Explaining the Esoteric Imagination

Towards a Theory of Kataphatic Practice

in Aries
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The imagination is central to esoteric practices, but so far scholars have shown little interest in exploring cognitive theories of how the imagination works. The only exception is Tanya Luhrmann’s interpretive drift theory and related research on mental imagery cultivation, which has been used to explain the subjective persuasiveness of modern ritual magic. This article draws on recent work in the neuroscience of perception in order to develop a general theory of kataphatic (that is, imagery based) practice that goes beyond the interpretive drift theory. Mental imagery is intimately linked with perception. Drawing on “predictive coding” theory, the article argues that kataphatic practices exploit the probabilistic, expectation-based way that the brain processes sensory information and creates models (perceptions) of the world. This view throws light on a wide range of features of kataphatic practices, from their contemplative and cognitive aspects, to their social organization and demographic make-up, to their pageantry and material culture. By connecting readily observable features of kataphatic practice to specific neurocognitive mechanisms related to perceptual learning and cognitive processing of mental imagery, the predictive coding paradigm also creates opportunities for combining historical research with experimental approaches in the study of religion. I illustrate how this framework may enrich the study of Western esotericism in particular by applying it to the paradigmatic case of “astral travel” as it has developed from the Golden Dawn tradition of ritual magic, especially in the work of Aleister Crowley.

Explaining the Esoteric Imagination

Towards a Theory of Kataphatic Practice

in Aries




FaivreAccess to Western Esotericism12.


LuhrmannPersuasions of the Witch’s Craft13.






Clark‘Whatever Next?’197–199; idem ‘Perceiving as Predicting’.


See e.g. SacksHallucinationsix–xi.


See ibid.523–526; Hobson and Friston ‘Waking and Dreaming Consciousness’; cf. Hobson and Friston ‘Consciousness Dreams and Inference’.


Roepstorff Niewöhner and Beck‘Enculturing Brains through Patterned Practices’1052. For empirical evidence of such effects see e.g. Henrich Heine and Norenzayan ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’


Clark‘Whatever Next?’195.


See Isaac and Marks‘Individual Differences in Mental Imagery Experience’486–493.


Gersztenkorn and Lee‘Palinopsia Revamped’2. But cf. Shimojo Kamitani and Nishida ‘Afterimage of Perceptually Filled-In Surface’.


See RegardieThe Golden Dawn479. “Complementarity” is however a theory-dependent term. The Golden Dawn usage is derived from the old “red-yellow-blue” (RYB) theory of the primary colours which at least from the scientific viewpoint has long since been replaced by the “red-green-blue” (RGB) theory built from our knowledge of how colours are produced in the (human) eye. Interestingly the effect of this is that the Golden Dawn symbols based on the modern primary colours (e.g. red and green) create a much stronger effect than the ones using “complementary” colours from the extended RYB colour wheel (e.g. blue and orange yellow and violet).




Crowley‘Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae’28.




Mathers in KingAstral Projection78–80.


Brodie-Innes in KingAstral Projection88–89.


Gallagher and Coles‘Body Image and Body Schema in a Deafferented Subject’371–372.


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    Figure 1

    The sensory process according to predictive coding. Prior probabilities (expectations) inform the production of internal models that try to actively guess (infer) what is “out there”. The top illustration shows a steady state where a clear percept is held in view. The second illustration shows an old hypothesis being rejected and replaced for another as error signals increase. This, in turn, leads to an update of the priors. Models corresponding to the new hypothesis are more likely to be generated in the future.


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