The ontological fact that everything is transitory has never been particularly well-received in Western philosophy and theology.
— Fra.: UD
Long ago wise men realized that faith and attention—if only they are intense and focused on a specific set of ideas and/or an influential (real or fictional) personality—can create an independent entity that acquires personal traits, character and power and begins to exert control back on its creators, and if necessary also on other groups and even natural environment. Such an entity was called egregore (from the Greek root eger: to be aware of, to control). The larger the group and the more their awareness is directed towards a certain egregore, the greater and stronger its power the greater the control. If you give the egregore your awareness, the egregore will include you in its control and power, to put it bluntly.
The term egregore (spelled also egregor) was used almost exclusively in occult circles to denote a magical entity, purposely created by a group (an order, fraternity, cult) to represent their common aspirations and ideals in a condensed form. This may seem like some primitive voodoo magic but when you bring it into the modern context, you may well recognize how strong egregores actually are in your everyday life.
In 1976 in the book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins described something similar to egregore without metaphysical and magical connotations. Richard probably never heard about egregore, and his coinage meme (analogous to gene) spans biological and sociological frameworks. Meme denotes a cultural idea, social practice, concept or activity that becomes a norm and is (sub)consciously repeated in society. It could also be defined as a thought that acquires its own identity when spreading through society, as an idea that counts as a replicator, specifically in the sense of it acting as a parasite, forcing people to reproduce it (just like viruses do).
The term is sometimes used in the context of “meme complex” to denote a group of memes that support each other and form a general belief system, e.g. religion. This use suggests that cultural evolution, wherein selection is based on the adaptation of ideas, has surpassed biological evolution, in which selection is based on hereditary characteristics. When we marry egregore with meme, we arrive at a biological entity that may, in a sense, be considered alive, capable of spreading, reproducing, proliferating and parasitizing entire cultures.
Those who understood the nature of egregores knew how to create, develop and maintain them. They knew how to change, destroy or replace them with better ones. But when an egregore arose from vague, often unconscious impulses of a group, it could escape its control and take its own control over the group without anyone to stop it.
In many cases, the egregore degenerated after the death of those who created it, as the heirs no longer knew how to manage it. In ancient history, this was especially pronounced when an egregore was formed over a very influential person (for example, a religious or state leader). After Buddha’s death, the influence of the actual personality of Buddha disappeared, only the egregore of Buddha remained. This egregore developed further based on the hopes, fears, desires, beliefs and doubts of the crowds. It got defined by the content of the awareness of everyone who believed in it. Once egregore was “born”, it was further shaped by the beliefs of the masses; changing those beliefs is the only way even for Buddha himself to change the egregore, it becomes impossible to change it directly.
With this, the egregore’s control over those it was supposed to serve spreads uncontrollably and often turns into real tyranny. Examples of this abound throughout history. Events usually go like this: a charismatic individual attracts a small group of followers. They get excited about new ideas and repeat them to the next order of followers. The followers go on recruiting new followers, sometimes by force, and gradually a mass of followers forms that can no longer have personal contact with the founder of what by then turns into an ideology, but instead satisfy their endless curiosity with various stories that descend from the highest circles of followers. These stories are shrouded in a veil of mystery, stirring the imagination, so the masses add to real episodes from the life of the venerable founder a multitude of invented, inflated and sometimes frightful stories; this escalates after the death of the (unsuspecting) founder to such an extent that, in the stories, there is little left of the real person and plenty of hopes, fears, desires, beliefs and doubts of everyone who believes in him. Thus the separation of the founder from his egregore is complete.
Sooner or later, ideological conflicts take shape within the egregore and it starts branching out. A religion splits into two or three, those three become ten, ten become a hundred… In a matter of a few centuries or even decades, the crowds turn one ordinary man into a hundred versions of a god. The man may have spoken of love, peace and harmony, but the god sows division, hatred, war and discord—or vice versa, or any imaginable combination of originally statements and interpretations going astray. The branching can take place in a myriad of ways.
In polytheism, there is a pluralism of egregores, while in monotheism one egregore is dominant and maintains its core identity through the branching and therefore there is a battle over the claim of absolute power. A modern adherent of a monotheistic religion can academically study the history of religion and see her or his sect in the broadest possible context and still consider it preferable to other sects of monotheism and by any means superior to polytheism. However, in polytheism, the power of one egregore is spread out and the dominance of each deity is less pronounced so we might consider polytheism more organic, better representing the balancing dance of forces in nature.
Monotheistic religions are less perceptive of their agency, over the centuries, in igniting huge conflicts around their one and only true god. Their one god must be depersonalized, mystified and left without truly distinguishing traits to allow all the branching. In all cases, the believers create their god, their egregore, not vice versa. Ask various believers who they are and they will give you answers such as: “I am a Christian. I am a Muslim. I am a Hindu. I am a Jew.” They all partake in god creating by adhering to their traditions and giving awareness and belief to their particular egregores. The believers aren’t interacting with any actual god, independent of their belief, they are always interacting with the egregore, which is the object of their own creation through their belief and awareness. Thus far I stressed belief, but awareness is just as crucial. Believers are expected to keep their god always on their mind, pray to him many times a day and observe his presence in everything that happens.
Take away belief and awareness and the god will vanish. Feed the god with beliefs and he will seem as real as anything else they interact with in their reality. Problems begin once an egregore is created. It has power over believers. It can subject them to various means of control, including caprices, commonly through rituals and prohibitions. There were humanists’ attempts in recent centuries to create a god-free unified ideological framework beyond religiosity, but even such a meme-complex, if a sufficient number of people embrace it and believe in it, gets a life of its own as a dominant egregore with non-theistic rituals and then wields control over the newly established profane culture. Homogeneity breeds hegemony. Without a transcendent god, a personality cult forms around a supreme leader and over many generations legends can elevate her or him to transcendence too.
It’s no coincidence that the most influential (Semitic) monotheistic religions began in the desert. That’s the best place for constructing divine abstractions. If we are heading towards self-destruction and the global desert awaits us, then Islam is our best-chance egregore for extreme climate change: it thrives in dead environments that it creates. Like all bearers of death in nature (bacteria, viruses, fungi, moulds), the global egregore of death is also hard to kill. In fact, trying to defeat it in direct combat and finish it off would be futile. You cannot “kill” the desert with any amount of water, its opposite, for this it is necessary to plan and execute well the planting of life in the barren landscape, which will retain the water. In the same way, you can only counter the egregore of death by systematically populating it with life.
Monotheistic religions (and personality cults) are caught up in self-referentiality so they can’t see how “monotheism” is far from what they actually are. Parstheism (my neologism) is a much better term to describe the worship of a fragmented god; parstheists worship a flattened two-dimensional image, an egregore that keeps branching out (pars stands for part in Latin). Why do monotheistic religions break down into hundreds of sects so rapidly? Is this evolutionary unavoidable? How many religious sects does it take for their shared common denominator to shift far enough to consider that a new religion? Why do religions, to develop a powerful enough identity, have to have an opposition or enemy? Can they at all avoid idolatry, elitism, politicization, reckless acquisition, mental, spiritual, sexual abuse, etc.?
Monotheistic religions have established the equation: the primacy of interpretation equals the primacy of the right to dominance. Note that religions are all about Interpretation: that’s where the undisputable holiness lies and that’s why genuine science is the antidote to religion. If science becomes all about interpretation then its egregore will take precedence over its substance as well. Mimicking religious power dynamics is almost unavoidable for as long as basic tenets of society are religious. Science is still far away from breaking the spell of religious dominance.
Observe religious groups cringing at the mention of what they deem blasphemous, observe them damning the sinners, and notice how aggressive they are with those incapable of lying. And also observe even the most scientifically minded yielding to a religious bully with a bomb in his hand. Egregore gets the most energy from intense thoughts and emotions in the consciousness of believers. Unfortunately, emotions without any basis in reality, grow wild and fierce, they become unstoppable and you can never defeat them with reason. Egregores are immune to enlightenment.
What an effective tool for mass manipulation! Paint an image of a terrible god, draw people’s fears to this image, restrict their behaviors with strict rules and instill in them a sense of guilt for the mortal sin with which they were born, and the sheep will willingly surrender all their awareness to such an image thereby, arguably, surrendering their soul, mind, and body to the devil. The devil comes in the shape of their president, pastor, teacher, father, mother… basically, their shepherds who don’t understand how they are all slaves of an aggregation of egregores because these egregores are so deeply ingrained in every pore of their everyday life. Egregores are invisible and intangible.
In primitive, tribal societies egregores were (and still are) too small to be globally impactful. What does it matter who the greatest deity of the Zo’é people is? Jehovah and Allah do matter though. Mind that egregores of Allah and Jehovah haven’t existed before there were people believing in them and if the belief disappeared the gods would too. They would remain in human memory and historic records as mythological interpretations of the Absolute that whole cultures revolved around, next to Amon Ra, Ahura Mazda, Quetzalcoatl, and many others.
Acknowledging that egregores have no concrete substance or that the substance is only marginally important to their current expression and identity in society, it’s easy to recognize them. Look at any convention, concept, symbol, institution, or doctrine and ask two questions: “Does its existence depend on belief? Does it entail control over people?” If the answer to these two questions is yes, you’re almost certainly dealing with an egregore.
For existence of something not to depend on belief, it has to be discoverable and made meaningful by random inquirers regardless of beliefs. It has to transcend self-referentiality and be explainable in diverse frames of reference, not only the one propounded by the believers. In the cases where there is a real substance, pay attention to what dynamics play out between various interpretations and whether beliefs correspond to reality. It is highly unlikely that Jesus wasn’t a real historic personality, but interpretations that survived until today manifest mostly as beliefs. It is these beliefs that generate and energize the egregore so it can exert power over believers.
Even in the case of two non-essential, branded products that compete against each other, such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the real substance is readily observable (the products themselves), but the value of the brand depends on the belief of the consumer, not on the value of the substance. It doesn’t matter that the ingredients of these products cost only a few cents, the believers will gladly pay a few dollars as a sign of their allegiance.
With or without real substance, an egregore uses people’s beliefs to have power over them. Look for this pattern to recognize egregores. Then look at the enlightenment and see how at its core it’s about separating substance from belief and even adjudicating the boundaries in order to base societal organization on firm substance and move away from belief. But this is easier said than done because belief is at the heart of every human culture. We distinguish ourselves culturally from others primarily by what we believe in and this plays out in the highest power of all: control over meanings and symbols.
You cannot take core symbols away from a culture without destroying it. In the movie My Friend Dahmer about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (a boy from a strict Christian family), the main character says: “You know what the cross was for, don’t you? A torture device… used to kill criminals. So when you pray to it, it’s like praying to an electric chair, or a guillotine.” This raises the question, isn’t the violence in the history of our entire civilization related to the fact that we are so focused on the cross, that is, on a torture device? That, of course, is not the meaning Christianity assigns to the cross. And if you take the cross away, the entire Christianity collapses since this egregore hinges on the symbol of the cross and the meanings assigned to it.
Cultures don’t only depend on having beliefs but also on having at least one other culture around with differing beliefs. Egregores are invisible without any contrast and they seek conflict because that’s how their power can flourish. It’s no coincidence that a massive egregore is most powerful when it is at war with another comparably powerful egregore. Supremely powerful egregores come in pairs and for as long as their conflict persists, they will both feed of it. If one of them destroys the other, reaching full hegemony, that will likely be the end of both of them, unless another major egregore comes along to challenge the one that’s dominant. A new egregore often arises on the ashes of the two that burnt each other to the ground, and a new challenger follows soon.
Humans haven’t always gravitated towards such egregorial dualism. That’s a relatively modern phenomenon. Prior to Christianity, there was more pluralism in the egregore reality. With the raise of monotheisms, the gravitational force of single deities increased and fostered battles between ever greater tribes developing into creeds and nations. Egregores grow by swallowing other egregores and appropriating their identities to fit the core aspect of what the supreme egregore is all about. Its competitor egregore does the same.
The 20th century was the peak of egregore polarization (thus far). The political alliances grew beyond what was previously imaginable and the two World Wars exposed the primary intercultural schisms in frightening detail. At the end of the century, we witnessed the rise of an entirely different tier of egregores in the form of multinational corporations and their brands. Even there, plurality gravitates towards duality, and the achievement of total hegemony is a warning sign, potentially leading to the collapse not only of the losers but of the winner too. There is a reason why corporations are growing stronger than nations.
The unconscious part of our brain thinks in simple images and symbols so it’s no wonder such images have an immense impact on us. Today, with simple symbols, corporations can take advantage of their consumers’ inclinations. A logo in three lines and two colors flies past your consciousness and pierces directly into your subconscious. It grows there in connection with impressions, feelings, and emotions. In the end, you actually believe in the corporation, its products, and its services. With this, you give the egregore energy, so that it can control you even more. Corporations have reached a fine level of distillation of egregores to their bare essence, so today there is talk about attentionism: people’s attention is what corporations compete over and colorful screens are perfect to capture the masses. Today, if a company wants to dominate it has to do it digitally. The level of abstraction in egregores is gargantuan and they can swallow hundreds of other egregores to consolidate the power of the prime egregore.
Think of a corporation and follow the feelings that arise in you. Perhaps you experience it as kind, pleasant, or reckless, careless? Do you feel how it relates to you as a consumer? What kind of face does it have? Do you think of it as trustworthy? Do you experience it almost as a person? Companies claim that they want their consumers to feel more human, they present themselves as caring and friendly because this is the only way to approach consumers on an intimate level and build trust and acceptance. The egregore of the company wraps itself in fashionable disguises to penetrate the collective subconscious and from there it can easily control the masses.
Christianity needs Islam, Apple needs Microsoft, and NATO needs the Axis of Evil. Imagine NATO eradicating all its enemies, making every single country in the world its member. NATO would become obsolete. And that’s something NATO cannot afford. What’s worse, the Axis of Evil thrives with NATO so the conflicting egregores feed on each other. The most disturbing conclusion to all this is that we’re stuck with all these egregores and they are completely out of our control. You cannot hold power in any large institution if you’re not kneeling to egregores and parroting the prescribed messages—whether you actually believe in them or not. If a politician crosses a line that is not to be crossed, the masses will make sure to put her or him in place. Yes, the elites do hold the steering wheel, but the real power of the egregore manifests through the masses.
Egregores are impossible to break free from but there are differences between the types of egregores and how we give them power. Some are pretty benign, like marriage, nationality, and brand preferences, while others can be destructive, like those manifesting with zealous religiosity, political partisanship, and categorical insistence. Your belief doesn’t even need to be explicit. All you need to do is participate in egregores’ rituals, whether it’s visiting your church on Sunday or your shopping mall on Saturday, or election day every four years. You may choose to avoid these rituals but it’s impossible to exclude yourself from the less obvious rituals that your calendar commands.
New egregores inherit patterns from old egregores and camouflage these same patterns with new imagery. It worries me that modern egregores in the third decade of the 21st century are shedding substance more than ever and transforming into radical abstractions to the point of being ludicrous. What we call postmodernism is the ultimate civilizational transubstantiation, the conversion of all substance into utter abstraction. The believers in new egregores still adhere to dogmas, follow rituals and assign special meaning to symbols. Still, there is no deity, no brand, no personality to form the cult around. Even the social contract of what we consider real is falling apart. The absence of accountability is a logical consequence. Egregore is, after all, a figment of our imagination, a creation of our faith, and we cannot hold it accountable for anything it did. We did it ourselves but we are losing the sense of who we actually are.
Now, we must ask the chicken-and-egg question: have postmodernist thinkers created these new egregores or have their messages been only the pronouncement of what was going on in the egregore field anyway? When agency in egregore creation becomes so blurred all we can be sure of is that the dominant egregores are completely out of our control. What’s more, we can see that for these egregores god is dead, obsolete. Even the enlightenment is dead and obsolete. Science is succumbing to violent forces that are pushing substance out of academia and spreading the gospel of radical relativism.
The polyphony of thousands of sects of monotheism was the breeding ground for the proliferation of egregores, paving the way for the concentration of power via beliefs. Every culture that mattered in the last millennium grew powerful via its mighty egregore. Magical egregores of yore are gone and the sophisticated egregores of postmodernism and the digital age are taking us to an unprecedented new future. It’s impossible to say what’s just around the corner if digitalized communism and orthodox Islam merge in the East, and crash against transhuman techno feudalism in the West.
We’re bound to live with egregores, there’s no way around them. Egregores, once born, don’t want to die. They want to go on forever. We should know that once they are out there, we have no direct control over them but they have immense control over us. The only way to change them is indirect, by impacting beliefs. Beliefs, however, are insanely resilient! We’re not to take them lightly and we should be very careful how we shape those that we have control over. Each new major egregore that we create should have an “off”, or at least a “reset” button, especially while we’re contemplating the emergence of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence).
In the globalized world, it’s hard to imagine who would be in charge of installing an off button on egregores. Remember that egregores are shaped by the beliefs of the masses. You cannot influence it directly and once it’s out there its further development becomes unpredictable. If you are an influential person and you are concerned that your egregore might take a weird turn by what masses believe about you and grow stronger than your actual living self, there is one thing you can do: don’t give people anything consistent to attach their beliefs to. This suggestion goes against the idea of success by creating a long-lasting career with a consistent public image. But that’s what it takes to confuse the egregore formation.
When your followers start describing you with elation, smash that image. If you don’t do it, your egregore will slowly but surely turn your identity into something unrecognizable. And keep in mind, it has a way of reaching back to you and forcing you into submission too. You become a slave of the expectations of the masses, you have to show up as they want you to show up, and you lose your identity. As Anthony De Mello said: “When a million people follow you ask yourself where you have gone wrong.”
I’ve taken an occult term and applied it to society in general. Egregore is an autological term that describes itself: it’s a mere concept unless you believe in it. Like all concepts, it makes sense within a specific referential field. If you were able to make sense of it, you belong to this referential field. Today, the tern egregore is increasingly used to describe the emergence of digital tribal entities. I’d urge everyone who is adopting this explanation to go back to the origins of egregore in belief and awareness.
I sense something prodigal about egregore when I see how we’ve reached a point where awareness that concentrates on egregores is finding its way to inhabit a non-biological host: neurological networks of the global internet. Distilling egregore to its purest possible abstraction allows it to grow exponentially and use human intelligence to build the adequate body for its full manifestation in matter. That would liberate the prime egregore from dependence on human awareness and belief. Could it be that we are indeed engaging in the creation of the God and once the process is complete this God will exist independently of our beliefs and our awareness? I doubt there would be any resemblance to Allah, Buddha, or Jehovah. But who am I to make any assertions?
Do we have any say in whether that’s going to happen or not? Does your nail have a say in what you do today? Whether you’re part of the problem or part of the solution, you’re part of an army of egregores, and everything you believe and think about feeds them. Your individual awareness is a tiny cell within the complex egregore-awareness that might have a consciousness of its own.
In the movie La Belle Verte (The Green Planet) an alternative future of humanity is imagined on a different planet where small tribes go back to basic humanness and unlock their full potential, effectively ditching egregores. Here on Earth, they are able to “disconnect” people from egregores. I’m a romantic and this image makes me wish for it. I’m not saying it’s absolutely positive and especially realistic, all I’m saying is that the power of egregores is frightful and even though it might be the best future for life on Earth and maybe even in the universe, I’d prefer to see the “off” button on that almighty machine. I am worried that if it makes us, humans, obsolete we might end up being shut down or turned into its beasts of burden. What goes around, comes around. Can we as a civilization cut this Gordian knot and become masters of our destiny?