You are here

Western Esotericism Unit

Call for Proposals

(Western) Esotericism: the Other Religious Studies
The occult revival in Europe emerged contemporaneously with the discipline of Religious Studies, and is not unconnected to it. Occultists often sought the support of scholarly writing even as scholars took an interest in psychic phenomena. Dion Fortune leaned on both Freud and Margaret Murray, Helena Blavatsky took advantage of scholarly writing about gnosticism and esoteric Buddhism, even as E.B. Tylor was attending seances. Occultists like G.R.S. Mead and Arthur Edward Waite were also amateur scholars, leaving an imprint on later research on Gnosticism, Hermetism, alchemy, and Rosicrucianism. This session is designed to investigate the links and cross-references between esoteric and scholarly discourses at the dawn of the academic study of religion.

Possession and Mediumship in Esoteric Milieux
Possession and mediumship are linked phenomena. Many traditional Catholic assumptions about the phenomenology of possessing spirits were drawn into mesmerism and subsequently into occultism and spiritualism during the nineteenth century. In the same time period, the emergent fields of psychology and psychoanalysis engaged with mediumistic phenomena in different but related ways. While Freud and F.W.H Myers worked out their theories of stratified consciousness, Pierre Janet was working out his theory of "dissociation," showing it as a psychological defense against traumatic experience. The discourses of psychology and esotericism come together, merging and disjoining in many places. This session will look at deliberate esoteric cultivation of possession and mediumistic phenomena, and engage with the historical ontologies that informed these varied ideas of stratified selves alongside ritual productions of possession.

Who Does Black Magic? Conspiracy Theories and Paranoid Politics
Conspiracy theories have a surprising life of their own, a kind of recombinant DNA of tropes and motifs that frequently link up to esoteric concepts or rituals. A book on flat earth relying on a foundational NASA oriented conspiracy theory may agglomerate with fictions from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jewish-Freemason conspiracy, Kabbalistic black magic, and suggestions of sexual and cannibalistic ritual by religious or esoteric Others. Conspiracist motifs proliferate despite their repeated debunking, and continue to travel the circuit of both political and religious groups worldwide in a bewildering variety of shifting forms, notoriously hard to counter with any ordinary facts, pedagogies, or debate strategies. This session is intended to foster discussion about suspicion of esoteric involvement in political or religious conspiracies.

Co sponsored with SBL Gnosticism, Esotericism and Mysticism in Antiquity
Authors-meet-critics: Dylan M. Burns, Almut-Barbara Renger, eds.. New Antiquities: Transformations of Ancient Religion in the New Age and Beyond. Equinox, 2019.
This edited collection offers a variety of perspectives on how individuals and groups appeal to, reconceptualize, and reinvent the religious world of the ancient Mediterranean to legitimize developments in contemporary religious culture. We seek proposals from scholars in related fields who wish to respond to, engage with, or offer a critique of the book as a whole or to specific chapters. Papers engaging themes of the impact of scholarship on religious life and development of NRMs especially welcome. The editors have been invited to respond.

Statement of Purpose

This Unit seeks to reflect and further stimulate the current process — reflected in the recent creation of new teaching programs, international associations, journals, book series, and reference works — of professionalization and scholarly recognition of Western esotericism as a new area of research in the study of religion. For more information on the field, see the websites of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE,, the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE,, and the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam ( Information about the academic journal Aries and the Aries Book Series can be found on the website of Brill Academic Publishers (; and


Steering Committee Members



Review Process

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members

Review Process Comments

Once all votes by steering committee are tallied we do share names of authors of the viable proposals with steering committee members, along with possible panel structures.