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Western esotericism (also called esotericism and esoterism), also known as the Western Mystery Tradition, is a scholarly term for a wide range of loosely related ideas and movements which have developed within Western society. They are largely distinct both from orthodox Judeo-Christian religion and from Enlightenment rationalism. A trans-disciplinary field, esotericism has pervaded various forms of Western philosophy, religion, pseudoscience, art, literature, and music, continuing to affect intellectual ideas and popular culture.
The idea of categorising a wide range of Western traditions and philosophies together under the rubric that we now term "esotericism" developed in Europe during the late seventeenth century. Various academics have debated the precise definition of Western esotericism, with a number of different options proposed. One scholarly model adopts its definition of "esotericism" from certain esotericist schools of thought themselves, treating "esotericism" as a perennialist hidden, inner tradition. A second perspective sees esotericism as a category that encompasses world-views which seek to embrace an "enchanted" world-view in the face of increasing de-enchantment. A third views Western esotericism as a category encompassing all of Western culture's "rejected knowledge" that is accepted neither by the scientific establishment nor by orthodox religious authorities.
The earliest traditions which later analysis would label as forms of Western esotericism emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean during Late Antiquity, where Hermetism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism developed as schools of thought distinct from what became mainstream Christianity. In Renaissance Europe, interest in many of these older ideas increased, with various intellectuals seeking to combine "pagan" philosophies with the Kabbalah and with Christian philosophy, resulting in the emergence of esoteric movements like Christian theosophy. The 17th century saw the development of initiatory societies professing esoteric knowledge such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, while the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century led to the development of new forms of esoteric thought. The 19th century saw the emergence of new trends of esoteric thought that have come to be known as occultism. Prominent groups in this century included the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which influenced the development of Thelema. Modern Paganism developed within occultism, and includes religious movements such as Wicca. Esoteric ideas permeated the counterculture of the 1960s and later cultural tendencies, from which emerged the New Age movement in the 1970s.
Although the idea that these varying movements could be categorised together under the rubric of "Western esotericism" developed in the late 18th century, these esoteric currents were largely ignored as a subject of academic enquiry. The academic study of Western esotericism only emerged in the late 20th-century, pioneered by scholars like Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre. Esoteric ideas have meanwhile also exerted an influence in popular culture, appearing in art, literature, film, and music.