Properly speaking, the occult refers to a body of traditions concerning religious practices preserved and practiced outside of organized religions. It includes alternative means of inducing religious ecstasy, contacting supernatural beings, healing, and foretelling the future. The word itself derives from a Latin term occultus, meaning something “covered over” or hidden from ordinary view. In this sense, it has long been used in the sciences—for example, to refer to symptoms not easy to detect, as in occult carcinoma. In the 1500s the term was first extended to abstract ideas that were difficult for the uneducated mind to grasp. By the mid-1600s, it had come to refer to esoteric practices, such as alchemy and astrology (the occult philosophies ). The term occult soon came to imply a body of knowledge, including mastery of magical rituals, passed down in secret by a select group of masters.
In modern usage, the term is often linked to or even confused with the term cult, which is (as popularly understood) a group that practices a potentially dangerous religion. However, the terms are not etymologically related: cult is derived from the Latin verb colere, meaning to plant and care for crops (whence the related terms cultivate and culture ). Nevertheless, even in ancient times occult religions were often defined as dangers to the state, and their followers liable to persecution.
For instance, when the Bacchanalia, a Greek mystery religion, was introduced into Italy in the second century BCE, the Roman Senate responded with an investigation. According to Livy’s History of Rome (Book 39), they learned that its agenda was to entice large numbers of adolescents from noble families to engage in “secret and nocturnal rites” of promiscuous sex and debauchery, then use them to overthrow the state. Its secrecy was maintained, supposedly, by murdering those members whose loyalty was suspected, in some cases so discreetly that “not even the bodies could be found for burial.” Similarly, in the second century CE, the early Christian church was persecuted because it was suspected of holding ritual sex orgies and baby sacrifices, motifs that have remained part of contemporary legends about “the occult” to this day.
In the seventeenth century, the rise of fraternal organizations such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasonry led to a widespread interest in esoteric mystical traditions among intellectuals. A series of pamphlets published in German from 1614 to 1616 described the “Rosicrucian Fraternity” as an occult organization, founded by one Christian Rosencreutz, who had allegedly obtained mysteries of nature and the gift of curing diseases from Arabian magi. The original pamphlets may have been a hoax; nevertheless, from this point on many groups emerged, offering mystical knowledge and access to superhuman powers to those willing to undergo initiation. The British historian Frances A. Yates (1899–1981) located a reference to such a group in a Scottish poem dated 1638:
For what we do presage is not in grosse,
For we be brethern of the Rosie Crosse;
We have the Mason Word and second sight
Things for to come we can foretell aright.
(YATES 1972, P. 211)
This is the earliest known reference to the fraternal organization of Freemasonry, which claims to maintain occult knowledge about the nature of God and the universe, deriving from the architects of Solomon’s Temple in biblical times. Certainly one of its early claims was the ability to give “second sight,” or the gift of divining the future. In any case, the Masonic movement that developed during the next century cautioned its initiates to keep its secrets with a solemn oath, inspiring many sinister legends about their true practices.
Such fraternal secret societies inspired many social panics from the 1600s onward, but they also influenced the revival of esoteric magic in the nineteenth century. Spiritualism, originally based on rural folk practices of divination, became a popular phenomenon among intellectuals in the mid-nineteenth century. This practice, along with the rituals of Masonry, influenced the turn-of-the-century Order of the Golden Dawn. This group, a loose association of academics and seekers in Great Britain, attempted to reconstruct the practices of earlier ceremonial magicians from scattered historical records and details of Masonic and Rosicrucian rituals. The Golden Dawn participants, who included A. E. Waite (1857–1942), the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), and, for a time, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), published widely on their occult theories.
A generation later, Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) and a circle of friends created a system of rituals based on these speculations that led to the neo-pagan revival, one of the most rapidly growing new religions in the Anglo-American world. A growing body of self-help books published by modern pagans has reintroduced a general public to practices based on these and other occult traditions.
Those aligned with traditional religion have always been antagonistic to such practices, seeing them as spiritually dangerous or even satanic in nature. Naive contact with such powers, many fundamentalist Christian authors warn, could expose practitioners to demonic influence, and could even make them susceptible to cult leaders. However, there is little evidence that the rituals taught by occult movements are, in fact, much different from similar ones preserved in folklore or by non-Western religions. Anthropologist Sabina Magliocco, herself an initiate into a neo-pagan religion, has argued that the occult is a powerful, affirming means of reclaiming “traditional ways of knowing that privilege the imagination” (2004, p. 97). Occult ritual allows the participants to generate and control extraordinary experiences, she concludes.
The occult can best be characterized as a tendency within religious expression that values individual spiritual experience over theology or self-discipline. Often based on a nativistic perspective, it expresses a longing to rediscover an imaginative realm with which contemporary religion has lost touch. The result permits the worshiper to participate directly in the mythological world. Occult practices appeal to those who are bored by the tendency of mainstream religions to channel religious power vicariously through trained specialists. Paradoxically, religions often revive themselves by incorporating elements of the occult into their own practice. In fact, many contemporary charismatic factions within Christianity promote an experience-centered faith that contains elements of divination, spirit possession, and magical healing similar to those taught within occult movements.
SEE ALSO Magic
Ellis, Bill. 2003. Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Kerr, Howard, and Charles L. Crow, eds. 1983. The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
King, Francis. 1989. Modern Ritual Magic: The Rise of Western Occultism. Rev. ed. New York: Avery.
Magliocco, Sabina. 2004. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Owen, Alex. 1990. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Yates, Frances A. 1972. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
"Occult" and "occultism" refer to spiritual concepts that are "hidden," not freely available to anyone without special understanding, training, or initiation. One finds awareness of the existence of occult or esoteric truths in most spiritual traditions. Often they have to do with knowledge of the inner dimensions or workings of the universe, with access to secret divine or human teachers, with such specialized skills as alchemy or astrology, or even with access to the true meaning of teachings given to the outer world in story or parable form, as when Jesus is quoted as having said to his inner disciples in the parable of the sower, "The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables, so that they may look but not see, and listen but not understand." (Luke 8:10)
Teachings may be classified as occult for several reasons. They may be deliberately kept within a small group by an elite for the sake of that group's power and prestige. Or it may be held that they simply cannot be understood without preliminary training, just as calculus could not be grasped without training in basic mathematics, even though books on calculus might be readily available. Again, it may be considered that the occult wisdom cannot be received or employed without a special initiation that prepares one, perhaps emotionally and physically as well as intellectually, for its impact. Finally, it is sometimes honestly believed that the occult knowledge is so powerful that it would be dangerous for it to fall into the hands of anyone outside a small but responsible group, just as one would not give any low-ranking soldier in the army access to the atomic button.
This is because occult lore is generally thought to convey not only significant wisdom but also power. It may involve the secret names of gods and angels by which they can be invoked and enlisted as powerful allies. An important idea in Western occultism is the "great chain of being," the concept of hierarchies of gods or angels reaching from the human to the highest, and also down to demonic powers below. It may communicate the inner "correspondences" of sound, will, and substance that make the science of magic possible. The occultist may also learn to master such psychic phenomena as clairvoyance, telepathy, pre-cognition, and astral projection. All this, in the wrong hands, could enable one to become a "black magician" of baleful force.
More positively, it must also be understood that occultism usually presents an intellectual worldview of some substance, offering a third option beside those of modern science and religion. In the occultist's picture of reality, everything is interconnected. Human thoughts and feelings are linked by very subtle lines of force with the remotest star, and influences can pass from one plane of the cosmos to another. To those who feel alienated not only by the mass society of modernity, but also by the impersonal, mechanistic universe of much of modern science, and no less by the remote, transcendent God of much conventional religion, occultism offers a universe in which matter and consciousness are deeply intertwined, so that thought and will can make a difference. One can contact helpers above who are more accessible than a transcendent divinity, and by knowing the right techniques make changes in one's situation. One may also find kindred spirits in occult orders, and human guidance from wise teachers of the wisdom.
Western occultism has roots in Hellenistic Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on the macrocosm-microcosm concept that everything below, especially in the human being, has a "correspondence" with entities on the universal plane. Each of the organs of the body, for example, has a particular correspondence with a certain sign of the zodiac, gemstone, and chant; these alignments could obviously be used for healing or magical purposes. Neoplatonic theurgy, or magical evocation, of gods—transmuted into angels in the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—added awareness that this universe of interrelated energy is also alive, harboring interrelated consciousness and will.
This tradition manifested itself in antiquity in Christian gnosticism, and also in the Jewish secret sciences that came to be known as Kabbalism, in which correspondences were aligned with words and letters of the Hebrew alphabet, especially in the Torah. In both Jewish and Christian esoteric circles occultism maintained a quasi-underground life during the Middle Ages, perfecting such arts as alchemy and magical evocation, which grew out of the insights of the Hellenistic correspondences and theurgy. During the Renaissance the Neoplatonic/occult worldview emerged as a powerful intellectual force. Part of the classical and Platonic revival of the early modern era, occultism was abetted by input both from Kabbalism and from many newly discovered ancient texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum, containing much philosophical and magical lore and at first wrongly considered to be of very great antiquity.
The underlying worldview of Hellenistic and Renaissance occultism was essentially the same as that of pre-Copernican and pre-Newtonian science, including Ptolemaic astronomy and Galenic medicine. Thus occultism and early science were much less at odds in the Renaissance than they were after the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
However, the older view, though subsequently perceived to be no longer viable as mainline science, maintained a continuing appeal as a way of seeing the inner meaning of the universe and of spiritual practices related to that view. An early movement in that direction was Rosicrucianism, appearing in Germany with the publication of anonymous pamphlets in 1614. Though it may never have had much sociological expression until recently, the term has long been used for those who, in the age of science, have preserved ancient lore associated with occultism and alchemy. The Freemasons, established in their modern form in 1714, incorporated some Rosicrucian and occult terms and concepts along with Enlightenment values into their rituals, including the idea of an ancient, half-forgotten wisdom attained through initiation. In America, a lodge calling itself Rosicrucian was established in Pennsylvania as early as 1694, and Freemasonry arrived in 1730.
In the nineteenth century, occultism continued to flourish, abetted by congenial themes in German idealism (the notion of a universe of consciousness and interconnectedness on all levels) and romanticism (the idea of the power of will and imagination; secret orders and the remote past as reservoirs of wisdom). In the United States these took the form of vogues for Swedenborgianism and mesmerism. Emanuel Swedenborg, undoubtedly influenced by Kabbalism and the occult tradition generally, in his own way saw vividly an inner spiritual meaning behind both the outer universe and the words of scripture, and communicated with angels. Anton Mesmer, the father of hypnotism, held that in the trance state one could open one's mind to past, future, the farthest reaches of the universe, and the minds of angelic beings. Together these intellectual influences laid the foundation of spiritualism and its trance mediumship, which became widespread in 1848. Spiritualism could not be said to be highly occultist in itself, although some mediumistic communications were out of the same world of ideas as occultism, but it served to open popular consciousness to the concept of secret spiritual teachings newly unveiled today.
That was the message of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, and the first major book of its dominant figure, Helena Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled (1877). Together with Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (1888) and other writings, Theosophy held up the "Ancient Wisdom," known chiefly to occult fraternities past and present, as an alternative to the Victorian battle of worldviews, which Theosophists saw as shallow but dogmatic science versus no less narrow and dogmatic religion. The deeper wisdom known to the wise, they said, took into account the profound interaction of matter, mind, and will, and was transmitted by secret masters ensconced in such places as Egypt, India, and Tibet. Theosophy was a significant influence in the United States well into the twentieth century, affecting the spiritually based idealism of such progressives as sometime member of the Theosophical Society Henry Wallace, New Deal secretary of agriculture and vice president from 1941 to 1945.
In the 1890s, the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, located principally in London, brought together a modern synthesis of occult theory and practice. Although it lasted little more than a decade in its original form, the Golden Dawn has been important in constructing twentieth-century images of occultism in the United States as elsewhere through its influence on such writers and sometime practitioners as W. B. Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. By then the standard modern social structures of occultism had appeared, characteristically represented not by church-type organizations but by a small, fairly intense and committed inner circle and a wide but diffuse outer circle of influence reached through books, tapes, lectures, and the like.
The 1960s witnessed an important upsurge of occultism as a major aspect of the "counterculture" of that tumultuous decade. The vogue for such occult arts as astrology, palmistry, the symbol-laden tarot cards, and in more esoteric circles ceremonial magic and out-of-the-body travel (sometimes with the aid of psychedelic substances) was of a piece with its rejection of rationalistic modernity and its desire to recover those aspects of spirituality, including the spiritual past, that modernity left out. The affirmation of occultism, in other words, became a symbol of opposition to modernism, to what was called the "establishment" or the "system," as well as its affirmation of a positive spirituality grounded in a magical, interlinked universe. Serious occultism in the twentieth century was often grounded intellectually in the analytic psychological systems of C. G. Jung, who himself affirmed the symbolic and psychological importance of much of traditional occultism and who contributed substantially to its revival. Occultists have interpreted such methods of divination as astrology or the tarot cards by means of Jung's concept of synchronicity, and have gone on to connect personality types suggested by astrological or tarot symbols with the "archetypes of the unconscious" made famous by Jungianism.
A residue of 1960s occultism has been perpetuated in what has been called, in the late twentieth century, the New Age movement. Its view of the importance of crystals, astrology, and spiritual healing certainly has ultimate roots in Neoplatonic correspondences, and its mediumistic "channeling" of transcendent teachers in the theurgy of the same tradition. Like an endless underground river, occultism, though usually disdained by the most respectable intellectual and religious leaders, continues to flow, changing, sometimes nearer the surface than at other times, but never quite dying out, always offering its alternative vision of cosmic and spiritual reality.
See alsoAstral Planes; Astrology; Channeling; Crowley, Aleister; Gnosticism; Kabbalah; Magic; New Age Spirituality; Paranormal; Psychic; Rosicrucians; Spiritualism; Tarot; Theosophical Society; Torah.
Butler, E. M. The Myth of the Magus. 1948.
Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith. 1990.
Kerr, Howard, and Charles L. Crow, eds. The Occult inAmerica. 1983.
Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan A. Kelly. The New Age Almanac. 1991.
Scott, Jennie Graham. The Magicians. 1983.
Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. 1972.
Gracia Fay Ellwood Robert Ellwood