General term (derived from Latin occultus, occulere, to hide; the opposite of apocalypse, that which is revealed). The word has come to denote that which is hidden from the uninitiated, which is imperceptible by normal senses, and thus refers to various magical and divinatory beliefs and practices, beginning with astrology, tarot, palmistry, numerology and other divina-tory arts and especially including various forms of spirit contact— Spiritualism (and the various forms of mediumship), magic, and witchcraft. It also applies to specific practices such as the prediction of the future, exploring past lives (reincarnation ), casting spells, and psychokinesis (mind over matter).
The word exists as a derogatory label tending to denigrate and marginalize those against whom it is used. Those interested in the paranormal have often taken pains to isolate selected areas of paranormal activity and separate them from other areas, which are left to the "occult." Modern practitioners have also taken the opportunity offered by the relatively open context of contemporary society to attempt the recovery of classically occult terms such as witchcraft and astrology. The New Age movement, a contemporary phase of the life of the occult community, has allowed a significant revamping of the occult. Divinatory practices such as astrology and the tarot have been redefined as counseling methodologies, and Wiccans have joined together to denounce anti-witchcraft activities as religious bigotry.
In ancient times, it was believed that apparent deviations from natural law involved mysterious and miraculous "super-natural" or occult (i.e., hidden) laws, deriving from gods, invisible entities, or the souls of the dead. The rituals of magic were designed to evoke entities and spirits, to ward off misfortune, or to perform actions in defiance of natural law, such as obtaining knowledge of distant or future events, causing injury or death to one's enemies, or securing sudden wealth (usually in the form of gold). In most tribal cultures, shamans or similar practitioners claimed the specialized ability to work magic, especially as relating to healing the sick or obtaining useful information.
Modern Spiritualism was an attempt to substantiate the ancient belief in the continued existence of personality after death and the evolution of the individual soul to perfection, a belief challenged by modern worldviews. The Spiritism inaugurated by Allan Kardec is a form of Spiritualism with an emphasis on reincarnation. Both Spiritualism and Spiritism are essentially religious movements, endorsing the miracles cited in the Bible and citing continuing paranormal phenomena as evidence of survival.
In pre-modern cultures occultism was an integral part of a religious worldview deriving from the mystery, wonder, and fearfulness of the environment in which human beings found themselves. By the Middle Ages, the occult had been separated from its religious base and competed with the dominant religious belief and practice. The magic spells and rituals of the Middle Ages contain popular practices of pre-Christian religions in the Mediterranean Basin.
One's opinion of the validity of the occult and the meaning of claimed paranormal phenomena depends in large part upon one's philosophical or religious viewpoint. From the early nineteenth century on, the successes of science and technology in achieving apparent miracles led to the widespread adoption of a materialist view of life and natural law, and to some extent encouraged the growth of agnosticism and atheism. Both the irreligious and those with a religion informed by the findings of the new sciences often ridiculed simplistic and literal belief in biblical teachings, the creation story in the book of Genesis being a particular target. They disparaged the accounts of scientifically impossible events in sacred texts and publicized the many instances of the abuse of power by religious authorities, vividly illustrated by the often violent suppression of heresies and blood-thirsty religious wars.
In the twentieth century, liberal Christianity has tended to play down the question of miraculous phenomena, although conservative voices still cite persuasive evidence that such miracles still occur. At the same time worldviews not so dependent on either a personal deity and/or a law-abiding universe have emerged. Many scientists have argued that what were formerly thought of as "natural laws" were imposed upon nature as observers made note of regularities. Such a worldview leaves room for spontaneous, supernatural, or miraculous occurrences.
Belief has always appeared to be a powerful creative factor in occult practice, and it is not impossible that even initial fraud could sometimes be a stimulating factor in producing paranormal phenomena by "priming the pump," so to speak. Ancient religions sometimes used mechanical contrivances to simulate divine power, rather like religious conjuring tricks.
Many have argued that the reputed power of prayer may be more closely connected with the creative power of the praying individual rather than derived from the action of God (or the gods). Prayers to Eastern or Western deities appear equally to produce results. The mental state appears to be a relevant factor. Closely related is the willpower of the magical practitioner, which again has some relevance to the mystical concept of concentration and meditation being preliminaries to the manifestations of paranormal phenomena.
At a secular level, psychical researchers and parapsychologists have attempted to bring scientific method into the investigation of claims of the paranormal, attempting to extract the paranormal subject from any religious context. Such scientific endeavors may in many ways be an essential step in the learning process, but sometimes tend to bypass the possible religious dimension and ignore the broader aspects of the meaning and purpose of life and the interpretation of natural phenomena. The clinical atmosphere of a parapsychology laboratory, with its scientific controls, specialized jargon, and mathematical evaluation, as has been repeatedly noted, tends to remove the paranormal from a natural setting.
Crow, W. B. A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and Occultism. London: Aquarian Press, 1968. Reprint, London: Abacus, 1972.
Godwin, John. Occult America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
Gratton-Guinness, Ivor. Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History, Principles & Practices. London: Aquarian Press, 1982.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London,1902.
Rhine, J. B., and Associates. Parapsychology From Duke to FRNM. Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Press, 1965.
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. London: Metheun, 1911.
Wilson, Colin. The Occult. London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: Random House, 1971. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1973. Reprint, London: Mayflower, 1973.
oc·cult / əˈkəlt/ • n. (the occult) supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena: a secret society to study alchemy and the occult. • adj. 1. of, involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena: a follower of occult practices similar to voodoo. ∎ beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or experience; mysterious: a weird occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before. ∎ communicated only to the initiated; esoteric: the typically occult language of the time. 2. Med. (of a disease or process) not accompanied by readily discernible signs or symptoms. ∎ (of blood) abnormally present, e.g., in feces, but detectable only chemically or microscopically. • v. [tr.] cut off from view by interposing something: a wooden screen designed to occult the competitors. ∎ Astron. (of a celestial body) conceal (an apparently smaller body) from view by passing or being in front of it. DERIVATIVES: oc·cul·ta·tion / ˌäkəlˈtāshən/ n. oc·cult·ism / -ˌtizəm/ n. oc·cult·ist / -tist/ n. oc·cult·ly adv. oc·cult·ness n.