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Wouter J. Hanegraaff : Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture


Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism [Englisch] [Taschenbuch]

Henrik Bogdan (Herausgeber), Martin P. Starr (Herausgeber)


What is Western Esotericism? 


Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism


Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO)

Director: Professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

The Western esoteric tradition represents a distinct form of spirituality extending from Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism in the early Christian era up until the present. Diffused by Arab and Byzantine culture into medieval Europe , these esoteric currents experienced a marked revival through the Florentine neo-Platonists of the late fifteenth century. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, esoteric spirituality was carried by Renaissance magic, Christian Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, German Naturphilosophie, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry until the modern occult revival in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky played an important role.

Alongside and within this Western tradition, Arabic and Jewish currents have played a major role since the Latin Middle Ages. Arabic astrology, alchemy and natural science entered the medieval West through southern Italy and Spain from the tenth century onwards. In the fifteenth-century Jewish kabbalists in Spain and Italy assisted the Christian assimilation of Kabbalah, which henceforth became a major strand of European esoteric spirituality and thought. Accounts of spiritual ascent, angelic hierarchies and religious experience evidence strong commonalities between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic esoteric traditions.

The purpose of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) is to foster advanced research into historical and comparative aspects of the esoteric traditions from the Hellenistic period in late antiquity through the Renaissance and early modern period to the present. Staff members in the departments of History (with interests in religion, culture, science and medicine), Sociology and Philosophy, Theology, Classics and Ancient History, and the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, collaborate in seminars, research and publications. Literary and philosophical traditions are also examined by colleagues in the Schools of English and Modern Languages (departments of French, German, Italian, Hispanic Studies, and Russian).

Postgraduate and postdoctoral members of EXESESO will be able to pursue research projects with the support of the Centre's panel of distinguished scholars across a number of departments and disciplines.

There are three main objectives:

to document and analyse new subjects (figures, groups and movements) in the history of esotericism, thereby making an original contribution to scholarly knowledge.

to gain insight into the social, religious and philosophical changes, which are conducive to esotericism and to assess its influence on culture, politics and society.

to develop an understanding of the fundamental characteristics which define esoteric spirituality, which often manifests as a form of religious experience, while offering a perspective upon the individual soul in the context of nature and the universe.



Welcome to the new website of the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents! Launching on the summer solstice of 2013 this website is more than just another upgrade – it represents the beginning of a new era for HHP online. You will find not only up-to-date information on the teaching programs and research projects at our center, but also a whole range of entirely new features. To give you a taste:

            Explore the growing network of blogs and websites dedicated to the study of esotericism

            Check out webinars, lectures, interviews, and podcasts

            Use our guide to online collections and archives

            Follow HHP researchers in social media

            Follow our agenda of past and upcoming events

            Get the latest esotericism-related news from our blog

And this is just the beginning; more features are still to come!

Our primary aim is to provide a powerful resource for our students and colleagues. But more than that, we want to be a gateway to the broader esotericism research community. We connect you with the best online resources, give you the latest news on research and education in our field, and provide new multimedia content of our own. You can also interact with us on Twitter and Facebook, and, of course, submit your comments on this blog.

So if  you want to stay up to date on the academic study of Western esotericism: connect with us, and watch this space!


From ancient gnosis to contemporary occulture


The term “Western esotericism” covers a wide spectrum of neglected currents in Western cultural history. As an umbrella term that intends to highlight connections and developments over a long period, from antiquity to the present day, esotericism includes phenomena as varied as Gnosticism, Hermetism, and Neoplatonic Theurgy, Astrology, Alchemy, and Natural Magic, Christian Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Christian Theosophy and Illuminism, the currents of modern Occultism, Spiritualism, Traditionalism, the New Age movement, Neopaganism, Ritual Magical groups, and a host of contemporary alternative spiritualities and forms of popular “occulture”. In short, esotericism cuts through established boundaries of religion, science, art, and philosophy. As an academic field of study, Western esotericism is therefore a highly interdisciplinary enterprise.


Religion, science, and rejected knowledge

At first sight, the only thing esoteric currents may appear to have in common is the experience of having been rejected by mainstream religious and academic institutions in the West. In other words, the study of western esotericism is largely concerned with those traditions and ideas that have lost the battle for hegemony in Western intellectual and cultural history. The polemical debates unleashed by the Protestant Reformation led to a sharp rejection of all theological positions that smacked of “paganism”. This included the “philosophical paganism” of the Hermetica and of neoplatonism. Moreover, much of what we now study under the rubric of medieval and early modern esotericism – including alchemy, astrology, and natural magic – was excluded from the intellectual canon in the wake of the scientific revolution. As a result, the study of such forms of non-normative religion and natural philosophy was largely left to amateurs, Romantics, nineteenth-century occultists, and their descendants up to the present time. “Western esotericism” as a scholarly category emerged from such processes of polemical rejection but also of apologetic recuperation.

The quest for higher knowledge

Western esotericism is typically associated with special forms of revelatory knowledge. Esoteric practitioners are found searching for personal and transformative higher knowledge in the form of revelations, spiritual insights, or gnosis. The attainment of gnosis has been associated with exalted visionary experiences, sometimes resulting in symbolic and mythical representations that have inspired provocative artistic and literary expressions. The quest for gnosis can take many forms, from contemplative practices and intense textual study, to elaborate theurgic rituals, to the sacramental ingestion of hallucinogenic substances in contemporary neoshamanic practices.

Secrecy, initiation, ritual

Esotericism may also involve practices of secrecy. Esoteric movements have given rise to a wide variety of initiatory societies that seek to conceal their inner doctrines and rituals from the gaze of profane outsiders. Contrary to popular belief, such groups are not usually driven by a desire to form secret social bonds and engage in conspiracies. Rather, in most cases the practice of secrecy tends to be concerned with the pedagogical function of initiations. Esoteric initiation rituals are aimed at inducing life-altering and transformative experiences in the practitioner, and are typically connected to the quest for higher knowledge about God, the self, and the world.

Magic never died…


The meanings and practices known as “magic” have shifted many times through history, but all of them remain central to the study of Western esotericism. In Hellenistic times, magical practice was a site of religious syncretism between early Christianity and Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, or Chaldaean traditions. Among the neoplatonic philosophers, magic got associated with the practice of “theurgy” and its aspiration of bringing the soul in communion with the divine. Throughout the medieval period and the Renaissance, traditional magical doctrines and practices were adapted to a Christian environment, surviving despite the pressures of theological polemics. During the medieval and early modern period, magic was understood in a wide variety of ways. Next to its traditional associations with the agency of demons or angels, “natural magic” was connected with the pursuit of science and the manipulation of nature, while “astral” and “ceremonial” magic catered to philosophical, religious as well as medical needs. From post-Enlightenment and Romantic perspectives, magic is often associated with “enchanted” worldviews alternative to strict materialism. All these meanings have persisted to the present day through new mutations and adaptation to an ever-changing cultural environment. With the occult revival of the nineteenth century, esoteric groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn created new syntheses of magical practice which have inspired a constant supply of new groups and individuals. In the twenty-first century, magical practice is still very much alive and well, thriving in online communities and virtual worlds as much as in books and secret societies.

A unique opportunity

Western esotericism is a highly complex and intellectually challenging area of study. Scholars and students are asked to reconsider categories and narratives that are largely taken for granted in the established disciplines of the humanities. Studying the history of Western esotericism leads us to question and deconstruct the intellectual and religious canon by focusing on a wide range of figures, philosophies, movements and practices that occupy the contested margins of Western culture. Plunging into the unknown depths of esoteric discourses throughout history provides a unique opportunity to gain new perspectives on our common history and culture.


Curious to know more? Read about:

            Hermetic Amsterdam

            The Center HHP



                        How to enroll with us at the University of Amsterdam

Gerhard Kienle - Leben und Werk: Bd. 1: Eine Biographie / Bd. 2: Ausgewählte Aufsätze und Vorträge: 2 Bde. [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Peter Selg (Autor)



Rudolf Steiner 1861 - 1925. Lebens- und Werkgeschichte. 3 Bände im Schuber

Peter Selg (Autor) - Gebundene Ausgabe: 2148 Seiten

Verlag: Ita Wegman Institut (6. Dezember 2012)

ISBN-10: 3905919273 -                       ISBN-13: 978-3905919271