming the MIC did it become possible to see that it had imperatives, goals, and requirements that might run afoul of our own.
I’ll pick up this thread next time. I actually just clipped another few paragraphs that wandered off into the Bible and more stuff about ancient civilizations, because if I keep letting this stream of consciousness run it will never stop, and I’ll never get to the place I’m actually trying to go. I don’t know what that place is yet; I can see it off on the horizon but can’t yet make it out. The thought I’ll leave you with until next time is that the internet is full of egregores, and the structure of the systems we’ve built there, and the nature of the scaled human interactions it fosters, broadly determine the character of those entities. Needless to say, most of them are pretty nasty hombres.
Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to the Martyr Made Substack. It’s just $5 p/month or $50 p/year, and it helps keep my cats off the dole.