Conjuring Magician with devils.  14th c. illum. ms.,

SINCE the early nineteenth century the term “esotericism” has been used in a loose way to encompass studies and practices that would formerly have been described as  magical, occult, or necromantic.

Esoteric texts  were first taken seriously in Christian scholarly circles during the fifteenth century, following publication by the Florence Academy of the Corpus Hermeticum.  Fascination with the Chaldean Oracles and Jewish Kabbalah quickly followed; and both Hermetica and Kabbalah were added to the regular curricula of both orthodox and heretical practitioners of medicine, alchemy (later the sciences of chemistry and pharmacology) and astrology (later the science of astronomy).

ESOTERICISM both ancient and modern generally presents most if not all the following characteristics:

1. Conviction that there exists a pure, primordial wisdom, (prisca theologia) originally confided only to a few spiritually advanced persons, that predates and can be used to correct (through allegory, exegesis, or other means) the supposedly-revealed texts of the great world religions.

2. Desire for detailed information concerning the heavenly realms and the natures and responsibilities of angels, demons, and "spirits".

3. Concern for detailed information concerning the state of the dead, often including belief that specialized knowledge is required for the souls of the dead to make progress through the celestial realms.

4. Conviction that direct communication with transcendent beings, angels, or dead humans is possible, either through mental processes or magical operations.

5. Conviction that magical operations can succeed because of a spiritual correspondence and sympathy between entities and structures in the respective celestial and earthly realms.  Thus symbols, rituals, amulets, plants, minerals, and persons can under appropriate circumstances serve as conduits of metaphysical power.

The distinction between esotericism on the one hand and scientific endeavor  and orthodox religion on the other can be difficult; and this difficulty is often stressed by esoteric practitioners, who maintain that without some degree of faith in their world-view, accurate study of esotericism is not possible.  It is assumed for purposes of this web-based collection that such a distinction is, indeed, possible; especially the distinction between esotericism and orthodox religion: hence the designation employed here of “heretical esotericism”.  This designation admits the possibility that there can be an orthodox study of these systems and practices, such as found in the writings of Frances Yates and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Frances Yates, (Routledge, 1964)

The Art of Memory, Frances Yates, (Routledge, 1966)

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Frances Yates, (Routledge, 1972)

The Western Esoteric Traditions A Historical Introduction, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Oxford 2008)

Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, (Brill, 2006)

A PARADOXICAL FASCINATION with the occult and supernatural emerged during the Enlightenment even as - and probably a consequence of the fact that - the Church was increasingly dismissed as irrelevant.  This tendency had already been present in the renaissance as dabbling in hermetic and kabbalisic texts, then in Elizabethan England (e.g. John Dee), and on the continent (Giordano Bruno).  It manifested as Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and in figures such as the elusive Saint-Martin.  See Fleming, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment [+1] and Monod, Soloman's Secret Arts [+1].  This trend erupted in post-Revolutionary Europe as the Esoteric branch of the Romantic Movement in the forms of spiritualism, spiritism, and theosophy.


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