occultist, n., adj.
/euh kul"tiz euhm/, n.
1. belief in the existence of secret, mysterious, or supernatural agencies.
2. the study or practice of occult arts.
[1880-85; OCCULT + -ISM]

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Theories, practices, and rituals based on esoteric knowledge of the world of spirits and unknown forces.

The wide range of occult beliefs and practices includes astrology, alchemy, divination, magic, and witchcraft and sorcery. Devotees of occultism seek to explore spiritual mysteries through what they regard as higher powers of the mind. The Western tradition of occultism has its roots in Hellenistic magic and alchemy (especially the Hermetic writings ascribed to Thoth) and in the Jewish mysticism associated with the Kabbala.

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      various theories and practices involving a belief in and knowledge or use of supernatural forces or beings. Such beliefs and practices—principally magical or divinatory—have occurred in all human societies throughout recorded history, with considerable variations both in their nature and in the attitude of societies toward them. In the West the term occultism has acquired intellectually and morally pejorative overtones that do not obtain in other societies where the practices and beliefs concerned do not run counter to the prevailing worldview.

      Occult practices centre on the presumed ability of the practitioner to manipulate natural laws for his own or his client's benefit; such practices tend to be regarded as evil only when they also involve the breaking of moral laws. Some anthropologists have argued that it is not possible to make a clear-cut distinction between magic—a principal component of occultism—and religion, and this may well be true of the religious systems of some nonliterate societies. The argument does not hold, however, for any of the major religions, which regard both natural and moral law as immutable.

      Those aspects of occultism that appear to be common to all human societies—divination, magic, witchcraft, and alchemy—are treated in depth below. Features that are unique to Western cultures, and the history of their development, are treated only briefly.

      The Western tradition of occultism, as popularly conceived, is of an ancient “secret philosophy” underlying all occult practices. This secret philosophy derives ultimately from Hellenistic magic and alchemy on the one hand and from Jewish mysticism on the other. The principal Hellenistic source is the Corpus Hermeticum (Hermetic writings), the texts associated with Hermes Trismegistos, which are concerned with astrology and other occult sciences and with spiritual regeneration.

      The Jewish element is supplied by the Kabbala (the doctrine of a secret, mystical interpretation of the Torah), which had been familiar to scholars in Europe since the Middle Ages, and which was linked with the Hermetic texts during the Renaissance. The resulting Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition, known as Hermetism, incorporated both theory and magical practice, with the latter presented as natural, and thus good, magic, in contrast to the evil magic of sorcery or witchcraft.

      Alchemy was also absorbed into the body of Hermetism, and this link was strengthened in the early 17th century with the appearance of Rosicrucianism, an alleged secret brotherhood that utilized alchemical symbolism and taught secret wisdom to its followers, creating a spiritual alchemy that survived the rise of empirical science and enabled Hermetism to pass unscathed into the period of the Enlightenment.

      During the 18th century the tradition was taken up by esoterically inclined Freemasons who could not find an occult philosophy within Freemasonry. These enthusiasts persisted, both as individual students of Hermetism and, in continental Europe, as groups of occult practitioners, into the 19th century, when the growth of religious skepticism led to an increased rejection of orthodox religion by the educated and a consequent search for salvation by other means—including occultism.

      But those interested turned to new forms of occultism rather than to the Hermetic tradition: on the one hand to Spiritualism—the practice of alleged regular communication between the living and the spirits of the dead through a living “medium”—and on the other to Theosophy—a blend of Western occultism and Eastern mysticism that proved to be a most effective propagator of occultism but whose influence has declined markedly over the last 50 years.

      Indeed, despite the 19th-century revival, occult ideas have failed to gain acceptance in academic circles, although they have occasionally influenced the work of major artists, such as the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Wassily Kandinsky, and occultism in Europe and North America seems destined to remain the province of popular culture.

Robert Andrew Gilbert

Additional Reading

General works
Richard Cavendish (ed.), Man, Myth, & Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion, and the Unknown, new ed. edited and comp. by Yvonne Deutch, 12 vol. (1983), generally reliable; James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3rd ed. rev. and enlarged, 12 vol. (1911–15, reprinted 1955), a classic anthropological study; William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, 4th ed. (1979), with articles on divination, magic, and witchcraft; Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (1954– ), a multivolume history including substantial sections on astrology and alchemy—6 vol. in 14 parts had appeared to 1986; Leslie Shepard (ed.), Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology, 2nd ed., 3 vol. (1984–85); and Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vol. (1923–58, reissued from various printings, 1964), which is concerned with Europe from the period of the Roman Empire through the 17th century.

Herbert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth Century America (1976); A.D. Nock (ed.) and A.-J. Festugière (trans.), Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vol. (1945–54, reprinted 1980); Walter Scott (ed. and trans.), Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings Which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, 4 vol. (1924–36, reissued 1985); Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns (1972, reprinted 1979), an analysis of alchemy, astrology, Hermetism, magic, and witchcraft; Arthur Edward Waite, The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross: Being Records of the House of the Holy Spirit in Its Inward and Outward History (1924, reissued 1973), the only satisfactory study of Rosicrucianism to cover both its early and later periods; James Webb, The Occult Underground, rev. ed. (1974), and The Occult Establishment (1976, reissued 1981), studies of occultist movements in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries; Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. and enlarged ed. (1968, reissued 1980), the influence of Neoplatonic and esoteric thought on Renaissance arts; and Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964, reprinted 1979), The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972, reissued 1978), and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979, reissued 1983), the most important of the author's studies of the Hermetic-Kabbalist tradition and of its place in 16th- and 17th-century thought in Europe.

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Universalium. 2010.

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