Not sure what a word means? Need the general idea of a topic? Just curious about what terms relate to the occult? This is the page you need.
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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.
The following definitions of related topics will explain some of the subtleties between the occult and related areas of study. Specifically…
Esoteric/Esotericism – Not widely known.
Esoteric topics are usually, but not always, religious or spiritual in nature. If a topic is only studied or understood by a few people it is generally considered esoteric. Many occult topics are esoteric but not all and some esoteric traditions are occult in nature but certainly not all of them. “Esoteric” is generally discussed along with “mysticism”.
Mysticism – A religious practice where the goal is a direct experience with God, a god, or gods.
Important figures in mysticism include Emmanuel Swedenborg and William Blake who both developed their own mystical systems in relation to Christianity. A number of Catholic saints and authors were also noted mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Saint Francis of Assisi (among many others).
A person may be considered a mystic or practitioner of mysticism if they have had a direct experience with God or a god, actively try to have such an experience, or write theology or philosophy that discusses how and why to do so. Mysticism is often associated with the Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but is not exclusive to these religions.
Kabbalah is often referred to as “Jewish Mysticism” but this is not technically correct as it has other goals and functions beyond experience with the divine.
Theology – The philosophical study of religion, typically by believers.
Academic study of religion is generally referred to as “Religious Studies” and focuses on the history, culture, and impact of religion as opposed to theology which aims to understand and explain it from the viewpoint of a practitioner. It is also commonly referenced as a field of study required for seminary students.
Theology can also be conflated with “philosophy of religion” and while these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, theology most often refers to systematic writings on the nature of the divine, God, gods, cosmogony, souls (their function and purpose), the afterlife, and related topics as if the writer has a vested interest in the answers.
The following are specific topics that are generally accepted to fall under the umbrella of “the occult”:
Alchemy – In many ways a precursor to modern chemistry, alchemy was generally considered to be the science of turning one thing into another thing through physical and chemical processes (in its literal interpretation) or refining something (like the soul) into a better or more perfect version (in its metaphorical usage).
The most widely recognized aspects of alchemy are its goal to transform lead into gold (or other common metals into precious metals), an item known as The Philosopher’s Stone, and its ability to extend life or grant immortality.
Theurgy – Working with spirits and/or gods in a ritual fashion to elicit spiritual or material effects.
Theurgy is often accomplished through ritual sacrifice, sacred words, phrases, or chants, special (often secret) names, spells, specially constructed and consecrated items, sigils, seals, purification of mind, body, or soul, or most often rituals that incorporate any or all of the aforementioned aspects. These rituals can be simple or complicated and take anywhere from a few seconds to several months or years in extreme cases. Theurgy is not by its nature either good or evil. It often depends on the spirit the person is attempting to summon, contact, or bind and what exactly they ask of it. It is also not specific to any particular culture or religion. While a practice, such as the Eucharist, may fit the technical definition of theurgy, it is generally referred to as a “rite” or “sacrament” instead. Theurgy is more often used in reference to Hermetic practices specifically and generally to esoteric and not mainstream religious practices.
Astrology – The study of stars and planets with the belief that their position and movement affect human lives and personalities. Astrologers can also use the stars as a divination tool to predict the future in general or that of a specific person or place (like a city/state).
Most cultures dating back to ancient times have looked to the heavens and attempted to derive meaning from their shape and movement. The astrological systems that have persisted to modern times are those derived from ancient Chinese, Middle and Near Eastern, Vedic (from cultures around the Indian subcontinent) and Greek (generally referred to as “western” astrology). The latter three likely influenced each other at various points in history due to cultural contact.
Hermeticism – Any of the beliefs, philosophies, practices, or tenets related or attributed to the fictional figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Core texts include the “Hermetic Corpus”, the “Emerald Tablet”, and “The Kybalion”. The first two are either lost, reconstructed, or fabricated and the latter was published under a pseudonym in the early 20th century.
While Hermeticism contains many aspects and interpretations, it is generally concerned with the idea that there is one true religion involving a singular, transcendent god or force that permeates all life and being. This religion was explained to man aeons ago and the information retained in ancient knowledge.
Kabbalah/Cabala/Qabalah – An esoteric tradition based on Judaic “merkabah” mysticism and other Jewish cultural and religious ideas. The origins are purported to be thousands of years old having been transmitted orally for most of that time. Textually evidence of core kabbalistic beliefs, i.e. its defining characteristics, date to the late 12th century in the south of France.
Sigil – A specially designed picture that is a representation of a purpose, intent, information, or summons and imbued with power. Sigils can either be static and learned from a person or book/manuscript or created by an individual for a specific purpose. They can be simple or complex but generally must be created by someone with specific knowledge or skill.
Grimoire – A special book filled with spells and rituals. Generally considered to apply only to “dark” types of magic.
Abraxas – A mysterious Gnostic word or name found on amulets called “Abraxas Stones”. Variously understood as the name of a god, demon, or “Archon”, the origin of the word and its meaning are widely debated.
Demiurge – A creative power from Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Gnostic cosmologies. Sometimes benevolent, sometimes actively malevolent, the demiurge is usually placed as a “second cause” below the “One” or ultimate God. It is usually given the role of having created, molded, or of managing the material world. Oftentimes it isn’t necessarily aware of creation but simply acts as the catalyst. Depending on the exact school of thought, its role and characterization can vary significantly.
Common words and phrases that appear when studying the occult which also apply to many other areas of knowledge:
Manuscript – A handwritten book, document, or other type of text on paper, parchment, vellum, papyrus, or similar material. It can be bound in a book or codex format or be loose leafed. A manuscript can consist of one or many pages. Libraries often label their manuscript collections with “MS” followed by a number for reference and cataloguing purposes.
Source Text/Primary Source – Does what it says on the tin: the book, manuscript, scroll, bible, person etc. on which other writings, sayings, or beliefs are based on. For example, the Torah is a primary source on which the Judaic tradition of “midrash” or interpretation is based. The writings produced through this midrash, the secondary source, do not replace the primary source but instead comment on it or discuss it. These terms are relative since if you were writing on a particular midrash, the midrash would become the primary text and your writing would be the secondary text. Primary sources are valued because in a historical context they offer the closest viewpoint to an event (such as a firsthand account of a war by a soldier) versus an interpretation or a summary of that event (such as a historian writing a history of the war they were never in). In a literary context, it is better to examine the primary source (e.g. a novel) and form your own interpretations instead of parroting back what other people have written about the topic without having experienced it for yourself.
Specifically on the topic of occult studies, something like “The Picatrix” is considered a primary source from which other grimoires and manuscripts derived their information and content. Whether there was another text that preceded The Picatrix or whether it was written in toto by one author remains unknown (unless an older manuscript is found that predates The Picatrix and which contains the same information). Tracing back occult traditions to their origin is difficult for several reasons: many are so old that the physical manuscripts haven’t survived, many were passed down orally and thus leave no written record, persecution of esoteric and occult practices resulted in their intentional destruction by mainstream religious and government leaders, and the nature of keeping occult knowledge secret means it is easily lost or forgotten.
Ontology – The philosophy of what it means “to be”. A subject of metaphysics.
Generally, ontology looks at a thing, any thing, and attempts to answer “why”, “how”, and “what” in the most philosophically complete way possible. Notable points of discussion include the nature of human beings, their origin, and what it means to be human. Many people answer these questions via theological models or religious doctrine.
Metaphysics – The philosophy on the nature of things we can’t see, experience, or prove such as the nature of reality, existence, or how and why anything exists at all.
Theology and religion generally have metaphysical answers to questions of how and why we as humans and everything else in the universe exists. Metaphysics doesn’t necessarily have to be religious, however. Hermeticism and Neoplatonism have metaphysical theories that aren’t based around a particular religion. They can be interpreted to fit with religious belief (such as Christianity) or a more secular philosophy.
Semiotics – The study of signs and symbols, how we derive meaning from them, our relation to them, their function in language and communication, and how they relate to other signs and symbols to create meaning.
Hermeneutics – The process of interpreting a text, usually refers to biblical interpretation but sometimes applied to literature and philosophy. Certain schools of Kabbalah apply their ideas hermeneutically.
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.
Terms relating to Kabbalah:
Ein-Sof – The “Infinite”; God before form in kabbalistic belief.
Sefirot – The ten components of the kabbalistic “Tree of Life” that emanate from “Ein-Sof”.
Occult related systems of belief and practice:
Wicca – A relatively modern practice based loosely on historic witchcraft, folk traditions, and neo-paganism. It tends to emphasize female empowerment through mother figures and deities (specifically the goddesses Hecate and Gaia) as well as a connection and/or return to nature.
Satanism – Refers to either “The Church of Satan”, a self described “anti-religion” started by Anton LaVey in the 1960s whose members are devout atheists (and thereby don’t actually believe in Satan) OR the practice of worshipping the Christian figure of the Devil or Satan in some fashion.