A Short History of Occultism

The dominant theme of the occult groups is the neo-platonic concept of a hierarchical universe with impersonal gods. In this view, humans are composed of a mind, body, and spirit, which are connected to the universe and the spirit is detached from their physical body.

Historical Roots of Occultism

            The modern myths of Lemuria and Atlantis are a result of historical developments in the occult. There are two views of reality in the western world: The first stems from the Homeric era of ancient Greece, which supports humans’ right to dominate and order nature. The second view developed in Platonism and neo-Platonism, where the soul is seen as separate from the physical body and humans is part of nature.

Earliest Forms of OccultismSufis, Cathars, Gnostics, and Manicheism

            The Heresy of the Free Spirits, Cathars, and Manicheism was a belief system that developed between 1300 and 1700 in opposition to Christianity:

  • The Sufis of Seville, Spain, began the Heresy of the Free Spirits who roamed Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, preaching free love, rejecting conventional morality, and encouraging a mystical union with God.
  • The Cathars believed that the heart and mind could only know God, and therefore it was impossible to sin with the physical body.
  • Manicheism is a dualistic philosophy, dividing the world between good and evil principles.
  • Gnostic groups, such as the Bogomils and Albigensians that formed in southern and Eastern Europe modified Manichaean sources and preached a dualistic philosophy. The Bogomils were popular between the tenth and fifteenth centuries in the Balkan area, and the Albigensians were considered heretics in southern France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both of these groups were heavily persecuted by the dominant culture.

           Occultism, which taught God was divine energy in all living things, opposed the rationalism of the Aristotelians during the Renaissance. Popular Renaissance occult groups included Freemasonry, Hermeticism, and alchemists.

Hermeticism and Alchemy

            Hermeticism was the most popular complementary form of Christianity available during the middle ages. It is a secret tradition based on fourteen books known as the Corpus Hermeticum, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, that provided esoteric insights into Christianity. The Hermetic tradition refers to alchemy, magic, and astrology. The texts are distinguished into two categories: the philosophical, which deals with issues of philosophy, and technical hermetic, which emphasizes magic and alchemy. The Hermetic teachings supposedly traveled from Alexandria, Egypt to Western Europe between 150 and 300 AD. Europeans attributed the teachings to Pythagoras (570 BC-500 BC), ancient Chaldeans, Egyptians, and the Persian prophet, Zoroaster (658 BC-551 BC). Hermetic alchemy and magic underwent a revival in Europe during the nineteenth century and were practiced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aurum Solis, and Eliphas Lévi.

            The search for cosmic secrets increased during the Middle Ages through the study of mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy. In Europe, alchemy provided an alternative to orthodox Christianity. Originally, alchemy was not a practical science of metallurgy, chemistry, and astrology but a spiritual venture. It was supposed to transform the practitioner through enchanting powers, which would allow the discovery of elixirs and secrets of transmutation. Developments during this time in spirituality and magical science contributed to establishing a tradition of alternative belief systems.

Swedish Mystic Emanuel Swedenborg

            One of the most influential channelers in the eighteenth century was Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In his book The Worlds in Space, he claimed to travel amongst all the planets known to eighteenth-century astronomers: Mars, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Jupiter. Swedenborg rejected biblical theology and supported a pantheistic belief in divine energies. He also believed that spiritual conditions manifested themselves in the physical body, eventually causing illness and disease. For example, worrying corresponds to stomach problems. Swedenborg taught that there was life after death, God created good, humans create evil, and humans have free will.

Many occult groups of the 1890s mirrored Swedenborgian Churches, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism. These occult groups became the means for introducing eastern religions and philosophies into the United States.


            Occult groups founded prior to World War I (1914-1918) emphasized communication through lectures, books, and local discussion groups. Spiritualism is an example of this type of group that borrowed heavily from the dominant Protestant culture, especially the idea of deferred spiritual reward. The Spiritualist movement began in the 1850s and was popular because it provided a solution to mortality, which was important after World War I. Pilgrimages were often organized to travel to war cemeteries. Spiritualists saw themselves as providing scientific validity to religious experience and faith. Spiritualists believed that the religious worldview could be saved by a foundation of scientific knowledge.

Millenarian Groups 

            Occult groups founded after World War II (1939-1945) were concerned with the individual rather than discovering religion. Examples of popular religions of this time are Zen Buddhism, Subud, Krishna Consciousness, and millenarian groups. Millenarian groups look to nuclear holocaust, earthquakes, floods, fires, and spacecraft to herald in a New Age. It is debated what the event will be when it comes, the necessary spiritual preparations, and who should guide people. Millenarian groups try to explain the conditions of an irrational society by drawing on rediscovered knowledge from the ancient past.

          Millenarian groups are popular because they offer an identity to a group when their social identity or cultural identity is threatened. For those who adhere to millenarian beliefs, anxiety and fear will disappear from the human condition only if people embrace nature, avoid frustration and abuse and gain immunity from illness and disease. In apocalyptic systems of belief, the current society is reinforced by faith in its inevitable destruction and redemption by divine forces. These types of beliefs are attractive in a world threatened by nuclear war, chemical and biological destruction, and viruses.

Further Reading

 Swedenborg (1758) The Worlds in Space.

 Swedenborg (1812) New Jerusalem, and its Heavenly Doctrines.

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