The biggest esotericism conference yet – ESSWE4 and the schizophrenic life of academics

A few days ago I returned from Gothenburg, Sweden, after the fourth international conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (or #ESSWE4 for those following the tagboard). It was slightly larger than the three previous conferences (in Tübingen, Strasbourg, and Szeged); more than 90 papers were presented, there were discussion panels, keynotes, and night-time events. The conference was spread out over four days, and it needed every minute of the daily 9-hour schedule.


Getting ready for ESSWE4: interdisciplinary panels, international networking, magickal musick – and the transhuman apocalypse

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ESSWE4: Gothenburg, Sweden, June 26-29, 2013.

I’m only doing one conference this summer season, but that is already turning out to be a massively busy and exciting event. Now that the final program is available, and the book of abstracts can be downloaded, the ESSWE4 conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, stands out as everything that an international conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism should be: strongly interdisciplinary (the inclusion of historians of science and medicine is particularly noticeable, and a greater number of sociologists and anthropologists is also a highly welcome development), with a rich and varied program that includes panel sessions, discussion groups, roundtables, and keynotes. There is also a dinner in the Masonic Hall and a final esoteric concert event: Genesis P-Orridge and Carl Abrahamsson (known in the esoteric world as editor of The Fenris Wolf) perform live with their act, White Stains. P-Orridge and Abrahamsson will even appear in a half-hour discussion group at the conference itself on the final day, entitled “Music and Esotericism from the Inside Out”.

Browse the program on the website to find out more.

In addition to that, you should check what people are saying about the event in social media on this Tagboard (join the conversation with the tag #ESSWE4). This promises to be the first ESSWE conference with live twitter feeds to follow, so do check that out and contribute if you are going! (I hear there will be free wifi available, so no need to worry about insane roaming charges) .


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).

A webinar on John Dee and video tour of the BPH

As readers of Heterodoxology will know, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam hosts a webinar series on aspects of Western esotericism in collaboration with lecturers at the UvA. The latest lecture was published last week: This time Peter Forshaw talks about our old favourite John Dee, focusing on his Monas Hieroglyphica. Check it out below!


There’s a new doctor in town

On February 5, 2013, I was initiated into the higher mysteries of Academia, after publicly defending my dissertation entitled “The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939”. Here’s a recollection of the ceremony in images.

Before it all began

Before it all began


The Problem of Disenchantment – invitation to a PhD defence

Problem of DIsenchantment cover

Last autumn I completed my PhD dissertation, and now it’s time to defend it. The defence is public, and will take place on February 5, 2013, at 12:00 in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. The event is open to anyone (with a max. capacity of 90 people), and I will give a short public lecture on the topic of my research prior to defending it in front of the committee.

While I have given hints about my research in a number of posts here at Heterodoxology, I am now happy to present an official abstract of the final product – the dissertation itself:


Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens – a Webinar with Peter Forshaw

Atalanta_Fugiens_-_Emblem_2dEver wondered what those enigmatic emblems in Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1617) are all about? Well, you could do much worse than watching  Peter Forshaw speak about it in the latest BPH webinar. Peter places Maier in the context of 16th and 17th century alchemy, emblematics, the Rosicrucian furore, early printing culture, and the broader political contexts of both continental Europe and England at the time. He also takes the time to go through a few of the 50 emblems in the book.

For the book itself, there is a transcription of an English translation of the original Latin available at the Levity website.

“Fernando Pessoa and Western esotericism”, a public lecture by Marco Pasi

Curious about the relationship between modern literature and Western esotericism? On December 7, my colleague Dr. Marco Pasi will be giving a public lecture in Amsterdam, on his ongoing research into Fernando Pessoa’s intricate but little understood engagement with esotericism. Marco has been working on this for some time, and co-organised (with Jerónimo Pizarro) an international and interdisciplinary workshop on the subject earlier this year. The upcoming Amsterdam lecture is open to the public, and entirely free of charge. For an abstract and more information, see below – or download this flyer.


What’s the deal with Glastonbury?

Glastonbury Tor; or the island of Avalon emerging from a sea of mist?

Glastonbury in Somerset is known as a pilgrimage site for neopagans and adherents of various “alternative spiritualities” world wide. The mythology of the place is full of stories about Arthurian knights, primeval British Christians, druids, the lost tribes of Israel, healing wells, and the Holy Grail. Theories about secret connections between ancient monuments, and hidden correspondences or “lay lines” connecting features in the landscape of Glastonbury are easy to find.

What is the history of all this local myth? How did this small village become such a major centre of heterodox pilgrimage? What does the phenomenon of Glastonbury tell us about religion generally, and its British history specifically? These are among the questions that Hereward Tilton explores in an ongoing research project. He spoke about it at the Contemporary Esotericism conference in Stockholm this August, and the paper has now been made available online at the ContERN website.

Tilton explores the development of a lively folklore around Glastonbury, and explains its origins in the sociocultural and economic contexts of the middle ages, the impact of the reformation, and much later the rediscovery of Glastonbury by a generation of occultists at the end of the 19th century. In addition to many intriguing historical details, about which one can read more in the published paper, Tilton seeks to explore some concerns that are of broader interest. One of these is the intriguing confluence of British Israelism (the notion that the British people is in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel, and the British monarchs descend from king David) with esoterically oriented notions of prisca theologia (i.e. the notion of “primitive revelation” and ancient wisdom), and local myths at Glastonbury:

“While the origins of British Israelism proper can be traced to the early nineteenth century and writers such as John Wilson and Edward Hine, the relationship of their work to earlier post-Reformation narratives concerning the lost Semitic tribe of the British and the Druidic prisca theologia is clearly of central import to an understanding of the history of esotericism at Glastonbury. Of particular interest is the legend of Christ’s visit to Glastonbury, and his building of the first British church there, which as we may recall descended from on high like the New Jerusalem.”

Another intriguing aspect Tilton mentions, but unfortunately did not get to explore in any detail in the present paper, concerns the place of psychological factors in accounting for “esoteric” motifs. In particular, Tilton is interested in schizotypy and apophenia – both of which come to mind when one considers the associative, pattern-seeking, sometimes paranoid reading of signs and symbols in buildings, text, nature, and culture, so characteristic of esoteric material. Tilton connects them to Faivre’s old characteristics:

“The esoteric mindset as defined by Faivre corresponds in many particulars with what may be termed an ‘esoteric schizotypy’, in accordance with a contemporary psychiatric category encompassing a broad spectrum of personalities exhibiting schizotypal traits (e.g. visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid or conspiratorial ideation, a tendency to distant associations); of particular significance in this regard is the phenomenon of ‘apophenia’, the discovery of meaningful patterns in apparently random data that we find exemplified in the creative interpretations of Glastonbury’s sacred landscape … . My purpose in this regard is not to psychopathologize esotericism, but rather to understand the interaction of dominant and deviant psychologies within those processes of marginalization that currently constitute a central historiographical concern of our field.”

It is interesting work, even if it is no doubt going to be controversial in certain circles. But there is already a lot of related research in the cognitive study of religion that might serve as a basis for further research along these lines. It was, for example, only a month ago that the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology published a study that found “religious” and “believers in the paranormal” to be more prone to apophenia (illusory face perception in this case) than “sceptics” and “non-believers”. Tom Rees recently blogged about this research at Epiphenom  (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for staying up to date on research that explores the relations between psychological,  sociological and cultural factors in accounting for the disparate phenomena we call “religion”). Studies exploring the relation of conspiracy belief and schizotypy are also not hard to come by (see e.g. this recent paper from Personality and Individual Differences). One should not exclude the possibility that research along similar lines might have a role to play in future theorising about esotericism as well. I for one certainly look forward to see what Tilton will do with these connections in the future.
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Cyberproceedings from the Contemporary Esotericism conference

The ContERN website is slowly becoming active. Today we have published the first papers of the cyberproceedings from the Contemporary Esotericism conference in Stockholm this August. The first four papers to appear include two on Freemasonry and initiatic societies (J. Scott Kenney and Aslak Rostad), one on methodological issues in the study of contemporary Satanism (Jesper Aa. Petersen), and one on occulture in Brazilian pop music (Francisco Santos Silva). All of them should offer a lot of food for thought, so I suggest you go check them out: Is fraternalism a form of “moral elitism”? How do Masons experience the influence of joining the craft on the direction of their  lives? How are we to draw boundaries between different types of “Satanism“? And what does Aleister Crowley have to do with Brazilian pop music of the 1970s? Read and find out.