Saturday, February 25, 2017

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

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