Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism
Hanegraaf, Wouter J., ed., in collaboration with Antoine
Faivre, Roelof van den Broek and Jean-Pierre Brach
Leiden: Brill, 2006. Pp. xxix + 1228. Hardcover.
This is the first comprehensive reference work to cover the entire domain of “Gnosis and Western Esotericism” from the period of Late Antiquity to the present. Containing around 400 articles by over 180 international specialists, it provides critical overviews discussing the nature and historical development of all its important currents and manifestations, from Gnosticism and Hermetism to Astrology, Alchemy and Magic, from the Hermetic Tradition of the Renaissance to Rosicrucianism and Christian Theosophy, and from Freemasonry and Illuminism to 19th-century Occultism and the contemporary New Age movement. Furthermore it contains articles about the life and work of all the major personalities in the history of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, discussing their ideas, significance, and historical influence.
David E. Aune University of Notre Dame,Notre Dame, Indiana
In recent years, the study of particular aspects of ancient religions and cultures has been facilitated by the appearance of a growing number of highly sophisticated and specialized reference works. The Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism is an outstanding niche reference work designed to focus on the study of certain Western religious and cultural traditions from ancient to modern times. By providing temporal and conceptual depth to a relatively narrow band of religious and cultural phenomena, the DGWE, like other reference works with a specialized focus, represents a break with traditional disciplinary conceptualities, since the architecture of such a focused reference work necessarily requires a new and creative set of rubrics never previously assembled.
More important, the editorial policy of the DGWE has been driven by a self-conscious program that questions a number of entrenched, reified, and ideologically loaded terminological conventions, including “Gnosticism,” “Hermeticism,” “paganism,” “esotericism,” and the like. The editor’s program intentionally seeks to “promote new agendas and analytic frameworks for research in these domains” (vii). The DGWE also emphasizes the overlapping theories and practices pertaining to religion, on the one hand, and science,on the other. There is an emphasis on astrology, alchemy, and magia naturalis, included to underscore the complex relations between science, natural philosophy, cosmology, and religion from antiquity through the eighteenth century.
Major clusters of related article are typically divided into an introductory article, followed by articles on each major period, each including lengthy bibliographies. Major clusters of articles arranged in this pattern include Alchemy, Astrology, Gnosticism, Hermetic Literature, Jewish Influences, Magic, Secrecy, and Rosicrucianism.
“Hermeticism” (pejoratively reified by Reformation and Enlightenment scholars as “a coherent counterculture of superstition and unreason”), receives extensive treatment in a cluster of eleven articles on pages 474–571, including “Hermes Trismegistus I: Antiquity” (471–78), “Hermes Trismegistus II; Middle Ages” (479–83), “Hermes Trismegistus III: Modernity” (483–86), “Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor” (486–87), “Hermetic Literature I: Antiquity” (487–99), “Hermetic Literature II: Latin Middle Ages” (499–529), “Hermetic Literature III: Arab” (529–33), “Hermetic Literature IV: Renaissance–Present” (533–44), “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” (544–50), “Hermeticism and Hermetic Societies” (550–58), and “Hermetism” (558–71). Another longish cluster of six articles are those relating to “Magic” (716–47).
The initial article, “Magic I: Introduction” (716–19),provides a brief overview of older theoretical approaches to “magic,” Hanegraaf calls attention to the unexamined theoretical triad of “magic”—religion—science and is critical of the continuing sharp distinction between religion and magic, which he rightfully recognizes as without foundation in scholarship, but is largely the product of internal theological polemic within Christianity (717–18). Unfortunately, the article is too short for the author to deal positively with a theoretical way out of these cul de sacs. “Magic II: Antiquity” (719–24), by Fritz Graf, provides an excellent overview of the subject, and it is here that that the Papyri Graecae Magicae are discussed, while amulets are treated in a separate and excellent article by Roy Kotansky, “Amulets” (60–71), with an extraordinarily helpful and detailed bibliography.
Two articles by van den Broek cover the topic Gnosticism: “Gnosticism I: Gnostic Religion” (403–16), where the author calls attention to the terminological obscurity involved in such labels as “Gnosticism,” “Gnosis,” and “Gnostic,” calling attention (interalia) to the unsatisfactory attempt at definition by the Messina Colloquium (1966) and the 1996 monograph of Michael Williams in which the term “Gnosticism” is completely discredited; and “Gnosticism II: Gnostic Literature” (417–32). Astrology is another complex area that receives exemplary treatment in a cluster of five articles: “Astrology I: Introduction” (109–10), “Astrology II: Antiquity” (110–19), “Astrology III: Middle Ages” (119–28), “Astrology IV: 15th–19th Century” (128–36), “Astrology V: 20th Century” (136–41).
The DGWE is made more accessible by two sets of indices, one listing groups and organizations, the other an index of persons. The bibliographies following the articles are detailed and extensive. The DGWE largely avoids treating individual texts, and those it does treat are typically embedded in articles on the groups with whom the texts originated. This is apparently an editorial policy, but an index listing the texts discussed would have been a helpful addition to the work.
Exceptions include the extensive discussion of gnostic literature in “Gnosticism II: Gnostic Literature” (417–32) by van den Broek and an exceptionally fine and incredibly detailed group of articles dividing “Hermetic Literature” (487–544) into four historical periods. In a work this complex,there is always the risk of omitting important and relevant movements. While the DGWE treatments of Mormonism, the Millerites, the Seventh Day Adventists, and all nineteenthcentury religious movements in the United States that began with a flurry of prophetic countercultural activity. The DGWE is a useful and detailed reference work that belongs in every institutional library, and scholars of religion in the West will find it enormously informative
This review was published by RBL 2009 by the Society of Biblical Literature.
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