Esoteric spiritualities tend to encourage a personal search for spiritual truths, unburdened by concerns for dogma and authority. Such seekership has been cast as a particularly individualistic, liberal, and democratic way of doing religion, well-adapted to pluralistic modern societies. The apparent surge in of conspiracy theories playing on authoritarian populist narratives in some spiritual milieus troubles the picture. In this conversation with Egil Asprem we explore the relationship between the spiritual quest for esoteric knowledge and conspiracy theories.
Egil Asprem is Professor of the History of Religions at Stockholm University, Sweden, and a specialist in the study of esotericism. He has published widely on topics such as European ritual magical traditions, the relationships between occultism and the natural sciences, and religion and conspiracy theories.
“The Truth Shall Set Whom Free? A Conversation on Esoteric Knowledge, Alternative Spirituality, and Conspiracy Theories” is part of the CSWR’s new initiative, “Transcendence and Transformation.”
SPEAKER 1: Harvard Divinity School.
SPEAKER 2: The truth shall set whom free? A conversation on esoteric knowledge, alternative spirituality, and conspiracy theories. December 8 2021.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Good afternoon and welcome to our last gnosiologies event for the semester. My name is Giovanna Parmigiani, and I'm the host of the series organized within the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative of the CSWR here at Harvard Divinity School. This series focuses on ways of knowing that are often labeled as non-rational, traditionally referred to as gnosis in Western philosophical and religious traditions, and often understood in contraposition to science.
This ways of knowing are becoming more and more influential in contemporary societies, popular culture, and academic research. So it is with immense pleasure then that I introduce our guest, Professor Egil Aprem for today's conversation on esoteric knowledge, alternative spirituality, and conspiracy theories. Egil Apsrem is Professor of the History of Religions at Stockholm University in Sweden and a specialist in the study of esotericism.
He has published widely on topics such as the European ritual magical traditions, the relationships between occultism and the natural sciences, and religion and conspiracy theories. Some of his recent publications include New Approaches To The Study Of Esotericism a volume edited with Julian Strube, Handbook Of Conspiracy Theory And Contemporary Religion with Asbjorn Dyrendal and David G. Robertson, and the article, "The Magical Theory Of Politics." Thank you, Egil, for being here. My students and I are fans of your work and are looking forward to this conversation today.
EGIL ASPREM: you very much for that kind introduction, Giovanna. I'm happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Very well. So since this series is for a wider audience, shall we start from the basics? So what is esotericism, and what's the role of knowledge in as esotericism or gnosis?
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah, sure. We can try. I mean it's the million dollar question, what is this esotericism, actually. Because esotericism is a lot of different things. But one thing that it is a category, an umbrella term, more or less, that scholars use to talk about various, you could say, alternative religious, spiritual, philosophical currents. Pretty much the things that, I think, you referred to in your introduction of the series actually [? write ?] things that occur that are hard to classify in terms of the way that we look at religion and science today.
So they seem to clash with our understandings of institutionalized Christianity, for example, and science, natural science. So falling between these tiers. So in that sense, of course, they have a lot to do with knowledge, in the sense that there is often a focus on special ways of attaining knowledge, that's central in it. Some people talk about the dynamic of the hidden and the revealed as being central to it, which can also go back to the origins of the term, actually.
So I think, maybe I would like to say something about that too. Because one thing that esotericism is also, and maybe most fundamentally is, of course, a word. It's a word with a history, and that history can tell us something about, well, how it has been used or that has shaped the understandings of what we mean by system today and also what people who claim to be doing esotericism mean by it.
And so one thing to mention to begin with. I guess, is that so the noun, esotericism, goes back to the adjective, esoteric. And the adjective esoteric from the Greek, where we have it already in antiquity, [? esoterikos, ?] has a very old history. And it's part of a pair of terms, so the esoteric and the exoteric. And basically, ordinary dictionary definitions of the esoteric and exoteric today are pretty close at the original meanings, namely signifying something that pertains to the inside versus that which is on the outside, which would be an exoteric.
And so in antiquity, already, you had this, particularly in the context of knowledge, that esoteric knowledge is knowledge that is restricted for a small group. So what we should think about here is primarily knowledge that is transmitted orally to students in a teaching context. So that philosophers might write dialogues for a broader public, which would be the exoteric works, but it would also have teachings for their pupils, the students, which would be the esoteric meanings of this.
But what you see, already, in late antiquity is that this term, esoteric, and its contrast exoteric starts to be connected not only to a teaching situation, but all sorts of things like the mysteries, the mystery cults. So initiation becomes an example of the esoteric and the transmission of esoteric knowledge. And you also get, by the time of early Christianity and some of the early church fathers, like Clement of Alexandria, for example, a connection to religion, that so the founders of the mystery cults were philosophers that were veiling the truths and myths, and you had to be initiated to learn how to interpret them.
But also that Christianity had such an esoteric oral tradition that's helping people to read the Gospels the right way. And so these connections between the hidden and revealed in terms of knowledge has to do with religion, philosophy, and enunciation is pretty old stuff. And it's at the center of some of the later meanings of esotericism as well.
But this is a crucial point that the now esoteric system, then, is a much, much later vintage. It's basically a term that you start getting in the 19th century. Well, you get it in German in the late 1700s, and then in French in the early 1800s, and then it comes into English as well. And what's interesting to mention here is that one group that really started picking up this term and running with it was the people who we now called occultists. So it was very much an emic term in this period.
So an in-group term for the kind of lineage or transmission of secret knowledge that one would claim to be holding today. So in the context of 19th century occultism, esotericism would reference, well, secret teachings of magic ancient wisdom from Egypt or from Zoroaster. It would stand for the occult sciences, alchemy and astrology and so on. But also like the Gnostics and the Hermitists, and the Rosicrucians and the Knights Templars and all you can think of forming a transmission to today, right? That was the idea.
So what's important, the point I will get to here, is that what we see that in the 19th century is that esotericism is part of an invented tradition, inventing a tradition of an alternative form of secret current of Western religion. Or perhaps, also more globally, because some of these cultists will say that this is a perennial kind of wisdom that you can find in many different traditions.
And what's important about this is that when scholars have been trying to, well, pick up, build a field of research around esotericism, the scope of these, well, related currents-- as I said, it's used, usually, as an umbrella concept for a number of religio-philosophical currents, that are typically seen as alternative and so on. When they did that, they were basically taking over the invented tradition of your cultists and using esotericism to study those kinds of currents.
So one would be interested in gnosticism, in hermeticism, in [? theology, ?] but also in medieval ceremonial magic and Kabbalah, Jewish and Christian Kabbalah, [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] and all of those things up until sort of spiritualism and occultism and so on and so forth. But scholars then have had to spend a lot of time trying to disentangle these connections, also.
And so we wouldn't assume that all of these currents are actually connected by a chain of an actual tradition. But the starting point is still this idea, some call it a [? neo-historical ?] construct, and the idea of how people have been inventing and remembering the past but using that as an optic to look at currents in the past that also have this sort of difficult-to-place position today, even though they might have been quite common or even influential in their own time.
So but maybe I should say, also, something about-- because now, basically we just been tracing how the scope of esotericism came to be, what it is. But how, then, would we define it? What are its characteristics.? So maybe I can use that to talk a little bit about knowledge as well. Because when you look at attempts to defining what esotericism is all about in terms of what characterizes it, there is usually focus on some special knowledge, that knowledge is at the center of it.
So you have lots of different kinds of definitions, but it's always about knowledge in some way. So usually, we can talk about higher knowledge, initiations, knowledge about the hidden side of nature or the hidden aspects of humanity or about the soul and these kinds of things. Yeah, so some of the definitions have also focused on special ways of building knowledge or gaining knowledge.
So one of the early definitions by Antoine Faivre, a French scholar, emphasized, for example, that esotericism is characterized by the doctrine of correspondences, the idea that the world is permeated by secret links that are meaningful, that are significative, and so not causal links but chains of meaning that you can read. So the simplest thing being like the macrocosm corresponds to the microcosm, but the planets have correspondences to things on Earth, the metals, but also parts of the human body, which can then be read to get knowledge, but also to predict the future or to do medical interventions in a magical way. That sort of thing.
So that's already saying something about how knowledge would be constructed in terms of meaning rather than cause and effect relationships. But another aspect that Faivre took up already, which I think is important, is that he focused on the imagination, the idea that the human imagination is seen not just as something that produces fantasy or fictions, that kind of thing. But that is an organ of the soul, an epistemic organ that can help us gain real knowledge about stuff, especially higher roles, that thing.
And also through imagination, people can get into contact with intermediary beings, angels or other kinds of spirits, gods, maybe also. But that the focus on the active imagination as a route to building knowledge is essential. There was one other aspect I wanted to take up, actually, when we're still talking about this because it also has to do with knowledge, but in a more social way. Because the more recently, in the last say, 10 years or so, last decade, there's been more of a focus on esotericism system as a rejected knowledge.
So what-- and this relates, of course, to the history of the term as well as what we see as esotericism is stuff that has been rejected by the establishment in how we write history or how we write history of religion or the history of science and so on. Alchemy isn't really part of that, and so on. So a rejection process, but part of this has also been that esotericists quote, unquote, or occultists, also today, would have a perceived opposition also, today, towards what is considered to be establishment knowledge, so whether that is in the field of religion or in science or in politics or in medicine.
So this countercultural aspects of knowledge as well as its going against what the authorities tell you is another aspect. This is more of a social way of how knowledge is viewed in this. So yeah, but I noticed-- there is one term I didn't mention yet, and that's the one that you want me to talk about, namely gnosis.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Yes, exactly.
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah, that's a part of the--
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Part of the title of this series. So I think we owe an explanation here.
EGIL ASPREM: Precisely. And gnosis is, and has been, a central term also in both the study of esotericism and in esoteric currents of practices in themselves. And again, of course, squarely related to knowledge in special ways of looking at knowledge. And in the study of esotericism, the term gnosis is frequently used to denote an approach to knowledge that is, well, unmediated, direct, transcendent, ineffable knowledge. This idea of just getting illuminated by this, and you can't really express it in words, you have to experience it for yourself to get it.
And also, that it has some kind of salvific characteristic that it will also either develop the soul or help you ascend to a higher realm or to somehow being connected to salvation. And that you can get this by your own initiative, that's the big thing in terms of being seen as heterodox as well, right? Because in terms of church theology, you can only be saved by grace. But here, the idea is that you can take your own initiative to gain this knowledge, be illuminated, and then ascend or whatever.
So this is definitely a central point. But I would say that one problem with the way that scholars of esotericism have been focusing on gnosis is that it may be overemphasized as precisely this idea of the ineffable and this radical experience that can't be expressed in words and so on. And connected, today, maybe to altered states of consciousness and that stuff. Because often what we see, I think is more connected to what Faivre was talking about with imagination, that the experiential part, also, of knowledge is actually highly empirical.
Connected to the senses, connected to imagery and language that you can write long descriptions of what you saw. I mean, it can be bizarre, but it can be put into language and it's full of symbols and stuff that can be decoded afterwards. So that's a little bit different from the way gnosis work, pure sense has been constructed at least in terms of a special approach to knowledge emphasizing the unmediated, direct access to this stuff.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you very much. I think this is very, very important point. And thank you for this very thorough explanation of what esotericism is, for giving us an historical perspective. But as you know, I'm an anthropologist who works on the contemporary. So when you were talking about the tensions between what's hidden and what's revealed, I can't help myself thinking about conspiracy theories today.
And so what is the role-- well, the relationship, in the past and possibly in the present between esotericism and conspiracy theories according to you and if you have some examples. I know you worked on that. I work a little bit of that as well. So I like to--
EGIL ASPREM: You wrote a beautiful article on it.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you.
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah, thanks for that question. So conspiracy theories and esotericism is something I've been dipping into and published a bit over the last few years. I think the first thing that should be mentioned is that it's a complicated relationship, and I would like to start by emphasizing that very often, esoteric currents have been the objects of conspiracy narratives. They've been on the receiving end. They have been theorized as conspiracies.
What do you think of as the Illuminati, the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis, satanism, pagans also, right? So whether conspiracy theorists have imagined pretty like imaginary versions of esoteric societies that may not exist at all or perhaps exist but in a very different way from what the conspiracy theorists claim that they do and are capable of, this has actually had, also, negative repercussions for actual, living people who are working with esoteric groups.
So I would like to start by saying that because, what I want to say in addition to that is that there are, also, more intimate connections between esotericism and a alternative spiritualities, more generally perhaps, and conspiracy theories. And one way to think about this is that on the one hand, you have full-blown conspiratorial worldviews with a heavy dose of esoteric spirituality into them, what is now usually been discussed under the term conspirituality. We're going talk about that in a minute.
So that's on the one hand, you have got that. But on the other hand, you also have this more sort of general, which is to say, a general attraction within certain alternative spiritual and esoteric currents of adopting various conspiracy narratives that come their way. It can be 5G this day, can be a vaccination the other day. It can be the election was stolen the next day. So these are two kind of things that are related, I think, but needs to be separated analytically.
But if we start with this term, conspirituality, which was coined pretty exactly 10 years ago by the sociologist of religion David Voas and Charlotte Ward, the idea there is to catch this confluence that we seem to see between kind of new age spirituality and conspiracy theories, which most people talk about conspirituality have conceived of this as something novel, something new that's related to the internet age, perhaps.
And also that is a surprising phenomenon, because isn't new age supposed to be all love and peace and femininely coded sort of values? And we see conspiracy theories to be this hard, right-wing weapon, gun-toting kind of thing. And so how could this milieus find together? Well, I think that's the wrong way to look at it. But if you start just with the first point about it being a novel thing, so I don't think it's new. I don't think it's surprising either.
But to get to why it's not new is that we have lots of earlier examples of conspiracy theories being articulated in this occultist, esoteric milieu. So at least from the 19th century and forwards. So you can think about-- so within the Theosophical Society and theosophists, for example, were fond of seeing Jesuits as being behind all sorts of things that they didn't like. And including, also, competitors, actually. Other cultists were running the errands of the Jesuits.
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, we talk about people being agents of [INAUDIBLE] and would connect this, among other things, to vaccines. And quite recently, I came across this that when the smallpox vaccines were rolled out in Britain in the 19th century and were made mandatory as well, some-- well, a group of people that were central in staging sort of the anti-vaccination campaign back then, were Swedenborgians, so members of the Swedenborgian community.
And they were also building up their case against vaccines, partially on spiritual grounds, but also talking about a conspiracy of doctors and government and vaccine producers that are only in it for the money. Sounds familiar. And also, promoting alternative health advice, that you should just-- dismissing the germ theory of disease, also, as a part of this. So quite a lot sort of interesting synergies with things that we have seen more recently, but it's always been there.
And then there's lots of other things you could talk about as well, of course. So it's clearly not a new phenomenon in that sense. But if we don't get to this conspirituality theme, again, I mean as a full-blown system and examples of that. I mean, the typical examples that we've been mentioned about this are almost famous, the British author David Icke, former goalkeeper for the soccer team-- was it Coventry, I think, he played for, before he became a journalist and then a spokesperson for the Green Party.
And then discovered spirituality and then developed these conspiracy theories, gradually, also over time, that came to have this idea that we are controlled by, basically, reptiles from outer space that are also Satanists and they're shapeshifters and they are our leaders and business leaders and religious leaders and so on. They are shapeshifting reptiles.
But another example that may be interesting right now is David Wilcock, who is also a name that's been in the New Age scene for a long time. He's been claiming that is a reincarnation of Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet, and had lots of clairvoyant dreams and messages, [? mediumistic ?] messages, that sort of thing.
Got into a UFO cover up conspiracy theories, and more recently, during 2020, so during last year, the first part of the pandemic, he seemed to embrace QAnon conspiracy theories and actually had his own spin on that saying that he himself had a separate insider in the White House that was giving him messages about how the deep state is going to be combated by Trump and you're going to have-- the lockdown is going to lead to this kind of rooting out of the-- yeah, sex trafficking, pedophile ring, and all that stuff as well. So--
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Yeah.
EGIL ASPREM: --you do have the example-- Yeah sorry. Yeah.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: No, no. Yeah, of course, we all think about QAnon when we think about conspiracy theories today and in particular, conspiracy theories and politics. So I don't know, what do you think of the possible relationship between esotericism and politics before moving, maybe, to an analysis of what you think about QAnon and what you wrote, actually, about it?
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah. Well, so yeah, go into politics right away. So yeah, well, there too you have to say that it's a complicated relationship, right? So again, a one liner, as a terrorism doesn't have a single political color. It's not red or blue, it's not right or left. It can be all these things. But again, since esotericism is an umbrella concept that covers so many different kinds of groups and currents, it would be strange to think that everybody ended up with the same politics.
And it's always been this way. You have different currents that slant in different directions. I think one thing that has been striking over the last five years or so, just to start from today, has been that esoteric milieus have been susceptible to the very same kind of polarization of politics and society that you see more generally. So I've been looking at some esoteric movements such as Thelema, for example, the religion that was established by Aleister Crowley in the early 20th century associated with the Ordo Templi Orientis and so on.
So in this community, there's also been-- at times, you've been wondering if the whole religion is going to split into some schism on following, basically, political partisan lines. Because you see such a strong polarization, which is basically trickling down directly from national politics, but then also leading to interpretations of the religion in terms of this and trying to look for ways to legitimize politics in terms of your religion.
This is no different from other religions, though, of course. But so, it's been an interesting thing to watch. Although sad, of course. When it comes-- I think you asked if it differs from the past. Now, this polarization thing is, of course, something characteristic of our age in some way. But I think it's important to note that esotericism has often had various political connections right off from the start.
At least, if you say from the start, meaning of cultism in the 19th century as I explained earlier. Because those French occultists that first started using the term esotericism and also occultism, they sprung out of a utopian socialist milieu. So socialism, I'm talking about pre-Marx. So at the time when socialism was very much Christian, very much religiously-oriented, was wedded with religion, they wanted to see a union of religion and science, and they wanted to build a new society that's also built on tradition and hierarchy and harmony.
So you have this connection. And so that's also radically political movement in which much of the-- what the occultism came out of. And then, of course, it's branched off in many different directions. But if it returned to the theosophists again, for example, I mean they are known to have also been connected with things like the workers rights movements, with feminism, with anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, home rule in India and in Ireland as well. But then also, theosophy has split off into Ariosophy and esoteric racism and Nazi occultism, so it can go in many different directions with this stuff.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Now, I understand. And you mentioned, briefly, it's not a right or left movement. And the thing I immediately think about, at least, I work in Southern Europe, so I think about populism. Often, it is said populism is something that is beyond left and right and that therefore, more difficult to study in many ways. What do you think, if there is any about the relationship between populism, instead, and specifically esotericism.
EGIL ASPREM: Right. Yeah, it's a very interesting question, I think. And well, so again, the connection that we can see, I think, is sort of, again, despite its elitist pretensions about esotericism. After all, I mean knowledge for select group or whatever and the secrets and so on. Despite that, there are some characteristics with populism that are shared. And I would see that more in precisely this opposition to establishment knowledge and bringing alternatives. This more individualistic epistemology of it as well, maybe, that you shouldn't find-- you shouldn't just take what is given to you in terms of knowledge, you should do what is right for you and you should believe in what is right for you and truth is an intuitive concept, that kind of stuff, which can have some connections to populist rhetoric.
But at the same time, though, I think many forms of esotericism are also elitist in a more decidedly non-populist way. So in a sense that it's not just the establishment that's wrong, it's also wanting to take a stance against the mainstream. And so if you think about populism defined as somebody claiming to be speaking for the people, for the masses, then that's not necessarily the normal thing to see in esoteric areas.
But of course, I mean, it's a complicated relationship and maybe this is, again, something getting back to conspiracy theories, that when you have conspiracy theories in esoteric milieus that are also very much connected to populism, then that can become a bridge between these motives and something to rally around actually, some common enemy. So I think that's something we have seen, actually.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you very much. I have to admit, this was a bit of a self-centered question, because this will be my next research on populism magic in Europe. So I wanted to hear your take on it. So I apologize for the public. But I have some questions from my students, actually. We read your 2020 article in Nova Religio titled "The Magic Theory Of Politics, Means, Magic, and Enchantment of Social Forces in the American Magic War."
We read it in the class of magic I'm teaching. We loved it, and we all find it useful to better understand our current political situation. Do you think it's still relevant today, and you believe you can summarize a little bit what you were saying and if you have thoughts on it. Then I have specific questions, actually, from my students. Let's start from this.
EGIL ASPREM: Exactly. Well, so great. Well, I'm happy that you found something of interest and relevance in it. As you said, I mean, it was written-- well, it came out last year, but it was actually written back in 2017. So this is what can happen with publication, like, also. So a lot has happened since then. I mean, the article was trying to-- well, it was describing a situation that emerged in the wake of, and also the buildup, towards Trump's election in 2016.
And so in many ways, it's already dated because, also, these things that have changed afterwards. But what I was looking at specifically was that you had this magic war that erupted between, basically, pro and anti-Trump cultists and cult-inclined activists, you could say, on both these sides of the spectrum that were trying to either boost Trump or to hinder him, to topple him in some way through magical means in various ways.
Through rituals, through sigils, but sigils then also used through memes and that sort of stuff. So I was interested in analyzing how this magic war developed, how the belligerent, sort of say, viewed, also, magical efficacy in this political context. Also how this was connected to their political activism in a more normal sense. But on a deeper level, I was also interested in how-- well, and why, also, I think, why the occult can become a political resource in certain contexts as it was here. So under what circumstances and how can we try and explain this. I was trying to look at these questions and searching my way forward a bit.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: I highly recommend it to the public here. I think it's very useful. So some of the students are asking how the groups you are mentioning in this article view the efficacy of the magical writes on the political terrain?
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah, so the short answer to begin with is that it also differs a bit from group to group and also, I think, from individual to individual. But so to recapitulate a little bit, maybe, I was looking at three movements in this that aren't really social movements, in that sense, but maybe movements in a more temporal sense, one following on the other.
So one of them was what I called the cult of Kek, which was sort of a religionization, a magical, slightly jocular religion that was developing from image board culture, so chan culture, 4chan, 8chan, around the Pepe the Frog meme that was being understood as related to the Egyptian God Kek, which is sometimes in iconography seen as a frog and connected with chaos and darkness and all that stuff.
And then that Trump was somehow an avatar of, or at least anointed by, this Kek. And in this context, you got the idea of meme magic, that's by spreading memes you can influence real-world events. Not just through reaching people and influencing their behaviors, but we're also certain texts that were circulating that were describing this in terms of occult concepts such as sigils, sigil magic, but also thought forms that if enough people think about the same thing or get exposed to the same kind of stimuli then it will create like a thought that exists on the astral plane or something like that. And it can, in its turn, have an effect on the world.
So this is a mind over matter type of magical thinking involved. And of course, the problem with that sort of material, though, coming out of this 4chan, 8chan context is that how serious is this, right? It's a milieu that's very much building on jokes, irony and so forth. But also, at the same time, being extremely serious through this. So also, [INAUDIBLE] cult of Kek that they talked about the cult of Kek being a post-ironic religion. So when the jokes have been done so many times that it's actually real.
So I think that's also happening a little bit with the way that magic was being discovered in this context and used. And that this series of efficacy were really discussed in that context, it can have this sort of effect. That in the magic resistance, which was the other-- another group that I looked at, which I think is better known, maybe. Also so this whole rituals to bind Donald Trump, and all those who have backed him stuff.
Originally was published as a blog post by Michael Hughes, occult writer, and then went viral, was picked up by media, and then on social media, and lots of people were joining in there to perform synchronized rituals at every waning crescent moon at midnight to-- well, against Trump and his supporters until he's driven from office.
And in that context, an interesting thing in terms of efficacy is that this Michael Hughes himself has been reasoning along the lines of whether or not magic works in the magical sense of the word. Doesn't really matter because this kind of ritual will have an effect on the social level anyway as galvanizing people of like mind and creating attention to the cause and sort of, yeah, building a protest movement.
But there still is opening the door to that there might be something else. And you see that in other segments, also some criticism of the ritual from pagan circles as well, that is it so wise to share this kind of ritual that also invokes spiritual entities and sharing this with people who have no experience in doing magic from before? They could mess with some serious, seriously dangerous stuff. They shouldn't be doing this.
So you clearly did have those kind of ideas of magical efficacy in terms of spirits intervening, also. And with the-- Yeah.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Go ahead, go ahead, no, no.
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah. Yeah, so this is not sort of the final thing. Because so the cult of Kek, the magic resistance, which of course have happened after the inauguration of Donald Trump. But then it was a magical reaction to the magic resistance as well, which came from more hardcore occult milieus as well. I mean, well actually, a very small group of people who started this coming out of a golden dawn ritual magical context.
Had been Trump supporters for a while before, but were genuinely worried about this magic resistance business and genuinely worried that the witches are trying to, and that they might succeed, in toppling this legitimately elected President with spells and demons and so forth. And so we have to stop this by doing counter spells and getting, also, other people involved like positive thinkers or evangelicals and people on the Christian right that can do prayer meetings and so on to stop this magical current, So they really took the efficacy seriously and took appropriate occult measures to try and stop that and try to build this broad coalition as well, which was interesting.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: I just wanted to add that this, I think, is a prime example of how complicated is the relationship with esotericism and politics today. I have another question from my students. Are there any alliances between magical right and Christian right? If there are, is there anything we can learn about the malleability of conservative American Christian practice and the ongoing traditional but more often in marginalized spaces of the infusion of Christian and magical practice?
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah. Again, I mean so what I just talked about actually, this magical reaction business, that was an actual attempt to create such a connection between the Christian right and occult milieu in terms of defending Trump against the witches. But I'm not so sure how successful that was, actually. I must say though, I have not been following this in any detail, but I'm not aware of any clear connections between explicit sort of occultists and ritual magicians working concerted together with Christians, in that sense.
I don't think it's very big case. It's a very difficult thing to do for the Christian right because of all the demonization of magic, so it's a very tricky boundary to pull down. And so it seems to me, again, I;m getting back to conspiracy theories again. That's actually what's happened after, long after I wrote this, actually around the time I wrote this article, that with the rise of the QAnon movement, here you get a much easier bridge between occult milieus and the Christian right.
And sort of the QAnon movement has, in part, taken over the kind of thing that's the Pepe the Frog cult of Kek milieu when I was doing before. And there might be some of the same demography that's going into that. but it's clearly also reaching out to a whole different crowd. And you've got also Christian online churches devoted to QAnon and interpreting Q drops through the Book of Revelations and vice versa and that kind of stuff.
And here, you do have-- get connections. I mean also, you can see at what happened at Capitol Hill, what kinds of people can manifest on the same streets, which bodies come together. And it seems to me that conspiracy theories were a lot more efficient for making those bridges between communities that have difficulties of finding together along something else than this common adversary, fictive common adversary. So yeah, those are my five cents but--
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: No, I think you just pointed out how the situation is changing very rapidly, much more rapidly probably, the publishing times, let's say, of what we write and study. So I was wondering, since it's-- we have 10 minutes left, more or less, what's your currently working on? Where do you see this type of research like on esotericism and politics going? And is there any topic that you would encourage students to do their interest in these kind of topics, to do their research on?
EGIL ASPREM: All right. Well, I think there's a lot of-- be curious to hear what your students will be picking up next, actually, after reading your course on this. What I'm doing at the moment. So I'm finishing up a lot of older projects-- that's one thing I'm doing-- which includes co-editing yet another book on conspiracy theories and religion, where we do also have one article on the QAnon movement as well, which I'm very happy that we'll get in. I hope we can publish this soon before it's all passe again, so on.
And I'm also I'm also editing, this is a very long-term project, a dictionary on contemporary esotericism, which is also a bit of a, let's say, it's a paradoxical thing, almost, to do, to write a handbook or a dictionary on something contemporary because it moves and changes all the time. But I'm trying, at least, with a team of very competent authors, to get something out there.
But also, I've recently received some funding for a new project that I will start next year. It's a historical project that will go in quite a different direction, actually, for me at least. And we'll be looking at the ways in which the Romani people has been associated with magic in European history. And so there's various aspects to this, but this is one I also-- one focuses more on how this well-known use of discourses on magic as exclusionary practices, how that was central to constructing the Roma as radically other, whether by demonizing them, that they're in league with demons, and so on.
Or [INAUDIBLE] them, enchanted people, so on. We're also casting them as frauds, which you also get later on. So we know this dynamic from European entitliment-- sorry, engagements, with non-European peoples in the colonial context. But we have this little-studied and long-running example in Europe, at home. So to say that's not really been looked at. So that's what I'm going to do.
And then, also, try to get into how some of the practices that were singled out as magical and dangerous, what meaning they actually carried, how they offered means of economic sustenance for largely itinerant groups and so on. But also this means of constant cultural contact in the magical economy of Europe at the time, right? Because this idea that the Roma were accused of spreading superstition, but really they were, to the extent that they were engaging with what would be considered magic, it was servicing a demand that was there in your population, craving magic and playing the role that was ascribed there.
So this is-- yeah, so issues of race and class, but also of gender come into this project, which are quite heavily and so on. So that it will be an exciting project to get started on. I'm really looking forward to it.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: And me too, to read it actually. I think it looks great and also very important in many, many ways.
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah. So that's maybe too-- because I think you also asked about what kind of research I would like to see more of in general in this kind of area based of esotericism and politics and so on. And I think, actually, that this is maybe, also, part of the reason why I came up with this project. That intersectional perspective is really, really important to do more of. Course so for a long time now, we have been doing-- paying attention to gender issues and sexuality and gender and race is starting to pick up some speed as well.
It's taking way too long to critically interrogate race and colonialism instead of esotericism, but it's coming along now. But the dimension of class, that's something that's been almost entirely unexplored in the study of esotericism and I think there's a lot to get there, and especially in this intersectional connection with race and ethnicity and gender. So I think that it's something, actually, that could also help us complicate some of the old binaries between folk and learned magic, for example.
But also, things like, yeah, the idea of establishment, institutions against esoteric, rejected knowledge. What does that mean when the esotericists are actually aristocrats, have nothing to lose. So mainstream versus alternative and all of those dichotomies or binaries that I think we need to complicate. And so intersectional perspective on these issues, I think, would be very helpful.
And that would, of course, connect up to politics in many, many different ways as well. Is this one of the reasons why we recently hear more scholars talking about esotericism rather than Western esotericism, for example. Is this the attempt to make it more intersectional part of this movement. It's related, I think. Yeah. It's a part of it, though I mean the arguments for dropping the Western or at least making that slide into the background or multiple has many ways in which you can argue that point.
But it's definitely a part of it, that we need to interrogate sort of the colonial history of esotericism and how the term has been, and also the practices associated with it, have been connected in this colonial setting where also-- so again, I mean we mentioned this Theosophical Society a few times today, but how their central ideas of practice were shaped in India and also by Indians that have been tended to be written out of the history only to focus on the White people who were there.
So you have got these kinds of things, these kinds of aspects, and the suspicions perhaps that the W in WE doesn't stand only for Western but also for White. So there is definitely an aspect to-- something to that aspect as well.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you for clarifying this. And if I can add my own two cents on perspectives that students could take in the study of this type of topic, I think-- I don't know about your opinion of that, but I think we need more ethnographies we need more anthropologists doing this. What do you think?
EGIL ASPREM: Absolutely. I think I've written an article on that, too, actually, somewhere.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: With Suzanne, I think.
EGIL ASPREM: Which is-- exactly-- which is at Crawford, exactly. So definitely. I mean, interdisciplinarity, the social sciences have been huge. I mean, I'm working a lot with that sort of stuff as well. And yeah, I mean, if you're going to broaden our understanding of, especially, contemporary esotericism how it's lived today and the negotiations and the changes from context to context, then, of course, you need anthropology and ethnography and sociology and so forth.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Yeah, yeah. So I encourage all the students to think about this. And I have a bit of a personal question. I don't know if you want to answer, if you don't, never mind. Which is the-- within your own research, which is the topic, research article, book, whatever that you are most proud of?
EGIL ASPREM: Oh, wow. Yeah, I'm most proud of. Oh, I don't know. I don't know. I'm the kind of-- I mean, I can be, how do you say, like restless in my research a little bit. I finish something and move on to the next thing, and then I get sort of a bit-- yeah.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: We all enjoy this, actually, as readers. So it's not a problem for us.
EGIL ASPREM: Little bit stressed when people want me to come back and talk about what I did a couple of years ago, or maybe just last week, but was actually the result of something. I want to move on to something else. So I don't know. I mean, what I'm most proud of. I mean, yeah. I honestly don't know how to--
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: OK, that's OK. That's OK. It was a personal question. But I just wanted to add, for the audience, another dimension of your work that we didn't quote is your engagement with cognitive sciences and the study-- cognitive science of religion. I don't know if-- we have two minutes. But if you want to say something about this aspect of your work, I think it's an important addition to what we already just mentioned.
EGIL ASPREM: Yeah, exactly. Now, it is something I've been doing, trying to find ways in which we can bridge between kind of historical and also ethnographic studies in esotericism and the emerging cognitive sciences of religion. There's a lot to be said about it. But one aspect that I've been looking most at is to give us some more tools for working with, experience, the experiential dimension.
And again, connecting back to imagination. As you know, I talked a bit about earlier, that I think the imagination is very central to these practices that are related to knowledge, knowledge producing of this special way. Visionary or auditory experiences in which you get knowledge of how it was. And so I written a couple of things on that.
I think that we have a framework emerging in parts of the-- actually, the cognitive neuroscience of perception that can help us understand how we can cultivate the imagination, that imagination is a skill that takes training and learning over time and also has material dimensions to it, which can be utilized in practices that must be lived over time to basically remold and reshape your experience of the world and of your own inner life. And this is something that we see in a lot of esoteric practices, and we can understand this with some of the tools from cognitive science.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: So many thanks, really. I think it's time to wrap up now. Thank you very much, Professor Aprem, for your participation and wonderful conversation. It was very informative and very pleasant. And thank you all for having been with us. Please stay tuned on the activities of the CSWR, of the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative, and of [INAUDIBLE] for the next semester.
You can find all this information on the CSWR website. And thanks again you all, and have a lovely rest of your day and holiday season. Thank you so much.
EGIL ASPREM: Thanks a lot.
GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Bye.
EGIL ASPREM: Bye.
SPEAKER 3: Sponsor, Center for the Study of World Religions.
SPEAKER 1: Copyright 2021, President of Fellows of Harvard College.