Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

Master program

The original MA program in Western esotericism

MA Western Esotericism

History of Hermetic philosophy and related currents. Amsterdam University Netherlands. Our Master program gives students a unique possibility to dive deeper into the history of Western esotericism under the supervision of specialists. The MA comes in a one-year and a two-year variety. In the one-year program students follow elective courses and write a final thesis. The two-year Research MA variety consists of the same electives, but in addition, students can do tutorials with HHP teachers, and have to complete three core courses on method and theory in Religious Studies. They will also conduct independent research for a longer MA thesis. For more information about the religious studies components, please refer to the UvA website or the UvA Course Catalogue 2018-2019. On this page you will find more information about our elective courses on esotericism, available for both one-year and two-year MAs. There are three core modules, covering different historical periods and thematic aspects: Contested Knowledge, Renaissance Esotericism, and Occult Trajectories. Additionally there is a shorter introductory module entitled “Western Esotericism and Its Scholars”. Please note that the three core modules come in two varieties each, taught in alternating years. This alternation makes it possible for Research MA students, specializing in a particular period, to follow two courses on their period over two consecutive years. Thus, for example, someone writing an MA thesis on Renaissance kabbalah might want to follow Renaissance Esotericism I and II, while a candidate researching occultist authors of the 20th century might do Occult Trajectories I and II. All our MA courses are given in seminar form where students interact closely with the instructor and with each other. Through group discussion, powerpoint presentations, book reviews and research papers, students are taught to think and work as independent academic researchers. More than just acquiring specialist knowledge in a cutting-edge field in the humanities, our MA students are thus being prepared for the realities of professional academic life.

Religionism and Historicism (6EC)

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When: 1st semester, block 3 Instructor: Wouter J. Hanegraaff Language of instruction: English Course description: This module is concerned with the notion of historicity and its relation to religious universalism. While modern notions of “religion” typically imply a claim of universal truth and validity grounded in the true nature of reality, a consistent emphasis on historicity implies questioning and relativizing such claims by emphasizing historical specificity, unicity, contingency, contextuality, and unpredictable change. In short, while religion makes general claims about an ultimate truth (e.g. “God”, “the Divine”, “the Absolute”, or “the Sacred”) that by definition cannot be touched by the forces of history and social change, it is in the very nature of historicity to question and undermine such claims. Sooner or later, all students of religion find themselves confronted with this conflict, and have to work out its implications with respect to the very meaning and significance of studying “religion” from an academic point of view. The objective of this course is make students aware of these problematics and experiment with existing attempts at resolving it.  

Download the program of the mini-conference on Tuesday 23 January 2018:

Program Religionism and Historicism 2018

Contested Knowledge (12EC) Theories and Methods in the Study of Esotericism

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When: 1st semester, block 1-2 Instructor: Wouter J. Hanegraaff Language of instruction: English Course description: The study of Western esotericism has been emerging as a new field in the Humanities since the 1990s, and this development is accompanied by a lively debate about questions of method and theory. In this module we will investigate the historical origins and intellectual backgrounds of esotericism research since the period of the Enlightenment, while concentrating on the theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches that have been advocated by its chief representatives after the period of World War II. Special attention will go to the relation between “religionist” scholarship and its implicit spiritual agendas, more sceptical “reductionist” types of research inspired by specific philosophical and social scientific theories, and the “historical/empirical” type of scholarship that has become dominant in recent decades and is central to the program of the University of Amsterdam. Special attention will go to current debates about the cultural/geographical and disciplinary boundaries of “esotericism” as a field of study that problematizes conventional boundaries between religion, philosophy, natural science, popular culture, and the arts.


On Tuesday mornings, 9.00-12.00, Prof. Hanegraaff teaches a lecture course “Western Culture and Counter Culture” in the Bachelor program. Master students in the program Western Esotericism or the Research Master Study of Religion are very welcome to attend this course as auditors, as it will provide them with a useful historical overview from antiquity to the present. While not mandatory, it is recommended to combine the module “Contested Knowledge” with the 6-point module “Religionism and Historicism” (First semester, block 3), which forms a natural extension of it (resulting total: 18 pts). If you plan to do so, you are advised to read the course book Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury: London 2013) already during blocks 1-2. This will help you contextualize the texts and lectures and understand their relevance to Western esotericism as a field of study.

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Study guide Contested Knowledge  

Renaissance Esotericism I & II (12EC)

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When: 1st semester, block 1-2 Instructors: Dr. Peter Forshaw Language of instruction: English Course description: Renaissance Esotericism I: Medieval & Early Modern Alchemy   Alchemy is an important strand in the story of Western esotericism, with roots stretching back to late antiquity in Greco-Roman Alexandria. It first made an appearance in Europe in the twelfth century in the form of Latin translations from Arabic manuscripts, which in its turn had adopted, adapted and transmitted ideas from previous Greek authorities. This course focuses on the Renaissance and Early Modern periods which witnessed a growth of interest in the ‘divine art of alchemy’ due to the advent of printing and the eventual production, in the seventeenth century, of the elaborately illustrated alchemical emblem books that were to provide such a fascination for the psychologist Carl Jung in the twentieth century. During the course we shall consider significant primary texts and examine the arguments of influential voices in the current history of alchemy. We shall become acquainted with various kinds of alchemy, from the medieval interest in gold-making and the enthusiasm for chemical medicine in the sixteenth century to later, controversial notions of ‘spiritual’ alchemy. We shall investigate the way the alchemists communicated their secrets by way of image and text, the claims they made regarding transmutation, the Quintessence, Elixir, and the Philosophers’ Stone, and the relation between alchemy and other esoteric strands such as astrology, cabala and magic. Students will be expected to participate actively in class, present and discuss articles from the reading list, and write an academic paper.  

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Study Guide 2018-2019

Occult Trajectories I & II (12EC)

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When: 2nd semester, block 1-2 Instructor: Dr. Marco Pasi;  Mriganka Mukhopadhyay, MA, MPhil Language of instruction: English Course description Occult Trajectories I : In the last twenty years it has become customary for specialists to define esotericism as “Western.” However, recent debates in the field have raised the question whether the history of esotericism could be better understood in a “global” context. The purpose of this course is to focus on the relationship that esoteric currents and authors since the Enlightenment have had on the one hand with the idea of the “East” in general, and on the other with spiritual traditions coming from non-European lands that were perceived as belonging to the “East.” It will give particular attention to the formation, towards the end of the 19th century, of the concept of “Western esotericism” as distinct from, and even opposed to, eastern forms of esoteric tradition. This process will be contrasted with the development of the Theosophical Society, which became a “global player” from an early point on. Students are expected to deliver presentations based on the reading material, to participate actively in the discussions, and to write a final paper.

Download the study guide:

study guide