Western esotericism

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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, meditation, herbalism, alchemy, astrology, 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 and others, still continue to practice modern variants of traditional Western esoteric philosophies.

The academic study of Western esotericism emerged in the latter 20th century, pioneered by scholars like Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre. There are now several peer-reviewed journals and university departments devoted to this field.


The concept of Western esotericism is "a modern scholarly construct" rather than a pre-existing, self-defined tradition of thought.[1] Scholars constructed this category in the late 18th century after identifying "structural similarities" between "the ideas and world-views of a wide variety of thinkers and movements" which prior to this had not been placed in the same analytical category.[1] Academic scholar of Western esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff has characterised these as "recognisable world-views and approaches to knowledge that have played an important although always controversial role in the history of Western culture."[2]

As a category, Western esotericism has been defined in various ways. One of these has been by identifying certain criteria which are common to all Western esoteric traditions. An early exponent of this idea was the historian of Renaissance thought Frances Yates.[3] However, the primary exponent of this view was Antoine Faivre, who published a series of criteria for how to define "Western esotericism" in 1992.[4] Faivre's form of categorisation has been championed by scholars like Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.[5] Hanegraaff however criticised this approach, arguing that it was "reasoning by prototype", thereby already having a "best example" of what Western esotericism should look like, and then comparing other phenomenon to that one.[6]

A second definition uses "occultism" as an element of modernity.[7]

A third definition used in scholarship has used "Western esotericism" to refer to "inner traditions".[8]

A fourth definition was proposed by Hanegraaff, and holds that "Western esotericism" is a category representing "the academy's dustbin of rejected knowledge." In this respect, it contains all of the theories and world views that have been rejected by the mainstream intellectual community because they do not accord with "normative conceptions of religion, rationality and science".[2] Goodrick-Clarke was critical of this approach, believing that it relegated Western esotericism to the position of "a casualty of positivist and materialist perspectives in the nineteenth-century" and thus reinforces the idea that it is of little historical importance.[9]


Late Antiquity[edit]

A later illustration of Hermes Trismegistus

The origins of Western esotericism are in the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean, then part of the Roman Empire, during Late Antiquity, a period encompassing the first centuries of the Common Era.[10] This was a milieu in which there was a mix of religious and intellectual traditions from Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Babylon, and Persia, and in which globalisation, urbanisation, and multiculturalism were bringing about socio-cultural change.[11]

One component of this was Hermetism, an Egyptian Hellenistic school of thought that takes its name from the legendary Egyptian wise man, Hermes Trismegistus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, a number of texts appeared which were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, including the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and the Treatise of the Eighth and Ninth. Although it is still debated as to whether Hermetism was a purely literary phenomenon, or whether there were communities of practitioners who acted on these ideas, it has been established that these texts discuss the true nature of God, emphasising that humans must transcend rational thought and worldly desires in order to find salvation and be reborn into a spiritual body of immaterial light, thereby achieving spiritual unity with divinity.[12]

Another tradition of esoteric thought in Late Antiquity was Gnosticism, which had a complex relationship with Christianity. Various Gnostic sects existed, and they broadly believed that the divine light had been imprisoned within the material world by a malevolent entity known as the Demiurge, who was served by demonic helpers, the Archons. It was the Gnostic belief that humans, who were imbued with the divine light, should seek to attain gnosis and thus escape from the world of matter and rejoin the divine source.[13]

A third form of esotericism in Late Antiquity was Neoplatonism, a school of thought influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Plato. Advocated by such figures as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Neoplatonism held that the human soul had fallen from its divine origins into the material world, but that it could progress, through a number of hierarchical spheres of being, to return to its divine origins once more.[14] The later Neoplatonists performed theurgy, a ritual practice attested in such sources as the Chaldean Oracles. Scholars are still unsure of precisely what theurgy involved, although it is known that it involved a practice designed to make gods appear, who could then raise the theurgist's mind to the reality of the divine.[15]

Middle Ages[edit]

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]

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]

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[edit]

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

The late 19th century saw a radical change in the Western mystery tradition. Helena Blavatsky was the main instrument of this, by introducing to the world a tradition known as Theosophy. While Theosophy is strictly eastern in its approach, one if its primary goals is to demonstrate a universality in an ancient wisdom doctrine. A number of Theosophical works deal heavily with topics such as alchemy, thaumaturgy and Kabbalah,[16] and how they correlate with eastern traditions, especially esoteric Hinduism and esoteric Buddhism. Theosophy would be very influential on later esoteric schools as well as prominent in the revival in interest of esotericism. Western esotericism would be further influenced by groups such as 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. Western theurgy strongly influenced the development of neo-paganism.

World War II[edit]

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,[17] 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.[18] After their rise to power, the Nazis persecuted occultists.[19] 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" due to being institutionalised for insanity.[20]

Soviet Union[edit]

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]

Today, the tradition is experiencing a revival in North America and Europe, while many organizations of Western Esotericism have a presence throughout the world. The tradition is now undergoing reevaluation[citation needed] 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.

Academic study of western esotericism[edit]

The academic study of Western esotericism was pioneered in the early 20th century by historians of the ancient world and the European Renaissance, who came to recognise the impact of pre-Christian and non-rational schools of thought on European society and culture that had been widely ignored by previous scholarship.[9] One of the key centres for this was the Warburg Institute in London, where scholars like Frances Yates, Edgar Wind, Ernst Cassier, and D.P. Walker began arguing that esoteric thought had had a greater impact on Renaissance culture than had been previously accepted.[21]

Initially, the study of Western esotericism had been divided among different disciplines. However, Hanegraaff asserted that Western esotericism had to be studied as a separate field to religion, philosophy, science, and the arts, because while it "participates in all these fields" it does not squarely fit into any of them.[22] It was Antoine Faivre, operating at the Sorbonne, who developed the study of Western esotericism into a formalised field.[23]

By 2008, there were three dedicated university chairs in the subject, at the University of Sorbonne, University of Amsterdam, and the University of Exeter, with the latter two institutions also offering master's degree programs in it.[24]



  1. ^ a b Hanegraaff 2013, p. 3.
  2. ^ a b Hanegraaff 2013, p. 13.
  3. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 6–7.
  4. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 3–4.
  5. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 7–10.
  6. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 4–14.
  7. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 9–10.
  8. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 10–12.
  9. ^ a b Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 4.
  10. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 3, 15; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 18.
  11. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 13; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 18.
  12. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 16–20; Hanegraaff 2013, p. 19.
  13. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 27–29; Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 19–20.
  14. ^ Gooodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 20–27.
  15. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 25; Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 20–21.
  16. ^ Blavatsky, Helena: Isis Unveiled
  17. ^ Hermann Gilbhard: Thule-Gesellschaft.
  18. ^ Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: The Occult Roots of Nazism. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2005, p. 149.
  19. ^ Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 220.
  20. ^ Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, p. 215f.
  21. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, pp. 4–5.
  22. ^ Hanegraaff 2013, pp. 1–2.
  23. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 5.
  24. ^ Goodrick-Clarke 2008, p. 3.


Bogdan, Henrik (2008). Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791470701. 
Faivre, Antoine (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791421789. 
Faivre, Antoine (2010). Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Christine Rhone (translator). New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438433776. 
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2008). The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195320992. 
Hanegraaff, Wouter (1996). New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-9004106956. 
Hanegraaff, Wouter (2012). Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521196215. 
Hanegraaff, Wouter (2013). Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1441136466. 
Versluis, Arthur (2007). Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742558366. 
Von Struckrad, Kocku (2005). Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. Durham: Acumen. ISBN 978-1845530334. 

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