Episode 8: Esoteric Orientalism Part I: Ancient Barbarian Sages

When we talk about the origins of western thought, we are nearly always talking about the classical Greeks. But the Greeks themselves had a curious habit of attributing their own wisdom in the sciences, in philosophy, and in other arts such as magic and astrology, to their neighbors in the Near East. This episode is the first in a series of two podcasts examining the troubled relationship that the Greeks had with what they perceived as their more ancient contemporaries. Concentrating on Mesopotamia and Egypt, we also look at the Indian Brahmans and the Jews, all through the Greek lens which informs the later western esoteric traditions. Along the way, we discuss

  • The influential theory of ‘orientalism’ propounded by Edward Said, considering some of its drawbacks and advantages,
  • Greek chauvinism, which considered all non-Greeks to be ‘barbarians’, alongside the troubled admiration which the Greeks had for other cultures,
  • The process by which esoteric traditions often bolster their claims by constructing an ‘authenticating apparatus’ of ancient wisdom,
  • The ancient sages Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Moses through Greek esoteric eyes, and
  • The concept of ‘Platonic Orientalism’ which has been coined to describe this phenomenon of appropriating ‘barbarian wisdom’ among the Platonists of late antiquity and beyond.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Hanegraaff, W., 2012. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge and Western Culture. The University Press, Cambridge.
  • Hesychius, Lexicon, K. Latte (Ed.), 1953-1956. Hesychii Alexandrini Lexicon. Ejnar Munksgaard, Hauniae.
  • Nietzsche, F., 1966. Also sprach Zarathustra : ein Buch für alle und keinen, in vol. 7 of the collected works, Goldmann, München.
  • Said, E. W., 2003. Orientalism. Penguin, London.
  • Walbridge, J., 2001. The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Recommended Reading:

On the history of the Greek adoption and adaptation of the Persian magus-sages, the classic work is

  • Bidez, J. and Cumont, F., 1938. Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque. Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

A more up-to-date treatment, with a focus on the early modern period, is

  • Stausberg, M., 1998. Faszination Zarathushtra: Zoroaster und die Europäische Religionsgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. De Gruyter, Berlin.

On the strange story of the development of the figure of Hermes, see

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

Of all the many books and articles published criticising Edward Said’s theory of orientalism, the one which stands out as not only pertinent, but also impassioned and beautifully-written is

  • Irwin, R., 2006. For Lust of Knowing: Orientalists and their Enemies. Allen Lane, London.


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