Thursday, May 29, 2008

Expression of Freemasonry

Call for Papers and Preliminary Conference Announcement

The Expression of Freemasonry:
Its ritual, oratory, poetry, music, literature, art and architecture

27-28 November 2008, Leiden University, The Netherlands

Proposals for papers before 11 July 2008 (details below) to:

For centuries freemasons have led a separate creative existence behind closed doors. The rituals, orations and poetry used in the lodge use words to express the society’s hopes, aspirations, philosophy and approach to religion and society. The music of the lodge includes songs and larger scale cantatas. Many lodges had an orchestra or at least and organist and a choir. Orchestral and piano pieces without words but incorporating Masonic symbolism have also been composed for lodge use. As well as musicians actors have always found a home in the lodge and some masonic plays even found their way onto the public stage as did some operas. These songs, poems, musical works and dramas range from the amusing to the serious, from the occasional to the esoteric, from bawdy to deeply religious.

Freemasonry and esoteric themes have been widely used by authors in the 19th century in Germany and elsewhere for literary works as well as in our own time in e.g. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Masonic and esoteric influences are also to be seen in the visual arts; for example paintings and theatre scenery. Freemasonry has exerted an important influence on architecture in general and in the design of lodge buildings in particular. A perhaps unexpected influence is to be seen in garden design where some gardens take the visitor on a journey past masonic or esoteric symbols.

All of these various aspects of Masonic culture need to be recorded and interpreted. And when this vast creative effort by members of a closed brotherhood is set in the wider context of the time, place and the society in which masons wrote and created it sheds light on the evolving place of freemasonry in society as a whole. This causes us to ask questions such as ‘did freemasonry influence social development directly or indirectly or was it itself led by the great upheavals of the Enlightenment, revolutions and wars that have beset the last centuries?’

The conference is organized by the Chair for the Study of Freemasonry as an Intellectual Current and a Socio-cultural Phenomenon at the Leiden University in the Netherlands. Speakers will be scholars and students from several academic disciplines. The conference has the support of The Order of Freemasons under the Grand East of The Netherlands, The Cultural Masonic Centre ‘Prince Frederik’ (CMC), The Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in The Netherlands (OVN), The Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions (LISOR), The Sub Department History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (Univ. of Amsterdam) and departments in other universities.

Call for papers and registration
A summary of potential papers is invited, not exceeding 400 words. Papers on the cultural heritage of movements similar or related to freemasonry including esoteric groups are also welcome. A short CV of 250 words or less must be added. The closing date for submissions is Friday 11 July, 2008. The Conference committee will inform speakers if their concept for a paper has been accepted by 1 August 2008.

The conference will take place in the Lipsius Building of the Leiden University in the Netherlands. The event will be accessible to all who are interested in attending, but due to a limited number of seats registration will be required. Registration fees will be announced shortly. For more information or preliminary registration, please contact the conference organizers at:

The conference will be preceded by the inaugural lecture of Professor Malcolm Davies, Chair for the Study of Freemasonry (as an Intellectual Current and a Socio-cultural European Phenomenon) at the University of Leiden on 25 November 2008. Scholars who are considering attending both events may also be interested in visiting (at their own opportunity) the important major historical collections for the study of freemasonry and western esotericism in The Netherlands: the Cultural Masonic Centre ‘Prince Frederik’ (The library of the Dutch Grand Lodge) in The Hague and/or the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. Seating at the inaugural lecture is limited. If you would be interested in attending the lecture please contact:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Conference Rapport: Western Esotericism at the 2008 CESNUR Conference

Kennet Granholm, University of Amsterdam

On April 16-19, 2008, a conference entitled “Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and the New Spirituality” was held at the London School of Economics.

The conference was arranged by CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) in cooperation with INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) and ISORECEA (International Study of Religion in Eastern and Central Europe Association), and signalled the twentieth anniversary of both CESNUR and INFORM. The conference was large, involving over 150 speakers (with some delivering more than one paper) and an even larger audience. The Centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, was well represented, as werethe Nordic countries. This increased interest in Esotericism in the Nordic countries is also reflected in the 2007 founding of the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism.

The prominence of esoteric subjects in the programme was a drastic change from the CESNUR/INFORM conference arranged in London in 2001.
  • Of the 46 sessions at the conference (including three plenary sessions, a film screening and a discussion with a survivor of the 1993 Branch Davidian-tragedy) twelve dealt with matters related to Western Esotericism. This included sessions on neopaganism, “New Age”, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism in general.
  • The focus of the vast majority of the papers presented was on contemporary expressions of esoteric spirituality, interesting since the study of Western Esotericism has largely focused on historical manifestations of the phenomenon.
  • Many papers introduced social scientific theory and methodology to the existing historical perspectives.
  • The concept of Western Esotericism, as well as related theory and methodology, elicited substantial discussion.

The sessions with Esoteric subject matters were:

  • From Witchcraft to Wicca
  • 20 Years of Pagan Movements and Studies – 1
  • Western Esotericism and New Religiosity – 1
  • 20 Years of Pagan Movements and Studies – 2
  • Western Esotericism and New Religiosity – 2
  • 20 Years of Studies on Pagan and Entheogenic Movements
  • 20 Years of Studies on Western Esotericism
  • From Ancient Wisdom and Freemasonry to New Age
  • 20 Years of Studies on Aleister Crowley
  • 20 Years of Theosophical Studies
  • 20 Years of Studies on the New Age and Spiritual Communities
  • If Not New Age, Then What?

Although esoteric subject matter was the theme in over a fourth of the sessions, this was perhaps not fully acknowledged by the conference organizers. During the last plenary session, which had as its aim to conclude draw together central themes discussed, Esotericism was barely mentioned. None of the speakers chosen for the plenary panel were researchers with a specific interest in Western Esotericism. Although Western Esotericism has become an acknowledged discipline in its own right, and is increasingly popular amongst young scholars, it seems that there is still a long way to go before the discipline attains the official scholarly status of issues such as religion and law or religion and conflict.

Those interested in knowing more can visit the homepage of CESNUR, where a large number of the papers presented are published in the cyberproceedings of the conference.

New Religiosity; If Not New Age, Then What?

Kennet Granholm, University of Amsterdam

A report on three sessions at CESNUR 2008....

Two sessions on “Western Esotericism and New Religiosity” at CESNUR 2008 included papers dealing with everything from contemporary Satanism to terrorism with New Age undertones in Chechnya.

  • A reccurring theme was the critical assessment of different theories and perspectives on Western Esotericism, something included to some extent in almost all of the papers.
  • Of particular interest were
    • Openings for Power-Oriented Conceptualizations of Western Esotericism” by Nina Kokkinen (doctoral student, University of Turku, Finland). This drew on critical studies of religion where the understanding of religion as a demarcated social institution is strongly criticized, and endeavoured to employ similar mechanisms in conceptualizations of Western Esotericism. In short, Kokkinen suggested that Esotericism should not be construed as a strictly separated domain, but rather a human undertaking which has close connections to material, political and social dimensions of human life.
    • “New Age Terrorists from Chechnya and Anthroposophist Presidents from Georgia: How ‘Western’ is Western Esotericism?” by Eduard ten Houten’s (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands). This discussed the important issue of what “Western” means in conceptualizations of Western Esotericism. This is a question which too frequently remains overlooked, with the focus most often being on the second word of the concept, Esotericism.
    • Other interesting papers were
      • Gordan Djurdjevic (University of British Columbia, Canada), "The mage Aleister Crowley and his Thelema as a postmodern religion."
      • Fredrik Gregorius (University of Lund, Sweden), "The reawakened interest in 'tradition' as a legitimating tool in esoteric new religious movements."
      • Thomas Karlsson (University of Stockholm, Sweden), "The political implications of the worldview of the Rune-Gild."
      • Jesper Aagaard Petersen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), "Contemporary Satanism and the interplay between the secular and the esoteric."

In a session on “If Not New Age, Then What?” George D. Chryssides (University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom), Steven Sutcliffe (Edinburgh Divinity School, United Kingdom), Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University, Sweden) and I discussed the “to be or not to be” of the New Age concept.

  • Whereas Chryssides defended the continuing use of the term, the rest of the speakers were more critical.
  • In my own opinion, New Age is in essence a “non-category” which brings with it far more problems than it has any chance of ever resolving. One of the central problems with New Age is that scholars have been generally unsuccessful in defining it in any satisfactory manner. This, in turn, has often resulted in the creation of cumbersome and all too inclusive lists of “Wittgensteinian family resemblances,” through which basically anything could be defined as being New Age. My suggestion for solving the problem is to forgo the term and concept altogether and instead shift the focus to the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse and themes. This shift of perspective to processes of religious change would provide many benefits, not least of which would be the discarding of the necessity to posit the coming into being of a “new” form of spirituality in the West.
  • One of the points in Steven Sutcliffe’s presentation was the critique of extensive, essentially normative, categories. For example, he discussed the problematic categories of "World Religions," and illustrated how they are the result of power relations where certain forms of religiosity are valued more highly than others. In addition, large categories such as these tend to have the effect of downplaying differences between phenomena while at the same time overstressing similarities (and at times even inventing non-existent similarities). Instead of being consumed by the allure of constructing categories we should focus on specific religious phenomena.
With the massive amount of papers on esoteric subject presented at the conference, it is impossible to provide even brief accounts of everything that was discussed. The above therefore focusses on three sessions that I convened.

      Thursday, May 8, 2008

      Esoteric Migrations into the American Comparative Literature Association

      Kathryn LaFevers Evans, Independent Scholar, Chickasaw Nation

      Esotericism has migrated—by invitation—from its erstwhile subterranean literary haunts into mainstream Comparative Literature, manifesting front-stage-and-center in two seminars at the ACLA 2008 Annual Meeting “Arrivals and Departures,” Long Beach, California.

      This well-established international conference took place last year in Puebla, Mexico, where an intriguing professor from UNAM in Mexico City, Harold Gabriel Weisz Carrington, organized a Seminar entitled, “Magia y Literatura.”

      The 2007 bilingual Seminar was devoured by attendees with an intellectual thirst for esoteric scholarship. Great interest was expressed amongst our Hispanic colleagues for continued dialogue, but from my own experience at least, channels of communication are inoperative. Undaunted, Carrington reports that, likewise this year, his “Magic Lands” seminar was well-received.

      My own presentation on the role of the esoteric intellectual took place within the “Prophetic Migrations” seminar, organized by Walid A. El-Khachab of York University and co-chaired by Frank Runcie of Université de Montréal. The dynamic of this seminar, also bilingual, was propelled by the participants having read each other’s papers beforehand. Constructive comments after each presentation were focused, and helpful in formulating future presentations on esotericism. Again from an experiential perspective, the Seminar organizers and participants embodied a level of erudite presence that facilitated the exchange of scholarship on esoteric topics from Islam’s Prophet the figure, to a practicing Sufi’s architectural exploration entitled “Bridges and Channels: The Travels of Prophets,” to the suggestion, by a Religious Studies émigré into Comp Lit, of a “‘traveling theory’ continuum” as framework for understanding ideas associated with prophetic migrations, migrants, message and messenger. Of particular resonance with my paper, Mathieu E. Courville spoke of “increasing the existential charge” of knowledge through “initiato or transmission” and of “taking ideas that pre-exist us and using them to further free us,” to “take the resources and begin again from the ground level,” rather than settle for Religion’s normative model. Another presenter envisioned the Middle Eastern cosmology as the world of symbols and images—intermediary between East and West.