ESSWE Thesis Workshop at the Warburg Institute (July 7, 2016)

Thesis Workshop Program 2016This summer, ESSWE organizes its fourth biannual Thesis Workshop – a one-day event where MA and PhD candidates get together with established scholars to discuss papers on a given topic as well as research strategies and career advice. (For a basic idea, check out what I’ve said about the 2010, 2012, and 2014 workshops) This year’s topic is “Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book”. Unlike earlier years, when this event took place in Amsterdam, this year’s workshop will be hosted by the Warburg Institute in London, on July 7.

As in previous years, the day has two main sessions: an “oratory” (lectures by specialists), and a “laboratory” (group-based discussions of MA/PhD research related issues, divided by period and/or thematic focus based on what people are working on). In addition, this year there will be a round table discussion following the oratory, and an “early career advice” session (which will be lead by Liana Saif and myself).

The oratory will feature papers by Siam Bhayro, Liana Saif, and Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov, with a keynote by Jean-Patrice Boudet. These scholars will be available to participants in the laboratory session, as will the chairs Yuri Stoyanov, Charles Burnett, organizer Sophie Page, and most of the board members of ESSWE.

Check out all the details in the programme. And, please note that this is a free event with a limited number of places. Questions and reservations should be addressed to the organizer Sophie Page (see the programme).

The scholastic imagination

The human cognitive system according to a late-medieval scribe. Illustration to a manuscript copy of Aristotle's De Anima (1472-1474), courtesy of Wellcome Collection (MS 55).

The human sensory and cognitive system, according to the German scholar Johan Lindner of Mönchenburg. Illustration to a manuscript copy of Aristotle’s De Anima (1472-1474), courtesy of the Wellcome Collection (MS 55).

I’ve recently been reading up on medieval theories of cognition. The background is a paper I’m writing on esotericism and “kataphatic practices” – contemplative techniques where the practitioner uses mental imagery, sensory stimuli, and emotions to try and achieve some religious goal: Prayer, piety, divine knowledge, salvation, etc. Kataphatic practices may be distinguished from “apophatic” ones, which, although they may be pursuing the same goals, use very different techniques to achieve them: withdrawing from sensory input and attempting to empty the mind of any content, whether affective, linguistic, or imagery-related (note that the kataphatic-apophatic distinction is more commonly used as synonymous with positive vs. negative theology – that’s a related but separate issue to the one I talk about here). My argument is that esoteric practices are typically oriented toward kataphatic  rather than apophatic techniques. The cultivation of mental imagery is usually key – which means that the notion of “imagination” needs to be investigated more thoroughly.


Esotericism in Antiquity: An Aries special issue

TauroctonyThere is much exciting work going on in the area of esotericism and the religions of antiquity at the moment. One of the people who have been instrumental in lifting the focus on antiquity within the study of esotericism (and bringing esotericism to a sometimes unwilling crowd of Gnosticism and ancient Christianities specialists – kudos for that!) is Dylan Burns, currently of the University of Leipzig. I’ve written about Dylan’s work previously, and of course, there’s been mention of the ESSWE Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity (NSEA) which he co-founded with Sarah Veale.

Now, fresh off those unobtanium-coated Brill printers (more…)

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.


New Antiquities (extended deadline for CfP)

Akhenaten futuristicBack in September the call for papers for a very interesting workshop was released at the Ancient Esotericism blog (and elsewhere). “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond”, put together by Almut-Barbara Renger (Freie Universität Berlin) and my good colleague Dylan Burns (Universität Leipzig), calls attention to the myriad uses and imaginings of antiquity in contemporary religious discourses.  A fascinating field that has received quite some attention from religious studies scholars interested in such things as the construction of tradition or mnemohistory. What’s particularly interesting about this workshop is that it aims to mobilize the antiquity specialists as well, who, a bit too often perhaps, have tended to avoid dealing with questions related to such modern “reception history”. It’s also an excellent platform for bridging the studies of ancient and contemporary esotericism.

The deadline for submitting paper proposals has now been extended to January 31. Below follows the description of the workshop, pasted from the extension notice:


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).

Platonic orientalism – new webinar lecture

One of the most central concepts in Wouter Hanegraaff’s book of last year, Esotericism and the Academy (Cambridge UP), is “Platonic Orientalism”. The revival of this specific understanding of platonism during the renaissance has had enormous influence on the formation of “Western esotericism”, according to Hanegraaff, and in particular by supplying a characteristic trait: the “ancient wisdom” narrative. If you want to learn more about this fascinating topic, do check out the new BPH webinar with Hanegraaff, where he explains the revival of Platonic orientalism, its place in the theological debates of the early apologetic church fathers, and the wider polemical context of late-classical paganism. Some more background about the main characters involved (Plethon, Ficino, Pico) is also provided on the BPH’s own blog.

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.

Jesus was a … shaman (heterodox Christologies II)

Jesus the shaman

Jesus the shaman

Next up in what is quickly becoming a series on heterodox Christologies: Jesus was really a shaman. This claim was found in Norwegian media last week – more precisely in the Sami branch of the state channel NRK’s online news site. The (neo)shamanic healer Eirik Myrhaug went on record saying that he saw Jesus as “a great shaman”: “after all he was 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and that’s a typical shamanic seance”.

This news item caught my attention because I have recently been working on an article on neoshamanism – or rather, on the genealogy and mythology of shamanism, as created by a motley crew of explorers, romantics, nationalists, psychedlelic gurus, anthropologists and historians since the 1600s – before it finally became a new religious movement in the 1960s. Myrhaug himself is of Sami descent, but his shamanic techniques appear to be derived from the anthropologist Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” – as is the case with the entire “revival” of shamanism in a Sami context. What struck me the most, however, was that Myrhaug’s shamanic interpretation of Jesus – which was heavily and predictably criticised by a Lutheran minister in the same news article – has a long history. “Jesus was a shaman” is in fact a stock element in the continuously expanding “universal shamanism” franchise.


“Jesus was a mushroom” – Interview with John Allegro

In the last post I mentioned that Creative Reading has a post up on the biblical scholar John M. Allegro, who committed academic suicide in 1970 when he published a book arguing that Christianity had been a fertility cult with the  ingestion of psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms (fly agaric) as its central rite – the true “body of Christ”, as it were. That post has now been updated with a link to an interview with Allegro, conducted by two Dutch comedians for their satirical show, “Het Simplistisch Verbond” (the Simplistic Alliance), in 1976.

As Wouter points out in his blog post, the intention with the interview was no doubt to poke fun at what to any regular viewer comes across as a hilariously insane theory. Allegro swallows the bait whole and swims away with it. The interview is an intriguing insight into the scale of Allegro’s  theory of religion in general: religion has its origin in solar-phallic worship and entheogenic practices. An educational video for one of the theories of religion that is generally not taught in religious studies programmes. Perhaps for good reason. Watch it and find out why Jesus was a mushroom.