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REL 275 Course Description

Prof. Arthur Versluis

Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism


Office: 269 Bessey Hall; Classroom: 114 Bessey, MW 10:20-11:40 a.m.; Office Hours MW 1:15-2:45 p.m. and by appointment.

Telephone: 517.355.3282 Email: versluis@msu.edu

Spring Semester, 2008


         Welcome to Religious Studies 275, first of only a few courses on Western esoteric traditions taught in the United States. The word "esoteric" traditionally refers to spiritual, initiatory, or inner knowledge. Our primary emphasis in this course will be the scholarly investigation of Western esoteric spiritual traditions. Western esoteric traditions are of a remarkable variety, ranging from Gnosticism and Hermeticism to alchemy, magic, Christian mysticism, Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and other secret or semi-secret societies. Because of the immense range of material we have to cover, this course is arranged chronologically from antiquity to the modern era.

         Investigation in this field is by nature transdisciplinary, drawing upon such diverse disciplines as history, religious studies, and literature, without belonging solely to any of these. I will not insist on any particular methodological approach to the study of esoteric traditions, but I do discourage reductionism - that is, the denigration rather than the study of esoteric traditions or figures. The scholarly study of esotericism as a field is still relatively new, and I encourage a variety of approaches to this rich field of inquiry as well as open discussion of methodological differences, while bearing in mind our common aim of broadening and deepening our understanding of the vast range of esoteric works and figures.

         Although this is a relatively large class, I would like us to maintain contact, particularly when, later in the semester, you begin working on your individual projects. These projects, like this course as a whole, are innovative. Although you may want to write a research paper, another possibility for the final project is to research and introduce a written selection from a major or lesser-known esoteric figure or work.  For now, it's enough to note that this course is highly unusual not only in its subject matter but in our innovative ways of using technology to support our investigations.




***This class is cumulative, so grades given later in the course are more important than those given at the beginning. We'll talk further about grades during the course. Final grades are based on 1) paper grades (40%) 2) in-class writing, assignments, presentation, and tests(45%) 3) class participation [see attendance note below] (15%). Students must turn in all major assignments for the course. The in-class writing portion of final grading includes quizzes, midterm writing and the final exam.


Recommended Texts:

Nag Hammadi Library, (Harper)


Required Texts:

Versluis, Magic and Mysticism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007)

Versluis, Wisdom’s Book (Paragon House, 2000)

Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, (SUNY, 1995)


Online Texts:

Nag Hammadi Library

Dionysius the Areopagite, Selections

Meister Eckhart, Selections

H. C. Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia

The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

and many others

We will be using the web extensively for this course. If you do not want to read excerpts from the Nag Hammadi Library, for instance, on a computer screen, you can a) purchase a copy of the book, or b) print out selections downloaded from the web.  But you will need access to the web and to a reliable printer throughout the semester.


Attendance and Participation:

***Attendance and participation (to the extent possible in a large class) are mandatory. If you miss one or no classes, you receive an "A" for attendance; if you miss two classses, you receive a "B" for attendance. If you miss three or four classes, your grade will drop by 1; if you miss five classes, your grade will drop by 2 points; if you miss six or more classes, you fail the course. Attendance is especially important here because it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to recapture the kind of material we cover in class. We will be using illustrations frequently, as well as rare texts both from the Web and from my own collection.



***Late papers--and lateness to class--are unacceptable. The first is unfair to me; the second is unfair to the class. Habitual lateness will lower your grade.  Three times late is equal to one absence.



***If you plagiarize--using other people’s words or ideas without acknowledgement--your paper will receive an automatic F. You may also fail the course, and a letter of reprimand will be sent to the Dean of your College. In brief: don't even think about it.



***I'll meet individually with as many people as possible before and after class and in office hours. Talk to me: give me suggestions for the course, discuss possible topics, tell me what’s going on. You can also contact me by email at versluis@msu.edu




*** We will write two formal, supported expository essays with clear, sustained, and supported theses, and one short analytical paper. Our goals are first, accuracy and clarity of expression, and second, a clear, logically supported and documented argument. The second of these will be a web project as well.

***Each essay you write for this course will be typed in its final and rough drafts; each final draft will be accompanied by a previous draft, on which will be scrawled suggestions, revisions and expansions. No final drafts will be accepted without at least one accompanying prior draft.

***Topics are always your own choice, (within the guidelines of particular assignments).





Short Syllabus


Seeds and Roots

Section 1: Antiquity

Methodology, The Mysteries, Gnosticism, Hermetism, Dionysius the Areopagite, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo

Major Readings from Nag Hammadi Library and Dionysius the Areopagite


Section 2: Medieval Period

Mysticism: Eckhart, Tauler, Kabbalah; Magic: Trithemius, Agrippa

Major Readings from Eckhart, Tauler, Agrippa, and Essential Kabbalah


The Modern Flowering

Section 3: Early Modern Period

Alchemy, Paracelsus, Jacob Böhme and Christian theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry

Major Readings from The Hermetic Museum, Wisdom's Book, The Chemical Wedding


Section 4: The Modern Period

Alchemy, Christian theosophy, the emergence of modern esoteric groups


Scheduled Final Exam Time:

Friday, May 2, 10 a.m. – noon, in 114 Bessey


Tentative Full Syllabus

This syllabus is not fixed in stone; it is meant to give a general indication of topics, and will be changed according to our needs.

Specific reading assignments will be given at the beginning of each class for the following class day(s).



M I/7

Introduction to subject area; begin reading Magic and Mysticism.



W I/9

Discuss methods of approach, Mystery Religions (Apuleius, Isis); Egyptian mysteries; "Egyptian Hermes;" Hermetism; start reading in Nag Hammadi


M I/14

Views of Gnosticism: Church Fathers, Arnold, Jonas, Rudolph, Problematic nature of "Gnosticism;" Nag Hammadi Library; Hobgood-Oster article


W I/16

Gnosticism continued: Nag Hammadi Library, Valentinus, Basilides, “Thunder, Perfect Mind”


W I/23

“Orthodox gnosis”: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius the Areopagite, Nag Hammadi Library


M I/28

Gnosticism; Influence of Dionysius the Areopagite; Platonism and Neoplatonism; Rough draft of paper on Gnosticism.


W I/30

Transition to medieval period: Scholasticism and medieval mysticism; Meister Eckhart and the via negativa. 



M II/4

Eckhart and Tauler; Brethren of the Free Spirit; heresy and orthodoxy; Final draft of paper on Gnosticism.


W II/6

Hildegard of Bingen; visionary mysticism; the Cathars and other heretical movements.


M II/11

Medieval Magical Traditions; Witchcraft and folk traditions; Read Fanger article


W II/13

John of Morigny, Trithemius, Agrippa, late medieval magic and witchcraft


M II/18

Agrippa in depth; more on Trithemius; begin Kabbalah and Renaissance.  Website analysis rough draft.


W II/20

Witchcraft; Renaissance Neoplatonism (Ficino and Pico); Kabbalah.


M II/25

The emergence of Kabbalism; Kabbalistic concepts and history.

Website analysis final draft.


W II/27

More on Kabbalah: Reuchlin and the early modern period; Dee and Bruno; Begin reading alchemical works, including Paracelsus.


Spring Break


M III/10

Alchemy and the early modern period: Paracelsus, Weigel; early modern ambience; Hermetic Museum; begin reading Wisdom's Book



W III/12

Böhme and Wisdom's Book


M III/17

Wisdom's Book; Böhme and the theosophic tradition: Germany, England, America.  Wisdom’s Book and Chemical Wedding


W III/19

Early American esotericism: Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry; Chemical Wedding


M III/24

Chemical Wedding and Rosicrucianism; Sophanic tradition; union of magic and mysticism


W III/26

Emerson and American Transcendentalism; the American Renaissance; American folk traditions


M III/31

American and Europe: P.B. Randolph; emergence of modern magical traditions; American folk magic (Richards)


W IV/2

Emergence of modern esoteric groups: Golden Dawn, Yeats, Crowley; Freemasonry


M IV/7

C.S. Lewis, Dion Fortune, Crowley/ Begin Merrell-Wolff; initial drafts of final paper due.


W IV/9

The New Age; Bernadette Roberts; Traditionalism; Merrell-Wolff


M IV/14

 New religious movements and mysticism; chaos magic; Merrell-Wolff.


W IV/16

New religious movements and mysticism; chaos magic; Merrell-Wolff; Final drafts of final paper due.


M IV/21

Review and conclusions.


W IV/23

In-class writing


Scheduled Final Exam Time:

Friday, May 2, 10 a.m. – noon, in 114 Bessey