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Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 28 March 2017

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Conference: SOCREL: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

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December 8–10, 2017

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June 16, 2017

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October 26–27, 2017

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First issue

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Workshop: New perspectives on the secularization of funerary culture in 19th-and 20th-century Europe

June 15, 2017

Ghent, Belgium

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March 31, 2017

University College Cork, UK

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Postdoctoral Research Fellows: Religion, science, atheism

University of Queensland, Australia

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Brandeis University, USA

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 22 November 2016

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Conference: Re-Inventing Eastern Europe

January 27–28, 2017

Belgrade, Serbia

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March 24–25, 2017

Paris, France

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Symposium: Pentecostal Charismatic Christianities in Australia

August 11–12, 2017

Sydney University, Australia

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November 22–23, 2016

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March 31, 2017

University College Cork, Ireland

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November 29, 2016, 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.

University of Edinburgh, UK

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A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

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Cardiff University, UK

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June 28–July 1, 2015

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November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

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October 23–24, 2015

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4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

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Bard College, NY, USA

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Lancaster University, UK

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Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

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“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

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George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

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

Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism

In this interview, recorded at the EASR Annual Conference at Södertörn University, Professor Wouter Hanegraaff tells us about what he dubs “the biggest blank spaces of neglected territories in the study of religion”, namely Western esotericism. He tells how he first came over the German Folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert’s book Pansophie (1936) and discovered a group of renaissance thinkers he had never heard of, but whose work evidently had influenced western culture in a profound way. It soon came to show that scholars in the academy wasn’t eager to go into it or take it seriously. Hanegraaf gives us insight to how this developed from being neglected sources of Western thought to an established field of study. He also goes into the question of definition; challenges and approaches within the study of Western esotericism; how the study of Western esotericism relates to the study of religion as a whole; the (non-)universality of esotericism; and additionally his blog Creative Reading and the accessibility of academic knowledge.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And apologies for the background noise at the end of the interview. Wouter Hanegraaff is a professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on many topics among them New Age, Gnosticism, Magic and last but not at least Western Esotericisim. He is currently president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE and member on the editorial board of Aries(Brill), Numen (Brill), Religion Compass and Esoterica. His latest book Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) was subject for a panel-discussion at the EASR Annual Conference. Those with a new-founded interest in the subject can also keep an eye out for his forthcoming book Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2013). Full CV and list of publications on Prf. Wouter Hanegraaff’s webpage. Additionally, the article by Egil Asprem mentioned during the interview can be bought or accessed here.

This is also the first interview conducted by our new sub-editor, Knut Melvær. Knut is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen (Norway). He is currently researching ‘spirituality’ as a folk-category and cultural domain in Norway 1930–2010. His background and particular interests are in theories of religion, new religious movements, Ainu- and Japanese religion as well as methodologies in religious studies. He is a review-editor of Aura, and currently co-editing a special issue of DIN on the topic of ‘Gods’ (December 2012). Knut has a personal website and also an infrequently updated academia.edu profile.

Reflections on the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 4 October 2012. Stockholm University, Sweden, August 27-29, 2012

Egil Asprem (University of Amsterdam) and Kennet Granholm (Åbo Akademi/Stockholm University), influential members of what Jesper Aagaard Petersen calls the ‘brat pack’ of esotericism studies, have made a fantastic effort in putting together the first International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism at Stockholm University. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to speak at this dynamic colloquium, and even more excited to get to know some of the scholars that have been (and some that will be) formative in my academic career. Although this conference suffered the same kind of setbacks that the EASR did (stuffy rooms, unreliable technology, the occasional scheduling mishap that left some sessions too full, others almost empty), I would have to say that this is probably one of the most interesting, and the most fun, conferences I have ever attended. I came to this conference as a bit of an outsider. Socially, in that many of the attendees were already acquainted either through their common institutions, or affiliations such as European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism or the Phoenix Rising Academy but also professionally, as, although I have a keen interest in it, I don’t consider esotericism to be my forte. However, this did not diminish my experience. I eagerly absorbed the expertise that surrounded me and made some lifelong personal connections with my fellow participants.

There is something delightful about the Egil and Kennet duo, and some of that charm lies in their complementary aesthetic – blond Egil with his (suitably) cherubic face, and Kennet’s black metal style, complete with a dark veil of hair and leather pants, make for striking syzygy. And who better than an authority on angels and a specialist on dark magic to lead a symposium on esotericism? This event marked not only the inaugural conference focused on contemporary expressions of esotericism, but also the launch of Egil and Kennet’s compilation of essays Contemporary Esotericism, to which many of the speakers collaborated, and the Contemporary Esotericism Research Network or ConTERN (associated with ESSWE). Egil and Kennet, as demonstrated by their prolificacy, are truly dedicated to raising up the study of esotericism, particularly in the modern contexts of popular culture, new media, and politics, and giving this subject the academic attention it so obviously deserves.

Kennet and Egil opened the conference with what I felt was a theme for the following days – tough love. In their lecture, our conveners made clear the reasons why they felt this conference was so necessary: for too long scholars of religion have considered esotericism to be a historical phenomenon, completing their timelines in the 1950s. Likewise, scholarship has narrowly focused on ‘elite’ strains of esotericism, disregarding the folk expressions, the influence of popular culture, the internet, and other forms of so-called ‘low culture,’ that have impacted on the development of esoteric currents. This was a plea for academics to broaden their horizons, and I believe that many of the papers presented at this conference went above and beyond in answering this call.

Christopher Partridge of Lancaster University delivered the first keynote address, drawn from his extensive work on contemporary esotericism explored in his seminal tome The Re-Enchantment of the West. His paper ‘Occulture is Ordinary’ (which can be found in Egil and Kennet’s anthology), considered the effects of secularization and sacralisation in our post-industrial world, and how occulture (the merging of popular culture with what were once considered recondite, secret, and elite knowledges) has been acquiring legitimacy and plausibility. Chris took a self-reflective moment to review and update his own terminology, arguing that we must remember that occulture is not static, but growing and ever-changing. Occulture is also not a strictly modern phenomenon, as neither religion nor culture exist in a vacuum – in fact religion and culture have a symbiotic relationship that continuously blurs the line between fiction and faith. This talk, in its relevance but also Chris’s approachable style, set the tone of creative intellectualism and affability for the days that followed.

One says this all the time, but in this case I really mean it – there was simply too much good stuff to see at this conference. Some tough decisions had to be made, but I regret nothing! I was especially sad to be speaking in the same timeslot as the session on Satanism and the Left Hand Path, during which, I’ve been told, Jesper Petersen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Per Faxneld (Stockholm University), and George Sieg (University of Exeter) presented three stimulating papers on contextualizing and theorizing Satanism and ‘sinister’ occultism. Amongst other interesting talks that I missed, but would have loved to have attended, were Colin Duggan’s (University College Cork) ‘Chaos and the Zine Scene,’ Francisco Santos Silva’s (New University of Lisbon) ‘Jorge Ben Jor and Raul Seixas: Two Brazilian Esotericist pop-musicians in the 1970s,’ and speakers like Henrik Bogdan, Thomas Karlsson, and Erik Davis, who failed to materialize. Nonetheless, I was more than impressed with the quality of the papers I did get to see.

I spoke (to a fairly full classroom, no auditorium for me this round) alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) for a second time, and was joined in the session on Gender and Queer by Brady Burroughs (Royal Institute of Technology). I, once again, discussed Therianthropy, but approached the subject of animal-human identity from a methodology standpoint, experimenting with post-colonial, digital, and queer theory as I tried to conceive of an appropriate framework through which this phenomenon can be better understood. Manon provided an overview of masculinity and femininity as perceived by various occult traditions and called for a scholarly consideration of gender in lived practice. Brady, whose discipline is architecture, presented an avant-garde paper that combined academic discussion with her own poetry, examining themes of inhabitation and lesbian identity on the island of Lesbos. Though loosely related, this session represented diverse arenas of study. Speaking to my own experience, I found the audience responsive and respectful, though in hindsight I think that on occasion my jocular and flippant manner can sometimes detract from my professionalism, a balance that can sometimes be hard to maintain once you’ve reached a certain comfort level amongst your colleagues (although, paradoxically, I think nervous energy also contributes).

The second keynote was given that afternoon by my supervisor Jay Johnston of the University of Sydney. Jay’s work traverses the fields of sex, the body, art, archaeology, self, identity, and religion, and she brought a wealth of knowledge to her address on gender in esotericism. The need to problematise notions of heteronormativity and dimorphic gender in the academic discourse surrounding esoteric spirituality is a timely but tricky subject which Jay handled artfully (and artistically, with neat illustrations of the Tarot card ‘The Lovers’ on her slides). This was back to tough love, as it was not only an interesting speech, but a light chiding, warning scholars of esotericism against committing the mistakes of the past and blithely disregarding non-normative and marginalised sexual subjectivities. I wondered, after hearing Manon give two papers on sexuality in magic in theory and practice (which can be two very different things) how we might marry our sometimes lofty philosophical theories of critical gender with the reality of lived religion. Certainly, there is more work to be done in this area, and by weaving together new and nuanced methodologies with the subtleties and realities of religion in practice, scholars will surely discover a deeper level of analysis.

In the afternoon I attended part one of two sessions on ‘Esopolitics,’ the first focusing on right wing politics and esoteric thought. This was a particularly enlightening segment for me, as I previously knew embarrassingly little about neo-conservative paganism. Papers by Jacob Senholt (University of Aarhus) and Tommy Ramstedt (Åbo Akademi) were of especial interest because they looked at European and Nordic examples, giving great insight to the correlations between nationalism, environmentalism, anti-modernism, and spirituality in various ‘autochthonous’ pagan ideologies. Amy Hale (University of Maryland) added her own expertise to the panel, discussing examples of ‘radical traditionalism’ as a marketing tool in Europe and America. I was able to catch the tail-end of Justin Woodman’s (University of London) paper on the influence of Lovecraft and UFOlogy as ‘post-secular demonology,’ which delved into a fascinating zone of popular occulture, but perhaps attempted to cover more than could fit into a 20 minute timeslot.

After a night of, shall we say, decompression, a fair few of us were feeling a little less fresh than usual the next morning for Kocku von Stuckrad’s keynote. However, this rousing address soon had the cogs turning. Kocku (University of Gronigen) continued the program of tough love by reminding us that dialogue between academics is not only useful, but necessary, and this critical discussion must happen in an environment of amicable openness, not hyper-sensitivity or condemnation. To this end, we should all be making more an effort to be not just inter-disciplinary but transdisciplinary. It’s not enough, Kocku argued, to dabble in a bit of sociology, or psychology, or folklore studies – when it comes to the study of religion, and to still-emerging areas such as contemporary esotericism, we must engage in a multi-disciplinary exchange in order to break down the solipsism, isolation, and elitism that can hinder our work. A short list of ‘what is wrong with studies of esotericism,’ modeled on Markus Davidsen’s breakdown of what is wrong with pagan studies, also includes: essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism, and supernaturalism – positions that negatively affect the quality of scholarly analysis, and obstruct the perpetuation of a discipline that is progressive and rigorous. This stirring lecture was an energizing way to begin the second day of an already stimulating conference, and I was glad to toast Kocku at the conference dinner later that night.

Part II of ‘EsoPolitics,’ the Esoteric Left, saw a collection of interesting papers on the merging of politics with religion. Justine Bakker (University of Amsterdam) discussed the transmission between occultism and African American identity and the concept of the ‘black cultic milieu,’ infused with nationalism, racial identity, and a ‘consciousness of deviance.’ Justine’s paper functioned as a call to esoteric scholars to consider this milieu as syncretic, yet distinctive, and influential in it’s own right. Christian Giudice followed with an intriguing case study: the Horus Maat Lodge and their adaptation of the Occupy movement slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ These practitioners made it their magical goal to channel energy to the Occupiers and awaken the global populace to this political message, a great example of urban enchantment. Daniel Radermacher gave the final paper in this session on eco-spirituality, a topic that could have taken up it’s own session. Daniel’s premise of challenging Campbell’s Easternisation thesis by looking at the European roots of religious environmentalism is a promising one, but overall I felt there was not enough attention paid to some significant benchmarks such as Anthroposophical biodynamics, the Gaia hypothesis, and deep green paganism to sufficiently flesh out the relationship between nature and religion in the Western context. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the contrasts, and many of the striking similarities, between the right and left esopolitics sessions, and look forward to seeing more work developing in this field.

After lunch (at the very satisfactory SU cafeteria), Wouter Hanegraaff, a bastion of western esoteric studies, delivered a paper on a subject that is fairly new to him and to the field in general, that is, entheogens and the spiritual experience. Hanegraaff, modestly, admitted to wrongly dismissing the influence of drugs in his previous work. His intention in this paper (and explored in his chapter in Contemporary Esotericism) was to draw our attention to this phenomenon, and insist that we not just acknowledge the role of psychoactives in ecstatic practice, but analyse the gnostic implications. In the afternoon, Sasha Chaitow (University of Essex) and Hereward Tilton (University of Exeter) discussed contemporary enchantment in the unique and religiously significant landscapes of Greece and Glastonbury respectively. Sasha offered a profile of Greece’s neomythology with reference to its highly eclectic schools of esotericism, supported by her own field work. Tilton focused on the alternative history that has grown up around the cult of St Joseph of Arimathea and which is deeply ingrained in the town’s identity.

The conference dinner was a tasty vegetarian buffet at a restaurant/bar, followed by cheap and easy drinks in a crowded pub. While things got a bit blurry toward the end, I have many a good mental snapshot of laughs and chats, and some vague memories of inviting myself to visit various professors at their esteemed European institutions… sorry about that. Thankfully, day three reconvened at the sensible hour of 10am, with parallel sessions on magic and psychologisation, and initiation and secrecy. I attended the most of the latter session, catching some insights into Freemasonry and other initiatory traditions from those who straddle the etic/emic border. This was concluded with a lively talk from Joseph Futerman (Chicago School of Professional Psychology) who opened up the subject of secrecy and it’s psychological attributions and benefits. After lunch the key speakers (Chris Partridge, Wouter Hanegraaff, Kocku von Stuckrad, and Jay Johnston) partook in a round table discussion and fielded questions from Kennet, Egil, and the audience. Despite the much rumoured rivalries between scholars of esotericism, this panel exhibited not just diplomacy and a friendly attitude toward discussion and debate, but perhaps even a surprising amount of agreement. What is important to remember is that esotericism cannot be essentialised – it is an emerging and expanding phenomenon and field of study. What one scholar does not investigate or consider becomes the domain of another as our scope progressively widens and diversifies.

The final activity of this busy conference was the tour of ‘occult Stockholm’ led by Thomas Karlsson (Stockholm University). Thomas is not only a scholar or occultism, but a practitioner, and the founder of the left-hand path initiatory tradition the Order of the Dragon Rouge. The highlight of the tour was visiting the temple of the Dragon Rouge, tucked away in the claustrophobic basement of an unremarkable apartment building. Decorated with inventive hieroglyphs, sigils, plastic draconian figurines, and a theme of black and red, the temple includes a mysterious and unlit inner sanctum with a solemn circular mirror on the floor, I suppose for ‘reflections’ of a deeper kind. Though I did not follow up the opportunity to ask Thomas questions about the practices of the Dragon Rouge, I would direct any curious readers to his and Kennet Granholm’s published works on the subject. In fact, I encourage readers to get on google.scholar or academia.edu immediately if they are interested in discovering more about the work of any of the scholars here mentioned, or any others that participated in the two wonderful conferences that were held in Stockholm this September.

By way of conclusion, I should add that I’ve intentionally given a positive review of the EASR and the Contemporary Esotericism conference. There has been no bending of the truth, but I also don’t believe there is much point in dwelling on the negatives (costs, temporary bouts of disorganization, the occasional dud speaker) as these issues are par for the course. I hope that students like myself might read of my good experiences and feel motivated to participate (even just as an attendee) in this environment, bringing their original research, innovative methods, and unique perspectives to an audience of professionals with varied, and yet sometimes very specific, areas of expertise. Being involved in an international conference can be a great confidence builder, useful networking opportunity, and an invaluable resource for feedback, especially for a thesis in the works! My sincere thanks go to the conference teams for all of their hard work in putting together a solid week’s worth of entertaining education – can’t wait to see it all happen again next year!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.

 

Podcasts

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 28 March 2017

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Calls for papers

Conference: SOCREL: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: April 28, 2017

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Conference: Verbal Charms and Narrative Genres

December 8–10, 2017

Budapest, Hungary

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Conference: ISASR: Religion, Myth and Migration

June 16, 2017

Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland

Deadline: April 10, 2017

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Conference: Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimage and Religious Tourism

October 26–27, 2017

Beijing, China

Deadline: June 1, 2017

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New journal: The Journal of Festive Studies

First issue

Deadline: November 1, 2017

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Events

Workshop: New perspectives on the secularization of funerary culture in 19th-and 20th-century Europe

June 15, 2017

Ghent, Belgium

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Workshop: Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

March 31, 2017

University College Cork, UK

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Journal: Anthropology & Materialism

Special issue: Walter Benjamin and philosophy

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Postdoctoral Research Fellows: Religion, science, atheism

University of Queensland, Australia

Deadline: April 16, 2017

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Postdoctoral Research Fellow: Racialization of Islam

Yale University, USA

Deadline: April 21, 2017

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Postdoctoral Research Fellow: East Asian Buddhism

University of British Columbia, Canada

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Tenure-Track Faculty Position: Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic Studies

Brandeis University, USA

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University of Konstanz, Germany

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University Lecturer: Religion in International Relations

Leiden University, The Netherlands

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 22 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Conference: Re-Inventing Eastern Europe

January 27–28, 2017

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 10, 2016

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Posters: L’archéologie funéraire en Italie du Sud

March 24–25, 2017

Paris, France

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Symposium: Pentecostal Charismatic Christianities in Australia

August 11–12, 2017

Sydney University, Australia

Deadline: January 13, 2017

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Symposium, workshop: Mythology, discourse, and authority: Retrospective methods in cultural research

November 22–23, 2016

University of Helsinki, Finland

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Workshop: The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

March 31, 2017

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: December 21, 2016

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Events

Report Launch: Scotting Muslims in Numbers

November 29, 2016, 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.

University of Edinburgh, UK

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A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

Listeners might also be interested in our podcasts on 21st Century Irish Paganism, Druidry and the Definition of Religion, and Animism, amongst others. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, besomes, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

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We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest, booming with calls for papers, events and job opportunities!

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Calls for papers

Conference: Religious Materiality and Emotion

February 17–18, 2016

Adelaide City, Australia

Deadline: October 31, 2015

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Conference: Hermeneutics, symbol and myth and the Modernity of Antiquity in Italian Literature and the Arts

December 1–2, 2015

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy

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Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

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Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

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Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

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Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

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Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

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Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

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Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

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Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

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Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

You can also download this discussion, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

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

Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism

In this interview, recorded at the EASR Annual Conference at Södertörn University, Professor Wouter Hanegraaff tells us about what he dubs “the biggest blank spaces of neglected territories in the study of religion”, namely Western esotericism. He tells how he first came over the German Folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert’s book Pansophie (1936) and discovered a group of renaissance thinkers he had never heard of, but whose work evidently had influenced western culture in a profound way. It soon came to show that scholars in the academy wasn’t eager to go into it or take it seriously. Hanegraaf gives us insight to how this developed from being neglected sources of Western thought to an established field of study. He also goes into the question of definition; challenges and approaches within the study of Western esotericism; how the study of Western esotericism relates to the study of religion as a whole; the (non-)universality of esotericism; and additionally his blog Creative Reading and the accessibility of academic knowledge.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And apologies for the background noise at the end of the interview. Wouter Hanegraaff is a professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on many topics among them New Age, Gnosticism, Magic and last but not at least Western Esotericisim. He is currently president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE and member on the editorial board of Aries(Brill), Numen (Brill), Religion Compass and Esoterica. His latest book Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) was subject for a panel-discussion at the EASR Annual Conference. Those with a new-founded interest in the subject can also keep an eye out for his forthcoming book Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2013). Full CV and list of publications on Prf. Wouter Hanegraaff’s webpage. Additionally, the article by Egil Asprem mentioned during the interview can be bought or accessed here.

This is also the first interview conducted by our new sub-editor, Knut Melvær. Knut is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen (Norway). He is currently researching ‘spirituality’ as a folk-category and cultural domain in Norway 1930–2010. His background and particular interests are in theories of religion, new religious movements, Ainu- and Japanese religion as well as methodologies in religious studies. He is a review-editor of Aura, and currently co-editing a special issue of DIN on the topic of ‘Gods’ (December 2012). Knut has a personal website and also an infrequently updated academia.edu profile.

Reflections on the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 4 October 2012. Stockholm University, Sweden, August 27-29, 2012

Egil Asprem (University of Amsterdam) and Kennet Granholm (Åbo Akademi/Stockholm University), influential members of what Jesper Aagaard Petersen calls the ‘brat pack’ of esotericism studies, have made a fantastic effort in putting together the first International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism at Stockholm University. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to speak at this dynamic colloquium, and even more excited to get to know some of the scholars that have been (and some that will be) formative in my academic career. Although this conference suffered the same kind of setbacks that the EASR did (stuffy rooms, unreliable technology, the occasional scheduling mishap that left some sessions too full, others almost empty), I would have to say that this is probably one of the most interesting, and the most fun, conferences I have ever attended. I came to this conference as a bit of an outsider. Socially, in that many of the attendees were already acquainted either through their common institutions, or affiliations such as European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism or the Phoenix Rising Academy but also professionally, as, although I have a keen interest in it, I don’t consider esotericism to be my forte. However, this did not diminish my experience. I eagerly absorbed the expertise that surrounded me and made some lifelong personal connections with my fellow participants.

There is something delightful about the Egil and Kennet duo, and some of that charm lies in their complementary aesthetic – blond Egil with his (suitably) cherubic face, and Kennet’s black metal style, complete with a dark veil of hair and leather pants, make for striking syzygy. And who better than an authority on angels and a specialist on dark magic to lead a symposium on esotericism? This event marked not only the inaugural conference focused on contemporary expressions of esotericism, but also the launch of Egil and Kennet’s compilation of essays Contemporary Esotericism, to which many of the speakers collaborated, and the Contemporary Esotericism Research Network or ConTERN (associated with ESSWE). Egil and Kennet, as demonstrated by their prolificacy, are truly dedicated to raising up the study of esotericism, particularly in the modern contexts of popular culture, new media, and politics, and giving this subject the academic attention it so obviously deserves.

Kennet and Egil opened the conference with what I felt was a theme for the following days – tough love. In their lecture, our conveners made clear the reasons why they felt this conference was so necessary: for too long scholars of religion have considered esotericism to be a historical phenomenon, completing their timelines in the 1950s. Likewise, scholarship has narrowly focused on ‘elite’ strains of esotericism, disregarding the folk expressions, the influence of popular culture, the internet, and other forms of so-called ‘low culture,’ that have impacted on the development of esoteric currents. This was a plea for academics to broaden their horizons, and I believe that many of the papers presented at this conference went above and beyond in answering this call.

Christopher Partridge of Lancaster University delivered the first keynote address, drawn from his extensive work on contemporary esotericism explored in his seminal tome The Re-Enchantment of the West. His paper ‘Occulture is Ordinary’ (which can be found in Egil and Kennet’s anthology), considered the effects of secularization and sacralisation in our post-industrial world, and how occulture (the merging of popular culture with what were once considered recondite, secret, and elite knowledges) has been acquiring legitimacy and plausibility. Chris took a self-reflective moment to review and update his own terminology, arguing that we must remember that occulture is not static, but growing and ever-changing. Occulture is also not a strictly modern phenomenon, as neither religion nor culture exist in a vacuum – in fact religion and culture have a symbiotic relationship that continuously blurs the line between fiction and faith. This talk, in its relevance but also Chris’s approachable style, set the tone of creative intellectualism and affability for the days that followed.

One says this all the time, but in this case I really mean it – there was simply too much good stuff to see at this conference. Some tough decisions had to be made, but I regret nothing! I was especially sad to be speaking in the same timeslot as the session on Satanism and the Left Hand Path, during which, I’ve been told, Jesper Petersen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Per Faxneld (Stockholm University), and George Sieg (University of Exeter) presented three stimulating papers on contextualizing and theorizing Satanism and ‘sinister’ occultism. Amongst other interesting talks that I missed, but would have loved to have attended, were Colin Duggan’s (University College Cork) ‘Chaos and the Zine Scene,’ Francisco Santos Silva’s (New University of Lisbon) ‘Jorge Ben Jor and Raul Seixas: Two Brazilian Esotericist pop-musicians in the 1970s,’ and speakers like Henrik Bogdan, Thomas Karlsson, and Erik Davis, who failed to materialize. Nonetheless, I was more than impressed with the quality of the papers I did get to see.

I spoke (to a fairly full classroom, no auditorium for me this round) alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) for a second time, and was joined in the session on Gender and Queer by Brady Burroughs (Royal Institute of Technology). I, once again, discussed Therianthropy, but approached the subject of animal-human identity from a methodology standpoint, experimenting with post-colonial, digital, and queer theory as I tried to conceive of an appropriate framework through which this phenomenon can be better understood. Manon provided an overview of masculinity and femininity as perceived by various occult traditions and called for a scholarly consideration of gender in lived practice. Brady, whose discipline is architecture, presented an avant-garde paper that combined academic discussion with her own poetry, examining themes of inhabitation and lesbian identity on the island of Lesbos. Though loosely related, this session represented diverse arenas of study. Speaking to my own experience, I found the audience responsive and respectful, though in hindsight I think that on occasion my jocular and flippant manner can sometimes detract from my professionalism, a balance that can sometimes be hard to maintain once you’ve reached a certain comfort level amongst your colleagues (although, paradoxically, I think nervous energy also contributes).

The second keynote was given that afternoon by my supervisor Jay Johnston of the University of Sydney. Jay’s work traverses the fields of sex, the body, art, archaeology, self, identity, and religion, and she brought a wealth of knowledge to her address on gender in esotericism. The need to problematise notions of heteronormativity and dimorphic gender in the academic discourse surrounding esoteric spirituality is a timely but tricky subject which Jay handled artfully (and artistically, with neat illustrations of the Tarot card ‘The Lovers’ on her slides). This was back to tough love, as it was not only an interesting speech, but a light chiding, warning scholars of esotericism against committing the mistakes of the past and blithely disregarding non-normative and marginalised sexual subjectivities. I wondered, after hearing Manon give two papers on sexuality in magic in theory and practice (which can be two very different things) how we might marry our sometimes lofty philosophical theories of critical gender with the reality of lived religion. Certainly, there is more work to be done in this area, and by weaving together new and nuanced methodologies with the subtleties and realities of religion in practice, scholars will surely discover a deeper level of analysis.

In the afternoon I attended part one of two sessions on ‘Esopolitics,’ the first focusing on right wing politics and esoteric thought. This was a particularly enlightening segment for me, as I previously knew embarrassingly little about neo-conservative paganism. Papers by Jacob Senholt (University of Aarhus) and Tommy Ramstedt (Åbo Akademi) were of especial interest because they looked at European and Nordic examples, giving great insight to the correlations between nationalism, environmentalism, anti-modernism, and spirituality in various ‘autochthonous’ pagan ideologies. Amy Hale (University of Maryland) added her own expertise to the panel, discussing examples of ‘radical traditionalism’ as a marketing tool in Europe and America. I was able to catch the tail-end of Justin Woodman’s (University of London) paper on the influence of Lovecraft and UFOlogy as ‘post-secular demonology,’ which delved into a fascinating zone of popular occulture, but perhaps attempted to cover more than could fit into a 20 minute timeslot.

After a night of, shall we say, decompression, a fair few of us were feeling a little less fresh than usual the next morning for Kocku von Stuckrad’s keynote. However, this rousing address soon had the cogs turning. Kocku (University of Gronigen) continued the program of tough love by reminding us that dialogue between academics is not only useful, but necessary, and this critical discussion must happen in an environment of amicable openness, not hyper-sensitivity or condemnation. To this end, we should all be making more an effort to be not just inter-disciplinary but transdisciplinary. It’s not enough, Kocku argued, to dabble in a bit of sociology, or psychology, or folklore studies – when it comes to the study of religion, and to still-emerging areas such as contemporary esotericism, we must engage in a multi-disciplinary exchange in order to break down the solipsism, isolation, and elitism that can hinder our work. A short list of ‘what is wrong with studies of esotericism,’ modeled on Markus Davidsen’s breakdown of what is wrong with pagan studies, also includes: essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism, and supernaturalism – positions that negatively affect the quality of scholarly analysis, and obstruct the perpetuation of a discipline that is progressive and rigorous. This stirring lecture was an energizing way to begin the second day of an already stimulating conference, and I was glad to toast Kocku at the conference dinner later that night.

Part II of ‘EsoPolitics,’ the Esoteric Left, saw a collection of interesting papers on the merging of politics with religion. Justine Bakker (University of Amsterdam) discussed the transmission between occultism and African American identity and the concept of the ‘black cultic milieu,’ infused with nationalism, racial identity, and a ‘consciousness of deviance.’ Justine’s paper functioned as a call to esoteric scholars to consider this milieu as syncretic, yet distinctive, and influential in it’s own right. Christian Giudice followed with an intriguing case study: the Horus Maat Lodge and their adaptation of the Occupy movement slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ These practitioners made it their magical goal to channel energy to the Occupiers and awaken the global populace to this political message, a great example of urban enchantment. Daniel Radermacher gave the final paper in this session on eco-spirituality, a topic that could have taken up it’s own session. Daniel’s premise of challenging Campbell’s Easternisation thesis by looking at the European roots of religious environmentalism is a promising one, but overall I felt there was not enough attention paid to some significant benchmarks such as Anthroposophical biodynamics, the Gaia hypothesis, and deep green paganism to sufficiently flesh out the relationship between nature and religion in the Western context. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the contrasts, and many of the striking similarities, between the right and left esopolitics sessions, and look forward to seeing more work developing in this field.

After lunch (at the very satisfactory SU cafeteria), Wouter Hanegraaff, a bastion of western esoteric studies, delivered a paper on a subject that is fairly new to him and to the field in general, that is, entheogens and the spiritual experience. Hanegraaff, modestly, admitted to wrongly dismissing the influence of drugs in his previous work. His intention in this paper (and explored in his chapter in Contemporary Esotericism) was to draw our attention to this phenomenon, and insist that we not just acknowledge the role of psychoactives in ecstatic practice, but analyse the gnostic implications. In the afternoon, Sasha Chaitow (University of Essex) and Hereward Tilton (University of Exeter) discussed contemporary enchantment in the unique and religiously significant landscapes of Greece and Glastonbury respectively. Sasha offered a profile of Greece’s neomythology with reference to its highly eclectic schools of esotericism, supported by her own field work. Tilton focused on the alternative history that has grown up around the cult of St Joseph of Arimathea and which is deeply ingrained in the town’s identity.

The conference dinner was a tasty vegetarian buffet at a restaurant/bar, followed by cheap and easy drinks in a crowded pub. While things got a bit blurry toward the end, I have many a good mental snapshot of laughs and chats, and some vague memories of inviting myself to visit various professors at their esteemed European institutions… sorry about that. Thankfully, day three reconvened at the sensible hour of 10am, with parallel sessions on magic and psychologisation, and initiation and secrecy. I attended the most of the latter session, catching some insights into Freemasonry and other initiatory traditions from those who straddle the etic/emic border. This was concluded with a lively talk from Joseph Futerman (Chicago School of Professional Psychology) who opened up the subject of secrecy and it’s psychological attributions and benefits. After lunch the key speakers (Chris Partridge, Wouter Hanegraaff, Kocku von Stuckrad, and Jay Johnston) partook in a round table discussion and fielded questions from Kennet, Egil, and the audience. Despite the much rumoured rivalries between scholars of esotericism, this panel exhibited not just diplomacy and a friendly attitude toward discussion and debate, but perhaps even a surprising amount of agreement. What is important to remember is that esotericism cannot be essentialised – it is an emerging and expanding phenomenon and field of study. What one scholar does not investigate or consider becomes the domain of another as our scope progressively widens and diversifies.

The final activity of this busy conference was the tour of ‘occult Stockholm’ led by Thomas Karlsson (Stockholm University). Thomas is not only a scholar or occultism, but a practitioner, and the founder of the left-hand path initiatory tradition the Order of the Dragon Rouge. The highlight of the tour was visiting the temple of the Dragon Rouge, tucked away in the claustrophobic basement of an unremarkable apartment building. Decorated with inventive hieroglyphs, sigils, plastic draconian figurines, and a theme of black and red, the temple includes a mysterious and unlit inner sanctum with a solemn circular mirror on the floor, I suppose for ‘reflections’ of a deeper kind. Though I did not follow up the opportunity to ask Thomas questions about the practices of the Dragon Rouge, I would direct any curious readers to his and Kennet Granholm’s published works on the subject. In fact, I encourage readers to get on google.scholar or academia.edu immediately if they are interested in discovering more about the work of any of the scholars here mentioned, or any others that participated in the two wonderful conferences that were held in Stockholm this September.

By way of conclusion, I should add that I’ve intentionally given a positive review of the EASR and the Contemporary Esotericism conference. There has been no bending of the truth, but I also don’t believe there is much point in dwelling on the negatives (costs, temporary bouts of disorganization, the occasional dud speaker) as these issues are par for the course. I hope that students like myself might read of my good experiences and feel motivated to participate (even just as an attendee) in this environment, bringing their original research, innovative methods, and unique perspectives to an audience of professionals with varied, and yet sometimes very specific, areas of expertise. Being involved in an international conference can be a great confidence builder, useful networking opportunity, and an invaluable resource for feedback, especially for a thesis in the works! My sincere thanks go to the conference teams for all of their hard work in putting together a solid week’s worth of entertaining education – can’t wait to see it all happen again next year!

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About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.