The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting.

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

By Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism (22 October 2012).

One of the most influential scholars in the contemporary academic study of Western esotericism is beyond doubt the erudite and highly productive Wouter J. Hanegraaff, professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his major publications, and especially the ones that I have read and enjoyed, are Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture; New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought; Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, which he edited with Jeffrey J. Kripal; Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, edited with Roelof van den Broek; and finally his paper ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’ in Religion, 33:4, 357-380.

Having spent a good deal of time last year wandering and pondering over notions, definitions, and methodologies pertaining to the study of Western esotericism, I happened to come across Hanegraaff’s works quite frequently, as one would expect. My initial response was a profound interest in way that Western esotericism is described as ‘rejected knowledge’. According to various sources, Western esotericism, as a self-designating term, is used by contemporary scholars according to certain typological and historical constructs. Hanegraaff refers to the term as a typological construct related to secrecy and knowledge reserved only for an elite. Regarding how the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied as a typological construct Hanegraaff states,

As we have seen, this usage is in line with the original connotations of both the adjective and the subjective. In this typological sense, the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied freely within any religious context, for concerns with secret knowledge reserved for elites can be found throughout history, and all over the world… The same is true for another, related typological understanding of the term, that associates it with the deeper, ‘inner mysteries of religion’ as opposed to its merely external or ‘exoteric’ dimensions.[1]

In relation to historical constructs, Western esotericism can be understood as embodying specific currents of religious and cultural fields of discourse, displaying metaphysical similarities and historical parallelisms. According to Antoine Faivre and Karen-Claire Voss, “The term “Western” here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, periodically coming into contact with those of Islam.”[2]

Although my first reaction to the manner in which Faivre and Voss have employed the term ‘West’ was one of suspicion of personal agendas and exclusivist representations, I believe that there is no need to presently dwell on this further, as scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad[3] and Robert Mathiesen[4] have already reacted through constructive criticism to Faivre’s and Voss’ usage of the term ‘West’. What I would like to address though is my initial impression regarding the academic study of Western esotericism identifying the sometimes, and somewhat simplistic binary opposition embodied in Western epistemology between Greek rationality and Christian faith, or more specifically between ‘mythic thought’ and Aristotelian logic. This ‘esoteric’ knowledge summoned by currents of Western esoteric spirituality can be “characterised by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.”[5] According to Roelof van den Broeck and Hanegraaff, “The adherents of this tradition emphasized the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis; a revelatory experience that mostly entailed an encounter with one’s true self as well with the ground of being, God.”[6] This shifting of positions has endowed esoteric phenomena, under contemporary academic scrutiny, with a sense of fluidity and recognition of it as being the ‘third pillar’ of Western religious and cultural historiography, erected between secularisation on the one hand, and on the other sterile dogmatism.

Despite the possibilities of unveiling other dimensions that constitute the religious and cultural landscapes of Europe through further representation of this ‘romantic’ struggle, some concepts and perceptions remain unclear and biased, undermining emic accounts and further methodological evaluations. For example, the interpretation of the term ‘gnosis’ differs considerably according to different historical contexts. This alone indicates that conceptualisation of various features pertaining to ‘traditions’ of Western esotericism may be viewed as academic constructs, with the intention of providing an understanding of diverse traits and currents that might have similarities, but also significant differences in form and content.

Various methodological paradigms that have been employed to distinguish and define a variety of phenomena that can be labelled as ‘esoteric’ within a Western context should merely be treated as abstract tools. Although this might appear to function theoretically by classifying something as ‘esoteric’ when the constituting components are present, in practice however this is not as simple as it appears. To be able to locate these components the scholar of Western esotericism must go beyond doctrinal tenets and discover evidence of ‘esoteric presence’ in the manifestation of forms, symbols, and styles. A challenge for scholars of esotericism has been to identify material belonging to an esoteric corpus, yet lacking the constituting components of esoteric form of thought. Textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, with the constituting components present explicitly or implicitly,[7] may not pose an immediate challenge to esoteric scholarship, but textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, yet not displaying the constituting components, can and have complicated matters of research. The conclusion that the scholar would have to draw would be to categorise a textual material as ‘esoteric’ only if it displays the constituting components of esoteric scholarship in an explicit or implicit fashion. The same can be applied to the “migration of esoteric ideas into non-esoteric materials”[8] where it is common practice to discover esoteric ideas, symbols, and gestures in non-esoteric settings and climates. This can be seen by treating a piece of fiction which refers to ideas and practices such as magic and alchemy as ‘non-esoteric’ mainly because it is a non-esoteric usage of an esoteric concept or technique.

Many of the foundational evaluations and critiques of academic endeavours to define and study esotericism in a Western context have not yet managed to connect esotericism in the sense of a ‘name’ that esotericists and esoteric scholars give to a certain discourse related to religion and scholarship. This view is also expressed by Bergunder, initiating the necessary reflection of this connection. Starting from this connection, Bergunder introduces the cultural studies approach where the perspective of the academic stands in an interrelationship with the subject of research,

In cultural studies orientated approaches the definition of a research subject takes place in the prevailing discursive practise of a society, because the topics of cultural studies research are no more than historical artefacts and historical patterns of behaviour and thought.[9]

Research into Western esotericism has been clearly associated with the contemporary esotericists’ self-conceptions, which indicates that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations of the esoteric. The nominalistic endeavour to separate them can only focus on the subject definition and the academic definition. One problematic area of concern is whether and to what extent academic research into esotericism is in any way ‘esoteric’ in itself. Hanegraaff emphasises the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[10] However, such a view fails to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of esoteric fields of discourse has affected and continues to affect the esoteric discourse and, very importantly, the opposite is true. From this perspective academic research into Western esotericism should not act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism. Questions of identity are a crucial element in the conceptualisations of Western esotericism, with esotericism acting as a form of identity marker. This approach manifests the multi-layered areas of activities that affect the study of Western esotericism through the identity positioning of esotericists themselves, where apart from positioning themselves as esotericists the individual may also identify with other areas of self-expression, such as an academic, a humanist, a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, and so on. This then designates a general concept that makes identification possible.

The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting. To be able to reconstruct Western esotericism as a historical phenomenon worthy of research, diachronic and synchronic dimensions of methodological application are vital. The synchronic dimension of methodological application would present esotericism as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants re-negotiate. This can only obtain meaning when it is registered in the totality of synchronic fields of discourse. The diachronic criterion, however, demands that we can only refer to the historical manifestations of esotericism when the synchronic elements stand in a diachronic relation to previous synchronic fields of discourse. Whether currents or individuals are set within these parameters depends entirely on the time and place of observation.

Finally, regarding the study of definitions with the framework of Western esotericism, one should begin by examining the point of entry set down by the individuals within the particular field of discourse, instead of assigning a point of entry at the beginning of an alleged tradition, which in the following merely treats it as an academic construct. This is obvious when one historically investigates the usage of the term ‘esotericism’ and discovers that before the second half of the nineteenth century, those involved with ‘esoteric’ pursuits did not explicitly refer to the concept of ‘esotericism’. Although this does not antagonise the diachronic criterion, the synchronic criterion should be employed to examine the self-representations of elements similar to the reception of the term ‘esotericism’, and especially the category of ‘Western esotericism’.

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About the Author:

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has an academic background in the fields of anthropology and religious studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. He is currently engaged in a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh exploring the meanings and weavings of ritual, the body, and magic within contemporary Western contexts, employing both theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. He is also the editor of Occult Traditions (Numen Books, 2012), to which he contributed papers on various aspects of the Greek Magical Papyri, Hellenistic theurgy, the role and nature of Seth, and the esoteric ideas of Julius Evola’s sexual metaphysics. In addition, he is also completing an academic journal paper titled ‘From Corpus to Spiritus Mundi: A Study of Ritual Behaviour, Occult Cognition, and Enchanted Worldviews’. When not engaging with academia, he can be found embodying Hellenic goēteia and Hellenistic theourgia through intense study and performance, wandering the wilderness, and engaging in martial arts. He currently resides in Edinburgh, but when not he can be found in Athens or on the volcanic island of Thira overlooking the Aegean.


[1] Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ‘Esotericism’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck, and Jean-Pierre (eds.). Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 337.

[2] Faivre, Antoine and Voss, Karen-Claire, ‘Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions’. In Numen, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 50.

[3] Stuckrad, Kocku von, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 5.

[4] Mathiesen, Robert, ‘Byzantium’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 218-222.

[5] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[6] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[7] As esoteric materials are normally composed by esotericists for other esotericists, the constituting components are not always presented explicitly and many are taken for granted.

[8] Bogdan, Henrik, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20.

[9] Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010, p. 19.

[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the yates paradigm: The study of western esotericism between counterculture and new complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, p. 29-30