Review of Stavish, Mark. Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny. (Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2018)
By John White, Ph.D., LPC
Those of us who have benefitted from reading the work of Mark Stavish over the years have come to expect his writings to display certain characteristics, among them a clarity and directness of style unusual among occult writings. Indeed, the unwitting reader, especially the sort who confuses prolixity with profundity, might miss the extent to which Stavish both brings broad and profound knowledge of the major occult and religious traditions to each of his works, yet does so only and always to the extent that that knowledge is conducive to establishing his point. His book Egregores is no exception to that rule. In this case, however, Stavish has done the further service to his reader of bringing his characteristic clarity to a central yet little understood topic.
As Stavish notes, there is a general assumption among occultists that egregores, those psychic entities which are both produced by a group (e.g. a magical order) and simultaneously influence the members of that group, are in some way positive, as if, by some inner necessity, being connected or “contacted” with such an entity is always and entirely a good thing for individual practitioners. Stavish quotes and analyzes a passage from W. E. Butler to this effect, as representative of that standard view. However, though egregores can indeed be beneficial to the individual practitioner, they can equally be detrimental. The crucial point here is that egregores, while containing a certain amount of power, also by nature represent limitation – in some cases, even intentional limitations – deriving from the group or members of the group. Indeed, even without intentional limitation, egregores by nature represent some measure of form and thus of limitation. Hence, even if connection to an egregore is helpful for an individual at some point of his or her journey, it may not be helpful for every stage of the journey: at any given point, an egregore might just easily work against the occult goal of liberation as advance it.
Illuminating this point requires of Stavish a broader discussion of egregores than at least this reader has ever seen in writing. Stavish recognizes and underlines that egregores, as psychic productions living off human group energy, are in essence produced by groups of every kind, not only magical groups. What indeed has more “magic” than, for example, an advertising blitz or a political campaign producing a “group mind” born of powerful desires and emotions which, simultaneously, impacts the individuals who produced it? In a certain respect, this is not a new point: already in ancient Greek philosophy the point was clearly seen, especially in Plato and Aristotle, both of whom were initiates (Eleusis). Plato’s Republic is not just an analysis of the structure of the “state” or polity (polis), but also an analysis of the soul: for the polity, Plato teaches, is “the soul writ large.” Plato clearly saw that there is not only an individual soul but also a soul to the polity and he also saw that the soul of the polity can be healthy or unhealthy (“feverish”), thus potentially influencing individual members for good or for ill. In the 20th century, this same point was also articulated by Carl Jung, who at times defined “individuation” – his term for the process leading to the psychologically healthy individual – as something largely opposed to the collective-mindedness of groups. Yet, though the point is not new, it is not sufficiently recognized in our time and no doubt that is in part due to a certain mass character of our society which Jung and others, such as existential philosophers, railed against in the early 20th century. In fact, one might wonder if the failure to recognize this point is itself a function of an egregore, one which distorts the notion of the individual by reducing the conception of the latter to a mere consumer, squabbling with others over a supposed scarcity of material goods. More on that below.
Stavish’s analyses of the nature of egregores and of the various ways in which religious, cultural and initiatic traditions have spoken of them is an education all its own. Stavish easily and intelligently interweaves discussions of various and diverse traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Western initiatic orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and AMORC, Pop Culture and the advertising industry, and the Lovecraft Circle. While these discussions inform the reader of various traditions and invite new ways to think about these issues, the book also has an inherently practical component. Stavish recognizes that since egregores – or at least our connection to any given egregore – may not be positive, we need to evaluate consciously the various connections to virtually all the egregores which form our lives. In practice, we are in contact with innumerable egregores at all times, whether those of family or tribe, whether cultural, political, or religious. Psychoanalytic traditions, especially the Jungian, are very familiar with these phenomena, even if they are not called egregores. It is often one of the basic tasks of a person in treatment to recognize the unconscious influence of the spirit of the various communities central to a person’s life, so that the person can decide consciously how and to what extent he or she wants to be influenced by them. It is just this kind of sorting through one’s connections to various egregores that Stavish not only encourages but for which he offers methods. Rather than assuming a connection with an egregore is an unqualified positive, Stavish believes one needs to recognize how such connections inhibit that movement toward personal liberation which is intrinsic to the Path, and consequently discern when such connections are beneficial and when not.
Stavish concludes the book by offering three ways of freeing oneself from the influence of an egregore, drawn from excellent sources, as well as two appendices, one concerning the liberation from egregores, the other illustrating the rejuvenation of an egregore. The methods and examples allow one to decide how best to relate to egregores in one’s own life and, above all, how one might free oneself from their undue influences. There is little doubt that most occult practitioners – and most people in general – would benefit from this study, if for no other reason because of the way in which a pervasive mass media and advertising industry attempt to draw all of us into their egregores.
I found the book engaging, educational, and practical. Even as I read it, my mind easily moved to situations in my own life where unconscious or at least unworked through connections to egregores were a chief – and possibly the chief – personal struggle I was having with a group, though I had never thought of it that way. Further, it was easy enough to apply the principles Stavish articulated to problems lived out in the history of occult organizations. The book also made me think of certain classical occult novels, such Dion Fortune’s Goat Foot God and The Demon Lover, each of whose story lines imply a struggle amongst egregores and in several ways.
Stavish’s conclusions concerning our relations to egregores are right on target and his approach also has an ethical component to it, something which this reader very much appreciated. All too often, books about occult subjects do not raise ethical issues, though it is clear from many of the ancient texts that the development of virtue – an essentially ethical concept – is part and parcel of occult practice. And, while I have no objections or criticisms to Stavish’s treatment of these issues as a whole, one question did seem of some importance.
Though Stavish does not as a whole fall into this trap, it did seem to this reader that, at times, he posed the problem of egregores in terms of “individual versus collective.” As I pointed out above, the problem of so-called “mass society” highlights that the tension between individual and collective is a real problem, one that many of the great thinkers of the early 20th century dealt with in some measure, not the least Carl Jung. However, it felt to this reader that Stavish (like Jung, in this respect) left out a third option – that of community. A community is neither an individual since it is a group, nor is it a mere collective. Collectives are joined by unconscious factors, whereas a community – properly speaking – is a conscious unity of people, aiming at a common goal and dwelling in an ethos of common values. For example, Plato and Aristotle understood community as a group of people joined together in a like-minded friendship, born of the consistent and mutual practice of virtue. That members of a community are friends rooted in virtue implied to Plato and Aristotle that a community proper is both a group but one that respects the various purposes of individuals, even as it seeks its own purposes. Hence, unlike, say, the collective conception of the individuals as consumers, i.e. as mere functions of the egregore of consumer capitalism, a properly communal conception could countenance a healthy tension between the aims of the group and the aims of individuals in the group. This, it appears to me, is the ideal community and thus also an ideal of occult community, even if it is an ideal which one could not expect to be realized in its fullness.
Nothing in what Stavish says contradicts this point, yet he does end the book focusing on how to free oneself from the negative influences of egregores, seeming to suggest thereby that liberation is a wholly individual undertaking, against group-based egregores. Yet my sense of the occult tradition is that it often extols the benefits to working as a group. If I am correct that the tradition supports group work in some measure and if there is indeed merit to that traditional position, it is because the tradition implicitly assumes that this “group” is a community, i.e. a group joined in likeminded friendship and in the practice of virtue, honoring both individual and communal purposes, and not a mere collective. Hence, while I think Stavish is entirely correct in emphasizing the need to liberate ourselves from unnecessary collectives and their egregores, it seems to me that some treatment of community as distinct from a collective is still necessary, if for no other reason because it could underline the value of genuine community for the individual and consider the possibility that one of things that makes an egregore positive for an individual is that it is born and feeds off the conscious energy of a community, rather than the largely unconscious energy of a mere collective.
However, even this point is a less a criticism than evidence of the depth and insight of Stavish’s book, since it could not have been formulated without the foundational principles concerning egregores which Stavish develops. Because of the importance of this topic, especially for perhaps the main task of occult practices – human liberation – I doubt any book of the last decade exceeds it in importance. Egregores is a text that needs to be on the shelf of any serious occultist.
Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny is available through Amazon at: