General term (derived from Latin occultus, occulere, to hide;
the opposite of apocalypse, that which is revealed). The word has
come to denote that which is hidden from the uninitiated,
which is imperceptible by normal senses, and thus refers to various
magical and divinatory beliefs and practices, beginning
with astrology, tarot, palmistry, numerology and other divinatory
arts and especially including various forms of spirit contact—Spiritualism
(and the various forms of mediumship),
magic, and witchcraft. It also applies to specific practices such
as the prediction of the future, exploring past lives (reincarnation),
casting spells, and psychokinesis (mind over matter).
The word exists as a derogatory label tending to denigrate
and marginalize those against whom it is used. Those interested
in the paranormal have often taken pains to isolate selected
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Occult
areas of paranormal activity and separate them from other
areas, which are left to the ‘‘occult.’’ Modern practitioners have
also taken the opportunity offered by the relatively open context
of contemporary society to attempt the recovery of classically
occult terms such as witchcraft and astrology. The New
Age movement, a contemporary phase of the life of the occult
community, has allowed a significant revamping of the occult.
Divinatory practices such as astrology and the tarot have been
redefined as counseling methodologies, and Wiccans have
joined together to denounce anti-witchcraft activities as religious
In ancient times, it was believed that apparent deviations
from natural law involved mysterious and miraculous ‘‘supernatural’’
or occult (i.e., hidden) laws, deriving from gods, invisible
entities, or the souls of the dead. The rituals of magic were
designed to evoke entities and spirits, to ward off misfortune,
or to perform actions in defiance of natural law, such as obtaining
knowledge of distant or future events, causing injury or
death to one’s enemies, or securing sudden wealth (usually in
the form of gold). In most tribal cultures, shamans or similar
practitioners claimed the specialized ability to work magic, especially
as relating to healing the sick or obtaining useful information.
Modern Spiritualism was an attempt to substantiate the ancient
belief in the continued existence of personality after
death and the evolution of the individual soul to perfection, a
belief challenged by modern worldviews. The Spiritism inaugurated
by Allan Kardec is a form of Spiritualism with an emphasis
on reincarnation. Both Spiritualism and Spiritism are
essentially religious movements, endorsing the miracles cited
in the Bible and citing continuing paranormal phenomena as
evidence of survival.
In pre-modern cultures occultism was an integral part of a
religious worldview deriving from the mystery, wonder, and
fearfulness of the environment in which human beings found
themselves. By the Middle Ages, the occult had been separated
from its religious base and competed with the dominant religious
belief and practice. The magic spells and rituals of the
Middle Ages contain popular practices of pre-Christian religions
in the Mediterranean Basin.
One’s opinion of the validity of the occult and the meaning
of claimed paranormal phenomena depends in large part upon
one’s philosophical or religious viewpoint. From the early nineteenth
century on, the successes of science and technology in
achieving apparent miracles led to the widespread adoption of
a materialist view of life and natural law, and to some extent encouraged
the growth of agnosticism and atheism. Both the irreligious
and those with a religion informed by the findings of the
new sciences often ridiculed simplistic and literal belief in biblical
teachings, the creation story in the book of Genesis being
a particular target. They disparaged the accounts of scientifically
impossible events in sacred texts and publicized the many
instances of the abuse of power by religious authorities, vividly
illustrated by the often violent suppression of heresies and
blood-thirsty religious wars.
In the twentieth century, liberal Christianity has tended to
play down the question of miraculous phenomena, although
conservative voices still cite persuasive evidence that such miracles
still occur. At the same time worldviews not so dependent
on either a personal deity and/or a law-abiding universe have
emerged. Many scientists have argued that what were formerly
thought of as ‘‘natural laws’’ were imposed upon nature as observers
made note of regularities. Such a worldview leaves room
for spontaneous, supernatural, or miraculous occurrences.
Belief has always appeared to be a powerful creative factor
in occult practice, and it is not impossible that even initial fraud
could sometimes be a stimulating factor in producing paranormal
phenomena by ‘‘priming the pump,’’ so to speak. Ancient
religions sometimes used mechanical contrivances to simulate
divine power, rather like religious conjuring tricks.
Many have argued that the reputed power of prayer may be
more closely connected with the creative power of the praying
individual rather than derived from the action of God (or the
gods). Prayers to Eastern or Western deities appear equally to
produce results. The mental state appears to be a relevant factor.
Closely related is the willpower of the magical practitioner,
which again has some relevance to the mystical concept of concentration
and meditation being preliminaries to the manifestations
of paranormal phenomena.
At a secular level, psychical researchers and parapsychologists
have attempted to bring scientific method into the investigation
of claims of the paranormal, attempting to extract the
paranormal subject from any religious context. Such scientific
endeavors may in many ways be an essential step in the learning
process, but sometimes tend to bypass the possible religious
dimension and ignore the broader aspects of the meaning and
purpose of life and the interpretation of natural phenomena.
The clinical atmosphere of a parapsychology laboratory, with
its scientific controls, specialized jargon, and mathematical
evaluation, as has been repeatedly noted, tends to remove the
paranormal from a natural setting.
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