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Western esotericism: a unique specialism

Western esotericism is an umbrella term for a discipline which is hidden behind such terms as ‘gnostic, ‘hermeticism’, ‘alchemy’, ‘astrology’, ‘magic’, ‘theosophy’, ‘mysticism’, ‘occultism’, or ‘esotericism’. Located on the boundary of religion, philosophy, the arts, and natural sciences, is a diverse grouping of historical currents, ideas, and practices which have been banished to the margins of Western culture.

What is the role and meaning of these currents within the cultural and intellectual history of Western society. How does popular representation relate to historical fact? What implications does research in this field have for established paradigms in the humanities? Located at the UvA is the leading international centre for research and education in this area of study.


Research is focused on the history of so-called ‘Western esotericism’ (the most conventional term for the discipline as a whole) since Classical Antiquity to the present, but with an emphasis on the period starting from the Renaissance. A collective feature of all projects is the principal emphasis on the complex interrelations between ‘esoteric’ ideas and mainstream Western intellectual and cultural history. Current research themes include:

  • Hermetic philosophy
  • Christian kabbalah
  • The work of Giordano Bruno
  • Alchemy in the early-modern period, and in relation to Pietism
  • Mesmerism in the period of German Romanticism
  • Concepts of magic after the Enlightenment
  • Esotericism in the oeuvre of Fernando Pessoa
  • Alternative spirituality in America during the 1950s and 1960s.


The UvA is the only university to offer a specialisation in Western esotericism. A series of courses are offered in the Bachelor’s programme Religiewetenschappen. A specialisation in Western esotericism is also possible within the one-year master's Spirituality and Religion and the two-year research master’s Religious Studies.

Due to its interdisciplinary approach, the Research Master’s forms the perfect starting point for eventual PhD research within virtually all humanities disciplines.