OCCULTISM . Occult and occultism have taken on several meanings. Occultism has been the object of a variety of definitions, which for the most part are related to the notion of esotericism. In academic usage, occultism tends to refer to one modern Western esoteric current, that which flourished from the second half of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth centuries.
The Terms Occult and Occultism
A distinction must be made between the original adjective occult and the substantive occultism which first appeared in the nineteenth century. Occult has a long history. For example, in the Renaissance it was often used in the expression occult properties, as in Marsilio Ficino's De Vita coelitus comparanda (1486, III, ch. 12), when he described how certain stones can attract celestial influences. Likewise, Cornelius Agrippa, in De Occulta Philosophia (1533, I, 10), explains that they "are called occult properties because their causes lie hidden, so that man's intellect cannot in any way reach and find them out; wherefore philosophers have attained to the greatest part of them by long experience rather than by the search of reason."
Such a belief remained widespread at the time that saw the rise of experimental science (in the period following the Renaissance). The notion of occult forces, and ultimately of one occult force, was used at the time of the Enlightenment, particularly in mesmerism and animal magnetism, against the mechanistic and materialist positions of the new mainstream science. In the nineteenth century and beyond, notions such as ether and/or Od force (of Karl von Reichenbach) came to a head in Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's "Fohat," by which she meant a vital fluid permeating the universe. Alongside such notions, that of occult philosophy (later called occult science[s]) came into use in the Renaissance, meaning a synthesizing religious project of a philosophical and cosmological nature, on which occult practices proper were supposed to be founded. As for the substantive occultism (l'occultisme ), it seems to have appeared for the first time in Jean-Baptiste Richard de Randonvilliers' Enrichissement de la langue française-Dictionnaire des mots nouveaux. Shortly after, Éliphas Lévi (1810–1875; pen name of Alphonse Louis Constant) used it in the "Discours préliminaire" of his Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (1856), and henceforth it was widely circulated. In English, it appeared probably for the first time in 1875, in Blavatsky's article "A Few Questions to 'Hiraf,'" published in Spiritual Scientist.
The Various Definitions of Occultism
In some of his ground-breaking writings devoted to methodological issues, Marco Pasi has cogently submitted that, historically, the relationship between esotericism and occultism has been the object of five distinct approaches:
- Occultism is a synonym of esotericism. This was the position of many occultists (i.e., of those who stood within the so-called occultist current). They considered occultism as a very ancient tradition (be it Western or universal) to which they took themselves to be the heirs. Some scholars also, like Pierre Riffard, occasionally use both terms indifferently and in a universal sense. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, who does not stand for this definition, has discussed the term the occult, used as a substantivized adjective. He mentioned in this respect Colin Wilson's 1971 bestseller The Occult as having exerted a major influence on the popular currency of this term which, in this context, is more or less used as the equivalent of esotericism, in particular among journalists and some sociologists. Indeed, occultism still serves as a catch-all word to designate a variety of currents (e.g., Oriental mysticism), practices (e.g., channeling, parapsychological experiments), and beliefs (e.g., fairies, spirits, UFO-abductions, vampire legends) which do not easily fall under the heading science and religion. Be that as it may, neither in that considerably extended meaning, which often tends to indiscriminately designate an overall form of rejected knowledge, nor in the aforementioned one generally adopted by the occultists should it be confused, as noted by Hanegraaff, with what the now-classical modern academic usage intends under Western esotericism. As remarked by Jean-Pierre Laurant, although born at approximately the same time, the terms esotericism and occultism are not identical twins, but rather fraternal ones.
- Occultism is a drift from esotericism and/or a degeneration of it. This is, for example, the so-called traditionalist position as represented by René Guénon. He and his followers have opposed occultism (understood pejoratively) against their own concept of esoteric metaphysics. This distinction was adopted by Serge Hutin in his famous article "Esotérisme."
- Occultism is the practical dimension of esotericism. This definition often overlaps the second one. It may be due to the existence of the expression occult sciences, usually comprised mainly of magic, astrology, alchemy, and magia naturalis (natural magic), which are often interrelated. It can be traced already in Le Christianisme césarien of the Abbot Alta (pen name of Calixte Mélinge): "Occultism came later [than esotericism] in order to represent … material but dangerous things that wisdom forbade to display to everyone. Occultism was concerned with material things: natural forces, like electricity, magnetism [, whereas] the object of esotericism is the supernatural forces—those of higher Nature, that is, the invisible, spiritual, divine things" (as quoted by Laurant, 1992, p. 174). Much later, in the 1970s, a similar distinction can be traced in the so-called sociology of the occult, under the pen of scholars like Edward A. Tiryakian and Marcello Truzzi—the first to use the term. The former wrote: "By 'occult' I understand intentional practices, techniques, or procedures which (a) draw upon hidden or concealed forces …, and (b) which have as their desired or intended consequences empirical results …. By 'esoteric'; I refer to those religio-philosophic belief systems which underlie occult techniques and practices…. By way of analogy, esoteric knowledge is to occult practices as the corpus of theoretical physics is to engineering applications" (Tiryakian, 1972, pp. 498–499). Tiryakian's distinction was endorsed in the 1980s by a number of scholars, including Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) and Antoine Faivre. It has been more or less discarded since, although Bettina Gruber took it over again in 1980. Be that as it may, Pasi considers it—and rightly, so it seems—to be superfluous, and notes that it has been cogently criticized by other scholars like Robert Galbreath, whose position he endorses—"the notion of a purely abstract knowledge divorced from personal development and personal participation is alien to ['occultists' and 'esotericists' alike]. It is a nonexistent distinction" (Galbreath, 1983, p. 18).
- Occultism is only one specific historical current among those of which modern Western esotericism is comprised. Indeed, since the 1970s, in academic parlance occultism has tended to be used mostly as referring specifically, and in a descriptive sense, to the esoteric current which began to flourish from the time of Lévi in the middle of the nineteenth century and well into the first half of the twentieth. This position has been the current one adopted by scholars since the beginning of the 1990s, including by Jean-Pierre Laurant, Antoine Faivre, and Joscelyn Godwin.
Occultism is a modification of esotericism under the impact of secularization. This fifth sense (in Pasi's list) of occultism has been introduced and defended by Hanegraaff and should not be confused with the fourth definition. Indeed, Hanegraaff prefers not to intend occultism as a historical current but rather as a category, among others, in the study of Western religions. Here it refers, in an analytic and typological sense, to the type of esotericism which characterizes various forms of esotericism from the second half of the nineteenth up to the first half of the twentieth centuries. Hanegraaff submits that it is comprised by "all attempts by esotericists to come to terms with a disenchanted world or, alternatively, by people in general to make sense of esotericism from the perspective of a disenchanted secular world" (Hanegraaff, 1996, p. 422; see also 1995, pp. 119–121). In other words, occultism is the form that traditional esotericism has taken on under the impact of secularization, in particular since the end of the eighteenth century. Hanegraaff speaks of a "transformation of esotericism into occultism" (Hanegraaff, 1996, p. 409), and uses this latter term to designate a range of various theories and practices: not only occultism as defined above in point four, but also such others as animal magnetism, spiritualism, up to some aspects of the New Age movement. Such an approach is congenial to the theoretical thesis which underlies his book New Age Religion and Western Culture (1996), according to which the process of secularization of Western esotericism has brought about considerable changes within the physiognomy of the Western esoteric landscape. By way of consequence, and in terms of vocabulary, he has found it appropriate to replace esotericism by occultism when dealing with the various forms of esotericism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
While Hanegraaff was certainly right in stressing the importance of secularization (he was the first to do so in such a cogent and convincing manner), the problem is that endorsing his thesis does not necessarily entail accepting his terminological choice. As a matter of fact, the latter has been called into question not only by Pasi but also by a number of scholars, such as Olaf Hammer who prefers to speak of "post-Enlightenment esotericism." Indeed, the occultist current considered as one among other esoteric ones is endowed with a sufficiently precise specificity that it does not seem to be necessary to assimilate it with a range of other contemporary phenomena, like spiritualism.
Characteristics and Historical Survey of the Occultist Current
The so-called occultist current which flourished from the second half of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth centuries seems to display five characteristics which mark its originality within the context of the other Western esoteric currents:
- A new attempt at synthesizing the so-called esoteric tradition as the occultists of that time from the middle of the nineteenth up to the first half of the twentieth centuries saw it. It was a matter of integrating—more than had been hitherto the case—a variety of new elements, like the tarot and Eastern (mostly Indian) forms of religious wisdom.
- A strong emphasis on the importance and the practice of the so-called occult sciences, namely alchemy, astrology, Qabbalah, and in particular "magic" (understood mostly within the context of Western magical traditions).
- An attempt at legitimizing its positions in establishing a dialectical relationship of acceptance and refusal with mainstream science and/or the positivistic culture of the time. Indeed, this current presented itself as an alternative to the triumph of scientism. Generally, occultists did not condemn scientific progress or modernity. Rather, they tried to integrate them within a global vision likely to make the vacuousness of materialism more apparent. In this an echo of the program of the Naturphilosophie of the end of the eighteenth and of the first half of the nineteenth centuries can be recognized but the new orientation differed, in particular because of its marked penchant for uncommon phenomena and scientific or pseudo-scientific experimentations.
- An increasing emancipation from Christianity (contrary to the esoteric currents of the earlier periods, which for the most part were still very Christian in character).
- A tendency to demarcate itself from a number of contemporary trends, like animal magnetism, spiritualism, and parapsychology, although this tendency became less and less marked in the latest decades of the period. Indeed, occultism forged its identity in confronting itself with them. (Similarly, Guenonian traditionalism has forged its own identity by way of a polemical confrontation with occultism.) Whereas spiritualism dealt with the spirits of the deceased, occultism was more interested in elementals (in the Paracelsian tradition), angels, and in particular in the so-called disincarnated Masters. These latter were supposed to dwell in exotic, far-off places (generally in Tibet), and to be able to communicate with their Western disciples. Furthermore, many occultists considered that the practices of spiritualism were not only passive in character, failing to stress the powers of the human will, but dangerous also, in view of the dubious nature of the entities conjured up in séances. They ascribed these shortcomings to the absence of an overall metaphysical worldview.
However useful these five characteristics may be, it still remains (as Pasi himself admits) that they are a mere academic construct. In reality, their borders are often blurred.
The Occultist Current in Context, and Some of Its Main Representatives
The industrial revolution had given rise to an increasingly marked interest in the "miracles" of science. It had promoted the invasion of daily life by utilitarian and socioeconomic preoccupations of all kinds. In the middle of the nineteenth century, along with smoking factory chimneys, both the fantastic as a new literary genre and the phenomenon of spiritualism (since the 1840s) came into existence. These two possess a common characteristic: each takes the real world in its most concrete form as its point of departure and then postulates the existence of another, supernatural world, separated from the first by a more or less impermeable partition. Fantastic literature then plays upon the effect of surprise that is provided by the irruption of the supernatural into the daily life, which it describes in a realistic fashion. Spiritualism, considered as both a quasi-religion and a practice, follows the inverse procedure, teaching how to pass from this world of the living to the world of the dead, through séances of spirit rappings and table tippings, the table playing a role analogous to that of the traditional magic circle. It is telling that the occultist current appeared at the same time as fantastic literature and spiritualism. Not unlike them, it displayed a marked interest in supernatural phenomena, that is to say, in the diverse modes of passage from one world to the other.
Almost at the same time as Lévi's first important publication, Jean-Marie Ragon's Orthodoxie Maçonnique and Maçonnerie occulte (1853), and Henri Delaage's Le monde occculte (1851) appeared. Though both men paved the way for the beginnings of the occultist current proper, Lévi may be considered the first main exponent of the latter, with his Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (1854–1856), Histoire de la magie (1860), and La clef des grands mystères (1861).
Some other strong personalities dominated a rather heteroclite crowd. Again in France, Papus (1865–1915; pen name of Dr. Gérard Encausse), nicknamed the "Balzac of occultism" because of his numerous and voluminous works, authored among other books a Traité de science occulte, which came out the same year (1888) as the first issue of his journal L'Initiation. Papus, with his friend from Lyons, L. N. A. Philippe, otherwise called Maître Philippe (1849–1905), went several times to St. Petersburg at the request of Nicholas II whom they initiated into the Martinist Order (created by Papus). Among these French occultists, other prominent individuals include Stanislas de Guaïta (1861–1898; Au seuil du mystère, 1886; Le serpent de la Genèse, 1891–1897), Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918), Albert de Rochas (1837–1914), François-Charles Barlet (pen name of Albert Faucheux, 1838–1921), and Albert Jounet (pen name of Dr. Emmanuel Lalande, 1868–1929). In Germany, Franz Hartmann (1838–1912) was a noted occultist, while at that time in Russia, P. D. Ouspensky (1878–1947) had already written almost all his work, including Tertium Organon (1911). Especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, occultist/esoteric erudition characterizes many noteworthy occultists. Among these, at least three names stand out prominently: G. R. S. Mead (1853–1933), William W. Westcott (1848–1925), and Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942).
Not unlike the last decades of the eighteenth century, those of the nineteenth saw a proliferation of new initiatory societies which were instrumental in the development and dissemination of the occultist current, although they also contained elements pertaining to other, more generally esoteric ones. Many such societies belonged to the so-called fringe-Masonry, which for its most part is comprised of rites with higher degrees (i.e., above the three traditional degrees of freemasonry proper). Here are a few examples of those initiatory societies with a markedly occultist orientation: The Fraternitas Rosae Crucis was founded in 1868 by Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875). Twenty years later in France, Guaïta and Péladan founded the Order of the Rose-Croix Kabbalistique, which was to go through many an explosion and fragmentation. In 1891, Papus established an Ordre Martiniste. In 1888, in England, Westcott established the Order of the Golden Dawn (OGD), whose founders were important members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), created in London in 1867. The SRIA also was an occultist group, Christian in character and less oriented towards magical practices than the OGD. Between 1906 and 1912, Theodor Reuss (1855–1923) established a secret science research lodge, the Ordo Templi Orientis, whose program was similar to that of the OGD and in which the famous magician Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) held one of the leadership roles. Outside the pale of these fringe-Masonic orders, the Theosophical Society, which Blavatsky cofounded in New York in 1875, was to become the most influential and disseminated esoteric organization until the present time. It has some linkage to the occultist current, insofar as one of its official goals is to study the law of nature as well as the psychic and spiritual powers of the human being.
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Antoine Faivre (1987 and 2005)
Occult books of fortune-telling, dreams, spells, astrology, and speculative mysticism entered medieval Russia as translations of Greek, Byzantine, European, Arabic, and Persian "secret books." Their prohibition by the Council of a Hundred Chapters (Stoglav ) in 1551 enhanced rather than diminished their popularity, and many have circulated into our own day.
The Age of Reason did not extirpate Russia's occult interests. During the eighteenth century more than 100 occult books were printed, mostly translations of European alchemical, mystical, Masonic, Rosicrucian, and oriental wisdom texts. Many were published by the author and Freemason Nikolai Novikov.
As the nineteenth century began, Tsar Alexander I encouraged Swedenborgians, Freemasons, mystical sectarians, and the questionable "Bible Society," before suddenly banning occult books and secret societies in 1822. The autocracy and the church countered the occultism and supernaturalism of German Romanticism with an increasingly restrictive system of church censorship, viewing the occult as "spiritual sedition."
Nevertheless, Spiritualism managed to penetrate Russia in the late 1850s, introduced by Count Grigory Kushelev-Bezborodko, a friend of Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–1886), the famous medium who gave seances for the court of Alexander II. Their coterie included the writers and philosophers Alexei Tolstoy, Vladimir Soloviev, Vladimir Dal, Alexander Aksakov, and faculty from Moscow and St. Petersburg Universities.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia, like Europe, experienced the French "Occult Revival," a reaction against prevailing scientific positivism. Spiritualism, theosophy, hermeticism, mystery cults, and Freemasonry attracted the interest of upper- and middle-class Russian society and configured decadence and symbolism in the arts.
Theosophy, founded in New York in 1875 by Russian expatriate Elena Blavatsky (1831–1891), was a pseudo-religious, neo-Buddhist movement that claimed to be a "synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy." It appealed to the god-seeking Russian intelligentsia (including, at various times, Vladimir Soloviev, Max Voloshin, Konstantin Balmont, Alexander Skryabin, Maxim Gorky). A Christianized, Western form of theosophy, Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, attracted the intellectuals Andrey Bely, Nikolai Berdyayev, and Vyacheslav Ivanov.
Russian Freemasonry revived at the end of the nineteenth century. Masons, Martinists, and Rosicrucians preceded the mystical sectarian Grigory Rasputin (1872–1916) as "friends" to the court of Tsar Nicholas II. After the Revolution of 1905–1906, Russian Freemasonry became increasingly politicized, eventually playing a role in the events of 1916-1917.
The least documented of Russia's occult movements was the elitist hermeticism (loosely including philosophical alchemy, gnosticism, kabbalism, mystical Freemasonry, and magic), heir of the Occult Revival. Finally, sensational (or "boulevard") mysticism was popular among all classes: magic, astrology, Tarot, fortune-telling, dream interpretation, chiromancy, phrenology, witchcraft, hypnotism.
More than forty occult journals and papers and eight hundred books on occultism appeared in Russia between 1881 and 1922, most of them after the censorship-easing Manifesto of October 17, 1905. After the Bolshevik coup, occult societies were proscribed. All were closed by official decree in 1922; in the 1930s those members who had not emigrated or ceased activity were arrested.
In the Soviet Union, occultists and ekstra-sensy existed underground (and occasionally within in the Kremlin walls). The post-1991 period saw the return of theosophy and anthroposophy, shamanism, Buddhism, Hare Krishnas, Roerich cults, neopaganism, the White Brotherhood, UFOlogy, and other occult trends.
See also: freemasonry; pagansim; religion
Carlson, Maria. (1993). "No Religion Higher Than Truth": A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia, 1875–1922. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Occultism is the belief in secret doctrines and practices that are recognized neither by science nor religion and require some form of initiation. Related, but distinct, is telepathy, mental communication at a distance with the dead or the living. Such beliefs appeared in nineteenth-century Europe with the weakening of Christian churches, which had traditionally fought these phenomena, and as a form of resistance to rationalism, which claimed to be able to explain everything by means of logical reasoning. Occultism and telepathy are also related to an interest in mystery and the mysterious: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, devoted much his later life to the study of occultism, and a number of successful authors have taken an interest in paranormal phenomena.
Psychology and psychiatry in the late nineteenth century were strongly influenced by spiritualism and magnetism. Belief in a "celestial fluid" was not wholly unrelated to the growing use of an invisible energy (electricity), or a new device for communicating at a distance, known as the telephone. Freud referred specifically to this last invention to characterize the relationship between conscious and unconscious, between doctor and patient ("Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis," 1912e). The word telepathy was created in 1882 by the English psychologist Frederick Myers (1843-1901), who was the first British author to discuss Freud's work.
Parapsychology was referred to by Freud during his conversations and correspondence with several of his followers, primarily Theodor Reik and Sándor Ferenczi. With his daughter Anna and Ferenczi, he performed thought transmission and table-turning experiments. In his articles "Psychoanalysis and Telepathy" (1941d ) and "Dreams and Telepathy" (1922a), he clarified his position with respect to paranormal phenomena as being a combination of "repugnance and ambivalence."
Freud's thoughts on occultism and telepathy involve an element of ambiguity as well as tactical maneuvering. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was unable to ignore the support the fragile new movement received from parapsychology, while also having to confront the criticisms of rationalist science. However, based on the advice of Ernest Jones and Max Eitingon, he did not wish to compromise the scientific nature of psychoanalysis with irrational theories. Faced with the "black sea of occultism," Freud maintained a prudent sense of reserve, although this did not hamper his considerable interest in techniques of communication between minds, which presented analogies with transference.
See also: New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis ; Telepathy.
Freud, Sigmund. (1922a). Dreams and telepathy. SE, 18: 195-220.
——. (1933a) New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
——. (1941d ). Psycho-analysis and telepathy. SE, 18: 173-193.
A general term employed to designate all those pseudosciences or practices, such as magic, alchemy, astrology, the various forms of divination, clairvoyance, theosophy, or spiritism, which claim to have knowledge of, or even control over, the hidden mysteries or powers of nature. Modern science, and especially psychology, has gradually refuted such claims, although there are occult phenomena and practices in Asia and Africa that still require further investigation and explanation. The pseudomysticism of the devotees or practitioners of occultism should not be confused with genuine mysticism in the Christian sense, nor should occultism be confused with parapsychology or related branches of the science of psychology. The terms occultism and the occult arts are too vague to be satisfactory. Hence they have given way to specific designations, such as magic, alchemy, and astrology.
Bibliography: h. vorgrimler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 7:1125. g.r. s. mead, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 9:444–448. a. kÖberle, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 4:1614–19.
A collective term for the various doctrines, theories, ideas, and principles believed to underlie and hold together the practices of magic, and related topics such as alchemy, demonology, ghosts, poltergeists, prediction, psychic powers, spells, and Spiritualism. The term "the occult" is often used synonymously with "occultism." The term is most frequently used by those who oppose the existence of magic or the work of its practitioners. It is sometimes viewed as a derogatory label, and many involved in occultism have preferred other labels such as New Age.