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Volume Editors: Egil Asprem and Julian Strube
This volume offers new approaches to some of the biggest persistent challenges in the study of esotericism and beyond. Commonly understood as a particularly “Western” undertaking consisting of religious, philosophical, and ritual traditions that go back to Mediterranean antiquity, this book argues for a global approach that significantly expands the scope of esotericism and highlights its relevance for broader theoretical and methodological debates in the humanities and social sciences.

The contributors offer critical interventions on aspects related to colonialism, race, gender and sexuality, economy, and marginality. Equipped with a substantial introduction and conclusion, the book offers textbook-style discussions of the state of research and makes concrete proposals for how esotericism can be rethought through broader engagement with neighboring fields.
In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism
Author: Keith Cantú

Abstract

This chapter examines evidence for the emergence of a discourse of authenticity in the fields of yoga studies and Western esotericism. The focus is on post-Orientalist academic analyses of modern yoga and occult authors that appeal, intentionally or not, to a reader’s cultural sense of authenticity. I argue that what often results is a one-sided framing of Orientalism that overlooks colonial-era Indian authors who themselves used theories of Western scientists and philosophers to interpret teachings of yoga. I suggest as a solution that scholars instead remain more open to considering historical flows of ideas between local and translocal contexts.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism

Abstract

The article draws on gender and queer theory—namely, Judith Butler’s notion of performativity combined with insights from the study of queer femininities—to analyse how femininity is performed and negotiated in four modern esoteric rituals. Arguing that gender forms a fundamental aspect of why these rituals are experienced as meaningful, the article deduces that the (re)construction of gender can form a vital dimension of esoteric practice and its development over time. Thus, it is argued that gender and queer theory is crucial to the study of esotericism, and that esoteric ritual provides a fruitful vantage point from which to interrogate the complex and contradictory nature of gendered performance.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism
In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism

Abstract

The definitional progression in the study of esotericism reveals two fundamentally opposed directionalities of interpretation—the onto-epistemological and the epistemo-ontological vector. On the one hand, scholars have interpreted the ontological features of esotericism as making themselves epistemologically available. On the other hand, scholars have argued that our epistemological negotiations of what esotericism means have led to discursively manufactured ontologies. This chapter presents three arguments: 1. Both directionalities of interpretation are incommensurable due to the antinomy of interpretation. 2. Both directionalities of interpretation are equally valid due to the principle of bivectoral necessity. 3. A theoretical framework accepting the simultaneous incommensurability and validity of both vectors can be formulated as The Varifocal Theory of Interpretation, enabling scholars to study both interpretational directionalities.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism

Abstract

This article argues that esotericism is not a European phenomenon diffused to the colonies, but rather global and originated through the conquest of America. Illustrating its emergence in New Spain and Peru, it discusses how the Eurocentrism of current research models has concealed such aspects, as well as other currents and factors in the Spanish Renaissance. Introducing a decolonial perspective, the article problematizes the boundaries of esotericism through a historically informed definition of “the West.” Finally, it discusses the concepts of “colonialism” and “race” in modern occultism by way of Henri Girgois’ The Occult Among the Aborigines of South America (1897), first General Delegate of Martinism in Latin America.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism
Author: Justine Bakker

Abstract

Beyond studies of the intersections between esoteric ideas/practices and white supremacy, race was, until quite recently, largely ignored in the field of (Western) esotericism. This essay partakes in efforts that remedy this lacuna. The bulk of the essay engages two case studies—a comparative study of representations of race during séances of white American spiritualists and those of the Cercle Harmonique and an exploration of the racialized history of and undertones in UFO abduction narratives—to demonstrate that and how race intersects with esoteric phenomena in both obvious and obscure ways. In both instances, I make frequent use of secondary literature to demonstrate that although a focus on race certainly is a relatively “new perspective” in the field of (Western) esotericism, it is not foreign to scholarship on esoteric ideas and practice conducted in other fields. In conclusion, I briefly turn to the question as to why race remains a relatively “new perspective” in the field of (Western) esotericism. Engaging the scholarship I utilized in the first part of the essay, I make a case for further methodological diversification in the field.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism
Author: Dylan Burns

Abstract

Antiquity, ancient sources, and the people who study them are central to any construal of esotericism. Meanwhile, specialists in antiquity are increasingly engaged with the ancient sources which are important for the history of esotericism: the ‘Underworld of Platonism’ of Gnosticism, Hermetism, and Neoplatonic theurgy; the Coptic Gnostic corpus; and biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. This paper outlines how the transmission and reception of these sources are inextricable from the materials studied under the rubric of ‘esotericism,’ suggesting future research into these topics that focuses on reception-history and invention of tradition—a promising avenue for the study of antiquity and that of esotericism alike.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism
Author: Egil Asprem

Abstract

The notion that esotericism is a form of rejected knowledge has come back in style. The association of esotericism with heterodoxy, opposition, and marginalization has, however, been a standard trope since the nineteenth century. This article assesses the new rejected knowledge narrative that has developed from Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s groundbreaking Esotericism and the Academy (2012). It shows that the narrative exists in two forms: one restricted, the other inflated. While the strict version is an important contribution to the field, the inflated narrative is associated with a number of problems. The article discusses what is at stake, and how the problems could be overcome.

In: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism