ESOTERICISM, EUROCENTRISM, AND ERASURE

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Not a ritual. Just some information about Esotericism.

If you do not suffer the toil of study, you will suffer the toil of ignorance.

- Moshe ben Ezra, source unknown

“Western” esotericism” in its myriad forms - Hermetism, Wicca, traditional and modern witchcraft, “Cabala,” planetary magic and astrology, and so on - would not exist without centuries of intellectual labor from Jewish, Muslim, African, Indian, and Chinese scholars (4). This comes as a shock to an unfortunate number of people, including magic-users who should frankly know better. Worse, although academic scholars of Western esotericism are highly interested in the topic’s “non-Western” roots, there are many actual practitioners of esotericism who are frankly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and more. This attitude ranges from simple erasure of the origins of their practices (i.e., claiming that Wiccan rituals are direct continuations of indigenous British faith instead of the eclectic, ceremonial magic-based religion it is) to outright hostility against the cultures that contributed to them (i.e., “Kabbalists” who claim to have “recovered” magical secrets from spiritually greedy Jews).

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As a Jew, I encounter the attitude wearily often that someone like me has no place practicing magic, either because Judaism prohibits it or because “Abrahamic religions” just aren’t countercultural or edgy enough or something. I cannot speak for the experiences of other marginalized groups, but I do know that the phenomena of simultaneous appropriation and exclusion is not limited to Jews. This post is meant to remedy at least some of that ignorance.

Although not all intellectual contributions were directly related to esotericism, they did lay the groundwork for esoteric concepts to develop. Mathematics from Jewish, Muslim, Egyptian, Indian, Babylonian, and Chinese sources were indispensable in the development of the basis of what would eventually be known as “Western” astrology (4).

In fact, the very concept that the planets have influence over certain parts of nature, as expressed by authors such as Agrippa, is derived from (among other works) al-Kindi’s De radiis, which argues that planets and certain magical words exert control over the world (3) (8).

The Liber vaccae (Book of the Cow), originally written in Arabic, is a book of magical experiments whose Latin translations can be found across Europe, including in the occult library of St. Augustine’s Abbey in England (5). (A Hebrew manuscript also exists [10] .)

The Picatrix, that famous astrological and magical treatise, was originally written in Arabic and translated (probably by a Jew) for a Christian audience sometime in the 13th century CE (2).

Though many of the human promulgators of Hermetism are anonymous (or pseudonymous), the philosophy combined Neoplatonic thought with ancient Egyptian magical practices. It was preserved by a Baghdadi school at least as late as the 11th century CE (Merkur).

During the Renaissance, European Christian authors began appropriating the Jewish Kabbalah for their own theological ends, “rescuing it” (or so they believed) from the stubborn heresy of the Jews. Virtually all subsequent “Kabbalistic” or “Jewish” (including many “Solomonic”) texts produced by non-Jews since have directly originated from or been inspired by this theft (9).

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Russia - admittedly a country on the outliers of “Western” esotericism in some respects - produced many occult philosophers (such as Helena Blavatsky) who drew upon various Asian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous faiths (7).

Not all of this knowledge was limited to the “educated classes,” either - it could be found in the repertoires of ordinary people as well. The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, for instance, contains material straight out of Agrippa’s writings, mentioned above (6).

Countless examples exist demonstrating how “Western” occultism borrowed, bargained, and burgled its way through history. This process continues today with the rampant appropriation of closed practices and erasure of its own decidedly “non-Western” roots, except, perhaps, to add to the “exoticism” of magic as a marketing ploy. With all these currents, does it truly make sense to call “Western” esotericism “Western?”

This post is not meant to contribute to the discussion of whether “Western civilization” is a meaningful or useful term - though I should state that I agree with those scholars who argue that the concept is a modern invention and cannot be retroactively applied to the ideas that supposedly originated from there (1). The broader point, however, is that there is a powerful trend toward Eurocentrism in many occult communities that lead to exclusion and alienation. Many people come to magic because they feel marginalized by society. Let’s not recreate that dynamic in our spaces.

Not to be ignored, of course, are the indigenous peoples worldwide who have had their spiritualities plundered by the colonizers who sought to eliminate them, as well as by their supposedly rootless descendants. Also necessary to mention are the people of the African diaspora who, wrenched from their homelands, maintained their traditions against the most inhumane of odds. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, though I do plan to update it with more information. I strongly encourage and invite others to contribute their own examples which I have overlooked.

People of certain backgrounds, religious or otherwise, often feel strongly discouraged - not just by their own communities, but by occult communities themselves - from pursuing magic. Erasure of the roots of the “Western” esoteric tradition is partially why. People who would rather invent fanciful origin stories as if they “legitimized” their practice are doing themselves, the craft, and current and aspiring magic-users (of all kinds) a disservice by promulgating pseudo-mystical marketing instead of useful, concrete history. I assure you that the latter is far more interesting.

Bibliography

(1) Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “There is no such thing as western civilization.” The Guardian, November 9, 2016.

(2) Fanger, Claire. “Necromancy, Theurgy, and Intermediary Beings.” Oxford Bibliographies in Medieval Studies, edited by Paul Szarmach, 860-865. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

(3) Fanger, Claire. “Things Done Wisely by a Wise Enchanter: Negotiating the Power of Words in the Thirteenth Century.” Esoterica 1 (1999): 97-132.

(4) Joseph, George Gheverghese. The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics, 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

(5) Page, Sophie. Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013.

(6) Rankine, David. The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet: A 17th Century London Cunningman’s Book of Charms, Conjurations and Prayers. London: Avalonia, 2011.

(7) Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer, ed. The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

(8) Saif, Liana. The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy. New York: Springer, 2016.

(9) Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism. Skokie: Varda Books, 2001.

(10) Van der Lugt, Maaike. “‘Abominable Mixtures’: The Liber vaccae in the Medieval West, or The Dangers and Attractions of Natural Magic.” Traditio: Studies in Ancient & Medieval History, Thought, & Religion 64 (2009): 226-277.

Source: Yenne Velt : Tumblr : https://yenne-velt.tumblr.com/post/169223937815/esotericism-eurocentrism-and-erasure

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Added to on Aug 19, 2018
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