The study of Western esotericism has become an established subfield of religious studies in the last fifteen years (see Hanegraaff 2001; 2004; Hanegraaff et al. 2005). However, the field has almost exclusively been focused on historical research of esoteric spirituality before the 20th century, and studies employing sociological perspectives on contemporary esotericism are as good as nonexistent. In this article I will discuss the aspect of transnationalization in a specific development of contemporary esotericism, namely the Left-Hand Path.
Before discussing Left-Hand Path spirituality and the specifics of late modern esotericism, a few words on Western esotericism itself are in order. In simplification Western esotericism can be defined as a collection of spiritual practices and ideas set in a common form of thought (see Faivre 1998: 2). The identifying characteristics of esotericism are, according to Antoine Faivre (1994: 10-15):
In addition to these four intrinsic characteristics, two further common but non-essential features are often found in esotericism. These are:
Faivre’s definition has been criticized on the grounds that it does not take into account the change of esotericism over time, and it is true that the characteristics are derived from a rather limited historical source material. Kocku von Stuckrad has suggested an alternative (Stuckrad 2005a; 2005b). According to Stuckrad, esotericism should be regarded a structural element in Western religious history, identified by discourses of claims of higher knowledge, and of ways of accessing higher knowledge. Stuckrad agrees with Faivre on the notion that esoteric spiritualities often assume a monistic worldview, and that mediation by higher beings and personal experience are the main paths to esoteric knowledge.
What is the Left-Hand Path?
I propose the Left-Hand Path as an etic category in the study of esotericism. This etic category is based on emic terminology and self-identification, but bound in scholarly research and academic discourse. The etic category of Left-Hand Path can naturally not encompass all the different emic understandings of various different groups and individuals who employ the term as a self-identification, nor is it meant to. Thus, one should not make the mistake of equating the etic term Left-Hand Path with the emic one.
Left-Hand Path spiritualities have a strong heritage in ceremonial magic as developed by the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn, and can be seen as surfacing in west in the later part of the 20th century. The common characteristics of Left-Hand Path spiritualities include:
Examples of Left-Hand Path magic orders are:
Left-Hand Path spiritualities and Late Modernity
Although late modern esotericism can be regarded as further accentuations of the transformation of post-Enlightenment esotericism (see Hanegraaff 1996; 2003), I feel that there is merit in identifying the specifics of these late modern developments. According to Wouter J. Hanegraaff (1996) post-Enlightenment, secularized esotericism, is characterized by, among other things; a disenchantment of nature and the ensuing adoption of scientific discourse, a broadening of the scope of influence to include non-Western cultures, and evolutionary paradigms which envelop both social and individual dimensions.
Late modern developments of esotericism, or “post-secular” esotericism (Granholm fortcoming b), are characterized by, among other things;
In this text I will focus on the third of these characteristics.
Transnational Connections and Translocality
Drawing on Michael Peter Smith’s work (2001) I use the term transnational to describe social relations which transcend nation state boundaries, but are still located in specific nation states. This highlights the locality of social relations and practices, often forgotten or downplayed with the use of the terms global and globalization. The problem with the theories on globalization is that they often create dichotomies of global and local, so that these two dimensions are regarded as essentially distinct (Smith 2001: 157). In the traditional views of globalization the global sphere often emerges as a discorporate, free-floating “space of flows” (Smith 2001: 3). I believe that acknowledging the local anchoring of social practices and relations which are transnational in character makes for a sounder theoretical base.
The term transocality then, again drawing on Smith’s work, emerges as a key concept, and refers to the connections between various localities or shortly the relations of local to local (Smith 2001: 169). Translocality signals historically specific processes which are bound in originating localities and their destinations. Transnational actors operate in complex networks in which each specific locality affects, and is affected by, the other localities in the network.
Translocality is evident in several of the Left-Hand Path groups I have studied. The web pages of Dragon Rouge are viewable in ten languages: English, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Russian, and Czech. Other Left-Hand Path orders are not quite as versatile, but still have material in several languages. Beside English which is as good as always present as the contemporary Lingua Franca - for example Finnish (Temple of Set, Rune-Gild, Church of Satan), Swedish (Church of Satan), Croatian (Church of Satan), French (Church of Satan), Spanish (Church of Satan), and German (Church of Satan). A “global” attitude would be represented by simply displaying the web pages in the universal language of English. The presence of several local languages clearly displays the importance attributed to cater for different nationalities/language groups, and thus different localities.
The dissemination of material in local flavors is evident in the publication of literature conducted in the groups as well. The Satanic Bible (LaVey 1969) of the Church of Satan is perhaps the clearest example. This book has been issued in at least five different languages, the last being in Finnish (albeit by parties not connected to the Church of Satan). The publications of other Left-Hand Path groups are available in several different languages as well. The books by the founder of Dragon Rouge (Karlsson 2002; 2004; 2006), Thomas Karlsson, have quite consistently been issued in Swedish, English and German. Italian versions have been issued as well. The book Vasemman käden polku (The Left-Hand Path), by Finnish Temple of Set member Tapio Kotkavuori, was originally published in Finnish in 2004, and has recently been translated into English (Kotkavuori 2007). The books by Edred Thorsson, the founder of Rune-Gild, are mostly available only in English, but a book published in Finnish, Riimujen viisaus, was written and published by Finnish Rune-Gild member Ensio Kataja in 2005 (Kataja 2005). When considering the relatively small size of Left-Hand Path magic orders, the two biggest groups Dragon Rouge and Temple of Set not exceeding a membership of more than 400, it is fascinating that this amount of energy is put into catering for various localities and reaching new markets. Of course, this demonstrates, and is indeed made economically possibly, by the fact that the treatises of Left-Hand Path magicians are compelling for people not officially connected to these groups.
The fact that different localities add to the transnational networks of various Left-Hand Path groups is apparent when taking a look at the local branches of the groups. Most of the organizations I have studied are administered from one specific central locality (Stockholm, Sweden, for Dragon Rouge. Texas, USA, for Rune-Gild. California, USA, for the Temple of Set. New York, USA, for the Church of Satan). Beside the central administration, most of the movements have local groups (Lodges and Ritual Groups in Dragon Rouge, Pylons [and elements and orders] in the Temple of Set, the Church of Satan has many individual actors). Each one of these specific localities adds to the whole, and while all localities can clearly be identified as parts of a common transnational community, there are local variations. In Dragon Rouge, occultism with a distinctly Polish flavor has been provided by Lodge Magdan in Poland, magic focusing on Germanic traditions from the groups in Germany, and treatment of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, by the Finnish ritual group. The Old Norse focus, an approach developed by the mother-order in Stockholm, has been disseminated in all local groups of the order. The situation is fairly similar in the Temple of Set, which has a large number of local groups, called Pylons, in various localities around the world. Rune-Gild is somewhat different, as the focus of the movement is strictly Germanic rune magic, but even here different localities add to the whole, albeit in a less colorful/eclectic fashion.
Going back to the issue of the Internet, it has surfaced as an important (and fast, efficient, economical) means of communication, contact and arena for furthering one’s ideas (as well as marketing). All groups (of the ones mentioned) have Internet web pages which are accessible to non-members. Dragon Rouge has attributed great significance to the Internet as a means of reaching members outside Sweden, and if asked, this would probably be the case for a majority of the other groups as well. At least the Temple of Set and Dragon Rouge have internal bulletin boards and posting lists. Members of the groups are very active on these forums, and they may be regarded as the main place where many members keep in contact. Both of the aforementioned orders have advanced members-only Intranets as well. The Crystal Tablets of the Temple of Set, which contain material for members of the different degrees, are distributed in electronic form, and updates are downloadable on the Temple of Set Intranet. Dragon Rouge has a photo album, electronic library, and web shop available on a members-only section of its web page.
Thus far, the study of Western esotericism has mainly had a strong historical slant. I feel that it now is time to add sociological perspectives to the existing historical ones, and venture into research on contemporary expressions of esotericism. I believe that by utilizing sociological theories more comprehensive understandings of both contemporary and historical esotericism can be arrived at.
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