This lecture was first given under the title “Entheogenic Esotericism” at the First International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism, Stockholm University 2012 (link to video). The text has been published in Egil Asprem & Kennet Granholm (eds.), Contemporary Esotericism, Equinox 2013, 392-409.
Contemporary esotericism is replete with references to impressive “mystical” or visionary experiences, which are typically credited with having radically changed people’s lives by bringing them into contact with a “spiritual” dimension of reality. Given the widely acknowledged fact that the contemporary neo-esoteric revival has its historical roots in the 1960s, known for its widespread experimentation with psychoactive substances such as LSD, it is remarkable how rarely specialists in this domain (including the speaker himself, in his 1996 monograph on the New Age) have seen this dimension as relevant at all.
In my lecture I will argue that widespread experimentation with psychoactive or “entheogenic” substances is a significant factor in contemporary esotericism and should be given more attention by scholars. With some notable exceptions, such as Terence McKenna, Daniel Pinchbeck, or Alex Grey, esoteric authors and spokes(wo)men have tended to play down or deny this dimension, especially after the beginning of the “war on drugs” around 1970, and on the whole, scholars have been somewhat naïve in taking such emic denials at face value. Especially since “higher knowledge” or “gnosis” is widely seen as an important aspect of Western esotericism, the widespread claim that it may be attained or facilitated by psychoactive substances must be taken seriously in the study of contemporary esotericism.
About Wouter Hanegraaff:
Wouter J. Hanegraaff is Professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, President of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE; see esswe.org), and a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Leiden 1996/ Albany 1998); Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents (Tempe 2005; with Ruud M. Bouthoorn); Swedenborg, Oetinger, Kant: Three Perspectives on the Secrets of Heaven (West Chester 2007), and numerous articles in academic journals and collective volumes. His forthcoming monograph Esotericism and the Academy will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2012.