Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

Master program

The original MA program in esotericism

MA Spirituality and Esotericism in Western Culture (Spirituality and Religion)

Our Master programme gives students a unique possibility to dive deeper into the history of esotericism under the supervision of specialists in the field.

The MA comes in two varieties, one lasting a single year and the second lasting two years. In the one-year program, students follow core and elective courses, and write a final thesis. The two-year Research MA includes the same electives, but has additional core courses in Religious Studies. In addition, students can take individualized tutorials with HHP teachers and will 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.

On this page you will find more information about our elective courses on esotericism available for both the one-year and two-year MA programs.

There are three core courses on various aspects of the study of spirituality, religion, and esotericism; and then four electives, covering different historical periods and themes : Platonic Underworlds (focusing on Antiquity), Islamic Esotericism and its Medieval Legacies (Middle Ages), Renaissance Esotericism (early modern period), and Occult Trajectories (modern and contemporary period). Please note that the thematic focus of the four electives is never the same from one year to the next. This alternation makes it possible for Research MA students specializing in a particular period to follow two different courses from the same teacher on their period over two consecutive years. Thus, for example, someone writing an MA thesis on Renaissance kabbalah might want to follow Renaissance Esotericism twice without repeating the same course. Apart from the four basic electives mentioned above, the HHP Centre may also offer additional electives on other areas of research related to esotericism (for instance we currently offer an elective on Sufism and Islamic esotericism).

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 learn to work as independent thinkers, capable of creative and self-directed research. More than simply acquiring specialist knowledge in a cutting-edge field in the humanities, our MA students are thus prepared for the realities of professional life.

MA courses

When: 1st semester, block 1
Instructors: Dr. Marco Pasi and Dr. W.J. Hanegraaff
Language of instruction: English

Course description :

This is one of the core courses for the MA program “Spirituality and Religion.” It provides an introduction to the most important concepts, debates, methods, and theories in the academic study of religion, with particular attention to the relationship between religion and spirituality. Chief focuses of attention are the relevant terminologies in this field of study and the debates around them (e. g. “religion,” “spirituality,” “esotericism,” “mysticism,” “myth,” “symbol,” “ritual”); what is at stake in academic discussions about “Western” perspectives on religion/spirituality and their alternatives; the relation between institutional and doctrinal forms of “religion” and more individual and praxis-oriented types of “spirituality”; the importance in this context of apologetics and polemics; and how to combine interdisciplinary approaches with methodologies specific for (intellectual) history, the social sciences, and the study of literature, the arts, and popular culture.

Remarks:
Students are welcome to participate as auditors (on a voluntary basis, no examination) in the lecture course Western Culture and Counter Culture (W.J. Hanegraaff, Tuesdays, 9-12.00). This course provides a broad overview of Western culture from antiquity to the present that will help place the topic of “religion and spirituality” in its broader historical context.

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Study guide 2020-2021

When: 1st semester, block 2
Instructor: Dr. W.J. Hanegraaff
Language of instruction: English

Course description:

This is one of the core courses for the MA program “Spirituality and Religion.” It provides an introduction to the study of Western Esotericism with an emphasis on spirituality (defined as individualized experiential praxis). In the context of the Master program, esotericism is understood as an umbrella term that covers a great variety of traditions, ideas, and practices in Western culture that have tended to be neglected, marginalized or suppressed by dominant theological, philosophical, and scientific ideologies in the academy and Western society. The course will provide a general overview of the nature and historical manifestations of Western esotericism, the chief theoretical debates that are relevant to this field of research, and their methodological implications.

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Study guide 2020-2021

When: 1st semester, block 1
Instructor: Dr. Dylan Burns
Language of instruction: English 

Course description: 

The ideas associated with individuals in the ancient Roman Empire who called themselves “knowers” (gnōstikoi)—ideas today sometimes called “Gnosticism”—were considered dangerous by the proto-orthodox churches. The works containing these ideas are also some of the most relevant and fascinating ancient Christian works known today. This course introduces students to ancient Gnostic literature. It focuses on close reading of ancient Gnostic texts and heresiographical reports about the Gnostics, in English translation, along with relevant introductory secondary literature. Texts read will include the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Truth, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as the testimonies of the ancient opponents of the Gnostics. The secondary literature will focus on two themes: the proximity of ancient Gnostic literature to Greek philosophy, and the reception of Gnostic literature. Students will thus read not only about Gnosticism, but secondary literature on later Platonist theories of creation, number-theory, and language. They will also explore receptions of Gnostic literature by Manichaeans, Mandaeans, Jorge Luis Borges, and contemporary musicians, as well as controversies over recently published and forged ‘Gnostic’ gospels, such as the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

When: 1st semester, block 2
Instructor: Dr. Liana Saif
Language of instruction: English 

Course description:

This course offers a deep dive into the medieval developments of esoteric thought and practices between the ninth and thirteenth century. Focus is given to the “Islamic World” and Latin Europe, considering the rich and long-established entanglements between these contexts. We investigate the intellectual and socio-political circumstances that affected the ways these ideas were fostered. We look at the esoteric currents, mystics, and philosophers whose influential works promoted and developed ideas about union with the Divine, the occult sciences (magic, astrology, divination, alchemy), the attainment of hidden knowledge of nature, the cosmos and scripture. To better understand these developments, students will learn about the assimilation of ancient knowledge, the development of Sufism, translation movements in the Islamic world and Europe, and medieval Christian mystical philosophy. Moreover, in this course, students will learn to critically assess the ways the study of esotericism, especially Sufism, has been positioned by scholars, such as Henry Corbin, and the Traditionalists whose approaches and assumptions have a continuing influence on narratives about medieval esotericism in general and Islamic esotericism in particular. The category of “religion” will be historicised to better understand how esotericism has been conceptualised in the study of the medieval European and Islamic contexts.

When: 2nd semester, block 1
Instructor: Dr. Peter Forshaw
Language of instruction: English

Course description:

Renaissance Esotericism I: History of 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.

Renaissance Esotericism II: Occult Philosophies

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s On Occult Philosophy (1533) is the best-known Renaissance encyclopedia of magic. Its syncretic mixture of material drawn from medieval grimoires, from classical antiquity and from sources new to the Christian West, such as the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, is an invaluable resource for our understanding of early modern occult philosophy and modern occultism. In this module we shall investigate Philosophia occulta, an important current of Western esotericism, considering the various kinds of knowledge and experience that participate in Renaissance ideas of magic. Ranging through the natural, celestial and divine realms (and, for example, the related natural, astral and ritual magic), we shall examine some of the sciences and philosophies and encounter some of the significant figures that contributed to its development. We shall amplify Agrippa’s writings with material drawn from other influential contemporary sources and conclude the module with sessions on subsequent esoteric approaches that display affinities with his occult philosophy.

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Study Guide 2021-2022

When: 2nd semester, block 1-2
Instructor: Dr. Marco Pasi
Language of instruction
: English

Course description:

Occult Trajectories focuses on different aspects of the history of western esotericism in the modern period, from the eighteenth century up to the present days. The aim is to follow both the internal development, understood from the specific perspective of the field, and the broader cultural context in which western esotericism has taken shape, in order to understand both the inside logics of esotericism and its responses to external social pressure. Every year a different theme is chosen that offers a unique entry point in this historical development.

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Study guide

When: 2nd semester, block 1
Instructor: Dr. L. Saif
Language of instruction: English

Course description:

This course takes a comprehensive look at the development of Islamic esoteric currents from the medieval period to the modern day, including and beyond Sufism. Special focus is given to the transference of Islamic esoteric practices, concepts, and structures to the so-called “West” and their co-opting and refashioning. Students will get acquainted with the history of the conceptualisation of esotericism (bāṭiniyya) in Islam and the different religious, cultural discourses within which Islamic esotericism was/is negotiated and circumscribed, including within the contexts of colonialism, the construction of Modernity and Western identity, and globalisation. To this purpose, we will look at the entanglement of Islamic esotericism, and Sufism especially, with the Traditionalist School and the New Age and their strategies of perennialization. Students will critically engage with the ways in which the study of Islam and Islamic esotericism have been positioned by scholars, such as Henry Corbin, whose approaches and assumptions have a continuing influence on narratives about Islamic esotericism: a living and thriving tradition.

Download the study guide:

Study guide 2021-2022

Start getting your Master now

The HHP Centre is fully integrated in the University of Amsterdam’s educational system. This means that in order to enroll in our teaching programs you have to go through the normal channels of the UvA’s Faculty of Humanities. The international MA programs are handled by the Graduate School of Humanities. Questions about how to apply should always be addressed to the appropriate office. The one-year variety is listed in the course catalog as “Spirituality and Religion (Theology and Religious Studies)”. The two-year option is listed in the catalogue as  “Religious Studies (Theology & Religious Studies (research))”.

How to apply for our Master programs

Studying at HHP

The HHP Centre is currently the only institute in the world to offer a complete academic specialism in the study of esotericism, from the BA to the PhD level.

Taught by leading specialists in the field, our study programme offers a unique opportunity for students to be at the vanguard of a new and exciting development in the study of religion and culture. Learn more about our unique programme in the study of esotericism

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