What the Heck is the Occult, Anyway?

The word ‘occult’ is one of those emotionally charged words. Today, for many people, the word ‘occult’ is synonymous with ‘evil’. For others the word ‘occult’ means spooky, weird or perhaps something dangerous. Corresponding with this is the general opinion that there must be something ‘different’ with anyone who would willing get involved with something occult. If you ask someone, "what is occult?", typically you get answers like "devil worship" or "what witches are into" or "weird cults". Rare is the individual who has a basic understanding of what the word ‘occult’ really is or means. Occult is one of those words which has been so ‘demonized’ that few even know what the word really means.

The word ‘occult’ comes from the Latin word ‘occultus’. ‘Occultus’ is a combination of words: meaning hidden or secret, usually something that is hidden or is covered over. Some of the first written uses of the word ‘occult’ seems to stretch back as far as the 16th century where it was derived from the Latin word occultare meaning ‘secrete’ and the word occulere meaning ‘conceal’ and based on the word celare meaning ‘to hide’. So, occult was first used to speak of something secrete, something concealed from ordinary view, something that has been hidden, generally a hidden knowledge. Occultism is about the study of something hidden or secret, something not obvious, and, as a rule, something that is beyond the five senses or supernatural in nature. Spirituality and metaphysics of course fall in the occult category for both these topics deal with a reality beyond the five senses.

occult chat Whenever you browse the horoscopes, you are dabbling in the occult. When someone sneezes and you say, "gazuntite!" or "god bless you" you are indulging in an occult practice. Blessings or cursings or prayers are, by definition, occult practices. Any form of divination such as tarot or numerology are considered occult activities. Even yoga and meditation have been called occult (or by the nickname ‘cult’). When the early Christian church preformed so many rituals in Latin it can easily be defined as an occult practice since the rituals were (and are) meant to access a higher power through incantations that can only be preformed by those who understood Latin, which none of the peasant parishioners at the time did. To them, it could only look like magic.

What if I told you that nearly every religion, from Christianity to Hinduism, has had (and typically still does have) occult practices? When you try and mention this fact, most people generally get a blank stare. You can almost see a person’s mind lock-up. Usually the response is something like, "you have no idea what you are talking about!". Maybe. But, what if it is true? All the major religions have or have had occult practices. To get out of the ‘brain lock’ many folks will respond that, well, there are all kinds of crazy cults. True. Also true is that nearly all the major religions have occult practices TODAY, purely based on the true definition of the word ‘occult’.

The scientific community has a special appreciation for the word ‘occult’. Science, as we see it today, is all about the physical world. The occult is all about the paranormal and/or supernatural world. The word ‘occult’ became the wedge that broke science from the spiritual, metaphysical, supernatural world. Science became the primary method to find truth and explain the world (and our experiences in this world). A scientific explanation must be based on a wholly material, physical basis. The occult became the ‘other’, an alternative, hidden explanation for experiences, something from beyond this material world (which includes everything spiritual, metaphysical and/or paranormal).

For a brief period, particularly during the Renaissance (from approximately 1400 AD to 1600 AD) science and the occult suffered an uncomfortable relationship. During this time there were ‘the physical sciences’ and the ‘occult sciences’ (sometimes called the mystical sciences). For the champions of the physical sciences those who practiced or studied the occult sciences should not be called scientists at all. Sir Isaac Newton was accused of supporting the occult when he first proposed the laws of gravity. The occult sciences had little to do with the devil or evil or any sort of moral judgments. No, the occult sciences were about understanding, explaining and harnessing the unseen forces at work in the universe.

During the Renaissance there was a huge body of material in the occult category for the occult scientists to study. It included alchemy, astrology, divination, spellcasting, dream interpretation, the Kabbalah, a wealth of Eastern materials from the Taoists to many books and materials from Hinduism. Even the Bible and Christian scriptures (both traditional and non-traditional) were subject to occult study. When the occultist began to explore the paranormal, miracles and supernatural forces associated with Christianity is when the occultist of yesterday ran into trouble with the Church. When occultist sought show that supernatural, spiritual and/or paranormal forces can be at work in the material world is where they ran into trouble with scientists. The emerging scientific view was that all phenomena can be explained by natural, material laws – no need for supernatural forces or even God – and that view prevailed. Big time.

As science forced out anything that was tainted with the ‘supernatural’, it, too, ran into problems with the early Christian religion. The power of the early Christian Church in Europe between the end of the Roman empire to the founding of America, cannot be underestimated. The Church and Royalty ruled Europe when science was in it’s infancy. The emerging ‘scientists’ fully understood that calling the Church ‘occult’ (as in dealing with supernatural forces outside the explanation of physical laws) was to end up being burned at the stake, or worse. The study or practice of anything spiritual, paranormal or supernatural could be called ‘occult’, but never the Christian church.

The early Christian church loved this new word ‘occult’. Now, every other spiritual pursuit could be called occult. Only the Christian Church had title to good supernatural activity, all else was ‘evil’ or ‘occult’. From those mysterious Hindu’s, to those pagan Druids, to astrologers, all forms of divination, all of it could be classified as occult. It was non-Christian, and therefore unworthy of consideration. Further, anything occult could be condemned. It was only a small jump to calling everything occult the devil’s work. And therein was the justification for burning witches and heretics, anyone who sought or spoke or practiced any ‘hidden or secret knowledge’ about the spiritual, supernatural or metaphysical. As science began to question anything supernatural, all miracles or divine explanation for events, the scientists found themselves facing the wrath of the Church.

It took centuries, and the birth of the concept of freedom of religion and free speech, before science could fully break away from domination by religion in the West. When it did, scientists slowing began to whisper that there was only one way to truly understand and explain the world, the universe – and that was via the scientific method. Every other method of understanding and explaining the world was put in another box, a box that included religion, spirituality, metaphysics and the paranormal. The box was labeled ‘Occult’. It took a while, but science eventually put ALL spirituality, any study of the supernatural, including most aspects of Christianity, into the occult category – i.e. – supernatural forces, angels, demons, animal spirits, magic or whatever.

Funny thing, though. No religion, no spiritual practice or pursuit, wants to be in that box called ‘occult’. Christianity especially has rebelled against being called occult or accused of having an occult component. Christianity as forcefully argued everyone else is occult, except them. Astrologers, Spiritualists, clairvoyants, and everyone else who work with a different spirituality or metaphysical approach has struggled against being called occult (or a cult). This became particularly true at the end of World War II.


Isaac Newton was a Christian, a Scientist and an Occultist during the Age of Enlightenment

After the end of World War II it was gradually revealed that Hitler was involved with ‘the occult’. The swastika was stolen from the Buddhists. Originally the swastika symbol was a spiritual symbol of peace used by peace loving Buddhists. Hitler was very observant of astrological events. Hitler’s entire inner circle was involved in exploring occult practices, sought out occult objects and utilized occult symbology. As the story of Hitler’s belief in and use of occult practices spread, the word ‘occult’ once again became synonymous with ‘evil’.

Never mind that Hitler utilized science to create his war machine, to kill millions, and scientists performed unspeakable experiments on prisoners, Jews and others. This did not lead to the word ‘science’ becoming a dirty word. No, the word ‘occult’ was already a controversial and emotionally charged word and just too sexy (so to speak) for the media/historians/religious people not to use over and over again when talking about that evil Hitler. Between Hitler and the Early Christian church’s defining anything supernatural not church approved was ‘evil’, the poor word ‘occult’ has never had a chance to be reputable.

And, so here we are today. Occult is a word that carries very negative baggage. You want to degrade something? Call it occult or a cult or cultish. The label may apply, but the ‘occult’ label applies to just about any spiritual pursuit. It is unlikely that this article is going to sway many people from the contemporary usage of the word ‘occult’. The hope is that those wanting a balanced, fuller understanding of the word ‘occult’ and what the occult really is about will find the above information helpful.

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Resources you may appreciate:

What Were The Occult Sciences

What is Occult

Nazis and the Occult