Saturday, February 25, 2017

Part Two: Egregoric Phenomena in Lovecraft and Elsewhere

Something like the evocation and invocation that John L. Steadman describes* occurs frequently in stories by H.P. Lovecraft.  But a typical Lovecraftian protagonist conjures the egregoric entity by accident; he is usually a passive participant in the manifestation of the horror, often directed against his will and awareness by the force of the emerging entity, by a kind of eldritch genius loci.  Lovecraft’s characters are not like Steadman’s “magickians”, who are wary but in control—more or less—of the process.  The Lovecraftian hero is more of a lonely, scholarly dabbler.  He blunders into some undifferentiated evil that he struggles ineffectively against, growing weaker and overwhelmed as the other comes into focus.

Lovecraft’s early story, “The Tomb” (1922), depicts the gradual but 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 as he naively rebuilds the family homestead.  The mere proximity of Walter Gilman to the dessicated 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 “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933):

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.

The well-known story “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936) depicts the relentless psychic possession of one Robert Blake, who inadvertently begins the evocation of an avatar of Nyarlathotep by fumbling about among the occult paraphernalia (among them a “Shining Trapezohedron”) in a desecrated church.  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, as in Peter J. Carroll’s instructions for inviting Azathoth, 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.

The process is described playfully in a series of letters H.P. Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith in 1933.  The first announces the arrival of the “Nameless Eikon”, one of Smith’s small stone carvings, typically of a stylized humanoid head.  In a letter dated May 31, 1933, Lovecraft writes:

By the way—in my new quarters the Nameless Eikon of pre-human horror has a new function to perform…It is a bookend, situate thus on the top of a broad, glass-doored case in the neighborhood of an old-fashioned full-mounted terrestrial globe.

Lovecraft soon notices that the odd figurine somehow alters the content of several of the books it supports.  An astronomy book “has begun to suggest the most unutterable cosmic horrors, whilst a textbook of botany hints at monstrous fungi and blasphemous thallophytes…”  By June 14th of that year, the author’s reading behavior has been markedly altered by the presence of the stone head:

Glancing the other day at the book next the Nameless Eikon, I found myself reading in a highly peculiar fashion—picking out words from odd and unrelated places in the text, as if led to them by some invisible influence…A certain memory welled up—and shrieking, I dropt the volume while there was yet time.     

In a letter Lovecraft wrote to Smith on June 29, 1933, the end is unavoidably near.  The writer, in an advanced state of exhaustion and terror, reports that he has used a mirror to read a section of “that crumbling tome of elder lore” adjacent to the stone figurine.

Now in spite of Heaven’s vaunted mercy—I know.  The veil is withdrawn…and I have glimpsed that which has bowed me in convulsive terror for the few days or weeks of life which remain to me.  Iä! Shub-Niggurath!  Is the Grey Rite of Azathoth no more of avail?


Despite some variations of setting and character, isn’t this the typical sequence by which a Lovecraftian protagonist summons and then succumbs to the manifestation of some entity, some egregoric phenomenon?  Perhaps what is finally summoned is knowledge, a terrifying and forgotten—because repressed—understanding of the nature of reality.  Though passively encountered by Lovecraft’s traumatized characters, knowledge is what many occult practitioners say they are actively seeking when they attempt to interact with supernatural entities, with egregores.  Steadman concludes his book* with this remark:

…it must be remembered that Lovecraft, for all his veneration of pure intellect and reason, also acknowledged that humans have an incomplete and limited knowledge of reality.  Thus he tended to keep an open mind on the issue of spirituality, accepting the premise that there might be alternate levels of being that “supplement” rather than contradict the laws of material substances.

The phenomenon of the egregore may not be limited to obscure occult practices, nor the preoccupations of an influential author of horror literature, nor the deranged plans of extremists and mass murderers.  It seems likely that it is the primary engine of horrors both imagined and real.


*H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition (2015)

Part One: Egregoric Phenomena in Lovecraft and Elsewhere

A couple years ago, John Steadman wrote an interesting survey* of the impact of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional creations on contemporary occult practice.  Various groups, among them Wiccans, Satanists and Chaos Magick enthusiasts, have adopted Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and other members of Lovecraft’s pantheon as names for the diverse entities they invite to their gatherings.

Steadman makes a distinction between ritual evocation, in which the practitioner summons an entity, and invocation, during which the practitioner in some sense becomes the entity or manifests its power and characteristics. Each procedure involves three steps. 

A successful evocation requires that the particular entity is 1) solidly “implanted” in the practitioner’s subconscious, 2) energized through magical rites, and 3) “…sent on the task for which the rite has been designed.”

Invocation, the complimentary process, involves the practitioner identifying himself or herself with the nature of the summoned entity, achieving some sort of unity with it, and then manifesting its powers and behaving accordingly.

These are ancient ideas, and probably reach back to prehistoric understandings of the supernatural and its interactions with humankind.  Steadman cites a passage from Peter J. Carroll’s Liber Kaos (1992) which describes a ritual for summoning Azathoth, or something like it:

Azathoth is an egregore associated with the emergence of sentience from the primeval slime and the quest of sentience to reach for the stars…Azathoth has no shape or name for itself that is meaningful to humans, yet, it will respond to the names Azathoth, Atazoth, and occasionally Astaroth…Historically, this egregore was known to certain alchemists whose name for it, Azathoth, means an increase in azoth, or increasing etheric (morphic) fields in contemporary terms.

Steadman defines an egregore as “an entity that has been intentionally created by the black magickian for some specific purpose.”  This seems, in my view at least, to be too narrow a definition.  Can egregores be summoned or manifested unintentionally, by accident?  This is certainly a frequent trope in horror literature and film.  And more broadly, can the concept be applied to a variety of phenomena that impact all of us collectively, not merely as individuals?

It may be productive to think of the egregore as a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes the form given it by the preconceived notions of humans sensitive enough to detect its presence, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it. The egregore draws its power and shape from the imagination and the attention of those who believe in it, seeming to take on a life and a will of its own.  Egregores are not easily eradicated as long as its enthusiasts continue to exist. 

Egregores may be the base material from which gods, ghosts, demons and other entities are formed by the human imagination, and the source of religious sensibility.  Certainly it is the inspiration for idolatry, that recurrent horror of the Old Testament.   But it seems possible that an egregoric process is also involved in more disturbing secular phenomena:  extremist political movements, xenophobia, and celebrity cults for example.  Insofar as egregores are memes that negatively impact collective human behavior, they are potentially very dangerous. 
A couple of years ago NPR broadcast an interview with Malcom Gladwell who discussed the sociology of mass shooters, in particular the concept of the “hundredth shooter”.  Gladwell was asked about a recent mass shooting at Umqua Community College in Oregon, and referenced a theory about riot behavior. 

The first shooter is the most radical and charismatic.  In this context he mentioned Eric Harris, who perpetrated the horrible Columbine murders.  However, by the time of the hundredth shooter, the act has become ritualized, and emerges from a “fraternity of shooters”.  While the first shooter may have had severe mental and emotional problems, the hundredth shooter, while somewhat deviant, is not as extreme or distinguishable. 

Gladwell quoted the young man who shot people at Umqua as saying “Eric Harris is in my head”.  What could this mean exactly?  Is this a kind of egregore, a projection of the minds of isolated, emotionally unstable young men?  Gladwell noted that posts on social media that emulate Eric Harris were numerous at the time of the Umqua shootings—a kind of “netromancy”, to use a term coined by Jenna Wortham of the New York Times Magazine.  It is chilling to think how social media inadvertently creates the conditions by which an egregoric version “Eric Harris” can be evoked and invoked.

Radical [fill-in-the-blank] extremism?  “Fake news” narratives?  Election year politics? But this is too upsetting to think about for very long.  Let’s return to a subject that is more edifying and comforting, like horror literature.

(Continued in the next post.)


*H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition (2015)

The concept of the egregore has been discussed in several earlier posts.  See also

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Zothique, Aldebaran, Proxima b

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Abominations of Yondo” (1926) may be the inaugural work in the author’s fascinating cycle of stories set in the decadent world of Zothique.  Several of the Zothique stories feature an enlarged, crimson sun, a red giant emblematic of decline and deterioration, illuminating a world that ends “not with a bang but a whimper”.  

A “red giant” is the name given to the terminal phase in the natural history of many stars, when solar metabolism and fuel supply begin to dwindle and collapse, not unlike a flame.  Not every star becomes a red giant; whether it does so is determined by the particulars of its evolution, size and composition.  As the star uses up its hydrogen fuel source, its inner core begins to contract gravitationally, lowering the surface temperature and changing its color; the increasing destabilization also causes the star to expand outward like an inflating balloon.  The decrepit star eventually finishes as a white dwarf, a neutron star or a black dwarf, a mere spark or ember of what once burned brightly. 

Here is an example of Smith’s description of the red sun in “The Abominations of Yondo”, discussed in more detail in the previous post:

Before me, under a huge sun of sickly scarlet, Yondo reached interminable as the land of a hashish-dream against the black heavens.

And a similar passage from “The Empire of the Necromancers” (1932):

I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.

Finally, an example from a story published about ten years after Smith wrote about the desert of Yondo, from “The Dark Eidolon” (1935):

On Zothique, the last continent of Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood.

There are at least 13 other stories in the Zothique cycle, of varying quality.  Besides a ruddy, enfeebled sun overhead, they share a characteristic preoccupation with suffering, despair, and dissolution. Often they superficially resemble Lord Dunsany’s early stories—see Time and the Gods (1906), for example—with their exotic settings, fable-like structure and unpronounceable place and character names.  But Smith’s work in general is distinctively darker and more sensually vivid.

The image of a red giant also occurs in some of Smith’s science fiction stories.  In “The Monster of the Prophecy” (1932) the protagonist is transported to the planet Satabbor, where he must cope with, among other things, a blindingly enlarged sun overhead.  “Where am I?” he asks. His host tells him

“You are on my country estate, in Ulphalor, a kingdom which occupies the whole northern hemisphere of Satabbor, the inmost planet of Sanarda, that sun which is called Antares in your world…”

One of Smith’s more interesting forays into science fiction, “The Monster of the Prophecy” is marred only by his use of the pulp convention of giving extraterrestrial characters and locations consonant heavy names like “Vizaphmal” and “Abbolechiolor”. (See also With Friends Like These…)  Socio-linguistically speaking, why is it assumed that extraterrestrials will have tongue-twisters for names, while less technologically developed creatures are reduced to using monosyllabic grunts for identification?

Antares, (a.k.a. “Sanarda” in Smith’s story) is a red giant, one of the brightest stars in the sky, found in the constellation Scorpius.  If Antares was our sun, its outer surface would extend into the region of the solar system between Mars and Jupiter.  Its radius is nearly 883 times that of our sun.  Most readers have heard that our sun will eventually become a red giant, engulfing the inner planets in cataclysmic fiery destruction.  But this will not happen for another 5 billion years, unfortunately.  (“It’s going to be beautiful”, as the President would say.)

Another example of a red giant that was known to Smith and his colleagues was Aldebaran, which received considerable scientific attention around the time that Smith was writing.  Stellar astronomy made significant advances in the first few decades of the 20th century.  The well-known Hertzspung-Russell Diagram, which categorizes stars into various types based on brightness, spectral pattern, color, temperature and evolutionary stage was finalized around 1913.  Famed astronomer Arthur Eddington determined how the luminosity of a star is related to its mass in 1924.  As Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft were beginning their careers in weird fiction in the early to mid-1920s, scientists were able to measure the size and spectral pattern of Aldebaran, a star actually known since antiquity.

Lovecraft uses Aldebaran to playfully mock the “Star of Bethlehem” in his holiday-themed “The Festival” (1925):

…and I saw that all the travelers were converging as they flowed near a sort of focus of crazy alleys at the top of a high hill in the centre of the town, where perched a great white church.  I had seen it from the road’s crest when I looked at Kingsport in the new dusk, and it had made me shiver because Aldebaran had seemed to balance itself a moment on the ghostly spire.  

In the news this week there was some speculation about the possibilities of life on Proxima B, an earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone around a star named Proxima Centauri.  Alert readers may surmise that Proxima Centauri is in the star system Alpha Centauri, one of three stars arranged in orbit with each other.  (Alpha Centauri is where the Space Family Robinson was headed before a rogue swarm of asteroids knocked the Jupiter 2 off course in the 1965 show Lost in Space.  “Danger, Will Robinson!”)

Proxima Centauri is only 4.22 lightyears from earth, the closest star to our sun.  Proxima B, its most interesting companion, joins the nearly 3000 exoplanets discovered so far, detected chiefly by aberrations in their suns’ orbital patterns or because of oscillations in light energy as the planets cross between their sun and Earth.  Proxima B theoretically could support life.  Because it orbits within the habitable zone, liquid water may be present on the surface, and the planet’s mass and composition may support a viable atmosphere.

However, Proxima Centauri, the planet’s sun, is a red dwarf, a relatively cooler star compared to our own.  It is also more likely to have intense solar flare activity with accompanying x-ray and ultraviolet radiation.  Red dwarves are the most frequently occurring type of star and the longest lived of star types.  In fact, the universe has not existed long enough for scientists to study their natural history—they are all still too “young”.   

The planet Proxima B is 10-20 times close to its star than Earth is to our sun.  Because of the lower temperature, planets encircling red dwarfs must have much closer orbits in order to fall within the habitable zones around these stars. Unfortunately, the proximity to strong solar radiation would likely remove most of the hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process of ionization.  

Without the possibility of water, a planet within the habitable zone of a red dwarf is likely to be uninhabitable, at least for life as we know it.  No life will evolve there, much less dwindle beneath a decaying crimson sun in the far future.  The star will endure seemingly forever, but life will never begin in that solar system.  Proxima B is already dead, not merely dying, as in Zothique aeons hence.  Sad!