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





Western esotericism (also Western Hermetic Tradition, Western mysticism, Western Inner Tradition, Western occult tradition, and Western mystery tradition) is a broad spectrum of spiritual traditions found in Western society, or refers to the collection of the mystical, esoteric knowledge of the Western world. This often includes, but is not limited to, philosophy and meditation, herbalism and alchemy, astrology and divination, and various forms of ritual magic. The tradition has no one source or unifying text, nor does it hold any specific dogma, instead placing emphasis on spiritual "knowledge" or Gnosis and the rejection of blind faith. Although the protosciences were widespread in the ancient world, the rise of modern science was born from occult varieties of Western Esotericism reinterpreted in the "Age of Enlightenment" and is documented within the field known as the "History of Science". Various groups including Hermeticists, Neopagans, Thelemites, Theosophists and others still continue to practice modern variants of traditional Western esoteric philosophies.

Contents [hide

            1 History

                        1.1 Antiquity

                        1.2 Middle Ages

                        1.3 Early Modern Europe

                        1.4 1720s to 1850s

                        1.5 1850s to 1930s

                        1.6 World War II

                        1.7 Soviet Union

                        1.8 1990s to present

            2 Philosophy

                        2.1 Initiation

                        2.2 Variation

                        2.3 Ethics and morality

            3 See also

            4 Further reading

            5 References

            6 External links

History[edit source | editbeta]


Nine Stones Circle. A Bronze Age stone circle of eight or nine stones on the SE-facing slope of Nine Stone Rig, above Kingside Burn.

The roots of the Western mystery tradition are in occult movements of Late Antiquity, Roman-Hellenistic religions which in turn claimed to originate in ancient Egypt, Chaldea, Persia or other parts of the ancient world. The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up its origins thus:

Its beginnings have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.[1]

To make an accurate assumption of the tradition's origin (and therefore age) it would be necessary to study the origin of the various systems which have come to make up the tradition. Of these systems the Egyptian and Hellenic Mystery religions, the Hebrew Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Hermeticism are generally considered the oldest, though at no stage prior to the 1880s[clarification needed] were these doctrines ever synthesized into one whole.

Due to their relative geographic restrictions they were regarded very much as separate disciplines. It appears that for the most part the specific teachings were preserved via oral tradition (though not in all cases, the Nag Hammadi Library for example) passed from teacher to initiate. However, even in the ancient climates in which they flourished, the Esoteric Philosophies were still highly elusive. Manly P. Hall writes:

In all cities of the ancient world were temples for public worship and offering. In every community also were philosophers and mystics, deeply versed in Nature's lore. These individuals were usually banded together, forming seclusive philosophic and religious schools. The more important of these groups were known as the Mysteries. Many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into these secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel. Alexander Wilder defines the Mysteries as "Sacred dramas performed at stated periods. The most celebrated were those of Isis, Sabazius, Cybele, and Eleusis." After being admitted, the initiates were instructed in the secret wisdom which had been preserved for ages. Plato, an initiate of one of these sacred orders, was severely criticized because in his writings he revealed to the public many of the secret philosophic principles of the Mysteries. Every pagan nation had (and has) not only its state religion, but another into which the philosophic elect alone have gained entrance.[2]

Middle Ages[edit source | editbeta]

After the fall of Rome, alchemy and philosophy and other aspects of the tradition were largely preserved in the Arab and Near Eastern world and introduced into Western Europe by Jews and by the cultural contact between Christians and Muslims that occurred due to the Crusades and the Reconquista. The 12th century saw the development of the Kabbalah in medieval Spain. The medieval period also saw the publication of grimoires which offered often elaborate formulas for theurgy and thaumaturgy. Many of the grimoires seem to have kabbalistic influence. Figures in alchemy from this period seem to also have authored or used grimoires.

Early Modern Europe[edit source | editbeta]

The Renaissance saw a revival of classical learning, and a revival of ancient and medieval occult practices in particular. Renaissance magic revived the "occultist boom" of Late Antiquity, recovering texts treating Greco-Roman magic and Hermeticism as well as its continuations beyond antiquity in the form of the Kabbalah, alchemy and the medieval grimoires. Renaissance scholarship gave rise to a Christian Kabbalah and later (in the Baroque period) to the Rosicrucian Brotherhood. The witch trials in Early Modern Europe are at least indirectly related to this revival of scholarly interest in the occult.[citation needed]

1720s to 1850s[edit source | editbeta]

The Enlightenment saw another occult revival, perhaps spurred by growing rejection of mainstream religion and increased democracy and freedom of conscience. The period saw the rise of occult fraternities, most notably Speculative Freemasonry and a revived Rosicrucian Brotherhood. Academic interest in ancient mystery cults such as those of Mithras and Dionysus began to develop. Emanuel Swedenborg pulled Christianity in a more mystical or occult direction, and Franz Mesmer provided a quasi-scientific method of thaumaturgy. While both these men had profound contributions to the Western mystery tradition, it appears neither was versed in it. The Count of St Germain, whose life and legends influenced Theosophy, lived during this period. Martinism also arose as an esoteric doctrine, as did various Rosicrucian orders.

1850s to 1930s

Cover of the June 1904 edition of Lucifer-Gnosis, by Rudolf Steiner

The late 19th century saw a radical split in the Western mystery tradition. Helena Blavatsky was the main instrument of this, by reinventing the tradition in a system called Theosophy. Theosophy largely ignored the medieval traditions, such as alchemy, thaumaturgy and Kabbalah, instead focusing on more ancient mystery teachings and incorporating Eastern systems of yoga. The extant tradition prospered alongside Theosophy, especially under the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis and such teachers as Eliphas Levi, Papus, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, and Aleister Crowley. This tradition began to see itself as a complete alternative to Christianity, and, not surprisingly, began to emphasize theurgy. This occult revival lasted through World War II. Aspects of it were further revived in the 1960s. Theosophy is still available through the Theosophical Society, and Western theurgy strongly influenced the development of neo-paganism.

World War II[edit source | editbeta]

Emergent occult and esoteric systems found increasing popularity in the early 20th century, especially in Western Europe. Occult lodges and secret societies flowered among European intellectuals of this era who had largely abandoned traditional forms of Christianity. The spreading of secret teachings and magic practices found enthusiastic adherents in the chaos of Germany during the interwar years. Many influential and wealthy Germans were drawn to secret societies such as the Thule Society. Thule Society activist Karl Harrer was one of the founders of the German Workers' Party,[3] which later became the Nazi Party; some Nazi Party members like Alfred Rosenberg and Rudolf Heß were listed as "guests" of the Thule Society, as was Adolf Hitler's mentor Dietrich Eckart.[4] After their rise to power, the Nazis persecuted occultists.[5] While many Nazi Party leaders like Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were hostile to occultism, Heinrich Himmler used Karl Maria Wiligut as a clairvoyant "and was regularly consulting for help in setting up the symbolic and ceremonial aspects of the SS" but not for important political decisions. By 1939, Wiligut was "forcibly retired from the SS" because of his institutionalisation for insanity.[6]

Soviet Union[edit source | editbeta]

Little information is known about the status of the Western mystery tradition in the officially atheist Soviet Union and its "satellites" during the ruling of the Communist Party. It is believed by some that the Soviets had a scientific interest in subjects traditionally studied by the Western mystery tradition, such as telepathy and astrology.

A number of people associated with mysticism chose to leave the countries where Communism was installed. For example, G.I. Gurdjieff, an influential individual from Armenia, fled to France after the Bolsheviks overtook the ruling of Russia. The Universal White Brotherhood of Bulgaria, founded by Peter Deunov and extended by Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, also chose to continue its activities in France and other Western countries after World War II and the introduction of Communism into Bulgaria. Nicholas Roerich, founder of Agni Yoga had also left Russia after the revolution - he and his family first settled in Finland and India - and finally in the United States. These three examples, although not directly associated with the core of the Western mystery tradition, demonstrate a pattern which supports the claim that the Soviet-controlled states were negative not only to mainstream religion but also to mysticism and occultism.

It is known that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, several mystical societies, such as the Rosicrucians, gained profound revival in Eastern Europe and Russia which resulted in the foundation of many new jurisdictions and lodges.

1990s to present[edit source | editbeta]

Today, the tradition is experiencing a revival in North America and Europe, while many organizations of Western Esotericism (or Wesotericism[citation needed]) have a presence throughout the world. The tradition is now undergoing reevaluation by the anthropological and archaeological developments in the study of its root sources, namely, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman world, Druidism and other pagan sources, as well as Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) esotericism such as Manichaeism, Sufism and Sikhism. The early incorporation of Eastern ideas began, most notably, by the Theosophical Society in the 19th century, continues increasingly today particularly from Buddhism, Bon, Jainism, Hinduism, Taoism and especially Yoga & Tantra.

Philosophy[edit source | editbeta]

Today, Western Esotericism is a syncretism of ancient philosophy, Paganism and Abrahamic thought and imports from Asia and modern science. The tradition focuses on individual spiritual progress through initiation, either personal or into a brotherhood, on personal or group rituals, study of philosophy and "cosmic" laws and their practical application, and encompasses alchemy, meditation, divination, and ritual magic.

Initiation[edit source | editbeta]

The concept of initiation plays a very important role in the Western mystical tradition, and many people participating in this tradition are initiated in one or more mystical organisations. Initiatory societies existed in ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, working as schools or colleges for the spreading of their secret teachings to worthy individuals. These teachings were not accessible to the general public, symbolized by the Greek phrase "Ουδείς αγεωμέτρητος εισείτω" (which may be translated as "no person without knowledge of Geometry should get in") found in Plato's Academy.

The tradition of initiation and secrecy is well preserved today, although it is criticised by many people, mainly those related to the New Age phenomenon, where many participants have adopted the view that access to knowledge should be as open as possible. However, many New Age schools and doctrines still require a process of initiation and the private tutelage of a guru, as with many forms of yoga) or other enlightened master (e.g., Zen Buddhism) in order for the passing of wisdom or knowledge to occur.

Variation[edit source | editbeta]

Beginning in the early to mid-Nineteenth century, and with the incorporation of Eastern mystical concepts into the existing traditions, the Western mystery tradition experienced a major divergence between the esoteric Hermetic rites of the Masonic and Rosicrucian traditions, and the Theosophical schools (with the major divergence occurring during the life of Madame Blavatsky). Some people considered Theosophy to be grouped under the general rubric of New Age spirituality although others do not agree, since they consider the New Age as an over-simplification of several theosophical concepts and having self-centered aims. The New Age schools preached an openness not seen in the esoteric Hermetic fraternal organizations, which continue to rely heavily on initiatory rites for the dissemination of spiritual information. However, although New Age spirituality is more open in its presentation, it continues to rely more or less on a syncretic and esoteric methodology in the formulation of its methods and in the transmission of its wisdom/enlightenment.

Ethics and morality[edit source | editbeta]

With the enormous variation of beliefs and methods among the proliferating spiritual and esoteric groups have come concerns from some regarding the moral quality or ethical content of certain doctrines. As a consequence, there has been an effort by some[who?] to attempt a supposed objective dichotomy between the ethical philosophies of spiritual or religious groups by categorizing them under the Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path modality. Those on the "Right-Hand Path" are said to focus on the elevation of the spiritual over the carnal, faith-based worship of something greater than themselves, and the observance of strict moral codes, all of which are supposed by their adherents to bring humans closer to the Divine or a moral good, as opposed to those on the "Left-Hand Path" who focus on the advancement and preservation of the self, glorification of the earthly, and the development of personal power. This usage of terms, however, is invoked almost exclusively by proponents of groups[who?] who consider themselves "on the Left-Hand Path"; opponents of this terminology (groups that are almost always described by those who subscribe to this distinction as being on the "Right-Hand Path") argue[weasel words] either that this distinction is invalid because it results from a mislabeled or false dichotomy, or that much of what is called "left-handed" is simply not "legitimate".

See also[edit source | editbeta]

   Jungian/Analytical Psychology

   Jungian interpretation of religion

   Western religion

   Religion in Mesopotamia

   Ancient Egyptian religion

   Proto-Indo-Iranian religion

   Proto-Indo-European religion

   Greco-Roman mysteries

   Esotericism in Germany and Austria








Further reading[edit source | editbeta]

   The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI.

   The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall ISBN 1-58542-250-9.

   The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethen Age by Frances Yates ISBN 0-415-25409-4.

   The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West by Jay Kinney ISBN 1-58542-339-4.

   Three Books of Occult Philosophy: A Complete Edition by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa ISBN 0-87542-832-0.

References[edit source | editbeta]

1.^ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.

2.^ Manly P. Hall: The Secret Teachings of all Ages, p. 21.

3.^ Hermann Gilbhard: Thule-Gesellschaft.

4.^ Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: The Occult Roots of Nazism. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2005, p. 149.

5.^ Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 220.

6.^ Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 215f.

External links[edit source | editbeta]

   An Esoteric Archive

   Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

   Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition

   A History of the Western Mystery Tradition by J. S. Kupperman

The Western Esoteric Tradition Research Site

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

Peter Selg (Autor)



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

Peter Selg (Autor) - Gebundene Ausgabe: 2148 Seiten

Verlag: Ita Wegman Institut (6. Dezember 2012)

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