The SHWEP aims to be accessible to the general public; we try to keep academic jargon to a minimum. But the world we are documenting is a world of scholarship – the academic study of western esotericism – and inevitably involves us in the use of highfalutin’ terms like a priori, heuristic, and hermeneutic. This glossary tries to define in an accessible way what we mean by these terms when we do use them. It also defines some terms which we have co-opted for our own purposes, because we saw a need for a special terminology for some reason – terms like utopia and otherworld.
We gratefully accept suggestions for new glossary terms.
- a priori
When you come to a philosophic conclusion based on earlier conclusions, or on what you take to be self-evident facts, this is an a priori (Latin ‘from the earlier’) conclusion.
An adjuration is a magical speech-act by which a power (be it angelic, demonic, or other) is bound to the will of the speaker.
This Greek term, best translated as ‘unsaying’, refers to the practice sometimes known as the via negativa or ‘negative theology’. If God or the first principle of reality transcends human thought and language, there is formally nothing we can say about it; apophatic philosophers thus confine themselves to making negative statements about this reality, e.g. ‘God is the un-ground of reality’ (Böhme); ‘the One is nothing’ (Plotinus). Things get really interesting when apophasis denies even the denials; we then have full-blown unsaying, often of the form ‘God is x; God is not x; God is neither x nor not-x, but something higher than either’, and so forth.
The podcast defines arithmology as any approach to number which posits a special category of numbers which are 1: possessed of an essential character and 2: ontologically-constitutive of reality.
Special category: These numbers – usually referred to in Greek with the specially-constructed feminine nouns monas, dyas, trias, etc. whence the Latin unitas, trinitas, etc. (duitas in not attested), and English Monad, Dyad, Triad, etc. – are not the same as the numbers used for counting, but a deeper level of mathematical reality.
Essential character: the Triad is not merely three ones grouped together, but instead is viewed as an independent reality characterised by ‘threeness’.
Ontological role: these primal numbers are seen as elements of reality, often – but not always – in the context of the creation or manifestation of reality either through fundamental principles (e.g. Neopythagoreanism) or by a deity (e.g. Sefer Yetsirah, The Mysteries of the Letters) or occasionally both (e.g. Plato’s Timæus).
- Astral Religion
We define astral religion as any religious system wherein the state of the heavenly bodies directly influences the state of the human being, and the religion thus addresses itself directly to the heavenly bodies, usually either as obstacles in the way of salvation or as powers which may assist in the soul’s ascent. Examples include Basilides, many Hermetica, many Platonist cosmological works, the Mithrasliturgie, the astral ritual recounted by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, etc.
The SHWEP defines astrology in two ways, as a world-view and as a practice.
The astrological world-view is one which sees direct correspondence between stellar and earthly phenomena; this is broader than many specialists would like, and would include the ancient Babylonian omen-literature as an example of an astrological world-view.
Astrological practice is defined as the science or art of interpreting the mundane world in terms of events in the stellar regions, as well as actions determined specifically by such interpretations. This broad definition includes the making and interpreting of horoscopic charts and magical acts predicated on astral charts, correspondences, or influences, but also other activities predicated on astrological understanding (such as performing everyday acts at specific times based on astrological data). For the SHWEP, even if you act in a certain way because of something you read in the horoscope column, you are acting astrologically.
- B.C.E. and C.E.
The old dating terms B.C. and A.D. (standing for ‘before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’, ‘in the year of the Lord’, respectively) are widely familiar, but of course they presuppose a Christian worldview, wherein everything changed with the birth of Christ. The modern variants BCE and CE, ‘Before Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’ are an attempt to rectify this, while keeping the same familiar dating (so 10 BC = 10 BCE), and this podcast favours these terms. Really, we should all learn a more rational system of dating, but we won’t.
This key concept in Greek and subsequent western thought depends a lot on what kind of verb ‘to be’ your language has. The structure of the Greek verb εἰμι and its many cognates (notably οὐσία, ‘essence’) has been incredibly influential in this respect. There are two crucial uses of this verb which must be kept distinct, but often are not:
Predicative: this use of the verb ‘to be’ tells us that one concept partakes of another concept: ‘The table is oblong.’ Here, we are not told anything about the existence of the table, except that it is oblong; it could theoretically be an imaginary oblong table.
Existential: the existential use of ‘to be’ implies that something really exists. ‘There is a table.’ Here we have a real table.
See East Roman.
Doxography generally refers to a tradition of documenting the theories of earlier philosophers. Much of what we know of ancient philosophy and science comes from later, doxographic writers.
- East Roman
Although the city of Rome was sacked by Visigoths in 410 and the western Roman empire collapsed in the ensuing centuries, the eastern half of the Empire, commonly known as Byzantium, survived, with many ups and downs, until 1453, when the capital city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks. This is not the ‘decline and fall of the Roman empire’ you learned about in school. The importance of this Orthodox empire for the history of western esotericism has long been underestimated, a situation which current scholarship is rectifying.
Emic and Etic are terms which have been coined in the study of cultures to indicate two different approaches; an ’emic’ approach attempts to get ‘inside’ a culture or way of thinking. Anthropological methodologies of ‘participant observation’ are powerful emic tools. Etic approaches on the other hand are more descriptive, taking a standpoint firmly outside the cultural formation being studied.
Epistemology is the philosophical jargon word for the study of thought/knowing/consciousness. Whenever a thinker gives a theory about how human beings know what they know or how thinking works, they are indulging in epistemology.
This term has many shades of meaning, and its exact parameters are hotly debated within the academic study of western esotericism. This podcast’s default definition is simply ‘presented as being meant only for the initiated’. Unpacking this a little bit, information is esoteric if, 1: it is presented as being accessible only to a select group, and 2: if it is presented as being wisdom of a higher order.
A more specific term than, but included under the umbrella of the Esoteric, we take esotericism to refer to social practices which construct or enforce distinctions between an ‘initiated’ group and a non-initiated group, or further within the initiated group, defined in terms of access to qualitatively higher knowledge; ‘esotericism’ would thus refer to things like the restriction of access to documents in religious movements from early Christianity to Scientology, the Pythagorean or Masonic use of tokens of membership-recognition or passwords, divisions of the ‘in-group’ into further subdivisions depending on the level of ‘progress’ a given member of the group has made along the path toward higher knowledge, and this sort of thing.
A fancy way of saying ‘explanatory reading’. If I read, say Plato, and then put the book down, I am reading. If I read Plato and then write a long essay explaining what Plato means, I am doing exegesis of Plato. The term is most commonly applied to the explanatory reading of sacred scriptures.
- Far West, the
- First- and Second-Order Terms
In the study of human cultures, scholars have to deal with
1. the way people identify themselves (first-order terms) and
2. the way the scholars wish to identify them (second-order terms).
Scholars studying the thought of Origen, the early church father, for example, may rightly describe him as a ‘Platonising Christian’, or even as a ‘Christian Platonist’: these are second-order terms which accurately reflect Origen’s obvious debt to Platonist thought alongside his obvious claims to Christianity. Origen himself, however, adamantly describes himself as simply a Christian. We must be vigilant to avoid bleed between the first- and second-order terms: scholarship abounds with second-order terms being applied retroactively to historical figures. We are right to examine Origen’s debts to Platonist thought, but we would be guilty of extreme anachronism if we berated him for being either a poor Platonist or ‘not a real Christian’ because of the Platonist content of his thought.
The Greek term hellenismos originally meant most basically ‘the ability to speak Greek’. However, the term later gains two important meanings for the history of western esotericism.
Firstly, from the Hellenistic period onward, and particularly under Rome, hellenism came to refer to a whole, complex set of educational and social practices: Greek language, but also a polished rhetorical style, knowledge of Greek literary classics, the practice of philosophy, and so on. This form of hellenism was a unifying elite educational culture within which the disparate strands of what would become western esotericism began to take shape.
Secondly, from around the third century CE, the term Hellenism comes to be used polemically by Christians to refer to traditional polytheist religions, or ‘paganism’. A struggle was waged for hundreds of years within early Christianity over what aspects of Greek culture could be adopted, subverted, or otherwise used within Christianity, and what must be rejected outright. Conversely, the Platonist intellectual opponents of Christianity argued not only for their philosophical positions, but for a larger ‘hellenismos’, imbued with the authority of the entire Greek legacy as developed through the Roman centuries.
The Hellenistic era is the period usually dated from the beginning of Alexander the Great’s campaigns of conquest; it is ‘Hellenistic’ because it saw a large-scale spread of Hellenic cultural tropes across a vast region of the world where there had previously been no Greeks, a.k.a. Hellenes. It is generally taken to end with the Roman conquests.
Note that, in the History of Religions, it is common to speak of ‘Hellenistic religious movements’, which are new religious forms, sometimes traceable to beginnings in the Hellenistic era, but extending well into the Roman imperial period and even beyond; e.g. Christianity, Mithraism. This use of the term is thus quite different than the basic periodisation used by classicists, and refers more to a Hellenic cultural sphere with a long historical life.
A fancy way of saying ‘interpretation’. Scholars generally use this term when they are trying to get at the idea of an interpretive framework: for example, if I say ‘Plotinus reads Plato with an esoteric hermeneutic’, I mean that Plotinus thinks Plato wrote with a hidden meaning, so that an interpretive practice of unearthing this meaning is the proper way to read him. ‘Hermeneutic’ actually has an etymological relationship to the ancient god Hermes, who was associated with thought and communication; hermeneuein in ancient Greek means ‘to interpret, translate’. So that’s another reason to use it.
- Knowledge Magic
This is our term for the type of magical practice devoted to gaining systematic scientific knowledge. Examples include the invocation of Sar Torah in the text of that name, sometimes appended to the Greater Hekhalot, in order to gain comprehensive knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures; the medieval Christian ars notoria traditions, which aim to mastery of the sciences through angelic intervention; and the angelic invocations and enquiries of John Dee. We differentiate this type of magic from more particular enquiries; rituals aimed at finding hidden treasures, discovering plots against oneself, divining future events, and so forth are not considered knowledge magic in the sense outlined here.
- Late Antiquity
Late antiquity is the period when what is known as antiquity undergoes a number of social, political, and intellectual changes, but is not yet recognisably mediæval, such that scholars feel the need for a special term to refer to it. The term has become common parlance among historians since the 1970’s, but opinions differ on 1: How long late antiquity lasted, 2: At what point late antiquity can be said to have begun and/or ended in a given region, and 3: What the typical ‘late antique’ or ‘late ancient’ features of late antiquity are.
Peter Brown’s influential model of a ‘long late antiquity’ stretches from the end of the Roman third-century crisis (say 285 when Domitian took control of the empire, or just c. 250 CE for a nice round figure) until c. 800 CE, but Brown does not see these dates as equally applicable everywhere: late antiquity in Britain, for example, commences in the early fifth century and lasts about five minutes before Britain enters her Dark Ages.
- Late Platonism
The movement (or tendency) which came to be the dominant approach to Platonist philosophy in late antiquity. Generally seen as beginning with the work of the great Plotinus of Alexandria (c. 204-275 CE) and as being characterised by a number of doctrines, all of which can in fact be found in Middle Platonist authors, but which are not all found together in any one Middle Platonist. Typical are:
1. A metaphysics in which a transcendent reality, most often called the One (but which may also be known as the Good, the First, or even God) gives rise to a Nous, which is itself the world of Forms, and which in turn gives rise to Soul, which gives rise to and directly governs the world of Nature, or the kosmos, where you, gentle reader, are now sitting. These aspects of reality are in complex relationships: the process of ’emanation’ is not merely a one-way street.
2. A definitively non-noetic One.
3. Somewhat- or highly-apophatic approaches to discussing the One, emphasising its transcendence of all predicates and determinations.
4. The possibility, at least theoretically, that the human being’s higher self can rise up the chain of being and encounter the higher realities, including the non-reality of the One, directly.
Magic is notoriously difficult to define in a serious way (see Episode 5 of the podcast for some discussion of these difficulties). One reason for this is that there are a number of terms in historical sources which we may want to translate with the term ‘magic’ – the Greek word μαγεία (which itself is derived from Old Persian and is the origin of later forms of the word ‘magic’), Latin magia, and a number of words in other languages which have some overlap with the English word ‘magic’ – but which are not exact equivalents. Another reason is that ‘magic’ is very often defined in a given mainstream context as illicit, illegal, or sinful, but also defined in a more esoteric context as precisely the opposite of these negative terms. Thus society, government, or religious authorities may judge magic to be harmful and illegal, while certain practitioners argue that it is in fact the highest form of philosophic wisdom – Roman law understood magia as roughly ‘illegal, private ritual practice’, but the Roman Platonist philosopher Apuleius argued in court that it was, in fact, the same thing as the deepest philosophy (see Episode 74). Attempts to define magic in contrast to religion always run into the problem of point-of-view: one man’s religion is another man’s magic, and vice versa, and it is difficult to employ the term ‘magic’ without invoking value-judgements of one kind or another. ‘Magic’ can also refer to stage-illusion and other forms of trickery which we as scholars might want to distinguish from ‘real’ magic (or magic thought to be real by its practitioners), but our practical literature often does not make this distinction; for example, we possess medieval Islamicate magical texts which include both operations dealing with jinn and planetary intelligences AND recipes for creating illusions with mirrors.
All of these considerations mean that the podcast generally tries to avoid the term magic as a general-use, second-order term. It is, however, persistently unavoidable in a number of specific contexts. Sometimes we further specify what we mean – terms like ‘natural magic’, and similar can be helpful – sometimes we define the meaning of the term in a given, limited context – for example, discussing the magic of Aleister Crowley is a fairly straightforward procedure, because he defines precisely what he means by the term, and we can just follow his lead – and sometimes we rely on less-problematic (but still problematic!) general-use terms like ‘addressative ritual’. Overall, the intellectual territory covered by the English term ‘magic’ is incredibly complex, and needs complex exploration with attention to detail, so that the working definition of the term vis à vis the podcast unfolds in the course of the podcast, rather than becoming fixed at a given point.
The SHWEP uses this term to mean ‘having to do with the mystery-cults’. No implication whatsoever of ‘mysticism’ is intended.
- Negative Theology
see Late Platonism
- Neopythagoreanism, Philosophic
A tendency in post-Platonic authors to privilege number as a fundamental metaphysical reality. A One/Dyad metaphysics is often called ‘Pythagorean’ in ancient sources, but equally common is a more general preoccupation with the nature of number as ontologically important for the nature of the universe.
Nous is a Greek term which might best be translated as ‘mind’. The podcast prefers to leave it untranslated, because the term was seized upon by the ancient Platonists to indicate a kind of cognition radically different from everyday thinking, one which is true by definition, eternally valid, and which takes place outside of time and space.
One of the key Platonist and Platonistic (q.v.) ideas is that of a divine nous, which exists independently of any individual who might exercise the faculty of noêsis. Nous is thus, for many authors, both a sublime state of consciousness and a hypercosmic reality. You can see why no term of translation like ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ is going to do it justice.
Nous also plays a major rôle in many Hermetica, the Chaldæan Oracles, and other esoteric religious texts of antiquity, where it is probably to be understood in different ways, again, from the Platonist understandings of nous, but where it is also clearly something utterly different from an everyday mode of cognition.
- Orthodox Roman
See East Roman.
An otherworld is defined by this podcast as an imagined or imaginal place which is presented as real, though different from normal reality. Examples of otherworlds might include the Græco-Roman underworld, Plato’s world of forms, the Christian Heaven, the Islamic ‘Alam al-Amr, or just the place where true dreams are thought to dwell. Otherworlds differ from utopias in that the authors of utopias are not constructing a place which is meant to be real, but a place which might be real if certain things were different.
We take Perennialism as a general term of art for a view of the ‘history of truth’ which situates that history 1: in terms of a tradition, the true knowledge having been handed down from generation to generation or teacher to teacher, and 2: in terms of a tradition with either no historical beginning or a historical beginning which is not absolute, and 3: which sees this transmitted truth as being of a qualitatively ‘higher’ level from normal knowledge. Perennialism thus posits a lineage transmitting higher wisdom, stretching back into the mists of time.
Perennialism admits of degrees, which we might call ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ perennialism; a soft perennialist author like Plato might cite unnamed wise sages without quite positing a ‘tradition’, while a hard perennialist like Proclus might construct a tradition with distinct in- and out-groups, named members, and an explicit and detailed higher wisdom teaching.
By ‘phenomenology’ the podcast refers to an approach which looks at religious experience (or its descriptions in text) as the subject-matter. A phenomenological approach might be contrasted with, say a psychologising approach. Let’s say someone named Rupert says he saw a god appear. A psychologist tries to find something lying behind the apparent phenomenon: ‘Rupert says he saw a god, but in fact he was suffering from pathologies x, y, and z, and that’s what was really going on.’ We phenomenologists, by way of contrast, say things like: ‘Rupert says he saw a god. Do we know anything else which might help us interpret what god-seeing is like for a man of Rupert’s background? Aha! Steve also says he saw a god, and there are commonalities in their descriptions of the experience. We can start to build a model of god-seeing for people from Rupert and Steve’s cultural background.’
Phenomenology is also the name of a modern philosophic approach founded by Edmund Hüsserl, and this is sometimes what people mean when they use this highfalutin’ term, but we do not.
This podcast uses the term ‘Platonic’ to refer specifically to the works of Plato himself (including some writings, such as some of the epistles and a few dialogues, which are now thought to be spurious). It will never be used as equivalent to ‘Platonist‘, and so we will never speak of a ‘Platonic tradition’.
A thinker is said to be Platonising when s/he 1: makes use of Platonic or Platonist ideas in a major way, and 2: overtly adopts Plato into their system in some fashion. Clement of Alexandria is Platonising because his thought is deeply indebted to the philosophical ideas of Plato, and because he makes Plato into a plagiarist of Moses, thereby adopting him into the quasi-legitimate Christian tradition. The Chaldæan Oracles, or Johannine Chrisitanity, by way of contrast, are to be considered Platonistic.
An ancient philosophic thinker who treats Plato as a dogmatic philosopher and professes to follow his thought is a Platonist. There are, in addition to these core defining characteristics, a number of usual concomitants: belief in an immortal soul, in a hierarchical universe with the material world of the senses at the bottom of the chain of being, and an immaterial world of forms higher up the chain, and
the ability for human beings to know the different levels of reality with different, appropriate faculties of knowledge.
This is a term of our own invention, describing the pervasive influence of Platonic ideas on western culture at large in the non-philosophic sphere. The second century CE was a time of widespread Platonistic influence, and much of subsequent western thought bears the imprint of Platonistic ideas, which include the immaterial, immortal soul, the hierarchical universe, the divine nous, and the primacy of immaterial archetypes.
A religious movement will be described as Platonistic when it clearly incorporates elements of the Platonic into its world-view, without naming Plato or being overtly indebted to his thought; the Chaldæan ORacles and many HErmetica are good examples here. By contrast, a Philo or a Clement of Alexandria are Platonising religious thinkers; they explicitly bring Plato into the fold of their religion in some way.
- Second-order Terms
See First- and Second-Order Terms
Any theory of a unified entity which is responsible for consciousness is referred to in the podcast as a theory of soul. In the Græco-Roman and post-Roman contexts the English term is most often used to translate the Greek ψυχή or Latin anima; in the Islamicate context it will translate nafs.
While theories of soul (or ‘psychologies’, from the Greek psychē) may vary radically across intellectual traditions and even in the thought of individual thinkers within broader traditions, we can make a few distinctions:
Soul is not spirit, although in some theoretical frameworks it needs spirit in order to inhabit and animate a body.
While soul may or may not be seen as having ontological substance, it can usually be described in terms of function (e.g. ‘soul thinks’, ‘soul animates the body’, etc.). Thus some thinkers may well deny the existence of a soul in any sense of ‘an existing being’, but still have a functional theory of soul, or a psychology.
Soul often is seen as the true seat or location of the human self, but need not be; some thinkers, notably in the Christian tradition, sought to devalue soul and posit spirit as the better or more true seat of what it is to be human.
The English word ‘spirit’ has a long and involved pre-history. It goes back to the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breath’. However, importantly for western esotericism, this Latin word was the term of translation for the Greek pneuma/πνεῦμα, also originally meaning ‘breath’ but acquiring, in the long history of its development through medical, philosophical, and scientific thought, an extended meaning of ‘subtle matter’ or ‘subtle material’ – pneuma can even be akin to something like the ‘energy’ of modern physics and, in the medical context, to something like a ‘life force’.
From this rebranding of pneuma as a subtle kind of substance which can interpenetrate more dense substances, a huge number of ideas arose, including but not limited to Hellenistic Jewish and Christian concepts of divine immanence and inspiration through the spirit of God, the Platonist idea of the ‘soul-vehicle’ as an entity mediating between the immaterial soul and the body, the alchemical idea of a subtle essence contained within substances (still preserved in the word ‘spirits’ referring to distilled alcohol, which is of course the subtle essence of the wine or what have you, sublimated out of the grosser material through gentle heating), and more.
Episode 131 has a potted intellectual history of pneuma in the Greek context for those interested in more detail.
- terminus post/ante quem
These Latin terms refer to types of information used in dating when a particular work appeared, or when someone lived. Literally, terminus ante quem means ‘end-point before which’, and terminus post quem means ‘end-point after which’.
Let’s say there is an ancient esoteric author – we’ll call him Rupert – and we are trying to figure out when he died. We have no idea exactly when he lived, but we have a hint in his writings, where he mentions another person who can be dated, the Emperor Steve. Since the reign of Steve is the latest datable event Rupert refers to, we know that he will have certainly died no earlier than the beginning of Steve’s reign – this is our terminus post quem, the time after which we know he will have died. However, we also know that he cannot have lived much beyond Steves’s reign, because a later, datable inscription refers to Rupert, and makes it clear that Rupert has been dead for some time; this inscription thus gives us a terminus ante quem for Rupert’s death; he must have died some time before it was inscribed. Putting the post and the ante together (if we have both), we can often arrive at a range within which Rupert must have died, i.e. some time between the beginning of the Stevian era and the later inscription.
An imagined alternative social and/or political model which serves as a critique of really existing social and/or political circumstances.
- Via negativa
- West, the
The ‘western’ in ‘western esotericism’ is taken by this podcast to refer to the vast cultural sphere characterised by the Hellenic-Abrahamic synthesis. While this is a very broad category, it can usefully be contrasted with other great civilisational groupings, such as the Sanskritic area and the Chinese or Sinatic area. There are of course areas in the world where these civilizations have mingled, but it remains valid to speak of these large-scale civilisational areas in terms of the history of ideas, with due attention to the complexities of the cultures involved.
Ancient Greece before the rise of Hellenistic Judaism and Christianity is therefore not yet ‘western’ in the full sense, but becomes so in the Roman period. With the rise of Islam, the territory of the west expands greatly into the heartlands of Asia, and with the rise of colonialism it expands even further into the Americas, Australia, etc. Western Europe, defined as the rump of the predominantly Latin-speaking Roman empire and the territories which fell under its influence, is defined as ‘the far west‘.