Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 3

[The third and final part of my review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic. This part discusses the five final essays of the book, all of which are new contributions written by contemporary scholars of “magic”. Follow hyperlinks to read part one (focusing on the selection of texts) and part two (focusing on the editors’ introduction) of the review.]

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto

3. Contemporary voices

That we need a systematic approach along the lines of what Stausberg and Otto suggest (or alternatively along the lines of building blocks) is confirmed by looking at the five contemporary pieces representing the current state of the debate. The five authors represent anything but a consensus. Through a broader framework of “patterns of magicity” we might nevertheless be able to put them in a fruitful dialogue.



Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 2

[This is the second part of my longish review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic: A Reader. This part focuses on the introductory chapter. For part one of the review, focusing on the selection of texts, please go here.]



Patterns of Magicity: A Review of Defining Magic (part 2)


Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 1

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto[This blog post is a little milestone: it is the first official review of a book sent to me by the publisher for being reviewed directly at Heterodoxology. (Yes, publishers, I am open to suggestions like that!) Since the book was of great interest to me, and touches on issues that occupy me at the moment – and since the blog format allows me to say whatever I want and as much of it as I’d like – it has ended up more like a review article than a book review. Hence I will publish it here in three parts. The full pdf version (only slightly modified) is available from my Academia page. For convenience and ease of sharing. So on we go!]

Review: Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg (eds.) Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013. 281 pages.

[Part 1 of 3]


Occultism in Global Perspective – an anthropologist’s review

9781844657162-Case.inddGordan Djurdjevic just spread a link to a review of the book he edited with Henrik Bogdan on Occultism in Global Perspective. I found it interesting enough to mention here because the review was written by anthropologist Jack David Eller in Anthropology Review Database. This is a good sign for those of us who want to see more collaboration between esotericism scholars and anthropologists. Eller clearly agrees with this from the anthropological side, concluding that:

Occultism in a Global Perspective is a book of profound significance for anthropologists, despite the fact that none of its contributors are anthropologists. Indeed, other than the Comaroff’s work on “occult economies” (which does not take ‘the occult’ particularly seriously), anthropologists have paid fairly little attention to occultism, which is strange and unfortunate. These essays illustrate that occultism is a widely practiced congeries of ideas and rituals, and occultism clearly raises issues of syncretism, globalization, and the porosity if not inadequacy of standard categories like ‘religion.’ Hopefully this collection will inspire more research and theorizing on occultism, esotericism, and such modern forms of vernacular religion, psychology, and social change.

Kennet Granholm and I made a parallel argument for our Contemporary Esotericism volume, which included a call to esotericism scholars taking anthropology more seriously.

Read the whole review of Occultism in Global Perspective here.

Book review editor of Correspondences

As was just announced at the Correspondences website, the journal has a new book review editor. It’s me. As is well known, I’ve been enthusiastic about this new journal from the start. Taking on a more active role in developing it further is going to be a great pleasure. I hope to build a strong review section that fully exploits the speed in online publication and the open-access format. We can publish reviews of the very latest literature, and we can make this available to a large population that goes beyond those who happen to be employed at privileged institutions with subscriptions to the existing journals. For book reviews, this is a very attractive feature. I think that authors, publishers, students, researchers and independent readers will all appreciate this fact. So keep an eye on this, but give me a few issues to get it going!

Oh, and I should add: if you are an author or a publisher looking to get a book reviewed, you may email me at Review copies can be sent to my office address: Egil Asprem, Department of Religious Studies, Humanities and Social Sciences Building, University of California Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3130, USA.

If you are a student or otherwise have been working on a book review that you would like to see published, I’d love to hear from you as well. We are very interested in considering independent initiatives like that. Just drop me an email.

By the way: I hear issue 2.1 is soon ready. Remember to consider article submissions for 2.2! There will be an official call for submissions later, but here’s an extra early reminder. Have a look at the first issue, 1.1, for an idea.

Published in: on January 16, 2014 at 8:48 pm  Comments (5)  
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Satan in the academy (again)

I ended 2013 with a retrospective on some personal favourites from the wealth of publications on esotericism last year. Of course there were many omissions, some of which I’ve payed tribute to on Twitter. Julian Strube’s (German) book on Vril is notable, and has attracted some attention in the German press lately. Also from Germany, Monika Neugebauer-Wölk’s massive collected volume on Aufklärung und Esoterik: Wege in die Moderne is a milestone that will take time to digest and assess (I admit that I forgot about this one because the prohibitive price has made it inaccessible to me until now). Then in the antiquities section, there’s the English edition of Roelof van den Broek’s book on Gnosticism, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity. And still there’s much more that could’ve been mentioned (such as this milestone of a source work: Andrew Weeks’ new translation of Böhme’s Aurora).


Up for review: Discernment of Spirits, Soviet New Age, and Magic

I’ve received three books for review over the last few weeks, making for a hectic book review phase (I’m not gonna mention the ones I’m already late with). They are three fascinating collections, dealing with very diverse material. Here’s a quick preview.

Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012)

Angels of Light? (2012)

Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen’s Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012) is a collection of essays dealing with that delicious problem of Christian theology and practice: how to discern real sanctity from demonic trickery? If an angel appears in all its splendour – whether in a dream, a vision, or in front of  your bare eyes – how do you know that it is not the devil masquerading to lure the devout to the dark side? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of discernment. It has had consequences not only on the abstract level of theological philosophizing, but also on the social level. Above all during the tumultuous reformation era, when new reformers led to the emergence of new sects with new creeds, new leaders, and new lines of authority. The devout had to fear not only false angels, but false prophets as well. From the blurb:


Open-access publishing and Western esotericism: Greeting Correspondences Vol. 1.1

Correspondences journal header

The first issue of a new peer-reviewed journal for the study of Western esotericism has just been released. There aren’t too many of those around to begin with, so Correspondences is (as announced previously) a welcome newcomer to a small field. The first issue already shows much promise with four articles covering a broad span, even breaking some new ground (read them here). But what makes this journal a particularly important newcomer is that it is entirely open-access. Everything is published openly online (after editorial selection, peer review, copy-editing and typesetting, of course), and shared through social media under a Creative Commons license. Without compromising anything on the side of peer-review (a broad editorial board has helped the editors-in-chief find competent reviewers), and with typesetting that completely matches what the paywall-protected publishers typically can muster (let’s face it: it was never anything too fancy to begin with), the result is fully fledged, quality-approved academic articles that are completely free, open to everyone, and published without the often considerable lag of subscription journals.


The sources of gnosis – an evening of gnosticism scholarship in Amsterdam

van den Broek Gnostic Religion cover

A new book on the primary sources of “gnosticism” by Roelof van den Broek

On the 29th of May there will be an evening of gnosis at the Spui25 venue in Amsterdam. A group of scholars, some known as world-leading specialists of gnosticism and ancient Christianity will meet to discuss the latest book by Roelof van den Broek, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2013 – essentially an English version of his 2010 book in Dutch, mentioned previously at Heterodoxology). At the centre of discussion is the primary sources of “gnostic” religion: what’s really in there? How does the content of these sources relate to recent understandings of gnosticism, whether by scholars, educated laypersons or among contemporary spiritual practitioners?

Roelof van den Broek himself is joined by the Nag Hammadi scholar Matthew Dillon (Rice University), the specialist of religions in antiquity Albert De Jong (Leiden University), and Wouter Hanegraaff and Jacqueline Borsje from the Religious Dynamics and Cultural Diversity research group at the University of Amsterdam.

The event is free, but requires registration (see website).

The (all too) secret history of Vril

Julian Strube's first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

Julian Strube’s first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.

A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).