Well Being in the Academy? – Western esotericism & Health during ESSWE4July 5, 2013
Last week the bi-annual international conference of The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) took place in the University of Gothenburg, Sweden from 26-29 June 2013. ESSWE is a scholarly society, founded in 2005 to enhance and promote the academic study of Western Esotericism. The fourth ESSWE conference focussed on issues related to health, which can be considered to be an intrinsic part of the field of esotericism. With around 93 presentations of both junior and senior scholars, conference organizers dr. Henrik Bogdan and Chris Giudice brought together a diverse group of scholars from various academic backgrounds, universities and nationalities. Also present were practitioners of several magical orders and mystery schools.
The presidential address was given by prof. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, head of the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy & Related Currents (HHP) and acting ESSWE president. At the ESSWE board meeting that was scheduled to take place during the conference, he passed the torch to his successor prof. dr. Andreas Kilcher. Wouter’s address dealt with the new generation that is rapidly gaining scholarly ground in Western esoteric education and is introducing a reformative spirit. He stated that ‘the academic study of Western esotericism was upgraded around 1992 from its somewhat primitive starting phase (“Western esotericism 1.0”) to a much more professional program (“Western esotericism 2.0”). After twenty years, he continued, it’s now time for a serious new upgrade to “Western esotericism 3.0”’. More on Western esotericism 3.0 can be found on Wouter’s blog Creative Reading. Conference keynotes were provided by:
- dr. Peter J. Forshaw, assistent professor at the HHP, on ‘Medicina Hermetica, The Early Modern Promotion of a Hermetic Way to Health’
- prof. dr. Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney on ‘The Enneagram: An Esoteric Model of Psychological Health’.
- prof. Mark Sedgwick of the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University, Denmark, on ‘Western Esotericism and Islamic Studies’.
The four-day conference consisted of 3×3 parallel tracks each featuring 2 or 3 20-minute presentations thematically ranging from Occultism, Early Modern Perspectives, Folk Magic, Aleister Crowley, Theosophy, Literature, Kabbalah/Jewish Perspectives to Islamic Perspectives and more. It would be too much to cover them all , therefore I decided on a small selection of five presentations that can be considered original, thought-provoking and innovative regarding the academic study of Western esotericism.
The Human Gods of the North
One of the first presentations of the conference was given by Håkan Håkansson on The Human Gods of the North: Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) and his Search for the Lost Perfection of Man. In his presentation Håkan outlined the phenomenon of Gothicism as developed by the Swedish Renaissance Rune Magician Johannes Bureus, a friend of King Gustavus Adolphus. Bureus studied the language of the runes and even wrote a small volume called Runa: ABC-boken (1611) and Monumenta Sveogothica Hactentus Exculpta (1624). Fascinated by runes, Bureus developed his own rune alphabet (Futark) and designated the ancient Goths of Scandinavia as the first European rulers. As a result, they represented for him the roots of Western culture, resembling the Hyperborean tribe Pliny and Herodotus wrote about, who were said to possess the secret of eternal life and health. Hyperborea was located in the North, beyond the North wind, a paradise characterized by a climate of eternal spring. Its people were a blessed race living without dis’ease’ and other maladies of life. The Goths were allegedly knowledgeable about the lost teachings of Adam which included all secrets of healing, alchemy and magic and therefore they were to be considered to embody the Gods on earth. Bureus set out to prove this by using Neoplatonic philosophical arguments in the tradition of, for instance, Marsilio Ficino and Heinrich Khunrath. The key to the everything for the Goths was their Arcanum of signs, the Scandinavian runes, which were a means by which man could heal – make whole – himself and thereby transfigure himself into (a) God.
Sex Magick and the ‘Occult’ Body of the Mega Thērion
Another fascinating presentation was given by Damon Zacharias Lycourinos on his current PhD research entitled Sex Magick and the ‘Occult’ Body of the Mega Thērion – A Study of Ritual Body Techniques, Applied Occultism, and Aleister Crowley’s Sex Magick. His research entails ethnographic fieldwork with contemporary, mostly male, magicians in Europe and deals with the effects of the ritual body in contemporary Western magical theory and practice. Damon introduced the possibility of the creation of a so-called ‘occult body’, the result of and focal point for the experience and effects of magical practice. By introducing the theory and practice of sex magick in the tradition of Aleister Crowley, he outlined the process of ritualisation consisting mainly of body techniques, highlighting thereby the importance of the ritual body as a tool for transformation in occult practice. Here the ritual body becomes the magical instrument embodied by the sex magic Adept, which transforms by means of special techniques to a metaphyscial entity. Sex magic could be understood to represent a category of ritual behaviour as well as the aggregate of a series of physical sex techniques transforming the physical body of the practitioner to a state in which it can communicate with Divine forces or entities, thereby creating an occult body. Drawing on the phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty, the body can be considered to represent a precondition for experience, making experience a ‘narrative’, so to speak, of the body as it is lived through consciousness, thus making it a part of the body as being lived and its being-in-the-world. Damon’s research outlined the importance of the bodily dimension in academic research of Western esotercism and especially its potential as a tool for transformation. His research is in progress, and updates can be found at the Societas Magica blog, to which he contributes.
Reaching the Divine through Marital Union
Jimmy Elwing and his presentation ‘Reaching the Divine through Marital Union: Ida Craddock’s System of Sexuality and Discourses of Sexuality, Gender, and Health in the Study of Esotericism‘ represented another interesting research in the realm of esotericism and sexuality. The focus of his research was Ida Craddock (1857-1902), a seemingly neglected thinker and an advocate of women’s rights who was inspired by esoteric theory, as is also reflected in her political and sexual views. She developed a system of sexuality which she mainly expressed in her Psychic Wedlock and in which she speaks of three Degrees:
- Sexual union in case of the creation of a child.
- Sexual union performed in absolute self control and aspiring to the Divine with the ability to suppress ejaculation at Will and experiencing the final ecstasy in absolute self-control, without ejaculation.
- Community with the Deity as the third force in a magnetic marital union.
Sexual union in these ways would benefit practitioners and bring them increased health as well as happiness in marriage. Marital union would thus imply the coming together of the two forces with the Divine as the third force, and a Psychic Wedlock, according to Ida Craddock, ought to be the only union which men and women should seek in the sex relation. In his presentation, Jimmy related her ideas to the late 19th-century views on sexuality, health and esotericism as represented by, for instance, Paschal Beverly Randolph, founder of the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, the oldest Rosicrucian body in the United States and Alice Bunker Stockham, known for her Karezza sex method and an advocate of the Oneida method in which men refraine from ejaculation but women are encouraged to have orgasms at Will. Jimmy showed how the esoteric discourse on sexuality – as is the case in general academic Western discourse – is dominated by white middle-class men and expressed the need for analysis by female thinkers.
The Vale do Amanhecer: Healing and Spiritualism in a Globalized Brazilian New Religious Movement
A very vivid presentation on the ‘Vale do Amanhecer: Healing and Spiritualism in a Globalized Brazilian New Religious Movement’ was given by Massimo Introvigne, who did field research at the Vale do Amanhecer in 2011. The Vale do Amanhecer – or The Valley of Dawn – forms the centre of the largest Brazilian new religious movement: the Spiritualist Christian Order or in Brasilian: the Ordem Espiritualista Cristã (OEC). The OEC was founded by the clairvoyant Neiva Chaves Zelaya (1925-1985), known as Tia (Aunt) Neiva. She was a medium who obtained her psychic powers later in life. In the beginning – due to her Catholic roots – she was not at all happy with her gift. Together with her later husband, companion and interpreter of her mediumistic revelations Mario Sassi, also known as Trino Tumuchy, First Master of the Order, she founded the first community in the 1960s called União Espiritualista Seta Branca. It was based on the teachings she received from the Higher Master and the alleged Spirit of the Incan Seta Branca (White Arrow). Tia Neva and Trino Tumuchy moved from the União Espiritualista Seta Brancato to Taguatinga and in 1969 to The Vale do Amanhecer. The Vale do Amanhecer can be regarded as the most impressive case of religious syncretism in Brazil, bringing together in one sanctuary Spirits, symbols and beliefs that are representative of the Afro-Brazilian, Indian, Egyptian, Spiritist, Catholic, Candomble, Incan and Mayan heritage, while extra-terrestrial and mesmeric elements are also integrated. Members of the OEC regard themselves as intermediaries between Heaven and the Earth they inhabit. Working with energy, they aspire to save or heal (making whole) humankind and emphasize the curing powers of all ‘religions’ as mentioned above through Spirit possession assuming every man or woman is a medium or its interpreter. At the moment several thousand OEC mediums live in the Vale do Amanhecer and many other communities are being set up throughout the world. The Order has more than 500,000 members and only in Brazil alone there are around 680 temples. The OEC is also demonstrably millenarian and messianic in its belief that a 2,000-year cycle is ending which causes a disbalance and chaos for those who are unprepared. It is necessary, therefore, to prepare a transition to a new planetary phase and provide instructions for the pending New Age. The doctrine emphasizes reincarnation and liberation from karmic debt, and instructs every ‘body’ in their evolution to higher realms of Being.
Madness and Creativity: Carl Jung and his Red Book
The final presentation to be outlined in this overview was given by Punita Miranda and focussed on ‘Madness and Creativity: Carl Jung and his Red Book‘. In her presentation Punita discussed the contributions of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961) to the study of psychic dissociation and occult phenomena. His self-exploratory examinations are at the centre of his The Red Book or Liber Novus, aiming to extract knowledge and purpose out of the chaos of his own unconsciousness. In the period October 1913 – July 1914 Jung experienced twelve visions with an Apolcalyptic undertone that were colored by collective horror and death in a mist of bloody red. Experiencing the Archetypes and underlying foundation of his Zeitgeist, he was afraid he might contract a mental illness, the way most of his patients were being diagnosed as suffering from. The Red Book has been published three years ago and in it Jung expresses his psychic journeys, forms which show similarities with the phantasms of mentally ill people. Jung used the cognitive technique of the Active Imagination in which the Imagination forms the epicentre of analyzing, interpreting, understanding and integrating the contents of dreams, trance journeys, visions and all other types of psychic experience for the purpose of interior metamorphosis. By its application, Jung was able to create a red thread when entering the depths of his Abysmal labyrinth and bringing back with him corresponding contents. Is it thought Jung kept quiet about the technique, which he believed might be potentially dangerous and could incur serious trauma on the part of the practitioner, whose conscious mind might become overpowered and whose personality might become possessed as a result. Secondly, he tried to keep his occult voyages secret to protect his reputation as a scientist. The Red Book can be considered a pioneering Work which deals with an intellectual excursion to a rather unexplored field of experience and forms the result of Jung’s own journeys, giving it depth and making it an embodied work. It is also interesting to mention that during the opening of the recent edition of the Venice Biennal, The Red Book was brought to general attention. The theme of the current Biennal is The Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), which is the brainchild of the Italian-American artist Marino Auriti and presents an imaginary museum aiming to offer room to all worldly knowledge and bringing together the pearls of the human race under one roof. The Red Book can thus be seen as an Archetype of a Palazzo Encyclopedico, underlining the ab-SOL-lute importance and self-transcendental value of self-exploration and experience in occult endeavours.
Border zone of the Western esoteric territory
It is also interesting to note that in several presentations, questions were raised about the border zone of the scholarly territory of Western esotericism. This corresponds to the statement in Wouter Hanegraaffs’s Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005) which can be considered as the ‘Magnum Opus’ in the field – ‘that discussions on the demarcation of the field undoubtedly will further evolve to new directions’ (p. 340). Voices were heard during the conference to integrate Islamic and Jewish perspectives to a larger extent, as well as modern occult phenomena and alternative spiritualities. The recently published volume Contemporary Esotericism (2013) by the junior scholars dr. Egil Asprem and dr. Kenneth Granholm fosters this debate and highlights a variety of topics that are somewhat undervalued in the scholarly field, such as chaos magick, extra-terrestialism, scientology, (entheogenic) shamanism, crystal, indigo children & rainbow children, alternative healing remedies, transhumanism, body work etc. Egil Asprem also received the ESSWE Thesis Prize during the conference for his Ph.D research. In any case, now that founding father of the field, Wouter Hanegraaff, formulated in his presidential adress the coming of Western esotericism 3.0 we can therefore be confident that a new generation will indeed open the doors to a Brave New Academic World.
And not only did the Northern wind of Gothenburg invoke an innovative Spirit in the structural set-up of the field, it also brought refreshing additives to the contents of the conference. Besides scholarly presentations, organizers Henrik Bogdan and Chris Giudice arranged a dinner in the local Masonic Hall for about 100 conference attendees, integrating herewith an esoteric body that is operating locally. Secondly, they inspired Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Carl Abrahamsson (editor of The Fenris Wolf) to perform live in the occult basement of Nefertiti jazz club with their act, White Stains. Because they were in town, Genesis P-Orridge and Carl Abrahamsson were invited to participate in an half-hour discussion group Music and Esotericism from the Inside Out. It was a moving and worthy finissage of the ESSWE conference with Genesis P-Orridge – we might say – present as an embodied being transcending gender and showing traces of an incarnated Mayan chief. Genesis P-Orridge represented the living presence of a Magus and added gravity to the academic conference space by sharing the Wisdom teachings of an initiated Elder. It was a stimulating session which gave earthly depth to the more ‘airy’ atmosphere of the scholarly presentations.