Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism

Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism

Edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Leiden
The Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2005. Hardcover, 2 volumes, xxix + 1,228 pages.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, the editor of the provocative two volume Dictionary of Gnosis Western Esotericism. Has compiled "a great range of historical currents and personalities that have flourished in Western culture and society over a period of roughly two millennia, from Late Antiquity to the present." His aim was not simply to produce a comprehensive reference work of superior quality-no small feat in itself-but to challenge "certain ingrained assumptions about the history of Western religion and culture," which have long been held by members of academia. Due to these "ingrained ideological biases," the field of Gnosis and Western esotericism has been largely ignored by scholars until quite recently.

The dictionary contains 344 entries by 149 contributors from seventeen countries on four continents. Most entries run for more than a page in length, allowing for in-depth coverage. An alphabetical listing collectively identifies all the contributors. Each entry is followed by a bibliography and its contributor's name. The writing is of consistently high quality throughout. Volume 2 includes one comprehensive index for persons and another for organizations. The editors supply numerous cross-references embedded within the articles. By following these cues, the reader gains a greater appreciation for the many crosscurrents of esoteric thought in Western culture. "Rather than a repetitive series of variations on the same essential 'truths,' the reader will find here a dazzling variety of ideas and practices, reflective of ever-changing historical contexts and testifying to the remarkable creativity of the religious imagination."

The panorama of historical personages spans the spectrum from martyrs (Giordano Bruno) to poets (William Blake), from occultists (Eliphas Levi) to alchemists (Paracelsus), from psychics (Edgar Cayce) to scientists (Isaac Newton). A number of Theosophical luminaries are given generous coverage (Besant, three pages: Blavatsky, eight pages; Olcott, two pages; Leadbeater, two pages). The fair and balanced portrayals accorded them should satisfy Theosophists of all stripes. The Theosophical Society itself receives a well-crafted eight-page entry by James Santucci of California State University. Santucci docs not gloss over the various crises in the Society's history, but presents them even-handedly. "Strong personalities and disagreements over teachings invariably lead to schisms and splits within organizations, large and small, The TS is no exception ... of Charles Leadbeater, Brenda French (University of Sydney) says, "Leadbeater's influence on 201h century occultism has been immense." Michael Gomes (Emily Sellon Memorial Library, N.Y.) describes Henry Olcott's Old Diary Leaves as "his greatest contribution to the field of esoteric literature" and points out Olcott's role as "an Important witness for the existence of the Mahatmas."

The ten-page entry for imagination contains several noteworthy passages such as this:

In a mystical and esoteric context the imagination has been believed to give access to levels of reality deeper than those that can be experienced by the senses, and thus to function as a do, main of mediation between different ontological planes. As such it enables man to transcend the material world and gain access to the divine. In other words, the imagination could become a bridge between microcosm and macrocosm.

And this interesting excerpt from the seven-page entry for mnemonics:

In the Middle Ages techniques of memory were closely linked to the techniques of meditation that were used to develop a particular "force of thought." This force was used to build structures in the mind-temples, tabernacles, palaces, gardens, trees, stairways- which could then be used to design a spiritual itinerary. Each stopping place along this itinerary represented an advance in knowledge and a step forward in a gradual moral transforma tion which would culminate in the mystical experience of a union with God.

In summary, the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism should prove to be of great value to both lay students and professional researchers with a mutual interest in Western culture's contributions to the philosophia occulta. According to the editor, "This Dictionary hopes to contribute to the current academic emancipation of Gnosis and Western Esotericism as a comprehensive domain of research." This reviewer concurs. Let the emancipation begin!


January/February 2006