Replacing the Dictionary: Brill launches new Esotericism Reference Library

The Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Due for replacement?

It has been more than a decade since the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005) was released, the flagship volume of what was then a fledgling field with few reliable introductions and  reference works. At the time this was a milestone achievement, pulled off by a dedicated editorial team, 147 authors, and taking the better half of a decade to complete.

That is not to say that the result was perfect. Although the Dictionary was selected a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2006, a number of criticisms of selection policy, range, and terminology were put forward and discussed in the academic community from the beginning.

It was criticized for being too narrowly focused on Europe, too centered on esotericism in a Christian context (i.e. Jewish and Islamic sources are merely “influences”), and too limited to the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. In addition to such shortcomings (of which some are more fair than others – the project was naturally constrained by lack of available expertise and reliable research on some topics), much has happened in the field in ten years. There’s been considerable work on thematic interactions, such esotericism and art, esotericism and music, or esotericism and science. Specialists of specific periods that were left outside the good company in 2005 have ganged up to promote, e.g., the study of esotericism in antiquity and contemporary esotericism. And, notably, there has been a geographic expansion, both in terms of where scholars are located and in terms of the regions that scholars are studying. ESSWE has got a Scandinavian network, an Israeli network, and a Central and Eastern European network, and there are affiliated bodies in Russia and South America. As a consequence we are seeing more scholarship on sources in Polish, Russian, Portuguese, and the Scandinavian languages.

All in all, the time seems right for improving or replacing the old Dictionary.

There’s been some chatter about this for a while, but now it is official: Brill will not issue a second edition of the DGWE. Instead, it launches a whole new encyclopedic venture: the Esotericism Reference Library. [Edit: Turns out there are in fact plans to publish a second edition of DGWE as well] This will be a book series that, over time, will accumulate more focused reference works, gradually covering the hiatuses of the original Dictionary and replacing outdated material.

And then there’s this: Notice how the term “Western” has disappeared from the title? The new series takes account of critical debates over the past decade in order to shape a new set of standard reference works that are up to date. Here is what the publisher writes:

Since the publication of the critically acclaimed Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (ed. W.J. Hanegraaff) in 2005, there has been a lively debate about how best to define and demarcate the expanding field of ‘Esotericism’. The DGWE addressed the Hellenistic culture of Late Antiquity, esotericism in Christian culture, and post-Christian developments in the context of modernization, with a dominant focus on English, French, German, and Italian culture. The Brill Esotericism Reference Library builds upon those foundations while significantly expanding them as well. The series as a whole will take a global perspective, and individual volumes will feature dimensions of esotericism and gnosis that have come to the forefront in recent years. The Brill Esotericism Reference Library is the first encyclopaedic series of its kind, and strives to be the most reliable source of historical and factual information on esotericism and related fields of study.

The first volume to appear in this new venture is the long-awaited Western Esotericism in Scandinavia, edited by Henrik Bogdan and Olav Hammer. The editor in chief of the book series itself is Wouter Hanegraaff.


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