Podcast episode

Episode 130: Methodologies for Studying the Subtle Body

In this episode we discuss the ancient and modern ideas about ‘subtle bodies’ found in western esoteric currents and more widely in cultures around the world. The problematic status of such invisible entities – they cannot be seen, smelled, or touched, but are often seen as possessing a greater, more fundamental reality than the more accessible physical body – raises serious methodological problems for scholars studying them.

How should we even talk about these strange entities? Is ‘subtle body’, a term arising in western esotericism rather than scholarship, the best candidate for a useful descriptor?

How are we to interpret statements, often phenomenological, about subtle-body experiences?

Can we, or should we, assume that subtle bodies are not real when dealing with material that claims they are?

These questions and more are raised in this episode. We do not answer any of them in a definitive way – they are, it turns out, really tough questions – but we try to draw some lines on the map, which will come in handy in the course of the podcast, as it turns out that there are a lot of subtle bodies in the western esoteric traditions.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Cox 2019 (see below): we quote p. 8.
  • E. R. Dodds. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963. We cite pp. 315–18.
  • Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Strange Tales 110, Marvel Comics, July 1963.
  • Robert Christian Kissling. The OXHMA-ΠΝΕΥΜΑ of the Neo-Platonists and the De insomniis of Synesius of Cyrene. American Journal of Philology, 43(4):318–30, 1922.
  • G.R.S. Mead. The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition: An Outline of What the Philosophers Thought & Christians Taught on the Subject. Watkins, London, 1919.
  • Christopher Partridge. The Re-Enchantment of the West: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture, two volumes. T and T Clark, London/New York, NY, 2004-2005.
  • Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston. General Introduction. In Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors, Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body, pages 1–9. Routledge, London, 2013. We quote p. 3.

Recommended Reading:

  • William Behun. The Body of Light and the Body without Organs. SubStance, 39(1): 125–40, 2010.
  • John J. Collins. The Angelic Life. In Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Økland, editors, Metamorphoses: Resurrection, Body and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, pages 291–310. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2009.
  • Anna Corrias. Imagination and Memory in Marsilio Ficino’s Theory of the Vehicles of the Soul. The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition, 6(1):81–114, 2012.
  • Simon Paul Cox. A Genealogy of the Subtle Body. PhD thesis, Rice University, 2019 [soon to be a book].
  • Jay Johnston. Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics. Equinox, New York, NY, 2008.
  • Jeffrey J. Kripal. Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2017.
  • M. D. Litwa. Posthuman Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2021.
  • D.E. Moerman. Meaning, Medicine, and the ‘Placebo Effect’. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York, NY, 2002.
  • Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors. Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body. Routledge, London, 2013.
  • Garry Trompf, Jason BeDuhn, Jay Johnston, and Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, editors. Ritual Embodiment in Modern Western Magic: Becoming the Magician. Routledge, 2017.
  • J.M. Wilce, editor. Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems. Routledge, London/New York, NY, 2003.


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