Document Type

Book Review

Publication Version

Published Version

Publication Date

Winter 2009

Journal or Book Title

Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft





First Page


Last Page





The field of Western esoteric studies, Arthur Versluis declares in this brief survey, is still in its infancy. One of the central scholarly tasks is to define what constitutes esotericism, and to ascertain how various often seemingly disparate activities or movements might be meaningfully gathered under this rubric. Versluis's approach is, in his own description, historicist, tracing various esoteric traditions through time from antiquity to the twenty-first century. This is not, however, strictly speaking a historical study of esoteric movements. Relatively little effort is made to situate subjects in their particular periods and to relate them to the larger social and cultural context of those times. Instead, the main goal of the book is to describe the beliefs and, to a much lesser extent, the practices of various groups and individuals, and to clarify how they might be categorized as esoteric. Thus the overall approach is quite different from most recent studies of magic, which have eschewed generalized definitions and looked instead to see how magic was defined, either by its practitioners or, more often, by its opponents in particular periods. The scholar of esotericism must proceed differently, however, because until very recently "esoteric" was never a category used by practitioners to self-identify, nor was it ever a primary category through which authorities classified or condemned.


This is a book review from Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 4 (2009): 246, doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0145. Posted with permission.


All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of scholarly citation, none of this work may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher. For information address the University of Pennsylvania Press, 3905 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112.

Copyright Owner

University of Pennsylvania Press



File Format