If You Come Into A Village And Everyone Is Dead, Don’t Drink From The Well

Egregore

[eg-greg-or]

Noun

  1. A thoughtform associated with a magical group or faith community which consists of values, stories, rhetoric, and theology as well as beliefs and expectations.
  2. The metaphysical structure responsible for empowering a group’s rituals and techniques, making them “just work” even without initial belief in the system.
  3. The reason why faiths with vastly different and irreconcilable beliefs about the metaphysical universe each have mystics who experience Substantiated Communal Gnosis which confirms their faith.

If you have a dozen or more people in a community, your community probably has an egregore. They can be created intentionally or unintentionally. Some of them have been evolving over thousands of years, and others are more fly-by-night operations. Sometimes people participate in them knowingly, and other times, they are unaware of participating in an egregore.

Awareness of them is crucial to taking command of your spiritual life, and understanding your spiritual health.

When an egregore is healthy, it is a wonderful thing. It can answer questions about practice, protect you from the negative effects of working solo, and it can provide a source of power for workings.

Not every egregore is right for every person, and some of them are just plain screwed up. A poor choice of egregore can be an immense spiritual setback. Time and time again, I tell people, “if you come into the village and everyone is dead, don’t drink from the well.”

The egregore is the well, and by looking at the people who drink from it, you can decide if you’d like to follow suit.

In this article, I am going to go over some questions to ask when evaluating whether you want to participate in an egregore, and how to stop participating in an egregore without unfriending people on Facebook, or quitting your only local pagan group.

What Does The Journey’s End Look Like?

Close your eyes and imagine where you want to be in twenty years. When considering this question in light of spirituality, a lot of people either say, “being close to the gods” or “being a leader/priest/priestess.” I’m going to challenge you to think of your life not as a collection of parts, but as a whole. How does your spirituality fit into your life? What does the rest of your life look like? Does it include a stable job? A healthy body? Happiness?

Sometimes, life just deals us a bad hand. Mostly, however, our lives are made up of a confluence of choices, fitting together in ways we barely understand, most of which are made unconsciously. If we are deeply and mystically or magically engaging with our practice, our unconscious minds are tied to the egregore we are most involved with.

Look for patterns. Mystics and magicians within a well-developed tradition have problems — or advantages and blessings! — that follow a profile. Some mystical traditions have practitioners who tend to be disproportionately blessed with wealth, good health, or the ability to go without sleep. Others understand misfortune as the cost of practice.

You have a choice. If an egregore is going to make your life worse, you can choose to go elsewhere, to a tradition or group with an egregore that is more beneficial.

When traditions are correlated with certain physical, mental or emotional issues, it can be tempting to blame the egregore, but don’t jump the gun. People with certain difficulties in their lives may be drawn to the tradition because it offers those with their particular challenges hope and solace. Are there a greater percentage of people with those issues at the top? Do they speak of those issues as an inevitability of practice? Or, instead, do people walk in the door with those issues, and use the tradition to help them cope?

Ask. The answers will be instructive.

Count the number of stories wherein a sudden decline in mental, physical, social, or job-related well-being directly and immediately followed from group ritual, initiation, or completion of some kind of training. If this is a common story in the group or community, expect that it will happen to you, if you participate in that egregore.

Does It Facilitate The Sort of Relationships That You Want To Have?

Reciprocity is at the heart of ancient Polytheism. We give to the deities, and the deities give to us. Deities who didn’t give back were generally not paid a great deal of attention. Negative consequences for practice were considered indicative of wrong practice.

Many modern Polytheists, however, don’t see it that way. It is fairly common to see communities and groups where reciprocity is not front and center. The point may simply be recognizing the power of impersonal forces which feel no need to help the humans venerating them, or the point may be selfless service to a deity.

If the community or group straight up does not believe that there is any benefit to worship, spiritual or otherwise, expect to get nothing. If the group believes that deities might smite you just because they don’t like your hat, expect that participating in their egregore will cause you to experience deities in that way. If the group actively disbelieves in ordeal work, expect none.

Make sure that the style of relationship described by people attached to an egregore matches your goals before you unwittingly sign onto it.

 

Does The Power Dynamic Suit Your Values?

In order to illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m going to start by talking about power dynamics as they appear in some branches of Christianity.

 

1. Ignore God, and God will burn you

2. Be ignorant of God, and God will burn you

3. Sin, and God will burn you

4. Everyone sins, no matter how hard they try

Therefore

5. You need education, churching, ritual services and people of faith to avoid damnation.

and

6. You need clergy to be the intercessor, or to tell you how to live, or who to be, so that the angry and violent deity won’t do horrible things to you.

This is a fairly extreme example, but it serves to illustrate what I’m getting at.

This way of thinking, and related ways of thinking which crop up in various streams of Paganism, put power into the hands of clergy and take it away from anyone who is not clergy. The clergy gain power at the expense of the deity by implicitly stating that the deity is powerful, but generally speaking unable to manage themselves or their own emotions. Deities, when viewed through this sort of filter, are not wise and ancient allies with whom we enjoy reciprocity, but blind forces of nature that need to be carefully managed by experienced humans.

Wise deities, ones who can control themselves, their emotions and their own power, have an inherently democratizing effect. Anyone can safely approach them. Clergy, instead of needing to be intercessors, instead might focus on community-building and conducting weddings. On the one hand, clergy are less powerful. On the other hand, they have the time and energy to help build healthy community.

Then, we’ve got questions of which sort of practitioners in a tradition have the power.

Believe it or not, communicating with deities, in some traditions, is not a matter of “haves” and “have nots.” Rather, there are projective practitioners, sometimes referred to as “operators” and receptive ones, which we call mediums. Operators are skilled at invoking rather than channeling, are known for their iron will as well as keen focus, and are utterly terrifying in a magical fire-fight. A few talented operators I know have names for their wands that sound like “The Boom Stick” and “Bitch Be Cool.”

If you are an operator — you know, one of those practitioners who tends toward the projective side of things– be aware that an egregore which doesn’t acknowledge your existence may prevent you from fully developing your talents.

Bigotry and Violence.

It has been argued, to me, that all bigotry has patriarchal violence somewhere at its roots. Pardon the quote from bell hooks. I don’t agree with all of her writing or opinions, but it would be wrong to not credit her with this concept, which I feel is an important one.

“Patriarchal violence in the home is based on the belief that it is acceptable for a more powerful individual to control others through various forms of coercive force.  This expanded definition of domestic violence includes male violence against women, same-sex violence, and adult violence against children.” — bell hooks,  ‘Ending Violence’ in  Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, pp 61-62.

I feel like it needs a different name, because, really, this sort of violence has less to do with patriarchy and more to do with privilege (which men, of course, have). A mother beating her son into compliance or one group of teenaged girls beating someone up to attain dominance plays into this principle every bit as much as when a male happens to be responsible for the violence.

Fundamentally, whenever we have an issue with a marginalized or disempowered group being brutalized, discriminated against, mistreated, scoffed at, bullied or assaulted, the essential belief animating this behavior is that there always has to be someone “less than” on the receiving end of violence, and someone “greater than” dishing it out.

Furthermore, there is a sense that the balance of the universe has been served when the “less than” gets put back into their place. It is easy to see how this relates to rape culture.

When this is how relationships are framed, the unspoken question is always going to be who is the “less than” or “greater than.” It is this thinking which causes anti-feminists to believe that women getting rights means that women suddenly must become the “greater than.” There is no room in this mindset for peace, nor is there any room, truly, for equality.

If a community believes in deities who treat mortals in this way, this kind of thinking is at the roots of their theology, animates their egregore, and shapes the way that deities will be experienced.

Deities are always the uncontested “greater than.” If they are using their strength for hurting, for coercing, for sewing fear and for asserting dominance,  that’s not because of those deities. Deities do not behave in the same way toward all groups that call on them. Patriarchal violence is not a metaphysical truism. 

This way of thinking is the source of all human-perpetrated misery within a society. It even underlies the snark and bullying that we see within our own communities. It is terribly difficult to escape because our culture is saturated with it.

A good place to start is cutting it out of our spiritual practice. We may not be able to completely eliminate this sort of thinking in ourselves, but we can at least choose traditions and groups that don’t view the deities in this way. And if none exist, maybe start them.

How To Quit An Egregore Without Quitting A Community

Just because people have an egregore that would be bad for you does not make them bad people. The caveat here is that we really do need to boycott bigotry.

If elders are espousing bigotry of any kind, there need to be consequences for that. Barring that, try to support other Pagans and Polytheists, even if their mystical path isn’t going to be your “home base.” Support them with numbers, by pitching in on needful mundane tasks, and even monetarily.

Here are some tips for avoiding participation in an egregore while participating in and supporting community:

Understand that even communal gnosis does not constitute immutable fact. Just like people have filter, communities and groups have filter. Just because you have experienced a deity in a certain way doesn’t mean that you will always have to experience them in that way. Just because everyone in your community experiences them a certain way doesn’t mean that this perception is a fact. Buying into a group’s beliefs is the same as buying into their egregore. However hard it may be, take a step back. Reject the notion that it’s immutable. Understand that there are multiple ways to experience any pantheon, and that you don’t have to do so in a way that doesn’t work for you.

Do not use their magical tech. An egregore empowers  group’s ritual techniques. It makes them “just work” for you, even if you don’t agree with the group’s ideology. Participating in the egregore, however, will color the way you experience the metaphysical, and eventually, thereby, will shape your beliefs. If you pull the tech completely apart, figure out what makes it tick and then translate it to your own idiom, you will not experience this issue.

Do not get into theological debates with them. By arguing theology with a group of people, you inherently admit that you are sharing a reality, and that the reality is either your way or theirs. If you simply say, “That’s the way it works for you, but that is not the way it works for me,” you are distancing yourself from their reality, establishing that yours is different than theirs.

Divest yourself of degree-envy. Do you look up to people within a highly dysfunctional group or community who have taken degrees, attunements or advancements? Don’t. By so doing, you are inherently participating in their power structures, whether you know it or not. Simply say to yourself, “this is really meaningful to them.” Saying “to them” excludes yourself.

Attend exoteric devotionals, but skip the mystical ones. Exoteric worship is never going to hurt you, and it helps you to build community with people. Anything with juice is risky. Ask questions about woo, and avoid anything involving possessory trance or any other mystical and magical techniques.

14 comments

  1. Aine

    As is typical, this is a great post. As I’ve been working on the Otherfaith book, I’ve found myself repeating (a bit too much, but that’s what revision is for) that the Four Gods are x, y, and z *in the context of the Otherfaith*. And that for someone to be part of the group that need to have similar experiences or at least be able to somewhat-accept x, y, and z. But at the same time, someone could interact with the Four Gods and come away with an entirely different picture, in which case the community might not fit them depending on those differences. Being able to even partially acknowledge our own biases and filter is very important, especially since I don’t think we’ll ever get away from our own filter…

    Anyway, great post again, love your writing.

    • Thenea

      Thanks!

      Yes, that makes total sense. I was trying to articulate something similar with respect to my own tradition — the idea that people have a “home base” tradition, and that they can experience deities from outside their home base, but that those experiences will be colored by their home base trad.

    • Thenea

      I feel like I need to create a little chart here. There are elders and ordinary people. There are what’d I’d call casual bigots (who may not even be aware of their bigotry, really) and people who are ideologically bigoted (who back bigoted legislation or start bigoted petitions to further marginalize marginalized groups of people, for example).

      Elders who are ideologically bigoted, in my opinion, should be blacklisted. Concerned parties should boycott their books and events.

      Someone who is well-meaning, ignorant, and not an elder, should be educated. To the tune of “hey, we don’t do that here,” or calling them in, rather than calling them out. The idea being, they’re malleable, and we could always do with more allies, rather than fewer.

      If an entire group is full of casual bigotry, there isn’t going to be a lot of support for education, and an individual has to decide whether to go on a crusade to educate, or to quit. That’s a personal choice.

      If a group is full of ideological bigotry, run. Do not walk, run.

      If you’ve got an elder who is constantly and unintentionally making bigoted comments, they can be hard to call out, but people need to let them know that it’s not okay. If it were me, I might go to the person and say, “Hey, I was thinking of of having a symposium on gender diversity, would you like to come?” A situation like that, which is about a topic and not a person, and yet allows the people present discuss their values about the issue might be a good tactic. Unless they are really dumb, or the sort whose ears are only activated when their gums are flapping, they’ll probably catch on pretty quickly.

      Just some initial thoughts, but this sort of thing needs to be a community conversation.

  2. Pingback: If You Come Into A Village And Everyone Is Dead, Don’t Drink From The Well | Magick From Scratch | Loki's Bruid
  3. caelesti

    I’m not sure if I believe egregores are a thing, I’d probably frame it terms of “group culture”, and being a social science nerd I’d look more at pre-existing conditions of the culture rather than the spirit of the group mind/culture wants X thing.
    Participating in Thelema, for example can be expensive, in terms of needed supplies, membership dues etc. (I’m not a Thelemite, just going on what I’ve read) so I don’t think practicing necessarily makes you wealthy, but because of that more economically secure people are going to be attracted to it. For another example, “mainstream” Heathenry is a lot less accepting of people on the margins than general Paganism, (to be Jungian about it- Pagans often embrace the Trickster/Outsider archetype, while many Heathens reject it) so many of the Norse-oriented folks on the margins become Loki-worshippers, Northern Tradition Pagans, etc. But then I’m more of a mundane, exoteric polytheist so I may just not be following you.

    • Thenea

      A non-mystical way of looking at it is this: the unconscious mind processes symbols, and constructs inner reality (as well as identity) on self-talk, which is deeply influenced by family-talk, community-talk and society-talk.

      In the same way that absorbing media changes our self-conception, informing the categories of experience which we see as possible and extant, theological arguments, listening to and validating one another’s mystical experiences, and using the same language and symbols tends to influence the way people have mystical experiences, if they do have them.

    • Thenea

      In other words, even if you posit that mystical experiences are just an awake version of the dreaming we do while asleep, and is 100% psychology, our sub-culture, community talk, and the messages with which we are bombarded by our co-religionists will cause us to tend to have similar experiences to them.

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