I arrived home this week after having the great pleasure of attending the 8th Biannual Conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) at University College Cork, Ireland. The conference brought together scholars examining the intersections of Western Occultism and Creativity. Postponed from last year, 2022 is a commemorative year in Ireland as in 1922, the Irish Free State was founded. During the Revolutionary Period, artists of the Irish Literary Revival or ‘Celtic Twilight’, such as William Butler Yeats, Ella Young, and George Russell, were involved in political movements and nationalist endeavours, as well as being committed occultists. The conference was held by ESSWE, an academic society established in 2005 to advance the study of the various manifestations of Western esotericism from late antiquity to the present, and is an affiliated society of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). It goes without saying I was excited to receive word of my full membership of ESSWE whilst in Cork. Among its activities is the organisation of an international conference every two years. The organiser of ESSWE8 was Dr Jenny Butler, founder (in 2015) of the ESSWE Regional Network, The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism. I congratulate Dr Butler on an excellent job, and for providing a genuinely wonderful experience.
With the exception of a brief trip to the remote Scottish island of Uist in April, international travel has been something I have luckily been able to avoid. Arriving in Cork from Edinburgh, I found the moody dark tones of the hotel’s exterior a comfort. Filled with chrome and smooth concrete contrasted with leather and salvaged oak, wood-burning stoves and vivid carpets, the hotel’s interior was lined in original Irish art (specially commissioned, and completely instagramable) it embodied an impossible to miss retro-fashionability complete with expensive record players and LPs in every room. I spent three days listening to the Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs whilst prepping my paper, completely unable to find anywhere to hang my clothes.
The ESSWE8 Keynote lectures were Prof. Andreas Kilcher, Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), Zurich, with his paper “The Ghost in the Writing: Magic and Mediality in the Story of Faust”. Followed by Dr Claire Nally, Associate Professor, Northumbria University, Department of Humanities: “Ireland’s Funerary Culture and Ancestral Memory: W. B. Yeats’s Early Poetry and Prose”. This keynote considered the influence of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Rosecrucian ritual on Yeats’s early poetry and prose, including The Secret Rose (1897) and The Wind Amongst the Reeds (1899). Through his creation of the ‘Castle of Heroes‘, an invented mystery religion, Yeats experimented with ideas of death and rebirth more commonly associated with his later work in A Vision (1925 and 1937). Finally, Dr Marco Pasi, Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam, Department of Humanities, gave a very entertaining lecture on the “Occulture in Contemporary Art”.
As part of the conference program several events were also on offer. Starting with the opportunity to attend the launch of Professor Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s new book Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (2022) at the University’s Boole Library. Also on display was an original letter by famed Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). An exhibition of work entitled “TeaTime With The Channellers” by musician and artist David Tibet also formed part of the conference program. An English poet and artist Tibet founded the music group Current 93, of which he is the only full-time member. He was given the name “Tibet” by fellow singer-songwriter, musician, poet, performance artist, Genesis P-Orridge (1950-2020).
I was very pleased to be asked to chair Panel 1G ,“The Arts, Practice, Ritual”. A wonderfully enlightening session, it featured Leo Bernard: “Gaston de Mengel and Eutrophy: Arts Education Between Occultism and Life Reform Movement”; Giulio Dalla Grana: “Trails of a Divine Call: Towianism between Painting, Literature, and Rituality”; Magdalena Kraler: ““Farinelli’s Breath”: Nineteenth-century Euro-American Voice Culture, American Delsartism, and Yogic-Occult Prāṇāyāma” and Christian Greer: “The Funkadelic Experience: A Methodological Intervention into the Study of Psychedelic Spirituality.” On Thursday morning, I attended Panel 4A, “Aleister Crowley, The Thelemic Tradition, and the Creative Arts” with Convenors: Manon Hedenborg White & Henrik Bogdan and Respondent: Marco Pasi. Henrik Bogdan presented a lively paper entitled “‘Order Early to avoid Armageddon!’ Aleister Crowley as an Advertiser of the Occult”; Keith Cantú (University of California, Santa Barbara): “A Love Triangle of Art: Aleister, Ananda, and Ratan Devi”, Manon Hedenborg White (Södertörn University): “‘Unfold the Rose and Taste Its Death’: Grief, Desire, and the Hero’s Journey in the Art and Poetry of Cameron” alongside William Peters: “‘The Most Perfect Book in the World’: Aleister Crowley, Oskar Hopfer, and Liber 777”.
My own paper entitled “An Ecstatic Lodge: The Luminous glyphs of the Élus Coëns” was delivered as part of Panel 5G later on Thursday afternoon. The panel also featured Ruslan Khalikov: “Tarot Decks and Tarot-inspired Art in Ukraine” and Richard Mason: “Physical Graffiti: Arthur Edward Waite’s Trinick-Pippet Tarot”. I was grateful for the opportunity to present in front of scholars whose work I deeply admire