This insightful new dictionary is absolutely indispensable for academic research as well as for the spiritual seeker who wants to know more about the ideas – and sometimes also practices – of the traditions of Gnosis & Western Esotericism in general, that is of the history and correlation of those ideas. How it is possible in such a work of many writers, I don’t know, but every article is a pleasure to read by style and structure. So before you know you are looking to other entries for more. I went so fast that I stopped in the midst of the P and of the article about Paracelsus, to save at least some for later! Before commenting on some separate articles and topics I would like to make some more general remarks about backgrounds, scope and methodology – rather dull stuff perhaps for some but to me not unimportant.
But in general let me say already this: I experience this publication as a great gift, and a welcome tool for study and finding information. I am really feeling glad to have better access now to some fellow humans of the past (sometimes even large groups of them) which I experience as my relatives – if not in all ideas or practices than surely as fellow humans – and with which I sometimes even feel congenial to a certain extent. But never without lessons; this seems human too. (For Dutch readers: a very informative and interesting interview with the main editor appeared in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad 5-6/3/2005 p. 45, also to be found on the website of the newspaper. The interview is especially focused on the neutrality of the descriptions in this dictionary, compared with the derogation which mostly accompanies descriptions or even just mentioning these subjects. Hanegraaff explains at length the advantages and pitfalls accompanying the making of the dictionary in this way.)
Some general remarks.
Let me first note that this work seems to be very well organized and edited. Only one very concrete and practical omission (no index on subjects) I will mention below.
It seems to present the fruit of the new studies (after World War II) of these ‘alternative’ strains of Western discourse – in comparison to the mainstreams of science, philosophy and theology. Thanks to new historical (re)discoveries and thanks particularly to the hard work of the new pioneers in these fields, these studies gained impressive insight in and oversight in these traditions, of course not without using the materials provided by earlier publications from some forerunners in the centuries before.
What has become visible now, is a vast field of academic knowledge – about topics despised of in the mainstream Western religions as heretic and dangerous as well as until recently more often than not neglected by the academic world. Which knowledge now also figures within the boundaries of many generally accepted paradigms or discussions shared by a large number of academic researchers, among which the writers of the articles in this dictionary. It might be noted that the work of Roelof van den Broek – pupil and colleague of the Utrecht church historian Gilles Quispel who pioneered in promoting the importance and the knowledge of Gnosticism as well as of Jewish Christianity in a time when this was not accepted as important – for the pre-Middle Age parts and of Antoine Faivre for the Renaissance and Modern Era stands out here.
I will not go into a discussion of the difference as well as the relation between the contents of this dictionary with the content of the oversight works of the more accepted religious or if you want spiritual history of the West. Most often one will find in this dictionary a good feel for methodology within religious and related studies in which the main editor Wouter J. Hanegraaff – also having excellent knowledge of the esotericism of the last two centuries – is well versed. But I feel that more is at hand than merely the happy circumstance (but a very happy circumstance it really is!) that the four editors – Jean-Pierre Brach, the fourth, is specialized in magic and numerology – had so much complementary knowledge and contacts within their respective fields of study. Indeed it is again possible now to ask questions about the relation between mainstream and alternative discourse in Western religion and / or spirituality, as well as between more or less accepted paradigms in studying them. The first note however might be that this publication indisputably proves the validity of the academic studies of these subjects as well as the value of these subjects within society in general (unless one would restrict the academy to the natural sciences, and see as important for society only the dominant or ‘proven’ religions or spiritualities). Let me close this part of my comments with the remark that I believe that it is possible to have good methodology in these fields of study without being absolutistic in regard to fundamentals. To me this dictionary shows that in full although the discussions about the mentioned questions still have to be held – to me preferably with an open eye for different points of view, or better regarding one’s own biases as well.
But indeed: now that these parts of Western religious (and philosophical and scientific and cultural) history have been presented again as very important and relevant, one theme cannot be negated any more, namely the difference between the paradigms within these fields compared with the paradigms in the other traditions which until yet were the only ones who also pretended to be the true ones, i.e. the only ones with serious validity. For you can discern not only different parts of history (some even speak of gnosis and esotericism as the third tradition in Western history next to faith and reason; a judgement which still has to be vindicated) but also of different paradigms in these different traditions, and you will immediately understand that a huge field of research now unfolds itself. Lots of questions and themes could be put forward here which indeed implicitly are of great importance: how much attention is or should be given to cultural and sociological settings and political roles and influences (in fact in this dictionary rather little attention is given to these topics), to the relation with philosophy and science (in this dictionary a lot, in any case as regards Platonism and Aristotelism, although there could be more oversight regarding the relation to science), to the relation with the official or dominant religions in the West – Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism in several denominations or variants; Judaism; Islam – and their dominant theologies (here and there in this dictionary you will find some remark or even some article about one separate subject, but no continued attention). Of course all these topics bring with them their own problems in relation to the paradigms which are used in this dictionary or in the field of its studies, even in relation to what counts as their objects and borders: do the studies of Gnosis & Western Esotericism have to accept themselves labelled as ‘alternative’ to the mainstream traditions as one does usually? I do not think so. Although all traditions including the mainstream ones are alternatives to each other from the viewpoint of a client who could choose between them, phenomenologically one could defend that they all have the same value, that is: can and have to be observed neutrally before making those choices. Which conclusion then leads to new questions about the viewpoints from which to study them – a problem well known within the history and ‘sciences’ of religion but not to be answered with a labelling of choices for viewpoints that differ from one’s own as less valid or as only ‘alternative’ in comparison with your own (absolutely) ’true’ or mainstream viewpoint. On the contrary, I would like to emphasize that from the abundance of well organized material in this dictionary it seems possible to ask many questions about mainstream paradigms in the history of religions, of churches, of paradigms in theology and philosophy, and so on to politics, society and culture in their breadth. The then following discussions in the field of academic studies could be very fruitful, in my opinion. Particularly if you know that mainstream Western religions and philosophy have founded many of their ideas and positions on the basis of or in confrontation with the traditions spoken of in this dictionary. But the writers in this dictionary do not spend any attention to these important questions (for example: the origination of Catholic Christianity as well as Rabbinic Judaism in confrontation with and from a background of several Hellenistic religious and esoteric traditions and mystery schools and philosophical schools – which in fact not should have been neglected in a dictionary like this) apart from very implicitly. They restrict themselves to an elucidating and inspiring presentation of the results of their studies, and to some historical questions which still stand open, but they do not speak about the questions I put forward here nor about their historical backgrounds and correlations.
The editors have also restricted themselves to Western traditions, i.e. in fact mostly to European and (North) American, so no traditions from Asia, Africa or South America will be found within this dictionary. So comparison between Western and other traditions will not be found in it, which I regret although I can understand it for practical reasons. For not only are there important Eastern influences upon esoteric Western traditions in the last two centuries (Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and many more) but it is well known that Eastern religions have a great deal of attraction in the West, not the least for adherers of the Western esoteric traditions I am sure. So if practically not yet possible, this theme is missed regrettably by me. It will be an important theme for the future of the subject fields of this dictionary.
Another miss – mentioned by the editors – is the relation with Judaism and Islam. Although an important miss because of the close relation of these three “monotheistic” “religions of the book”, there are practical reasons – the state of the art of the study of these relation is not very grown up or stable yet and the number of those with a good knowledge of it is few – why at this moment in time it is difficult to produce qualified articles about these subjects, for example about Jewish non-canonical scriptures, or about Islamic gnosis. One should not forget however that the parallels between these three religions are generally rather close so that they are unmistakably important and elucidating but mostly not too different. Manichaeism although a separate church might be regarded clearly as a part of Christianity, and could be added to the list of topics to be expanded in later editions because of the close correlations and parallels with other traditions among which Judaism, Gnosticism and Islam. The study of Manichaeism is rising thanks to new discoveries and studies. Also relative little attention is paid to non-Jewish and non-Christian mystery religions or secret cults in the Hellenistic Age and classical Greece, as well as to Egyptian and other religions in the Near East in the old times from which the influence is mentioned but not clearly spelled out.
From all mentioned misses together one could perhaps be inclined to ask if the editors perhaps had or have an unmentioned or even unconscious bias to mainstream paradigms of academic (religious and scientific) research, indeed of their fundamental premise – that the “Western” aspect of their subjects is only a geographical designation or that it implies still something of the old prejudices about Western superiority, well known and practiced in European and North-American Christianity and Judaism as well as in (even secular) academia in these parts of the world, and about the inferiority of other cultures and religions. To be more precise: the fact that Western technology is nowadays the dominant one does not mean that that is also true for Western culture and religion, or only that the last cannot be compared with other cultures and religions because of their different paradigms. The last statement namely depends upon the supposition that it is not possible to compare any culture of religion with another one, or – what leads to the same conclusion – that ‘our’ fundamental truths or paradigms are by definition better than all ‘other’ ones.
In summary, ‘gnosis’ and ‘esotericism’ have a connotation of rejection within dogmatical theology and reasonable science which more often than not were not neutral to these subjects of study. Or better said, within the course of fighting those phenomena they – or their forerunners – intentionally shaped this terminology with a negative connotation, that is defined those phenomena as to be judged negatively. Now my question is: by using the terminology coming from the enemies, does not the very title of the dictionary give in too much to standard prejudices? Of course a problem with this is that a dictionary like this one is part of the academic discourse and does not want to remove itself to much from this discourse – which itself is not a truth but a chosen method and viewpoint. But within the academic discourse there should be the possibility and in reality often is much discussion and struggle or better fight about paradigms, and it has to be said that the subjects of this dictionary – as do religion and spirituality in general – give much occasion to that.
So the strength of this dictionary is explicit in the well written articles on separate subjects, almost all from a remarkable neutral viewpoint that is without implicit or explicit prejudices. However in those broader and fundamental questions and topics as mentioned above this strength is still implicit only.
This dictionary nevertheless stands out for its rich contents on diverse topics, well divided into correlating articles about historical periods and systematically differing orientations, on many persons and organisations and so on. I cannot withstand the inclination to mention some of them because of their importance or because I like to make some more personal comments on them.
Comments on specific topics or articles.
In this part the titles of the articles mentioned will be written in bold. As mentioned above, I assume I already have read about half the dictionary, but not much after the letter P. The articles mentioned below is not my complete list of read articles (and surely not even half the list of entries of the whole dictionary which would be about 400 items, including f.e. Tarot, Pessoa, Reincarnation, Schelling, Secrecy, Theosophical Society, Yeats, Zosimus) but if no negative comment is given, they are all a pleasure to read and very informative. And with these article-names you also have at least one impression of the contents of this dictionary.
Some general articles are really splendid, among them Gnosticism, Hermetism (brilliant), Hermetic Literature (I Antiquity II Latin Middle Ages (extensive too) III Arabic (!) IV Renaissance – Present), Hermes Trismegistos (esp. I Antiquity and III Modernity). Some citations from the article Gnosticism I: “Christian Gnostics of the 2nd century could sometimes speak about Jesus with much more warmth and spiritual depth than their non-Gnostic fellow Christians.” (411) “Moreover, from Hellenistic times onward, philosophy, and later Platonism in particular, had become increasingly religious. Under these circumstances, one understands that it is often difficult to draw a sharp borderline between philosophical and Gnostic writings, especially in the case of non-mythological Gnostic texts. In general, however, one can say that the philosophers sought philosophical solutions to philosophical problems, even in their language was religiously coloured, whereas the Gnostic thinkers sought religious answers to religious problems, even if they made use of philosophical terminology. The philosophers aimed at understanding, the Gnostics sought and proclaimed salvation through revealed knowledge.” (413) “… Jews must have played an important role in the formation of the Gnostic myths. From Philo on we know that there were Jews in Alexandria who rejected the beliefs and practices of their paternal religion. But the deeply pessimistic view of the human condition expressed in the early Gnostic myths, cannot have been limited to some apostate Jews. It apparently reflected a more general experience of alienation from the world and a longing for salvation by spiritual knowledge, which is also evident in those Gnostic writings that do not show any specific Jewish influence. The Christian anti-Gnostic works of the 2nd and 3rd centuries testify to the great attraction of Gnostic views, and of the religious experience upon which they were based, on Christian thinkers or teachers and their followers. The result was a distinct Gnostic current within the variegated world of early Christianity. The most influential Gnostic variant of Christianity seems to have been Valentinianism, which was based on older mythological constructions (…). That Valentinus and even his pupil Ptolemy were simply well educated Christian Platonists, who did not yet teach the “Valentinian” mythological system that was taught by their followers, as has been argued from a church-historical point of view (…), is highly unlikely. In the middle of the 2nd century, ecclesiastical leaders in Rome began to define the boundaries of the church and, accordingly, to reject the views that for a time had been acceptable within the Christian communities. The Christian teachers who taught the prevalence of Gnosis over faith or ascribed the creation of the world to a lower Demiurge were expelled from the Church and vehemently fought.” (414v.) “The Gnostic character of a considerable number of texts can be disputed, since their contents show a position intermediate between a distinct Gnostic and a more philosophical, hermetic, or generally Christian views. The decisive criterion is whether or not esoteric knowledge is held to be indispensable for personal salvation, i.e. the return to one’s divine origin. But even this criterion is not always easy to apply, because the indispensability of Gnosis is sometimes merely presupposed rather than explicitly expressed. However, all these ambiguities are no reason to deny the existence of Gnostic religiosity in the Roman world and to declare terms as “Gnostic”, “Gnosticism”, “Gnostic movement”, etc. meaningless. The Gnostic religion, its mythological variants included, was not a degenerated form of Greek philosophy, nor did it arise as a Christian heresy. To some extent it was a religion in its own right, or at least a distinct religious mentality, which expressed itself in an almost inextricable combination of important notions derived from Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy, and Christian philosophy. Its central belief found a succinct expression in the Christian Gnostic Testimony of Truth, NHC IX, 44,30-45,6: ‘When man comes to know himself and God who is over the truth, he will be saved, and he will crown himself with the crown unfading’.” (415)
Valentinus and Valentinians: the best introduction I know into the history and the mythology of the Valentinian writings, as well as of the different Valentinian teachers and systems. Namely explanation of the gospels within the framework of (mainly platonicizing) views intended upon salvation, and as such typically religious (confer the role of the child in the manger with Valentine, which seems to have impressed him very much and influenced his views and thinking apparently).
Hymns and Prayers: very balanced and informative treatment of many materials; promising object of study for the history of several traditions because of the possibility as well as necessity of perceiving and explaining differences and equalities of texts which played very important roles in their practice.
To name a few further good articles in this context: Archontics; Justin the Gnostic (very interesting and informative); Marcion (interesting); Menander; Nicolaïtans; Sethians: important hypothesis to be researched further. As well as Elchasai / Elxai; Naässenes; Mandaeans. And of course the important Clemens of Alexandria.
Mani and Manicheism: balanced, much oversight, very informative; still a lot of stuff to be studied from newly discovered sources which are in the process of being published or promised so. From these studies probably a new view can be obtained about the original relations between Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity including Manicheism, and Islam, which were much closer to or intertwined with each other in old times than we now generally suppose. This will of course influence our view of Islamic Sufism, of Gnosticism etc. very much.
Those who wish to find an entry into the whole field of the dictionary can read the article about Macrohistory (somewhat more difficult because of the required pre-knowledge but in general stimulating and very informative). If I may make a remark: The writer ascribes the origin of Gnosticism to the non-Jewish parts of the Hellenistic cities; I doubt this. His argument is that historical consciousness is well attested in the Jewish tradition and that Gnosticism is not so historically conscious. To me the explanation to this is not so much that the Gnostics could not have been Jews but that in the Age of Hellenism there have been processes of hellenization of Jews (and people of many other traditions) during which they adapted original stories to new situations far from their homeland and as part of a greater city or society (perhaps situations of losing the connection with old roots or interpretations and having to give new answers to new problems for example insecurity, at a practical as well as a cultural level). The interesting thing to me is more the explanation of the strong Jewish influences in Gnosticism (although in early Hellenistic times there also was a general trend to adhere a positive value to aspects of the Jewish religion, for example: not making statues of their God, as well as ethical and other universal aspects which could then be interpreted by Philo of Alexandria and others within a Platonic context) than only of the differences with the traditional Judaism of that time. The circles in which Gnosticism originated probably were not restricted to one part of cities but could attracted members – or adhere to ideas – from more than one part or ethnic background. It then has not to be decided in advance that the basic ethnic background of a Gnostic group could only have been the non-Jewish part of Hellenistic cities. The central question is of course in which aspects the Gnostics stayed Jewish and in which not, like this was also a central question for (other) Christians and Jews within the context of Hellenism or even the process of Hellenization. Probably there were a lot of movements from one circle to another – be it in person or be it in ideas and over a longer period – as is also the case nowadays. But this is only a minor aspect of this lengthy and informative article.
Another interesting general article is that about Tradition, in the sense of adhering to the supposed presence of a general tradition of wisdom and central religious ideas, which can be found always but also is lost often, so that the connection sometimes has to be established anew and historically vindicated. For example one can find in this way the combination of the history of the tradition with a systematic overview of its main ideas in the form of a philosophia perennis, an eternal philosophy. The article expounds in examples of this sort, and is splendid and elucidating.
Correspondences: important and very interesting subject which the article seems to get a good grip at.
Imagination: excellent article with good list of references to literature, though still with omissions, namely Feuerbach & Marx as roots of the Frankfurter Schule (Marcuse) and of the ‘imagination au pouvoir’ (1968, Paris), as well as modern neurology about the role of imaginations and the memories of them as part of our systems of perception and intellect, emotion and reason (Damasio).
Mnemonics: important, very elucidating, good.
Esotericism: the limitations of this field within the article call in mind the questions mentioned above in the first part of my comment, regarding the fields of study and their paradigms of this dictionary as a whole.
Mysticism: very interesting about the continuities and discontinuities with esotericism; helpful though far from definitive (solution to be found within the direction of discerning ‘different objects’ as well as the possibility of ‘objectless’?).
Astrology / Magic: important but not so much my fields of interest.
Intermediary Beings I-IV: from the sheer unbelievable abundance of them you could conclude that they play important roles, and indeed they seem illustrative for many psychological and cultural developments of their inventors and devotees (among other the interesting contrasting developments of syncretism and divergence). But they also are illustrative for (understandable!) vagueness when a figure is incorporated or give a needed role without much relation to the whole.
Music: rests vague regarding the particular relation to the topics of this dictionary.
The articles on Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism are very rich and informative in relation to the subjects of this dictionary and as such (the last article can apart from ‘good’ and ‘important’ even be said to be still to small relative to the vast range of interesting topics and relations, in my opinion); Dionysius Areopagita: much influence but himself also influenced; Hesychasm: meditation in Eastern-Orthodox Christianity.
Jewish Influences III: splendid article from Joseph Dan about Christian Kabbalah in the Renaissance (Pico and Reuchlin were very positive to Jewish ‘oral’ ‘Tradition’ from Mozes on!) [remark: Dan ascribes the invention of the duality of gender within the godhead as a “new, revolutionary concept found for the first time in the book Bahir (1185)” – which idea, contrary to many other Jewish kabbalistic ideas, however did not make much of an impression on the Christian kabbalists (Dan of course restricts himself to the Renaissance). Apart from later developments in Boehme (and later Christian Kabbalists), one often seems not to know – as here too seems the case with Dan – that the images of the androgyne and their forerunners (f.e. Anthropos and Sophia) have old roots also within Jewish circles (a.o. the tragedy-writer Ezechiël 200 BC, Philo of Alexandria and some rabbi’s). Let me add, that one too often seems not to know that, like with the Jewish Kabbalah in later times, the general valuation of the Jewish religion in Hellenism was often very or rather positive until the Christians – themselves in the beginning mostly Jews and surely taking ideas and images and more from the Jewish traditions! – became powerful and a process of devaluation and discrimination of the other – rabbinical, not Hellenizing – Jews began as too different, too unmodern i.e. un-Christian!, as well as of those other – Hellenizing – Christians now regarded as heretical, f.e. the Christian Gnostics]; I / II informative but not very original qua historical insights, nevertheless good lists of literature; IV very good about the ways in which the Kabbalah was used within literature, philosophy and esotericism within Enlightenment / Romanticism; V Occultist Kabbalah: insightful.
Witchcraft: about 15th to 17th centuries: important for many very interesting insights which – with the instruments of the authors of these authors – from the study of this subject could be taken for the explanation in a totally new light of many non-esoterical, ecclesiastical and orthodox traditions (f.e. comparison of pietism and Christian theosophy with Gnosticism and Hermetism: liturgically and dogmatically or, in other terms, ritually and mythologically).
From the articles about Alchemy (esp. I-IV) I learned a.o. that this tradition in many cases and periods was not a spiritual one at all.
Eriugena: good, important list of literature.
Hildegard von Bingen: good and very stimulating.
The article about Catharism is, although extensively informative, rather dry and not very inspiring.
In the article about Albertus Magnus you find information to see this man and his work from a different side than usual as a systematic philosopher only. Particularly interesting in this regard are his sources.
Avicenna / Cusanus: important.
Ficino: important article with extensive literature; Lazzarelli: (interesting example of Christian-Hermetic literature, his Crater Hermetis); Lefèvre d’Étaples; Lull; Dorn (Dorneus); Weigel; Arndt: many impulses from him, as well as interesting influences upon him. All these articles interesting.
Paracelsus: from this informative article you can also easily discern that his great name and influence must have something to do with A. his ascription of a very important role of the human / healer / ill person at the occasion and in the process of healing, as well as his valuation of the ‘magic’ aspect within healing; B. his high regard for and intensive studies of the gospels, his many spiritual (theological) works with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as radical starting point.
Paracelsism: This article makes clear the strange status of Paracelsus’ reception in official (generally accepted) as well as non-official (generally not accepted) circles of knowledge and science (medical science, chemistry, academic theology, philosophy) and spirituality (Christian theosophy, esotericism, alchemy) and their amalgams. Very often one fights against a (self) distorted phantom of Paracelsus and his views or one takes Paracelsism to be representative for some other or older idea or set of ideas and practices. Those who value Paracelsus much, also vary much in their way of representing his ideas, selecting some or changing others, etc.
The article about Christian Theosophy is very good (although alas without any comparison with traditional theology and philosophy).
The articles about Johann Valentin Andreae, as well as about Rosicrucianism (I and II) from the hand of Edighoffer (as some other articles from him) are informative and very readable.
Boehme: very good, including good literature list. A.o. about the origin of his main themes (Luthers divine omnipresence! Ptolemy’s planet spirits become Boehme’s Quellgeister!) and their correlation and development in the context of sources and the spirit of his age. The latter a.o. in his Die Drey Prinzipien, written anti-war – including themes as free will, theodicy etc. etc. – at the beginning of the 30-year War (1618), with a role for the androgyne Adam before the Fall and the corporeal Adam after it, and for the androgyne future of salvation as a goal (perhaps with sources in Paracelsus and Weigel?). For some later writings the Kabbalah and Weigel are mentioned as some sources. I miss the mentioning of Meister Eckhart’s view of the Birth of the Trinity within God and the Birth of God in Man as a probable source for Boehme’s important theme of the kosmos as a world always in birth, especially for his description of the several Births within God and of Man’s spiritual rebirth. Interesting is also that the much guessed intention of Boehme’s voyage to Dresden at the end of his life simply boils down to a politically unavoidable interrogation or defence for the worldly powers which for the rest were not very much against Boehme in before, and treated him not badly however without showing much open interest either.
The article about Blake is very good, particularly about the development of his myth.
Khunrath (very much influence through the pictures in his Amfitheatrum; possible Khunraths works are the source for Sophia in Boehme’s writings; partly undeveloped areas of study); Arnold: very important; Fludd; Pietism: good, stimulating article about the relation with Hermetism; Illuminism: important movement, very elucidating article (Novalis!); Goethe; Novalis (very interesting, partly undeveloped areas of study); Swedenborg: very influential; Oetinger (very good and informative: great influence on German Romanticism, religion and philosophy; on Mozart too see van den Berk, The Magic Flute, 301-314); Naturphilosophie: elucidating; von Baader: very important, stimulating (a.o. about society according to a reading of Meister Eckhart!); Freemasonry: far from answering questions about sociological settings and roles of this movement (the same seems to be the case for the whole dictionary in regard to the interrelation with social roles of movements, traditions and persons).
You will find very clear articles about Anthroposophy (myths / concepts / thought) and about Rudolf Steiner (sources, development, idiosyncrasies). Also about New Age Movement: very elucidating overview (although relatively few details) and about Blavatsky.
C.G. Jung: very good comprehension of Jung’s erudition and new views and insights and his impulses but rarely critical or better explanatory to the internal (non-)consistence of Jung’s views (compare the thorough ‘philosophical analysis’ by Peter van Soest – in Dutch – which offers much insight in some limitations of Jung’s psychological and cultural views as well); Jungism.
Occultism; Ariosophy / von List: interesting but their being characterized as ‘dualist-manichaean’ should of course not be taken as a scientific category; Lorber: informative; Meyrink: very informative; Spiritualism; René Guénon; Grail traditions: only about 20th century traditions; Gurdjieff / Gurdjieff tradition: very informative and elucidating articles; Joris K. Huysmans; Evola; Karl Graf von Dürckheim; Essenes, Esoteric legends about: only from modern times it seems, but well known book of Hugh Schonfield is not mentioned and given its place; Human Potantial Movement; Mozes: as icon; Neo-sufism: very elucidating about the difference between Islamic Sufism and Non-Islamic as well as partly Islamic Neo-sufism: very elucidating; Neopaganism; New Thought: North American cultural movement of positive thinking, very elucidating about Norman V. Peale, Louise Hay, the Course in Miracles e.a.a.
I summarize my findings as follows. This insightful new dictionary is absolutely indispensable for academic research as well as for the spiritual seeker who wants to know more about the ideas of the traditions of Gnosis & Western Esotericism in general. Every article is a pleasure to read by style and structure. So before you know you are looking to other entries for more! This dictionary stands out for its rich contents on diverse topics, well divided into correlating articles about historical periods and systematically differing orientations, on many persons and organisations and so on.
Most articles seem or are very good; some topics have been treated in a splendid way. There is to be found much stimulus and inspiration for further research as well as for study from more individual points of view. So in one stroke we have now an indispensable goldmine of information about a once dark corner of our culture at our disposal. This is very good quality for sure.
What has become visible now, is a vast field of academic knowledge – about topics despised of in the mainstream Western religions as heretic and dangerous as well as until recently more often than not neglected by the academic world. Which knowledge now also figures within the boundaries of many generally accepted paradigms or discussions shared by a large number of academic researchers, among which the writers of the articles in this dictionary.
The balance between general and special topics seems adequate for the time being, particularly as this is only the first edition. The attention to Judaism and Islam could easily have been more abundant than the rather limited information that is now given. The same applies to the relation with Eastern (and possibly other) religions – and of course their mystical, gnostical and esoterical sides if relevant as such or to the subject in case – which could have been dealt with more systematically. But this requires of course a network of participant researchers and writers which is still larger. To me in any case it is not understandable that not more attention is given to the context of Hellenistic and related surrounding (mystery) religions within which Gnosticism and Hermetism rose; why surely to the philosophical influences of Aristotelism and Neo-Platonism and not to these contextual and also influential religions? One should learn to know that religions grow syncretistically as well as diverging and concentrating. Or do I overestimate those backgrounds? Again there is no systematic treatment of those influences and developments here.
The terms ‘gnosis’ and ‘esotericism’ have a connotation of rejection within dogmatical theology and reasonable science which often were far from neutral to these subjects of study. Or better said, within the course of fighting those phenomena they – or their forerunners – intentionally shaped this terminology with a negative connotation, that is defined those phenomena as to be judged negatively. Now my question is: by using the terminology coming from the enemies, does not the very title of the dictionary give in too much to standard prejudices? If one as is done here, gives a neutral view of a subject field and sees that it can be treated the same as ‘normal’ subject fields, why restricting oneself to this field only? Of course a problem with this is that a dictionary like this one is part of the academic discourse (as indeed is also the chair system on which the differentiation of subject fields within a university is based) and does not want to remove itself to much from this discourse – which itself is not a truth but a chosen method and viewpoint. But within the academic discourse there should be the possibility of and in reality there often is much discussion and struggle or better fight about paradigms, and it has to be said that the subjects of this dictionary – as do religion and spirituality in general – give much occasion to that.
This dictionary is very well organized and edited. The design is also very good, a pleasure to see, to hold in your hand and to read (pleasant typography). The indexes are very useful. There is however one great omission: an index on subjects you will not find. I remember having worked with many encyclopaedias, f.e. the RGG (Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart), and – I assume – without its index on subjects I would have had only half of the advantages compared with having this index. For example there are so many concepts of which the history and meaning becomes co much clearer if one can search for and look within the articles or pages of them which contain those concepts, that this omission within this dictionary really is a pity to me. And it is not only concepts but also names of Gods or heavenly beings, or hypostases, for example I so dearly would have had an entry to Sophia or the personified Wisdom, but alas. Could one say that Sophia / Wisdom is less suitable or less important for an entry than is Reincarnation (which has got an entry)? The making of this index is much work of course, because it implies the selection of which entries should be combined although it regards entries which are written differently, for example the names of the devil. But this work is very fruitful and could have been combined with the making of the present indexes on persons and organizations which too require going through the whole text. I urge the publisher to give attention to this omission for a following edition. A following edition of course could also be expanded easily, but then it would be better to make a small and a large edition of this dictionary, one with only the very important entries and another one with ‘every relevant subject’, ideally. However, one absolutely can say that this dictionary gives a sound basis of information which in itself is indispensable for those who want to be up to date with current research.
So the strength of this well designed and edited dictionary is explicit in the well written articles on separate subjects, almost all from a remarkable neutral viewpoint that is without implicit or explicit prejudices. However in some broader and fundamental questions and topics this strength is still implicit only.