Mitch Horowitz: What is the occult?

Boing Boing guestblogger Mitch Horowitz is author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin publishers.


When discussing the occult, a natural question arises: Just what is the occult? In short, the occult encompasses a wide range of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an "unseen world" whose forces act upon us and through us. Here is a piece of my introduction to Occult America that expands on that question....

Occultism describes a tradition--religious, literary, and intellectual--that has existed throughout Western history. The term comes from the Latin occultus, meaning "hidden" or "secret." The word occult entered modern use through the work of Renaissance scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who used it to describe magical practices and veiled spiritual philosophies in his three-volume study, De occulta philosophia, in 1533. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first instance of the word occult twelve years later. Traditionally, occultism deals with the inner aspect of religions: the mystical doorways of realization and secret ways of knowing. Classical occultism regards itself as an initiatory spiritual tradition. Seen from that perspective, the occultist is not necessarily born with unusual abilities, like soothsaying or mind reading, but trains for them.

Such parameters, however, are loose: Spiritualism is impossible to separate from occultism, whether believers consider channeling the dead a learned skill or a passive gift. Its crypto-religious nature draws it into the occult framework. Indeed, occultism, at its heart, is religious: Renaissance occultists were particularly enamored of Jewish Kabala, Christian Gnosticism, Egypto-Hellenic astrology, Egyptian-Arab alchemy, and prophetic or divinatory rituals found deep within all the historic faiths, especially within the mystery religions of the Hellenic and Egyptian civilizations...

...The sturdiest definition of classical occult philosophy that I have personally found appears not in a Western or Egyptian context but in Sino scholar Richard Wilhelm's 1950 introduction to the Chinese oracle book The I Ching or Book of Changes:

. . . every event in the visible world is the effect of an "image," that is, of an idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only a reproduction, as it were, of an event in a world beyond our sense perception; as regards its occurrence in time, it is later than the suprasensible event. The holy men and sages, who are in contact with those higher spheres, have access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to intervene decisively in events in the world. Thus man is linked with heaven, the suprasensible world of ideas, and with earth, the material world of visible things, to form with these a trinity of primal powers.