A common misconception is the association with “a cult” and “occult”.
Cult – Generally considered to be a religious, spiritual, or philosophically fringe belief system developed, perpetuated, espoused, and or enforced by a singular, charismatic leader. The public perception is that people who join cults are “brainwashed” or otherwise forced to stay with the group after being lured in by false promises or the idyllic facade of the group. While this has been true for some cults, it is just as likely that a group considered to be a cult is a small coalition of people with the same uncommon philosophy that choose to live, work, and/or worship together as they have not found acceptance or satisfaction within mainstream religion or society. The exact definition of what constitutes a “cult” is debated in so small part to the word’s negative connotation.
Occult – Translating roughly to “that which is hidden”, the exact definition of the occult and what constitutes occult practices can vary. The term only began to be applied in more recent centuries and has been retroactively applied to various practices and belief systems. In modern popular usage, the term “occult” generally applies to topics such as Satanism, dark magic, witchcraft and demonic summoning. In an academic sense, it applies more often to the topics of astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, divination, scrying, contacting or summoning angels and demons, ritual magic, certain historical secret societies or mystery cults, hermeticism, magic runes, talismans, some forms of mysticism, and esoteric religious practices. Obviously that covers quite a large subject matter.
A good way to characterize the occult is to return to its basic translation. Genuine occult topics that have been traditionally kept secret or available only to a select few. This is done through coded language and metaphor (see Alchemy), initiation (such as into a secret society), secret alphabets, special tutelage by a master practitioner, or keeping only an oral tradition that must be passed down through such a student-teacher dynamic (as Kabbalah was said to have been in its early iterations). The idea of keeping knowledge secret was done with the pretense that it was too dangerous and powerful in the hands of the uninitiated or unworthy. Much like requiring a license before being allowed to operate a vehicle, a person must be properly trained in order to safely practice the occult arts.
In modern times, most people aren’t concerned with accidentally summoning a demon. The propensity to keep information secret nowadays is relegated to tradition or wanting to seem “mysterious” or “dark”. While there are of course still people who believe in and sincerely practice the art, there is also a modern trend of commercialization an occult or mystical aesthetic that has more to do with looks than beliefs. There are also people who fall somewhere in between; they may not consider themselves a magus but they also charge crystals and meditate with genuine purpose. None of these positions are necessarily bad but proper education on the topic is part of the purpose of this site.
So what is the definition of “occult”? The answer depends on the context. The short answer, and how I would define the topic in regards to the content here, is that the occult are a disparate set of beliefs and practices from across all cultures and time periods in human existence that are characterized by their esoteric and spiritual nature as well as their propensity to be kept secret from the general population for fear of persecution, misuse, misunderstanding, or to retain power through secret knowledge. All the topics on this site I consider under the umbrella term of “occult” based on this definition. While information on many are now widely available through modern technology and culture, this was not always the case. Most knowledge was restricted to a select few. If a topic was considered magical, mystical, or obscure but not necessarily restricted or hidden, it is less likely to be considered “occult”. However, since the term has been retroactively applied to a number of ideas and disciplines from the past, there are no hard and fast rules to define what constitutes occult knowledge.