If you are interested in learning more about the courses that I teach here at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy, in discussing projects, in advertising an academic event, or for any other purpose, please do feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org . The best day to catch me in the office is Monday when I'm usually in for meetings, catching up on admin tasks, or preparing for the week's classes.
Peter Forshaw studied Sanskrit, Tibetan and Indian
Philosophy at the School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London (1982-86). After years spent working in
France, India, Thailand, and Japan, he returned to the UK to
take an MA in Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck, University of
London, where he subsequently researched his doctorate in Early
Modern Intellectual History, on the complex hieroglyphic and
theosophical figures and the interplay of alchemy, magic and
cabala in the Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae -
Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (1595/1609) of Heinrich
Khunrath of Leipzig (1560-1605), 'doctor of both medicines and
faithful lover of Theosophy'.
On the successful completion of his PhD, Peter was then awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship for research into the History of Ritual Magic in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This period of research was then followed by fellowships at the universities of Strathclyde and Cambridge, where he worked on projects related to early modern alchemy and astrology.
In 2009 Peter was appointed Universitair Docent (Senior Lecturer/Assistant Professor) for History of Western Esotericism in the Early Modern Period at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam.
Peter is also Honorary Fellow at the University of Exeter, where he contributes to the MA in Western Esotericism at EXESESO: The Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London.
From 2004-2011 Peter was elected council member and webmaster of the SRS (Society for Renaissance Studies). He has been performing the same functions for SHAC (Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) since 2007 and for ESSWE (European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) since 2009.
Editor in Chief of Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism .
Editorial Board Member:
Below (in no particular order) are links to various organisations, libraries, archives, and journals that I have found useful for my own research. I hope that they may be inspiring for you too.
If you're searching for funding, for example, for short research trips, fellowships for short-term and medium-term research, sources of conference funding, or information about essay prizes, be sure to visit ESSWE's Bursaries page, SHAC's Awards and Prizes page, the Society for Renaissance Studies' Funding pages, and so forth.
Together with Prof. Dr. W. J. (Wouter) Hanegraaff
and Dr. M. (Marco) Pasi , I am responsible for the
Bachelor Minor "Westerse Esoterie" and the Master trajectory
"Mysticism and Western Esotericism", which are both part of the
Religious Studies program. The University of Amsterdam is
currently the only academic institution in the world that
offers a complete program in this field. International students
are welcome to apply for admission to the Master program, which
is offered as a 1-year and a 2-year (research) option.
In the bachelor program I teach "Western Esotericism in the Early Modern Period" and in the Master I run the "Renaissance Esotericism" seminar.
Together with Prof. Dr.G.A. (Gerard) Wiegers I also teach the core module "Polemics and Politics of Religious Identity" as part of the Research Master Religious Studies. I also contribute a session to Dr U.L. (Ulrike) Popp-Baier 's Research Master course on "Religious Experience" and a session on Christian Cabala for Gemma Kwantes ' BA course on Kabbalah.
General course descriptions and regularly updated programs can be found at the subdepartment's website (see link below, sections "Prospective Students" and "Current Students"). For practical information about admission etc., contact the Graduate School for Humanities (see link).
Students on the Research MA also have the option of arranging individual tutorials with a supervisor, for which they engage in a personal research project and then write an essay that contributes to the final grade.
Two recent examples include:
1) a student for whom I arranged an informal semester at the University of Cambridge, with the possibility to attend lectures and seminars, have access to university archives, and generally have the opportunity to meet other students and scholars interested in the history of early modern alchemy.
2) a tutorial/reading group on the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's final book on psychology and alchemy, Mysterium coniunctionis . For this I invited students and also practising Jungian therapists, in order to establish some dialogue between academic theory and psychological practice. The format of this tutorial is a series of Friday evening meetings spread out over a period of months, with a different member of the group presenting a section of the book each time.
My research interests are in the intellectual and cultural history of learned magic and its relation to religion, science and medicine in early modern Europe; occult forms of communication, the interplay between text and image, and the whole question of symbolic representation by means of emblematic figures, hieroglyphs, cabalistic notae, and so forth. More generally, all forms of occult philosophy (alchemy, astrology and Christian Cabala, in particular) and ritual activity, from activity to the early modern period. See below for descriptions of my current research projects.
The goal of this project is to write a study of Christian
Cabala in the early modern period that will provide a
soundfoundation for students unfamiliar with the subject and at
the same time be of interest to specialists in the history of
esotericism. From a brief introduction to Jewish Kabbalah, the
work then investigates, for example, the Genesis of Christian
Cabala; the presence of Cabala in occult philosophy and
practical magical treatises; the impact of Cabala on alchemical
theory and practice; the new wave of Lurianic Kabbalah;
Kircher's Saracenic Cabala; critical responses, including
Colberg's condemnation of Cabala as 'Fanatic Theology' and
Brucker's ruminations in Historia critica philosophiae
. Projected outcome of this project: a monograph, articles on
Early Modern Christian Cabala, plus a Christian Cabala Reader,
providing translations of new material from early modern books
The 'New Historiography of Alchemy' rejects a monolithic view of the subject, recognising the rich variety of approaches by which practitioners from many schools of thought competed and coexisted. In the process of challenging earlier representations of alchemy, however, there has been a reaction against late nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritualised or psychologised interpretations of alchemical endeavour. This project investigates the relations between alchemical and religious thought in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The focus is on the Christian West, though, as alchemical texts contain a great deal of material from earlier periods, the intended monograph and articles will include a fresh historical-critical appraisal ofevidence from the middle ages and antiquity, including relevant Greek, Arabic and Hebrew sources. Research themes include: exegesis, images, vision and revelation,confessional identities, 'spiritual', 'supernatural' and 'theosophical' alchemy and 'the experience of transmutation'.
Peter is currently preparing a monograph on Heinrich
Khunrath (1560-1605) for Brill's Studies in Intellectual
History: The Mages Images: Heinrich Khunrath, Occult
Theosophy and the Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom .
He is also working on a parallel-text translation of the 1609 edition of Khunrath's Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom), to be published in Brill's Aries Book Series.
He is co-editing, with Boaz Huss, a collection of articles, Lux in Tenebris: The Visual and the Symbolic in Western Esotericism , to be published by Brill.
The Word and the World explores the significant impact of biblical reading practices on the scientific thought of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, engaging not only with canonical figures such as Bacon, Brahe or Galileo, but also with less well-known figures, including Bruno, Browne and Khunrath. It addresses the idea that early modern natural philosophers forged their new disciplines despite, rather than because of, the pervasive bible-centredness of early modern thought. The essays in this volume challenge this critical presumption and offer substantial evidence for thecentrality of scriptural interpretation forscientific thinkers of the period. It ranges across the early modern scientific landscape, as well as attending to a wide spectrum of religious confessions across Europe. In addition, the contributions display mulidisciplinary interests and appproaches, drawing from backgrounds in Theology, the History of Science, Intellectual History, Literature and the Humanities.
This collection of essays honours Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) as a Platonic philosopher. Ficino was not the first translator of Plato in the Renaissance, but he was the first to translate the entire corpus of Platonic works, and to emphasise their relevance for contemporary readers. Thepresent work is divided into two sections: the first explores aspects of Ficino's own thought and the sources which he used. The second section follows aspects of his influence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The papers presented here deepen and enrich our understanding of Ficino, and of the philosophical tradition in which he was working, and theyoffer a new platformfor future studies on Ficino and his legacy in Renaissance philosophy.
The first webinar features dr. Peter J. Forshaw , who shares his knowledge on Heinrich Khunrath or dr. Henricus Khunrath as he was called, who was a physician and Hermetic alchemist. In the webinar a focus is put on Khunrath's Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae - The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (originally published in 1595), which has traditionally been considered to be a strange mix of Christianity and magic. Peter elaborates on the alchemical symbolism of 4 circular and 5 rectangular engravings integrated into the Amphitheatrum .
The second webinar is online featuring dr. Peter J. Forshaw , who shares with us his knowledge on Michael Maier (1568-1622), a Renaissance alchemist, composer, physician and counsellor to Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg . The webinar focusses in particular on Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1618), a multimedia work containing 50 engraved emblems visualizing the alchemical stages and including corresponding epigrams, discourses and musical symphonies 'fugues', which he composed himself. Nothing is known about Maier's ideas on how to perform the fugues, though some believe they serve as auditory support during corresponding to alchemical work in the laboratory. Since Maier served as counsellor to Rudolph II, it might even be the case that the music was performed at his court. Besides discussing a selection of the emblemata of the Atalanta Fugiens at length, Peter Forshaw also highlights other works by Michael Maier, as well as other related sources.
Welcome to Dr. Peter J. Forshaw's third webinar in the Infinite Fire series. Today he introduces the early modern mathematician, natural philosopher and magus, John Dee (1527-1608/9), another significant figure in the history of science, esotericism and Hermetic Philosophy. Dee is a fascinating example of a thinker deeply engaged with both orthodox and unorthodox fields of knowledge, judged by the standards of his own period or today. This webinar provides some information about his scholarly interests, his travels in continental Europe, where he came into contact with influential thinkers, like the cartographer Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), fellow occult philosophers like Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), and powerful aristocrats like Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612).
A short discussion between the presenter of BBC Radio 3's Night Waves, Philip Dodd, Jennifer Rampling (Cambridge University) and Peter Forshaw (University of Amsterdam) on "the resurgence of alchemy's reputation," due to the opening of London Science Museum's new exhibition 'Signs, Symbols, Secrets: an illustrated guide to alchemy' on 27 April 2012 (NB. "Alchemy" is the second item and starts at 16:16).
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the music of the spheres, the elegant and poetic idea that the revolution of the planets generates a celestial harmony of profound and transcendent beauty. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice the young Lorenzo woos his sweetheart with talk of the stars: "There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins; Such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." The idea of music of the spheres ran through late antiquity and the medieval period into the Renaissance and its echoes could be heard in astrology and astronomy, in theology, and, of course, in music itself. Influenced by Pythagoras and Plato, it was discussed by Cicero, Boethius, Marsilio Ficino and Johannes Kepler It affords us a glimpse into minds for whichthe universe was full of meaning, of strange correspondences andgrand harmonies.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Renaissance obsession with Magic. In 1461 one of the powerful Medici family's many agents carried a mysterious manuscript into his master's house in Florence. It purported to be the work of an ancient Egyptian priest-king andmagician calledHermes Trismegistus. When Cosimo de Medici saw the new discovery, he ordered his translations of Plato to be stopped so that work could begin on the new discovery at once. Hermes promised secret knowledge to his initiates and claimed to have spoken with the spirits and turned base metal into gold. His ideas propelled natural magic into the mainstream of Renaissance intellectual thought, as scholars and magi vied to understand the ancient secrets that would bring statues to life and call the angels down from heaven. But why did magic appeal so strongly to the Renaissance mind? And how did the scholarly Magus, who became a feature of the period, manage to escape prosecution and relate his work to science and the Church?
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the coterie of brilliant thinkers gathered in 16th century Prague by the melancholic emperor Rudolph II. In 1606 the Archdukes of Vienna declared: "His majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies...He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so that he may in future serve a different master." The subject of this coruscating attack was the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, and his court at Prague. Rudolph had turned Pragueinto a collector'scabinet for the wonders and curiosities of the age - the great paintings of Northern Italy were carried to him over the Alps, intricate automatons constructed to serve drinks, maps and models of the heavens were unwound and engineered as the magnificent city of Prague itself was rebuilt in the image of its dark and thoughtful patron in chief. But Rudolf's greatest possessions were people - the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, the magus John Dee and the philosopher Giordano Bruno had all found their way to his city. Far from the devilish inquisitor of the archdukes' imaginations, Rudolf patronised a powerhouse of Renaissance ideas.
MelvynBragg and guests discuss Renaissance Astrology. In Act I Scene II of King Lear,the ne'er do well Edmund steps forward and rails at the weakness and cynicism of his fellow men: This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, - often the surfeit of our own behaviour, - we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity. The focus of his attack is astrology and the credulity of those who fall for its charms. But the idea that earthly life was ordained in the heavens was essential to the Renaissance understanding of the world. The movements of the heavens influenced many things from the practice of medicine tomajor political decisions.Every renaissance court had its astrologer including ElizabethIst and the mysterious Dr. John Dee who chose the most propitious date for her coronation. But astrologers also worked in the universities and on the streets, reading horoscopes, predicting crop failures and rivalling priests and doctors as pillars of the local community. But why did astrological ideas flourish in the period, how did astrologers interpret and influence the course of events and what new ideas eventually brought the astrological edifice tumbling down?
At the end ofthe 16th century, the German alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote: "Darkness will appear on the face of the Abyss; Night, Saturn and the Antimony ofthe Sages will appear; blackness, and the raven's head of the alchemists, and all the colours of the world, will appear at the hour of conjunction; the rainbow also, and the peacock's tail. Finally, after the matter has passed from ashen-coloured to white and yellow, you will see thePhilosopher's Stone". The language, which sounds fantastical, is cryptic, encoded, symbolic and secretive. It is worth bearing in mind that Isaac Newton wrote more manuscripts on alchemy than on anything else and Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, described himself as an alchemist. What was the essence of alchemy, its history and legacy? And how much more was it than a rapacious desire to turn base metals intogold?
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the legendary wizard Merlin. He was sired by an incubus and born of a virgin; he was a prophet, a shape-shifter, a king-maker and a mad man of the woods. Before Gandalf there was Merlin: the power behind Arthur and a literary sensation for centuries. In a literary career spanning 1500years,Merlin, or originallyMyrddin, put theswordin the stone, builtStonehenge, knew the truth behind the Holy Grail and discovered the Elixir of Life. "BewareMerlin for he knowsall things by the devil's craft" saythe poisoners in Malory's Morte D'Arthur; but he is also onthe side of the good and isalmost Christ-like in some of the versions of his tale, and his prophesies were poredover by the medieval Church. Who was Merlinus Ambrosius, as he is sometimes known? Where does his legend spring from and how has it been appropriated and adapted over time?
In this episode of Material World, Quentin Cooper is joined
by science writer Philip Ball and Peter Forshaw, British
Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of
London, to discuss the myth, life and legacy of Philip
Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus,
the 16th Century medic on the border between the medieval and
He was both army surgeon and alchemist, and was rumoured to have made a Faustian bargain with the devil to regain his youth. It was said that he travelled with a magical white horse and stored the elixir of life in the pommel of his sword.
But who was Paracelsus and what did he really believe and practice? Quentin unravels the story of a man who wrote influential books on medicine, surgery, alchemy and theology, whileliving a drunken, combative, vagabondlife.
Documentary examining the medieval myth of the Philosopher's Stone, a Holy Grail-type relic which supposedly held the key to alchemy and immortality. Many noted alchemists and adventurers searched obsessively for the artifact hoping to learn its powerful secrets, a quest which allegedly drove some to madness and others to celestialencounters.
The Voynich manuscript was discovered in an Italian
monastery in 1912 but its meaning has eluded experts and
This film explores the various theories surrounding its mixture of strange language and drawings of plants and anatomical figures. Is it an astrological guide, herbal glossary, religious heresy or map of the galaxy? No one knows.