Tag Archives: Olav Hammer

Claiming Knowledge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age by Olav Hammer.

Hammer Claiming Knowledge

Author Olav Hammer doesn’t seem awfully sympathetic to his subject matter in this turn-of-the-millennium volume, and often appears to be making a somewhat strenuous effort not to call New Age believers a pack of idiots and frauds. He insists, though, that “truth claims” (i.e. factual validity of doctrine) are incidental to his main investigation in this book, which is trained on textual primary materials produced by modern proponents of esoteric religions. (He is very much standing on the shoulders of Wouter Hanegraaff, whose New Age Religion and Western Thought is clearly precedent research with respect to both matter and method.) Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age is not really a book about epistemologies, it’s about “strategies of epistemology,” which turn out to be tropes and structures of epistemological rhetoric.

Hammer’s usage of “the Modern Esoteric Tradition” to designate a hand-picked set of religious cultures from Theosophy through the late 20th-century New Age is unfortunate. Not only does it exclude significant parallel phenomena such as Gurdjieffian schools, but even within the scope of the “post-theosophical” it omits the modern Hermetic current in which I participate, i.e. the one running from Anna Kingsford and Gerard Encausse through A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie and others. (Kingsford does get some acknowledgement in connection with Hammer’s discussion of the history of reincarnation doctrine in Theosophy.) Besides Theosophy and the New Age, the book does train its sights on Anthroposophy, the works of Edgar Cayce, the I AM activity of Guy Ballard, and the Church Universal and Triumphant. But this limitation of scope doesn’t keep the book from being worthwhile on its own terms.

The three strategies around which the text is organized are tradition, scientism, and personal experience. The first of these would probably often have invoked the phrase “cultural appropriation” if it had been written in a later decade. Admittedly, though, appropriating the supposed culture of Atlantis or other “imaginary utopias” is a little different than supplying modern teachings with a specious Tibetan or indigenous American provenance, although both of these tactics are treated in this section. Hammer also discusses perennialism and the melioristic emphases of “emic historiography.” Initiatory catenas figure into Hammer’s account of modern Esoteric movements only in connection with Reiki, and here as elsewhere, he is interested in demonstrating gaps between etic and emic accounts–effectively, between Weltgeschichte and Heilgeschichte.

“Scientism as a language of faith” also combines disparate tactics under a single strategic approach. One such is what I would call praeternatural regularity, that is to say, the assumption “that miracles are created within the boundaries of the regular laws of nature, but that these laws differ significantly from those recognized by conventional scientists” (320). The other is a willingness to borrow language and images from current natural sciences (increasingly physics) in order to buttress essentially distinct religious ideas–call it “scientistic appropriation.”

An emphasis on personal experience, as Hammer admits, is not especially unique to his designated “Esoteric positions.” It is in fact a conspicuous feature of modern religion in general, and notably introduced as an intellectual preoccupation of Protestantism by the work of Schleiermacher. Moreover, it is a powerful fit for individualist ideologies and empiricist inclinations in modern culture. Hammer demonstrates how these features are realized in different sorts of individualized narratives in Esoteric movements, and he observes how these create models and motives for religious cognition, finally suggesting that “one reason for the success of many Esoteric doctrines” is that “socially reinforced predilictions of the readers are elevated to the status of ancient wisdom and scientific truth” (505), thus tying this third strategy back to the first two.

Hammer is himself a rather blinkered mechanistic materialist. He derides the idea of formative experiences in infancy as a “legend element,” because “experiences … cannot possibly register in long-term memory since the brain of the infant has not developed sufficiently” (364, n.68). After glossing Rudolf Steiner on the cultivation of “thought freed from any links to the brain and the physical senses,” he calls the notion “seemingly absurd” and only tolerable in the context of what he says are related ideas about subtle bodies and para-physical planes (424). Nevertheless, Hammer is a responsible historian of ideas, and his theoretical tools are indeed apt for analyzing the “discursive positions” expressed by writers and schools in 19th- and 20th-century alternative religions.

In addition to the general theory and history that Hammer supplies for each of the three strategies around which he has organized Claiming Knowledge, he gives some very useful “case histories” applying his theoretical frame to selected topics salient in the Esoteric movements. These topics include the chakra system, the New Age “Course in Miracles” curriculum, and reincarnation theories and narratives. All of these are well-researched and illuminating studies. No one will expect light reading from a book issued by venerable academic press Brill with the subtitle Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. And indeed, this volume is both physically and mentally heavy. I can recommend it to those who are seriously interested in the dynamics of recent and contemporary esoteric schools, approached with a critical and deeply-investigated perspective.

Omnium Gatherum: July 20th, 2014

An irregular hodgepodge of links gathered together … Omnium Gatherum for July 30th, 2014

Afterlife with Archie issue 6
“Afterlife With Archie” Issue 6 is a comic every Lovecraft fan will enjoy — Mike Davis, Lovecraft eZine


Here are some top gatherum posts from the BBS this week:

  • The Baphomet Sculpture Hidden in Brooklyn — Jena Cumbo, Village Voice

    “Lucien Greaves (a.k.a. Doug Mesner), one of the people who commissioned the sculpture, that now sits in a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, asked the sculptor — we’ll call him “Jack” — to forgo the breasts. This Baphomet is smooth-chested and muscular, with thin, shapely lips and rectangular pupils. The sculptor based his physique on a blend of Michelangelo’s David and Iggy Pop.”

  • ‘Join us in our ritual,’ beckons Cthulhu-based cryptocurrency — Adrianne Jeffries, The Verge

    “Written in the voodoo cultspeak of futurist horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ the creepy Cthulhu Offerings may be the most confusing digital currency yet.

    ‘The time draws near, the return of The Great Old One is upon us,’ writes the developer. ‘Join us in our ritual.'”

  • 70,000 Year-Old African Settlement Unearthed — Past Horizons

    “During ongoing excavations in northern Sudan, Polish archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Poznań, have discovered the remains of a settlement estimated to 70,000 years old. This find, according to the researchers, seems to contradict the previously held belief that the construction of permanent structures was associated with the so-called Great Exodus from Africa and occupation of the colder regions of Europe and Asia.”

  • The Occult Knowledge – Strategies of Epistemology in La Société Voudon Gnostique — Maria Liberg, a Bachelor thesis in Religious Studies at University of Gothenburg, supervised by Henrik Bogdan

    “The academic research on Western esotericism in general and contemporary occultism in particular has been largely neglected in earlier scholarship and has only recently gained serious academic attention. This thesis examines how the contemporary occult group, La Société Voudon Gnostique, headed by David Beth and an organization under the general current Voudon Gnosis, legitimate their claims to knowledge, mainly through three discursive strategies of epistemology offered by Olav Hammer, namely: the appeal to (1) tradition; (2) scientism as a language of faith; and narratives of (3) experience. Since Hammer argues that these strategies can be found in esoteric currents in general, but only examines theosophy, anthroposophy and New Age as well as only examining “esoteric spokespersons” this thesis aims at examine them in relation to contemporary occultism as well as in relation to both the spokesperson and to “ordinary adherents”. In order do this, La Société Voudon Gnostique works as a case study in qualification of being a contemporary occult group that has gained no academic attention before.

    The conclusions of this thesis are that the strategies are all prevalent, to a more or less extent, in La Société Voudon Gnostique and they are also used by the adherents. Besides the strategies proposed by Hammer, this thesis argues that the secrecy and elitist approach, which can be found in the texts, also can be seen as a discursive strategy of epistemology.”

  • Christian Persecution: The Movie! — Scott Stenwick, Augoeides; about the forthcoming movie Persecuted

    “Persecuted, is based on a laughably impossible premise that the audience is supposed to find threatening. In this case, it’s the government attempting to legislate religion, something Poor Oppressed Christians are totally for until they realize that religious freedom also applies to non-Christians. Then they go off the rails about how wrong and unfair it is that they aren’t treated as special and given more privileges than everyone else.”

  • The True History of Libertarianism in America: A Phony Ideology to Promote a Corporate Agenda — Mark Ames, NSFWCORP at Alternet

    “Pull up libertarianism’s floorboards, look beneath the surface into the big business PR campaign’s early years, and there you’ll start to get a sense of its purpose, its funders, and the PR hucksters who brought the peculiar political strain of American libertarianism into being — beginning with the libertarian movement’s founding father, Milton Friedman.”

    “That is how libertarianism in America started: As an arm of big business lobbying.”

  • Aldous Huxley quoted at Reversed Alchemy — Michael Gilleland, Laudator Temporis Acti

    “Certain authors possess the secret of a kind of reversed alchemy; they know how to turn the richest gold into lead. The most interesting subjects become in their hands so tedious that we can hardly bear to read about them.”

  • Ian Clark quoted at The Limits of “Unlimited” — Barbara Fister, Inside Higher Ed

    “By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.”

  • More Songs for the Witch Woman — John Coulthart, feuilleton

    “It’s been a great pleasure in recent years seeing the welling of interest in Cameron’s work. In 2001 when I was compiling notes for an abandoned study of occult cinema, Cameron as artist, witch or mere human being was a shadowy presence about whom nothing substantial seemed to have been written; her art was impossible to see anywhere, all one had were fleeting references in books”

  • Love Spells — Sarah Anne Lawless

    “Love spells are black magic. Love spells to manipulate the body, heart, and soul. Love spells to dominate, to bind, to cause destruction and madness and pain.

    Love spells are not about love, they are about the lustful eye and the selfish heart. Be honest with yourself about it and then move on to the work at hand.”

  • Bible Stories for Newly Formed and Young Corporations — Tom the Dancing Bug, Boing Boing

    Tom the Dancing Bug Bible-stories for Young Corporations detail


  • Stick-Gods — Inonibird

    “‘Stick-Gods’ is the culmination of over a dozen years of fascination with Ancient Egypt—particularly, its mythology and deities. Whether you’re studying Egyptology, a practicing Kemetic or just a fan of myths, there should be something in there for you! I’m doing my best to balance informed content with a fair bit of silliness. …And puns. Lots of puns.”

    Inonibird Stick-Gods


  • William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, by Marsha Keith Schuchard — Gesigewigu’s, Spiral Nature; a review of William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision from Inner Traditions

    “Reading William Blake one cannot help but realize this is a man who is both religious and spiritually active, especially his poems known as the prophecies. The question is what was the nature of his spiritual life? What inspired Blake to create works that are both heavily Christian and at the same time antagonistic to many Christian ideals? The surprising answer is laid out as Schuchard leads us back into the complex religious web of mystical Christianity of the 17th and 18th century.”

  • A Victim of Drunken Channeling — Scott Stenwick, Augoeides

    “Aleister Crowley criticized spiritism as ‘a sort of indiscriminate necromancy’ because of a complete lack of formal magical procedures and protections, in which many mediums simply opened themselves up to whatever spiritual force happened to be present. Modern channelers such as Knight still employ essentially the same methods that Crowley was talking about. As such, there’s a real possibility that any channeling attempt could reach just about any spirit, like some sort of metaphysical Chatroulette.”

  • Mary Magdalene and the Gospel according to Mary — Kate Cooper; an edited excerpt from Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women from Overlook Press

    “The argument between the four disciples seems to be our anonymous writer’s way of exploring the different positions being taken by the men and women of his own day on the question of an alternative tradition being handed down by women. But he is also expressing his concern that the Church is changing, and not for the better. In his eyes, Peter seems to represent the voice of a faction in the community which wants to ‘make rules or lay down laws other than the Saviour gave’ – in other words, a group that wants to develop an institutional structure to replace the more fluid and informal movement of the early decades. This was clearly a topical warning after the death of the disciples who had known Jesus. Levi thinks that the new rules are a way of drawing the community away from fulfilling its task of preaching the gospel. The anonymous writer seems to be using Levi to suggest that too much emphasis on authority from the ‘Peter faction’ is stifling the Church.”

  • “Afterlife With Archie” Issue 6 is a comic every Lovecraft fan will enjoy — Mike Davis, Lovecraft eZine

    “As the story begins, our heroine Sabrina Spellman is relating one of her eldritch dreams to her psychiatrist, Dr. Lovecraft. Sabrina has apparently been committed to an institution because after her aunts died in a house fire, she had a breakdown and couldn’t deal with the reality of their death.

    But is that really what happened?”


If you’d like to participate in the Omnium Gatherum, head on over to the Gatherum discussions at the Hrmtc Underground BBS. You can check out all the other gatherum posts, like posts you enjoy, and even add your own posts with links to other things of interest, related to the subject matter of the library, from elsewhere around the Internet.