Monday, December 17, 2007

Recent volumes in the Aries Book Series

Wouter Hanegraff, Amsterdam

The Aries Book Series: Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism was launched by Brill last year as a companion series to the journal Aries. The editor-in-chief is Wouter J. Hanegraaff, and the Editorial Board presently consists of Jean-Pierre Brach and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.

Volumes in this series can be bought by members of ESSWE at a 25% discount.

Five volumes have been published so far:
  1. Urszula Szulakowska, The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom: Alchemy and Apocalyptic Discourse in the Protestant Reformation (2006).
    This study positions Paracelsian alchemy, medicine and medical physiology within the apocalyptic discourse of the Protestant Reformation, with special attention to the role of alchemical engravings notably in the work of Heinrich Khunrath, Stefan Michelspacher, Jacob Boehme, Abraham von Franckenberg and Robert Fludd.

  2. Katherine Barnes, The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poems: Esotericism, Romanticism, Symbolism (2006).
    This is the first major study of the important Australian poet Christopher Brennan, whose Poems were published in 1914. This study shows how Brennan melded Western esoteric currents such as alchemy and rosicrucianism with Romantic literature and French Symbolist theory.

  3. F.M. van Helmont, The Alphabet of Nature (annotated translation with annotations, Allison P. Coudert & Taylor Corse) (2007).
    This volume contains the Latin text of Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667), with a annotated facing-page English translation. Van Helmont’s Alphabet of Nature is an important text for the debate on natural versus artificial or conventional language in the early modern period.

  4. Renko D. Geffarth, Religion und arkane Hierarchie: Der Orden der Gold- und Rosenkreuzer als Geheime Kirche im 18. Jahrhundert (2007).
    This is the most comprehensive study so far of the 18th-century Order of the Gold and Rosy Cross. On the basis of extensive archival research, it traces the history of the Order, its hierarchical and initiatory system, and its relation to the churches in the era of the Enlightenment.

  5. Paracelsus, Essential Theoretical Writings (edited & translated, with introduction and commentary, by Andrew Weeks) (forthcoming).
    This is the first English translation of some of the major writings of Paracelsus, alongside a critical edition of the German originals according to the authoritative 1589 Huser edition. Almost one thousand pages long, it makes this central figure in the history of Western esotericism available to the anglophone world.

  6. Olav Hammer & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds.), Polemical Encounters: Esoteric Discourse and Its Others (2007).
    This volumes engages the polemical structures that underlie both the identities within and the controversies about esoteric currents in Western history. Contributions by Konstantin Burmistrov, Dylan Burns, Renko Geffarth, Olav Hammer, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Titus Hjelm, Boaz Huss, Brannon Ingram, Hanns-Peter Neumann, Peter Hanns Reill, Kocku von Stuckrad, and Steven M. Wasserstrom.

Among planned forthcoming volumes are Brendan French’s definitive study of the Theosophical Masters, and an updated edition of J.E. Fletcher’s classic but so far unpublished dissertation on Athanasius Kircher.

Appointments in research into Freemasonry

Andreas Önnerfors, Ph. D., has been appointed the new director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield.

Önnerfors received his Ph.D. at Lund University, Sweden in 2003. The centre was established in 2000 as the first centre in a British university devoted to the study of Freemasonry. Önnerfors is succeeding Professor Andrew Prescott as the director of the centre.

Malcolm Davies, Ph.D., has been appointed as Professor of "Freemasonry as an intellectual current and a socio-cultural European phenomenon", Faculty of Theology (Godsdienstwetenschappen), University of Leiden, The Netherlands. Davies is succeeding Prof. Dr. Anton van de Sande in this post.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

SNASWE blog opens

SNASWE, the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, a regional subgroup of ESSWE, has launched a blog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More from the EPHE...

The following are preparing theses for the diplome of the EPHE :

  • B. Barret, « L. Lenain et sa ‘Science Cabalistique’ (1823). Sa vie et son œuvre magique d’après des inédits ».
  • D. Clairembault, « La correspondance de Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin et Nicolas-Antoine Kirchberger (éd. crit. d’après les ms.) - Esotérisme et théosophie sous la Révolution ».
  • J. Iozia, « C. Jinarajadasa : sa vie, son oeuvre au sein de la Société Théosophique (1902-1953).
  • M. Kreçmar, « Edition et commentaire de la ‘Lettre hiéroglyphique’ de F. Barent Coenders van Helpen (1683 ; ms. Lyon) ».

Monday, December 10, 2007

New theses at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes

Three new theses were started at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Paris, Sorbonne) in 2006-07:
  • B. Bérard, "Un philosophe et théologien occultisant au XIX° siècle : l’abbé P.-F.-G. Lacuria (1806-90)."

  • F. Buzzeta, "Aspects de la Magia naturalis et de la Cabala practica dans les premières œuvres de J. Pic de la Mirandole (avec éd. & trad. de sources hébraïques)" (co-directed with Professor G. Palumbo, University of Palermo).

  • S. Salzani, "Histoire, thématiques et enjeux critiques d’une lecture « ésotérique » de Dante: l’oeuvre de Luigi Valli (1878 -1931) et ses continuateurs " (co-directed with Professor A. Cavarero, University of Verona).

Five theses started between 2003 and 2005 are still in progress:

  • F. Baroni, "Tommaso Palamidessi (1915-1983) et son école initiatique ‘archeosophica’ : recherches sur l’ésotérisme chrétien dans l’Italie contemporaine (thématiques, sociabilité)."

  • J.-C. Boucly, "Magnétisme, mystique et ésotérisme chrétiens chez quelques disciples de N.-A. Philippe (1849-1905)."

  • D. Jardin, "La construction d'une "tradition" maçonnique au XVIII° siècle : emprunts «opératifs», religieux et ésotériques dans les rituels et l'iconographie des Tableaux de Loge des systèmes français à ‘hauts-grades’" (co-directed with Professor P.-Y. Beaurepaire, University of Nice).

  • B. Barthet, "Les jésuites et les principaux courants ésotériques en France (1680-1750) : problématiques et enjeux."

  • E. Kreis, "Occultisme, antijudaïsme et antimaçonnisme en France, 1864 – 1939 : les enjeux d'un amalgame idéologique."

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Why Esotericism? The Importance of a Newly Emerging Field

The Western Esotericism Group of the American Academy of Religion is seeking proposals addressing the topic “Why Esotericism? The Importance of a Newly Emerging Field” for the AAR International Meeting, Auckland, New Zealand, July 6-10, 2008.

The study of Western Esotericism has developed rapidly over the past decade. It now has significant institutional support and two journals dedicated to research, Esoterica and Aries. The field, however, has yet to enter into the academic mainstream. It is the purpose of this panel to contribute to a broader appreciation of the scope and importance of Western Esotericism as a force in western history and religion.

We invite papers dealing with the ways in which the study of Esotericism has challenged mainstream historiography both in terms of methodology and by providing a more nuanced picture of major developments in western history as well as an understanding of the complex strands of esoteric thought in the work of key historical figures. Proposals should be sent by e-mail to Prof. Allison Coudert,

American Academy of Religion 2007

Cathy Gutierrez, Professor of Religion, Sweet Briar College, Virginia

The Western Esotericism Group of the American Academy of Religion had its most successful year at the 2007 meeting in San Diego, California.

In two sessions, one focused on esotericism as an act of transgression and the other jointly sponsored with the New Religious Movements Group, well over 100 people were in attendance at panels over the weekend.

The first session, chaired by Allison Coudert, presented papers ranging from the early fourteenth-century writings of Marguerite Porete, condemned as heretical by the Catholic church and ultimately leading to her execution, to contemporary fieldwork in Oregon on an Ordo Templi Orientis lodge. The five papers presented were all well-received and developed themes related to the interplay of transgression and hegemony in the creation and growth of esoteric currents.

While each incorporated the theme of transgression differently, the creation of a different definition of correct practice while maintaining the necessity of some boundary was a common motif throughout the panel. White versus black magic, esoteric versus exoteric, and antinomian versus orthodox, were among the topics examined that reflected on the creation of alternative practices and beliefs. One scholar discussed the process by which an experimental or marginalized religious expression becomes mainstream in relation to the Swedenborgian church in nineteenth-century America. Another argued that the cultural shift from seeing mysticism pejoratively to viewing it as a normal if not normative form of religiosity should be replicated in esoteric studies. The benefits and desirability of bringing the marginalized to the center were explored, and some concluded that at least for the purposes of academic study, such a move would both expand the academy’s field of vision and serve as a theoretical reflection on the function of boundaries in both lived experience and in scholarship. A lively discussion followed that touched on linguistic differences in relation to the history of terms like “mysticism” and whether esotericism easily lent itself to binary formations like insider and outsider distinctions.

The session jointly sponsored with the New Religious Movements Group was also extremely successful, with over seventy attendees for the panel chaired by Sarah Pike. Focusing on “exchange and innovation” in new religions, the four papers presented ranged from the melding of Asian enlightenment traditions with American psychological discourse to the esoteric underpinnings of Fourierist socialism. Another discussed the creation of Halcyon, an intentional community in California in the early twentieth century that was based on Blavatsky’s theosophical teachings in conjunction with speculation on the religious possibilities of electricity. Lastly, a paper was given on the suitability of the terms “outsider” or “visionary” art in relation to the work of Edith Tenbrink: the author argued that “initiatory” art was a more apt category and delineated what may usefully be considered initiatory in esoteric art forms.

The overwhelming success of all of the papers was the highlight of the AAR this year. The Western Esotericism Group had its first business meeting where the topic for next year and the length of terms for membership on the steering committee were discussed. The particular interest sparked by the discussion of esoteric art led the steering committee to dedicate its Western Esotericism session to the visual imagination and the call for papers for the 2008 meeting in Chicago has been submitted with this focus. Thanks to the quick diligence of Allison Coudert, several other groups have already expressed interest in jointly sponsoring an additional session at that meeting and at this writing the decision about which additional sessions will be offered has not yet been made. However, the success of this year’s panels and the multiple groups that have expressed an interest in working with the Western Esotericism Group suggest that it will continue to thrive at the AAR for the immediate future.

The Demarcation of Western Esotericism in Theory and Practice

Sara M. Thejls, Amsterdam

When Western esotericism was established as an independent field of research it was necessarily much more clearly demarcated than is the case today. As a new field, it had to be positioned clearly in relation to other academic categories, so as to place the academic study of esotericism on solid foundations.

Since then the situation has gradually changed. More and more scholars have found a fruitful framework for their own studies in the concept of Western esotericism. One consequence of this is that the specific historical category that Western esotericism once was has been opened up. As Michael Stausberg noted in his response to Wouter Hanegraaff’s posting on the Tübingen conference, the borders of the field of Western esotericism are increasingly blurred. The definition of the field has been contested both explicitly and implicitly--explicitly in the theoretical discussions flourishing within academia, and implicitly by the research carried out under the umbrella of Western esotericism.

It is evident when looking at the wide range of topics and approaches presented at the Tübingen conference that the classic definition of Western esotericism as suggested by Antoine Faivre is challenged by the actual research presently carried out in the field. Borders were crossed in time, in space, in approaches and concepts and thus in the subjects studied and presented at the conference under the term Western esotericism. These included such diverse themes as Sufism, ancient platonisms, ancient Jewish magic, Chechen traditionalism, kabbalah in various guises, neo-paganism and contemporary magical orders. Of course, more traditional topics of Western esotericism were also covered, including theosophy, Christian kabbalah, rosicrucianism and alchemy.

That the “fringe” topics were central is by no means a surprise considering the age of Western esotericism as a more or less accepted academic field of study. Now that the field has been quite solidly consolidated in academia, we, as the students and scholars of Western esotericism, have an opportunity to turn our focus inwards and look at the state of the field itself. As is also happening all the time with the broader concept of religion, the limits of the concept of Western esotericism are being explored and challenged. And it is not only the term “esotericism” which is being evaluated, stretched, deconstructed and reassembled. Just as important is the question of what the ambiguous concept of “Western” denotes. Is it a cultural category, a geographical? And what does it imply?

To me at least, it is obvious that we cannot uphold the earlier christocentric demarcation of Western esotericism. Definitional problems are an essential part of the evolution of an academic field, without which a field would stagnate. Paradigms are there to be challenged in order to fruitfully develop and continually revisit the academic pursuit.

Viewed this way, the broadness of topics at Tübingen is indeed promising. It reflects the enthusiasm and curiosity which is necessary for a field to flourish. It is important, however, that we do not only challenge and explore the boundaries of our field in empirical research. We have to explicitly reconsider the premises for maintaining Western esotericism as a field in its own right. Whether one perceives Western esotericism as a historical or a typological category, the theoretical foundations should be considered and explicitly elaborated.

Retrospectively, it is difficult to see any obvious unifying factor for all the different papers presented at the conference. Then again, I am in no doubt that it all belongs to the field of Western esotericism. I wonder whether we are able to actually find a unifying definition, or whether the case is similar to that of the problem of defining religion--that either the definition is so broad that too much is included, or so narrow that borderline topics get excluded.

Nonetheless, the discussion itself is far more important than the eventual conclusions. Maybe it is possible to find some common denominator by considering the central topic of the conference: tradition and transmission. Can we trace a certain way of constructing tradition and transmitting knowledge which is different from religious movements in general? Revelation is too general a way of claiming religious authority to be of special significance for esotericism; initiation too. However, it seems there is a certain discourse involved in the transmission of knowledge--a dialectic of secrecy and revelation, and a claim to supremacy with regard to the knowledge transmitted. Though not necessarily elitist in the exact sense of the word, there is an air of elitism surrounding esoteric knowledge, making the possessor of knowledge feel privileged to have obtained that knowledge.

The special mode of transmission and the proclaimed secrecy and supremacy of esoteric knowledge is by no means enough for a proper definition of Western esotericism. For instance, it does not even address the problem of defining "Western." However, it might prove useful in the process. Furthermore, it is important that the concept of esotericism becomes more precise in the general study of religion, as in many instances it is used as a mere synonym for secrecy.

It is my hope that there will be many more discussions of this important issue and that our work contributes to the clarification of esotericism in general, and of Western esotericism in particular.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Intellectual Stendhalism in Tübingen

A personal account of the Tübingen conference from Joyce Pijnenburg, Amsterdam

Together with a few fellow students of the MA in Mysticism and Western Esotericism, I arrived in Tübingen from Amsterdam by train. I had never been in the city before, and because I had been working so feverishly on my paper, I had not taken any time at all to dive into its rich history. I knew hardly more about it than its having been a centre of origin for Rosicrucianism, as well as of the scholarly tradition of the ‘Tübinger Schule’ – (in-)famous in the world of classical philosophy for its Plato-interpretation. These facts, added to the fame and age of the city’s university, would have been ample reason to hold the very first conference of the ESSWE in Tübingen. The first glances allowed to us of the city, during our walk from the station to the hotel, told me that it might be an even more fitting site for this event than I could have imagined. The park was quiet, the houses on our way up the hill were charming, and the streets full of students like ourselves. A sensation of scholarship dominated the atmosphere.

The conference started off with a lecture by the renowned Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Notwithstanding the evident relevance of his work for our field, I had not expected Assmann to expound on esotericism as such. But he did, in a clear and balanced elaboration on the Egyptian and also the Greek features of early esotericisms. Assmann was one of the few people to present on ancient esoteric discourses. This lecture was an appropriate start, not only because of the historical antecedence of its subject matter.

This was only the beginning of three inspiring days. Perhaps it was because this was the first get-together of so many scholars of esotericism in Europe for decades that, outside the keynote lectures, I myself, as well as almost everyone I met, seemed to have difficulties in choosing which presentations to attend. Yet we had to decide, and so, after having marked in my program the lectures I definitely did not want to miss, I sneaked in and out of halls, sometimes at the risk of disturbing a presentation. Luckily, this turned out to be possible, despite the squeaking floor of the middle room and notwithstanding the extremely tight conference schedule – or perhaps, rather, thanks to it.

Three days filled with lectures of generally high quality could not but lead to a form of intellectual Stendhalism: we learned very many, very interesting facts, in very little time. Let me freshen our memory in a brief overview of a number of presentations.

We were informed about the “double bind of secrecy” in the construction of esoteric traditions; about the role the concept of mnemohistory might be able to play outside the history of Egypt; about young Pico’s recognition of (non-traditional beauty) in discordia concors; about yet another inversion, the female side of Kabbalah as active principle; about the role of light and love in Ficino’s cosmology, as well as the role of Orphism in his discussions of love; about the reception history of the Giants of Genesis; about Kabbalah as contemplation in Reuchlin; about the westernness or non-westernness of western Sufism; about dolphins and sexual practice of Kabbalah; about the way in which Blavatsky connected the future to the past; about the esotericism of Hermes Trismegistus; about the rationale behind the order of saints of the Crowleyan Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. And we also learned that Islam means nine mountains and thus stands for Chechnya; that the scarab with the human head is the key to knowledge of the world; that the four stands for Christ and for materialization; that English myths serve the construction of tradition of the Dutch goddess movement; that the writings of the Dutch novelist Couperus are full of esotericism; that the hierarchy of the Left Hand Path is based on kabbalistic demonology; that Leadbeater possibly took his information from Bailey rather than from a hidden master; that the mysterious Konx Om Pax originally marked the end of a mystery ritual; that esoteric constructions of tradition, in their pointing beyond the present, can be understood as divination. Most of the time these presentations did not only provide information, but also much food for thought and stimulus for discussion.

These discussions went on, albeit in a more leisurely pace, in the Biergarten amongst crowds of Tübinger students. Happy about the success of the conference, our symptoms of Stendhalism decreased while we relaxed over some pints of home-brewn Weizen (the nectar of the Neckar) and a plate of Spätzle or Knödel. Until the early mornings, young and established scholars merged in the merry-making, while we animatedly reflected on the rapid development of the field, on our various study projects and on the future of publishing.

All in all, the conference was a splendid official start-off ceremony of our society.