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Gnosis & Esotericism

Gnosis & Esotericism

This wide collecting area includes several sub-collections  acquired to contextualize the collecting areas Hermetica, Alchemy, Mysticism and Rosicrucianism.


The Nag Hammadi library

The Nag Hammadi library is the name given to a spectacular discovery of predominantly gnostic texts dating to the first centuries CE which were found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The complete Nag Hammadi library consists of 13 codices (with 52 texts in all). The text editions are followed by studies focussing on the Nag Hammadi discovery or the texts themselves.

Editions of separate Nag Hammadi texts, such as the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas are placed after the complete text editions. The individual text editions are followed by relevant studies and commentaries.

Other gnostic source texts

Prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery, a small number of gnostic source texts was already known. In the 18th and 19th centuries three codices had already been discovered, the codex Askewianus/Askew codex, the codex Brucianus and the Berlin codex (codex Berolinensis), each giving insight into the tradition of gnosis in the first centuries CE. Texts from these codices which have been separately published are placed in this section. Other major gnostic source texts are: Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, Mandaean literature, Hymn (Song) of the Pearl, Pistis Sophia and the Odes of Solomon.

Gnostics and testimonia

Until the publication of the texts from the Nag Hammadi library in the 20th century, our main knowledge of gnosis, gnostics and gnostic movements was derived from the works of adversaries, usually polemical works by Christian authors such as Tertullian.

Gnosis 19th century-present

This section contains works on the study of gnosis in all its aspects. As a result of the publication of the Nag Hammadi library, our understanding of gnosis has been substantially enriched and modified. Once the texts had become available, gnosis scholarship became a fruitful field of research which also shed light on the early Christian tradition. The study of gnosis as a scholarly discipline started in the 19th century and is carried on by scholars all over the world: Gilles Quispel, Kurt Rudolph, Roelof van den Broek, Elaine Pagels and many others were or are modern gnosis scholars. These same texts increasingly serve as sources of inspiration for modern religious feeling. The works of the English scholar G.R.S. Mead have been placed separately in this section because of his pioneering work in the field of gnostic and Hermetic studies. He published various gnostic source texts in English translation, and also wrote about the tradition of gnosis in The Quest, the periodical he founded. As for the Hermetica, he was convinced, with the German scholar Richard Reitzenstein, that there were Egyptian influences in the Corpus Hermeticum; an insight recently affirmed by modern scholars like J.-P. Mahé.


For over a thousand years, Manichaeism was an important world religion which, having its roots in ancient Babylon, spread to the West and, via the Silk Road, also to the East. Primary source texts include the Mani-Codex (ca. 400; discovered in 1969) which narrates the life and spiritual growth of Mani, the founder of this religion. The Cologne Mani Codex, a Greek text found in Egypt, and the Tebessa Codex, a Latin text found in Algeria, are of major importance for the study of Mani and Manichaeism.

Manichaeism 19th century-present

The most important Manichaean source texts were discovered in the early 20th century and subsequently a beginning was made with codicological and philological descriptions. The sources have not yet been fully described, but considerable progress is now being made. Manichaean literature and art were discovered in Turfan and Dunhuang in China at the beginning of the 20th century: texts in Chinese, Middle-Iranian and Turkish. Important Coptic source texts were found in the 1920s in Medinet Madi in Egypt. Towards the end of the 20th century, Manichaean material was found in Kellis in the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Coptic, Greek and Syriac texts). Scholarly studies on Mani and the Manichaean movement, including the work of Alois van Tongerloo and Johannes van Oort, are also placed here. An important series in this field is the Manichaean Studies, published in Louvain.


There is a selection of source texts and studies on Sufis, the mystical current within the Islam, with classical authors such as Al-Nuri and Rumi, but also modern ones such as Idris Shah and Hazrat Inayat Khan. The sufi mystic believes it is possible to experience God in this life and to experience his nearness, within the context of the Islam.

Non-Western philosophy and religion

This collecting area contains a small selection of philosophical, religious and mystical sources and source studies within Oriental traditions, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, works by Lao-Tse.


Historical periodicals such as Lucifer, later continued as the Theosophical Review by G.R.S. Mead (who started his career as the secretary of H.P. Blavatsky) are placed at the head of this collecting area, which primarily focuses on the works of the most important early theosophists. The founders of the Theosophical Society (in 1875), H.P. Blavatsky (Isis Unveiled, 1877; The Secret Doctrine, 1888) and Henry Steel Olcott, as well as notable followers and/or succesor in the theosophical movement such as Alice Bailey, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater are represented with several publications in the original editions. Early translations into German authorized by the Theosophical Society are also to be found here.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was hailed by the English Theosophical Society as a Messiah and invited to England, but in 1929 he severed all ties with the`theosophical movement and for the rest of his life remained aloof from any religious, political or philosophical dogma. The printed records of his numerous speeches, talks and discussions are followed by studies on his life and spirituality, including the biographies of Mary Lutyens. The Dutch edition of the periodical of Krishnamurti’s ‘Ster’ movement is also placed in this section. The periodical was published during Krishnamurti’s Ommen years (1912-1933), where he held speeches before disbanding the movement.


Historical anthroposophical periodicals are well represented  and include Das Goetheanum and Anthroposophy. A notable acquisition is the complete run of Christus aller Erde and of the Mitteilungen der Christengemeinschaft which resumed publication in 1946 (the organisation was banned at the outbreak of the Second World War).

Rudolf Steiner, founder of the anthroposophical movement, was initially interested in theosophy but left that movement to found his own society. Steiner’s search for a universal ‘science of the spirit’ was inspired by Christianity and Rosicrucianism. In addition to original editions of his works (such as Die Philosophie der Freiheit, Theosophie and Mein Lebensgang) there are many of Steiner’s lecture cycles, which were posthumously edited and published by his wife Marie Steiner and also published in the well-known Gesamtausgabe.

The collection of anthroposophical works contains major studies on Steiner’s life and work but also early editions of the first generation of Steiner pupils and of members of the Christengemeinschaft.


Like the collecting areas Hermetica, Alchemy, Mysticism and Rosicrucians, Esotericism is preceded by a general section, which includes works such as Ernest Bosc, La doctrine ésoterique à travers les ages or Modern esoteric spirituality, eds. Antoine Faivre & Jacob Needleman.

The (Western) esoteric tradition of the 19th century departs from the ‘arcane sciences’ that were rediscovered in the Renaissance, adding components from the Eastern traditions – many authors to be found in this section were once members of the Theosophical Society founded by H.P. Blavatsky (see also under Theosophy). The Esotericism collecting area is divided into ‘geographical’ sections, which offers some insight into the networks and individuals operating within each country. For France, for instance, Éliphas Lévi is a key figure. A later occultist, Gérard Encausse, derived his own pseudonym Papus from Éliphas Lévi, whose work also inspired other major French occultists, amongst whom Stanislas de Guaita and Joséphin Péladan. In 1887 the latter two founded the ‘Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rosecroix’, which also included Papus as a member. In England the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (see also Hermetica 19th century-present), which was founded by S.L. MacGregor Mathers, W.R. Woodman and W. Wynn Westcott in 1888, was a major movement attracting a great many occultists – although the movement also lost members, such as Dion Fortune (ps. of Violet Mary Firth), who, after having joined the Golden Dawn in 1919, left as early as 1921 to found her own ‘Society of the Inner Light’. To support the Esotericism collecting area there are a number of late 19th-century and early 20th-century French, German and English periodicals, some of which are complete.


Source texts

The Grail section contains editions of medieval chivalric romances situated around the court of King Arthur, in which the Grail Quest plays an important role, but also modern works in which the Grail (and the Quest) is interpreted in spiritual or esoteric terms. In the medieval works the Grail is described as a chalice, a cup or even a stone. At the end of the 12th century, Robert de Boron for the first time links the Grail with the Bible: he sees the Grail as the cup used at the Last Supper, used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion. The Grail according to legend has supernatural healing power and is an infinite source of nourishment. Robert de Boron also recounts how the Grail is eventually brought to England, from where the Quests take their start.

Esoteric interpretations

The Grail mystery was an inspiration to many in the 19th century, first of all within artistic circles (Richard Wagner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti), subsequently in theosophical circles, where the Grail was regarded as a universal symbol with pre-Christian roots. Arthur Edward Waite tried to harmonize Christian and pre-Christian traditions by founding the ‘Hidden Church of the Holy Grail’. In 1846 Charles-Claude Fauriel, who saw a direct semantic link between the Grail Castle Montsalvaesche and the Cathar stronghold Montségur in southern France, was the first to associate the Grail with the irenic movement of the medieval Cathars.

One of the largest esoteric movements around the Grail legend is that of the ‘Gralsbotschaft’ or ‘Grail Movement’, founded by the German Abd-ru-shin (ps. of Oskar Bernhardt) in the 1920s.


Christian heresies

This section contains general works on heresies in the Middle Ages. After the year 1000 more and more anti-clerical movements that were deemed heretical in turn by the established church sprang up in Europe.

Bogomils-Cathars-Waldensians Source texts

Hardly any original material has survived of these movements, with the exception of a few works (such as the Cathar Liber de duobus principiis) and a fragment of a Cathar ritual. There are, however, a number of records of the Inquisition on the Cathars (which Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie for instance used for his Montaillou) and epic works about the persecutions (Chanson de la croisade albigeois).

Bogomils-Cathars-Waldensians Secondary works

The Cathars (or ‘pure ones’), a movement which was mainly concentrated in southern France and nothern Italy (11th-13th centuries), are closely associated with the Bogomils (or ‘beloved by God’, the Balkans, 10th century). Both movements were dualistic (creation is the work of an evil god) and rejected the ecclesiastical hierarchy. As a result the Cathars were harshly persecuted and the last Cathar strongholds fell in the middle of the 13th century (Montségur and Quéribus). The movement of the Waldensians (after Peter Waldo, the founder) dates to around 1175 and was strong especially in southern France and the Piemonte (northern Italy). The Waldensians strove for a life of simplicity in close conformity to the Bible, but they rejected the ideas of the Cathars. In the 16th century the Waldensians were absorbed into the wider Swiss protestant movement.


In France the Grail was seen by some as a symbol of the Cathar alternative for the institutionalized Church. Around 1930 interest in Catharism revived thanks to the work of Déodat Roché and Antonin Gadal. Gadal tried to reconstruct the original beliefs of the Cathars and regarded them as heirs to the early gnostics. Roché was the driving force behind the periodical Cahiers d’études cathares, an almost complete run of which is present in the BPH. In 1954 Antonin Gadal met Jan van Rijckenborgh and Catharose de Petri, the leaders of the Dutch Lectorium Rosicrucianum (see also under Rosicrucians 19th-century-present). Jan van Rijckenborgh was convinced that the Cathars were the spiritual predecessors of the Rosicrucians and saw his views confirmed in Gadal’s theories.


The library collects works belonging to the ‘Christian Kabbalah’, including Johannes Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico (first edition 1494) and De arte cabalistica (first edition 1517), Henricus Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia (first edition 1533), works of the Hebraist Guillaume Postel, compendia such as Johannes Pistorius’ Artis cabalisticae (1587) and Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (two parts, 1677 and 1684), which presented in Latin authentic Hebrew kabbalistic works (e.g.Sefer Yetzirah and parts of the Zohar) together with Christian kabbalistic works (for instance of the convert Leone Ebreo, whose Dialoghi d’Amore fused kabbalistic concepts with neoplatonism). 17th- and 18th-century interest in the Kabbalah, for instance in the works of the German theosopher Jacob Böhme, or in the works of the Dutch theosopher Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont and the English Cambridge Platonists (Ralph Cudworth c.s.) is also represented in the library.

Christian and Hebrew Kabbalists

Because the library’s collecting principle is ad fontes, to the source, the collections contain some of the Hebrew kabbalistic works which were studied by the Christian Kabbalists. There is a copy of the second edition of the Zohar, printed in 1559 – 1560; several editions, in Hebrew and in Latin, of the Sefer Yetzirah, and also kabbalistic commentaries on parts of the Bible, for instance commentaries on the Song of Songs. The majority of these works is related to the medieval Spanish Kabbalists.

Safedian Kabbalists

There are also a few works connected with the Safedian Kabbalists of the sixteenth century, notably a manuscript compendium of Chayyim Vital, the most important follower of Isaac Luria. Lurianic Kabbalah was introduced for the first time in European learned circles in the Kabbala denudata mentioned above. The library does not collect works of the later mystical movements such as the late 17th-century Sabbateans or the 18th-century Chasidim; its focus in this being on the Renaissance and its aftermath.

Kabbalah studies in the 19th century

Adolphe Franck’s important study La kabbale ou la philosophie religieuse des Hébreux (1843) is present in the collection, as is Franz Joseph Molitor’s Philosophie der Geschichte oder über die Tradition (1834-1853). The later 19th century also produced French and English occult societies interested in the Kabbalah; some of these texts are also to be found in this section, as an example of the reception of kabbalistic thought in these circles.


This section includes works on earlier manifestations of Jewish mysticism such Merkavah and hekhalot mysticism, such as Joseph Davila’s Descenders to the chariot. The people behind the Hekhalot literature (2001). Anthologies and historical studies of Jewish philosophy and mysticism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance offer a broader context for the individual texts.

Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

The scrolls and fragments found in the Qumran caves in 1947 date from the 2nd century BCE until the year 68. Their discovery is the major manuscript find of the 20th century next to that of the Nag Hammadi codices. The so-called ‘Dead Sea scrolls’ offer insight into the life of a strict ascetic community in the Second Temple period. The scrolls and fragments cover a period which is important both for the rise of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.


The works belonging to the 18th-century ‘Gold- und Rosenkreuzer’, a movement with links to Freemasonry and the Illuminati, are placed in the collecting area of the Rosicrucians. Unlike most masonic organisations in the era of the Enlightenment, the Gold- und Rosenkreuzer remained a decidedly mystically inclined movement. The actual masonic movements and their history (the English Grand Lodge, for instance, was founded in 1717) form a small separate section, with standard historiographies such as R.F. Gould’s History of Freemasonry.


In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival the legend of the Grail is connected to that of the Knights Templar, the alleged guardians of the Grail. The library therefore has a modest section of historical works on the Templars, ranging from historical studies like Julius Gmelin’s Schuld oder Unschuld des Templerordens. Kritischer Versuch zur Lösung der Frage (1893), a historian hailed as someone who has ‘examined with searching minuteness all the voluminous evidence extant relating to the trials’ to the more recent The murdered magicians by Peter Partner (1987) which examines the history of the Knights Templars down to the modern varieties in our time.