Esoteric Knowledge: Astronomy, Alchemy and Hermetica

The 2020-2021 Books Known Only by Title Webinar Series.


Christian H. Bull is Associate Professor of the Study of Religion at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

Dylan Burns is Research Associate at the Ägyptologisches Seminar at Freie Univerität Berlin.

Sasson Chahanovich is a PhD candidate at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

Nils H. Korsvoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Agder.

Hanna Tervanotko is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University



Hugo Lundhaug is Professor of Biblical Reception and Early Christian Literature at the University of Oslo.



Books, whether real or imaginary, served a critical role in the esoteric arts of first millennium religious traditions. They upheld mastery, extended and distributed memory, and established the venerable roots of knowledge as ancient, astral, divine, or otherwise extraordinary. Moreover, their ascribed authors — such as magicians, alchemists, seers, and diviners — contributed to their claims to power. So what role do books and the evocation of books play in the quest for esoteric knowledge?

This panel will examine books (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and any combination thereof) as both sources of knowledge and efficacious talismans in themselves. Topics may include the magical and transformative power of the written word, the genres of esoteric texts, and the roles of secrecy and inaccessibility — especially as connected to women, who were often associated with the secret and the arcane. Participants may also wrestle with the paradox of esoteric access (if a secret is written plainly in a book, is it still a secret?) and the ways that "books known only by title" bridged that paradox, whether their esoteric contents were truly imaginary or merely out of reach.