Western Esotericism

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What is Western esotericism?

Western esotericism is a term that refers to a wide range of cultural and scholarly traditions in Western society that lie outside of the mainstream. Esotericism refers to the study of hidden meanings and symbols that are contained in philosophical, historical and religious texts. Therefore, Western esotericism largely focusses on European culture and ideas but those which are not usually considered part of orthodox thought. As such, Western esotericism lies outside the traditions of mainstream Christian belief as well as rationalism for the Age of Enlightenment. It is connected with many strands of culture, including art, music, literature, magic, occultism and pseudo-science, among others.

 How is Western esotericism defined?

The traditions of esotericism in the West are defined in multiple ways. Some view it as a secret, inner cultural world which runs alongside, but distinct from, mainstream culture. For others, it is more of an enchanted view of the entire world, which offers an alternative to rational science and modernity. There again, some people define it as a knowledge base which is of a higher level, known only to some, providing a structural framework for understanding the culture of the West. Finally, some believe Western esotericism is best defined as all of the rejected knowledge that has supposedly been debunked as mythical or outdated. No one definition is considered to have become the most widely accepted among scholars.

How old are the traditions of Western esotericism?

The ideas associated with these traditions date back to the second and third centuries in the common era. An early example would be the growth of Hermeticism, which was a religious tradition that focussed on the true nature of God and how people can transcend their worldly selves to gain a deeper understanding of spirituality. The Gnostic tradition is another early instance of esotericism, as is Neoplatonism, which is based on the teachings of the Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In the Middle Ages, pagan traditions and alchemy became important parts of Western esotericism, too.

Does Western esotericism play a part in modern counter-culture?

In the 1960s, when New Age traditions began to take off, interest in Western esotericism also began to grow. In spiritual terms, this meant more belief in shamanic and pagan traditions as well as some renewed worship of Goddesses in what was part of the wider feminist movement of the time. Interest in Druidic traditions, witchcraft and even occultism also began to rise, all part of the wider counter-culture scene of the latter part of the twentieth century. Some argue this cultural shift has continued with interest in things like vampire movies and even the magic of the Harry Potter novels.

Is Western esotericism a field of academic research?

Yes, it is. Although individual traditions have always been studied in their own right - such as academic texts on witchcraft – bringing together the various strands of esotericism has also become a field of research. This began in the 1960s at places like the Warburg Institute in London. Henry Corbin famously wrote on the subject while teaching Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. The University of Amsterdam has a tradition of academic research into Western esotericism, as well.

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