ESSWE4: Day 1

Today, I am going to give you a play-by play run-down of a typical day at ESSWE4 to set the scene and establish what the conference schedule is like. For the other days, we’ll just hit the highlights. Capice? Let us forge ahead!

ESSWE4 was my first major conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I  had been told that Swedes are really punctual, so I arrived on time. However, this turned out to be an ugly tall-tale and I was one of the first people there. I did what anyone else would do in a similar situation: I grabbed my name tag and proceeded to fake-read the programme until the conference started.

One of the nice things about this conference is that everybody knows each other. However, this also means that, as an outsider, meeting people can be difficult—everybody seems so chummy! Add some foreign languages to the mix, and the whole thing can get intimidating very fast. Luckily, there were a couple of people there I knew from Twitter, so I was not entirely alone!

After registration we moved to the main conference room for opening remarks by Henrik Bogdan, the conference organizer. Then Ola Sigurdson provided a talk on the study of medicine, which he described as the fastest growing area of the humanities.

This is the point where I tell you I didn’t take many pictures. In fact, that picture of Gothenburg University isn’t even where the conference was held. It is a picture full of lies! My reason for the lack of photos is simple: I really wanted to enjoy the conference and not spend too much time documenting it. So, instead of seeing important people who worked really hard to make ESSWE4 happen, enjoy this shot of an organic bee farm from the Gothenburg botanical gardens:

After the opening remarks, the conference split up into parallel sessions. For those new to conferencing, this is when a series of lectures take place concurrently in different rooms. Of course, this also means that one must decide which lectures they most want to see.

I decided to keep it simple and stay in the main room for the Early Modern Perspectives panel. All the presentations (Lorenza Gianfrancesco, Ariel Hessayon and Lionel Laborie) were top notch, even if I learned way more about Jacob Boehme in an hour-and-a-half than I had ever known about the guy before.

Somewhere around lunch-time, I started socializing. While I would say my social skills are pretty good, I am not so ace at breaking the ice. Luckily, I have my blog to do that for me, and I met several people who were kind enough to make the first move and introduce themselves. So thank you to those brave souls who interrupted my fake-reading and started a conversation. I am deeply grateful!

After lunch, we had our first afternoon keynote speech by Peter Forshaw. Readers already know that I highly enjoy Forshaw’s lectures, and this one was no exception. Filled with witty non-sequiturs and self-aware references to Heinrich Khunrath, it made me wish I cared about things like alchemy. (I don’t, but I do when Forshaw talks about it!)

Finally, it was time for the panel on Late Antiquity. I hyped this panel earlier on the blog and I must say it did not disappoint! Dylan Burns of the University of Leipzig spoke on the problematic nature ‘gnosis’ as a scholarly construct and how the field could benefit from defining some ancient practices as “esoteric” instead. He brought in some great examples from philosophical sources, so-called “gnostic” literature, and biblical texts that illustrated the different meanings of gnosis held by the ancients—sort of a “proof is in the eating of the pudding” of why terminological revision is necessary. Burns was followed by Matthew Twigg of the University of Oxford. Twigg presented a paper on Valentinian views of health and the metaphor of the church body to signify organizational vitality both on earth and on the spiritual plane. Twigg went really deep, providing visual representations of a flawed earthly church which is similar to, but not identical with, it’s “Aeonic” counterpart, and is thus in need of restoration in mind and spirit. I love the ancient world, it’s so funky! (Many photos from the conference, including this panel, showed up on the ESSWE4 tagboard site, if you want to have a look.)

By the third session, I started getting the hang of things and learned that you didn’t need to commit to a whole session! In fact, the moderators were keeping things on a tight schedule to enable people to hop between presentations! As a commitment-phobe, this was really the ideal situation. I took full advantage.

Evil Eye

For the last round of papers, I attended a  presentation by Sheldon Kent on the mystical dimensions of the LDS Endowment ceremony. Interesting stuff, and it seems that Joseph Smith really drew off of everything but Christianity when formulating Mormonism! I then skipped into the panel on Kabbalah and Judaism to catch Yossi Chajes (University of Haifa) talk about the evil eye. I learned two things during this lecture: (1) some people take the evil eye very, very seriously; and (2) The A-Game speakers are booked into the main conference room. I wish I could have stayed for Boaz Huss’ lecture on Kabbalah but, like many others, I wanted to see Christa Shusko (York College of Pennsylvania) present on the links between alchemy and “cocktail culture.” Shusko enthusiastically recapped the history of spirit distillation and health tonics (read: boozy drinks) which swept society in the early 20th century. Also she was funny. But then again, most Americans are*.

The conference having wrapped for the day, a reception was held for attendees. My jet lag was still pretty nasty, so I headed back to the hotel for some dinner and sleep. From what I hear, however, the party raged on well into the night. But again, this is just rumour and innuendo.

In my next post, I’ll recap Wouter Hanegraaff’s presidential address and discuss the problems (and benefits!) of a session dedicated to women in Occultism.

*Note: I am American and possibly biased.

Did you miss my last post on the ESSWE4 conference? No worries, you can read it here.

12 thoughts on “ESSWE4: Day 1
  1. Ha, I was among those who knew the Invocatio blogger from online and approached the shy, rogue undergrad during that lunch break–it was a pleasure to meet you in real life, Sarah!
    Over at, you can read about the talk I gave. Understandably, I wasn’t considered A-class enough to be in the big room but luckily had some A-class listeners in my audience…
    It’s true that Americans have a different way of tackling such presentations: they’re usually not tied to notes and try to spice things up with a little humour, which is much appreciated.

    1. Mike, it was a great pleasure meeting you, too!

      Read about the talk you gave? Dude, I saw the talk you gave — it was definitely Stora Hoersalen worthy! I was actually quite impressed by all the “Amsterdam school” presentations, you folks have a nice way of organizing your thoughts which makes everything so much easier to follow.


  2. You were smart not to try to photograph conference talks, etc., — just not visual material! I am envious, though, for it sounds like a wonderful gathering.

    1. Are you suggesting PowerPoint presentations aren’t photogenic? I actually wish I took more pictures; there were so many papers and my memory could use the visual help!

      But yes, it was a fun conference. (If there is such a thing!) Are you considering making it out to the next one?

  3. Someday I definitely must go to one of these. You know there are also sessions on esotericism at the American Academy of Religion—in Baltimore this November.

    1. I would love to go to a mega-conference such as the AAR. However, this year it falls about a week before final exams for me–not the best time to be out of class! I’ll get there one of these years. :)

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