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.
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