Coming to Terms with the Terms: Why ‘Esotericism’?

By Maria Danova, Independent Scholar

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, Caravaggio's first religious painting, c. 1595, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, Caravaggio's first religious painting, c. 1595, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

Before we embark on this awe-inspiring, and at times mind-boggling, journey through different periods of musical theory and practice, it seems necessary to double-check our vehiclenamely, the very term that will guide us along the way: Esotericism.

Indeed, some attentive readers might ask why exactly I have chosen this word, and not ‘Mysticism,’ ‘Hermeticism,’ or ‘Occultism.’ This question would be perfectly justified, but it also requires a fairly extensive explanation, for these terms are often used interchangeably and there exists a substantial confusion as regards to the differences between them.

The differences, however, do exist, and, as subtle as they may be, I find it crucial to point them out, so as to clear the path that lies ahead.


To begin, let us look at two Google-generated diagrams that illustrate the use of the words ‘esoteric’ and ‘mystic’ since the early 19th century.

While these diagrams are not precise, they still give us a good idea of the changes in our collective consciousness when it comes to the murky field of arcane knowledge and mystic revelations.

As you can see, the word ‘mystic’ was on the rise somewhere between 1900 and 1950, probably due to the wave of popularity of Eastern mysticism, inspired by the extensive research in the 19th century and successfully continued by Theosophists and the Roerichs. The increased usage of this term was also contributed by the work of such notable figures as Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and Alan Watts (1913–1973) who were deeply interested in Eastern mysticism and significantly contributed to the dissemination of Zen concepts in the West. [1]

Today the curve for ‘mystic’ has visibly dropped, giving way for the word ‘esoteric’ with its usage increasing steadily since the early 20th century. Nowadays, in our everyday life, esotericism has come to be associated with the notorious ‘esoteric bookshops,’ with their heady brew of all kinds of wisdom and folly along with aroma sticks and Tibetan bowls.

As Kocku von Stuckrad, contemporary scholar in the field of Esotericism, justly writes:

Esotericism has become a highly popular term during the last three decades. Like ‘New Age,’ it is a catchword for a lot of quite disparate religious or cultural phenomena, and its usage in a wider public differs considerably from that in academic contexts. [2]

Thus, there are two notions designated by this word: the exoteric esotericism, the way it is perceived in mass culture, and the esoteric Esotericism, the way it is practiced and studied by independent specialists and in the academia.

At project AWE, our focus is in the latter one.


When did the mysterious word ‘Esotericism’ first appear in our occidental context?

David Ryckaert III, The Alchemist, 1649, Museo del Prado, Madrid

David Ryckaert III, The Alchemist, 1649, Museo del Prado, Madrid

It was recognized as a new word in Maurice Lachâtre (1814–1900) Dictionnaire universel of 1852, where it is defined as follows: “From the Greek eisōthéō, the entirety of the principles of a secret doctrine, communicated only to affiliated members.” [3]

Most sources, however, bring up the year 1828 as the word’s first breakthrough into Western discourse. [4] Antoine Faivre writes in his essay “Renaissance Hermeticism and Western Esotericism” that “there is no evidence that the noun ‘esotericism’ was used earlier than 1828. It appears in French (l’ésotérisme) in a book on Gnosticism published by Jacques Matter [Histoire critique du Gnosticisme, et de son influence]. Matter uses the word in a rather vague sense, which corresponds approximately to philosophia perennis and to ‘secret knowledge.’” [5]

In his later work (Western Esotericism: A Concise History) Matter brings up an earlier date, which became known only after 2010, acknowledged by historian Monika Neugebauer-Wölk. In 1792 “it appeared in German: Esoterik, in the context of debates concerning the secret teachings of Pythagoras against a background of Freemasonry.” [6] On a side note, this meaning is very close to my own understanding of the notion, suiting well the intention of the cycle on music and esotericism.

However, there are two even earlier dates to mention. They are presented by the prominent scholar in Esotericism, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, in the Dictionary of Western Esotericism. In 1752, the word ‘esoteric’ appeared in a French dictionary denoting things ‘obscure, hidden, and uncommon.’ And finally, as early as 1687 it was used in English in Th. Stanley’s History of Philosophy as referring to Pythagoras’ elite pupils: as is known, there were two levels of access to Sacred Knowledge in his school, one external (exoteric), and the other internal (esoteric). [7]

The meaning of the word is derived from its Greek source, esótero, which means ‘further in’; esóteros is thus ‘inner.’ “You have to go ‘further in’ yourself to understand what this knowledge is about,” writes Richard Smoley. [8]

There are several occurrences of words with this root in Greek, but it was first associated with secrecy by Clement of Alexandria in Stromata V, 58, 3-4:

the disciples of Aristotle say that some of their treatises are esoteric, and others common and exoteric.

Finally, after Hippolyte of Rome (Refutation of all Heresies I, 2, 4) and Iambichius (Life of Pythagoras), “the adjective ‘esoteric,’ as referring to secret teachings reserved for a mystic elite, was taken up by later authors, such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.” [9]

It is thus from the Antiquity, as is often the case within our Western civilization, that we derive this legacy.


What is the meaning of the term ‘Mysticism’ then?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, 1647-52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, 1647-52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

First of all, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the very term ‘Mysticism.’ In fact, it designates two different notions: there exists a clear distinction between its ancient, initiatory meaning, and the modern, Christianized one, connected with the experiential Union with God:

Any attempt at a definition of mysticism must be deficient, not only on grounds of the broad spectrum of phenomena seen as mystical, but also on grounds of the historical transformation of the concept. First of all, it denotes the ‘closing’ (in Gk., mein) of the eyes and lips in the act of initiation into the Greek mystery religions, lest their secret knowledge be betrayed. In Christianity, ‘mysticism’ acquires the meaning of experiential knowledge of God (in Lat., cognito Dei experimentalis)especially, extraordinary ‘experiences of God,’ understood as a special manifestation of grace, experiences occurring in rapture, visions, and ecstasy, whose purpose is a union with God in love and knowledge (unio mystica…). <…> The adjective mustikos thus related first to the initiate and to mystery, and to the communion of the faithful with Christ, prior to becoming a substantive at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century [i.e., earlier than the respective substantives for ‘esoteric’ got formedM.D.], designating a unitive experience of the intimate presence of God in Man (mysticism) and the person enjoying this experience (mystic). [10]

For obvious reasons, within our Western context, the term ‘mysticism’ is nowadays commonly used in its Christianized sense, as a direct experience of God, even if we imply Jewish, Sufi, or any other mysticism. Within this project, the notion of mysticism is going to be used extensively in connection with the Romantic age, since “in Romanticism’s veer from the Renaissance belief in reason and progress, mysticism became (1) a religion of emotion, of profound inner sensation, and (2) a pantheistic philosophical monism of union.” [11]

A wonderful definition of Mysticism in its connection with the Romantic mindset is given by Roland Goetschel in his book on Kabbalah (Le Kabbale, 1985). Mysticism, he writes, “springs from inspiration transcending the borders of conventional space and time in order to fulfill the connection with the Divine.” [12] The key word here is of course inspiration, since it is through this divine state that writers, painters, and musicians of Romanticism wrote, painted and composed, as opposed to the more intellective, esoteric approach of many 20th centuries’ authors.


Now, to the relation between the concepts ‘Esotericism’ and ‘Mysticism.’  The distinction between the two terms is extremely fine, with scholars using different criteria and metaphors to differentiate between the two.

Fragment of altar fresco, ca. 1350, Visoki Decani Monastery, Metohia, Yugoslavia,

Fragment of altar fresco, ca. 1350, Visoki Decani Monastery, Metohia, Yugoslavia,

I would like to use the images of ‘rocket’ and ‘Jacob’s ladder’ for the metaphoric expression of mysticism’s and esotericism’s respective ways of accessing the Divine Realm.   The first image is my personal association, while the latter is borrowed from Faivre’s wonderful formula:

“the esotericist… typically awaits the transmutation of the world and of his own carnal reality; he prefers to sojourn ‘on Jacob’s ladder, where the angelssymbols, mediations are ascending and descending, rather than venture resolutely beyond,” as does the mystic in his imaginary ‘rocket.’ [13]

Thus, Esotericism is much more focused on intermediary states. Interestingly, the very process and act of passing, is also very important to Minimalism, the 20th century’s musical current that pursued the goal of re-sacralizing music. Music is by the definition is in constant process of unfolding over time.  Its creators and interpreters cannot help but be attracted to the ‘way stations’ that they pass on this path of creation, resulting in forming crystal-like order out of the ‘chaotic’ material of sound. Another aspect that the art of music has in common with esotericism is that they are both active investigations, with the primary characteristic being “experiential insight into the nature of the divine as manifested in the individual and in the cosmos”. [14]

On the other hand, they represent two different routes of gnosis and of transcendence: one gradual, attentive to details, scholarly, dedicated to the study of the nature of things, investing time to seemingly minor matters (Esotericism, ‘intellective gnosis’); the other one impatient, eager to fly right into the Sublime, expecting raptures and ecstasies, and the experience of unio mystica, the union with the Godhead (‘voluntaristic mysticism’). Noteworthy, is that the concept of union is adequately important for esotericism, since “in all its manifold forms [it] has as its center the search not for manipulation or control deriving from objectification, but for connection and union.” [15]

What you will immediately notice reading about Mysticism from different sources is that the word ‘direct’ is used invariably: direct access to the Divine, direct path, direct perception, direct experience, etc. [16]

“The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way.” [17] In other words, the Esoteric path is indirect, while the Mystic one is direct.  

As David Goddard writes in his book on Alchemy, “the direct path is sometimes called the ‘mystical’ path. <…> Essentially, this approach attempts to enter into union with the Source of being by rejecting all appearance of otherness. It focuses completely on the One Reality.” [18]

The indirect path, on the contrary, is called the ‘ceremonial’ path (although no actual ceremonies might be involved), and it is indirect because “its modus operandi is similar to that of pool or snooker, where some shots are made by bouncing the ball off the cushioned table rim, and so reaching the goal indirectly.” This latter method “uses images and forms, hidden mental powers, emotional drives, and the physical body itself.” [19]

It would probably be unjust to equal this ceremonial path à la Goddard to Esotericism, since he himself does not use this word, nonetheless it bears a strong resemblance. Moreover, it seems like this indirect path is that of the composers and music theoreticians.

Naturally, composers may also experience mystical states and revelations (common among the performers, many of them testify that when playing great pieces of music they experience a sense of union with the Absolute – not only the absolute, celestial ideal of the piece, but also with the Absolute as such). Upon the whole, the very process of composing and of theorizing about music resembles this Goddard’s description of the snooker game. In this sense, true composers may well be called “mages,” as the practitioners of the so-called ceremonial path. One of the most vivid examples of such a magus composer is the fictional character Antoine Leverkühn from Thomas Mann’s highly influential novel Doctor Faustus (1947) the main impetus for my cycle of essays on music.


While going through different stages within this cycle, we will be touching upon multiple areas of secret or hidden knowledge implied by the choice of the word ‘Esotericism.’ For it unites “a vast range of traditions, including alchemy, astrology, Christian gnosis, Freemasonry, Jewish [and Christian – M.D.] Kabbalah, magic, mysticism, Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and related currents of hidden knowledge in the European inheritance.” [20]

Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus depicted on the floor of Siena’s Duomo, Tuscany, Italy

Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus depicted on the floor of Siena’s Duomo, Tuscany, Italy

As you can see, Versluis places Mysticism within Esotericism, making the latter notion almost all-encompassing. I tend to agree with this understanding of the concept, and this is exactly why, intuitively, I have chosen the term ‘Esotericism,’ since I feel that it covers all the diverse fields that my research is going to involve.

Under ‘related currents’ it is necessary to mention Hermeti(ci)sm which is going to play an important part in the cycle as well. Antoine Faivre, in his important text “Renaissance Hermeticism and the Concept of Western Esotericism,” drew a very clear distinction between Hermeticism and Esotericism (“two different notions, which are interconnected but should not be confused”), as well as between Hermetism and Hermeticism, and, in its turn, Esoterism and Esotericism.

The term ‘Hermetism,’ derived from the name of the half-mythical Hermes Trismegistus (the Thrice-Great; also Mercurius), designates the Hermetica, the very corpus of Hermetic texts (Corpus Hermeticum) “written in the region of Alexandria and dating back to the second and third centuries A.D.” and to the “literature inspired by it during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even thereafter.” Since the 1960s it has become conventional to discern ‘Hermetism’ from ‘Hermeticism,’ the latter being used in a wider sense, “to designate the general attitude of mind underlying a variety of traditions and/or currents beside alchemy, such as Hermetism, Astrology, Kabbalah, Christian Theosophy, and philosophia occulta or magia…” [21]

This quality of semi all-inclusiveness makes the term ‘Hermeticism’ parallel to the one we are interested in, ‘Esotericism,’ for it also includes a whole range of traditions as it designates a certain world-view, closely connected with the occult, alchemy, cosmology, and magic. In fact, Esotericism in a certain way grew out of Hermeti(ci)sm: “As the Hermetic genre evolved, it came to take on an esoteric tone, from which the modern, occult-tinged reception of Hermetism and even out contemporary sense of the word ‘hermetic’ derives.” [22] Thus, these two notions, Esotericism and Hermeticism, seem to be much closer between each other than Esotericism and Mysticism.

Roland Goetschel, in his already mentioned book on Kabbalah, gives two essential characteristics that prove that Kabbalah belongs to the realm of Esotericism:

(1) Kabbalah is esoteric primarily in the sense that only a small number of initiates gets access to it…” (Compare to Faivre’s definition of Esotericism: “it often refers to a “secret knowledge” or “secret science,” in the sense of a secrecy that must be preserved by the so-called disciplina arcaniit is in this second sense that the word Esoterism is used by the neo-Guenonians and traditionalists);

(2) Kabbalah is esoteric also in the sense that it interprets the plots that are most deeply hidden and are the most substantial among everything that pertains to man, world, and God. [13] (Compare to Faivre’s definition of Esotericism in its second sense: “it refers to what is ‘hidden’ Nature or Man, which (in contrast with the first meaning) does not necessarily imply that something must be kept secret.”) [23]

According to Faivre and most scholars, ‘Esotericism’ also has a third meaning: it designates a certain mindset, worldview, or a set of sciences: a “diverse group of works and currents <…> in recognition of the fact that they possess some sort of air de famille.” [24]

Faivre has also diligently determined several characteristics, four fundamental and two relative ones, that allow one to define a certain current as ‘esoteric’:

1) the idea of correspondence (for instance, the Kabbalistic idea “as above, so below”);

2) living nature (magia, the knowledge of network of sympathies and antipathies in Nature);

3) imagination and mediations (intermediary levels on the path of knowledge; “mediations of all kinds, such as rituals, symbolic images, numbers, mandalas, intermediate spirits, and the like”);

4) the experience of transmutation (“illuminated knowledge (gnosis) is supposed to result in a state of being, conductive to a “second birth”).

The two additional ones are:

5) the praxis of concordance (“attempts to discover common denominators among two or more different traditions or even among all traditions”; corresponding to philosophia perennis – although many esotericists do not approve the usage of the notion perennialism in connection with E.) [25]

6) transmission (the passing of knowledge through initiation).

Personally, I do not find this classification satisfactoryas it doesn’t coincide with my image of Esotericism as a notion. I believe that the 5th characteristic, that of concordance, that Faivre presents as ‘relative’ is actually crucial. Philosophia perennis has a special significance to my research, as the eternal tradition of wisdom, “the secret teachings of all ages,” passed by the supreme initiates: Orpheus, Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, and others.

What I find useful in Faivre’s text is the exquisite musical image that he uses in his text, while writing on Hermetism and Christian Kabbalah. It resonates beautifully with my own understanding of eternal wisdom expressed through multiple currents:

One can say that the various religious traditions were imagined as different strings or keys on one single instrument, arranged in such a way that they could produce multiple, mutually illuminating harmonies. [26]


It remains to mention that what we will be investigating is not simply ‘Esotericism,’ but specifically ‘Western Esotericism,’ briefly called ‘Westotericism’ in a familiar manner by the students of the respective program at the Amsterdam University. [27]

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, 1800,British Museum, London, England

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, 1800,British Museum, London, England

This program, arranged by the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (GHF), as well as other such programs and research centers dedicated to this field, is a direct result of Esotericism’s growth in popularity and acclaim in the academic circles. It is only relatively recently, since the 1960s, that this subject was allowed into the official scholarly discourse, due to the efforts of such luminaries as Faivre and, of course, Frances A. Yates.

As Allison P. Coudert, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis, U.S.A., and a former student of Yates at the Warburg Institute, writes in her contribution to the volume Hermes in the Academy (2009),

by putting Hermeticism on the academic map, Yates provided an enormous impetus for the study of Western esotericism, now finally recognized as a legitimate field of academic research. I say “finally recognized” because for all of Yates’ fame, the study of Western esotericism had to fight its way into the academy in the face of considerable hostility. [28]

Presently, this hostile attitude has been dropped, and, thanks to the amazing work done by the previous scholars and enthusiasts of Western esoteric tradition, we can enjoy the freedom of writing on this subject both in the academic way and, as in my case, as independent researchers.


Having clarified the terms to be used and marked the subtle differences between them, we can embark on our journey…  Next in this series:


Tracing the Cosmic Connection

Raphael, The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, 1516-17, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Raphael, The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, 1516-17, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna


[1] Another interesting figure worth mentioning here is Eugene Dennis Rose (1934–1982) who was first engaged in in-depth research of Eastern mysticism, studying Chinese philosophy at Pomona College, then moving to the American Academy of Asian Studies to study under Alan Watts, and then graduating from the Oriental languages program at Berkeley. In 1962, he converted to Orthodoxy, became a monk under the name Father Seraphim Rose, and founded a monastery in Platina, California. He is now considered a very spiritually influential author in the Orthodox tradition, and there are even debates about his canonization.

[2] The Brill Dictionary of Religion. Kocku von Stuckrad, ed. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006, p. 606

[3] Esotericism, Dictionary of Gnosticism & Western Esotericism. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ed., in collaboration with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek, and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006, p. 337

[4] See, for instance, The Brill Dictionary of Religion, p. 607

[5] Faivre, Antoine. “Renaissance Hermeticism and Western Esotericism” // Gnosis and Hermeticism. From Antiquity to Modern Times. Roelof van den Broek, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, eds. SUNY Press, 1998, p. 118

[6] Faivre, Antoine. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Christine Rhone, transl. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. SUNY Press, 2010, p. 1

[7] Dictionary of Gnosticism & Western Esotericism, p. 336

[8] Smoley, Richard. Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2002, p. 2. Another variant is suggested by Kocku von Stuckrad in his article for Brill Dictionary: “a definition of ‘esotericism’ often refers to the meaning of the Greek esóteros (‘inwardly’, ‘secretly’, ‘restricted to an inner circle’) and lays the main emphasis on secrecy and concealment of religious, spiritual, and philosophical truths.” The Brill Dictionary of Religion, p. 606

[9] Dictionary of Gnosticism & Western Esotericism, p. 336

[10] Mysticism, Brill Dictionary of Religion, p. 1279. Another rendition is given in Hanegraaff’s dictionary, with the Greek etymology explained a bit more extensively: “Etymologically, the semantic field of mysticism is close to that of esotericism: mu refers to the closed mouth, hence muo, to be closed (especially the eyes and the mouth); mustes means the “mystes”, the initiated one, he who keeps his lips sealed; musterion refers to the initiation cult, hence secrecy. In Christianity this vocabulary covers, on the one hand, the manifestation of the divine plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, beyond what can be discovered by natural knowledge <…>; and on the other hand, it refers to religious and liturgical elements, especially of a sacramental order.” Dictionary of Gnosticism & Western Esotericism, p. 817

[11] Mysticism, Brill Dictionary of Religion, p. 1279

[12] Goetschel, Roland. Le Kabbale, Presses Universitaires de France, 1985, 2002. Russian edition: Kabbalah, Moscow : AST/Astrel, 2008, p. 6. The citations are taken from the Russian edition and translated into English by me.

[13] Faivre, Antoine. Accès de l’ésotérisme occidental, vol. 2, Paris: Gallimard, 1996, as cited in the article ‘Mysticism’ in Dictionary of Gnosticism & Western Esotericism, p. 819.

[14] Versluis, Arthur. Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, Art, and Consciousness. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. SUNY Press, 2004, p. 1-2

[15] Versluis, p. 6

[16] For example: Mysticism “is the desire to unleash the vast reserves of primal psychic energy latent within every human being, and thus to open up the inner eye of direct perception, and with this awakened eye to behold the blazing light of divine radiance, whose nature is perfect bliss.” Soni, Manish. Mystic Chords: Mysticism and Psychology in Popular Music. NY: Algora Publishing, 2001, p. 11

[17] Smoley, p. 3

[18] Goddard, David. The Tower of Alchemy: An Advanced Guide to the Great Work. Boston,MA/York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 1999, p. 5

[19] Ibid., p. 6

[20] Versluis, p. 2

[21] Faivre, “Renaissance Hermeticism and Western Esotericism”, p. 109-110

[22] Hermetism/Hermeticism, Brill Dictionary of Religion, p. 847

[23] Goetschel, Roland. Le Kabbale, Russian edition: Kabbala, p. 7-8. The citations are taken from the Russian edition and translated into English by me.

[24] Faivre, “Renaissance Hermeticism and Western Esotericism,” p. 118

[25] See more on the controversy between esotericists and perennialists in the academia in: Sedgwick, Mark. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 2004, Part III, Chapter 10: Education

[26] Faivre, “Renaissance Hermeticism and Western Esotericism,” p. 113

[27] Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Joyce Pijnenburg, eds. Amsterdam University Press, 2009, p. 107

[28] Coudert, Allison P. “From ‘the Hermetic Tradition’ to ‘Western Esotericism’ // Hermes in the Academy, p. 118

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, The Souls of Acheron, 1898), Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, The Souls of Acheron, 1898), Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere


Key Names, Journals, Book Series, and Institutions


Frances Amelia Yates (1899–1981). 
Yates was a breakthrough figure who finally broke the ice between Esotericism and the then-skeptical academia. The appearance of such terms as “Yates effect” and “Yates paradigm” illustrates her influence in the field. She taught at the Warburg Institute of the University of London.

Major works:
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
The Art of Memory
The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972)

Antoine Faivre (b. 1934)
Faivre is a reputable scholar in the field of Western esotericism. His major achievement is that he introduced Western esotericism as a field of interdisciplinary academic study, in continuation of Yates’s groundbreaking endeavors. Along with Wouter J. Hanegraaff et al., he founded the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE).

Major works:
L’ésoterisme (1992)
Accès de l'ésotérisme occidental (1986)

Joscelyn Godwin (b. 1945)
Godwin, who has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, is a composer, musicologist, translator, and specialist in the field of Western esotericism and the occult. As a very prolific author, he penned multiple highly valuable books on the subjects connected with esotericism, mysticism, and musicology. He also teaches courses on musical and esoteric subjects at Colgate University as Professor of music.

Major works:
Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds
Harmonies of Heaven and Earth.
 The Spiritual Dimension of Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (1987)
The Mystery of the Seven Vowels in Theory and Practice (1991)
More on Godwin:

 Wouter J. Hanegraaff (b. 1961)
Hanegraaff is a prominent and enthusiastic scholar in the field of Western esotericism and a founding and acting member of ESSWE, whose first president he was in 2005–2013. Hanegraaff contributed greatly to the expansion of this previously ambiguous area of studies into the academia.

Major works:
New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1996)
Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, w. Roelof van den Broek (1998)

Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (2013)
More on Hanegraaff:


Aries – Journal published under the auspices of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE).

Esoterica A peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the transdisciplinary study of Western esotericism, issued by Michigan State University.

ISIS – journal published by the University of Chicago, exists since 1912.  Although not dedicated especially to esoteric subjects, but rather to the history of science and its cultural influences, this publication features many interesting scholarly articles whose topics intersect with the field of Western esotericism.


Aries Book Series. Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism (Brill Academic Publishers) – the first professional academic book series specifically devoted to the new domain of research in the humanities, usually referred to as “Western Esotericism”.

Studies in Esotericism Series by Esoterica Journal – there have appeared two volumes so far, Esotericism, Art, and Imagination (2009) and Esotericism, Religion, and Nature (2010).

SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions – extensive series on esotericism, mysticism, and related subjects maintained by the State University of New York Press since 1993.


American Academy of Religion has a Western Esotericism program unit group. 

Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) – scholarly organization created in 2002 at the First North American Symposium on the Study of Esotericism at Michigan State University hosted by the journal Esoterica.

Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism (CCWE) – independent of any academic or esoteric communities. Interaction occurs via blog, meetings, and occasional conferences.

Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (GHF), University of Amsterdam. Important center for scholarly research in the field of Western Esotericism, founded in 1999.

European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) – international research network that arranges biannual conferences and academic exchange. Founded in 2005 in Amsterdam.

Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) at the University of Exeter, UK.

Philosophical Research Society (PRS) established in 1934 by the prominent researcher of esotericism, freemasonry, and initiatory practices Manly P. Hall (19011990), famous for his 1928 opus The Secret Teachings of All Ages, and still functioning today in LA, with its own publishing house and bookstore.

Nicolas Poussin, The ecstasy of Saint Paul, 1649-50, The Louvre Museum, Paris

Nicolas Poussin, The ecstasy of Saint Paul, 1649-50, The Louvre Museum, Paris

Western Esotericism: Suggested Readings

Constructing Tradition: Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism. Kilcher, Andreas B., ed. Aries Book Series. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010

Esotericism, Art, and Imagination. Arthur Versluis, Lee Irwin, John Richards, and Melinda Weinstein, eds. Studies in Esotericism Series. East Lansing: MSU Press, 2009.

Esotericism, Religion, and Nature. Arthur Versluis et al., eds. Studies in Esotericism Series.  North American Academic Press / MSU Press, 2010

Faivre, Antoine. Access to Western Esotericism. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994

Gnosis and Hermeticism. From Antiquity to Modern Times. Roelof van den Broek, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, eds. NY: SUNY Press, 1998

Godwin, Joscelyn. The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions. Foreword by Richard Smoley. Quest Books, 2007

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Western Esoteric Tradition: A Historical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008

Hall, Manley P. The Wisdom of the Knowing Ones: Gnosticism, the Key to Esoteric Christianity. LA: Philosophical Research Society, 2010

Magee, Glenn Alexander. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Cornell University Press, 2008

Polemical Encounters: Esoteric Discourse and its Others. Olav Hammer, Kocku von Stuckrad, eds. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007

Ricard, John. “What is the Difference Between Mysticism and Esotericism?” March 18, 2007. Source:

Von Stuckrad, Kocku. Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005