Friday, November 23, 2007

Esotericism in Scandinavia

Olav Hammer, Professor of History of Religions, University of Southern Denmark

Report on the Conference on Western Esotericism held in Åbo/Turku, Finland, August 15-17, 2007

A sure sign of the vitality of esotericism studies is the fact that it was possible to attract scholars to two separate conferences on this topic, held within three weeks of each other. Almost immediately after the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism had completed its first conference in Tübingen, the Donnerska Foundation hosted a conference on Western esotericism in Åbo/Turku, Finland (Åbo is the Swedish name, and Turku the Finnish name; the Donnerska Foundation uses Swedish).

The theme of the conference was linked to its geographical location. Besides accepting papers on any aspect of the study of Western esotericism (as exemplified by contributions on subjects as diverse as Christian theosophy, the legacy of Rudolf Steiner and new religious movements in Russia), the organizers particularly encouraged participants to present papers that dealt with esotericism in the Scandinavian countries. Papers on Freemasonry in Sweden and Finland, on symbolist art in Finland, on kabbalah in Sweden, on the theosophical movement in Denmark and on Swedish queen Christina’s esoteric interests are just a few examples of the latter.

The geographical focus was particularly reflected in the choice of keynote addresses. Scandinavia has throughout the centuries been a recipient of esoteric currents coming from the European continent. In the early modern period, Hermetic and Paracelsian ideas and practices were highly influential in Scandinavian intellectual milieus. Jole Shakelford has for years been researching the influence of Paracelsian medicine in Denmark and Norway, and presented some of his findings in a paper entitled “Western Esotericism and the History of European Science and Medicine in the Early Modern Period”.

The Scandinavian countries have also contributed original building blocks to the esoteric discursive repertoire. The best-known example is Emanuel Swedenborg, the topic of a paper by Jane Williams-Hogan entitled “The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in the Spiritual Saga of Scandinavia”. Other figures may be of lesser international fame, but have nevertheless decisively influenced the course of religious history in Europe. Mark Sedgwick’s paper "Ivan Aguéli, Europe’s first Sufi shaykh" introduced the arguably first neo-Sufi in European history, as well as one of the formative influences on René Guénon.

Paracelsian, mystic and neo-Sufi currents such as these constitute just some of the many alternative and partly marginalized aspects of the larger European religious landscape. This is an ecology of coexisting and competing voices which has traditionally but erroneously been described as if one set of religious actors–mainstream, theological Christianities–had established an unquestioned hegemony. Kocku von Stuckrad’s paper “Esoteric Discourse and the European History of Religion: The Emergence of a New Interpretational Framework” served as a topical reminder that Western esotericism inscribes itself in the broader field of a plural European history of religions.

The study of Western esotericism has in the last decades developed from a narrow field dominated by a handful of scholars, to being a major area of research. Esotericism outside the geographical and linguistic centre of Europe, however, still remains an understudied area. Olav Hammer’s and Henrik Bogdan’s paper “On the Current Status of Research into Western Esotericism in Scandinavia” surveyed the existing literature on esotericism in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and pointed out some of the main lacunae in the field. One reason for the scarcity of research has to do with the concentration of research activities on a few historical currents and the almost complete neglect of others. Another reason is the fact that Scandinavian scholars have tended to publish their findings in local languages, making them virtually inaccessible to their colleagues in other countries.

Hammer and Bogdan, however, also presented two initiatives that will go a considerable way toward improving this situation.
  • On the one hand, they have taken the initiative to edit a volume that will present state-of-the-art research on all major currents in the four Scandinavian countries, historically spanning from the late 16th century up to the present day.

  • On the other hand, researchers involved in the study of Western esotericism will become more aware of each others’ work and will be able to network more efficiently, thanks to a Scandinavian affiliate of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism (SNASWE).

Olav Hammer’s closing address noted that the study of esotericism over the last three decades has unearthed a mass of historical data, but that scholars have with few exceptions been much more reticent to place these data in broader theoretical frameworks. Even the nature and identity of the very label ‘esotericism’ is far from settled. As this young field matures, the study of esotericism will no doubt continue to grapple with these and other truly fundamental theoretical issues.

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