Wouter J. Hanegraaff : Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western CultureFaculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam
The world’s leading institute for academic research and teaching in the field of Western Esotericism
The only center in the world providing a complete academic study program in the history of esotericism, from the Bachelor to the PhD level.
The Center HHP was founded in 1999, and is currently well into its second decade of research and teaching in the field of Western esotericism. It did not emerge in a vacuum: since its inception, the center has been part of a broader international network of scholars dedicated to establishing esotericism as an academic field of research in the Humanities.
Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Joyce Pijnenburg (eds.) - Hermes in the Academy - Ten Years’ Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam http://www.amsterdamhermetica.nl/esotericism-in-the-academy/esotericism-in-amsterdam/
International network of scholars dedicated to establishing esotericism as an academic field of research in the Humanities:
European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE)
The ESSWE (go to website) was founded in 2005, and is currently the largest international society dedicated to advancing the academic study of Western esotericism. The biannual ESSWE conference is the most important event in our field in Europe. The journal Aries and the Aries Book Series are both published under the auspices of ESSWE. While the organization is active in Europe its membership is open to all countries, and a substantial number of scholars from North America and other parts of the world participate in its major events.
Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE)
The ASE (go to website) was created in 2002 during a conference at Michigan State University, with the mission to “promote excellence in scholarship and teaching in the study of esotericism and mysticism”. It arranges conferences on esotericism in North America, and is involved with the (currently dormant) peer-reviewed online journal Esoterica. It is the most important scholarly organization in our field currently active in North America.
The Societas Magica is an organization dedicated to furthering communication and exchange among scholars interested in the study of magic, both in the positive contexts of its expression as an area of necessary knowledge or religious practice (as in early modern occultism and contemporary paganism), and in its negative contexts as the substance of an accusation or condemnation (as in sorcery trials, and many philosophical and theological accounts, both early and late). The interests of our membership include, but are not limited to, the history and sociology of magic; theological, and intellectual apprehensions of magic; practices and theories of magic; and objects, artifacts and texts either qualified as magical by their creators, or forming the substance of an accusation of magic by others.
Established in 1994 by Richard Kieckhefer, Claire Fanger and Robert Mathiesen, the Societas originally had the purpose of sponsoring sessions on the history of magic in the middle ages at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan. However the activities of the Societas have expanded with its increasingly diverse membership, and our interests are not limited to the medieval period. We continue to sponsor sessions both at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo and also at other academic conferences as proposed and organized by members. In the past these have included sessions at the Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society, the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and a full conference organized at the University of Waterloo in 2008. We also publish a newsletter twice yearly, and have other affiliated publications. An email list is available to those who meet the membership criteria and wish to join.
CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions; go to website) is the largest international network for the study of new religious movements, new age, and contemporary spirituality. Based in Torino, Italy, it hosts a substantial library and organizes large international conferences on NRMs and contemporary religion every year. It is an important venue for students and researchers of contemporary esoteric movements.
The Association for the Study of Esotericism and
Mysticism (ASEM) is a scholarly non-profit organization that unites
scholars of a humanitarian disposition in the countries of the former Soviet
Union who engage in the academic study of esotericism and mysticism.
ASEM aims to unite the efforts of interested scholars to systematically study these promising phenomena, and aids in the creation of original methodologies and a corresponding descriptive language, in describing different worldviews on which esoteric and mystical movements are based, in the analysis of their symbols, categories, and social structures, in codification of the stages of development of these phenomena in history, and so on.
ASEM's priority aims are to determine the reason for a staunch prevalence of mystical and esoteric aspects in human culture in different states of its history and to determine the extent of their influence on contemporary culture. ASEM aspires to make connections with corresponding scholarly organizations in other regions of the world, scholarly projects, and joint publications.
Open Access academic publication in the field of esotericism. This should be a great resource for researchers in the field of contemporary esotericism. The first issue features an article by Kennet Granholm: "Ritual Black Magic: Popular Music as Occult Meditation and Practice".
Before HHP was founded, there already existed a professorial chair dedicated to the “History of Esoteric Currents” at the Sorbonne in Paris, then held by Antoine Faivre. HHP became the first center to offer a teaching program to Bachelor and Master students. A number of other departments now offer similar modules and courses, but HHP at the University of Amsterdam remains the only center with a complete program.
In addition to the current staff, a number of notable esotericism scholars have worked at the center, including Jean Pierre Brach (now Faivre’s successor at the Sorbonne), Kocku von Stuckrad (now at University of Groningen), and Olav Hammer (now at University of Southern Denmark). In 2009, HHP celebrated its tenth anniversary with a one-day conference in Amsterdam. Reminiscences, reflections, and impressions by the staff, students and other scholars can be found in the anniversary volume, Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam University Press, 2009).
What is Western Esotericism?
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.