EGREGORES: THE OCCULT ENTITIES THAT WATCH OVER HUMAN DESTINY
Mark Stavish | 160 pages | Inner Traditions | ISBN: 9781620555781 | (price not available)
I don’t usually review books of mysticism and New Age philosophy, but I make an exception where such books cross over into territory familiar to me, especially when they touch on either the Watcher angels from the Book of Enoch or H. P. Lovecraft. Occasionally, we find a book that mixes together both. Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny (Inner Traditions, 2018) is one such book, and author Mark Stavish provides some confounding ideas about the relationship between Fallen Angels and the Cthulhu Mythos in a confusing book that is half book report and half New Age instruction manual. The book is due out in July, and this is an early review.
Here we run into an oddball problem that is worth less than the time it takes to explain but is nevertheless necessary to understand what is going on in Egregores. The term “Egregore” has two distinct meanings, which have become conflated. Originally, the egregores were the Greek translation of the Watchers from the Book of Enoch, the Sons of God from Genesis 6:4, which the author of Enoch had called by the name of the observant angels from the Book of Daniel. But in Le Grand Arcane in 1868 the occultist Eliphas Lévi merged the Watchers and their sons, the Nephilim, with an idiosyncratic idea that there were autonomous psychic phenomena that could be remnants of these monsters. Afterward, occultists from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucians took up the term and used it to describe any sort of emergent symbol or collective action that seems to behave autonomously of its creators. Thus, everything from the General Will of Rousseau to the Golden Arches of McDonalds is an egregore.
It is in this confounded and conflated modern form that we find the egregores appear in Stavish’s book, for Stavish is an alchemist, Hermeticist, and all-around believer in the esoteric. Thus, this is the kind of book that opens with a quotation from the Corpus Hermeticum 16:12-14, 19, without introduction or explanation, and expects the reader to know what the obscure language is talking about. But it is also the kind of book where the author is so enamored of the occult that he lacks functional knowledge of the actual history of the subjects he seeks to address. Thus, for example, he starts by alleging of the Book of Enoch’s section on the descent of the Watchers that the “only extant version that exists is in the South Semitic language of Ge’ez.” That is true of the book as a whole, but the sections on the Watchers and their crimes are also preserved in Greek by George Syncellus, and in epitome by other authors. If your goal is to extract divine truths form the text, knowing this would seem like it should be a priority.
Instead, the author lists, but does not reconcile, the many different definitions proposed for egregores and suggests that they are protective spirits, and powerful beings. Their withdrawal, he says, caused the fall of the Roman Empire, for he believes that pagan gods are egregores of a sort.
The majority of the book is given over to the explication of the effects of imagined egregores on the personal lives of readers of the volume. I have little to say about this, since the concept is nebulous and the assumption of the reality of these beings distinctly unproven. However, despite the author’s pretensions toward describing a universal experience, his Western and modern biases show through at every turn. Consider the opening to his first chapter: “Tibetan Buddhism began to appear in popular culture with its mention in the writings of the Russian occultist, spirit medium, and author Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society that she cofounded in the late nineteenth century.” Basically, every word of this is wrong. I assume by “popular culture” he means “Anglo-American popular culture,” though there is no attempt to delineate the field of discussion, or to acknowledge that Tibet and other Eastern lands have popular culture, too. At any rate, Buddhism was well-known in the West for at least a century before Blavatsky appropriated it, as represented by dozens of British volumes on the subject prior to her. It is, after all, rather amazing what Empire does for encounters with the colonized and the need to understand them. Similarly, Stavish’s discussion of Esoteric Buddhism is confined to how Western occultists viewed Esoteric Buddhism through Western lenses. The Tibetans themselves are reduced to “the Tibetan mystics,” a romantic, vague, and mysterious collective.
Subsequent chapters examine the role of incorporeal entities in various esoteric traditions, such as the Golden Dawn and French occultism. The specter of the Ascended Masters of Theosophy is never far from the foreground, and while it might be interesting to explore the shades of difference among the many imagined sects of astral and interdimensional brotherhoods abstracted, conflated from Freemasonic myths of primeval brotherhoods and from the Shemsu Hor of Egyptian mythology, which Gaston Maspero and Francois Lenormant had hypothesized in the 1870s and 1880s were the god-men who built the Sphinx just after the Ice Age. Here again the author’s lack of inquiry and historiography does him injustice, as he speaks with awe of the egregores of The Tarot of Mouni Sadhu (Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski), written in 1962, without recognition that many of the claims found in the book were preceded by centuries among French occultists. Just for example, Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet assigned to the tarot in 1781 an origin in the work of Hermes Trismegistus, channeling (as is clearly implied by allusions in the text) the antediluvian wisdom of the Fallen Angels. This all the odder since the aforementioned claims fed directly into works produced by the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a group we would expect our author to employ in his analysis. But never mind, for our author is ignorant of his own area of expertise and therefore is silent on such matters, even when they might support his fantastical claims. It’s nice, though, that he was able to quote the parts of Mouni Sadhu’s text that deal with “the guards and masters of the White Race’s Kabbalah.” You might think that’s an esoteric reference to light or something, but it’s not. He’s talking about Caucasians, because for him initiation into the occult varies by skin color, with different races achieving different magics. He was progressive to an extent, though: He thought the Jews were black, and therefore of no relation whatsoever to white people and their magic. Our author silently glosses over this.
Too much of the early pages is given over to summarizing modern writers without establishing that their esoteric fantasies have grounding in reality. Most of the modern writers cited trace their ideas back to a few Victorian originals, and these are of highly questionable value. A deeper dive into their sources and their accuracy would have been helpful. References to the Simon Necronomicon ring especially false if you are not already inclined to imagine that a made-up text cobbled together from spare parts is imbued with eternal spiritual power. Let’s be frank: The “Simon” who claimed to have discovered and published the book is almost certainly its author, and almost certainly Peter Levenda, who denies the charge but nevertheless told the U.S. government that he and Simon were the same when it came down to the real brass tacks: money. It’s his name as author on Simon’s copyright registrations. It’s hard to assign eternal esoteric power to a book written by a guy I’ve talked to, who isn’t really all that magical. Ditto any revelations gleaned from Gary Lachmann. I suppose it is just my bias, but the weight of tradition at least gives a superficial patina of gravity to older works, since their authors are long since removed from the mundane reality of real life.
The subsequent chapter attempts to explain the fodder we find on the History Channel or Destination America, such as UFOs and even the completely made up fake legend of Slenderman, in terms of timeless interactions with the dimension of the egregores. But any chapter that takes Jacques Vallée and his sloppy research and poorly reasoned philosophy of UFOs as an invitation to spiritual awakening—even if mediated through Jean Dubuis, an occultist and friend of Vallée—is hardly a serious investigation of the paranormal. There is also the discomforting problem that the author cites approvingly Dubuis’s claim that he might have prevented 9/11 had he taken up an offer from a group of magic practitioners to join them to vanquish the “egregore of Islam” in the 1990s. Ponder it for a moment and it becomes darker and more disturbing the more you think about what Dubuis really said.
The author also cites with approval “superfascist” and “mystical Aryanism” philosopher Julius Evola, who was infamously cited by ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and who made use of the egregores to describe “those who are awake” to the power of conservative tradition to connect individuals to magical dimensions beyond reality. To be honest with you, I can’t imagine why anyone would be like our author and proudly embrace the idea of being part of any “spiritual elite” identified by a fascist white supremacist, but it is a truism that below the surface of most fringe ideas lies a morass of racist, xenophobic, right-wing nonsense.
Speaking of which… We all know that H. P. Lovecraft was also a white nationalist who mourned the loss of a white-dominated America, who wrote nasty poetry about his hatred for Blacks, and who was warmly receptive to Hitler, at least for a while. So, it’s no surprise that our author moves from Julius Evola to H. P. Lovecraft, with a whiplash-inducing detour into the career of Jean Houston, the Mind Games coauthor who inspired John Lennon in his last, most radical years and who led Hillary Clinton in channeling Eleanor Roosevelt, though both women denied that there was a séance involved, claiming that the event was imaginative role playing. The Watchers are truly malleable enough to become icons of both the Left and the Right, leading one side to dubious flights of imagination and the other to advocate ethnic purification and authoritarianism. Our author treats all of this as moral equivalency, glossing over the worst aspects of the occult right and never mentioning racism, fascism, etc.
Anyway, the fifth chapter is about Lovecraft, and it is assembled from well-worn nuggets of information familiar from standard sources that I need not review here. However, the author isn’t quite comfortable with these sources, as evidenced from the fact that he italicizes Cthulhu Mythos and treats it as the title of a book, rather than an informal name for his concocted mythology, coined by August Derleth years after the fact. What’s stranger is that he knows this, as he says on page 74, yet goes about treating it incorrectly anyway. The only good news is that Stavish at least concedes that the Necronomicon is not a real book and is the product of Lovecraft’s imagination, and that many “genuine” grimoires are similarly fabricated texts passing under more famous names:
These erroneously or even falsely attributed practices, East and West, have not prevented generations of practitioners from having some kind of psychological (if not paranormal) experience—or even enlightenment itself. Neither has the fictional nature of the Necronomicon been a stumbling block for those who see it as a gateway to genuine and existing alternate realities, even if it means risking insanity, as in the case of the “Mad Arab” before them.
Stavish isn’t one to state anything directly, so he lets a potted biography of magic practitioner Kenneth Grant, who famously claimed Lovecraft channeled real interdimensional powers in his story, stand for an endorsement of Lovecraftian magic. Further discussions of writers associated with Lovecraftian fiction, including Robert E. Howard, and past inspirations like Arthur Machen basically boil down to a line quoted from one of Howard’s letters: “I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces from the past or present—or even the future—work through the thoughts and actions of living men.” This is the warrant for implying quite heavily that the Watchers, or egregores, operated through the Weird Tales authors.
The succeeding chapter talks about egregores in modern Rosicrucian thought, but the chapter is composed of so many quotations, it ultimately says nothing original.
As we head into the conclusion, I was left confused by the purpose of the book. The author said nothing definitive, provided no real analysis, and merely gathered together summaries of twentieth century occultists’ books, largely undigested. But the final chapter made plain that despite the author’s previous refusal to commit to the reality of the egregores, he means the reader to believe in them, even if he wants plausible deniability about any specific claim. The final chapter teaches readers how to free themselves from the power of the Fallen Angels, which are apparently somewhere between demons and engrams in the hierarchy of cosmic soul leeches.
This confuses me a bit, for if the Lovecraft circle produced admirable fiction under Watcher influence, then what is the purpose of removing them? Here, the problem of definition becomes acute. Stavish takes the broadest view of egregores, identifying them as all forms of socialization and therefore assigns them to everything from the PTA (seriously, he said that) to nationalism, and he offers as a solution a program of nihilism in which the initiate retreats from all contact with the evil world of social relations. Witness his description of the evil that is cheerleading: “The whole function of cheerleading is the enhancing of sexual and psychic energy by way of music, costumed animal figures, and logos. It is nothing less than a religious ritual wherein the participants are united in a single identity and purpose.”
But he also claims there are “classical” egregores which are basically demons, with “preternatural intelligence” that need to be combatted with, more or less, exorcism. But in the end, did he not argue that adherence even to New Age magic is itself the domination of an egregore and therefore to be rejected? I never quite understand these things. Indeed, Stavish announces bluntly that he doesn’t care about trying to define an egregore. He simply knows it when he sees it.
It is functionally irrelevant, except for academic definition, if an egregore is understood to exist only in the classical sense or if we can consider a thoughtform an egregore. It is also equally irrelevant if thoughtforms as actual psychic entities exist either—as modern media has demonstrated that ideas (or memes) are constructed with the intention of manipulating mass opinion and, thereby, public activities
Stavish hates logos. He considers symbols to be powerful agents of the evil angels, swamping our independent mind with hated “group” identities. That (a) people might willingly select symbols to represent their deeply held values, and (b) collective action is not necessarily evil never occur to him. A child postwar America, the rigid individualism of American capitalism is synonymous for him with an objective evaluation of the ideal state of human affairs. In short, he’s managed to project into the mystical realm of supernatural magic a justification of his own power and privilege. Thus, when he concludes that we must all take it upon ourselves to “become masters of our own lives” and reject responsibility or obligation to “the life of someone else,” he is assuming that his readers agree that the individual takes precedence over the family, the community, or the nation. In the end, this is a Western belief, not one from the heavens, and it is quite clear that at every level Stavish, and many of the occultists on whom he draws, cannot separate themselves and Western culture from the universal truths they claim are represented by modern Western values.
I gave the book one and a half stars because I see no evidence that soul-sucking cosmic leeches are trying to drain our energy. But if you do, then you can fee free to add another star.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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