Humans are always drawn to the mysterious. From Pandora’s box to the Bermuda Triangle, our tendency to admire and explore the unknown has existed since prehistoric times.
The need for higher and superhuman explanations for the mysteries of the universe gave rise to secretive esoteric communities. They had existed in the world for a long time as different philosophies and distinct schools of thought before they came under a single concept.
In this article, you will learn what esoteric spirituality is, its origins, and its different facets.
What is Esotericism?
It came from the Greek word esoterikos which means inner. Unlike exoteric knowledge, which is widely spread and commonly taught to the public, esoteric knowledge is extremely inclusive.
It is advanced and specialized in nature and is only accessible to a small group of people, sometimes referred to as the enlightened or the initiated.
The knowledge kept only for the members of esoteric communities is not solely protected because of intentions but also because of their nature.
Some knowledge can be dangerous when handled by the wrong person; that’s why it must be kept secret.
Because of this, initiations are required before one can learn the higher truth of esoteric knowledge.
Furthermore, items (such as scriptures) associated with esotericism are called esoterica. The messages and knowledge they embody are often deeply rooted in several generations of a specific culture.
It is said that these items are so mysterious that outsiders won’t be able to decode or understand them.
The History of Esotericism
Esotericism is not composed of a single body of knowledge, as opposed to what most believe. It is an umbrella term encompassing a vast range of knowledge, movement, and traditions.
The Late Antiquity
According to Wouter Hanegraaff, esotericism was shaped based on the mixed intellectual and religious traditions of Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Persia, and the Levant during late antiquity.
The Middle Ages
Based on the study of Florin Calian, philosophy and alchemy, along with other traditions, were preserved by the Near Eastern and Arab worlds and were introduced to the Westerns by Jews after the fall of the Roman empire.
By the 12th century, Kabbalah, an esoteric Jewish mysticism, emerged in Medieval Spain and Southern Italy.
Also, grimoires that provided comprehensive formulas for thaumaturgy and theurgy were published.
Many grimoires embodied kabbalistic influences and were believed to be used by most known figures of the era.
During the Renaissance, intellectual figures began incorporating pagan philosophies into Christian thoughts and Jewish Kaballah.
Translators such as Pico della Miranda and Ficino worked on translating classical literature of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. However, according to Hanegraaff, the church criticized and condemned such ideas.
On the other hand, another esoteric thought emerged in Germany; Naturphilosophie, which only believed in the natural world and Biblical scriptures.
Esoteric thoughts were secrets kept after they were actively rejected by people who subscribed to the modern school of thought.
Modern thinkers looked at esoteric religions suspiciously, and some labeled them as occult and superstition.
According to Lee Irwin, in the past, the Catholic church had an aggressive reputation in the European esoteric traditions.
It had actively resisted esoteric groups who advocated legitimizing their spiritual practices by internalizing non-traditional symbols, authority, and experiences.
Early 20th Century
During this time, occultism and esoteric systems gained increasing popularity, most notably in Western Europe.
Secret societies and occult lodges bloomed among many European intellectuals and some abandoned traditional Christian practices.
At the same time, secret teachings and magical practices weaved themselves into German society during the interwar years. Many wealthy and influential Germans joined secret societies like the Thule Society.
Late 20th Century
In the 1960s and 1970s, esotericism became strongly associated with the counterculture of the West, in which adherents believed that they must participate in the spiritual revolution that marked the Age of Aquarius.
By the 1980s, beliefs formed in the 1960s and 1870s became widely known as the new age movement.
The Aspects of Western Esotericism
Thinkers such as Antoine Faivre and Wouter Hanegraaff often consider the Western concept of esotericism different from that of oriental esotericism.
Although, it is also often argued that there are no eastern equivalents of what is known as Western esotericism. Faivre’s list of characteristics of Esoteric groups includes:
- Esoteric groups believe that all elements in the universe have a symbolic meaning different from their real meaning.
- These elements are interconnected through a web of causality, which gave rise to the idea that astrological elements (such as the zodiac) impact our lives.
- Faivre observed that esotericists across religions and communities believe in a universal driving force.
- Nature is a life force where everything in it has value and follows a hierarchical system.
- Esotericists believe in separate levels of the real world and the spiritual world. They also believe in the power of meditation and specialized rituals to achieve one’s higher self and connect with the spiritual world.
- Knowledge is considered a level of spiritual attainment. Attaining knowledge is considered a level of a superior being, as opposed to the rational understanding of learning.
- Esoteric practitioners often believe that if we get to the single, unifying root from which all religions emerged, there’s a possibility of harmony for all the world’s belief systems.
- The last characteristic is the belief in indoctrination. Members of these groups may undergo some initiation process to introduce them to the community.
- Disciples are expected to subject themselves to the guidance and indoctrination of someone higher up in the hierarchical system.
As said by Antoine Faivre, esotericism contains vast fields of thoughts which transcend its boundaries, making it difficult to give a definite meaning to it.
Esotericism comprises a wide range of Western philosophy, pseudoscience, art, literature, religion, and music.
Some of the most known fields of knowledge in Esotericism are the following:
Hermeticism is an Egyptian-Hellenistic school derived from the name of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus.
Hermeticism emphasizes the true nature of God and that humans must go beyond worldly limitations to attain salvation and unity with the Divine.
Until today, debates are still being made about the existence of Hermeticism. Some say it is only a literary phenomenon, while others say it is a real body of knowledge with real practitioners.
Gnosticism refers to the philosophical and religious movements during the early Christian era in the Greco-Roman world.
Much of Gnostic beliefs clashed with traditional Christian beliefs. For instance, they believe God is unknowable and incomprehensible, which opposes the Christian concept of a personal God.
Regarding salvation, Gnostics believe that we can only achieve salvation by acquiring hidden knowledge. For them, the enlightened are the ones who hold the true key to salvation.
Neoplatonism aims to understand everything based on the single cause they consider divine. It also suggested that perfection and happiness are attainable without waiting for the afterlife.
According to Guy G Stroumsa, Esoteric Christianity is a version of Christianity that requires initiation to learn and understand its hidden knowledge.
The mystic, esoteric aspect of Judaism is known as Kabbalah or Torat ha-Sod, which means teaching the secret.
Kabbalah is believed to have been from the garden of Eden, carried forward by a select few down the generations.
Agata Paluch explained that the traditional understanding of the teaching of Jewish scriptures evokes the characteristics of esoteric practices. This involved meditation, initiation, and worship.
Additionally, Jewish traditions generally have a strong sense of membership and exclusivity. The members are typically initiated into the community at infancy. The initiation ceremony includes circumcision when the member is as young as eight days old.
Theosophy is an occult movement established in the 19th century. Some of its basic foundations were based on Gnosticism and Neoplatonism.
The theosophists believe that humans can attain the ultimate truth through the universe and fellow humans through holistic approaches.
Martinism was founded by Martinez de Pasqually in France and later propagated around the world by his students Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.
Martinism falls under the category of Christian mysticism with some elements of Kabbalah. It is inspired by the idea of the first man’s fall from grace and eventual return to the divine source of enlightenment.
Martinism involves the concepts of a spiritual journey distinct from the material world and ideas of inner temples.
Accessing one’s inner temple is emphasized as the path toward salvation. Like the other esoteric religious groups, Martinism also propagates its ideas through processes of initiation and learning. These activities are often held at religious centers called heptads.
Sufism is a mystic branch of Islam. The origins of Sufism were essentially in practicing Islam more intensely by constantly reciting the Quran and actively emulating the Prophet in everyday life.
The esoteric aspects of Sufism mainly lie in its concepts of salvation, which include attaining higher consciousness, much like the other esoteric communities.
As opposed to the community-oriented practices of Islam, Sufism encourages individual efforts toward a personal connection with God.
Some forms of Sufism involve attaining oneness with God through music and dance. The orthodox ideas of Islam do not approve of public celebrations involving music or dance, which remains a matter of conflict between these groups.
Sufis have faced persecution from orthodox groups of Islam in countries like India, Pakistan, and, most recently, Iran.
Examples of Esoteric Practices
She added that there is a wide range of esoteric practices that practitioners have used since ancient times, but some of them are still utilized in the modern world.
Most people think tarot reading is about predicting the future, but it’s not. It’s about knowing what might happen and how you should react and act in the situation.
Jessica Timmons shared that tarot was a parlor game in the 16th and 17th centuries until it became a popular tool for divinity.
A standard tarot deck consists of 78 cards and is divided into two categories: the minor and the major arcana cards.
Meditation helps you become calmer and ground yourself in the present. It aims to help you achieve harmony and inner peace of mind.
There are various meditation techniques, but mindfulness meditation is the simplest. All you have to do is sit still and concentrate on your thoughts and breathing.
According to Medical News Today, Reiki Healing is a form of therapy for energy healing by transferring universal energy from the practitioner’s hand to the client. Reiki healing originated in Japan but is now becoming popular in the western world.
Since ancient times, we have been fascinated by celestial entities such as the sun, moon, stars, and planets.
Astrology is a form of divination that attempts to forecast mundane events by observing celestial bodies. Practitioners believe that astrology can impact our lives. That’s why it’s important to understand and interpret them.
Witchcraft had long been stereotyped as a bad practice. But in reality, just like any other esoteric practice, it has its good sides too. Depending on the practitioner’s intentions, witchcraft can be used to bless or harm.
Today, the world slowly accepts witchcraft and has empowered women and those who identify themselves with the practice.
What Does an Esoteric Person Mean?
According to Gabriele Conrad, the esoteric principle emphasizes that we are love. Thus, an esoteric person is connected to their inner harmony, radiating love and livingness to the people around them.
An esoteric person does not have to be someone immensely knowledgeable of all the fields of knowledge of the world. Being deeply in touch with their lives and the world is already enough to become esoteric.
Wrapping It Up!
Esotericism is composed of a wide array of Western philosophy, pseudoscience, art, literature, religion, and music.
Because of the rejection it received in the past, some esoteric forms were forced to exist secretly, while some chose to keep their knowledge in their community because of its nature.
Esotericism shows us the mystical in the mundane, the wonder in the normal, and the magic of the human mind.
Through Esotericism, new doors of opportunity were laid for the future, and some continue to benefit us today.
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