The Western Mystery Tradition: An Introduction


The Western Esoteric Tradition is a tradition of spiritual and philosophical practices based on Platonic philosophy and on the practical experience of such craftsmen as medieval alchemists.  It formed the foundation of much Renaissance culture, and influenced philosophers such as Leibniz.

The course will be based on the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum, which are often viewed as the tradition’s founding documents.  After reading several of the Hermetic texts, we shall consider their interpretation by later authors: in particular, the great Renaissance philosophers, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94).

The course will conclude with an examination of the Cambridge Platonists and Elias Ashmole (1617-92), who were some of England’s great exponents of the tradition.  The study week will include visits to the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum, to look at manuscripts and artefacts.

Programme details

Session 1

Esoteric and exoteric: what’s the difference?

Session 2

The Neoplatonic tradition as the basis for Western esotericism

Session 3

The Corpus Hermeticum I

Session 4

The Corpus Hermeticum II

Session 5

The Corpus Hermeticum III

Session 6

The Mystery Tradition in the Middle Ages: Alchemy

Session 7

The Mystery Tradition in the Middle Ages: Kabbalism

Session 8

The Discovery of Ancient Truths: Marsilio Ficino

Session 9

The Discovery of Ancient Truths:  Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Session 10

Christian Cabbalism

Session 11

Anne Conway and the Cambridge Platonists

Session 12

Elias Ashmole and the Continuation of Ancient Knowledge


* Please note that the cost of any fieldtrips is included in the course fee.


Description Costs
Programme Fee (No Accommodation - inc. Tuition, Lunch & Dinner) £850.00
Programme Fee (Standard Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1485.00
Programme Fee (Standard Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1245.00
Programme Fee (Superior Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1600.00
Programme Fee (Superior Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1345.00


Dr Sarah Jane Boss


Sarah Jane Boss is a theologian who specialises in Mariology and Christian Neoplatonism.

Course aims

This course aims to convey an overview of the Western esoteric tradition, from antiquity to the early modern period, and to inspire students with the enthusiasm to study it further.

Teaching methods

All summer school courses are taught through group seminars and individual tutorials. Students also conduct private study when not in class and there is a well stocked library at OUDCE to support individual research needs.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students will be expected to understand:

  • The main tenets of Neoplatonism as they are found in the Christian culture of Western Europe
  • The broad outlines of the historical development of esoteric practices in Western Europe
  • Principal aspects of one esoteric tradition or author

Assessment methods

Students are assessed during the summer school by either a 1500 word written assignment or a presentation supported by individual documentation. To successfully gain credit (10 CATS points) students should attend all classes and complete the on-course assignment. There is also a pre-course assignment of 1000 words set. Although this does not count towards credit, it is seen as an important way of developing a student's ideas and therefore its completion is mandatory.