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“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to 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.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

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

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to 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.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

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.