Western esotericism

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Western esotericism, also called esotericism and esoterism, is a scholarly "generic label for a large and complicated group of historical phenomena" which share an air de famille.[1] It refers to a wide array of ideas and movements which have developed within Western society, and which have remained largely distinct from both orthodox Judeo-Christian religion and Enlightenment rationalism. A trans-disciplinary field, esotericism has pervaded various forms of Western philosophy, religion, pseudoscience, art, literature, and music, continuing to have an impact on intellectual ideas and popular culture.

The precise definition of Western esotericism has been debated by various academics, with a number of different alternatives proposed. One perspective argues that it is a category that can be defined by shared internal characteristics held by all Western esoteric groups; the scholar of Western esotericism Antoine Faivre listed six such characteristics. A separate view, propounded by Wouter Hanegraaff, views Western esotericism as a category encompassing all of Western culture's "rejected knowledge" that is accepted by neither the scientific establishment or orthodox religious authorities.

The earliest traditions to later be labelled as forms of Western esotericism emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean during Late Antiquity, where Hermetism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism developed as schools of thought distinct from mainstream Christianity. In Renaissance Europe, interest in many of these older ideas increased, with various intellectuals seeking to combine "pagan" philosophies with the Kabbalah and Christian philosophy, resulting in the emergence of esoteric movements like Christian theosophy. The 17th century saw the development of initiatory societies professing esoteric knowledge such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, while the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century led to the development of new forms of esoteric thought. The 19th-century saw the emergence of new trends of esoteric thought that have come to be known as occultism. Prominent groups in this century included the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which influenced the development of Thelema. Other developments within occultism were modern paganism, which included religious movements such as Wicca. Esoteric ideas permeated the counterculture of the 1960s and later cultural tendencies, from which emerged the New Age movement in the 1970s.

Although the idea that these varying movements could be categorised together under the rubric of "Western esotericism" developed in the late 18th century, these esoteric currents were largely ignored as a subject of academic enquiry. The academic study of Western esotericism only emerged in the latter 20th century, pioneered by scholars like Frances Yates and Faivre. There are now several peer-reviewed journals, university chairs, and academic societies devoted to this field.


Greek philosophy[edit]

The term derives from the Greek, either from the comparative ἐσώτερος (esôteros), "inner", or from its derived adjective ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), "pertaining to the innermost," both compounds of ἔσω (esô), "within", thus pertaining to interiority, the initiatic or mysticism, all these terms relating to what lies within a sacred enclosure. Its antonym is "exoteric" or "profane".

Plato, in his dialogue First Alcibiades (circa 390 BC), uses the expression ta esô meaning "the inner things", and in his dialogue Theaetetus (circa 360 BC) he uses ta exô meaning "the outside things". Aristotle applied this distinction to his own writings. The probable first appearance of the Greek adjective esôterikos is in Lucian of Samosata's "The Auction of Lives", § 26, written around AD 166.[2]

Western esotericism[edit]

The term esoteric first appeared in English in the 1660 History of Philosophy by Thomas Stanley, in his description of the mystery-school of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans were divided into "exoteric" (under training), and "esoteric" (admitted into the "inner" circle).[citation needed]

Jacques Matter used the term "l'ésotérisme" in his Histoire du gnosticisme in 1828.[3] It was popularized by Eliphas Levi in the 1850s, and introduced into the English language by the Theosophist A.D. Sinnet in 1883.[3] Levi also introduced the term l'occoltisme, which is often used synonymous with esotericism, but, according to Hanegraaf, may better be used to denote a specific development within esotericism.[1]


Somewhat crudely, esotericism can be described as a Western form of spirituality that stresses the importance of the individual effort to gain spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, whereby man is confronted with the divine aspect of existence.

— Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan, 2007.[4]

Scholarly construct[edit]

The concept of Western esotericism is a modern scholarly construct rather than a pre-existing, self-defined tradition of thought.[5] Scholars established 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 grouping.[6] The historian of esotericism Antoine Faivre noted that "never a precise term, [esotericism] has begun to overflow its boundaries on all sides",[7] with both Faivre and Voss stating that Western esotericism consists of "a vast spectrum of authors, trends, works of philosophy, religion, art, literature, and music".[8]

Various academics have emphasised the idea that esotericism is a phenomenon unique to the Western world; as Faivre stated, an "empirical perspective" would hold that "esotericism is a Western notion".[9] As scholars such as Faivre and Hanegraaff have pointed out, there is no comparable category of "Eastern" or "Oriental" esotericism.[10] 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."[11] Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan asserted that Western esotericism constituted "a third pillar of Western culture" alongside "doctrinal faith and rationality", being deemed heretical by the former and irrational by the latter.[12] Scholars nevertheless recognise that various non-Western traditions have exerted "a profound influence" over Western esotericism, citing the prominent example of the Theosophical Society's incorporation of Hindu and Buddhist concepts into its doctrines.[13] Given these influences and the imprecise nature of the term "Western", the scholar of esotericism Kennet Granholm has argued that academics should cease referring to "Western esotericism" altogether, instead simply favouring "esotericism" as a descriptor of this phenomenon.[14]

Various definitions[edit]

According to Hanegraaf, four distinct definitions of "esotericism can be found: "esotericism" as a generic label; as a body of secret doctrines; as the common or perennial center of all religions; and as New Age parlance for innerly experienced spirituality.[15] A fifth definition was also proposed by Hanegraaff, and holds that "Western esotericism" is a category representing "the academy's dustbin of rejected knowledge."[11] Other definitions can also be found.

Generic label[edit]

One approach to defining Western esotericism has been to do so by identifying certain criteria which, it is claimed, are common to all Western esoteric traditions.[16] According to Hanegraaff, "Esotericism" is a "generic label for a large and complicated group of historical phenomena" which share an air de famille.[1]

An early exponent of this idea was the historian of Renaissance thought Frances Yates.[16] However, the primary exponent of this view was Antoine Faivre, who published a series of criteria for how to define "Western esotericism" in 1992.[17] Faivre's form of categorisation has been championed by scholars like Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke,[18] and by 2007 Bogdan could note that Faivre's had become "the standard definition" of Western esotericism in use among scholars.[19]

Faivre claimed that esotericism was "identifiable by the presence of six fundamental characteristics or components", four of which were "intrinsic" and thus vital to defining something as being esoteric, while the other two were "secondary" and thus not necessarily present in every form of esotericism.[20][21] He listed these characteristics as follows:

  1. "Correspondences": This is the idea that there are both real and symbolic correspondences existing between all things within the universe.[20] As examples for this, Faivre pointed to the esoteric concept of the macrocosm and microcosm, often presented as the dictum of "as above, so below", as well as the astrological idea that the actions of the planets have a direct corresponding influence on the behaviour of human beings.[22]
  2. "Living Nature": Faivre argued that all esotericists envision the natural universe as being imbued with its own life force, and that as such they understand it as being "complex, plural, hierarchical".[23]
  3. "Imagination and Mediations": Faivre believed that all esotericists place great emphasis on both the human imagination, and mediations – "such as rituals, symbolic images, mandalas, intermediary spirits" – as tools that provide access to worlds and levels of reality existing between the material world and the divine.[24]
  4. "Experience of Transmutation": Faivre's fourth intrinsic characteristic esotericism was the emphasis that esotericists place on fundamentally transforming themselves through their practice, for instance through the spiritual transformation that it alleged to accompany the attainment of gnosis.[25]
  5. "Practice of Concordance": The first of Faivre's secondary characteristics of esotericism was the belief – held by many esotericists, such as those in the Traditionalist School – that there is a fundamental unifying principle or root from which all world religions and spiritual practices emerge. The common esoteric principle is that by attaining this unifying principle, the world's different beliefs can be brought together in unity.[26]
  6. "Transmission": Faivre's second secondary characteristic was the emphasis on the transmission of esoteric teachings and secrets from a master to their discipline, through a process of initiation.[27]

This approach to defining Western esotericism has however been criticised by Hanegraaff. He claimed that this approach entailed "reasoning by prototype", thereby already having a "best example" of what Western esotericism should look like, and then comparing other phenomenon to that one.[28]

Secret doctrines[edit]

Several dictionary definitions refer to esotericism as the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs,[29] that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group of those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest.[30]

Hanegraaf notes that this is an overly restrictive definition, since "many manifestations of alchemy or Christian Theosophy, for instance, have never been secret but widely disseminated."[31] Bland also notes that the texts which are interpreted for their esoteric meaning are often central to mainstream religions. For example, the Bible and the Torah are considered esoteric material.[32]


In perennialist usage, esotericism is a metaphysical concept referring to a supposed "transcendent unity" of all great religious traditions. Esotericism is the metaphysical point of unity where exoteric religions are believed to converge:[33][note 1]

The "perennialist" approach is notably represented by Alan Watts and by the Traditionalist School, a modern school of esotericism represented by authors like the French René Guénon (1886–1951).[note 2] They postulate that there exists a Primordial Tradition of non-human origin.[35][note 3]

According to Hanegraaff, the Perennialist definition "implies that one subscribes to a religious doctrine" which is itself an object of study.[31]

New Age[edit]

In New Age parlance, esotericism does not refer to the traditions historically denoted with this term, but is

... first and foremost a concept referring to Individualkultur according to the motto: "You have it all inside yourself, check it out!"... Thus Esotericism changed ... from a special tradition of knowledge into a special type of "religion", the "journey within". ... Similar to the word "spirituality", "Esotericism" thus became a surrogate for "religion", which accentuates its subjective element focused on inner experience.[36][note 4]

"Rejected knowledge"[edit]

A colored version of the 1888 Flammarion engraving

A fifth definition was proposed by Hanegraaff, and holds that "Western esotericism" is a category representing "the academy's dustbin of rejected knowledge."[11] 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".[11]

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 Western esoteric traditions were of little historical importance.[37] Bogdan similarly expressed concern regarding Hanegraaff's definition, believing that it made the category of Western esotericism "all inclusive" and thus analytically useless.[38]

Other definitions[edit]

A sixth definition uses "occultism" as an element of modernity.[39]

A seventh definition used in scholarship has used "Western esotericism" to refer to "inner traditions".[40] This academic definition of esotericism was heavily influenced by the ideas of several esoteric movements themselves, most notably Traditionalism and Martinist Freemasonry.[41] It was popular among French academics during the 1980s, exerting a strong influence over the academics Mircea Eliade, Henry Corbin, and the early work of Faivre.[41]

Arthur Versluis comprises mystical and magical ideas and movements focused on the pursuit of gnosis, a term which has been defined as 'direct spiritual insight into cosmology or metaphysics'.[42]


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.[43] 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.[44]

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 The Discourse on 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.[45]

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.[46]

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.[47] 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.[48]

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.[citation needed]

Renaissance and Early Modern period[edit]

During the Renaissance, a number of European thinkers began to synthesize "pagan" philosophies which were then being made available through Arabic translations with Christian thought and the Jewish kabbalah.[49] The earliest of these individuals was the Byzantine philosopher Plethon (1355/60–1452?), who argued that the Chaldean Oracles represented an example of a superior religion of ancient humanity which had been passed down by the Platonists.[50] Plethon's ideas interested the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, who employed Florentine thinker Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) to translate Plato's works into Latin. Ficino went on to translate and publish the works of various Platonic figures, arguing that their philosophies were compatible with Christianity, and allowing for the emergence of a wider movement in Renaissance Platonism, or Platonic Orientalism.[51] Ficino also translated part of the Corpus Hermeticum, although the rest would be translated by his contemporary, Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500).[52] Another core figure in this intellectual milieu was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), who achieved notability in 1486 by inviting scholars from across Europe to come and debate the 900 theses that he had written with him. Mirandola argued that all of these philosophies reflected a grand universal wisdom, however Pope Innocent VIII condemned these actions, criticising him for attempting to mix pagan and Jewish ideas with Christianity.[53]

Pico's increased interest in Jewish kabbalah led to his development of a distinct form of Christian Kabbalah. His work was built on by the German Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) who authored a prominent text on the subject, De arte cabalistica.[54] Christian Kabbalah was expanded in the work of the German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535/36), who used it as a framework through which to explore the philosophical and scientific traditions of Antiquity in his work De occulta philosophia libri tres.[55] The work of Agrippa and other esoteric philosophers had been based in a pre-Copernican worldview, but following the arguments of Copernicus, a more accurate understanding of the cosmos was established. Copernicus' theories were adopted into esoteric strains of thought by Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), whose ideas would be deemed heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, eventually resulting in his public execution.[56]

The Masonic Square and Compasses.

A distinct strain of esoteric thought developed in Germany, where it came to be known as Naturphilosophie; although influenced by traditions from Late Antiquity and Medieval Kabbalah, it only acknowledged two main sources of authority: Biblical scripture and the natural world.[57] The primary exponent of this approach was Paracelsus (1493/94–1541), who took inspiration from alchemy and folk magic to argue against the mainstream medical establishment, which based its approach on the ideas of Galen. Instead, Paracelsus urged doctors to learn medicine through an observation of the natural world, although in later work he also began to focus on overtly religious questions. His work would gain significant support in both areas over the following centuries.[58] One of those influenced by Paracelsus was German cobbler Jacob Böhme (1575–1624), who sparked the Christian theosophy movement through his attempts to solve the problem of evil. Böhme argued that God had been created out of an unfathomable mystery, the Ungrud, and that God himself composed of a wrathful core, surrounded by the forces of light and love.[59] Although condemned by Germany's Lutheran authorities, Böhme's ideas spread and formed the basis for a number of small religious communities, such as Johann Georg Gichtel's Angelic Brethren in Amsterdam, and John Pordage and Jane Leade's Philadelphian Society in England.[60]

From 1614 to 1616, the three Rosicrucian Manifestos were published in Germany; these texts purporting to represent a secret initiatory brotherhood which had been founded centuries before by a German adept named Christian Rosenkreutz. There is no evidence that Rosenkreutz was a genuine historical figure, or that a Rosicrucian Order had ever existed, and instead the manifestos are likely literary creations of Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreae (1586–1654). However, they inspired much public interest, with various individuals coming to describe themselves as "Rosicrucian" and claiming that they had access to secret esoteric knowledge as a result.[61] A real iniatory brotherhood was established in late 16th-century Scotland through the transformation of Medieval stonemason guilds to include non-craftsman: Freemasonry. Soon spreading into other parts of Europe, in England it largely rejected its esoteric character and embraced humanism and rationalism, while in France it embraced new esoteric concepts, particularly those from Christian theosophy.[62]

18th, 19th and early 20th centuries[edit]

Hypnotic séance. Painting by Swedish artist Richard Bergh, 1887

Swedenborg and Mesmer[edit]

The Age of Enlightenment witnessed a process of increasing secularisation of European governments and an embrace of modern science and rationality within intellectual circles. In turn, a "modernist occult" emerged that reflected varied ways in which esoteric thinkers came to terms with these developments.[63] One of the most prominent esotericists of this period was the Swedish naturalist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who attempted to reconcile science and religion after experiencing a vision of Jesus Christ. His writings focused on his visionary travels to heaven and hell and his communications with angels, claiming that the visible, materialist world parallels an invisible spiritual world, with correspondences between the two that do not reflect causal relations. Following his death, followers would found the Swedenborgian New Church, although his writings would influence a far wider array of esoteric philosophies.[64]

Another major figure within the esoteric movement of this period was the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1814), who developed the theory of Animal Magnetism, which later came to be known more commonly as "Mesmerism". Mesmer claimed that a universal life force permeated everything, including the human body, and that illnesses were caused by a disturbance or block in this force's flow; he developed techniques which he claimed cleansed such blockages and restored the patient to full health.[65] One of Mesmer's followers, the Marquis de Puységur, discovered that mesmeric treatment could induce a state of somnumbulic trance in which they claimed to enter visionary states and communicate with spirit beings.[66]

Another Mesmerist, Phineas Quimby (1802–66), an American mesmerist and healer, started the New Thought movement. Quimby had developed a belief system which included the tenet that illness originated in the mind as a consequence of erroneous beliefs and that a mind open to God's wisdom could overcome any illness.[67] During the late 19th century, the metaphysical healing practices of Quimby mingled with the "Mental Science" of Warren Felt Evans, a Swedenborgian minister.[citation needed] In the late 19th century, New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church and Church of Divine Science (established in 1888 and 1889, respectively), followed by Religious Science (established in 1927).[68] The concept of New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect.[69][70]


Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that was developing by the late 1820s and '30s in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality.[71] The doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School was of particular concern.

Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. "Self-reliant" differs from the traditional usage of the word, however, and refers mainly to a fierce intellectual independence that believed itself capable of generating completely original insights with as little deference paid to past masters as possible.


Somnumbulic trance-states would heavily influence the esoteric religion of Spiritualism, which emerged from the United States in the 1840s and spread throughout North American and Europe. Spiritualism was based on the concept that individuals could communicate with spirits of the deceased during séances.[72] Although most forms of Spiritualism had little theoretical depth, being largely practical affairs, full theological worldviews based on the movement would be articulated by Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and Allan Kardec (1804–1869).[66] Scientific interest in the claims of Spiritualism resulted in the development of the field of psychical research.[66] Somnambulism also exerted a strong influence on the early disciplines of psychology and psychiatry; esoteric ideas purvey the work of many early figures in this field, most notably Carl Gustav Jung, although with the rise of psychoanalysis and behaviourism in the 20th century, these disciplines distanced themselves from esotericism.[73] Also influenced by artificial somnambulism was the religion of New Thought, founded by the American Mesmerist Phineas P. Quimby (1802–1866) and which revolved around the concept of "mind over matter", believing that illness and other negative conditions could be cured through the power of belief.[74]


Pentagram of Eliphas Levi

In Europe, a movement usually termed "occultism" emerged as various figures attempted to find a "third way" between Christianity and positivist science while building on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance traditions of esoteric thought.[74] In France, following the social upheaval of the 1789 Revolution, various figures emerged in this occultist milieu who were heavily influenced by traditional Catholicism, the most notable of whom were Eliphas Lévi (1810–1875) and Papus (1865–1916).[75] Also significant was René Guénon (1886–1951), whose concern with tradition led him to develop an occult viewpoint termed Traditionalism; it espoused the idea of an original, universal tradition, and thus a rejection of modernity.[76] His Traditionalist ideas would have a strong influence on later esotericists like Julius Evola (1898–1974) and Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998).[76]


In the Anglophone world, the burgeoning occult movement owed more to Enlightenment libertines, and thus was more often of an anti-Christian bent that saw wisdom as emanating from the pre-Christian pagan religions of Europe.[76] Various Spiritualist mediums came to be disillusioned with the esoteric thought available, and sought inspiration in pre-Swedenborgian currents; the most prominent of these were Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–1899) and Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), the latter of whom called for the revival of the "occult science" of the ancients, which could be found in both the East and West. Authoring the influential Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), she co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.[77] It had a strong influence on Buddhist modernism, and aided the popularisation of Buddhism in the west by Buddhists like D.T. Suzuki,[78] who was influenced by western esotericism,[79] and even became a member of the Theosophical Society.[80] Subsequent leaders of the Society, namely Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934) interpreted modern theosophy as a form of ecumenical esoteric Christianity, resulting in their proclamation of Indian Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) as world messiah.[81] In rejection of this was the breakaway Anthroposophical Society founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).[81]


New esoteric understandings of magic also developed in the latter part of the 19th century. One of the pioneers of this was American Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875), who argued that sexual energy and psychoative drugs could be used for magical purposes.[81] In England, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an initiatory order devoted to magic which based itself on an understanding of kabbalah, was founded in the latter years of the century.[82] One of the most prominent members of that order was Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), who went on to proclaim the religion of Thelema and become a prominent member of the Ordo Templi Orientis.[83] Some of their contemporaries developed esoteric schools of thought that did not entail magic, namely the Greco-Armenian teacher George Gurdjieff (1866–1949) and his Russian pupul P. D. Ouspensky (1878–1947).[84]


A major factor in the development of modern esotericism was the development of Neo-Vedanta, an esoteric interpretation of Hinduism developed by influential Brahmo Samaj leaders, especially Ram Mohan Roy, Keshubchandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda.[85] Their neo-Vedanta became popular in western esoteric circles by the end of the 19th century, being regarded as an authentic, millennia-old secret tradition.[85] It was influenced by Unitarianism,[86][87] Transcendentalism,[88] and Romanticism,[89] emphasizing personal religious experience over mere reasoning and theology.[90]

Vivekananda (1863-1902)[91] played a major role in the spread of Neo-Vedanta to the west via the Ramakrishna Mission. In the 1880s Vivekananda became acquainted with western esotericism.[92] Vivekananda's acquaintance with western esotericism made him very successful in western esoteric circles, beginning with his speech in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda adapted traditional Hindu ideas and religiosity to suit the needs and understandings of his western audiences, who were especially attracted by and familiar with western esoteric traditions and movements like Transcendentalism and New thought.[93] An important element in his adaptation of Hindu religiosity was the introduction of his four yoga's model, which includes Raja yoga, his interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga sutras,[94] which offered a practical means to realize the divine force within which is central to modern western esotericism.[93] In 1896 his book Raja Yoga was published, which became an instant success and was highly influential in the western understanding of Yoga.[95][96]


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. Notable writers such as Guido von List spread neo-pagan, nationalist ideas, based on Wotanism and the Kabbalah. 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,[97] 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.[98] After their rise to power, the Nazis persecuted occultists.[99] 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.[100] On the other hand, the German hermetic magic order Fraternitas Saturni was founded on Easter 1928 and it is one of the oldest continuously running magical groups in Germany.[note 5][101] In 1936 it was prohibited by the Nazi regime. Gregor A. Gregorius as well as other leaders of the lodge emigrated in order to avoid imprisonment, but in the course of the war Gregorius was arrested for a year by the Nazi government. After World War II Gregorius reformed the Fraternitas Saturni.[102]

Great Britain[edit]

Dion Fortune was a prominent British occultist and mystic.[note 6][103] In 1922, after a falling out with Moina Mathers[104] and with Moina's consent, Dion Fortune left the Alpha et Omega to form an offshoot organization.[105][106] This indirectly brought new members to the Alpha et Omega.[107] Fortune's group was later renamed Fraternity of the Inner Light", and was, later still, renamed "The Society of the Inner Light". Servants of the Light was founded in 1965 by British occultist and author W. E. Butler.[108][109] He received his training in Dion Fortune's Fraternity of the Inner Light,[109]

Later 20th century[edit]

Sculpture of the Horned God of Wicca found in the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall

In the 1960s and 1970s, esotericism came to be increasingly associated with the growing counter-culture in the West, whose adherents understood themselves in participating in a spiritual revolution that would mark the Age of Aquarius.[110] By the 1980s, these currents of millenarian currents had come to be widely known as the New Age movement, and it became increasingly commercialised as business entrepreneurs exploited a growth in the spiritual market.[110] Conversely, other forms of esoteric thought retained the anti-commercial and counter-cultural sentiment of the 1960s and 1970s, namely the techno-shamanic movement promoted by figures such as Terence McKenna and Daniel Pinchbeck which built on the work of anthropologist Carlos Castenada.[110]

This trend was accompanied by the increased growth of modern paganism, a movement initially dominated by Wicca, the religion propagated by Gerald Gardner.[111] Wicca was adopted by members of the second-wave feminist movement, most notably Starhawk, and developing into the Goddess movement.[111] Wicca also greatly influenced the development of Pagan neo-druidry and other forms of Celtic revivalism.[111] Other trends which emerged in western occultism in the later 20th century were satanism as exposed by groups such as The Church of Satan and Temple of Set,[112] as well as chaos magick through the Illuminates of Thanateros group[113][114] among others.

Academic study[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 that – although it had been ignored by previous scholarship – the impact which pre-Christian and non-rational schools of thought had exerted on European society and culture was worthy of academic attention.[37] 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.[115] In 1965, the world's first academic post in the study of esotericism was established at the École pratique des hautes études in the Sorbonne, Paris; named the chair in the History of Christian Esotericism, its first holder was François Secret, a specialist in the Christian Kabbalah.[116] In 1979 the scholar Antoine Faivre assumed Secret's chair at the Sorbonne, which was renamed the "History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe".[117] Faivre has since been cited as being responsible for developing the study of Western esotericism into a formalised field,[118] with his 1992 work L'ésotérisme having been cited as marking "the beginning of the study of Western esotericism as an academic field of research".[119]

London's Warburg Institute was one of the first centres to encourage the academic study of Western esotericism

Faivre noted that there were two significant obstacles to establishing the field. One was that there was an engrained prejudice towards esotericism within academia, resulting in the widespread perception that the history of esotericism was not worthy of academic research.[116] The second was that esotericism is a trans-disciplinary field, the study of which did not fit clearly within any particular discipline.[116] As Hanegraaff noted, 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.[120] Elsewhere, he noted that there was "probably no other domain in the humanities that has been so seriously neglected" as Western esotericism.[121]

In 1980, the U.S.-based Hermetic Academy was founded by Robert A. McDermott as an outlet for American scholars interested in Western esotericism.[122] From 1986 to 1990 members of the Hermetic Academy participated in panels at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion under the rubric of the "Esotericism and Perennialism Group".[122] By 1994, Faivre could comment that the academic study of Western esotericism had taken off in France, Italy, England, and the United States, but he lamented the fact that it had not done so in Germany.[116] 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.[123]

On the basis of the fact that "English culture and literature have been traditional strongholds of Western esotericism", in 2011 Pia Brînzeu and György Szönyi urged that English studies also have a role in this interdisciplinary field.[124]

Hanegraaff follows a distinction between an “emic” and an “etic” approach to religious studies. The emic approach is that of the alchemist or theosopher as an alchemist or theosopher. The etic approach is that of the scholar as an historian, a researcher, with a critical look. An empirical study of esotericism needs “emic material and etic interpretation”:

Emic denotes the believer’s point of view. On the part of the researcher, the reconstruction of this emic perspective requires an attitude of empathy which excludes personal biases as far as possible. Scholarly discourse about religion, on the other hand, is not emic but etic. Scholars may introduce their own terminology and make theoretical distinctions which are different from those of the believers themselves.[125]

Arthur Versluis proposes approaching esotericism through a “sympathetic empiricism”:

Esotericism, given all its varied forms and its inherently multidimensional nature, cannot be conveyed without going beyond purely historical information: at minimum, the study of esotericism, and in particular mysticism, requires some degree of imaginative participation in what one is studying.[126]

Popular culture[edit]

Kennet Granholm noted that esoteric ideas and images could be found in many aspects of Western popular media, citing such examples as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avatar, Hellblazer, and His Dark Materials.[127] Granholm has argued that there are problems with the field in that it draws a distinction between esotericism and non-esoteric elements of culture which draw upon esotericism; citing the example of extreme metal, he noted that it was incredibly difficult to differentiate between those artists who were "properly occult" and those who simply utilised occult themes and aesthetics in "a superficial way".[128]

Writers interested in occult themes have adopted three different strategies for dealing with the subject: those who are knowledgeable on the subject including attractive images of the occult and occultists in their work, those who disguise occultism within "a web of intertextuality", and those who oppose it and seek to deconstruct it.[129]

Esoteric and occult themes have found a place in cinema in suspense and horror films such as Rosemary's Baby, The Devils (film), The Exorcist and The Craft; as well as in Stanley Kubrick´s film Eyes Wide Shut and in Derek Jarman´s Jubilee (1978 film). Particularly within experimental cinema, esoteric and occult themed films were produced by practicing western esotericist directors Kenneth Anger (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Lucifer Rising) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schuon: "Our starting point is the acknowledgment of the fact that there are diverse religions which exclude each other. This could mean that one religion is right and that all the others are false; it could mean also that all are false. In reality, it means that all are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification, which coincides with pure metaphysics, or in other terms, with the philosophia perennis.[34]
  2. ^ Other authors include the Indian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), the Italian Julius Evola (1898–1974), the Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr (born in 1933).
  3. ^ Guénon: "We say that it [the origin of the traditions] is polar, and the pole is nomore Western than it is Eastern. It is only in a later epoch that the seat of the primordial tradition, transferred to other regions, was able to become either Western or Eastern. We consider the origin of the traditions to be Nordic, and even more to be polar, since this is expressly affirmed in the Veda as well as in other sacred books."[35]
  4. ^ Christopher Bochinger (1994), "New Age" und moderne religion: Religionswissenschaftliche Untersuchungen, as cited by Hanegraaff.
  5. ^ Wouter Hanegraaff: "The most important magical secret lodge of the 20th century in the German-speaking world." "Fraternitas Saturni" at Wouter Hanegraaff (ed). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Brill. 2006. pg. 379
  6. ^ Wouter Hanegraaff: "Occultist author, founder of the group which eventually became the Society of the Inner Light, originally conceived as an “outer court” of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Fortune was initiated into the Golden Dawn in 1919....but was subsequently evicted on account of personal conflicts with Moina Mathers....Fortune continued to run the Fraternity of the Inner Light as an independent organization, still based on Golden Dawn principles, until her death (and for some years after it by the popular account). She was an amateur of psychology, a conscious and canny popularizer of occult ideas and methods, and a prolific author, both of textbooks on magic of a “how-to” variety, and of occult novels which depict the construction of magical rituals in such detail that the novels, too, have served as a set of ritual sourcebooks (both for post-Gardnerian Neopagan witchcraft...and for ritual magicians more explicitly indebted to the magical tradition she founded). Her books continue to be popular among Neopagans and occultists and most of them remain in print." "Dion Fortune" at Wouter Hanegraaff (ed). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Brill. 2006. pg. 377


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  • Algeo, Adele S. (July 2005), "Beatrice Lane Suzuki and Theosophy in Japan", Theosophical History XI 
  • Algeo, Adele S. (January–February 2007), "Beatrice Lane Suzuki: An American Theosophist in Japan", Quest 95 (1): 13–17 
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  • Bogdan, Henrik (2007). Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791470701. 
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  • Faivre, Antoine (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791421789. 
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Further reading[edit]

Traditionalist School
  • Benjamin Walker, Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: The Hidden Side of the Human Entity, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, 353 p. ISBN 0-7100-8479-X. New title: Body Magic, London: Granada Publishing, “Paladin Books”, 1979, 478 p. ISBN 0-586-08323-5. Arranged alphabetically.
  • Benjamin Walker, Man and the Beasts Within: The Encyclopedia of the Occult, the Esoteric, and the Supernatural, New York: Stein and Day, 1978, 343 p. ISBN 0-8128-1900-4
  • Kerber, Hannes. "Strauss and Schleiermacher. An Introduction to 'Exoteric Teaching". In Reorientation: Leo Strauss in the 1930s. Ed. Yaffe/Ruderman. New York: Palgrave, 2014, pp. 203–214.

External links[edit]