Episode 1: A Secret History of Secret History, Part I

In this episode we borrow the following description of western esotericism from the website of the Centre for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents and use it as a guide for the first half of a survey of western esoteric traditions:

The term “Western esotericism” covers a wide spectrum of neglected currents in Western cultural history. As an umbrella term that intends to highlight connections and developments over a long period, from antiquity to the present day, esotericism includes phenomena as varied as Gnosticism, Hermetism, and Neoplatonic Theurgy, Astrology, Alchemy, and Natural Magic …

We attempt to give a very basic introduction to each of these currents of thought and to the texts that tell us about them. If you’ve always heard that ‘Neoplatonism’, ‘Hermeticism’, and ‘Gnosticism’ were somehow important precursors to the more familiar esoteric currents which we know and love from the Renaissance and early-modern periods, but don’t really know much about these movements in their natural habitat, this episode is the perfect introduction. We also introduce three of the most important occult sciences, Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic, and foreshadow the complexity and intricacy of the textual traditions which transmit them, which will take this podcast from the muddy banks of the Euphrates and the Nile circa 1,500 BCE to the drawing-rooms of Enlightenment Europe and beyond.

In the course of the discussion we cover a number of important (and perhaps even interesting) side-issues, such as:

  • what we mean by ‘late antiquity’,
  • why we don’t like the term Neoplatonism and prefer to call these thinkers ‘Late Platonists’,
  • the problems with identifying a ‘Hermetic’ path in late antiquity and the complexity of the Hermetic textual tradition,
  • the different problems which arise when we try to identify and talk about ‘the Gnostics’, followed by some dicussion of the Gnostics which kind of ignores these problems,
  • the depth of western astronomical/astrological traditions, and the need to go all the way back to the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (and a foolhardy promise to do so),
  • the incredible confusion and splendour of the alchemical tradition,
  • the need to add Spiritual Magic to Natural Magic as an essential ingredient in many esoteric systems of thought, and some discussion of both currents.

Works Cited in this Episode

  • Corbin, H., 1991. En Islam Iranien. Gallimard, Paris.
  • Walbridge, J., 2001. The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Recommended Reading

For a fascinating look at the evolution of Hermes from the god of tricksters, thieves, and podcasts into the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, check out:

  • Faivre, Antoine, 1995. The Eternal Hermes, from Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, MI. J. Godwin, trans.

Themes

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